My old journal is in pretty good shape considering what it went through all those many years ago.
Onto the very first page of the pocket-sized 6-ring binder, I printed my name, Saginaw address, and my Metropolitan Life Insurance policy number.
The 3×5 lined paper is tightly spaced, and my handwriting went from top to bottom, edge to edge. I suppose I didn’t want to run out of pages. Thankfully, it’s still legible.
The first entry is dated August 31, 1978. The final entry is April 22, 1979. The pages in between are a day-to-day chronicle of my life-defining adventure through southeast Asia and India when I was a fresh-faced, novice traveler. Back in those days, film and developing was expensive – so there are not many photos to bring it to life. The few photos I have – taken with an Instamatic camera – are very poor quality. Instead, I captured my experiences in words.
The little “virgin vinyl” journal (no kidding – that phrase is heat-stamped on the inside back cover!) is one of my most treasured possessions. I took it off the bookshelf recently to refresh my foggy memory about the time I spent in Kerala in south India. I was amused by the entries about my first few days in India . . .
Sat, Feb 17:
“INDIA! Mysterious, elusive, intense India – here I come! The ferry over wasn’t as bad as I’d feared – although it took all day, from 7AM to 5PM. Arrived to the port of Rameswarem like some kind of refugee – in an old wooden fishing boat.
I’m definitely in a new place – unpaved roads, horse & buggy taxis, sacred cows, Hindu temples, processions with their elaborate gods, lots of people (who take no notice of me). Accommodations are filled because of the pilgrims here for a Hindu festival. I’m shown an available room with a concrete floor and rattan mat … for this I’m supposed to pay money? I finally find a place that’s not too horrible. I venture out to find something to eat, but I’m terrified of the food – even though I’ve been eating local food for months in every other country I’ve been in. This place is so intimidating! I end up with a bread roll and bananas. All starch – but at least I won’t get sick.
I’ll withhold my opinions about India as I’m sure this grubby little place isn’t typical (at least I hope not!!).
Sunday, Feb 18: Up at 5AM to get the train to Madurai at 5:40. Upon reaching the ticket window the guy says the train doesn’t go to Madurai and I’ll have to wait till 3:45PM – SHIT!!!! So I’m supposed to sit around for six #$%#ing hours? After my hissy fit, I get back in line and tell the guy to sell me a ticket to wherever the train goes! So, ticket in hand, I board the train (even get a seat!) and wonder where in the hell I’ll end up! I’m reassured when a passenger tells me I can get a bus from my station to Madurai without difficulty.
Surprisingly, since I’ve heard so much about Indian trains, this one doesn’t ever get crowded. In fact, after one particular stop, it practically empties out altogether. It’s perfectly okay with me.
A guy in my compartment is also going to Madurai – so once again I’ve got an angel in disguise to help me over the rough spots! Bus to Madurai is quick (though fast and loud!), and they only allow enough people to fill the seats – no more! So my first experiences with Indian transport are okay!
Ramees, an engineering student, shows me the way to the Ruby Lodge and I get a really nice room for 7 rupees. Take a much-needed nap and go to Meenakshi Temple in early evening. Hindu culture is interesting, with all their weird gods. Will have to make an attempt to learn more.
My diet of the last few days is atrocious – mostly bananas and biscuits. Nothing healthy at all. Tonight I have my first chapati (good!) with a curried sauce and a delicious lassi (yogurt drink). It’s so good, I have two!
Walking around the streets I get a good feeling about this place. Street vendors selling all kinds of things, plenty of coffee stalls, not too many cars (but look out for the trishaws!), not too many beggars, and it’s pretty modern in the central part. But the best part is that I’m anonymous – I had an idea that I’d be hassled and harried wherever I went. Maybe that’ll happen in places, but so far, so good.
One annoying thing they do here … they kind of tilt their head from side to side as a “yes” gesture. In my culture, that means, “I don’t know” – and I’m having trouble getting used to their seeming inability to make a decision!
Feb 25: Aaah, how easy it is to fall an entire week behind in this journal. But I really haven’t had too much time, as I’ve been moving very steadily. On Monday (19th) I checked my pack at the railway baggage room and took only a small bag up to Kodai Kanal, a hill station about 5 hours away. Nice place, but raining in buckets! Nights are cold and damp – don’t sleep too well. (Tues) – The day doesn’t look too promising weather-wise and there’s not much to do here, so even though I have an invitation from a guy to see the view tonight I think I’ll go back to Madurai tonight. (Wed) – Bus to Kottayam at 9AM – doesn’t arrive till 11:15. Talk with an Indian guy at the bus stand. Nice, but he asks weird, philosophical questions. Don’t know how many times I’ve given out my address but I don’t mind because I figure it’s totally harmless and it’s cheap! Nice bus ride thru the cardamom hills region. Go past Periyar Wildlife Reserve Area in a downpour and I’m glad I’m not getting off. Will see it next trip! Arrive Kottyam at 7:15PM – for a bus to Cochin at 7:35, except it doesn’t arrive … after an hour I give up and take a room. (Thur, 22nd) – Back to bus stand: 7:30 AM, 7:45 AM and 8:20 AM are all scheduled departure times but no #%#$ buses! Am getting very annoyed & frustrated, which I know I shouldn’t do, but after all the waiting last night – STILL no buses! There’s a train at 9 and I enquire how far it is to the train station; a guy says, “don’t worry, the bus will be here in a few minutes.” Which, in itself, is frustrating and I almost hope there won’t be any buses for awhile just to prove him wrong. Turns out he is wrong since there’s still no bus at 8:30 so I take off in a huff to find the railway station … get pissed at taxi drivers who want to charge exorbitant rate … geez I’m really angry! By this time I’m worried about missing the train, as the station is further away than I thought. I’m hot, tired and frustrated but I really move it and arrive at station at around 9 – the guy says the train will arrive within 5 minutes. Whew!
Turns up an hour later but at last I’m on my way to Ennakulan. Once there I set off to find the Tourist Office which I wrongly assume to be nearby. After walking for an hour I end up taking a room back where I started from!
Spent, tired & dirty – I collapse! Have a lousy lunch (will anything go right today?) … and yes, something DOES go right: I manage to find the Tourist Office and they’re not closed! Armed with a fistful of brochures, I feel 100% better.
Friday, Feb 23rd: Take a Tourist Bureau tour of the Cochin area – see old Dutch Fort, Jewish Synagogue, St. Francis Church, Chinese fishing nets, coir factory and meet some nice guys from an engineering school in Bangalore. In afternoon I go to Port Health Office for cholera shot which I was told yesterday to come in for … when I arrive, they ask me to come back tomorrow, as the Dr. is busy. Well, everything was going too smoothly today! Go to Kathakali Dance performance in the evening. Very impressive – costumes, makeup, dancing skill, and explanation – really good.
Saturday, Feb 24th: Go in for cholera shot. They keep me waiting for an hour, then someone asks me what I’m waiting for!
Then I go over to Fort Cochin to see an old cathedral there, which – after getting blisters from new flip-flops – is closed! But I must be getting used to such things, as I don’t even get upset!”
Aaahhh – memories! I’d forgotten many of those details. That was a grueling, exhilarating and eye-opening 8-month adventure. A transformational experience that helped define me as a person and me as a professional. And to this day, I still seek exhilarating and eye-opening journeys – without the “grueling” part! I’d like to think I’m a lot more patient, too.
I recently contacted my friend, Philippa, to brainstorm about a new journey to India for my WOW! Travel Club. She’s a Brit who has lived in India for 20 years and shares my philosophy of travel: do it differently, do it authentically – do it responsibly.
She abhors the overtrod, spoiled-by-tourism places. She seeks out places that are as magnificent as the Taj – without the crowds or touts. She avoids shopping traps. She believes in quality over quantity and s l o w i n g down the pace of travel in order to fully appreciate the experience. She’s my kinda supplier!!
And Philippa knows the best people. Like Deepa Krishnan, who started ‘Mumbai Magic’ 11 years ago based on a good idea and a desire to make a positive difference in her country. Magic Tours is now one of the largest guided tour companies in India by employing and upskilling (love that word!) students from low-income communities to lead visitors on unusual urban excursions. We’ll take Deepa’s tour and meet her personally to learn more about the great work she’s doing.
With Philippa’s expertise and connections, we’ll see the Chinese fishing nets – without the touts and hassle. We’ll learn about (and taste!) the spices which were the basis for trade and commerce in this region influenced by the Portuguese, Dutch and British. We’ll meet the locals.
Bottom line, we’ll see the best of Kerala, South India’s most serenely beautiful state. I can’t wait to return – hope you’ll join me!!! (Details forthcoming for March 2018)