Kanyakumari is situated at the Southern most tip of India. It is the place where three seas meet and where you can see the sunset and the sunrise over the ocean. The view from the hotel balcony looked out directly over the main street, beyond that a huge statue and a temple on an island in the sea. We found out that Kanyakumari is a pilgrimage site; a ferry takes people to the island back and forth all day, full of people with queues at the quay.
Below our balcony the street was busy with rickshaws and people; late into the night we heard the sound of metal hitting against metal from food being prepared at the street stall on the corner below. The balcony and the view was like a very mini version of our balcony in Main Baazar in Delhi. Early in the morning we were woken by building work and the noise of traffic, so different to where we are staying in Varkala where it stays quite sleepy until nine or ten am. We saw an outrageously loaded up scooter with bags and bags of brightly coloured plastic buckets and spades and beach balls sticking out all around and above it. My husband saw eight adults get out of a rickshaw. Granted the rickshaws we saw in Tamil Nadu were slightly larger and more comfortable than the Kerala ones, but still…
We didn’t go on the ferry, and we didn’t see the sunrise or the sunset as it was overcast. We visited two other temples, one that we arrived at accidentally as we walked through the town, and one that we saw in the distance and walked to.
But the most touching and awe inspiring, the things that made the most powerful impression were the houses which were painted and tiled all different colours, some tiny, like how old fashioned dolls houses are done with wallpaper, but this was tiles, and inside all different colours, a room pink then an archway and the room beyond it green. Some all crazy colours, stripes and wild combinations. Everywhere we looked there was colour, a bright pink wall, an orange house. Even the fishing boats were painted up prettily and painted inside too. Some even had eyes painted on at the front.
And the people, so friendly, a woman who took hold of me so tight and squeezed me and who asked us to take a photograph of me and her and send it, by post. No one in that family seemed to have a computer or a phone. A little girl wrote down the address, the only one in the group who could write in English. They lived in one of the houses near the other temple, that we walked to.
The temple was the most beautiful gold, situated near some tumbled down buildings. Inside it was full of brightly coloured statues and beautiful mouldings. In the centre was a floor of sand where some young men were relaxing, the temple man was fast asleep on a blanket spread on the sand.
There was a very big white church, around it a square, in glass cases scenes of Jesus’s life; nearby were two smaller churches, one pretty pastel coloured, another white, and several little churches in amongst the houses. It was the same with the temples; as well as the three big temples, there were many smaller temples, and an old closed off temple with carvings of the elephant-lion yali at the pillars, plus all kinds of shrines, religion everywhere.
‘Indian people, we believe in God,’ a man we met on the train said.
On the train there we had booked seats but we couldn’t find our carriage so just sat somewhere else. The guard told us to go and sit in our proper seats so we went off to search again. We asked a group of young Indian men who first of all fell about laughing (young people laugh at us a lot, and the girls really look at what I’m wearing and my tattoos; it’s a good way to let go of worrying about what people think) then said ‘This is India, just sit anywhere,’ When we did find our seats people were in them so we sat somewhere else again and told the guard we were happy where we were. I think he wanted us to get the seats we’d paid for which were AC, but we were happy to sit in the ones with just the windows open. Fans are available but they weren’t needed. On the way back we asked a policeman on the platform, he pointed way in the distance (Indian trains are very long) and said, ‘B1, by the green tree.’ Sure enough, that was exactly where our carriage was, right next to the green tree. It was three tier AC, which means the bunks of beds are three high (second tier ac, which we got from Delhi to Goa, had only two tiers of bunk beds, which is obviously more spacious, and the beds/seats are more comfortable).
In Kanyakumari we saw only two lots of Westerners, two women with rucksacks confidently shooing away street sellers and negotiating a rickshaw, seemingly comfortable in their clothes and looking like experienced settled-in travellers. ‘Do you think that’s what we look like?’ my husband asked. ‘Who knows what we look like,’ I said. We also saw a man and a woman with an Indian man, we heard the Indian man say to them, ‘You are in India,’ and we looked at each other and laughed. My husband recounts a story of when he was here twenty years ago, fighting his way onto a packed train, finally getting seated, hot, sweaty and stressed, and looking up saw an Indian man dressed all in white stretched calmly out on the luggage rack, who looked down and said ‘This is India,’ and my husband laughed and realised, of course, yes.
There were lots of Indian tourists and sightseers and the town is totally geared up to them, not for Western hippies, not an Om t-shirt in sight. Instead there are stalls selling cheap Indian style shirts, sarees, cotton dresses; t-shirts and jogging bottoms for kids, baby clothes, plastic tat, and cuddly toys so outrageously bright it was something else walking past them at night, rows and rows of almost fluorescent pink teddies. ‘Your name carved into a shell,’ shell mirrors and plant holders and the wildest brightly coloured shell based ornaments. Rough furry coconuts with a hole cut in with an ornamental bird so that they looked like bird’s nests. Whole stalls selling spices, beautifully packaged and arranged. Chalk rangoli patterns decorated the pavements outside most of the shops.
There was much less English spoken; at the chemist shop I had to make buzz buzz noises and flap my arms to ask for mosquito cream, which made the woman in the shop laugh.
On the street people sold sunglasses, pearl necklaces, postcards and fold out paper maps of India; at the side of the road men sold stuff from on top of motorbikes, piles of lungis stacked up on the seats.
We didn’t stand out as the only tourists, the Indian tourists were easily recognisable too with their smart Western clothes and they were targeted by the street sellers and bought sunglasses, not all the focus was on us.
We walked to the end of the street where we saw the decorative coloured mouldings of a temple and before we knew it we found ourselves in the temple entrance. We took off our shoes and went inside. A man at the entrance sold us a big beautiful flower each, its petals lush and thick, the flower wet and heavy in my palm, filling my hand.
A temple guide took hold of us, directed my husband to take off his shirt, pointing to a sign on the wall that said that men had to take off their shirts to enter. The temple walls were made of almost black stone, we found out later that the whole temple was carved from a single piece of rock. We walked around in a kind of square, our guide pointing out things as we passed, bowing to and we followed his lead, a statue of Ganesh, a statue of Hanuman, and pointed out carved writing on the walls, but all this was conducted at such speed that we barely had time to look at anything. We found ourselves at the end, handed over the flowers, my husband was given a banana leaf containing red powder and white blossoms; the man dipped his finger in the red powder and put it on my husband’s forehead, and directed my husband to do the same to me. A woman pinned a string of white blossom folded in two into my hair, using one of her own hairgrips to hold it in place. We gave the man some money then out we went to find our shoes, carrying the banana leaf of powder and blossom, blessed if slightly bamboozled.
(There were people going around the temple by themselves at their leisure, we didn’t have to have a guide and do all that, but it is easy when arriving somewhere new to get caught up and go along with things!)
In the street a man selling necklaces came up to us, we declined, he asked us where we were from and said that he had lived in the UK and gave me a necklace ‘as a gift from the heart from India to the UK.’ He asked if I had anything from the UK I could give to orphan girls he worked with. The only thing I had was a bunch of new hair bands (hair elastics for pony tails etc) that I keep in my purse. He didn’t look at all impressed and sought reassurance that these were definitely from the UK. (Of course you can buy hair bands in India but those of you who have long hair and like to tie it up will probably relate to how frustrating it can be to be without a hairband when you want one, and these were actually quite precious to me.) Anyway I handed them over. Then he started asking for money for the necklace, after having made much of wanting to exchange gifts. I explained that I didn’t want to buy anything. He paused for a moment and took it back and exchanged it for a smaller thinner one.
I walked down the road with my red forehead blessing, surrounded by the smell of the blossom in my hair and wearing my white plastic necklace. We sat for a bit on a bench looking out to sea, feeling blessed and touristy in equal measure.
After dark we walked down to the fishing boats. As I looked up I saw the temple on the island lit up beautifully, kind of like the Royal Albert Hall on an island in the sea. As soon as I saw it the main lights went out and the temple disappeared leaving only tiny white lights dotted around it, presumably to save electricity.
In the restaurants three separate groups of Indian people asked to take selfies with us, a group of men who couldn’t speak any English but who laughed at how tall my husband was compared to one of them; my husband stood on his tiptoes and then crouched down and everyone laughed, and two groups of women and girls who had come to see the temple. The non involved diners didn’t stare or take any notice, no apparent judgements on us or the selfie takers. Walking around we saw lots of hotels, both budget ones and several grand looking ones, it seems like it’s busy all year round with pilgrims, sightseers and tourists.
On the second, and last evening after dinner we went and sat on the little wall near the fishing boats at the edge of the residential area. We could see lots of twinkling golden lights on a distant spit of land. With the last of the light we could still see the prettily painted boats and the faded pine green of the dhoti factory wall and beyond the houses the bright white steeple of the big church.
Even the sign at the entrance to the residential area had Welcome written in green chalk. I am almost in a state of temporary romantic love with the place, fantasising about moving there. At night, my favourite, the most dolls house looking house was draped in multi coloured fairy lights and a lit up sparkly sign said Welcome (for a wedding we found out later).
I wrote in one of my old blogs that one day (in the UK) my husband called out to me to come into the garden, and showed me a rainbow that went right over the top of our house. He said that he’d just had the urge to go outside, and there it was. We thought it was a lovely moment, and it was. But in India it’s like there’s rainbows everywhere. You don’t have to look for them. Every scene is packed with so much colour and beauty that it’s almost overwhelming. It is like being in a permanent state of bliss or altered state where everything is bright and beautiful, except that it’s like this all the time.
There were no Westernised restaurants and it was good to experience more like the type of food options that we will have once away from the main Western touristy areas. We ate at a simple cafe restaurant, masala dosas for breakfast, plain dahl and chickpea masala, lemon rice and cashew nut masala with roti, vegetable noodles when we arrived. The masalas were both delicious, the noodles were plain but fine, the dahl was more watery than we are used to but tasted nice. Still in a tourist area but not really for Westerners. The food in two out of the three cafes we went in was served on plastic yellow plates with plastic disposable sheets on top of the plate, with disposable waxed paper cups for tea. The sambar and chutney was ladled onto the plate next to the dosa, with the man coming around to refill halfway through- I love India! In Kerala and Goa, it was served on a metal tray with wells for chutneys and sambar. Thali is often served that way too, especially in real Indian places not Westernised tourist places, with rice spooned on and rice and curry refilled as you eat, you have to be quick and say stop if you don’t want to get given too much!
In the third cafe food was served on china plates and the tea served in the metal cups and saucers that we had last seen in Panaji. Then, I didn’t know what to do; the cups are so hot that the tea takes ages to cool, and the saucers are deep like bowls. I wondered whether we were meant to tip the tea out into the saucer but I wasn’t sure so just waited patiently for it to cool.
In the interim I had read White Tiger, where the narrator from North India arrives in Bangalore and is faced with the metal cups and saucer arrangement for the first time. He looks around to see what everyone else is doing, but they are all doing it differently, they are all strangers, newcomers and no one knows what to do.
Later in the book the narrator again makes reference to drinking tea from a metal cup and saucer, only this time, he knew the proper way to do it. Except maddeningly he didn’t tell us what that was! So I looked up on the internet and my original instincts were right, yes you transfer the tea from cup to saucer and saucer to cup to cool it down. Maybe there’s an exact way to do it re quantity etc, and if I get invited anywhere posh I will ensure I find out. In Kanyakumari, I poured about half to three quarters of the tea into the saucer, which is big and deep, more like a small bowl, left it for a bit, then poured it back into the cup. The saucer has a larger surface area than the cup, and the little bit of tea left in the cup had cooled too, so the tea was drinkable much quicker than just leaving it in the metal cup.*
At the same time I also looked up the correct way to eat a masala dosa. I mean I thought I was doing it right; I wash my hands before and afterwards, I use only my right hand (I found at the beginning that keeping my left hand firmly in my lap during meals helped avoid accidentally giving into any temptation it had to help, especially when tearing bread, that can be difficult to do one handed at first) and I never use cutlery for dosas). The YouTube video was funny, especially the clip of someone trying to attack a triangular standing up folded hat like dosa with a knife and fork. (Ditch the cutlery, start at the bottom, for that particular type). Tear off small pieces at a time, which I probably did already, but am now more conscious of doing, and only use one sauce at a time. This I didn’t used to do, dipping and mixing and making a mess, now I am much more neat and tidy. Not that anyone is giving out gold stars…*
*dear readers, if I have got any of this wrong or missed anything out please do let me know!
Travel update My husband arranged the two nights in Kanyakumari as a surprise! We came back to our familiar guesthouse and restaurants feeling quite sentimental, especially when they kept the restaurant open specially for us to watch the football which started at 11.30pm, even getting us comfy chairs and cushions and generally taking care of us.
Friday of last week I did the blog, Saturday I had a day off, Sunday I had a day off, Monday and Tuesday we were away but I wrote notes about Kanyakumari. Wednesday we returned and I started typing up Kanyakumari, same Thursday and Friday (today). So today’s blog post was a draft of Kanyakumari, I didn’t have the time or inclination to write a separate blog post or to work on the ‘Kerala’ chapter this week. Next week, back to ‘Kerala,’ hopefully with a renewed energy after having had a break, and with a draft of Kanyakumari completed. ‘Trust the process.’
For pics see Instagram followingthebrownrabbit
Thank you very much for reading
See you next week