South India: Coconuts and Group Travel

Two days before I left the UK, I read the “solo female traveller” section of Lonely Planet, panicked and booked on a group tour through South India in an effort to avoid becoming a feature story in that section of the guidebook.

I arrived on the tour fresh out of the ashram, feeling as though I would live the rest of my life in a non-judgmental manner. But then came the tour’s “welcome meeting”… The introductions went as follows: Mr and Mrs England, both retired, Mr and Mrs NZ, both retired, Mr Scotland (travelling alone) also retired. Presented with a wall of grey hair and wrinkles, I couldn’t help but think: “Oh God, I’ve booked on an OAP tour”.

The morning after the welcome meeting, I was relieved to see that a handful of the “younger generation” had arrived overnight. Jonas from Switzerland and Gráinne from Ireland (pronounced Grawnya) became my travel bezzies.

The tour began by travelling up through Kerala, which means “Land of the Coconut”. It’s tropical climate meant dusty red roads skirted by luscious greenery and a much slower pace than the North.

Both Jonas and Gráinne are red-headed, pale skinned and practically allergic to the sun. So we spent most of our time escaping the heat and lazing under the shade of the nearest coconut tree. In Varkala we chilled out in great roof top bars overlooking the beach and in the Backwaters we travelled on slow houseboats, quietly enjoying the gentle breeze while observing village life on the banks of the water. We chatted and daydreamed and laughed.

In the meantime, the Old People were starting to come into their own. The tour was very basic and this was reflected in the bargain price. Despite this, the Old People complained about everything, were often rude (to both locals and other members of the group) and seemed to have forgotten to pack basic manners. Initially I was astonished (I’ve never seen a grown-up behave in this way), but their behaviour became so ridiculous that eventually I couldn’t help but find it funny. Instances included storming out of a restaurant because they didn’t serve chicken lollipops, demanding to be taken to a restaurant where locals eat and then complaining that it only served Indian food, and grotesque public displays of affection in very public places (we’re talking freely groping body parts normally covered by underwear).

Despite Kerala being a dry state, Mr Scotland spent most of his time searching for a beer, and then huffing and puffing when he couldn’t find one. Gráinne and Jonas were slightly more successful, often returning from a cage in the back of the dodgy corner shop clutching several bottles of warm Kingfisher. Not being a fan of beer, I preferred to drink cool fresh lime soda, fresh lime and mint soda, fresh lime and ginger soda, or any lime/soda combo that gave me access to the sugar syrup.

From Kerala we took hair-raising journeys on chaotic, high-speed local buses into the hills, using roads that could give Bolivia’s Death Road (think Top Gear) a run for its money. Eventually we reached the safety of Periyar. The higher altitude bought cooler temperatures and beautiful scenery of endless tea and spice plantations.

The sudden horticultural flavour to the trip piqued the interest of the Old People. They spent an extraordinary amount of time discussing whether various vegetables and spices could, or could not, be found in their local Tesco. For example, when Mrs NZ admitted that she had never seen okra before, Mrs England delighted in confirming that okra could be easily sourced in the UK. Trying not to pay attention, I continued to munch my way through the bag of candied ginger and locally made chocolate that I had purchased from the spice plantation, safe in the knowledge that both items could indeed be purchased in Tesco.

Some more hair-raising, high-speed, local bus journeys later saw us cross into the state of Tamil Nadu. Mr Scotland rejoiced at the opportunity to drink the day away, only to complain when the beer wasn’t cold enough…

In the city of Madurai we gawped at the impressive Meenakshi Amman Temple, dedicated to the triple-breasted warrior goddess Meenakshi. Here I witnessed a number of local women squishing their feet into elephant dung. Obviously registering the look of confusion on my face, the local guide explained that the elephant dung was associated with the Elephant God, Ganesh, and the ritual is considered to bring good luck. I couldn’t quite get over the fact that they were still just standing in animal poo.

From Madurai we took a series of three 15hr overnight train journeys through the state of Karnataka, stopping by the stunning Mysore Palace and the temple ruins at Hampi.

Unfortunately for me, the train journeys coincided with nasty bout of upset stomach. Upon entering the train toilet, the overwhelming stench of urine made my eyes sting, the toilet seat was strewn across the floor (presumably still available in case you might want to use it) and there were unidentifiable stains on every surface. It was a deeply unpleasant experience and I definitely cried.

In an effort to cheer myself up after the trauma of the overnight trains, Jonas, Gráinne and I headed off to see our first ever Bollywood movie. I was looking forward to some light relief in the form of music and dance. The film was in Hindi (with no subtitles), meaning that I only really understood the facial expressions. Nonetheless, this is what I picked up of the plot: a blind couple fall in love and marry, the wife is raped by a bad man who has high political connections, the cops cover it up, the wife kills herself and then the blind husband seeks revenge and kills about seven people. There was so much violence that I spent most of the film hiding behind my hands. Thankfully, there were still three dance numbers.

In other moments of downtime on the trip, the three of us went off on mini-adventures, which inevitably turned out to have an authentically Indian twist. One such example was our trip to the Post Office.

When our bulging suitcases could take it no more, we decided to post a few bits home (or in my case, a present to Fraser). In our First Trip to the Post Office, we sauntered in with big smiles on our faces and asked if we could post our various packages. The man behind the counter shook his head. Jonas’ package was too big (cue merciless teasing from Gráinne and I, with poor Jonas not picking up on the joke). Jonas had wrapped the package in a thick layer of cling film. This was deemed insufficient and we were instructed to obtain Proper Packing. We were informed that by the time this would be done, the post office would be closed for the day (it was 2pm at the time). So with Swiss efficiency, Jonas marched off to repackage his parcel, determined not to be defeated. Our first task was to locate a textile shop to buy a cotton sheet. Then we had to find a tailor to sew the package inside the sheet. By the time we were done, the Post Office had indeed closed.

Our Second Trip to the Post Office was in a different town. We queued again with high hopes. However, it transpired that this Post Office didn’t send packages in cotton sheets. They must be wrapped in cling film….

We joined another queue for the packing room. When I eventually reached the front of the queue, I was told my package was too small for the packing room and I was sent to another queue to buy an envelope.

With my package now in an envelope, I queued again at the posting counter, only to be told that the envelope needed cling filming. Back at the packing room I was told he didn’t cling film envelopes, but he did give me one piece of cellotape to make sure the mouth of the envelope was closed. Back at the posting counter (for the fourth time), I was about to post the envelope when I was informed that I needed to present two photocopies of my passport and two copies of my Indian visa, which I didn’t have on me.  By this point I had been queuing for two hours. It was hot, and I was bothered. I slumped away from the counter, still carrying my envelope (sorry, Fraser).

At the end of our tour, Jonas, Gráinne and I headed to the southern beaches in Goa. We had a brilliant time, laughing together, jumping in the waves of the warm Arabian Sea and feasting on Goan cuisine as the sun set on our sandy, happy faces.

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