Talk about misconceptions! India was fascinating and enchanting…
It was early April when I visited the province of Kerala, India for the first time. After so much negative and scary rhetoric I must admit that I was a little nervous in anticipation – ok, a lot nervous! They say it feels like you’ll meet the population of the entire world on arrival at Delhi airport, and that sounded daunting.
With such a huge population and completely different foods and culture to what I am accustomed, I must admit that I packed half my medicine cabinet, loads of hand sanitizer and stacks of granola bars. If I wasn’t born in South Africa, I would have felt the same trepidation about my first African journey too, and now have a better understanding for people who find such an adventure unnerving.
Talk about misconceptions! India, known locally as ‘God’s own Country’ was delightfully surprising, starting with the travel visa application, which was quick and efficient. A few clicks online, a reasonable application fee and the visa arrived in my inbox within a week.
Delhi airport is modern, well sign-posted and efficient too. A special line for online visa holders was rewarded with a warm welcome and a free pre-loaded SIM card to keep me connected with home!
I picked up my bag and immediately spotted my transfer guide who showed me to the nearest ATM, since I needed some local currency.
Another pleasant surprise is the ATM system. Have you ever lost your card to one of these monsters? It happened to me both in Cape Town and in Dubrovnik and caused no end of headaches. In India, the ATMs don’t actually ingest your card! A great invention that should be copied around the world.
And then I met India… We stepped out of the airport building and were greeted by a cacophony of hooting cars, a melee of people, and stray dogs trying to survive in this chaos. Even though it was 11pm by now, the traffic jam was astounding. Cars, motorbikes, rickshaws, anything on wheels was doing its best to load up or disgorge their passengers and luggage.
The South African in me looked on in amazement at how peacefully everything unfolded, but the German in me wanted to start organizing things immediately! After about 30 minutes our driver had made it through the jumble of vehicles and I was whisked away to the hotel. Yet another surprise awaited – the van’s seats were dressed in white slipcovers and a generous amount of refreshments and light snacks was provided for the ride.
Driving in India is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. They say that you need 3 things to survive the ride without getting hit – a good hooter (horn), really good breaks and good luck! Surprisingly we met all requirements and by midnight I was happily ensconced in my hotel room.
Next morning it was back to the airport for our onward flight to Kochi (Cochin) in Kerala, a slower-paced province on the southwest coast of this subcontinent. Since the middle class in India is prospering, it’s created a demand for air travel that is well met by domestic airlines such as IndiGO and SpiceJet. These no-frills carriers transport thousands of locals and tourists throughout this vast country in a safe and efficient manner.
During our time on the coast we took the local ferry to a farmer’s market, where the hotel chef gathered the ingredients for our evening meal. The hotels on this trip were all family-owned and have been welcoming guests since 1954. In these establishments nature and the environment take center stage. They’ve adopted the local culture and in some resorts the food is sourced from local organic farmers. In Kochi however they rely on the market, which is divided up into Banana Row, where you could choose from many different types of bananas; Fish Alley and Chicken Lane, Fruit & Veg Path, and the meat counter, where one could buy half a carcass, with either the head or the tail attached. All of this in 40°C and without refrigeration! But the chef worked his magic and created the most delicious meal. Not once did I have to dig into my medicine chest or granola bar supply on this trip!
It was Sunday and, while waiting for the ferry I befriended a young girl – Fatima and her family of 5, who were on their way to a wedding. Celebrations and festivals are central to the way of life here and having 500 guests at a wedding is not unusual. I was surprised to learn that weddings are so large and lavish, one purchases the clothes, decorations, and food from wholesalers! Delhi’s Old Town bazaar has an entire wedding market filled with wholesalers doing brisk business with wedding paraphernalia.
The ferry system is much simpler and surprisingly more efficient than what we use on the Canadian west coast. This ferry was a rust experiment in process, an old workhorse that transports part of the 2.5 million Kochi inhabitants from one side of the bay to another. Another surprise was to see two ramps onto the ferry – one for men and the other for women!
While in Fort Kochi we shopped at a street market, watched the Chinese fishing nets at work, strolled through Jew Street and visited both the old synagogue and an ancient Hindu temple right next door. Did you know that Vasco da Gama was buried in the Catholic church in Fort Kochi? He had made his mark along the South African coast on his discovery mission from Portugal to the “Far East” and was the first European to reach India by sea in the late 15th century. Talk about adventure travel!
This shared history, together with the influence of the British Empire made me feel even more at home here in India. We ended the day with an amazing Kathakali Dance routine – traditionally performed for the Maharajah and his entourage.
The peaceful co-existence of all these cultures make Kochi a unique melting pot of the world and a must-see for all nature lovers, foodies and culture junkies!
I had always been intrigued by the backwaters of Kerala, but hadn’t added it to my bucket list for above-mentioned reasons… you know – the scaredy-cat in me. So, on this journey I found myself on a houseboat plying the calm waterways of the inland channels south of Kochi! What a treat it was to float by villages and get an insight into rural life in India, all from the comfort of your lounge chair in the shade of the boat’s reed-covered roof. After a delicious lunch of freshly caught fish and salads, you could retire to one of a couple of cabins for a siesta in the midday heat. But I was too excited living my bucket-list dream to sleep, and enjoyed every moment of this wonderful experience.
Yet another surprise was the Ayurvedic treatments I received. Usually you’ll not find me at the spa, but I was intrigued enough to try it. Imagine being massaged by four hands that work in sync and magically release all those little aches and pains I’d gotten so used to. You’ll emerge from this experience totally relaxed and with the softest skin! I won’t go into too much detail and spoil your surprise – suffice it to say that it’s an acquired taste, and the more treatments you take, the more you want.
I had a few hours between connecting flights in Delhi and hired a guide and driver to give me a quick orientation. Delhi, has it all – from grand forts, temples, cathedrals, and varying places of worship, to lavish homes and boulevards in the diplomatic neighbourhood, to the tightly-packed vendors in Old Delhi’s bazaar, to cows roaming freely in between. We hired a Rickshaw to navigate the narrow alleys of the bazaar, and when we met the aforementioned traffic jam, we hopped off and dove right into the crowd, to the great surprise of my guide. But by now I had learned that the Indian people are mostly cool and totally unaggressive (unless behind the wheel with a hooter close by!) that I really enjoyed the awakening of my senses on this walk-about. This is a city I definitely want to spend a lot more time exploring.
To me the biggest surprise was that I didn’t need even one of my granola bars, never used the hand sanitizer and didn’t touch my tummy meds. I’m so grateful that I rose above my preconceptions and travelled to India. They say that courage is not the absence of fear – it’s overcoming fear that leads to the greatest experiences.
And exploring Kerala and Delhi will certainly count as one of my great adventures!
Click here for some interesting experiences in India. Or contact Christine Boecker to plan your amazing Journey through India!