Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Simple Bare Necessities

There are some things in life you take for granted, aren`t there?  You need to eat; you need to sleep; you need to clean yourself and use some kind of toilet facility in some fashion.  I thought I’d run into all the possible permutations of the last one, but India has added a few new twists.

You’ll be familiar with “Western-style” toilets, of course.  You know, the things you have to clean (my least favourite housekeeping task, ever), usually in a room also containing a sink, shower and/or bathtub.  The room that you fight over with your roommate or spouse or siblings when you’re trying to get ready in the morning.

You might also be familiar with Western-style toilets in some parts of world where everything works as you’re used to, but where you can’t actually flush toilet paper.  (Central America, for example.)  There’s a bin usually helpfully provided, next to the toilet, where your waste paper is dumped if sewage treatment facilities in that particular part of the world can’t handle it.

You’ve probably heard of — even if not actually seen — squat toilets.  These are essentially holes in the ground, with a platform for your feet, that require strong thigh muscles and some dexterity in keeping clothing out of the way while you’re going about your business.  Toilet paper is not usually supplied, but there is generally a water tap to clean yourself off.  These types of facilities can be found in many corners of the world, and locals will use them in preference to Western-style toilets (which they consider unhygienic, what with all those different bottoms taking a seat there). 

If you’re a camper, you’ll be familiar with the outhouses (huts with a rudimentary seat built over a hole in the ground) to be found in many campgrounds.  If you’re an adventurous backwoods type, you’ll be well used to squatting behind the nearest bush or tree to take care of business, and to bathing in the nearest lake or stream.   If you’ve travelled in remote parts of developed countries — the Australian Outback, for example — you’ll also have gotten comfortable with the idea of just finding a shady spot to the side of the bus.  Boys to the left, girls to the right, please …

So I thought I’d seen it all.  But there’s still a few things in India that perplex me, plumbing-wise.

There are Western-style toilets, but almost never any toilet paper (and you can’t usually find it for sale in shops, so I’m not sure what I’m going to do when my supply runs out).  Where there are squat toilets, there is always a water tap with a small bucket helpfully nearby; I’ve worked out that you’re mean to use the bucket and water to clean yourself (in lieu of toilet paper), but how on earth are you supposed to get dry again?

On trains, you usually get the choice of either squat or Western-style toilets.  Given the state of cleanliness of the latter, these pretty much become “squat” too (you just don’t have to squat as low); trying to use either while balancing on a swaying train and watching the track go by through the hole beneath you is a challenging task.   Going “first class” by train doesn’t guarantee a Western toilet; I waited in the “upper class” waiting room for my Delhi-Agra train, and struggled to block the smell from the squat toilets at the back.

In hotel bathrooms, there’s often a hose-type thing with a nozzle attachment located next to the toilet; I worked out (finally) that this is meant to be a hand-held bidet, sort of, to rinse yourself off after you’ve finished your business.  (I’d thought at first that it was just for cleaning the floor, and it works quite well for this purpose, too.  Sometimes there’s a squeegee-type thing provided to help you get the floor dry again.)  But the question remains:  how do you get dry again?  There’s never a helpful little handheld blowdryer nearby.

When it comes to other matters of personal hygiene, my dilemma continues.  I’ve usually had my own bathroom where I’ve stayed, which is a nice step up over your average hostel, and there’s often even a Western toilet.  There’s never a bathtub, but as it’s mostly to hot to think about baths anyway, this isn’t a problem.  There’s a shower nozzle, usually planted in the middle of the room (never in a separate shower stall); how you’re meant to shower without drenching the entire room and everything therein I haven’t been able to figure out.

I can’t work out the buckets, either.  There’s always a large bucket, with a smaller scoop-type bucket inside it; I’m guessing that you’re supposed to fill the larger bucket up with water and then use the little one to pour water over yourself.  Why you’d want to do this instead of just standing under the showerhead, though, I don’t understand. 

Given that there may not be a drain in the bathroom, anyway (my current hut just has a hole in the wall for the water to run out — which also happens to let the geckos in), pretty much everything is destined to get wet, and you’ll be standing in an inch or two of water by the time you’re done whichever way you choose to work it.  So it probably doesn’t matter.

All I know is, the first thing I’m doing when I get home is spending an hour or two in a really hot bath.  With not a gecko in sight.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

What's in a Name?

Most places are content with one name.  It makes life easy; you know THIS name refers to THAT place, everyone understands what you’re talking about and it’s clear where you’re going or where you are.

But India, inevitably, has other ideas.  (I’m starting to think this country deliberately sets out to do everything as differently as possible from the rest of the world, just for the hell of it.)

Most places have at least two names, and in some cases more.  You`ll know some of these pairs of names — Mumbai/Bombay, Delhi/New Delhi — and, even if you didn’t, it would be easy enough to figure out what place the alternate name referred to as they sound kind of similar.  Calcutta/Kolkata … … Pondicherry/Puducherry … Bangalore/Bengaluru … you get the idea.  Sometimes, the name of a place has been reinvented as a nearly-identical English word; “cashmere”, for example, comes from the name “Kashmir”, the northernmost region of India (and the source of all that soft goat’s wool that makes up the product we know and love).

There`s not a lot of consistency as to which name is used, either.  For India’s largest city, for example, most people will refer to it by the “new” name of Mumbai (new, although it’s actually an older name than the “old” British name of Bombay), but it may show up on train and bus schedules as Bombay, 60-odd years after Indian independence.  Some people adamantly refuse to use the name Mumbai, clinging stubbornly to all traces of things British (these are usually the same people who speak the Queen’s English better than Elizabeth herself).    But it’s still easy enough to sort yourself out, given the similarity of names.

But there are other cases where the alternate names bear no resemblance to each other, so you could get really confused waiting for a bus or train, if it showed up under the “other” name that you didn’t know.  Would you guess, without prior knowledge, that Chennai and Madras were the same place?  Varanasi and Banaras? Thekkady and Kumily and Periyar? (That place is really special, it has three names instead of the usual two.)

And sometimes the names sound alike, but don’t refer to exactly the same place.  The “new” name for the largest city in Kerala — Kochi — encompasses a number of smaller areas with individual names.  The “old” name of Cochin (or Fort Cochin) refers to one of the neighbourhoods within Kochi, not the entire urban area; to make it even more confusing, your train from Kochi will depart from Ernakalum, which is another of those neighbourhoods within Kochi.  The name of the city itself probably won`t show up on a train schedule, so good luck figuring out how to get there if you don`t know what to look for.

There are “new” names that haven’t stuck, for whatever reason; the cities show up on signs and on schedules under the new name but are informally referred to by the old.  Sometimes the reason why is obvious:  given a choice between the “old” Trivandrum and trying to get your tongue around the the “new” Thiruvananthapuram, wouldn’t you use the old name, too?

Apparently the names have all been changing over the last couple of decades for a few different reasons:  to “de-anglicise” the name or the spelling thereof, and make it more consistent with the local language; to revert back to a pre-colonial name; or to get rid of European or Persian or Arabic or other influences and establish Indian names for places.  Not everyone wants to go along with these changes, and some haven’t happened yet; for example, the proposed name change from “Ahmedabad” to “Karnavati” (to de-Arabicize the name) is proving controversial.

Varkala — my current home on a cliff overlooking the Arabian Sea — adds another twist to the confusing world of Indian nomenclature.  The name “Varkala” is always used, but it refers to more than one place:  it might mean the beach itself, down at the bottom of the cliff; it might mean the tourist strip of hotels and restaurants and shops strung out along the cliff top; or it might mean the town where local Indian folk go about their daily business, and where useful things like train stations and ATMs are.  So mostly, here, “Varkala” doesn’t show up on road signs around the area:  they’ll refer simply to “Town” or “Cliff” or “Beach”.

India can even have a different name, once in a long while; try “Hindustan” on for size.  (One of the English-language newspapers here is called the “Hindustan Times”.)  I have long been saying I wanted to visit the “ ‘Stans” (Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kryrgystan, Kazakhstan, and so on), but I didn’t know I’d be doing that here.  It isn’t commonly used; while Hindus might make up 80% of the population, there are a plethora of other religious groups that might feel excluded.

Mind-boggling, really.   I’m getting to the point where I’m never quite sure where I am or where I’m going.  If this naming confusion keeps up, I might have trouble remembering what my own name is — or perhaps I’ll come up with my own, alternate Indian name.

Hmmm … I’ll work on that.  In the meantime, this is the traveller formerly known as Carol signing off, from Varkala Cliff. 

Friday, February 25, 2011

Customer, er, Service -- Yeah, That's It

Customer service.  If you ever come to India, redefine what those two words mean:  you’ll get much more of it where you’re not used to it, and much less of it where it seems natural to you to find it.

You’ll be overwhelmed with “customer service” in shops.  This means that you won’t physically be left alone from the moment you walk in to the moment you leave, and sometimes you’ll even me taken by the arm to forcibly restrain you from exiting or chased down the street in an effort to lure you back.  There’s no window-shopping, no peaceful browsing as you make up your mind what, if anything, you want; it’s a hard sell from the first moment.   

Rickshaw or taxi drivers will take the notion of “customer service” to a whole new level, too.  Unless you’re very clear about where you want to go and very firm in insisting that they actually take you there, you might find yourself on an extended tour of the city or on a shopping marathon from shop to shop, or maybe at an entirely different hotel than the one you’d booked for the night.  (The driver will, of course, get a commission on anything you buy or from the hotel he convinces you to stay at, so this extra “service” he provides is pretty self-serving.  He’ll still expect a tip from you, though.)  

In restaurants (where almost anywhere else I’ve been in the world, staff live on tips and will usually jump to serve you) you’ll find “customer service” means, well, ignoring you altogether.  (If you’re a woman, anyway; more on that later.)   I take for granted, walking into a restaurant or cafe, that the waitperson in question will want to sell me food and drink, and who’s eager to keep me happy so that he/she gets a good tip.  

Here?  Not so’s you’d notice.  I tried an experiment one day, walking in to a cafe and sitting down without flagging a waiter, curious to see how long I would sit there before he came over of his own accord; an hour and a half later, I was still waiting.  Having a meal can take hours:  first, I have to plant myself in the waiter’s path to get him to bring me a menu; then I have to either wait till he wanders by again and flag him down with both hands, or go in search of him, before I can place my order; then it’ll be, oh, a good 20 minutes or half an hour, at best, before any food or drink appears; then it’s a constant battle for attention to get anything that’s wrong with your order corrected (there’s almost always something) or to get another drink, or to get the bill.  Don’t even ask me how long I’ve had to wait before they finally bring me my change, after I’ve paid.

There’s one cafe in Varkala run by a no-nonsense Aussie woman named Billy; she was rushed off her feet one morning as she was the only one in the place and told me that all her staff had called in sick.  They were “being Indian”, as she it, “and deciding when they were going to work”; when they do in fact show up, they seem to wait around, chatting to each other, until she gets impatient enough to tell them to go take this customer’s order or bring that customer her bill.  Left to their own devices, she says, they’d sit around all day unless forced by some of the patrons to pay attention to them.

So, customer service?  Non-existent, as defined by North American standards; I’m trying to work out why that is and my best guess is that it’s considered “rude” here to bother a customer too much.  Or maybe it’s a gender thing; perhaps male waitpersons (they’re always male, never female) are shy about, or find it improper to, approach strange foreign women.  I’ve observed a few times that men alone or in groups get prompter service that I do (either when I’ve been on my own or with other women); well, they GET served without having to tackle the waiters, which is more than what happens for me.  

The experiment I referred to above, where I sat for an hour and a half without ever once having the waiter come over?  Well, the three men at the next table got menus presented to them about five minutes after sitting down, had their orders taken straightaway, and had received, eaten and paid for their food all within the space of 20 minutes.  I’ve seen in happen more than once, so I have my suspicions that a gender bias (for whatever reason) really does exist.

I used to wait tables in university, to help pay my way through school; if I’d ever lavished that kind of non-attention on my patrons I’d have made no tips at all.  Here, of course, they still expect that the rich foreign woman they’ve completely ignored for her entire visit to their restaurant will cough up big bucks for the privilege.

Funny, anyway.  I’m not bitching about it, contrary to what you may think; I’m trying NOT to be one of those people who travels to other parts of the world and expects everything to be just like it is at home.  I just find it interesting to observe when things are so completely different, and to speculate why that might be.

I think it’s the girl thing.  Any guys out there who have travelled India alone, I’d be interested in hearing your experience.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Down the Rabbit Hole

Do you ever feel like you’ve wandered through the looking glass, fallen down the rabbit hole into an Alice-in-Wonderland sort of world where nothing is quite what it seems?  I have that feeling a lot in India.

It’s a topsy-turvy world here, where many things I take for granted either don’t exist or are present in such an altered form that they’re barely recognizable. 

What kinds of things, you ask?  Well, take restaurants, for example; I take for granted most places I go that I will walk into a restaurant, be approached by a waitperson who wants to sell me food and drink, and who’s eager to lavish attention on me in the hopes of getting a good tip. 

Here?  Not so much.  I’ve practically had to tackle waiters (they’re always men, never women) to get them to bring me a menu, take my order, bring me another drink or the bill.  I could sit for hours staring at them and they’d never actually come over to me unless I specifically motion them over.  Going out for dinner can take hours even if they get your order right the first time (a big “if”).  I tried an experiment in a cafe yesterday, walking in and sitting down without flagging a waiter; I was curious to see how long I would sit there before he deigned to come over to me.  After an hour and a half (spent surfing on the cafe`s free Wi-Fi), I concluded that it was never going to happen.

I take the whole hotel-room-booking process for granted too.  I assumed, when I went looking for a place in Varkala, that I could say, “I’d like a room starting such-and-such a date” and that I’d have to give them an end date as well.  Nope.  They wouldn’t promise me a room starting the next night, even if they had one free, in case someone showed up that same day and wanted it (I guess the notion of renting it to that someone just for a night didn’t occur to them); when I said I didn’t know how long I’d want to stay that didn’t appear to be an issue, I just have to tell them the day before I want to leave. 

I already wrote about my life as a rock star in this upside-down world; I have yet to walk down a street without anyone staring at me and my picture will be gracing more photo albums on Indian coffee tables that I can shake a stick at.  Small children in particular find me endlessly fascinating, if a little strange and scary; they don’t know what to make of this tall pale creature with the oddly-coloured hair.

Then there’s plumbing.  I expected that there’d be a lot of squat toilets around, and there are.  But there’s a lot of other stuff that I can’t quite get a handle on:  why the shower head is always in the middle of the bathroom (never a separate stall) so that you get the entire room wet when showering; what the inevitable buckets in the corner are for; why there’s never any toilet paper even in the “Western-style” toilets; how you’re supposed to dry yourself off if (in lieu of said toilet paper) you use the hose thing on the wall (kind of a handheld bidet) to clean up.

Electricity too — I take for granted that if I want to turn on a light or the ceiling fan or the air-conditioning that I flip a switch and things happen.  If it doesn’t work and there’s no electricity, it’s usally something major that has gone wrong:  a transformer’s failed, power lines have been knocked down in a storm, or (most memorably) the entire grid has blacked out across all of eastern Canada and the U.S.  Here?  Not so.  Brownouts happen, all the time; here in Varkala it’s been at least twice a day and frequently more.  

No one gets excited about them; sometimes the hotel or restaurant or whatever has a backup generator and things flicker back to life, sometimes not.  Everyone just waits patiently for the power to come back and life carries on as usual; I’m guessing that there’s more demand than there is capacity in this country and at least some of the brownouts are deliberate to manage supply.  So flicking that switch isn’t necessarily going to make anything happen at any given moment.

Going to the beach is another through-the-looking-glass moment.  Any white woman showing any amount of skin at all is instantly subjected to the same attention as, say, a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model (even those of us with quite modest attire); Indian women invariably go into the water fully clothed in saris, if they go in at all.  There’s no in-between; you’re either an object of intense fascination and probably a Jezebel/Western slut or you’re a modest and self-effacing “proper” woman.

[Men don’t get treated the same way, of course.  They get to uncover a lot more; I even saw a few in Speedos on the beach, which is never a good idea, anywhere, and in fact ought to be against the law unless you have the body of, say, an Olympic swimmer (who are allowed — in fact encouraged — to show as much skin as they please).  Most Indian men in Varkala wear dhotis — a length of cotton fabric knotted around their waists — in lieu of shorts or pants; if they get too hot, they just fold it in half and tuck in the ends so it becomes a knee-length garment.  Women don’t get to do the same with their saris.]

Sunscreen’s another thing.  Since I have ancestors who hailed from cold grey northern climes (Ireland and Scotland, mainly), I don’t have sun-friendly skin so I go through litres of the stuff.  I take for granted that I can find it wherever I go, even if I will be mocked by the locals for the amount of it I use; I remember being told in Italy to slather on olive oil instead before sitting out in the sun so I’d get some colour.  (Yeah — deep-fried crispy Carol, that would be an attractive sight.)  They never mocked me in Oz for using ridiculously high SPFs, as they get the concept there (well, considering all the first “settlers” were from the same neck of the woods as my ancestors, there are lots of pale Celtic types with skin that doesn’t cope with the sun any better than mine).

Here in India, I can find sunscreen for sale, which pleasantly surprised me; it’s hard to find in some parts of the world where people are naturally darker than me.  But Indian sunscreen exists, I’ve discovered, not for protection against skin cancer or ageing, but for social status; whiter skin is prized over darker, and sunscreens often have “whitening” cream added and promise to “improve fairness”.  They won’t just stop you getting any darker, they’ll actually make you lighter.  Hmmm.   If I use one of these, I might actually become translucent.

Then there’s illicit substances.  India is (nominally at least) a conservative society, and some towns go so far as to make alcohol, not just drugs, illegal in their vicinity.  But here’s the rabbit-hole twist:  those seem invariably to be the towns where it’s easiest to procure the stuff and where you’re most likely to be offered it.  Pushkar, in theory, is a dry town as it is considered a sacred place for Hindus, yet if you walk along the main street at night you’ll be quite brazenly offered cold beer to entice you into shops, and you can order “bhang” (marijuana) in your lassi or buy yourself some hash.  Here in Varkala, many of the restaurants aren’t technically licensed, but they’ll still serve you alcohol — just wrapped discreetly in newspaper and poured into a coffee mug (I’m sure the cops never see through that ruse, ever).  This, despite the huge sign out front advertising "Kingfisher beer -- the King of Good Times".

And don’t even get me started on shopping.  I’m not a shopper at heart; I tend to go shopping (other than for shoes) only when I need something and with a clear idea of what I want, so that I can just walk into a store, buy it, and leave again.  It’s not a recreational pastime for me;  I shop like a straight man.  Here?  It’s an ordeal, no matter what you’re buying.  I walk into a shop and am instantly swarmed by salespeople thrusting goods at me; unlike Canada (where they will acknowledge you politely but leave you alone thereafter if you like, until you need their help), or the UK (where they pretty much just ignore you), salespeople never let you just look around in peace. 

And there’s the endless haggling:  I expected before I came that I’d have to haggle if I wanted to buy souvenirs or clothes or whatnot, and I do.  I didn’t know that I’d have to haggle for pretty much everything, from rickshaw rides (no taxi meters here) to taking a yoga class to renting a room for the night to buying sunscreen.  It’s only restaurants that have fixed prices, and hey, maybe you can even haggle there; I just haven’t tried because I get so fed up with the whole concept.

But this is all starting to seem normal to me, now.  When I get back home, waitstaff in restaurants are going to seem inordinately pushy and in-your-face; salespeople in clothing stores will seem very rude for ignoring me.  Going to the beach or walking down the street and being completely ignored — no paparazzi in sight! — will be very deflating, as I realize I’m no longer exotic and enthralling.  Having someone expect me just to pay the price they ask, without being willing to negotiate, will seem exceedingly inflexible.

But that’s a month away, yet.  For now, just call me Alice.  In Wonderland.

Canuck at Large in India

This is an odd trip I’m on.  I don’t just mean because India is so surreal in many respects that I feel like I’ve dropped into an entirely different world sometimes (although I do – more on that in a separate post); it’s been a different way of travelling that anything else I’ve done this year.

For one thing, it’s the first time this year I’ve done “organized” travel, where I signed up with a group and had all my transportation and accommodation arrangements made for me.  I spent the first couple of weeks in India that way, with the same group of 14 people, then the next few days with a slightly different group (some of the same faces, with a few additions).  I’m not used to spending large amounts of time with the same people this year; oh, I occasionally joined up with other travellers in South America for a short while, but it wasn’t the same experience.

I do know myself well enough to recognize that I need to make sure I have some time alone, when I’m travelling with a group; I have a fairly high need for solitude, to think and write and read and just be on my own.  So I took time out occasionally, even when travelling with a group; but for the most part I was eating and drinking and sightseeing and shopping and sharing a room with the same other travellers. 

And I got quite used to it; there’s an upside to travelling with other people in that you don’t have to organize everything yourself and can sometimes let other people pick the restaurant or figure out how to get back to the hotel, or just watch your stuff if you want to go for a swim at the beach or find the nearest toilet.  These things are more problematic when it’s just you, and sometimes it gets downright tiring to be the one who always has to make the decisions and figure things out.

It’s nice, too, having the same group of people for a while.  It was very, very easy to meet people in South America, for example, as I stayed mostly in hostels and always had someone to make dinner or have a drink with.  But it was an ever-changing cast of characters as I moved from place to place; there’s a certain amount of repetition in the conversations you have when you travel this way.  “Where are you from?”  “How long are you travelling for?”  “Where have you been and where are you going next?”

When you travel with the same group for a couple of weeks, you have those same conversations at first, but then you get to move on and talk about other things, once you’ve learned all that preliminary stuff about each other.  It’s not quite the same as hanging out with your close friends at home, but it’s a good travel substitute for a while.

But I’m back to solitary travel now.  Rachel and Debbie and Susann, all 30-something women from my travel group who elected to stick around in Varkala for a while with me after the tour ended, have all now gone back to their respective snowy corners of the planet (New York and London and Switzerland respectively).  So I no longer have automatic beach or yoga or dinner buddies.

Wandering India on my own.  Now there’s a concept.  Were I still in the north, I think I’d be overwhelmed by the idea, as it’s a chaotic and busy and demanding place to travel (with the possible exception of Pushkar).  In the south, I’m not so worried.

I think my own idea of how I want to travel has changed, too — perhaps because I’m nearing the end of my travels.  In my previous trips this year, I was moving around a lot; getting from Antarctica to Quito, Ecuador between March and July, for example, is covering a lot of ground.  Whirling around northern Scotland and Ireland doesn’t rack up nearly as many kilometres, but trying to do it in the first throes of winter — and the worst winter they’ve seen in decades, at that — makes it just as arduous. 

I spent the first month in India that way; it’s a big country and a lot of kilometres from Delhi in the north down to Kerala in the south, and I saw a lot of places and some incredible sights in between.  But I think the second half of my trip here will be different; I’m going to see fewer places, spend less time “sightseeing” and settle in on a beach or two to really get to know those small corners of India.  And do some yoga, read a lot, write for a while each day — travel is as much about the “inner” journey, I think, as it is about the “outer” one.    

An Aussie I met earlier in India explained it best:  “You go travelling to find new places,” she said wisely, “but what you end up finding is yourself.”

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Life's a Beach

Home sweet Varkala - my bamboo hut
It's a rough life here in Varkala.  Oh, yeah, I'm still here after more than a week, as I haven't quite gotten around to leaving yet.  My ambition to run around India like a crazy person and cram in as much sightseeing in as many places as possible has been dissipating slowly in these hot, humid Keralan days.

South India -- in particular Kerala, the state I am now in -- is a world away from the north.  It's undoubtedly India, still, but slowed down, mellowed out, relaxed to the rhythm of waves pounding the shore and melting in the heat of a tropical sun.    There are still lots of people wanting to sell you things, auto-rickshaws weaving crazily down the narrow streets, and the odd beggar or two, but it's nowhere near as hard-core, full-on, overwhelming as the north.  I like it.

Varkala, in particular, is growing on me.  It's a beach resort, but nowhere near as glossy and sanitized as a Caribbean Club Med or the European side of the Mediterranean.  You can still hear prayers floating across the breeze from the Hindu temple nearby, or the call to prayer from the mosque up the beach; fisherman still ply their ages-old craft in tiny boats that look much too unstable to brave the Arabian Sea; women still adorn the streets like exotic birds of paradise in their vibrant jewel-coloured saris.  You can sip a Kingfisher or a lassi as you watch the sun set from the cliff, go to sleep under a mosquito net in a tiny bamboo hut, and shock your taste buds with a spicy dosa or other South Indian specialty.

Oh, you could pretend you weren't in India at all, if you wanted.  You could stick to the higher-end, posh resorts and do your Westernized yoga class before your Swedish massage (why bother with ayurvedic, when you can go Western), eat only "continental" food at trendy restaurants full of other sun-burned white people, and spend your days lying comatose on the beach.  I suppose there's nothing wrong with that (although it would never be my choice), but really, why come all the way to India, then?  Just head to the Riviera or the Caribbean (whichever is closer) and live in your little tourist bubble there.

I'm not living quite that way here.  I sleep in a little bamboo hut all to myself (700 rupees a night, or about $15), complete with pink mosquito net, double bed and cold shower but nothing so Western as air-conditioning or television.  I get up early, sometimes, to go read on the beach or just stare at the waves before everyone else invades the space; then I go to yoga from 10 to 12 each morning (I'm taking a beginner course for a week).  After that, I might head to the Juice Shack for a late breakfast and the obligatory juice (current favourite:  Four Flowers, consisting of pineapple, orange, lemon and ginger), before I go read in a hammock for a while.  Then I go find somewhere to have dinner and work my way through the south Indian vegetarian dishes on offer (had some bagan birtha last night which was scrumptious; it's kind of a spicy egglant curry with tomato and onion).

I've stayed away from the local seafood, although I keep hearing it's very good; I like going veg when it's so easy.  And, quite frankly, the sight of that day's catch laid out on tables in front of each restaurant, their eyes all glazed and staring sightlessly at me, turns me off seafood altogether.  (I like my food, when eating non-vegetables, to look nothing like the animal it came from.)

I went for a long walk today after yoga, down to the south cliff of Varkala Beach and beyond, and found myself on some tiny local laneways with ramshackle houses clustered behind the posh resorts.  People looked at me a little oddly -- I gather that tourists don't often wander off the well-established clifftop path -- but were invariably friendly, calling out cheerful "Hello's" and "How are you's" as I wandered past, big smiles on their faces.  Children were particularly interested; one seemed very fascinated by the colour of my hair and wanted to touch it (then seemed quite startled when it felt like, well, normal hair).

I went to a nearby ashram another day, just to have a look around; there are many tourist-oriented ashrams in India, I gather (lots of Westerners who want to come find enlightenment here), but this definitely isn't one of them.  Sivagiri Mutt, perched on a hill just outside Varkala town, is a popular spot for Hindus but not so much for foreigners; I and the two girls I went with (one American, one Swiss) were the only white faces in sight.  Lots more interested children there; they would, I think, occasionally dare each other to come talk to us, running up to ask us our names and tell us theirs before running away giggling madly.

For the more "beach resort" experience, there's a lovely stretch of sand down at the bottom of the cliff.  At the extreme southern end of the beach, Hindus seeking pujas make offerings of flowers and other items to the sea (later swept up, after inevitably washing ashore, by industrious women in saris) and stride fully clothed into the water.  Most of the rest is taken over by scantily-clad Westerners seeking to bronze themselves in the sun.  I'm not much of a sun-worshipper (for obvious reasons),so I don't lounge in the sun all day; for one thing, I'm quite worried about running out of sunscreen.  You can get some high-SPF sunscreens here, but most of them (according to their labels) also contain "whitening creams"; clearly these are marketed to locals, not to foreigners already so white (like me) that if they got any lighter they'd actually be translucent.

In places, the path along the clifftop takes a sudden jag inland, as parts of the cliff have tumbled into the sea at some point.  Many of the tiny huts and worn-looking hotels ranged along the path look as though they're about to plunge into the sea; one good wind or a big enough wave and they just might. There are restaurants and cafes and bars to suit every taste and budget strung out along the path as well, along with the inevitable souvenir shops.  A quick stroll along the cliff is enough to confirm the town's hippie vibe; selling any one of Bob Marley or Che Guavera or "Free Tibet" T-shirts is enough to prove your hippie credentials, and this town's got all three.

I like it here.  I think I might forget to leave for a while.  In theory, I'm going to head back to Kochi next weekend, and spend at least a few days there before heading north to Goa, but we'll see whether or not it actually comes to pass.  My original ideas of travelling up the east coast to Puducherry and Chennai, and possibly even swinging north through Varanasi before returning to Delhi for my flight home, have largely gone by the wayside; it's just so relaxed and peaceful away down south that I don't want to spoil my hard-won bliss by subjecting myself to the madness of Indian urban centres again.

But I'll keep you posted.  For now, you can find me on the beach; it's a rough life.