Varkala to Kollam 40 km
Kollam to Alleppey (100 km by boat)
Alleppey to Cochin 60 km
I always laugh a little bit when we meet travellers who feel that the only way to really experience a developing country is to go local. In Kovalam I remember seeing a white guy wearing a dhoti making his way down to the beach through the town without anything on his feet – walking gingerly around the broken glass, goat shit, and the sharp edges of broken sidewalks, a cut foot waiting for a place to happen. Many poorer Indians don’t wear shoes and it is impolite not to remove them at temples and inside businesses and houses, but I am guessing that any Indian who can afford them wears them. It was a little hard not to cringe watching our western compatriot carefully picking his path, lots of Indians and westerners rolling their eyes as they watched him go by.
However, I do understand the desire for an authentic experience, as difficult as it is to nail down what that really means. If you want to experience other cultures and understand how people really live you are not going to get that at five star resorts – those are reserved for tourists whose fantasies of India are to do with pretending to be maharajas or perhaps big cheeses in colonial India (and that is really very unpc and probably not something you want to admit to.) But is it necessary to not eat with cutlery (Indians eat with their hands in the south) even when cutlery is offered? Or forego toilet paper for the toilet hose? (Aka bum hoser – something my husband actually prefers to loo paper but that is another story.)
Given that we will spend about 35 percent of our total trip days on the bikes in India, cycling through some small towns where we don’t have much choice but to be in the ‘real’ India, when we do stop and have lazy days I only feel minor guilt at our western indulgences. And I get a little kick out of watching westerners decked out in Indian duds watching us with some disdain as we chow down on grilled cheese sandwiches and French fries when we could be eating masala dosas. If they only knew that we’ve been eating masala thali three times a day for two weeks straight…
There have been a lot of indulgences recently, including hiring drivers, taking auto rickshaws and boats instead of using our bikes exclusively. In Kollam, we stopped at Ashtamudi Villas for three days, and enjoyed our small cabin overlooking a tropical garden filled with banana, coconut, papaya and mango trees on the shore of Lake Ashtamudi. When we weren’t lazing around the garden drinking beer we took an auto rickshaw and ferry to get to Lake Monroe where we were shown around the beautiful mangrove canals by canoe.
We travelled from Kollam to Alleppey by private ferry, a hundred kilometer trip that started at the dock from Ashtamudi Villas. This was a terrific way to see the larger backwaters of Kerala and we could not have experienced it the same way by bike.
From Alleppey we cycled to Kochi (old name was Cochin), the large port where Vasco da Gama first landed in India, claiming this part of the Indian coast for the Portuguese. The city retains some of the old colonial architecture and it is a nice break from jam-packed Indian streets where there is typically nowhere to sit (no sidewalk cafes or benches or parks). In Fort Cochin (an old colonial seaside neighborhood), we have found an Italian café that serves fantastic cappuccino and quatro formaggi pizza, with a few Indian twists (one of the four cheeses is paneer and the pesto is made with cashews instead of pine nuts and was delicious).
We were back to Indian food three times a day at Munnar, a hill station, which we got to via a hired car and driver. We relaxed for the four hour drive that wound 125 km up a narrow and winding mountain highway. We were a little less lazy once we arrived and spent three hours on a guided tour walking up to a tea plantation and then back down through a spice garden where our guide pointed out cardamom, pepper, coffee and cocoa plants.
Back in Fort Cochin, we headed right to the Italian café for a last hit of pizza and some café lattes. On the road again we will eat what is available and take our breaks in bus shelters in various states of disrepair. In the less touristed areas we will stay in local Indian hotels and take our chances with my toilet brush rating system (a hotel in Thondi set the lowest bar so far and defined the one toilet brush rating — a room with no hot water, a bucket instead of a shower, no toilet hose, no loo paper, dirty sheets and a sink that looked like it had never been washed).
And so, when we reach Goa and a lot of western tourists again, I will feel less guilt about living it up, drinking beer (I hope – Kerala is pretty dry in that regard) and thinking about our complicated reactions to the standard of living in India. I think the desire to go local sometimes is a guilt reaction – we should cut our bare feet on the dirt roads to make up for the fact that we don’t have to. Or maybe we just hope that there is something valuable about being poor that makes it less awful – a romantic notion that the poor people in India are spiritually richer than there richer western counterparts.
But feeling guilty is ok; it’s good to stay aware of the disparity between the rich and poor for a number of reasons, including our own spiritual growth. The guilt we feel about having more can make us remember to be grateful. And as we think about any possible benefits to being poor, we can remember that the all-pervasiveness of western consumerism ultimately needs mediation so that we don’t use up all our resources and pollute the planet beyond repair.
I think it’s important to analyze the guilt and other feelings that the awareness of disparity conjures so that our experience has depth and authenticity and the potential to change or fortify political points of view that might ultimately lessen the wealth gap…something I believe walking around barefoot when you can afford shoes probably isn’t going to do.