Growing up listening to mum’s stories about India

On 20th August 1981, a decade before I was born, my 24 year old mum was disembarking from her first ever flight stepping out into the hot Delhi night. She had no solid plans except that for the next three weeks she was going to have an adventure that would stay with her for the rest

Photo taken during mum’s trip in 1981 after arriving at New Delhi Station

of her life.  This wasn’t her first trip out of England, as a student she toured Europe in a crowded mini bus full of ale chugging rugby types, and it wasn’t the most exotic place that she would visit in her lifetime but India would hold a special place in her heart.

 

I grew up listening to her stories of India. She came into my school once to show us pictures and teach us about the culture. I always assumed she spent months there; I couldn’t believe that a place could make such an impression on someone after just three weeks.

 

The start of my own Indian adventure

I couldn’t help but think of mum as I took my first step from the plane into my own Indian adventure in Kerala. We were 34 years and 2600km apart but it almost felt like we were there together. Two 24 year olds ready to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.

Tuk Tuk drivers apparently never change. Just as my mum had been 3 decades earlier, as soon as I stepped off our bus I was swarmed by drivers.They were jostling each other out of the way trying to get me into one of the battered green and yellow vehicles that had been seemingly abandoned at the roadside.

Compared to mum’s arrival into Delhi, Fort Cochin was remarkably laid back. A sleepy seaside town with wide open streets and brightly coloured, vaguely European looking, buildings (a throwback to the colonial era and Portuguese occupation). Despite being comparatively laid back Kerala was still a massive culture shock. Ask anyone who has been to India and they are guaranteed to tell you about the traffic but nothing will prepare you for just how crazy the roads really are. The majority of people living in Kerala are Hindu, so their lack of fear on the roads might have something to do with their belief in reincarnation, on the other hand they might just be insane! There don’t seem to be any rules; road markings and signs are more suggestions than anything and there are no regulations on how many people can be loaded onto one vehicle or how close you can get to other vehicles. The horn is used for everything, but unlike in the UK where a blast of the horn is usually followed by a ‘what the fuck are you doing?!’ or a ‘learn to drive!’ there is no such road rage in India, despite the absolute chaos around us everyone seemed chill.

Fish sculptures made out of trash

Finding our home stay and our feet.

We arrived into Fort Cochin in one piece and after quite a bit of walking finally found the place we would call home for the next few days. Aldo’s Ark was literally just a room in someone’s home and I have to admit I was nervous about staying there. Something about staying in a strangers house makes me a bit uncomfortable, but as soon as we arrived we were put at ease. Our host, Clinton, went over the very few ground rules, gave us some tips for where to go and what to see, and revived some of the enthusiasm for this trip that I had lost in the preceding 36 hours of travelling. Most of the accommodation you’ll find in this part of India will be a home stay but don’t let that put you off. People don’t tend to go into the home stay business (or stay in it very long) unless they  love meeting new people and sharing their knowledge about the local area. For just £3.25 each a night ($4.50) we were treated like a member of family and got to see things the guidebooks don’t tell you about.

Back in 1981 my mum’s first step was to take a nap. Having travelled long haul before, I knew that a quick 20 minutes to rest your eyes can very easily result in waking up 8 hours later feeling worse than ever, so after a quick drink, a wash and a change of clothes we set out to explore. Whenever I visit somewhere new I like to take a long aimless walk around to get my bearings and spot anything interesting, this is easier said than done in India as every few feet we were offered a TukTuk.

Aside from the heat, humidity, and noise the first thing I noticed about Cochin was the smells. Everywhere you turned was delicious  food, incense, spices all mixed with the smell of hot rubbish and fish wafting in from the sea. So far India had been a real assault of the senses.

Spices boxed and ready for delivery to stores

After a quick dinner of Thali at a place Clinton had highly recommended we strolled back towards the sea to sit by the ancient Chinese nets and take in the sunset. At that point I still couldn’t quite believe that this was going to be my life for the next three and a half months. I thought about mum, and how despite my best efforts I was pretty faithfully following in her footsteps. With our law degrees, and tendency to lose all awareness of how loud we’re being when drunk, this trip felt like just one more thing that we had in common.

India’s never ending list of things to explore

Over the next three days we explored as much as Fort Cochi had to offer; we ticked off the Trip Adviser top 10, felt mildly uncomfortable and guilty learning about Cochin’s colonial past, strolled along the shoreline, ate like locals, haggled with street vendors and had started to come to terms with the state wide lack of alcohol in Kerala (only 3-5* hotels are permitted to sell alcohol following a ban in 2015).  We thought we’d seen all there was but the beauty of a country like India is that there is always more to see; you could spend a lifetime there and only just scratch the surface.

On our last day we finally relented and accepted a TukTuk. We asked him to show us around and agreed a price up front of around 100R (£1) each for a 4 hour guided tour off the beaten track. Our driver was excellent, first stop was a laundry where the clothes for most of the town are still hand washed in huge outdoor pools, air dried and ironed with huge old fashioned metal irons. I hadn’t seen this in any guidebooks but it was fascinating.

Next we drove through a huge Hindu community where, as our driver explained, they live separately to avoid having to even smell the scent of cooking meat. As a vegan I approved. We were introduced to the sacred cow, who to be honest looked a bit lonely, and learned that most temples will have at least one resident cow. The cows are generally allowed to wander around wherever they feel like but this one, I was told, was locked away ready for a festival.

As with any tour in India, official or otherwise this one ended in the driver’s friend’s shop. This time it was a spice shop, it was preceded by a guided tour of a spice warehouse/ factory so if you think of it like a gift shop at the end of a tour you feel much less like you’re being taken advantage of.

Drying spices in India
Laying out the spices to dry – this process involved lying them out to dry in the sun all day

On the ride back to the home stay we passed a bus that on first glance looked like it had seen better days and on second glance made you believe in magic again, it was so unclear how it was still going. More dents than a prop at a monster truck rally, people squeezed on so tightly that they were sticking out of the caged windows, and exhaust pipes that had apparently been tied on with rope belching black smoke into the street behind it. As the bus shot past us at a speed it had no business doing I thought of Mum’s stories about the busses back in 1981, it’s not so much that they haven’t changed but there is a chance that they’re actually the same ones. I felt a mixture of nerves and excitement as we pulled up outside the home stay, it was my turn to ride on a death trap bus tomorrow.

My time in Fort Cochin was over; I packed and said a quick silent prayer to whoever was listening that I’d make it through the 1h bus ride South to Alleppey the next day.

~~Written by Katie Baker. Check out her Instagram ~~ 

~~Check out Mum’s Indian adventure on her blog ~~

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