Of Buses and Beaches

20th January

After breakfasting on a sambal-like sauce, idlis and baked bananas, we make for the bus stop in Kumbalangi to scope out a vegan yoga café where Rebecca’s interested in classes. A crowded bus whizzes past in the opposite direction and she jokes “I hope ours isn’t that full”.

In the event, it’s fuller. Full enough for there to be no obvious route on board (Northern Line commuters will know what I’m talking about) and, to add to the confusion, it’s clear from outside that the front of the bus is for women only. Casting a fearful glance back to Rebecca, I scramble towards the back and leap to a tenuous toehold on the steps to the rear door, landing just as the bus lurches off towards the next stop.

Confronting a wall of crotches, I squirm my way onto the main platform of the bus and fish for a hundred rupee note. I gesture across the half-inch of space between my face and the ticket inspector’s that I’m paying for two to Fort Kochin. He chatters earnestly at me in Malayalam, as if something is horribly wrong, but nonetheless gives me 70 rupees and two purple tickets back in exchange for the hundred.

Thanking him, I then headbutt the man to my left as the bus hits a pothole, elbow the elderly gentleman to my right in the face while apologising to the buttee, then crush the toes of the guy behind while trying to open up space between my two victims. A few stops on a seat frees up which everyone in my immediate vicinity encourages me to take.

From my new perch I can see Rebecca up ahead, reclining nonchalantly against the side of the bus. Catching my eye, she shoots me an unintentionally patronising wave.

I’m about half as broad again as most Indians, and the poor sod next to me that I’ve mashed against the wall turns out to be a toothy old-timer named Francis. Establishing by signs one another’s names and the fact I’m going to Fort Kochin, he sets off in the same frenetic, slightly worried Malayalam as the ticket inspector.

I smile, nod and emit the occasional “ah” of mock comprehension for twenty minutes, then finally get the message. The bus stops at a busy junction and half the passengers, including Francis, disembark. I ask “Fort Kochin?” to the inspector and he points to the other side of the road. I yell to Rebecca and we make it off just before the bus resumes its journey to distant Ernakulam.

Francis wanders off at this point, leaving us in the company of his dhoti-ed, moustachioed pal Andrei who is also heading to Fort Kochin. We follow him serenely onto the next bus and head to our destination.

I fail to fall in love with Loving Earth Yoga Café. Unlike Kashi none of the other customers are Indian, and all are styled in clichéd levels of hemp and dreadlock. Its biggest selling point for me is the fact it does vegan food, but so does Kashi. So do most places in India. Rebecca seems to like it more though and asks about classes, which happen once daily at 6.30am. She does not book herself in.

We catch the bus home soon after lunch to be back in time to speak to Rebecca’s brother on his birthday. Sitting in the first available seats, I notice that across the aisle from us is our smiley friend Francis. He natters to us eagerly the whole way back through Kumbalangi and I still don’t understand a word.

I spend the evening on the veranda hunched over a Malayalam phrasebook.

21st January

I was scheduled to learn to make the pineapple curry at 2pm today. As it happened the staff were busy preparing for a large party of visiting diners, so instead I read Around India in 80 Trains in the leafy garden, wondering if I should include more detailed, descriptive vignettes in my own journal.

At 4pm, by which time I’ve sussed out the cookery class isn’t happening, the auto Rockey booked for us arrives. Upright, of neatly trimmed moustache and crisp khaki uniform, the driver oozes professionalism. A conspicuously superior driver to those of other autos we’ve taken so far, he’s at least as cavalier about the gaps he’ll aim for but seems to have a far better knack for predicting when they will open and close. Speed bumps and potholes aside he maintains a steady and bracingly high speed, eschewing the more traditional rapid swings between extremes of velocity.

After winding through Kumbalangi’s backwaters he drops us at an achingly gorgeous half-crescent of white sand, populated by an assortment of wooden canoe-like boats manned by small teams of fishermen in shorts and T-shirts. The ages of these crews span from teenagers through to one wizened old specimen whose beard disappears into a tangle of white netting that billows around him like spilled candy floss. The Arabian Sea laps playfully at the shore, glazed by the afternoon sun.

Flip-flops discarded and trouser legs rolled we amble across the wet sand, paddle in the warm-milk shallows and snap the palm trees and makeshift football pitch that frame the beach. Sitting at the crescent’s apex, we notice a group of girls in bright crimson saris and dark blue sashes congregating around a man in a minty-white shirt and blue waistcoat and a woman in a sparkling golden sari. One of the girls runs towards us and introduces herself to Rebecca, who finds out her name is Leena.

The smartly-dressed couple are now striding across the sand towards us, flanked by the girls and snapped eagerly by a photographer with a long-lensed camera. Realising we’re in their path, we decide it’s time to relieve our waiting driver and gather our things.

Pointing at the party we ask him if it’s a wedding. He doesn’t understand, so whips out a smartphone, loads Google translate and hits the mic icon next to “English”. “Wedding”, says I, and the Malayalam box fills with curly script and the English box with the word “waiting”. Driver raises an offended eyebrow as we shake heads and I re-address the phone. “WED-DING” I enunciate, years of Yvonne Arnaud Youth Theatre training flooding back to me. “Waiting”, flashes the screen.

I change tack and try the word “marriage”, which scores a hit and the driver waggles his head energetically in comprehension. He speaks into the phone in Malayalam and the English box fills with the words “Yes, the children are in the cause of marriage”. Which, I suppose, is kind of true.

We pull out past a parked car whose rear windscreen is plastered with a picture of the beaming couple, surrounded by the words “JEENA AND SITHU’S WEDDING”, which could have saved us a lot of time and effort.

Having by now twigged that we’re into wildlife, our driver interrupts his normally fluid style to point out various birds on the way back, including pelicans, ibis and a kingfisher. When I can’t spot the latter, he stoops for a rock which would have been hurled towards it had the bird not taken off at that exact moment. Without wanting to get too into it, there has so far been evidence of some fairly questionable attitudes towards animal welfare. En route home, the driver stops outside a temple to point out an elephant in the courtyard inside, each ankle manacled in heavy chains, and asks if we want to take a photo. We decline.

The evening passes as have those previous, watching a spontaneous aerial display of dancing bats. Though we still have some time left in the state, I get the feeling I will one day miss Kerala and her spectacular rust-coloured sunsets.

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