On first blush the coconut palm fringed beach at Puthenthoppu north of Trivandrum between the backwaters and the sea looked spectacular. Small clusters of fishermen tending nets and getting busy around their boats which were hoisted high up on shore above the sandbank. Lazy dogs sought out the shade, as monkeys and peacocks called from the tree tops.
On further inspection, the sandy beach was lined with assorted flotsam and jetsam dumped by the locals or washed in from the Arabian Sea. A ten metre thick line of plastic rubbish and bottles formed a jagged edge that stretched into the horizon and indicated the high-tide mark. Periodically a local fisherman dressed in the traditional lungi, a sarong like cloth pulled up between the legs that has the appearance of an oversized nappy, would wander down to the waters edge, adjust himself, squat and then defecate, seemingly oblivious to passers by. While I appreciate that access to a flushing toilet, other than the ocean, is a luxury for many here, it’s still rather disconcerting and confronting to my Western eyes.
Indian eyes stare at us. We are so obviously different that school children call out to us or giggle as they walk past. We are pursued by opportunistic beggars tugging at our clothing. While some groups of seemingly bored young men are annoyingly inappropriate, most people are just plain curious: “Where you from?” “Where you going?”
Nothing is entirely as it seems. I have come to understand that the Indian sideways head wobble doesn’t necessarily mean no, it can translate to yes, maybe or I have no idea.
India is perplexing and full of contradictions. You never know what’s around the corner. No more than ten kilometres from our guest house is the headquarters of the Indian Scientific Research Organisation (ISRO), where they regularly launch satellites into space to orbit above the Earth, while on the ground many people live as they may have centuries ago regulated by caste, religion and tradition. This swirling juxtaposition of the past, the present and the future marks India as some place quite unique.
In Kerala’s capital Trivandrum, I waded through broken streets draped in communist flags, strewn with smouldering piles of rubbish, past Hindu temples, Christian churches and Muslim Mosques. At Ariya Nivas Vegatarian Restaurant we savour the 100 rupee lunchtime special of sadya served on a banana leaf. The dish included Kerala red rice and assorted spicy vegetable curries, which were mouth wateringly delicious.
Chalie Market, is a warren of narrow streets clustered near a main Hindu temple in Trivandrum. This is where the locals shop for fruit, vegetables, spices, clothes, jewellery and sundries. Stick figured old coolies pull their miserable carts over unmade roads made almost impassable by the afternoon monsoonal downpour.
I paid the 10 rupees (20 cents) to enter the Napier Museum which is a beautiful Indian colonial period building nestled in a lush garden setting. I marvelled at the displays of beautifully antique carved ivory set pieces and bronze sculptures, some dating back to the 7th Century. My favourite was an early 11 century bronze of Ganesha, the elephant headed manifestation of the Hindu God Shiva.
In a couple of days we fly to Singapore, then onto Perth to pick up a Britz van for our road trip across the Nullarbor and home to complete the final leg of our adventure.
I suspect my impression of India is like an imagined childhood, one which gets better with age. It will be some time after I have left India and the experience has coalesced that I will have a clearer picture of this country.