The tour of South India was super awesome. Perhaps the single most worthwhile experience of my entire life. Maybe the most fun I've ever had. Certainly a memory I will treasure until the end of my days.
Even with my planned liberal editing of the events of the trip, I am still planning to split the 17-day extravaganza into perhaps three parts. Part 1 will take us from our departure to Munnar, and will then segue into some other things on my mind lately, namely, spending the holidays away. The other parts will come at a later date. Hopefully it won't be too boring, but I like recording the things that I've done.
At midnight changing from the 1st of December to 2nd December, the other four Surat exchange students and myself boarded a train from our hectic terminal that would take us all the way Mumbai. It was already loaded with most of the other exchange students (there are 15 in our district - 5 live in Surat and most of the rest live north of us). This was a sleeper train, however, and we all went to our assigned bunks and tried to grab a few hours of sleep before our 6 AM arrival in Mumbai.
The first day was generally spent sitting, sweaty and disgusting, in waiting rooms or on trains. It was about a five hour train ride to Mumbai from Surat. When we got there we sat in a waiting room for three hours, then took a 45 minute taxi ride across the city to get to the other Mumbai terminal. The drive made me want to explore Mumbai, it looks to be a lovely city. Then we sat at the terminal for an hour or two, then we got on the train and embarked on a 26 hour journey to Cochin, which is quite a ways to the south.
I won't spend an awful lot of time describing train travel in India, but it might merit a little explanation. I'd heard a bit about the Indian train system before I got here, so I, at least, was curious. In a sleeper carriage, you can fit 8 people in one aisle space. On one side of the aisle are two beds, one on top of the other, lengthwise along the train. On the other side, which is much wider, are two stacks of three bunks each, positioned in the other direction. The middle bunk generally stays folded up into the wall until it's time to go to sleep, and the bottom bunks are used as benches. They provide food and snacks on the train, and there are even power outlets to charge your phones or your laptops or whatever, so at least you never get too bored. There generally more space and mobility, so it's way better than a plane. The only big beef I have is that they don't nearly provide enough space for luggage. We had a very nasty encounter with a wretched crone who had like four bags and threw all of ours into the aisle so she could have the entire underbelly of one bench. That might not make much sense to you, but trust me. It wasn't fair.
Sorry. I ended up spending more time describing the train than it really merited.
So the train ride, spent in the good company of the other exchange students, was about as tolerable as a 26 hour journey by train can be, and the food actually could have been a lot worse. We arrived at the Cochin train station, in the province of Kerala. In Kerala they generally speak their native tongue, Malayalam, or English. The national language, Hindi, is not spoken very much there. English is their language that connects them to the other provinces. This worked out well for us.
Cochin is a large city, but it is infinitely more attractive than Surat. It seems at the same time more Western and less traditional than Surat. Western, in that the shops are generally neater, tidier, and cleaner, and in that there's quite a bit of English spoken. Traditional, in that they don't seem quite so obsessed with the material and superficial things that the shops in Surat seem to cater to, and that the way people dress on the streets seems more Indian, rather than the idiotic, flamboyant imitations of Western fashion that I'm accustomed to. I like Cochin very much for all of these reasons.
The first day, we were exhausted and didn't really get out of the hotel until about 5, once everyone was done resting and showering properly. That first night we went to a really nice shop. This is more exciting than it sounds - in the South, especially these more touristy places, there are quite a few very upscale shops with a lot of beautiful, expensive traditional Indian things - woodwork, scarves, rugs, paintings, and all sorts of other exciting things. The shopkeepers really pamper you there, giving you free drinks and stuff, and all the while observing you and trying to sell you something. It's a very subtle art, what they do. Unlike many of their street counterparts, they have mastered the skill of making you want something without offensively pushing it on you, and they most certainly sell more things because of it.
Now I have a penchant for weapons. I mean, violence is cool. Not really, but you know what I mean. I've always had an extremely nerdy desire to have a collection of swords in my house when I grow up. I already have a wonderful machete that I purchased in Costa Rica sitting back in the United States. At this particular establishment, they had a very fine collection of swords. After examining all of them and consulting with the employee assigned to me, I purchased a rather beautiful ceremonial short sword for the price of 2700 rupees, haggled down from 4000 rupees. It's pretty awesome. Swords are awesome. So is haggling.
The night was uneventful - they laid out a private dinner buffet for us and played a fantastic collection of Christmas music for us. Then we all hung out together in hotel rooms and went to bed.
The next morning we went to see the sights in Cochin. Like most of Keralan coastal areas, Cochin is stuffed with wide rivers and canals, with a sort of mangrove ecosystem operating on the shores. A lot of the economy is based around that too, mostly fishing and the like. First we went to this ancient Dutch church, where the famous explorer and infamous asshole Vasco da Gama was once buried. This was big news to a history geek like me. I mean, this is Vasco da Gama. He's pretty damn important. It was a beautiful church, and it was nearly 500 years old.
Something I like about traveling outside of the United States is that nearly every place in the world is older than us. I mean, think about it, nothing in our country can be much older than like, 300 years at this point. Maybe like the ruins of Jamestown or something. But you go nearly anywhere else, and you will find ancient things left and right, or certainly things older than us. It's humbling. In my day-to-day life in the US, I'm just not accustomed to seeing things this old. And India can be especially humbling in this since - it has been populated by civilizations since antiquity, and Hinduism is, I think, the eldest of the five main religions. So that was cool.
Just outside of the church was a kind of public square on the shores of a biggish river. There were these Chinese fishing nets there. I cannot describe them very well, but basically they work on some kind of lever system, where these massive nets are lowered into the water, and then hauled out by these huge ropes pulled manually by some hardworking laborers. Stretched along the edges of the square are a whole bunch of fish stands. We went and saw the Chinese fishing nets, and they let us haul some fish out of the river ourselves, then we explored the square a bit.
This place was infested with walking vendors selling moronic little things like irritating carved wooden flutes and stuffed animals for absurdly expensive prices. They were, perhaps, the most annoying people I have ever come across in my entire life. As opposed to the classy shop salesman, their strategy seems to be annoy you into purchasing their products so that they will go away. The only thing to do with these guys is to be rude and blunt. If you attempt to kindly reject their offer, it simply doesn't work.
Usually they start by approaching you and saying "Where you from?". When I tell them, they always say "Oh, US! Obama!" And then I say, yeah, yeah. Then they show you the product, and it is a terrible mistake to even look at it. They think that if you express the mildest interest in their product, you want it, and the only objective is price. So there was this snake made out of a bunch of separate pieces of wood that kind of moved if you wiggled it. I held it and looked at it and determined that it actually really sucked. So first the guy, who was crestfallen at my disapproval, progessively lowered the price until it was like a sixth of the original one. Finally, I lost my temper and said "You could give that to me for a fudging (this is not what I actually said) pese (their equivalent of the penny) and I wouldn't want it.
His hysterical last resort, as I strode away from him was to shriek "Obama! I like your president! Please!" To an extent, I feel bad for them. Obviously this is their livelihood. But I was eager to show them that I am not some stupid tourist, and also I wouldn't want them to get the impression that being a jackass is the way to sell things.
The fish market was awesome. There were all sorts of things there, included a hammerhead shark. Hammerhead sharks are awesome. Their heads look like hammers AND they're sharks. They're like the Ninja Assassins of maritime animals. Anyways, something cool you could do at the fish market was buy the fish yourself (and it wasn't too pricey) and then give to a cook that was standing, and order him to prepare the fish for you in whatever way you wanted. So I bought a small squid and some sizable prawns for myself and had them made to order. This excited me an inexpressable amount.
After our delectable lunch, we proceeded on a bus to Munnar. The bus ride was a bus ride. It does not merit discussion.
Turns out I have a lot more to say than I thought I would. So we'll cut things off there.
To be blunt, it sucks. But it could have been a lot worse. Christmas for me is not an especially religious holiday. I mean, obviously that's what it is, but what it really signifies to me is family. You have to be home, with your family for the holidays. End of story. For me, it's an unbreakable rule in the same vein as something like gravity. Evidently, of course, it can be broken.
In India, Christmas is just another commercial holiday of very little importance, and they don't do an awful lot to celebrate. Santa Claus came with one toy for my little brother Nishant, but other than that my family didn't observe it at all. And India, as a whole, doesn't care much. There are Christmas specials in the shops and that sort of thing, but it's just not given very much importance. It's probably less important than like St. Patrick's Day in the US. Not to mention that they don't have snow, a quintessential element of Christmas for me.
Nonetheless, my family knew that Christmas was going to be very important to me, and they knew that I was pretty bummed to be gone. There wasn't a whole lot they could do, but I really appreciated the fact that they could kind of understand what I was feeling.
On Christmas Eve, the 4 other Surat exchange students and I got together at one of their apartments, blew up inflatable snowmen, ordered Domino's pizza, and watched "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and "The National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation". And you know what? It was a good Christmas. There's something that's all the sweeter about making Christmas happen in a country where they seem rather determined to adopt an attitude of complete indifference to the whole affair.
In Christmas Day, I opened my presents from my wonderful real family, and my dad and I went out for dinner at an excellent Chinese restaurant. Then I had a nice long conversation with my real family. Skype was out of commission, unfortunately, but this was certainly better than nothing. So Christmas could have been a lot worse. It sucked to be away, and God knows I'm never going to do it again, if at all possible, but I'm sure when I'm old, this Christmas is going to stick out in my memory. It was a great comfort to find love and support even on the other side of the world.
Stay tuned for Part 2.