My art supplies arrived the other day from Ontario. A box full of fun I’ve been eagerly awaiting. Of course, I dove in right away to unleash some ideas. Here’s a snapshot of a few warm up exercises with india ink. Indian camels! (Actually…I think they might be from Pakistan…)
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” — Mark Twain
While most people opt to take the 2 hour, $150 CAD Kingfisher flight from Port Blair to Chennai, the REAL way to get there is by ship. It’s also way cheaper, ringing in at 1900 rupees (that’s about $45 CAD). The Polish-build ship, the MV Nicobar, with a capacity of 1200, carried a mere 350 passengers, so I definitely had nothing to worry about at the ticketing office the other morning. Among the 350 ship passengers, about a dozen were gringos. Jef and Hans from Belgium, Pierre and Flo from France, an adorable South African surf couple, Henry, Cjell, and myself, bonded immediately when Henry magically pulled out fresh, real coffee and a french press. With his Belgian smooth-talk put to use, Hans snagged us the opportunity to have a tour around the captain’s bridge of the ship. We saw the control board with all its switches and doo-dads, radars, gps, and my favorite, the nautical charts. We retreated to the top deck, taking in a 360 panorama of nothing of blue skies and even bluer sapphire seas.
We pulled into Port Blair on Thursday morning, and onto Havelock Island the following afternoon. There’s some sort of gravitational backpacker pull on this island, because EVERYONE makes a b-line for this place, quite understandably. The beaches are known as Beach no.1, Beach no.2, … all the way to Beach no. 7, which is rated Asia’s most beautiful beach by time magazine, and it definitely is one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. Upon arrival to Havelock, we walked the 5 km to Beach no. 5 where I had been tipped off that my friend Nikos would be. Just after sunset, I heard his loud, familiar, American voice and the night took off from there. It was B3 Night down by the jetty, and I had a rum&coke in my hand faster than I could say ‘Yaaarrr’. Live music, great company, and new friends – the night spun itself into one of the greatest island welcomes ever.
For the next week, Cjell, Henry, Jef, Hans, Pierre, Flo, and myself adventured around the island. We bicycled to Elephant beach and Beach no.7 a handful of times, snorkled at every opportunity, waded through mangrove forests (eyes peeled for the lethal saltwater crocodile), sank our teeth into tasty jackfruit, mangoes, and coconut daily, and generally just kicked it, island styles. Shanti shanti. Pierre and Flo came home one day from the beach with a bag full of clams, which we then proceeded to cook up at our local food shack. First time I’ve ever had clams and I dove right in. Spicy! Delicious! In keeping with the time I spent in Hampi, I made more jewelry on Havelock. Very bohemian, very rustic, I sat for a whole day learning (with instruction from Cjell mostly, who had come the previous day and made me a ring) and creating a coconut ring with one of the gnarliest Indian craftsman ever.
Havelock was heaven, but there was more to explore, so once Cjell left on the 4 day ship to Kolkata (his visa was expiring, and he faced the severity of DEATH if he didnt leave! … okay, maybe not death, but some seriously unpleasant admin stuff to deal with) Henry, Jef, Hans, and I packed up and took the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) up to the tip of North Andaman Island. The bus we took traveled in a 3 vehicle convoy, with a gunman in each. This is due to the fact that the ATR cuts right through the Jawara Reserve where the Jawara Natives still live primitively and don’t take well to having their territory trodden on. The Jawara women still go about topless with grass skirts and accompanied with their children, they harrass every vehicle that passes by, hence the need for a convoy and gunmen…just in case. 10 hours later, we arrived in Dilipur, caught the bus to Kalipur, and found a quiet beach side retreat where we spent a week doing absolutely nothing. I got completely sick with Havelockitis, a mystery illness that knocked Flo off her feet for 5 days as well. It was not a fun experience, but I still managed to squeeze in a trip to the Twin Islands, also known as Ross and Smith Islands. These islands are undeveloped gems joined by a magnificent white stretch of sandbar which makes for an extremely picturesque setting. We spent the day here, beachcombing and swimming on one of the most beautiful stretches of beach in Diglipur.
Things improved for the journey back to the mainland, which again, we took by ship, this time aboard the MV Akbar, a 40 year old ship built in Denmark. We survived 3 days eating ramen and sleeping on metal benches or a hammock if you were lucky and resourcesful enough to have bought one – I was not. There was no way anyone could survive spending any significant amount of time down in the stifling hot bunks, so we merely threw our bags down there and never looked back. Henry, Jef, Hans, and I had become a real tight crew, and the 3 day ship ride aboard the 40 year old MV Akbar (Danish built) went by in the blink of an eye. Sadly, I knew my visa was expiring soon and my Indian journey was nearing an end.
It was sad, leaving the heat-soaked Indian landscape behind. My 5 month journey was opened my eyes, expanded my mind, and made me infinitely richer with friendships, memories, inspiration, and happiness.
It didn’t matter whether I traveled by train or bus, I needed to get to Chennai and I needed to go now. I had received word from my American friend, Cjell that he was heading to the Andaman Islands on board a ship that left on Monday. It was Saturday. I got a bus seat for Sunday night to take me from West to East – from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal, arriving the morning of the M.V. Nicobar departure from port in Chennai. I planned on trying my luck at getting on that ship, so upon arrival at the Chennai interstate bus stand, which is in the middle of here,there, and nowhere, I figured out my way to the ticketing office to join the hoards of Indians vying for the same tickets. The rickshaw drivers offered an obscene 500 rupee fare to take me 30km into town, but I was not having it. Instead I walked a few kilometers to the city bus station and hopped a bus for 4 rupees that took me pretty much exactly where I wanted to be. Have I mentioned how much I love public transpo? I waited in line to get my ticket for the ship that afternoon and it was here that I met Henry, a not-so-average 19 year old from New Jersey. In the departures hall, I met up with Henry once again, and to my delight, there was Cjell! I hadn’t seen him since we first met in Rishikesh over 2 months ago and I was overjoyed to see a familiar face. It was then that I knew that my time on the islands was going to be amazing.
The bus ride from Allepey to Ernakulum went by in the blink of an eye, because Josef and I passed the time quite easily with some more German lessons. I’ve developed 8 pages of basic German words, numbers, and phrases, in addition to some verb conjugation, but as anyone knows, to gain a real solid grasp of any language, it’s best to immerse yourself in the country of origin. The idea has been planted and the desire is building. I’ve told Josef that he can expect a knock on his door in the not-so-distant future.
A 2.5 rupee ferry ride (that’s half a penny!) from mainland Ernakulum to Fort Kochi was a really enjoyable way to arrive at this old European trading port town. The streets are clean, quiet, and the Dutch-influenced buildings never rise above 3 stories. These quaint architectural gems, coupled with the Chinese fishing nets that dot the the shore, and the Indian street vendors make for an eclectically friendly locale. There are lots of cafes and art galleries scattered across town, and the urbanscape is so artistically inspiring. It didn’t take long for me to discover the killer cuppa at Kashi Cafe. Amazing coffee and beautiful art and architecture, but it’s always busy. People flock to this local Kochi joint from open to close, so you’ve got to have patience if you want to enjoy the delights that Kashi offers. My friend Faiz, who I met my first day, loves this place too. Faiz pulled up to me on his motorbike and proposed a trip to Munnar the next day. I like to think I have a knack for sorting out the good from the bad, subsequently, this guy went in the ‘good’ book. 6am rolled around the next morning and we set off on his bike into the hills of Munnar, but not before making a stop at the elephant training center along the way where we got to pet baby elephants…or at least I did…oddly, Faiz fears these love-able creatures! Munnar was 6 hours up into the hills of the Western Ghats, and at an elevation of 2000m, it was significantly cooler than Kochi. Perfect climate for tea-growing, and as such, the hills were full of tea plants and woman picking their daily quota of leaves. We continued 27km further to the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border, Top Station, where we enjoyed a near-360 panorama of the surrounding countryside. Unfortunately, it was foggy. By this time, my bum was feeling the wrath of backseat bike riding, and we still had a 6 hour return journey! Hopping off that bike and into my bed that night never felt so good! We went on more bike journeys, to Vypeen Island and Cherai Beach, and discovered our own little piece of paradise somewhere along the shores of the Periyar River. Having Faiz for the week I spent in Kochi was a super fun experience, but, now, I’m off to Chennai for a little Rishikesh reunion!
I hopped a train to Kollam in the morning. 20 minutes later I was in the small sleepy town. There isn’t much here, but I came in hopes of taking the government boat along the backwater’s highway. Sure enough, I claimed a ticket and was on my way the next morning. 9 hours later, after cruising through palm fringed banks and past villagers paddling their dugout canoes, we arrived in mozzy-infested Allepey. I had heard that the mosquitoes were killer here, but I had no idea they’d be this persistent. I’m not here for some lavish backwater houseboat cruise, just a stopover on the way to Kochi, so I won’t have to worry about these malarial pests for long.
Along the journey, I met Josef, another German! It’s not hard to find Deutschland natives here in India, they are everywhere! We quickly became friends, stayed at the same place, and have plans to find the bus to Kochi tomorrow morning. Maybe he’ll help me with my German lessons!
After almost 2 weeks at the ashram, I was ready to travel from jungle to sea in search of more sun, sand, and saltwater waves. And on top of it all, Dani and Tobi were already there, living the languid-paced beach life. It didn’t take much convincing for Keirst and I to plan an escape from the ashram and make a b-line for Varkala Beach. We finished our final yoga practice, packed our bags, checked OUT and hopped a bus to Trivandrum, where we’d have to make a connection to Varkala. Indian buses always look so haphazard, like they’ve been pieced together from multiple aging vehicles, but they always get you where you want to go. Looks can be deceiving folks, so don’t judge a book by it’s cover…or a bus by it’s rusty wheels.
Our bus to Varkala was a whole new experience. Bright, shiny, new, and air-conditioned, the ‘Varkala Beach’ direct bus was nicer than most city buses I’ve been on in Canada. Apparently Kerala’s Transpo has money, and they’re slowly phasing in these new buses to replace the 100 year old beaters that currently rumble all across the state.
We arrived at Varkala Beach in air-con style just before sunset. A short walk from Temple Junction to the south cliffs, we were at the beach in time to toss our bags in the sand, kick our sandals off, and enjoy the warm sunset amidst a throng of other travelers and a gaggle of Indian school children. Before it got too dark, we hiked up the path and towards the more plentiful and lively North Cliff in search of accomodation. As always, the packs on our backs attracted attention to every guesthouse owner patrolling the main cliffside drag. We checked out a few rooms until we landed upon a quiet place nestled back from the cliffs, where we discovered that we had a slew of fellow ashram escapees as our neighbours. Jeff and Alana, our Canadian pals, and a Californian couple were staying in the adjacent cottages. Seems like ashram folks know a deal when they see one.
Cold frothy beers were on the menu tonight, along with a tasty dinner, splurging on these delights at Cafe Del Mar. Afterwards, I gave Dani a call and we met up with our favorite German friends for another drink before migrating over to Rock and Roll Bar to meet some of Dani and Tobi’s friends. That’s the nice thing about arriving in a place where your friends have been for a while, they’ve always got the scene scoped out and the friendship seeds planted. Rock and Roll bar, with it’s low-level ground cushion seating and various games (like Jenga!) is a really chill place, the drinks are good (Gin Fizz, friends, it’s your best bet) but the only thing that threw me off was the weird rave room in the back. Nobody was ever back there, but the cheap laser lights were always on, and the shit trance-y music was always being pumped out by a low-qual laptop dj.The better option here is the Chillout Lounge. The boys that work here are sweeter, and there’s a couple of acoustic guitars and a jambe that float around the place. With Keirst being so talented with the strings, and Dani being supremely musically inclined (although she only really sings German, which I don’t really understand, but enjoy immensely nonetheless), Chillout Lounge was our preferred spot.
The time was near.We both knew it. And when it arrived, the realization hit hard. Tears welled up in both our eyes as we sipped our last cup of coffee together, and they rolled down our cheeks when we walked together to the rickshaw stand. Seeing Keirst drive away in those spunky green and yellow tuks was heartbreaking, but at least I still had a solid crew here in Varkala. It didn’t take long for me to move in with Mel at Skyland. Dani and Tobi had a room below, and Mel and I shared a room on the upper floor of a 5 room, hot pink guesthouse, conviently beside Chillout Lounge. From then on, I enjoyed 2 more weeks at the beach, swimming, sunbathing, swinging in the hammock in the late afternoon sun, drinking gin fizz and gimlets in good company, discovering the delicious indian food at MangoCounty, being a guest at the inauguration of the new Varkala Town Post Office (free chai and biscuits while waiting for the mail counter – my post experiences have never been better!), and renting scooters and coasting down beach side roads. It was here, in Varkala, that I even started to learn a little bit of German!
Up next, Kollam!