Bright Lights, Big Statue

21st February

“Hey, hey! Entrance is that way.”

The man gestures around the metal fence I’m schlepping past in the already sweltering 11am sunshine. After a three hour pressure cooker of a bus from Mysore I’ve somehow managed to get off a stop early, setting myself a hot walk from half a mile or so outside Shravanabelagola along baked, uncaring roadside. I’m grateful to the friendly stranger for setting me on the right track again, even if it means an unwanted retracing of steps. I thank him.

“No problem. Do you want to buy some socks?”

“Pardon?”

He waves a bundle of woollen socks at me as he walks alongside. They look cheap, stiff, scratchy and hot.

“Socks! No shoes allowed on the steps. You want some socks? Only fifty rupees”.

I roll up my jeans and point out that I’m already wearing socks.

“Very dirty on the steps sir. Want to buy some socks?”

I tell him I’ll go barefoot.

“Oh no, sir, very hot on the steps. Want to buy socks? Fifty rupees.”

“No, thank you. I’m sure I’ll manage.”

“OK, no problem sir. Want to buy postcard?” A stack is procured from somewhere about his person; the socks mysteriously vanish.

“No thank you.”

“Nice postcard. Friends, family. You want to buy now?”

“Maybe later.”

“OK sir, later, no problem.” We continue a few more steps.

“Postcard?”

“No!”

“Socks?”

I shoot him my most vicious glare. It’s a look that comes naturally to me with my resting bitch face, but over the years I’ve embellished it, honing the art of emptying all the warmth and goodwill from my eyes and fixing them on an imaginary point roughly in the middle of my target’s brain, making me seem completely cold and calculating. Like a shark. He gets the picture and scampers off.

I continue on a few paces.

“Want to see my shop?”

I look up. A new man, older than the first, wrapped in a pale blue garment, has fallen into step on my other side.

“No thanks.”

“Nice shop. Tibetan shop.” I allow myself a chuckle here. Tibet is over 2,500km away. Right now much of it is covered in snow, and I’m suffering mid-morning heat stroke. It’s not unlike being invited to a Nordic shop in the Algarve. Also, minor point but we’re standing in the shadow of a Jain monument, and Jainism has approximately zero Tibetan adherents.

“No thanks.” I repeat.

“Later?”

I roll my eyes, wary and weary. “Maybe.”

“OK. Take my card. This is my shop.”

He hands me a flimsy business card and points to a stall by the side of the road stocked with the usual tourist tat: miniature Buddhas, Om T-shirts, cheap throws printed with tacky mandalas. I thank him and press on to a shaded area at the base of the steps. The first hawker reappears and points out, quite redundantly since it’s the only building there and very well-signposted, the stand where I need to deposit my shoes. I thank him and he offers to sell me some socks.

The plan had been to rest here for a few minutes, catch my breath and do some last-minute reading up on the monument before starting the 600 step ascent, but a third hawker is lurking with intent and an ominous sackful of tat he looks eager to talk me through, so after dropping my trainers, stuffing my socks into my bag and taking a few glugs of water I start the climb.
It’s hot and shadeless, but contrary to Hawker #1’s assertions the sun is yet to really heat up the hard granite steps and they aren’t too dirty. A short way in, a cheery though tired-looking man in his fifties passes, followed a dozen or so steps behind by his breathless wife. We have a brief chat; they are Mumbaikars.

“Your wife isn’t with you?”

“Girlfriend,” (they seem urbanite enough for the correction to be worthwhile) “and no, she’s back in Mysore doing yoga. She likes yoga much more than hot weather and old monuments.” I wipe a bead of sweat from my reddening widow’s peak and glance at the foreboding slope ahead. “She’s much smarter than me!”

This gets a guffaw, all three of us questioning our own decision-making that’s led us here, and we part ways cheerfully. The ascent is steep, hot and sweaty but after a few minutes I heave myself over the summit of Vindyagiri hill.

Nothing in India comes for free. There is always a fee to pay, a perilous or tiring road to traverse, an obstacle course of belligerent hawkers and beggars to negotiate to get to every landmark. The result is always just about worth it. Not, mind, in the sense in which you’d happily do it all again, but in the sense that you are, on balance, glad you made the effort. The Gommateshwara statue is no exception.

What we now know and think of as India never existed as a single nation prior to independence from British rule in 1947. The subcontinent was a patchwork of kingdoms fought over by various native and foreign rulers for nearly three thousand years, each of whom tried to annex as much of the vast landmass as possible. The closest ancient “India” came to unification was under the Maurya empire, which included all of modern-day Pakistan, Bangladesh and parts of Iran and Afghanistan, as well as the whole of modern-day India itself apart from the two southernmost states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. As such, it is still the largest political landmass the subcontinent has ever seen.

The Maurya dynasty’s founder, Chandragupta (c. 340-297 BCE), was an internationally renowned character, referenced in several Ancient Greek sources. Like his grandson Ashoka (immortalised in the Bollywood movie I watched on my flight from London), Chandragupta was a successful warrior as a young man before finding religion as he aged. Whereas Ashoka followed the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, now more commonly known as the Buddha, his ancestor turned to the teachings of Jainism. In accordance with the religion’s customs, Chandragupta renounced all his worldly possessions before embracing death peacefully through extreme fasting on Chandragiri hill, across the valley from Vindyagiri hill on which I now stand.

The area has been scared to Jains ever since, and around 983AD the Ganga dynasty minister Chavundaraya commissioned the construction of a 57-foot statue on Vindyagiri in honour of Bahubali, an important character in Jain mythology. Known also as the Colossus of India, the Gommateshwara statue is one of the largest free-standing sculptures in the world, and in 2007 was overwhelmingly voted one of the seven wonders of India.

Given all this, as well as the fact it’s one of Jainism’s most important pilgrimage destinations, it’s surprisingly quiet. A gaggle of late teenage boys take selfies near the top, a Frenchman wonders around with a fearsome camera, and a family sit and take on water at the main entrance. Besides that the only souls around are me, two workers monitoring admission to the statue area, a few circling buzzards and the ubiquitous stray dogs napping in the shade.

The statue is striking: strikingly tall, strikingly impressive, strikingly naked. Proudly tackle-out, Bahubali stands unmoved as he has for over a thousand years, leafy stone creepers winding round his arms and legs in reference to the legendary figure meditating long enough for plants to start growing up his limbs. The figure is so tall that the head is visible from miles away; this is part of the reason I got off the bus too early. Around the statue is a temple adorned with evocative carvings, ancient text and menacing demons.

After exploring round for half an hour or so I decide I’m too hot, too tired of walking and of hawkers and too unfussed to complete my planned day-long trip to the “nearby” sites of Halebidu and Belur, an 80km bus ride from Shravanabelagola, so I skip back down the 600 steps, giving a fist-pump of encouragement to some weary-looking teenagers on their way up, grab a dosa and hop on a bus back to Mysore.

Like skipping class back at Sharanagati, this feels like a good, responsible decision. There is, simply, too much to see in India and far too much ground to cover. The impulse, at first, is to try to see it all while shooting rapidly from place to place, but with the heat, noise, pollution and all the other ballaches the enormous country throws at you this invariably leads to seeing everything and enjoying nothing. You learn, after a while, to pick your battles, see what you really want to see, savour it and call it a day.

24th February

The crowd heaves as we approach the outer wall, clustered in anticipation against the gatehouse. There are plenty of guards around but, despite the dense crush of people, the security scanners that process every bag entering the palace compound in daytime sit idle, unused, switched off. The jostling is intense but good-natured. Everyone is in a happy mood.

We accidentally time our arrival to perfection; just as we join the crowd the gates open and the waiting torrent of people spills through the sluice to flood the gardens of Mysore palace. This, as on every Sunday evening, is lit up dazzlingly. Thousands of bright bulbs that look from a distance like fairy lights adorn every edge of the palace and its surrounding walls and gopuras, creating a beautiful, bright spectacle against the dark of the evening sky. Like an enormous Times Square, except tasteful.

Rebecca confesses that she finds it hard to believe India can pull this kind of grandeur off alongside all the usual chaos; the bewildering bureaucracy and easy-going Indian Standard Time. I mull on this as well as the contrast between the splendour of the palace and the squalid reality of daily life for millions of Indians, the inequality with which the country distributes its wealth. We get so used to thinking of India as a poor country, it’s easy to forget that it’s also a fabulously rich one. Not that the palace’s original owners, the Wadiyar dynasty, would appreciate it bring portrayed as a symbol of private wealth. The descendants of the ruling family of the Kingdom of Mysore lost ownership of their official residence to the state of Karnataka with the 1996 Mysore Palace Acquisition Act, and have since been embroiled in a legal battle appealing against the decision.

It’s our final night in Mysore. Our stay has been pleasant and easy-going. Desperate calling-in of favours has yielded fruit; Madhu, a former colleague of Rebecca’s brother George who worked for Tesco’s IT team in Bangalore, has secured us tickets for the T20 between India and Australia next week, so after taking a few scenic pictures at the palace we return to the hostel and watch the first match of the series in real-time.

During the ad breaks, a recurring clip commemorates the victims of the 14th February attack in Kashmir. Rhetoric between India and Pakistan has been ramping up in the ten days since. On the one hand, Kashmir and Pakistan are, and feel, a very long way away – almost as far as Tibet. On the other, we’re planning to visit the border at Amritsar as well as parts of Jammu and Kashmir later in the trip, so besides the usual humanitarian impulse against the outbreak of conflict anywhere there is a particularly selfish concern with which we monitor developments.

Out of the Wild

18th February

The jeep stops with a jerk amid a flurry of excited whispers. Fingers point and hands scramble for cameras. I follow the gestures and there it is.

Stretched languorously across the undergrowth, the shade of the leaves above dappling its coat and hiding it from casual glances, lies a leopard. It is barely twenty feet away. Calm, majestic, serene, it acknowledges our presence with nothing more than a blink and a turn of its head. It is stunningly, perfectly beautiful.

After a few minutes one of the spotters, having identified this as a male, clocks a female hidden deeper in the trees behind him. As if realising her cover is blown she slopes off into the forest, and after posing for eager cameras a while longer the male rises, nonchalantly, to plod after her into the darkness.

We’d risen at 5am for the ride to Nagarhole Wildlife Reserve and Tiger Sanctuary, and I unwittingly dressed too lightly for the cold of early morning altitude. Besides a small huddle of vultures, a handful of gaur and a wild boar that bolted away from the approaching jeep, we’d seen nothing but spotted deer for almost two hours. All the while the Englishman in the back seat prattles endlessly about how he saw three tigers, a load of elephants and a black bear in this same area the day before. Cold, tired and frustrated, I’m weighing up whether to point out that his bragging is scaring them off today or just garotte him with my shoelace when the leopard hoves into view and saves his bacon.

Big cat fix achieved we then spot peacocks, black faced langurs, sambal and a pair of wild dogs chasing a herd of deer. It’s very nice but all the while I crave an elephant. Despite numerous occasions where a forest guide has known there’s one nearby we’re still yet to see one in the wild. Temple elephants – manacled and consigned to a monotonous life dabbing the foreheads of tourists and worshippers – are two-a-rupee, but a pretty depressing spectacle. I need the good shit: the real, wild deal. I’m increasingly awed by their ability to disappear silently into the forest, their only trace a trail of flattened plants and sporadic coconut-balls of fibrous, drying dung.

We don’t spot any but this doesn’t dampen my spirits as we disembark the jeep; the standard disclaimer is not to expect to see any animals at all, so I feel lucky to have got such a brilliant look at a leopard, so clear and close by. What does bring me down a notch is our driver Sanji solemnly announcing that we won’t be able to catch the bus to Mysore today as planned.

“Why not?”

“Strike,” he replies. “All of Kerala. Political violence last night. Two people got killed.”

This is the first we’ve heard about last night’s murders in Kasargod and initially we’re sceptical. You get cynical after a while in India, so used to brushing off auto-drivers’ assertions that you can’t possibly walk somewhere that a phrase like “two people got killed” can fall completely flat. In one ear, out the other, acknowledged as nothing more than a pitch for the lucrative job of driving us to Mysore. It’s not on my mind at all as Sanji spots an elephant and her calf grazing on trees in a field by the road, and pulls over for us to take a look. We gasp in wonder, take pictures, chalk the morning down as an all-round success.

Sure enough, back at the homestay Eloc, who had planned to leave in the morning while we’re on safari, is stuck. No drivers will take her to the buses (which won’t be running anyway), scared the strikers will throw stones at anyone caught breaking the state-wide hartal the Congress Party has called. With a gulp I realise not only was Sanji telling the truth; it was bloody brave of him to stop for us to see those elephants.

*

“If anyone asks where we’re going, we say Bangalore airport, OK?”

Sanji drives Eloc, Rebecca and myself along the backroads to the Karnataka border in the hope of avoiding the strikers’ pickets, but his contingency planning is still necessary. An unmissable flight is evidently one of the only viable excuses for a driver to ignore the strike.

Beena helped us agree a price for Sanji to take the three of us to Mysore (now Mysuru, though it’s common to see and hear both written and spoken) and while it’s a lot compared to the bus, being able to split it with Eloc cushions the blow. We feel very grateful to Sanji for taking us at all; it’s a six hour round trip for him and there is clearly risk to his car (which itself is his livelihood) involved if we’re spotted. Fortunately we don’t run into any pickets, and once we’re past the border with Karnataka it’s a pleasant journey compared to the inevitable discomfort of a bus.

The abrupt change when crossing a state border in India is amazing. Acquaintances have confirmed that neighbouring villages either side of state boundaries will speak different languages. The sudden shift from lush, Keralan green to bright, dry Karnatakan yellow is dramatic, and happens in both the landscape and the dwellings. The building styles go from neat, colourful villas to low-slung bare-brick shanties, gaps in crumbling walls and corrugated iron rooves plugged with blue tarpaulin. Even the cows tethered outside are a different breed as soon as you cross the border.

The same rural scenes play on for hours, deep into Mysuru district, seemingly an unlikely backdrop from which a busy, modern metropolis will soon emerge. But India towns don’t “emerge” from the countryside the way British towns do: they merge. One blends imperceptibly into the other as the gap between houses and villages gets smaller and smaller. This, I reflect as we’re handed over from Sanji to an auto-driver on Mysore’s outskirts that chugs along the winding streets to our hostel, is partly because Indian towns aren’t qualitatively different from Indian villages. They are massive, condensed versions of the same way of life. We pass the same style of house we passed in the district, with the same breed of cattle tethered outside or wandering in and out of the traffic. Just orders of magnitude more homes, piled closer and closer together.

After checking in at The Mansion 1907 – a former stately home turned quirky backpacker hostel – we head to Gokulam, which in fairness feels very different to rural Karnataka. With its sleepy residential lanes beside comfy open verandas, as Rebecca points out there’s a lot of Brooklyn about the neighbourhood. It’s the spiritual home of the ashtanga school of yoga and Rebecca is keen to scope out a few venues she’s read up on.

We go into a yoga shop. I spend twenty minutes following Rebecca around its three small rooms, trying to mask my incredulity every time I absent-mindedly check a price tag. Yoga is growing on me fast but it’s laughable to think that the bulk of the movement is anything other than relentlessly commercial. The prices in here would make eyes water in Spitalfields market. Rebecca buys herself an “eye pillow” – basically a bean bag, except orders of magnitude more expensive.

19th February

The Mansion offers free rooftop yoga classes so we get involved in the morning. This being Mysore it’s ashtanga, first time I’ve tried it. I don’t take to it. It’s a lot more physically demanding than I’m used to; me and the adjacent kiwi bloke are sweating buckets and struggling to support our own weight after barely ten minutes. There’s also very little of the meditative, slow-paced aspects of yoga that I like.

From what little I know about ashtanga – and I am very definitely not the expert – its appeal seems to be a bit more superficial than hatha or yin. More about how it makes you look than how it makes you feel. Beloved of celebrities like Sting and Robert Downey Jr. there’s a culty, competitive undertone to it involving progressing through different levels, a bit like Scientology. All of this feels at odds with the response I get when I tell most yogis that I’m not very good at yoga, i.e. ‘That’s not what yoga’s about’. At the risk of having misunderstood, it feels as though that’s exactly what ashtanga is about.

Also, as we later discover through Rebecca’s further reading, the movement’s late founder K. Patthabi Jois is reported to have repeatedly sexually harassed his female students. During classes. In some instances, via digital-vaginal insertion. I’d like to say that’s a separate issue from the discipline of ashtanga itself, but I can’t help but question the authenticity of a sequence of postures and exercises whose designer exploited them to molest his students. The aura the ashtanga community bestowed on its guru made it harder than it should have been for his victims to speak out, and by and large he continues to be revered in yogic circles. It all adds up to make the entire thing feel shady and unpleasant.

The hostel comes furnished with a communal kitchen, albeit one that belongs on Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. We do a quick shop at the supermarket nearby then, having been desperate to cook since arriving in India over a month ago, get to work. I set about chopping vegetables with a knife about as clean and sharp as a freshly unearthed potato and scrub a layer of indeterminate gunk off the frying pan with a grey paste by the sink, which I assume is washing up liquid. Rebecca decides she doesn’t want any of the sauce I’m making in the pan and will settle for plain pasta, but even this modest aim dies a death when it turns out the penne I thought I’d picked out are actually mini, “ready-to-fry” pappadum tubes. Undeterred, I chuck them into the pan of boiling water to see what happens. They basically denature into chewy gelatinous mulch, and at the point at which I ditch them have the same texture I reckon Haribo acquires about half way through its manufacture.

Luckily, Rebecca also bought bread and peanut butter.

20th February

While Rebecca yogas in the afternoon I take myself for a potter around Mysore Palace, probably the city’s most famous landmark. Its architecture and grounds are stunning from the outside, and the interior is a charming journey through the stately halls and artistic collections of the Wadiyar dynasty Maharajahs. It’s arrestingly Anglophile; in amongst a collection of paintings of the royal family’s turbaned children are portraits of them with King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, and a many-arched atrium is walled with murals with captions like “Royal Elephant and Brigadier Guards”.

Ambling through the rooms open to the public takes about half an hour, after which I stroll through the gardens. It’s very hot at this point so “strolling” in fact consists of short, infrequent bursts between scarce patches of shade. Most other visitors turn left at a particular fork that leads them towards the leafy plaza, but with nothing obviously preventing me I decide to go right and take a look at the less public-facing side of the palace.

It feels a little like lifting the hood of a glimmering sports car to find a greasy, untidy engine underneath. The walls on this side are greying with mould in stark contrast to their gleaming counterparts, and many of them have been painted over with ice cream adverts – who these are aimed at I have no idea, since this area has the definite feel of not receiving many visitors. The staff who sit and natter on steps or tend the bored-looking palace camels cast me surprised but unsuspicious looks.

I start towards the elephant stables, then overhear a tourist, emerging from a side gate, tell her friends that the way they’re swinging their trunks indicates they’re depressed. So I decide against it and start back towards the fork to the main gardens. Completely alone now, I spot a twenty rupee note on the floor ahead and without thinking stoop to pick it up. I feel instantly ashamed and embarrassed. In a country where nearly a quarter of the population live below the poverty line I’ve just grabbed the equivalent of pocket change, about 22p in British money. I resolve to give it to the next genuinely needy person I see.

Mysore Zoo seems to have a decent rep and in principle I’m OK with responsible, well-run zoos, imperfect but necessary tools in the effort of conserving endangered species, so I ask an auto driver outside the palace to take me. I know it’s nearby, I just can’t get Google maps to work so I don’t know the way. Plus Mysuru is a very difficult city to navigate on foot, pitted with huge, chaotic roundabouts devoid of any control systems like traffic lights or even lane markings.

The driver doesn’t seem to know the word “zoo” (which I find a bit odd) and waves a friend over to help translate. The friend’s left arm ends in a stump at his shoulder. He speaks a bit of English so after he helps me agree a price with the driver I give him the twenty rupees, which I think is a pretty generous tip on a fifty rupee fare (suggested baksheesh is normally five – ten rupees), but he looks unimpressed and tries to sell me a necklace before we set off.

Mysore Zoo is one of India’s oldest, having been running since the late nineteenth century, and for the most part it’s about as good as a zoo can be. The enclosures are on the larger end of the scale, containing shelters and plenty of other ways of affording the animals privacy, and there’s consistent information on the conservation status of the animals. Most species are native to India, which I like. Particularly striking is a colony of large bats that roost in the trees in the “Bat” area without anything obviously preventing them flying off somewhere else. Stranger still, they’re flying around even in the early afternoon. I assume there may be something keeping them there and active in the daytime that might not qualify as exemplary bat welfare, but give the zoo the benefit of the doubt for now.

The chimpanzee enclosures are a different story. As far as I can tell they contain solitary individuals. Chimps are our closest living relatives, and are themselves closer to humans than they are to gorillas. They are intensely sociable and the effect of solitary confinement on chimpanzee psychology has been shown to be as damaging as it is to humans.

Beyond this, there’s something unavoidably dissatisfying about the zoo. I love animals and until recently zoos have effectively been my only way of seeing the more exotic species up close. But having spent so much of the last month or so in wildlife reserves big and thick enough to conceal whole herds of elephants it dawns on me that no matter how ethical the zoo, no matter the resources and space set aside to make the animals as comfortable as possible, they are painfully inadequate compared to the vast stretches through which their wild cousins roam. Zoos are also boring compared to seeing animals in the wild. There are signposts to the next enclosure telling you what you’re about to see before you see it. There is none of the suspense or uncertainty that even an hour or two’s gentle birdwatching affords.

I head back to the hostel and take a few pictures of its decorative graffiti and the iconic Hindustan Ambassador parked in the entrance, both symbolically reaffirming that we’ve left the countryside and are now firmly in the city.

The Good, The Bad and Mowgli

14th February

I need my wits about me today. If I’m not careful it has the makings of the least romantic Valentine’s day since I forgot to make a plan and ended up in a cold, frosty corner of Zizzi’s with a very hungry and VERY unimpressed girlfriend.

The agenda consists of checking out of our quiet, comfy hotel with its wonderful rooftop yoga platform in the small paradise that is Varkala in time for an eight hour train to Khozikode (AKA Calicut), which I expect to be a drab, uneventful stop-off en route to Wayanad. I’m trusting in a morning trip to the beach and trainside views of India’s South West coast to add the requisite sparkle.

*

“Stand 18, and it’s in at 10.14, out at 10.15, no mucking about!”

The perky bald Englishman and his wife are, by the sounds of my eavesdropping, in the same carriage on the same train as us. Rebecca is off looking for her own confirmation but after a brief conflab I confirm that yes, the couple are in B-2 and, yes, it arrives at stand 18 further down the platform – the ticket man said so.

“And remember,” he adds leaning towards me conspiratorially, “it’s in at 10.14, out at 10.15, no mucking about!”

As it turns out, the pair have seats 1 and 4 to our 2 and 3 (if you’re wondering why that’s how the seat allocations, or indeed anything else to do with the bureaucracy of the Indian railways work, don’t. Really, don’t. Just… enjoy your life instead). They’re originally from London and now based near Ipswich. Cathy is a freelance garden designer who also writes, non-professionally, on the side, and she offers lots of advice on getting my own work proofread.

Jim smiles broadly as he tells us he’s past retirement age and is now “coasting” for an industrial refridgeration company. “I’m in four days a week!” he beams, with the enviable but entirely wholesome, unhateable contentment of someone who has worked their way to easy street.

I call him Jim, but unlike Cathy we never find out his name. I settle on Jim because it suits him: he looks like a Jim, shiny-headed and happy-eyed. Goes well with Cathy, too: Cathy and Jim, Jim and Cathy.

I think about ordering train food, then spot a cockroach loitering under a nearby berth. My flip-flops stick to the toilet floor through the suction of the fluid that covers it. Lovely blissful Europhile Varkala has spoiled me. I’m very much Back In India. Thankfully, Rebecca downloaded all the Harry Potters on Kindle Unlimited the other day and is face down in Prisoner of Azkhaban, dead to the outside world and the decidedly unromantic Valentine’s day surroundings it’s served up for her.

It’s late and I’m hungry by the time we arrive in Khozikode, but there’s good vibes nonetheless. The auto driver charges 30Rs to take us to our hotel rather than the standard tourist-newly-arrived-at-station, 100-no-matter-how-short-the-distance rip-off we’d encountered elsewhere. As in Trichy we’ve unwittingly booked into a fairly nice, comfy hotel – the Medora. It looks a bit seedy from the outside with its neon purple sign, but inside it’s clean, comfy, well-equipped (our room has its own kettle – the luxury!) and there’s a decent restaurant and coffee bar. Best of all, the lobby and restaurant are playing smooth jazz covers of Christmas carols. There’s a certain charm about a saxophone blaring out Let It Snow on a 33C February evening.

15th February

I’m unexpectedly sorry to leave Khozikode after just one night. It seems an interesting and good-natured town, bright and bustling in the morning sunlight. The centre of Kerala’s links with the Gulf states, it’s visibly well-off: every third shop is selling gold jewellery and there’s a good sprinkling of Samsung dealerships. I daydream, on my way to a cash point next to a KFC near the bus station, about an anthropological study of India’s growing middle class and global diaspora based in the town.

We board the already full bus to Mananthavady and have to split up to find seats. I squish in next to a podgy middle-aged man, forcing him to shuffle up closer to his podgier-still mother. They don’t look at all happy at the prospect of sharing the narrow seat with a broad-shouldered gora for the next three hours. After a few stops the guy in the seat next to that reserved for the ticket inspector disembarks and I nab it. This has the extra advantage of sheltering me from the usual predictable tirade of questions about my career and marital status that accompany Indian bus journeys, as the inspector is up and down too frequently to strike up conversation.

Rebecca fares very differently. Seating herself further forward she is quickly pounced upon by a friendly, fast-talking sixteen-year-old named Kesia. Originally from Kerala, Kesia’s family now live in Kuwait where she is at school and hopes to become a doctor. She is back in India visiting her aunt and uncle, who watch on as their niece peppers Rebecca with a barrage of questions.

“How old are you? Do you have a husband? How old is your boyfriend? What is your profession? What is your religion? Do you believe in evolution? Is that your natural hair colour?”

These essential facts established, she proceeds to a round of Name That Pop Song.

“Do you know this song? ‘Cause if you like the way you look that much, baby you should go and love yourself.‘”

“Yes, that’s Justin Bieber.”

“Yes! Do you know this song? ‘Never mind I’ll find someone like you?'”

“Yes, that’s Adele.”

“Yes! Do you know this song..?”

This continues for two hours until Kesia’s battery flattens and she falls asleep on Rebecca’s shoulder for the final hour of the journey.

Blissfully unaware of all this, I gaze out of the window at dramatically undulating landscape as we climb once again back into the Western Ghats, in the northern, forested district of Wayanad. The terrain is a lush blend of spice and tea rather than monoculture but besides that it’s reminiscent of the approach to Munnar: endless teak furniture shops; Greenmart stores and Dreamview hotels; adverts for “Fresh Up” rooms that charge by the hour and mattress companies boasting “Keeping you cool, even if your partner is hot”.

We pass a succession of gaudy churches, fronted by huge statues of Jesus. Beside them mosques broadcast their sermons through loudspeakers and, like the surrounding jungle, the milieux feels harmonious despite this morning’s news of a terrorist attack in Kashmir yesterday that claimed the lives of at least 37 Indian military personnel, effectively throwing an oil can at the embers of Indo-Pakistani tensions.

16th February

It’s my birthday, and that means a giant breakfast and going to see Some Old Stuff. And I mean Really Old Stuff: specifically the Eddakal Caves and their carved images, dating from 3,000-6,000 years ago.

There’s a bit of a walk to get there: our driver Sanji drops us at a kind of base camp from which there’s an ascent of over a thousand steps to reach the cave. The climb provides stunning views of Wayanad, nestled cosily in the vast basin between seven mountain peaks, as well as of troupes of macaques terrorising tourists into surrendering half-eaten choc ices.

The cave itself is an entrancing place formed by the wedging of an enormous boulder between two walls of a fissure. The space created is cool and ethereal, if inevitably too overrun with crowds of chattering visitors to be genuinely evocative. It’s hard to know what the carvings represent without reference to the guide book, so stylised are they, but I get a huge thrill just from being somewhere that was clearly so significant for people over such a long period of time, so long ago. The oldest images, of unknown and unknowable meaning, pre-date any of India’s major religions or civilisations, but fascinatingly there is Sanskrit text among the later inscriptions. If you knew what to look for you could stand here and watch the root forms that still underpin all of Indian culture seep down to this prehistoric people from the Himalayan foothills nearly three thousand kilometres away.

We ask Sanji his recommendation for an understated birthday lunch and he stops at a hotel in Sultan Bathery on our way back to the Varnam homestay. He joins us, boisterously imploring the waiters to scoop continual ladlefuls of curry onto our thalis despite our protests, then takes pictures of Rebecca and I drinking Thumbs Up.

Varnam Homestay is a beautiful, secluded spot in the grounds of a 15 hectare organic farm owned and managed by the quick-witted Beena and her husband Varghese. In the afternoon Beena treats me, Rebecca and Eloc, the friendly Turin-based Bavarian lady also staying at the homestay, to a tour of the farm. Until now we haven’t realised that the garden we’ve been casually relaxing in is home to over 37 types of fruits and vegetables (from avocados and cabbages to pineapples, jackfruit, ten species of banana and a flurry that I never knew existed, like rose apples, cashew fruit and the delicious chikoo); 28 herbs and spices with a variety of culinary, medicinal and commercial applications including henna, arrowroot, white and yellow turmeric, blue basil and lemongrass; and crop trees like cacao, coffee, rubber and sandalwood. They keep five cows, whose slurry is converted to biogas that fuels the kitchen, as well as over eighty chickens and, as of this morning, about two dozen ducklings. There are three swimming pool-sized fish ponds containing natter, varal and tilapia, and a large stretch of rice paddies which, thanks to the drying climate, now produce one less harvest annually than they used to.

The farm is entirely organic and produces enough to feed Beena’s family, six workers and the homestay’s guests. I suddenly understand why the food they’ve been serving is so delicious.

17th February

The living room / entrance is perhaps four metres square, walled with grey plaster and adorned with images of Jesus and calendars of photos of three year-old Alna and her brother Rikesh. Alna peers at the strangers from beneath her short, sassy haircut, cradled in her mother Dhanya’s arms while her father, Bibin, tells the guests about his farm. At the mention of every spice Bebi, Bibin’s scrawny, smiling father, hops up to indicate peppercorns drying on a tarp outside, to haul in a 40kg sack of coffee beans or an armful of fragrant, drying vanilla pods while his wife Varya, Alna’s grandmother, beams quietly in the corner and brings the visitors chai and bananas.

Smaller than Beena’s but with a greater focus on high-value spices, the farm is likewise completely organic and its produce is exported as far as South Africa, Europe and Australia. The vanilla pods – labour-intensive to grow and taking years to dry to perfection – fetch up to 10,000 rupees per kilo.

Eloc bumped into Bibin this morning after getting lost on her walk down to the Kabini river and he promised to show her its better, less touristy side this afternoon. With Rebecca declining in favour of practising yoga back at the homestay, I accompany Eloc for a walk by the river which, after accepting gifts of a cashew nut and a vanilla pod from Bebi, we stroll down to with Bibin, Dhanya and Anla.

The scene is picturesque; a broad, stately river divides itself around sandy islets, forking at the mangrove trees that fringe Kuruna Island. Set back from the bank is a “tribal” village, from which women have made for the river’s edge to beat laundry against the rocks. This surprises me as Bibin tells us the bank is often home to twelve-foot-long crocodiles. If we’re lucky, we’ll see them.

“From a safe distance, right?”

He laughs and points to Anla toddling near the bank about ten yards ahead. “I’m happy to bring my daughter here. You’ll be fine”.

We see no crocodiles, but plenty of evidence of the devastation wreaked on the bank and the tribal village by the flooding last August. The entire village had to be evacuated to a nearby school for three weeks, and returned to find many of the ground floors of their homes gutted, crumbling foundations exposed by and to the elements. The path we walk along is a deep, sandy trench, churned and rutted like the surface of the moon. Bibin tells us it used to be a road. In Varkala and other parts of Kerala we’ve heard the floods and their sensationalised coverage in Western media led to a 50% fall in tourism, which we thought was bad enough. Here, they destroyed lives.

It’s hard to imagine such destructive violence coming from something as tranquil as the water meandering silently and serenely beside us. India, through, is a shrewd haggler who gives nothing away for free. Every idyllic beach is sprinkled with refuse; every towering monument thronged with maimed and wailing beggars; every gorgeous languid river bend capable of unleashing torrents of sweeping fury. As in The White Tiger, light and darkness are always side by side.

In the evening Beena regales us with hilarious rapid-fire tales about her eighteen month old German shepherd Mowgli eating all the frogs in the pond and refusing to stop sleeping in the rabbit cage they bought him as a puppy. The topic then turns to Indian politics. Rahul, a guest at the homestay from Trivandrum, tells us soberly that the country is still plagued by corruption to the tune of billions of rupees. The BJP-led central government not only benefit from this but also exploit the constitution to frustrate rival parties – so Kerala’s Communist party government has its funding restricted by the Hindu nationalist central government.

Violence and religion are weaponised in politics, he says: “If you say something is in the name of God, you can make people do anything”.

While this conversation takes place, two Congress Party (Kerala’s CPM government’s main opposition) youth activists known as Kripesh and Sarath Lal – aged 21 and 27 respectively – attend a local party meeting in Kasargod, about 200km from Wayanad. On their way home they are stopped by an SUV full, according to local news reports, of CPM activists, and hacked to death with a sword.

Wayanad sleeps, calm and quiet.

Hari Says Relax

10th February

“So the schedule is: 7am pranayama and meditation, yoga until 10am. Lunch is 1.30pm, with afternoon yoga for an hour and a half at 4.30pm.”

There’s something deeply soothing in Hari’s tone and way of being, even though what he’s just described is effectively three and a half hours of yoga a day for which I am physically totally unprepared, on top of start times that don’t exactly radiate carefree vibes. He continues with the ground rules.

“No phones or computers used here. If you need to use your phone please go outside the gate.” There goes my plan to get ahead on typing up the blog in between classes. “This,” he purs, “is a place people come to relax”.

Yes folks, it’s happened. Rebecca has got me to a yoga retreat.

The afternoon session starts with the usual sitting and breathing, as well as chanting “om” which is the most striking difference I’ve seen so far between yoga in India and Britain. Teachers in Britain seem to avoid it; even the courteous “namaste” at the end of a session occasionally seems a touch hesitant. In India (even though all our teachers so far have been European) everyone goes all-out for a good “om” and often a few “shanti”s at the start and end of practice.

Hari is German, and previously lived in California where he studied meditation at the Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery for four years and lived for a year as an anagarika or forest monk, before moving to Varkala and opening the Sharanagati Yogahaus. This is reached off one of the main roads through the town, set back a few minutes walk from the teeming cliff, through an iron gate crawling with huge, neon-orange ants. Hari is in his mid-50s, of calm and kindly demeanour, T-shirt orange as the ants, white hair shaved short. His gnarled and furrowed face, along with his occasional stories of his previous lives in Europe and San Fran, hints at past existences less zen than his current state.

He’s the second male yoga instructor I’ve ever had, the other being a shaggy-haired ageing hippy who guided the only Hot Yoga class I’ve ever attempted, back in East London. That was comfortably the least pleasant session of exercise of my entire life (including the time I was concussed twice in the same rugby match); I spent more than half of the ninety minutes curled in a ball gasping for water. I don’t recommend Hot Yoga for anyone with a less than serious commitment to the discipline.

Both Hari and Hot Yoga dude share the distinction of not actually performing the poses as they go along. Hari doesn’t even really describe them; he just calls the names out, trusting us to know the shapes and our bodies to find their way into them, coming over to help individuals (i.e. me) into the correct positions when we (I) don’t have a scooby. It’s a good thing I’ve fit in a few sessions already, particularly those with Kirsten in Thekkady (who like Hari teaches Sivananda/Hatha Yoga), or I would basically spend the first few sessions sitting and waiting for Hari to show me what to do.

As it is, I like his laissez-faire approach to the physical side of yoga: his emphasis is entirely on breath and state of mind, unlike other teachers that tend to be militant about perfect positioning.

“Relax,” he whispers as we lie in shavasana near the end of the first afternoon session, “relaaaaaaaaaax… relax!”

In the evening we have dinner at a cost spot overlooking Black Beach with Leena and Laura who are also attending the retreat. Leena is a thirty-something Estonian whose temperament veers entertainingly between fiery and carefree, discussing various facets of her personal life with refreshing openness. Laura is a well-travelled Glaswegian Reiki master deeply knowledgeable about spirituality and alternative medicine who is training to become a life coach. She treats skin conditions out of a mainstream medical clinic where, she explains, she has gradually won round her initially sceptical colleagues to the potential of Reiki.

11th February

“Nothing to do, nowhere to be. Sitting… Breathing…” Hari’s intonation always goes up sharply on the first syllable of “breathing” and winds back down again on the second, as though the simplicity of the act of drawing breath is faintly amusing.

Pranayama – a sequence of breathing exercises with a complex array of purposes, including cleansing of the lungs and airways, and exercise of control over the breath – starts at 7am and lasts half an hour, followed by another half hour of meditation. During this, I struggle to maintain my focus as insects scuttle across my body, and I reflect on how much of my life – my hang-ups, my insecurities, my frustrations – are ultimately driven by fear. I’m irrationally scared that one of these insects might bite or sting me and inject me with venom; I’m unable to shake the knowledge that we haven’t yet booked train tickets out of Varkala and afraid that this will mean missing out on things I want to see and do later in the trip if we have to stay here longer than planned. I get a lot of FOMO.

I’ve not read as deeply as I’d like to around mental health. In fact, I’ve barely read into it at all in a structured sense. I am a fan of Matt Haig’s reputation and Twitter presence, but the only book I’ve ever read that touches in any focused way on (particularly men’s) mental health is Robert Webb’s sublime How Not To Be A Boy. I would recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone, male or female, who hasn’t read it, just by virtue of being one of those rare books (Catch 22 being another) that is both side-splittingly funny and heart-breakingly sad. Among the many astute observations Webb makes is that men as a rule aren’t very good at identifying or engaging with negative emotions. Society teaches us to ignore them and to express them as anger. (The same may well apply to women; Rob and I can only speak from our experience as men.) What I realise this morning is that much of the time I think I’m angry or frustrated, I’m actually just scared in a low-key, almost subconscious way about something tangential, irrelevant or even hypothetical.

But here’s the the the thing: I also thrive off fear. My love of rugby stems from the real risk of harm involved; what academic and professional success I’ve had has been driven by fear of the consequences of failure at least as much as by desire for those of success. Meditation is almost entirely about being able to identify and observe our thoughts without ascribing value judgements to them, much harder than it sounds.

Meditation is followed by a pleasant two hours of yoga, during which I nearly manage a head stand, as much to my own surprise as everyone else’s. Hari frequently prompts us to check in on our mental state and I eventually realise that mine is almost completely calm besides a slight nagging fear that this is the wrong answer.

12th February

“But you see, this is Bollywood. This is not real chanting,” Hari assures me, Laura and Leena in his lilting San-Fran tinged German accent. “If a Hindu saw us sitting around chanting like this – mein Got!” – he draws his finger sharply across his throat, eyes a-bulge.

“When Hindus chant they prepare fully; they are washed, they sit in proper, upright positions. This is not for us, you know. What we are doing is chanting for Westerners. Even still it is so powerful. If we chanted for ten minutes now we’d be in an elevated state. Come, let’s do it.”

So we do; Hari teaches us the words and melody to a one line mantra for world peace:

Om namo narayanaya

And we repeat it, over and over. In response to Hari’s subtle leads the chanting grows louder then gradually quieter, until he tells us to keep chanting silently and take a look around us. The garden, always beautiful, is now in sharp emerald technicolour; a crow takes off from atop a banana tree and flaps its wings langurously, almost in slow motion.

“This is the world as it always is,” says Hari, “but we are always too busy to see it. And this is from only five minutes of chanting”.

I’m glad I’ve come down after lunch to learn this and another, longer mantra. Ever since this morning’s session ended I’ve been in a foul mood, a carry-over from last night’s fruitless attempts to book a train out of Varkala using the patchy Wi-Fi of the cliff edge restaurants. I’d been fairly relaxed until an enormous spider ran up Rebecca’s vest while we practised head stands. It came to rest on a low wall, near my mat which I instantly moved away. In a hard-to-shake squeamishness from my childhood, insects and particularly spiders still creep me out, almost the sinister, scuttling embodiment of my terror. It completely ruptures the calm I felt after the morning’s meditation. When Rebecca and I return to train admin over lunch I’m riddled with fear: of missing out on parts of India and Varkala’s beaches, and that the pain across my shoulders is a sign I’m doing further damage to my back.

So, with great commitment as Hari might say, I make what feels at first like a controversial decision: I shall skip the afternoon session and lie on the beach instead, perhaps getting ahead on train booking at the same time. The afternoon sessions are described as optional but until now I’ve felt as though it’s against the spirit of the retreat not to attend them, at least without a better reason than my shoulders ache, I want to go to the beach and I need to book a train.

Attending the chanting session in the early afternoon reassures me that I’ve gained something in lieu and restores my calm. I tell Hari I’m thinking of skipping afternoon yoga and the casualness with which he acknowledges this confirms that it’s no biggie.

I go for a swim, I lie in the sun, I rest my shoulders, I browse trains and make plans. I do everything at my own pace, am my own boss. I realise that the Sharanagati schedule isn’t actually restrictive at all. I feel completely and utterly wonderful.

13th February

I’m determined to make the most of our final session. During yesterday morning’s I took up Hari’s invitation to smile during Happy Baby, and remember the very real sense of wellbeing it engendered. So today I smile all the way through pranayama, meditation and the final round of yoga. I let go, content to ease off stretches I find uncomfortable. Every time Hari reminds us to relax our faces I paste a wide grin across mine. I thoroughly enjoy the whole three hours.

We bid Hari our farewells afterwards and he congratulates Rebecca on her “shiny new boyfriend”. I’m taken aback, and more than a little impressed, that my internal shift is so outwardly obvious, but without wanting to sound clichéd I do feel very different now to how I did when we checked in. I’ve identified how big a driver my fear is and how little I was aware of it: through this, I’m finally satisfied that India isn’t going to kill me or steal my possessions or otherwise do me harm. The point of being here isn’t to worry every second about whether the food is safe or the water is clean, but to have fun, and to set our own schedule for a little while. I’ve relaxed.

Moonshine of Your Love

6th February

We rise about as happily as you’d expect at 5am and check out, after one of the guys on reception takes a selfie with us, in good time to catch the 7.05 to Thiruvaranthapuram. We’re heading back to Kerala – specifically, to the hippy paradise, surfing and yoga hotspot that is Varkala.

I spend the journey flitting between the frosty air conditioned carriage and the warm, scenic spot by the open doorway, watching plains, palm trees and more endless wind farms roll past as the train strikes down towards Nagercoil and Kanyakumari at the southernmost tip of the subcontinent, before looping north again towards Thiruvaranthapuram. After eight hours’ travel we arrive at the Keralan capital, and because we’ve not pre-booked tickets for the connection to Varkala we join a boisterous queue at the station with a slick grey-haired Italian-American who seems to have picked up the crassest traits of both cultures.

Brash, condescending and a touch passively racist, he yammers loudly in the dense crush about what a shithole India is and how much he hates it. I venture that I quite like it and he looks at me as if I’ve just spoken up in favour of dental plaque.

“Oh yeah? Whaddya like about it?”

I fumble a bit and go with “The people are friendly,” just as a large man behind me assumes my space in the queue by means of an elbow dug expertly into the small of my back. Don Corleone rolls his eyes.

“HA! The people are friendly. Good one.”

Already in a foul mood after eight hours on a train eating nothing but tangy tomato crisps and 50:50s, I storm off to the platform as soon as we have our tickets in search of food and to create some daylight between me and Tony Montana. I buy a samosa each for me and Rebecca, eat mine, eat Rebecca’s, then start off in search of more, at which point I realise that the trouser pocket I stuffed the tickets into is empty. With half an hour to go until the train arrives, I trudge resignedly back to the collapsed maul that is the station ticket counter.

Having been travelling since dawn, we arrive at the Short Giraffe hostel in Varkala in the early evening. It’s a stereotypical backpacker joint – hammocks, acoustic guitars, a stack of board games – staffed and frequented by trendy youthful types whose chipper attempts at conversation with Rebecca and I are met with the blank stares of the tired and ravenous. Despite this we somehow befriend Patrick and Rachel – who as the only other couple we gravitate towards, especially as Patrick has, like me, just left a job in recruitment and Rachel, like Rebecca, grew up in Bishop’s Stortford – as well as a wiry long-haired traveller from Hertford (Vancouver for the past two years) called George, a smiley dude named Josh from Reading, and Bea from Clapham who immediately treats me with suspicion since, due to a hostel mixup, I start unpacking my things on her bunk in the mixed dorm.

Rebecca and I wait an agonizing hour for veggie burgers at White Rabbit on the cliff. Once we’ve fed we decide that we’ve not done enough socialising so far on our travels so join Patrick, Rachel and George at a Bob Marley night at Rock ‘n’ Roll Café. None of us feel like dancing so we natter happily in between ordering drinks (which involves a curious system, where we’re directed to a guy behind the counter who takes the money and writes everything down on a slip of paper which he then passes to another guy in front of the counter, who walks round behind the counter and takes the drinks out of a fridge right next to the first guy), watching a clutch of committed ravers do their thing on the dancefloor.

7th February

I spend the day exploring Varkala, reading The White Tiger from the hostel’s library, and doing the hippy traveller thing while generally feeling a bit old to be doing it. Me and a lanky German jam awkwardly on acoustic guitars outside the hostel. I say awkwardly; what I mean is he’s very good and I can’t remember a thing about how The Music works so I play notes at random while he grimaces and tries to come up with chords that match the made up keys I’m operating in. In the evening everyone at the hostel sits around outside smoking endless joints. It’s nearly six months since I smoked so much as a cigarette, so Rebecca and I sit a bit outside the main circle feeling sensibly nearly-thirty and wondering if we’ve left travelling a bit late.

This is the millennial plight, of course. I wanted to go travelling when I was eighteen but couldn’t get a job because of the credit crunch (at least that’s what I told myself and everyone else – a little bit of current affairs is a dangerous thing). Britain’s upcoming self-imposed recession means I’ll have to work ceaselessly for decades just to keep myself in tinned goods and black market antibiotics, so it really is now or never. Travelling has always been the one that got away, so even if it feels a bit like I’m doing it a tiny bit wrong it still feels incredible to be doing it.

Varkala would have been my kind of place as a wide-eyed, idealistic eighteen-year-old. I don’t know if it was the sacred status of the waters, which Hindus believe wash away sins, or the eminently surfable breakers they generate that first brought the hippies here, but a solid chunk have made it home and the place now resembles a chilled, low-key music festival strung along a cliff looking out over a glorious sun-washed beach. Green Man with white sand. The cliff is thronged with stalls selling everything in the hippy toolkit, from Ali Baba pants to dream-catchers, healing crystals and didgeridoos, plus the tourist essentials like sun cream and Lots of Stuff in Plastic.

It’s as weird as it is depressing that there’s so much plastic around. After a while in India you get a little desensitised to all the rubbish. There isn’t obviously landfill, or recycling, or a lot of the time even bins as such. When something is done with, the side of the road or out the nearest window is just where it goes. Even if you put it in a bin, that’s still where it’ll end up. In a country of desperate poverty the resulting clear-up creates much-needed jobs.

This thankfully hasn’t been the case in the various nature reserves we’ve visited so far, which maintain admirable zero-plastic policies and are on the whole spotlessly clean, and given that Varkala’s inhabitants are mostly hippies and devout Hindus who regard it as sacred I’d assumed it would be similar, but no. The steps down from the cliff are littered with ice cream wrappers, piles of plastic bottles accumulate in discreet nooks between the rocks. I fear that it’s my kind, the generalist Western tourist, that bears responsibility.

Despite that single blemish, Varkala is stunning. The Arabian Sea stretches as far as you can see left and right, meeting the sky in a crisp blue arc that gives a powerful sensation of just how massive the world really is. Come to think of it, I reflect stretching out on a towel under the dreamy afternoon sun, it’s my kind of place even now.

8th February

We had to stay in Short Giraffe’s mixed dorm room for our first night because their private double was booked. Having reserved the double from night two onwards the week before, we realised soon after arriving that it was Patrick and Rachel staying in it and they’d tried to extend, but because we’d already booked it by then they’d had to move out. Awks.

They didn’t seem to bear a grudge though, and were gracious enough to invite us to a rooftop Yin yoga class at their new place, Mad About Coco. It starts at 4.30pm, by which time Varkala’s humidity is just nudging below the Amazon rainforest’s average. After an hour and a half of alternate nostril breathing, stretching, clicking and folding of long-forgotten body parts into improbable positions and the French instructor’s sing-song “Inhaaaaale deeplyyyyyyy… Exhaaaaale completelyyyyyyy”, we emerge a touch confused but feeling happy and limber in ways that hadn’t felt possible since hitting financial independence.

Short Giraffe hosts a barbecue in the evening. Rebecca and I buy a few Kingfishers for it from a nearby hotel. We ask the guy on the front desk if we can buy three, and he says yes, 510 Rupees, which is problematic because our hostel told us 150 each so we’ve only got 500 on us. After we explain this he cheerily head-wags away the missing 10, hands us a receipt and, a tad unexpectedly, asks us to go upstairs.

We ascend cautiously, arriving before long at a landing on which a shady-looking door marked ‘Beer Parlour’ stands next to a lobby piled high with boxes of Kingfisher in three different flavours: Deluxe Lager, Deluxe Strong, and Strong Lager. A beady-eyed porter appears, peers suspiciously at our receipt, vanishes briefly then re-emerges with three ice cold bottles of Deluxe Lager, dripping with condensation.

Pat and Rachel join for the tail end of the barbecue after which everyone from Short Giraffe piles down to the cliff for a boogie at Blue Marine. Rebecca and I arrive on the sober side of tipsy so order a cuba libre and Long Island iced tea while everyone else struts confidently onto the dancefloor. By dancefloor, I of course mean the patch of dusty ground between the DJ booth and the main restaurant area.

Forty-five minutes pass and the waiter notices we’re still drinkless. He gestures that ours are up next, and they arrive scarcely half an hour later. It’s impossible to tell which is which so Rebecca allocates me the more eye-wateringly alcoholic of the two. Its flavour lies somewhere between cheap grappa and industrial superglue, and after a few mouthfuls my right leg goes numb from the knee down. Rebecca meanwhile realises she’s unwittingly given herself the one with a garnish of dead mosquito, and when she points this out to the barman his first response is to offer her a new straw.

Both our moonshine cocktails finally vegetarian-friendly we screw our eyes shut, hatch as much as we dare and skip giddily to the dancefloor, where it’s all kicking off. Patrick, up until now a picture of calm serenity, is near the centre of a pulsating huddle of topless blokes from our hostel, and the moves on show have graduated from rhythmic head-bopping to a perplexing sea of fluid hand movements and thumping fists. By and large the DJs are decent, dolling out bassy, danceable house and some funkier fare, and Rebecca and I are by now well-oiled enough to cut some shapes of our own before popping off to the bar for another drink. We agree a bottled beer is probably safest all round.

“How much for a Kingfisher?”

“Two thirty.”

Proffers three hundred.

“Actually, two eighty.”

“Pardon? You said two thirty.”

“No sir. Two eighty.”

We find this funny enough not to quibble and giggle back to the dancefloor, where Karl – a reflective engineer from Croydon, with family in Chennai, who we’ve got chatting to since yesterday – stands philosophically just outside the main circle. We exchange an incredulous few words about the absurdity of the world we’ve swapped for the steady corporate jobs we left behind.

“It’s amazing,” I tell him, “but part of my brain can’t let go of the idea we should be working and earning money.”

He casts me a sage look and replies “Better to spend your money here than save it up for some flashy car so you can impress people you don’t know”. He’s right.

Rebecca and I dance while watching her predicted pairing-offs among the Short Giraffe crowd come true, then order another beer and are now quoted 330Rs. I burst out laughing.

“First it was two thirty, then two eighty, now three hundred and thirty?”

“Ha ha!” The manager slaps a big, amiable arm around my shoulder. “Yes sir! You see when you first ordered it was 11pm, then it was 12am, and now that it’s 1am the cost is three thirty.”

Without bothering to point out that the first two prices came seconds apart from each other I check my watch.

“It’s 12.50?”

“Ha ha! Yes sir. Nearly 1am. Three thirty.”

“Well since it’s nearly 1am, why don’t we pay you nearly three thirty and call it three hundred?”

After a good-natured back and forth, during which it emerges that he’s a Manchester United fan (“Ole Gunnar Solksjaer! Baby-face assassin! Ha ha!”) he agrees, at which point Rebecca and I realise we only have two hundred on us.

Shit.

“Ha ha! You can come back tomorrow daytime and buy for two hundred, but now it’s three hundred.”

“How about we buy it for two hundred now, write you a good TripAdvisor review, then come back tomorrow and buy it for three hundred?”

“Ha ha! OK. But you must be coming back tomorrow.”

“Of course we will!”

9th February

Six months to the day since my last cigarette. On the whole I don’t miss them, but Varkala’s bohemian vibes trigger a few passing cravings. One of the girls who works at the hostel offered me a drag on hers last night and I declined instinctively, which is good news.

I wake feeling surprisingly perky and embark on a day-long mission to nurture Rebecca, a hapless advert for the perils of binge drinking, back to health.

I potter happily around the hostel, sourcing water and omelettes for my ward and debriefing on last night with a succession of people who seem unusually stand-offish. I put this down to my hangover, until the German guy appears and straight away tells me I have toothpaste all round my mouth.

We mooch about for most of the day, have a delicious dinner at Café Darjeeling then wander back for our last night in Short Giraffe, bumping into George on the way. We ask him what he’s been up to.

“Oh you know… Went to the beach. Took some acid. Played football. Pretty chilled really.”


Temples of Gloom

2nd February

Someone at the Rough Guide has been taking backhanders.

Sri Thiruthapany Residency has a Favourites star next to it in the guidebook’s list of Madurai accommodation and the rooms are described as “spotless”. Nowhere is it mentioned that the building is unfinished. The porter invites us to step into a lift surrounded by construction materials – wet cement, ladders, loud hammering on bare, crumbling walls. And this is the foyer.

The room itself is filthy in a deep, engrained sort of way. Not just dirty from the previous occupants but from years of negligence. Layers of stains have built up on every surface, mottling everything that should be white a combination of yellows and browns. The bathroom is tiny and dank, with a hole-in-the-floor toilet, and lit only by a paneless window onto the corridor. I realise how problematic this is when, as I practice standing under he shower head, a man instinctively nods hello to me from outside, inches from my face. Rebecca tries to explain to the porter that she’s not keen on showering while the great and good of Madurai wander past this oversized porthole but the message doesn’t seem to stick.

We tell the manager, who speaks a thimbleful of English, that we’re unhappy with the room and he asks us to wait ten minutes while another is prepared. Half an hour later, during which time we peruse Tripadvisor reviews slating, among much else, the construction work taking place at 3am by order of the management, we’re shown to a room two storeys above the first. It’s marginally cleaner but still adorned with the kind of stains you decide it’s best not to look at too closely. And the bathroom still has a large peephole onto the corridor.

The manager looks puzzled when we explain we’re cancelling our reservation.

It’s now nearly 3pm and we’ve not yet had lunch. The bus from Thekkady took five hours, through terrain conspicuously rawer than that of Kerala, drier and dustier. There are still periodic stands of palm trees, but as Lakshmi from Chennai lamented to Rebecca in Thattekad, Tamil Nadu has decimated its tree coverage. As a result the terrain looks bare, and the state suffers from water shortages without the benefit trees bring to the water table. For now, it’s a stark change from Kerala’s lush, ubiquitous green, though given the amount of teak furniture shops surrounding Munnar and Periyar it’s questionable how long before ‘God’s Own Country’ goes the same way.

The stalls lining the Tamil Nadu roads seemed more ramshackle, thrown together from wood and corrugated iron, than their sturdy if run-down Keralan counterparts. Busy town roads bustled with herds of crescent-horned cattle, trucks loaded with fruits and vegetables, bony-legged old men hauling cartloads of tea leaves. We passed long successions of wind farms that blended, noticeably but not distastefully, into the landscape. Deforestation might be an issue but Tamil Nadu has clearly embraced clean, renewable energy with a gusto that still inexplicably eludes Britain.

Now outside Sri Thiruthapany, the sun beats down on us, sweaty and buckling beneath heavy backpacks we’ve nowhere to stow. Without a WiFi connection we schlep to a nearby street that looks, from the discredited guidebook, as if it has a lot of hotels on it, and the first we pass is the massive, budget Neww College Hotel. They show us a room; it’s very basic, and had we not just experienced the horrors of the Sri Thirupathany I’d have probably called it dirty, but the bathroom is private and there’s nothing constituting a red flag in its own right, so we gratefully put our bags down and flop.

According to the Rough Guide Neww College has a good, cheap vegetarian restaurant as part of its complex, but Rebecca accidentally walks past the rear door and spots a bucket she describes as looking “like waste, but also like it’s food”, so we end up eating at the otherwise empty rooftop restaurant of nearby Chentoor Hotel.

From here, we can see the Supreme Hotel’s rooftop restaurant and it looks wonderful, fringed with pot plants and bubbling with groups of happy-looking holidaymakers. We head there in the evening for a well-deserved beer. If I had my time again and a slightly higher budget (it’s mid-range as opposed to cheap) I’d probably stay at the Supreme. Most of the time I’m anywhere else in Madurai I wish I’m here. Don’t, however, be fooled by the Rough Guide’s promise of a sci fi-themed bar. We poke our heads round the door and through the dingy stale beer haze, in a room that looks like the designer lost a competition to create Ming the Merciless’s lair, can just make out three surly-looking men hunched around what appears to be a quart of moonshine. They turn towards us with gruff, unfriendly curiosity; we squeal like R2-DT and scuttle back to the daylight of Mos Eisley.

3rd February

I find Madurai hard work, and that in itself puts me in a gloomy mood.

I feel as if two weeks in Kerala, “India Lite” according to one of the blogs Rebecca follows, has spoiled us. We’ve been spending over our budget during that time. As soon as we’ve ventured into a major city and accommodation in line with our means, we’ve been repulsed. Overly fussy about hotels, unduly bothered by the incessant beeping from the road outside our room and the continual bombardment from hawkers. Knowing that this isn’t a small deviation but the general reality of our four month trip, the rule rather than the exception.

The way to the Sri Meenakshi temple complex is thronged with beggars, many disfigured by disease or missing limbs, all destitute. I give baksheesh to the first few we pass, then feel increasingly disgruntled by the continued approaches after my pockets are empty of change – though, of course, how are they to know? A T-shirt I hung out to dry on the hotel roof last night is missing, presumed nicked, and a five hundred rupee note goes AWOL from my back pocket at the temple. It’s not the monetary value – I’ve paid double to get suits dry-cleaned, then found the same again scrunched forgotten in the pockets on collection – but the inescapable sense that everyone in Madurai, perhaps India, is clamouring for your money.

The temple, though, goes a decent way towards making it all worthwhile. Dating mostly from the 14th Century CE, its fourteen gaudily-decorated gopuras (large temple tower-gateways) dominate the Madurai skyline and demarcate a huge complex that forms the focal point of activity in the southern half of the city. Shoes and cameras must be left at the entrance, and there is something very pleasant about walking barefoot on mostly shaded granite floor. Without a guide we’re not sure exactly what we’re looking at, but the scale and grandeur of the decoration is breathtaking.

No European cathedral comes close; the Vatican is a much better comparison. Starting to understand why Madurai was once known as the “Athens of the East” we walk wide-eyed through a maze of sumptuously-carved stone hallways decorated in vibrant hues of pink and blue. Especially picturesque is the Golden Lotus tank, a large clear pool in the heart of the complex featuring a large bronze pillar and lotus flower sculpture, surrounded by shaded seats to which we and most other European tourists flock for rest and respite from the midday sun.

In the afternoon we head north of the Vaigai river that cuts through the city and head to the Ghandi Memorial museum. Besides the fact that the northern half of the city is quieter and leafier than the bedlam surrounding the temple complex, the museum itself does a fantastic job of lifting my mood. The first half of the display is all about India’s struggle for independence, leaving me racked with guilt for my earlier disgruntlement at feeling harassed for money. India’s poverty is in no small part Britain’s fault, and while the extraction that carved such a big divergence in each country’s fortunes happened long before I was born I have still reaped its benefits. Who am I to get self-righteous about being asked for a few rupees?

The Ghandi Memorial Museum

The rest of the museum is similarly humbling, the second section focusing more on Ghandi’s life and character. His stoicism and sense of sacrifice are viscerally transcribed. Particularly moving are the collection of books the Mahatma had read (including Faust, The Descent of Man, the Bible and the Fall of the Roman Empire) and, of course, the blood-stained dhoti he wore on the day he was assassinated.

Before arriving I was already mentally comparing it to the Yasser Arafat museum in Ramallah, and the comparisons survive on the inside. Like the YA the Ghandi Memorial shows the story of an independence movement through the lens of one of the movement’s most iconic individuals. The physical presence of the dhoti reminds visitors of the reality of the struggle and ultimate personal sacrifice it demanded of the Mahatma in the same way as the preserved quarters that housed Arafat’s final years in Ramallah. Both museums tell the same story to two audiences, their nation and the outside world, and as such occasionally trap themselves in the freedom fighter / terrorist dichotomy. In the Ghandi museum’s case this is very literal; a display entitled “The Cult of the Bomb” includes several instances of the words “freedom fighter” taped over the word “terrorist” in describing some of the independence movement’s less pacifistic members, and in one or two places the correction is peeling away to reveal the original.

Like Palestine, India hadn’t existed as a self-governed nation since classical times. Unlike Palestine, India’s struggle for self-determination is now concluded, ongoing disputes over regions like Kashmir notwithstanding. To this end the display on independence finishes with a heartwarming plaque stressing Ghandian forgiveness and describing the British and newly-independent India parting ways as friends.

Awed by the ongoing influence of Ghandi and feeling pleasantly small, I leave the museum in good spirits.

4th February

We’re up at sparrows for the 7am train – our first of the trip – to Trichy. Having booked the day before we have seats reserved on different rows, but a very kind man happily gives up his window seat so we can sit next to each other. After the slow rumble out of Madurai station I mostly read Kim and City of Djinns as the train glides through sun-baked fields, arcing round the hills near Didingul.

After our hotel nightmares in Madurai we pray the place we’ve booked into, the Surag Residency, is habitable, and it turns out to be a real find. A budget business hotel on the outskirts of the town centre, it’s one of the cheapest places we’ve stayed but also one of the cleanest and comfiest, and has lightning-fast WiFi everywhere. The clutch of young lads who seem to manage the day-to-day running of the hotel are fantastically friendly and helpful, letting us order Uber Eats and Dominos (you heard) off their phones when the hotel’s kitchen is out of action.

5th February

We get going early, in the hope I can fit in both the Sri Rangam temple complex and the historic Rock Fort before the midday heat forces us to run for shade or, ideally, a large fridge Rebecca and I can both sit in.

The complex is intriguing; similar in scale, date and style to Madurai’s Sri Meenakshi but a very different feel since the three outermost of its seven walled layers are highly active commercial streets, buzzing with stalls selling food, kitchenware, and souvenirs; hawkers; beggars; and plenty of near-naked, painted devotees.

The shady mandappas and sunny pathways beyond the inner gates, where bustling mercantilsm gives way to ascetic quiet, are pleasant to explore. The intricactly carved pillars are captivating, as are the large gopuras that link each of the onion-like complex’s layers. Most of these are pastel pink-and-blue like those at Madurai, but one huge, marble-white exception stands out in the skyline. Feeling mischievous (lots of the carvings depict Hanuman so maybe I’m channelling) I convince Rebecca it’s made of ivory.

It’s now 10.30am and the temperature is already rising uncomfortably so we skip the nearby butterfly sanctuary and jump onto a bus towards the Rock Fort, which I discover with horror involves climbing lots of steps. Lots and lots of steps. I brace myself for cries of “I missed the butterflies for THIS!?” but the ascent is mercifully shady and, as a bonus, dozens of kites float around on the thermals at the summit, scanning the sprawling city below for rodents while we and the other ascendees take selfies. There is a shrine to Ganesh open only to Hindus, but the corridor around it is open to all and provides panoramic viewpoints.

We reward ourselves with an early lunch and it all gets a little bit weird. Vasanta Bhavan, right by the central bus stand and mentioned in the guide books, must see plenty of Western footfall but you’d never guess it. First, the usual stares – this is pretty normal behaviour in India and we’re already used to it – as we enter and choose a secluded booth in a corner, where a man in restaurant uniform approaches us. Without understanding his Tamil it’s clear from his gestures towards a sign marked <- A/C Restaurant that he feels we’re sitting in the wrong place. He and two more staff escort us for a peek at the empty, unlit and totally charmless A/C section and seem surprised when we ask if we can return to the main canteen. They sit us down, at a different table from the one we first chose but at least in the company of other human beings.

We order two “meals” – not that there’s a menu – and a succession of blue-shirted staff start ladelling thali out onto banana leaves in front of us. It smells delicious, and we can’t wait to tuck in, but just before we can get going another waiter appears and mimes taking a picture. Rebecca agrees, then realises that he’s offering to take one of us on our camera and backtracks.

No two minutes pass without one of a string of well-wishers approaching to ask how the food is, where we’re from (this two or three times), if we want more curry, are we married, do we need more rice, coffee… each quickly returning to report the answers back to a clutch of onlookers (including all the restaurant’s staff and a fair whack of the other customers) gawping at us trying to eat with our hands.

The second it’s established we don’t need more food and would prefer to concentrate on enjoying what’s on our leaves already, the bill appears. Despite myself I snap at Rebecca when she asks if I have change while the manager hovers impatiently by watching me spoon rice pudding into my face. At this point he gets the message and disappears for thirty seconds while I finish eating. Rebecca stopped long ago, the stage fright brought on by our chattering audience spoiling her appetite. Bill paid, the cleaning ladies swoop in, tutting in disapproval at the leftovers she’s not finished in our allotted time frame.

Despite the bizarre service, the food itself is excellent. Sightseeing done and stomachs pleasantly full, we tuck-tuck happily back to the hotel for a nap.

Periyar and Prejudice

30th January

“Can’t touch your toes?”

Ha! Toes. Kneecaps would be nice.

“No,” I wheeze, bent forward over my carefully sculpted paunch in a sitting position, legs flush against the floor, hamstrings like rubber bands about to ping.

“Jah, jah. It’s the climate here.” Sure. Climate. “It’s ze altitude, you know? If you go to Varkala it is much warmer, there you can touch your toes.” Whatever you say, Kirsten.

Chrissie’s yogi-in-residence, Kirsten is German and married to a Kashmiri which means there’s a fun Teutonic/Sanskrit fusion running through her class. She’s a good instructor on the whole, keeping it stretching (literally) but achievable, pitched well to mine and Rebecca’s respective abilities.

My reward for attending the 9am session is a Chrissie’s breakfast buffet, an odyssey of home-made breads, masala, jams, eggs, lush watermelon and curd. On the way out, the quirky Israeli owner tells us that since we’re basically regulars now we’re welcome to use their rooftop pool.

The rest of the day is uneventful, mostly spent planning our journey into Tamil Nadu and watching enormous bats flock endlessly over Greenview’s rooftop at dusk. There must be hundreds, if not thousands of them. For half an hour they maintain a continuous, aerial stream out of the Periyar Wildlife Reserve – where we’re booked for a stroll tomorrow morning.

31st January

Nilgiri langurs surround us, hooting bassily from the treetops. I’m already intrigued, having seen them from a distance from our veranda at Green View. They are visually stunning: sleek, black, golden-maned and long-tailed living shadows, they possess a majesty that eludes the scraggy, opportunistic macaques. The latter, being smaller, clear off when they hear the langurs approaching. Langurs though, unlike the mischievous macaques, are afraid of people.

“They were used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine,” our guide Raji laments, “so they’ve come to see humans as predators”. The practice has been illegal since the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 but the monkeys, it seems, are still justifiably cautious.

Their deep calls are easily identifiable, even against the symphonic backdrop of a jungle at dawn. Our stroll is meditative and therapeutic. Periyar is one of southern India’s foremost nature reserves, renowned for being one of the best places to sight elephants if your budget stretches to taking a raft out onto the lake. Sadly, ours doesn’t, so the closest we come are more tell-tale signs – paths of smashed trees and flattened grass criss-crossing the walkways – that they are nearby.

Periyar’s biodiversity is in part due to the fact that it covers a diverse range of altitudes, so within one park there are various different microclimates each with their own distinct ecosytems. We pass through open glades as the sunrise glints through bamboo thickets; bare, plantless rocky outcrops; sparse forest; and dense, tropical jungle where a species of fig constricts other trees, resulting in some dramatic natural sculpture. These aggressive plants are tolerated by the forest authorities because they fruit all year round, providing an important food source for many local birds.

We see gaur (Indian “bison” or water buffalo) and sambar (huge, stately deer), stumble upon a massive rat snake basking in a thicket that slithers away silently when it realises it’s discovered, its two meters of body disappearing without a trace into the undergrowth, and spot a plethora of exotic birds, many of which we recognised from our stay at Thattekad. Raji tells us that the park is home to a tiger population that since 1978 has increased from around twenty to over fifty, though this is contradicted by a British couple we bump into whose guide told them the number has fallen from seventy to forty-four.

After three hours of walking through the forest, we enjoy another Chrissie’s breakfast and retire to the homestay, where I sit on the veranda reading City of Djinns and munching reflectively on 50:50s.

We have lunch back at Coffee Garden and are joined by Jay and Kasey from Manchester, and briefly by an anonymous middle-aged couple who stare perplexed at the menu in the entrance. We tell them the food is great and the man replies in broad Lancashire “Is it? Oh that’s good. To be honest, it’s nice just to see a white face. Haven’t seen any for ten days.”

We return awkwardly to our card game for a few minutes before realising they’ve left. I’m not sure exactly why they scarpered, but I can imagine the lady chastising him: “Geoffrey for heaven’s sake, how many times do I have to tell you – don’t do the racism thing in front of strangers!”

1st February

Jay and her boyfriend Luke – who are lovely and, unlike their fellow Lancastrians, not at all racist as far as I can tell – join us for another session with Kirsten the following morning. We have a by now-obligatory Chrissie’s breakfast, then spend an hour by the rooftop pool.

In the evening, we share a table at Grandma’s with a lonely Dutchman called Mikkel. Mikkel likes swimming and has travelled through Japan and China, and his hot take on Southern India is “Yeah, they’re so much darker here than in the North”.

Perhaps an objectively true observation, but why, of all the country’s cultural, political, culinary and architectural contrasts, is this the titbit wheeled out to discuss with strangers? I can only assume that ever since the Brexit vote people now just assume that casual racism is every Brit’s favourite topic of conversation.

La Vie de Pi

27th January

To my relief, the Suresh Greenview Residency in Thekkady has nothing besides a name in common with the Greenview Inn in Munnar. They’re, happily, worlds apart. The homestay is bright, spacious, immaculate and the walls proceed all the way to the ceilings without interruption. As well as a reliable supply of hot water our room is furnished with a cosy veranda looking out onto the dense jungle of the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. Brazen macaques scamper on the balcony in the daytime before fleeing the advance of the more mysterious, people-shy Nilgiri Langurs in the evening.

The journey here brought us out of Munnar’s broad-stroke tea plantation monotony and into a vastly more interesting mixed terrain of spices infused through Kerala’s ubiquitous coconut palm and jackfruit forest. A kindly man named Kiran sits beside me and narrates the surrounding plant life – cardamom, pepper, coffee, tapioca – and the area generally. When we’re held up by construction work in a high pass he explains it’s a railway line that will link Cochin and Madurai, and points out the Mullaperiyar Dam whose construction in the late 19th Cenury by British army engineer John Pennycuick made the region’s cash and food crop agriculture possible. To demonstrate my interest I relay all this information to Rebecca who sits the other side of me, suffering from travel sickness and a sense of humour failure so drastic that she demonstrates her disinterest by moving to the front of the bus.

After Kiran gets off his place is taken by Vipul, a local spice plantation worker who takes down my number with a promise of a free kilo of cardamom and never texts. Rebecca’s seat is taken by an endearing kid called Rajesh who spends the last two hours of the journey staring wide-eyed at my crappy £5 digital watch, telling me earnestly what a brilliant piece of kit it is. He’s nice but I know what’s coming; as we pull into Thekkady he asks if he can have it and I do a heartbreakingly bad job of explaining, over his protests that he’s poor and I’m rich and can just buy a new one, that I’m here for four months on a tight budget with no source of income so can’t afford to give it away. I relay the story to Rebecca later and she replies that her watch has been bothering her and she’s thought about chucking it out of the window.

Besides the noisy, stony-faced group of Israeli travellers camped out in the shared veranda with ukeleles, acoustic guitars and a burning desire to re-enact the entire Red Hot Chili Peppers back catalogue, life is good at the Greenview in Thekkady. After a tasty dinner at nearby Chrissie’s, we rest happy and content.

28th January

Our first day of genuine down-time since Kallanchery. We discover poori masala at Coffee Garden – a cosy raised shack just off the main road into town – and after a bit of asking around find Ebony’s for lunch. Everywhere else seems to be closed and since we’re the only people in an otherwise pleasant, tastefully-hipster decorated rooftop garden restaurant I can only assume this is because most of Thekkady’s tourists are out trekking. The food is very good and we wile away lunch and the afternoon playing yanniv before heading to the well-rated Grandma’s Café for dinner.

Here we tuck into our first beer of the trip. Hard to believe we’ve been here nearly two weeks and haven’t touched a drop, but Kerala is one of a number of states where alcohol is semi-prohibited. Consumption is legal but the hoop-jumping required for a license and heavy taxes mean it’s both hard to come by and disproportionately expensive. We share two large bottles of Kingfisher that come to five hundred rupees, which more than doubles the cost of our meal.

Grandma’s is crowded so we share our four-person table with Isabelle, a hypnotherapist from Clermont-Ferrand. Kerala, home of Ayurveda, is a superb setting for a discussion about alternative medicine and as well as hypnotherapy we get going on topics like meditation and mindfulness. I resolve to try to learn more about holistic medicine during our stay.

Our conversation turns to more whimsical subjects, in the course of which Isabelle says bluntly that she finds my English harder to understand than Rebecca’s. Since meeting the French couple yesterday I’ve been itching to dust off my former grasp of the language and when Isabelle mentions she’s been to Pondicherry I find myself trying to explain the plot of Life of Pi in broken, long-forgotten French.

“Le bateux est… how do you say sink..? sur la mer…” I waffle to stifled laughter from Rebecca and the sort of sympathetic nods normally reserved for asylum inmates from Isabelle.

Happily, Isabelle has also been to Madurai and Trichy on her travels in Tamil Nadu, two cities I’m desperate to visit but have scrubbed off the wishlist in the face of stark disinterest from Rebecca (on account of their unsuitable yoga : historical monument ratio). Both, according to Isabelle, are home to decent ashrams and as such are back on the menu.

29th January

Much of today is spent listening to Rebecca describe various ashrams across Tamil Nadu. All have thick-sounding rulebooks prohibiting most of my favourite things, from talking to consumption of garlic.

I venture into town in the afternoon with the intention of withdrawing cash, which in India is best approached as a sort of fun lottery unless you want to collapse into a tearful puddle of anger. I assume that most of the ATMs’ primary purpose is to steal bank details, or possibly decoration. It clearly isn’t to dispense money. Error messages are so frequent and various that most cash machines are accompanied by large wall-mounted displays explaining the meaning of their different numerical codes, which reach into triple digits. There’s surely a version of Indian ATM Error Message bingo already doing the rounds, and having just picked up a rare #067 – Magstripe Not Enabled I’m keen to join in.

Deep in not-entirely-harmonious conversation about the merits of various ashrams and generally what to do when our stay in Thekkady comes to an end, Rebecca and I head to a Kathkali show in the evening. Kathkali – an ancient, heavily stylised fusion of theatre and dance in which solo performers, who train for a dozen years or more, recreate tales of the ancient Hindu epics in silence save for accompanying music – is famous throughout Kerala but we’ve so far not been to see any, and this bugs me.

Our hostess Suneetha has secured us the tickets, and presents them grinning “Look! Front row seats”. Fantastic. I joke as we sit down in them “By the way, Kathkali is famous for its audience participation”. Rebecca looks at me furiously. “Don’t worry, it’s not like they’ll pick on the white couple in the front row, is it?” Her anger turns to fear, so I explain quickly that I’m joking and even though I know nothing whatsoever about Kathkali I’m sure there isn’t any audience participation.

In the event, there’s a lot.

It’s Rebecca’s worst nightmare in almost every other sense, too. The performance hall is hot, stuffy and there’s no A/C, and while we wait for the show to start one of the two shirtless teenagers that peek nervously round the curtain as the audience dribbles in lights a large candle right in front of her face. Then, clanging a pair of cymbals while his accomplice raps a tabla, the candle-lighter announces the star of tonight’s show, the Famous and Globally Renowned Mr Alim Khan.

Enter, stage right, a terrifying sight. Swaddled in gaudy clothing, caked in pale make-up, eyebrows rippling like caterpillars on strong amphetamines, the performer looks like the demonic offspring of a pantomime dame and a ventriloquist’s dummy. Panto dames, as it happens, have a talent for embarrassing me. A year or two ago, soon after we moved to Bethnal Green, I found myself outside a greengrocer’s debating half to Rebecca and half to myself whether or not to buy a bulb of fennel. On uttering the inexcusable line “Ooo, I could do an Ottolenghi! What do you reckon?” a voice sounded behind me.

“Oh, just buy it, you ponce!”

I span round, and there, of all people, stood Christopher Biggins. He chuckled jovially and skipped inside to pay for his shopping. By the time he emerged I still hadn’t decided what I’d do with the fennel if I did buy it, so he chimed “Blimey, are you still here?” before vanishing into the East London sunset like a merry woodland elf.

Anyway, after a demonstration of the key poses and expressions of Kathkali, which mostly involves Alim Khan moving his bloodshot eyes rapidly from side to side for ten minutes, he starts pulling members of the audience up, performing stances like Anger and Amusement at them while they, clearly familiar with the format, entertain the crowd by going along with it and bobbing their heads enthusiastically.

Two thoughts enter my head. Firstly, Rebecca was already sceptical about this beforehand and not in the best mood after our travel planning. Conversely to ashrams and yoga retreats, watching traditional performing art forms falls squarely in the bracket of Things Danny Wants To Do. If she gets dragged on stage I can kiss goodbye to idle conversation and anything more culinarily adventurous than rice and mung beans for the next three months. Secondly, everyone else who went up took their shoes off. Must remember to take my shoes off.

Then, a third and entirely unwelcome thought joins the party: our lunch had raw salad with it, and one of our anti-food-poisoning golden rules is don’t eat raw salad but hey, I wolfed it down anyway didn’t I, and guess what? I kind of need the toilet. It would be so typical, so cosmically right and proper, if my stomach decided to offload a dodgy batch of tap-water-washed vegetables just as the Most Auspiciously Esteemed Alim Khan summoned me onto the stage.

So when he inevitably points his trembling finger vaguely in our direction and I fall on the grenade, I am concentrating so hard on not shitting myself that I completely forget to remove my shoes, much to Mr Khan’s displeasure. Once barefoot, I follow his mimed instruction and sit on the stool on the stage, trying not to read too much symbolism into the act, and freeze rigid while he has a bit of silent back-and-forth with the crowd and eventually lets me scamper back to my seat.

This concludes the first section. The second half features Alim recreating the story of the infant Krishna killing the demon Putana who tried to kill the God-baby by suckling him from her poison-covered nipple. One of the musicians describes the story before the re-enactment begins, but I’m so elated to have got through the audience participation without soiling myself that I forget to pay attention. I later piece it together from the bits I remember, leading to the unlikely Google search “Krishna poison nipple”.

In the meantime, I entertain myself by imagining he’s acting out the story of Life of Pi. In French.

The Great Escape (from Munnar)

25th January

The road from Kothamangalam climbs steeply into the Western Ghats, winding tightly over and around itself like small intestine. In parts the rickety bus travels on little more than dirt track and the sight of long, sheer drops inches outside the tyre treads thrill window-seat passengers as the driver loops round corners in big, winding arcs.

One golden rule of Indian driving is that the solution is never to slow down. If there’s not enough time to get through a gap then, obviously, you need to go faster. William Dalrymple writes that in Delhi right of way belongs to the owner of the largest vehicle, and the same applies in the Southern mountains however ill-suited to the terrain the cumbersome, dilapidated buses might be. Blind corners are tackled not by braking but with a stout blast of deafening horn: on-comers, you have been warned. I spend the duration of the five hour journey wondering whether I find the driver’s debonair over-his-shoulder chatter with other passengers and (sometimes simultaneously) texting off his mobile while steering one-handed reassuring or criminal.

As we climb close to Munnar the scenery transforms from forest into tea plantation which has a strange, other-worldly beauty to it. I’m captivated, both by the surroundings and by the roadside signage advertising “Budjeted rooms” in the town. I’m smug to have booked ahead: there’s budget, then there’s budjet. There’s a great deal of variety in the spelling of Indian English, hardly surprising given the huge linguistic and educational diversity within the country and that the spelling of British English was itself inconsistent for much of the colonial period. There are, however, some particularly amusing examples, like the judicial “Jungle Bird Trial” signposted in Thattekad, and Kothamangalam’s intriguing “Pollution Tasting Centre”.

In the event, my self-congratulation at having reserved ahead is misplaced. I’ll say here that for anyone on a short- or medium-term trip to India with money to spend and a keen interest in hiking, Munnar is probably unmissable, but rewards stumping up for a decent hotel outside the main town and putting time aside for the longer treks. As long-stay, low-budget, general-purpose tourists Rebecca and I have reserved a cheap room in a hotel just off the squalid bus stand – the sight of which is enough to kill my relief at arriving intact on the spot – and it is dire.

The room has two orifices besides the door. One is a window looking out not at the district’s rolling, tea-tree covered hills but at the hotel’s second floor corridor. The other is a rusty, dust-ridden vent in the bathroom’s bare concrete wall with a gaping hole in it, leading to a shaft from which the conversations of other guests are clearly audible. The walls are painted a nauseating shade of dark green and the bedsheets are pink and festooned with roses, heart motifs and the word “Love”. The towels provided are striped pink and black and made from a plasticy sponge-like material that has the curious ability to get soaking wet without drying the body at all.

Everything about the room seems designed to induce misanthropy so we drop our bags and head downstairs as quickly as possible. The skinny, sleep-deprived lad on reception talks us through the map of the local area and the prohibitively pricey hiking packages on offer in a bored monotone that would douse Michael McIntyre’s spirits, and we emerge blinking from the Greenview Holiday Inn’s gloom to the blazing sunshine of a mountain afternoon.

The bus stand is as torrid on second view as our first impression had been. A cluster of budget accommodation and cheap, grimy food outlets have sprung up around it, creating a loud, dusty and utterly depressing mini-settlement about twenty minutes’ walk from the town proper. Thronged with hawkers and invasive auto drivers it is a charmless assault on all senses. After jumping into an auto we discover the town itself is little better; the same dense, tourist-trap crush, just more of it.

We eat, and return to the room dejectedly. There is at least decent Wi-Fi, so to raise spirits we download Monty Python’s Holy Grail onto my tablet and try our best to forget where we are.

26th January

My diary entry for today reads as follows:

Nearly have a breakdown. Card and WiFi not working. Can’t do much about it. R has used all tablet memory and entire internet to download a load of shite films, incl. Princess Switch. She thought it would be “funny” 😦

An afternoon power cut plunges the Inn into hours of darkness. I find myself standing guard for Rebecca in the bathroom, headtorch trained at the scary vent from which she is convinced a serial killer is about to emerge. I want to screw my eyes shut and imagine myself somewhere else but instead keep them fixed on the vent, not daring to abandon my bizarre call of duty for a second.

27th January

I can see the Greenview trekking itineraries over Rebecca’s shoulder while we eat breakfast, and feel guilty and remorseful that we’re leaving without a walk. The plan had been to extend our initial two nights once we’d got our bearings, but we’re so bummed out by the place that yesterday we told the guy on reception we’d check out today. He’d seemed surprised. Now I feel as though we’re ditching Munnar without giving it a chance.

The Soft Trek, 7km from 8.30am-12.30pm for 450 rupees per head seems a good length and fits our budget. Rebecca reassures me; I needed to write yesterday and the room was too horrible to stay another day. We’ll trek in Periyar.

At the bus stop I get chatting to a French couple who are also on their way to Thekkady, in the Periyar wildlife park and effectively on the border with Tamil Nadu, while Rebecca is off buying snacks for the journey. We load our bags onto the back seat with the help of the French pair and get comfy, glad to be leaving Munnar and the Greenview Holiday Inn.

Relaxing into the journey, I ask Rebecca the name of the place we’re staying in Thekkady. “Erm…” she checks her messages, “… the Greenview Residency”.

The Western Ghats echo with my howl of despair.

Birdspotting

22nd January

“No sir. The only way to Thattekad is to take a taxi.” Fairly predictable response from a Tourist Information Centre that’s also a taxi firm. “Where is it you are staying there?”

“Jungle Bird Homestay.”

“Oh! In the bird sanctuary! Very nice.”

“Thanks. How much would a taxi there cost?”

Some numbers are punched authoritatively and presumably at random into a calculator. “This much, sir.” The display reads 2,660.

“Okay, thanks. Couldn’t we take a bus to Kothamangalam and take a taxi from there?”

“Muuuuuch nicer to take a taxi, sir.”

“Great, thanks. Goodbye.”

We take the ferry from Kochin to Ernakulam – a quick, inexpensive and wonderfully scenic alternative to the buses between the two – and on the other side find a genuine tourist information centre staffed by a kindly gentleman who helpfully picks out the relevant bus stations for us on a map of the town. By now Rebecca has suffered a heat-induced meltdown apparently only curable by impulse-buying leopard-print shawls and a fake Armani cap, so we decide to stop for some lunch.

During the course of the meal we get chatting to a young Indian couple who we’re sharing a table with. They take a keen interest in our travel plans, and our thoughts on the mediocre Western food we’re tucking into. They recommend a travel company for us to get in touch with in Wayanad, and when we ask them how they know them they exchange conspiratorial glances. “We’re travel bloggers”, says the girl.

“Here”, says the guy as they’re leaving, “take this, in case you use those guys in Wayanad”. He passes me a napkin on which he’s written the message “Tell them I recommended you” and his instagram handle.

On our way home we stop at Kashi for lime juice and a slice of chocolate cake that would put the yips up Bruce Bogtrotter, and I look up our new friend. He and the girl are both influencers, he has over 180,000 followers and both wear black motorcycle helmets in all their photos, giving them an achingly hip anonymous persona.

I eat cake til I burst, looking forward to the next few weeks.

23rd January

The Twitcher holds a camera with a lens as long as my arm. He’s bagged himself a terrific shot of the Malabar Grey Hornbill swaggering about in the treetop, although seems genuinely impressed with the snap Rebecca has taken with our Panasonic point-and-shoot.

The Twitcher is a recently-retired brand manager from Bangalore in blue trackies and white trainers. He can identify, in a wingbeat, each of the birds we come across: the Rufous Treepie, the Lesser Flame-Backed Woodpecker, the Racket-Tailed Drongo all flutter within his taxonomic grasp. He navigates the forest in near-silence save whispers of the names of these creatures and the occasional ker-chick of his mighty Canon’s shutter.

Even the Twitcher’s knowledge is second to that of the Bird Whisperer. Deftly she leads our party of five through the jungle, stopping abruptly to point out different birds high in the canopy and to summon them closer with pre-recorded snippets of birdsong on her phone. The mother-in-law of Sandhya, who greeted us to and cooks at the Jungle Bird Homestay, she is one of those awe-inspiring old ladies whose knowledge of and closeness to nature keeps her in condition to trek through the forest, leaving the twenty-somethings trailing in her wake.

The Bird Whisperer gives me up as a lost cause early on when I fail to spot a pigeon barely 20 yards away. Clumsy enough to commit what I like to call “unforced errors” (falling or overbalancing without any provocation) at the best of times, the constant upward-peering of birdwatching has me tripping over constantly and snapping every twig and dry leaf Thattekad has to offer.

Still, I’m not as loud as the Plant Guy. A jocular garden designer from Twickenham, the Plant Guy likes plants but doesn’t know much about Indian ones, and before the walk had a captivating stand-off with a macaque outside the homestay. This culminated in the monkey nicking his banana, diving inside the open kitchen window for more before crapping nonchalantly on the stairs. I like the Plant Guy.

Knackered after our walk, we’re joined for dinner by three ladies from Delhi. They, like the Twitcher, are well-read on all manner of topics including William Dalrymple and international politics, and remind me pleasantly of the group of intellectual ex-pats my mum hangs out with in Majorca.

We get an early night, for tomorrow morning’s walk begins at 6.30.

24th January

Gireesh is an exuberant bundle of energy decked out in olive and navy hiking gear and a wide-brimmed hat. There’s a hint of Carlton Banks about him, both in appearance and in his boyish enthusiasm. His fulsome moustache quivers with excitement as we set out into a misty jungle dawn.

The son of the Bird Whisperer and manager of the homestay, he is a hot-shot defence lawyer who claims he hasn’t lost a case in ten years. He also claims to be able to recognise over nine hundred different bird calls, and while I can’t attest to it being that many he certainly picks up on the faintest cry from the furthest treetop, mimicking them through moustachioed lips in addition to phone recordings to open dialogue with the forest’s rarest birds, triangulate their whereabouts and lead his creeping followers to within photographing distance.

His enthusiasm is infectious. He thumbs his moustache in frustration as we miss a photo opp of a buzzard, and trembles with joy at the sight of a Malabar Drogan – “South India’s most beautiful bird”, he assures me earnestly between bouts of his catchphrase “Take it, take the shot – whaaat a beauuty!”

Gireesh has been bird-watching in these forests, in which he grew up, for over twenty years. Much of his skill was acquired from knowledgeable visitors, and it was he who taught his mother the craft – though he concedes that she is now the master. He also tells us that four months ago she was treated, at great cost, for cervical cancer.

“This is why she is now so unhealthy”.

We stare at him blankly. “What do you mean? She’s so fit, she’s still doing three-hour walks through the forest at her age!?”

“Ah yes, but now she only does two walks per day. Before the cancer she is doing four”.

She is all clear and I’m mightily glad, as I’m utterly in awe of this woman.

The Twitcher – whose name is Ajit – departs after lunch, over which we discuss writing and exchange details. He and his wife are soon to move into an Ashram, which doesn’t surprise me as much as it otherwise might; there is an understated reflectiveness about him that comes across as wisdom and which I am very much going to miss.

For the afternoon walk we’re joined by a family of four from Chennai. Both accountants, the wife works for Deloitte and the husband for Shell who, he tells us, have started moving not just low-level but also “decision-making” jobs away from the UK and US to India, Kuala Lumpur and other parts of Asia in an effort to cut costs since the slump in oil prices.

The whole family are keen birders, wielding enormous cameras and decked out head to toe in camo for the afternoon walk, in which we stake out a watering hole for two hours in near silence save the eldest son’s under-breath muttering about how much he wants a shot of the Paradise Fly-Catcher. After a time I tire of snapping the array of thrushes and warblers that flutter down for a dip and take to photographing, in pristine close-up, an ant that has found its way onto Rebecca’s Armani cap.

25th January

In our short stay at Thattekad I’ve learned many things. I have learned the pleasure that can be found in bird-watching, a pastime that besides a couple of excursions with my father and grandfather as a kid has never grabbed me, and can now identify a handful of exotic birds.

I’ve also learned that birdwatchers can overdo it. On our final morning walk we visit a new section of forest. I take a picture of an enormous green spider, legspan as wide as my face, suspended in a pristine web at least a meter across. No-one seems interested. I discover a trail of red ants that, while the others pine after some sort of dull brown barbet, I follow halfway up a hillside and estimate to be at least 20m long. Besides telling their children not to step in it nobody bats an eyelid. There is evidence galore (trampled bushes and steaming piles of dung) that an elephant is on the loose nearby, but to the birdwatchers this magnificent beast is an annoyance that can only scare away the reclusive frog-mouths.

In fairness, the elephant is also dangerous. The previous evening the Bird Whisperer told us the story of a time she found herself face-to-face with one in the forest, alerted to its presence only by the alarm calls of the forest’s avian life when she was within a few feet. The phrase “like a herd of elephants” is misleading, at least as regards the Indian variety. They are incredibly elusive; despite their bulk they traverse the forest in near-silence. They are known to charge, however, especially if they have young, so the Bird Whisperer ran for her life while the tourists she’d been guiding stopped to take pictures.

I’m thrilled, if a little nervous, knowing that at least one of these animals is in the same patch of forest as us – perhaps only meters away, moving in shady silence. Gireesh periodically scuttles off to listen out for it, and I secretly hope that he’ll return at a sprint followed at a safe distance by a set of tusks, but there is no more sign of the elephant than the buzzards the birders want to photograph. In an effort to raise spirits, Gireesh takes us to an occasional nesting-spot of the Ceylon Bay Owl and, against all the odds, there it is: a placid, golden fluffy-looking thing sleeping contentedly on a branch. Gireesh assures us that this is the rarest nocturnal bird in the world – “in the world, I tell you” – and that having nested here today it won’t sleep within a 20km radius again for two weeks.

I later Google the owl and according to Wikipedia its conservation status is “of least concern”. I had suspected all along that there is something of the showman about Gireesh, but somehow that doesn’t spoil the effect one bit. Throughout our stay his relentless energy and sense of theatre have illuminated a world I knew very little about, and for the sake of the fun of it I can tolerate a bit of hammed-up trim around the edges.

When check-out time comes, he announces that each of the walks we’d been on cost (unbeknownst to us) 500 rupees. After a brief session of open-wallet surgery, we set off for Munnar.