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Christmas on the Cliff

In case you don't bother reading the rest of this, I hope you had a great Christmas, and wish you a fab New Year. I'm spending the festivities in Varkala, which is a lovely place on the sea, in the south Indian state of Kerala. My bite's all but healed, and I've now finished my course of anti-rabies jabs, so it's all good.

A week after I'd been bitten by the dog I felt up to travelling again. The bite didn't seem to be healing particularly well - probably because I kept walking on it - but at least it wasn't infected. My destination was Pushkar, just a few hours away. I made the mistake of wearing my boots, which put painful pressure on my ankle, making me limp, and caused the cut to bleed and ooze nastily. I was in two minds as to whether I was doing the right thing by moving on, but I felt that my decision was given the seal of approval when I arrived at the bus station to get the second to last seat on a bus that was just about to leave. The journey to Ajmer - a town near to Pushkar where the trains and most of the buses stop - was uneventful. At the bus station in Ajmer a policeman interrupted a rickshaw-wallah who was trying to fleece me, and told me that a bus to Pushkar was parked behind me and about to leave.

The road between the towns winds up and over the chain of hills that separates the two, and is most scenic. A man sitting in front of me on the bus told me that he ran a guest house which had cheap rooms, and I agreed to have a look. I limped along behind the man who led me through a maze of streets to the Poonam Guest House, where I secured a nice room for 150 rupees. (I had intended to catch rickshaws wherever possible, to aid healing, but ironically I'd come to a town without any rickshaws.) Once I'd settled in, I set off to explore the small town, which is an important pilgrimage place for Hindus, as Brahma apparently appeared there as a boar. The town is set around a lake, which is bordered by numerous ghats, steps leading from temples down to the water's edge. Devotees bathe in the lake to cleanse themselves of sin; pigeons flock on the steps, occasionally scared into the air, circling round before coming back down to land; cows wander amidst the pigeons...and indeed all over the town.

The place really did have an inordinate amount of cows, which would often block the narrow streets, sometimes meeting each other head on, trying to barge one another out of the way. I discovered that, since my encounter with the dog, I had developed an illogical fear of cows; it was a dog that bit me, not a cow, so I'm a little unclear as to where this phobia came from, but it was there nonetheless. Often I would find my way blocked by a cow or three, and stand there nervously until someone braver came along and shooed the animals out of the way. There were times, when I felt a cow was giving me a particularly menacing look or beginning to head in my direction, that it took all my courage not to turn and run. The town also had countless dogs prowling the streets - especially one road lined by food stalls, which I came to think of as Dog Alley. I was fine with most of the mutts, only scared of those that barked, although one pooch who jumped up at me in a friendly way, tail wagging, left me a quivering mess.

Pushkar is an attractive town, with winding lanes and interesting architecture. Monkeys chase each other over the rooftops, and saddhus wander the streets on the scrounge. The dust filters the light, giving it a tangible quality that enhances photographs nicely. The best place to be at sunset is on the far side of the lake, listening to the talented drummers banging out a beat that makes it hard to stand still, and observing the crusty and bizarre backpackers that have assembled. It was cold, though; really cold. Once the sun had set, I could only keep warm by wearing two pairs of trousers, plus many tops and scarves, and at night I shivered under three blankets. I'd planned to see much more of Rajisthan, and hoped to take a camel trek into the desert, sleeping out under the stars. After some consideration I decided to delay the rest of my tour of that state, and head south - the north will be much warmer by February, I'll revisit then, when I can enjoy it.

Another reason that I was glad to be heading south, is that it is said to be less chauvinistic/misogynistic than the north. What with the cold, and still feeling vulnerable after the dog incident, I was finding the constant staring was really getting to me. Granted I'd suffered no physical harassment - possibly because I growled and threatened anybody that even looked like they were thinking about it; it's nigh on impossible to judge the effectiveness of preventative action. The accepted advice for avoiding trouble as a lone female, as well as dressing modestly, is not to make eye contact or smile at men, and to tell people that you are married. Even Rajisthan's official guide to conduct for foreign tourists states that lone women do not talk to strange men in the street. Mind you it also states that men should not touch women in public - something which I think Indian men should be reminded of.

Most of the time I would walk along with my eyes downcast, pulling my scarf over my head if the staring was particular intrusive, ignoring those around me. Had I come straight from the UK, I think it would be easier to slip into this behaviour, but having spent six months in super friendly South East Asia, acting like this seems unnatural; it makes me feel oppressed. I made the mistake of smiling at an old man while I was waiting to book my train ticket south; he gave me a filthy look in return, then spent the next ten minutes staring at my chest. I don't like pretending to be married either. I'm proud of being single, of being an independent woman living my life the way I choose. Even when make-believe, I have no desire to be manacled by matrimony. Recently I decided to admit that I was travelling alone (normally my "husband" is in a city on business, and meeting me in a day or two), and single to my guide for a day's excursion; soon after he had offered me a massage and tried to play with my hair, so I guess I'll stick with the pretence.

One of the favourite gods, Krishna (actually one of Vishnu's incarnations) seems to be a bit of a sex pest. A popular story about him is the time he stole all the clothes of the gopis (female cow herds) while they were bathing, and refused to give them back. It's also a country where it is said that most of the rapes of local women go unreported, as the victim of rape shares in the shame and blame of the attack. The belief is still held by some that suicide is the only way for the victim to be cleansed of the sin (apparently a popular theme for Bollywood movies). Every now and then, though, the image of a laughing Sid James smacking some young girl on the bum pops into my head, reminding me that it was not so long ago that sexual harassment was considered acceptable in my own country.


So mid-December saw me returning to Delhi and spending two days on a train travelling south; if you want to read more about the journey, you can do so in my blog. I arrived in the wonderfully warm Keralan town of Kochi (AKA Cochin), and was surprised to find that it looked pretty much like a normal town - very different to those I 'd seen in the north. I saw hardly any dogs, but plenty of cats, and instead of cows grazing on the piles of rubbish, it was crows...which is only one letter out. Whilst in the town I visited the old Portuguese settlement of Fort Cochin, took a day trip on the backwaters, and went to an evening demonstration of Kathakali dance, which was a little like watching an elaborately dressed deaf man with a facial tick and St Vitus's dance, but enjoyable nonetheless.

The people in the south certainly seem to be friendlier than their countrymen in the north, less stressed out and angry. Here drivers don't attempt to run you down as you cross the road - they sometimes even slow to let you cross, rather than accelerate towards you. Many men wear lungis - sarongs, tied around the waist. Unlike in Myanmar, where the men wore tubular pieces of material, the cloth is not sewn up, and it is common for the material to be folded up and tied in front, giving the appearance of a miniskirt from the back, and a nappy from the front. I've been told that this is a style that is local to Kerala; in the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu the lungis are sewn into a tube. The south is not as predominantly veg as the north, and many restaurants also offer non-veg food. This is the way it is referred to here; if asked: "are you veg?" a meat-eater would answer: "no, I am non-veg." I like the fact that vegetarians are considered the norm, rather than the flesh-eaters; the carnivores; those who eat dead things.

I took a trip into the hills to Kumily, where I visited the Periyar Wildlife Reserve (and saw nothing, but never mind), and went on a tour of spice and tea plantations. Being at a higher altitude, Kumily was a bit chillier than Kochi had been, but still pleasant. The journeys to and from the town were very scenic. I sat next to the window, snapping away as we wound our way around hairpin curves, past rubber plantations and along the side of steep valleys. Kerala is an affluent state, and producing the bulk of India's tea, spices and rubber, and boasts 100% literacy rate (the national average in 2003, according to the CIA Factbook, was 70.2% of males and 48.3% of females). I returned to the low lands and invested a whole ten rupees (about 12 pence) on a local ferry to Allepey, to get another taste of the backwaters of Kerala, before making my way to Varkala, where I planned to spend the festive season. I'd read on the Internet that some people had been disappointed with the place, so determined not to get my hopes up, and just to enjoy what was there.

I arrived in Varkala on the 21st December, and managed to secure a nice, clean room for 150 a night (about two quid). I've a private bathroom and the place is only a couple of minutes from the cliff top. There's no scope for my hammock, which is a shame as I've not had that out for months, and am suffering withdrawal symptoms, but other than that, it's fine. Once I'd dumped my stuff, I set off to see the sea. Along the top of the red-rock cliffs is a paved path, lined with all manner of shops selling groovy clothes and other things, and a multitude of bars and restaurants. Down below is the sandy beach, where the waves crash against the shore. Towards late afternoon an invigorating breeze springs up, ruffling the fronds of the palm trees on the edge of the cliff. Sea eagles soar in the breeze, chasing each other and the crows.

On Christmas Eve I went to an evening of entertainment, which started off good, with some Kathakali dancers (although they wore a bit thin after they'd come back on the stage for the sixth time), but went downhill rapidly. There was the fire show - a young guy rubbing lighted sticks on his body, then nearly choking after trying to do some fire breathing; the fireworks - which were let off recklessly in the middle of a crowd of people; but the low-point of the evening was the guy who started body-popping across the stage. It was embarrassing to watch, but his friends egged him on, and were soon up and dancing themselves. The entertainment was meant to be followed by "top DJs", but I didn't hold out a lot of hope for them, so called it a night.

My Christmas Day was spent on the beach. I hired a beach umbrella for the day and made myself comfortable. I pigged out and had a whole pineapple to myself, and several cups of tea from the lovely chai-lady. The waves pound against the shore, and strong rips and currents make swimming dangerous, but it's fun to play around in the surf. There are men with whistles to make sure that no one goes too far out, and to move on groups of pervs. This day there was also a police presence to stop to discourage the boats full of Indians from approaching the shore by driving through areas crowded with people, making them drop off their passengers in a less populated part of the beach. I stayed until the sun had set, then indulged in a delicious Italian meal as my Christmas dinner. I returned to the beach on Boxing Day in a more sombre state of mind, preoccupied with the events of the previous year. Standing on the beach, looking out onto the ocean, it was impossible not to imagine what it would have been like for those caught up in the tsunami. I'm sure I wasn't the only one to shed a tear thinking of the loss of life, and the tremendous upheaval of those involved in the tidal wave.

I'm going to stay put in this great place until the new year, take a little break from travelling for a while. Once I do move on, I plan to give India a clean slate. I feel that I've become quite prejudiced against the country, which really isn't fair. I'm sure that not everyone is a potential pervert, or out to rip me off, but I'd begun to fall into the trap of thinking that way. Hopefully, feeling refreshed, I can return to touring the sub-continent with a more open attitude, and assume that the people I meet along the way are decent sorts unless they prove otherwise.

I hope that you have had a great Christmas, wherever you were and whatever you did (and do, please, write and tell me about it), and wish you a wonderful, joy-filled 2006.


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