This morning I found a crumpled 200 rupees in my pocket. For reference, 200 rupees is enough to cover a pretty hearty ‘set breakfast’ meal (which comes with eggs, toast, tea or coffee, and usually some other thing like a fruit salad or hashbrowns), or a small souvenir like a tchotchke or t-shirt, or 10 bottles of mineral water. It’s not much - it’s like finding 5 dollars - but I was like, “yeah!!! found monaaayyy!” It was a mini morning victory. It also signified to me how comfortable I have become here. Carelessly shoving money in my pockets? A far cry from the day in July when I dragged Lisa Marie to REI with me to buy two MORE wire locks, just in case one wasn’t enough.
There is a constant debate going on in my head:
I’ve got to buy that hanging hammock chair for my room in New York.
No. You need less things in that room, not more.
But I need to make my NYC room more shanti. I need to recreate the vibe of India.
No! You need to sell everything in that room and use that money to travel back to India!
But who knows when that will be! Until then, the hammock chair!
Allison Jamie Zooni Dietzek don’t you dare buy that f*ck%ng chair.
So far “sell everything” is winning but the hammock chair is putting up a real good fight.
Kerala has been great so far. I spent a couple of days in Kochi, the capital city of the state of Kerala. It’s got a bunch of big neighborhoods with their own personalities. I stayed at a hostel run by the same crew as JUNGLE in Goa, in a neighborhood called Fort Kochi, and I was really digging the vibe of that hood. The streets were plastered with wild postings and street art. The air smelled of the salty Arabian Sea just a few meters from my dorm room window. While walking home one evening I passed by a coffee shop whose modern-yet-rustic décor looked like something straight out of Brooklyn. I went inside to find an open but empty cafe filled with brightly colored artwork and piles of books. The owner, a 30-something-year-old Indian guy named Shani, came out from the kitchen to greet me. We started chatting and he explained to me that the place is called Qissa which means ‘story’ because he wanted to create an environment where paths could cross and story-swapping could take place. The cafe had been open for just ten days and probably wouldn’t exist in most other places in India but felt totally appropriate for the artsy, bustling vibe of Fort Kochi. After a long talk over chai about Shani’s vision for the cafe, we exchanged contact info. Of all the places in India I never thought I’d see myself long term in Kochi but Shani and I are now in touch and I am exploring a job managing Qissa starting in late December.
In addition to its art scene, surprisingly Fort Kochi has a Jewish quarter which is home to the oldest active Synagogue in the Commonwealth of nations and apparently there are a whopping 60 practicing Jews there. Also surprisingly, the Jewish quarter is called Jew Town. When I saw that I was like, I'm sorry WHAT!? It's actually called Jew Town!? Seems super politically incorrect, especially when it shows up in the names of places like “Jew Town Cafe” and “Jew Town Handicrafts.” Not surprisingly, the shops and restaurants in Jew Town are more expensive than everywhere else. Perhaps because us Jewish tourists are such savvy bargainers ;)
From Kochi, I took a bus to Alleppey to meet back up with my friend Sara (from France) who I had met in Hampi. It feels all warm and fuzzy to arrive somewhere and be greeted by a familiar face. While traveling, I make an effort to say 'hello' to people. So far only good things have come from this. It's one thing to say hello, and it's an even better thing to say hello again. Sara and I spent a day in Alleppey doing the obligatory canoe tour of the backwaters, a network of small waterways lined with tiny villages whose main source of income is the boat-tour industry (which is, relatively speaking, a pretty good source of income). Our tour guide and canoe paddler extraordinaire was the cutest human ever. He did not speak English except for a few jokes he had up his sleeve, like pointing to a chicken and yelling ‘chicken tikka masala!’ or pointing to a local woman washing her clothes along the river bank and shouting ‘washing machine!’. He told us his age by drawing the number 61 in the air with his finger. ‘I am boat owner!,’ he told us proudly. He sang in Hindi the whole time. Alleppey was pretty touristy as there isn’t much there besides the backwaters, so after one day Sara and I headed together to Munnar.
While we were waiting for the bus to Munnar, this cow was roaming the bus station and would not leave me alone. I knew she wanted my spicy peanuts. I gave her a few which was a mistake because then she really wouldn't stop following me. Some kids were looking out the window of a bus watching this happen and squealing with laughter every time Bessy came closer to me. I was looking to them for approval like "is this okay?! Can I keep feeding this cow? Can cows eat people food?" They seemed to think so. And she really was so cute and I liked having her around so I ended up feeding her the whole packet. Of course when I had no more peanuts left, she was like, whatever, I'm moving on to find new snacks.
After a windy, 5-hours-uphill bus ride, we arrived in Munnar. Munnar is a mountainous town along the border of the state of Kerala and neighboring state Tamil Nadu. It is home to acres and acres of tea plantations. The thousands of tea trees, which are cut down to shrub size and pruned just enough to make narrow walkways between them, create from a bird’s eye view a stunning, sprawling patchwork of fifty shades of green.
Not the photo that best encapsulates the depth or colors of these mountains but the only photo small enough to upload on this Wi-Fi's bandwidth and beautiful just the same.
There isn’t much in Munnar - the key export is tea - so the town, home to 55,000 people, runs on tea and both Indian and foreign tourism. Even with tourism as its #2 industry it didn’t feel too touristy at all and I felt rejuvenated being in the mountains again. Not just for the fresh mountain air and the much needed relief from the sweltering heat, but also because the landscape reminded me of being in Indian and Nepali Himalayas. I really loved the Himalayas.
On our first day in Munnar, Sara and I met two awesome girls, Alice and Alé, from France and Romania respectively. We decided to hire a jeep together to go an hour outside the town of Munnar to a hilltop station called Top Station. On the way we passed wild elephants and I was thinking like, how the heck did these elephants get up this mountain? We can barely get up here with a Jeep. At one point, we got out of the Jeep to take some photos of the mountainscape. We were parked on the side of a cliff. My chai colored Vans are now completely bald and evidently no longer provide traction, and as I was walking back to the Jeep, I slipped on some mud. I didn’t want to fall on my ass into this mud pile so I grabbed onto the closest thing and unfortunately the closest thing was a barbed wire fence along the cliffside. I planted my right palm right onto one of the wire stakes. It was about an inch deep into my hand and I had to literally pull my palm off of it. I was in shock that this happened, but even more shocking was how little this injury hurt. I was expecting blood to spray out of my hand, fire-hydrant style! Extreme pain! But when I looked at the hole in my hand it was oozing more fleshy-colored gooey SKIN than blood. I learned that there aren’t very many nerves in the center of your palm so fortunately it just felt like a regular cut. It’s healing like a piercing -- like when you remove a piercing but you can still feel where the skin was pierced and healed around it. In any case I have six more days here and would really like them to be injury-less…
The four of us ate dinner at a restaurant packed with locals and the food was so spicy that I felt literally drunk from it. The girls kept telling me how red my face was. We laughed hard throughout the whole meal as we exchanged break-up horror stories. (Mine was my Valentine’s Day break-up at COSTCO which is thankfully now hilarious and no longer enraging). My children’s size “W is for Whale” band-aid which Sara had lent me prevented me from eating with my hands, which was a huge bummer because I now strongly believe that is the best and only way to eat rice, but regardless of the injury it was just one of those days that made me happy to be alive. The next day, Sara and I did a half day trek up to one of the highest surrounding mountain peaks (2100m) and then spent the afternoon/evening in the town of Munnar. We rushed into one of the medical shops and extremely dramatically asked if they had band-aids for my hand. "MY HAND! I'VE BEEN HURT! AM I GOING TO LIVE??!" The people in this shop did not speak English but they understood our absurdly dramatic tone and that we were being silly so they were using their facial expressions to joke back to us, "oh, no, that cut looks really bad... you may not have much longer!!!" We were all acting kind of insane for no reason and enjoying it. I love those days, just going in and out of the shops and laughing with the locals.
That night was one of the biggest celebrations for Diwali. The town was lit up with Christmas-style lights. Adults and kids alike were setting off fireworks in the sky and firecrackers in the streets. They’re so loud, they sound like freakin bombs. Every time one of these firecrackers blasted off, I jumped with terror. This went on for hours. Thought it was gonna give me a heart attack.
From Munnar, I traveled alone on a 10-hour overnight local bus to Trivandrum (another more southern city in the state of Kerala) and then another 90 minute bus to the beach town of Varkala where I currently am. If you think you are 'special' or deserve special privileges for even one second, these local bus rides will put you right in your place. On the overnight bus, I sat in a middle seat, which wasn't even a seat but rather the middle space on a bench that accommodated three people. I managed to somehow fall asleep but it was one of those sleeps where you wake up and have to tell your beck to lift itself up from the sideways position it has been craned in and you actually say 'oww' to yourself as you are doing this.
And now I am in Varkala. Varkala’s beaches are even more vast and beautiful than Goa’s. The bars and restaurants are perched perilously high up on a cliff; the cliffs extending for miles up the coastline, complete with a shop-lined cliffside pathway.
When I arrived here it was around 7AM and I was searching for a guest house. I was thinking to myself, ‘wow, last week in India. No friends here. Nobody knows me here. Will I be leaving India and saying goodbye to no one?' That would be weird. Nobody to wish me a safe trip back to New York, nobody to give a shit that my journey in India is over. I didn’t get too bummed out by this, it was just weird to think about. I found a guest house and spent the rest of the day exploring the cliffside shops and met some of the local owners. When I walked into one shop, the shopkeeper was a young, stylish dude. "Hello," he said to me. "I have met you before." He said was certain he'd spoken with me on the streets of Dharamsala. I have been to Dharamsala but I didn't remember him. He saw my arm cuff and said, "you bought that there, didn't you?" I did. I was like, "damn, maybe you're right, maybe we have met before!" He said that you meet every person in your life three times, and this was our second time. "Well in that case," I said, "hello again."
Many of the other shopkeepers were from Tibet and Nepal and it made me really happy to be surrounded by the trinkets and symbols of Buddhism again (and I will probz spend my newly found 200 rupees in one of these shops at some point). I didn’t really meet any other backpacker friends, but the next day, as I walked past the shops a second time, the shopkeepers I’d met the day before were like, “hello again!!!” And their acknowledgement felt really good. Traveling alone sometimes means that I am in places where I know literally no one. Places where not one single person in my physical proximity gives a shit that I exist. Maybe being greeted felt good not because I have any meaningful connection with these people, and not because it means they care about me or my journey or that I’m going back to New York. Maybe it felt good because it is really nice - much nicer than we take the time to appreciate or even register, sometimes - for someone just to recognize that we are even alive.
Some views of Varkala:
Early afternoon in Varkala. The haze sort of taints the beauty of the place and even makes it look a little chilly, which trust me it is not.
Love this photo. Taken last night just before sunset. Foreshadowing of a storm in the clouds over Kerala, with the catches of the day proudly displayed outside one of the cliffside restaurants.
Today it is pouring in Varkala. I wanted to wander around but I’m not so sure in this weather. I’m itching to get deeper into the local culture here because frankly it’s pretty white and touristy inside many of the cliffside restaurants and while there is nothing wrong with befriending tourists (I mean, I've been doing this all along and obviously I AM ONE), I really want to be smacked in the face with some real INDIA before I’m out of here in five days. In the mean time, since the power is out at my guest house,* I’ll just keep reading my bootleg, typo-laden copy of 1984 -- in which the commas often come in pairs,, some m's are rn's, and I am constantly questioning the intention or randomness of italicized words -- while the rain crashes down.