OR: 'Where Dom meets Dan'
26.06.2011 - 30.06.2011 32 °C
Without really anything to do besides drink, eat and relax, the days in Varkala somehow seemed to fly by. Saturday came and with it, a stint at the local 'Coffee Temple'. The cafe had a bizarre religious theme, not unusual for an Indian shop, but this one was adorned with images of deities such as Vishnu, Jesus and Brahman, who had all briefly set apart their differences and come together to endorse this particular hot beverage vendor.
In an 8-hour shift making coffee in the UK, I might have made close to two or three hundred coffees. On this particular shift in Varkala, I read three different Indian newspapers cover to cover, about a hundred pages of Lord of the Rings, and made three coffees, all for the same person. This generated revenue of 210 rupees, about three pounds.
After an exhausting half-day of sitting around doing nothing, I went back to sitting around doing nothing. And so I remained until Sunday morning, where I caught a train to my final Indian destination, Kochi. Split into two major areas, my first day was spent in the built up city of Ernakulum where I walked among the plentiful high rises trying to find a cheap hotel. Outside a particularly expensive offering was a group of perhaps a hundred Indian men surrounding a number of shiny cars trying to exit the car park. After some probing, it turned out that inside were a number of Mollywood 'superstars' (there are tons of these '-ollywood's, seemingly one for each region of India!) and it was with great indignity that a number of men began to chase the cars down the highway, not a difficult task given the traffic.
It's hard to find things to say about Ernakulum. Like all the built up areas I've visited so far, the sights are limited and the lifestyle, hectic. Monday arrived and I caught a ferry to the peninsular seashore town of Fort Kochi. It couldn't have been more different from the metropolis across the river; the locals were placid, pleasant and relatively inactive. Wandering the quaint village streets, I met a Taiwanese girl, who showed me to a simple homestay. After dumping the bag, we headed to a local haunt for lunch. Playing it safe and avoiding the meat, we enjoyed a very filling meal of parotta (a kind of layered bread), spicy egg curry and egg biryani (not to be confused), and all for under a pound!
Afterwards, we headed to a long street famous for its spice shops, stopped for a spot of vanilla tea and were showed around a theatre where the Kathakali is performed, a famous Keralan dance/play which regretfully, I never saw.
On my final morning in India, I headed straight for the bus that would take me to Kochi Airport. As it was, I arrived with lots of time to spare. When I finally made it to the gate, they had two TVs switched on, one displaying the flight information screen, and the other probably thoughtlessly tuned to the Discovery Channel. As chance would have it, a program had just started called 'Surviving Disaster'. This particular episode was a simulation of what would happen, and what to do if you find yourself on a hijacked aeroplane! With interspersed footage of various famous plane crashes and re-enactments of terrorists taking over, the narrator-cum-hero bravely stepped in and gave step-by-step instructions of how to overpower the assailants, tend to the co-pilot's gunshot wounds and as a bonus, how to land the jumbo jet yourself.
Luckily, most of the passengers in the gate had either chosen to ignore the TV, or just hadn't realised what was playing. As an English speaker it was hard not to notice the typically American cries of 'Oh god, he's got a gun!' and 'This jet's going down!'. As it was, the only trouble we had on the flight was a very drunk Indian man who had a tantrum when Air Asia ran out of rice and when subsequently told to be quiet.
After landing an hour later than scheduled, I caught a bus into the city centre and found myself sitting next to a very friendly man who helpfully suggested a number of interesting places around Malaysia I should try to include in my trip. Due to a combination of fatigue and politeness, I was unable to understand most of what this kind gentleman was saying, but he set a good precedent for Malaysian strangers. At 3 in the morning, I walked around the deserted streets of Chinatown, trying to locate a hostel I'd previously found online. After stumbling upon what seemed like a street race about to kick off (I later found out that inexplicably, almost every car in Malaysia looks like it's been race-tuned, with flashy wheel rims and spoilers the norm) and being shouted at by a homeless man, I dived into the nearest hotel I could find. It was 10 pounds a night, but now I was beyond caring. I stepped over the napping porter and on reaching my room, fell straight to sleep.
I woke up to a knock at the door. I checked my watch, and barely an hour had passed. For reasons unknown, the hotel's porter, refreshed from his nap, decided that 4.30am was an appropriate time to give me the remotes for the TV and A/C unit. I wordlessly accepted these and went back to sleep.
Four hours later and I was up again and finally saw the city by day. After 3 weeks in India, it was quite a shock to be back in a fully-developed land again. Price tags were plentiful, family-run eateries were replaced with fast-food outlets, the roads were maintained, horns were subdued and I could actually walk more than ten paces without hearing someone hoiking up their innards and depositing them on the road.
After possibly the most rewarding hot shower I have ever taken, I caught the subway to a station underneath the KLCC, a magnificent 6-floor shopping centre in the centre of Kuala Lumpur. There I had planned to meet Dan and Helen, friends from back home, in the crime/thriller section of the largest bookshop. The shop was closed and so less excitingly, we saw each other outside instead. So far the homesickness had been mostly minimal, but as soon as I started to hear all the latest from back home, it really began to take hold. Nonetheless, it was fantastic to see some friendly faces, and a welcome way to kick off my time in South-East Asia.
We walked outside and I finally caught sight of the iconic Petronas Twin Towers, underneath which the KLCC stood. Previously the tallest buildings in the world until 2004, they are connected by a bridge running between the 41st and 42nd floors. I had often wondered whether a bleary-eyed worker stumbling to work on a Monday morning had ever found himself at the top floor of the wrong building, so I guess that's why they put in a bridge halfway up.
After admiring the sights and looking forward to returning in a few days' time, I caught a very luxurious bus with Dan and Helen to Melaka, a historic city two hours south of KL. At various times, the city had been under the rule of Portugal, Holland and Britain, with its history evident in the monuments, forts and architecture that can be found throughout. With Dan and Helen staying with Dan's grandmother outside of the city, I set off on my own down the highways from the bus station to the centre of town. The trek turned out to be longer and more hazardous than I thought. I had to walk a fair few kilometers down the highway, with my choice of terrain limited to either the standing water of the sluices that run parallel to every road or the hard shoulder. I opted for the more dangerous but ultimately more hygenic latter.
I checked in to a backpackers' hostel, the first of my journey so far (dorm rooms are virtually unheard of in India), and promptly joined another guest to watch a pirated copy of some old Mr. Bean episodes (Why? Just why?). At 8 o'clock and nobody about, I headed into the night to find some dinner. As it was, almost everywhere had closed for the night, but I managed to find a delicious meal of chicken noodle curry for 6 ringgit (about 1.50 pounds).
Wandering the streets of Melaka at night truly is an experience for the senses. Though virtually deserted, the areas on either side of the river are lit with thousands of fluorescent lights, with statues and bridges at their most beautiful. Rounding a corner near my hostel, I came across a series of fountains, spurting and lighting in time to the music that was being blasted out of speakers either side. And yet, barely three or four people were standing around to witness it.
Thursday came, and with a pretty impressive tan on the arms but some appalling T-shirt marks, I slapped on the sun cream and headed out. After stopping for breakfast, it became apparent that a large-scale treasure hunt was afoot, with 300 identically-dressed employees of a large company racing around the city all morning. I took in the sights, from the bright red Clock Tower and Town Hall to the watermill and the fort across the road, before ascending the rotating observation tower for a bird's eye view of the city.
In the afternoon, I walked along the kilometer long boardwalk that surrounds the river, past surely the smallest theme park in the world, sporting a ferris wheel and a swinging ship, and the disused monorail, which was built last year but abandoned only two months later after a series of problems. I again met up with Dan and Helen and we had a lovely evening of food, beer and ice cream, a luxury that I was more than willing to splurge on! Two and a half bottles of Tiger later and I was ready for a solid night's sleep. The hostel, however, had other ideas..