Transport is so cheap in India – why would anyone go to the bother of hitching? Well, narrow mountainous roads and crammed survival-of-the-fittest buses are a good reason. Both my fellow-traveler Mark and I are in total agreement that it’s the best way to reach Kerala and the Western coast. The English teacher from Wisconsin, like myself, is in search of a more authentic experience of India, far away from the hoards of tourists. Standing by the roadside outside the town of Kodaikanal, the morning doesn’t start well. For about half an hour, those that stop are either asking for a private-taxi level fare or are advising us to go back to the bus station. We ignore their clumsy attempts at sabotage and hold out a while till a Tata truck stops and tells us to get in, as he can take us part of the way. Sitting in the small cab of the truck between driver and co-driver with our bags, we make small talk as far as the language barrier will allow. After 45 minutes we’re dropped at a crossroads, where we expect to be given a lift quickly but end up waiting over an hour. A pick-up truck finally stops to take us another while down the road and day continues like this, with another few trucks and pick-ups stopping (cars don’t stop) and before sun-down we reach the Muslim town of Uthamapalayam. It’s a place not many foreigners have been to and the locals are welcoming and friendly to us. We spend the next morning walking around and even get invited for tea by a local businessman who chats away in his broken English. There’s a power cut so the busy joint he brings us to is sweltering – we quickly finish the teas, thank him and head off hitching again, hoping to make the near-by Kerala border within a few hours.
Within ten minutes a pick-up stops for us and we jump in and lay on sacks of flower petals (to be used at Hindu shrines, I assume) in the back. The driver is going directly to our destination, Cumily, just over the state line. We can’t believe our luck. Laying comfortably on the colourful sacks, we enjoy the views as the pick-up makes its way into the hills. We reach the town of Cumily within a couple of hours, two scruffy backpackers, smelling of flowers. We quickly make it to a nearby guesthouse, getting a good deal for what is the most pleasant accommodation we’ve found so far (i.e not dilapidated). Cumily is touristy but still a nice enough place to hang out for a few days. As expected, evidence of the Communist Party’s prominence in the state’s politics is easy to find (they’ve regularly been voted into power here), with graffiti and election posters common. There’s a more relaxed atmosphere in genera than in Tamil Nadu. While still relatively poor, Kerala has one of the best standards of living in India and has the highest literacy rates. This is in no small part due to a highly politicised population and subsequently strong trade union movement.
Cumily is surrounded by jungle and tea plantations. One day we get a bus to the nearby Connemara tea plantation. I didn’t ask anyone but I’m guessing the English lord/general/plunderer/whatever who started the plantation had some connection to the West of Ireland (he probably considered Cumily and Connemara equally wild). While walking around the plantation we pass women pickers and men workers who all seem bemused at our presence on the hills. We walk for a while, searching in vain for a shady spot to sit and eventually go back to the main road. The dilapidated tea factory had a tour but neither of us could be bothered to learn about the intricacies of tea making. A lazy attitude perhaps but that’s the way it goes sometimes. What’s more interesting is the working conditions of the labourers, something that wouldn’t have gone down well at the factory had I asked about it. Unfortunately those workers we chatted to briefly on the hills didn’t have enough English to communicate the info I’d be after so I thought best to leave it be, given the short time we spent there.
Back in town, Mark is keen to hunt down a few affordable Indian paintings (he’s been collecting local paintings on his travels). In the first shop he enquirers at, the serious looking salesman takes him to a counter at the back of the shop, gravely explaining while retrieving massive roles of paintings “I don’t sell paintings any more – I just want to get rid of these so I’m giving them at special prices”. The formidable seller then proceeds to go through the paintings, bombarding Mark with information about them and the integrity of his business. Mark attempts a question but the seller cuts him off, “Sir, I am a Muslim. I do not lie. The gold in this painting is 14 karat. I’ll give you this for 1500 rupees”. I find all this mildly entertaining if somewhat unsettling – the man looks over at me from time to time, ensuring I’m also convinced of his spiel. Mark agrees that the price for three of the paintings he has his eye on seems fair but he’ll have to come back tomorrow after he’s had time to think and get some cash out. The seller, satisfied with this bids us farewell till the next day. The next day Mark goes to another few shops and discovers similar paintings at much lower prices, so buys a couple. He remembers one painting he liked from the first shop and reckons he can haggle the price of it down, now that he’s seen how much lower these types of paintings are selling for. I tag along knowing the exchange is guaranteed provide a bit of craic. When we enter the shop, the salesman is busy charming a middle-aged French lady over the credit-card machine, smiling and joking with her while her husband looks distastefully on. When the couple leaves the shop, the smiling salesman proclaims “I’ve just sold a shawl for 300 Euros”. Mark responds in jest, “You seem to be having fun. You won’t be in such a good mood by the time I’m finished with you”. Out of sensitivity he still has the rolled up paintings he bought tucked underneath his tee-shirt but it’s clear they’re there. The attempt at banter is swiftly dismissed as the salesman’s smile fades on his face. Mark goes on, “Listen, I’ve been to a few other shops and I think your selling your paintings for too much. I managed to get a couple for half the price you’re selling them but I’d still like to buy the painting with the woman holding the lotus flower if you can lower the price”. The seller’s not impressed and says bluntly, “You won’t find lower prices than here. How much you want to buy it for?”. At this, Mark takes the rolled up paintings out of his tee-shirt and confirms he has indeed got them for lower prices, “I got both these for 1000 rupees so how how much can you sell that one for”. The seller quips back, “We agreed 1200 rupees”. Mark says, “Oh, well then I can’t afford it – that’s beyond my price range, sorry”. “How much then?” comes the sharp quick reply. Mark tries to be diplomatic, “I can’t say because it’s well below the price you’ve given”. The seller begins to loose patience, “Just tell me how much you want to pay”. “Ok, ok , 700 rupees”. “What?!? Are you joking?” “I told you it was going to be well below…” The seller cuts him off and begins shouting, “You come in here playing games, using up my light [points to the lights on the ceiling].” “Ok, calm…down. Calm..down”, but the seller goes on shouting, “You are not welcome here any more…I have a business to run…” He continues but by this time I’ve stepped outside. The hilarity of the situation is clear as soon as Mark comes out and we chat about our surprise at the outburst. I tell Mark I’ll give him 100 rupees if he goes back in the morrow and offers him 500 but given the risk of escalation he thinks better of it.
Later that day we go to a street food stall as usual…to one that has quickly become our regular for dinner. The food is much better (and yet half the price) of what’s served in the many pretentious restaurants in town. Although of a limited variety, both of us have always opted for these type of places when we get a chance, as they’re more honest, friendly and less likely to screw us over come payment time.
Our next destination is Alappuzah on the coast and we spend a day hitching there without much difficulty. As has been the case for the previous few days, we picked up by Hindu, Muslim and Christain truck drivers (it’s usually obvious what religion they are from the way the cab is colourfully decorated). Kerala’s population is more or less equally split three ways between these major religions but there is little or no trouble between people of different faiths. The last driver to give us a lift asks us for cash when he drops us off and gives us a fierce dirty look when we politely explain we’re hitching and he should’ve told us before we got in. We then go off and spend a few hours searching for affordable accommodation and finally find a cliched, Bob Marley themed guesthouse. Despite Alappuzah being even more touristic than Cumily and the locals being less than welcoming, we stay four days, in part because I get some sort of 24 hour infection, which leaves me with a fever one night and too weak to travel for a couple of days.
In a local joint one evening, both of us chat about how these type of places are always full of men – you never see any single women in them. After we eat, Mark gets talking to the cashier and asks why this is and waiter responds, “It’s too dangerous for single women”. Too dangerous for half the population to be independent, I ponder. Mark then asks what would happen if his Indonesian girlfriend (who given her complexion could easily be mistaken for an Indian) went with him to the restaurant, as he’s considering going on holidays with her to India some time and was wondering what it would be like.The cashier explains that it would be ok, as long as she could prove she’s not an Indian – she’d have to have her passport on her. Mark replies he’d rather not bring his girlfriend if that’s the case. This exchange would’ve been more shocking had it not been for the fact neither of us had’nt had a single conversation with an Indian woman since we arrived in the country and grasped the overriding sexism in general. In Madurai, I’d come close to having an innocent conversation with a smiley waitress when she began to explain some items on the menu, only to be rudely interrupted by a fat, middle-aged waiter who told her to go away, saying to me “What do you want?”, despite his English being no where near as good as the girl’s. I couldn’t believe it – I knew sexism in India was a serious problem but didn’t expect it to be this severe (it’s by far the most sexist country I’ve been to – at lease the parts in the South I’ve been to anyway).
We finally leave Alappuzah and hitch down the coast to another tourist town, Fort Kochi. It’s clear we’re not going to have and easy time finding somewhere peaceful to stay in this part of India so after a couple of days Mark and I go our separate ways, as he’s heading north up the coast towards Mumbai and I’m heading back to Tamil Nadu to check out Pondicherry and meet up with another USAmerican friend.