David Hasselhof? Move over. We have Bay of Bengal watch here. Just about the coolest dude you could ever meet in a uniform – hat, shirt, shades, a slim shapely trouser & matching flip-flops in 36C heat – overseeing the safety of bathers on the shore in Alleppey. Total number of bathers? Two. In truth was simply too hot to spend time on the beach and this seemed to be borne out by the utter lack of locals. Pristine, palm fringed beach, shining sea, yet plenty of space to put your towel down. Even the sand crabs – which are mighty quick movers – seemed keen to get out of the sun, burying themselves in a jiffy. Mad dogs and Englishmen…
We retire to the shade of a local bar and find out more about our location. Alleppey was the premier port for the coir industry from the 1860s. The canals were dug to bring the product from the fields to the processing plants and on to the waiting ships. A British Captain – I’m imagining an impressive moustache here – drove the whole enterprise with the vision to construct a three-tracked railhead at a metal pier. The pier and docking offices stand decrepit and morose even under the blazing Keralan sun. The pier looks like a smaller version of the wrecked one in Brighton, but this one was only ever for industry. In 1920, Cochin outstripped Alleppey and that was that.
Which brings us to the water babes who when they see a sea just want to fling themselves in it. I suppose in a similar way that when I see a nice pier I want to run to the end and toss myself off into the sparkling ocean. (Chaps: I think you know what I’m talking about.) Whilst I am a strong swimmer, caution is uppermost of the undertow that a fierce beach break can conceal. The men of ‘Baywatch won’t have a bit of it: get in there kids. Cool.
Alleppey on a Saturday evening equates to bustling turned up to eleven on the dial. “Even madder than Delhi” pipes up daughter as we forge through the cheery throng, son shaking hands with local chaps as he walks point. I manage not to buy spices despite their beauty (aromas and displays) as the mission is dinner. Malabar fish curry, tandoori fish, veggie rice & noodles, parotha washed down with fresh lime sodas, ice creams: clean plates all round. £9 well spent.
The most bustling of bustling places was a joint that seemingly all the young men in Kerala were trying to get a piece of. From a distance it seemed like a throng of folks clamouring to get a glimpse of a rock star. A little nearer and it had the feel of a mob or a swarm. Up close, just visible through the crowd, a shabby, metal caged, state-run shack. Behold the off-licence. Booze is not so easy to come by here and clearly a Saturday night thirst is too much to bear. How we laughed, tutted a little and shook our heads at their folly: Drink, eh? Who needs it? Then, how we were curiously parched when we got back to our homestay. Our host then played a blinder by rustling up a biiiig bottle of Kingfisher. [Uuuurrrp.]
Slept well and failed to rise early as our room was cool (a plus) and windowless (also a plus on this occasion). Time to bid farewell to the bashfully helpful Ashtamudi Homestay and take a ride up to the hills. We’re talking a mere 100k here in a new Mahindra/Renault.
It took six hours. (Welcome to India Gilly.)
No, not car trouble nor an accident. Partly due to car-sick kids – STOP THE CAR! – and partly due to an indirect, narrow road infrastructure with the odd diversion thrown in. But mainly due to it being a holy day with roads gridlocked by people let alone cars. Such is the diversity of religions and sub-sects that there’s always a “do” happening somewhere. If you’re on the road you’ll get caught up in one sooner or later in a way that is utterly alien to us Brits. Today? A festival in the name of Shiva: legions of bright colours, pulsing drums, ornate umbrellas, thrilled children (day off school: yay!), precision dancing, whole communities in procession. At the tail of this carnival – blink and you’d miss it – were a clutch of chaps arm in arm with a stout metal wire threading them together piercing their cheeks between upper and lower jaw. Blink again, shake your head and begin to question if you’d just made the whole thing up.
The second encounter was in the centre of a more populous hill village which shut the road. The boys bailed out to get a closer look at the festivities and made their way through the throng to the centre of the action. This thrilling, chance encounter saw Morgan bagging his first elephant sighting (which was a great moment for his Dad too). The mighty beast was bejeweled and painted with an elaborate head-dress. Riding the pachyderm on a platform shaded by another ornate umbrella were several youngsters. Focus on the animal distracts us from the people. Then we see the men with their cheeks and lips pieced with skewers. As if to emphasise the point they have halves of fresh limes kebabing their faces and seem to be almost delirious in a frenzied dance. (Video to follow when I can get bandwidth for uploading to YooToob.)
To this non believer it was a powerful symbol of religious fervour, with the energy in the crowd frankly disturbing. The girls in our party? Grumpily they bathed in the air-conditioned car whilst Mog and I gawped at the spectacle. (You snooze, you lose.) What seemed like minutes turned out to be nearly an hour. (Note to bald, Welsh self: wear a hat as sunburn flippin’ hurts.)
Pretty much your typical Monday morning drive in the hills of southern India.