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Journey to monsoon India

Edited version published in Nova Magazine 14.1(January 2007)

Monsoon season is in full, wet swing when I arrive in India one hot Keralan night.  As I descend from the plane the darkness wraps around me like a warm, wet blanket, and a distinctive scent - part animal, part vegetable, part mineral - pervades my nostrils.  I am here for a month to journey up India's South West coast, from Trivandrum to Mumbai. This is my first visit to India, and I have received so many different pieces of advice that my idea of this ancient land and what lies ahead for me is a melting pot of excitement, fear, anticipation and dread.  Coupled with this is my awareness that all travel is ultimately a journey of self-discovery, and that India is the travel destination of self transformation par excellence.  "It's not a holiday," I was sagely told more than once, "it's an experience."

My first impressions of India are madly multi-sensory. Men shouting and horns blaring, traffic roaring everywhere. The feel of monsoon rain on my skin, moving from gentle patter to whirling assault in seconds.  Hot creamy chai and sweet lassi slipping over my tongue and down my throat like liquid velvet.  The smell of fresh curry simmering on a cooking stove. And the sights - women in brightly coloured saris making their morning puja, sprinkling mandalas of white camphor powder over cow dung swept hearths.  Porters at the train station dressed in bright red lungis, weaving their way through the crowds with towers of luggage atop their sturdy heads.  A field of pink lotuses, rising from the mud. Cows lazing in the middle of the road, diverting the traffic and adding to the ordered chaos that is life in India.

A country about the same size as Western Australia with a population of more than a billion, India has the world's highest number of child labourers, and the second highest rate of HIV infection. Poverty is rife, with an estimated 35 per cent of the population surviving on less than US$1 per day. India's history is complex. Its significance as a trade port and partner since the fledgling days of international commerce means that it has long been influenced by (and, in turn, has exerted influence over), other lands and peoples. Once a conglomerate of sometimes-warring kingdoms with distinct languages, customs and cultures, the notion of India as a unified nation is a relatively recent concept. And in reality, many of the characteristics of the ancient kingdoms remain in today's modern states.

Take Kerala in the southwest, for example. Formed in 1956 from the former states of Travancore, Cochin and Malabar, for centuries Kerala was sheltered from mainland India by the impressive Western Ghats, an ecologically distinct mountain range running some 1600 kilometres along the edge of the Deccan Plateau. Kerala's geographical isolation means it has developed distinctive arts, festivals and customs. Today, it is considered one of India's most progressive states. It has the highest adult literacy rate (91%) of all of India (and exuberant crowds of blue and white unformed schoolchildren to prove the legacy of learning continues), a participatory political system that results in a more equitable distribution of land and income, and low infant mortality.  Women outnumber men - for every 1000 males there are 1058 females. Visitors are encouraged to experience kathikali, (italic) an astonishing blend of dance, pantomime and religious play, and attend a local theyyam, (italic) a holy dance performed as a sacred offering, where costumed dancers often go into a trance-like state.

Our first stop in Kerala is Varkala, a 40 minute train ride north of Trivandrum. Varkala is emerging as a laid-back alternative to Kovalam, Kerala's best known beach resort.  We spend five days in a thatched roof hut just a stone's throw from the rolling waves and golden sand of Dolphin Bay. Framed by a steep cliff and palm fronds waving gently back and forth, we have the beach to ourselves in the early morning. I practise yoga and swim in the sea, emerging energised beyond imagining, ready for a simple breakfast in one of the many cafes and restaurants dotted along the cliff-top.  As we sit at our table, we see pods of dolphins making the mark of infinity as they weave in and out of the Arabian Sea.

Varkala is hard to leave, but Mumbai (Bombay) is far from here, and we want to get there slowly. We journey on to Allepey, a market town built on canals and surrounded by coconut trees. The town is in the midst of fevered preparations for the Nehru Trophy Snake Boat race, an annual regatta on Vembanad Lake. There are both men and women's races - and this year a foreign women's team is the talk of the town. The race is magnificent. Scores of low-slung chundan vallams (italic) (snake boats), crewed by as many as 100 rowers shaded by silk umbrellas and singing in unison, compete in celebration of Kerala's sea faring traditions, cheered on by a rowdy, over-excited crowd.

We head up the coast to Goa. It's the off-season, so the renowned party scene is in hibernation, but there is still plenty to see in the state capital of Panaji. We stay in Fontinhas, the old part of town, where 400 years of Portuguese settlement has left a lasting impression. The cobbled streets are narrow and winding, lined with houses coloured mustard yellow, indigo blue, jalapeno red. Windows with metal bars and wooden shutters shield inhabitants from the world as they get on with the business of living.

I've never been the kind of traveller who enjoys the process of travelling, the physicality of the journey itself. I've always wanted to just get there. But one of the absolute highlights of my time in India was catching the train from Margao to Hospet as we headed inland from Goa to Hampi, site of the ruins of the 16th century Vijayanagar Empire in the state of Karnataka. Getting there involved a journey of sorts - the Indian sort, to be precise.

Our train is 45 minutes late, and sits on the tracks for another hour while the crew trundle and heave clanging culinary supplies into the kitchen carriage. As we wait, a brightly dressed hijra (italic) (eunuch) boards, squealing with delight when she spots us - lavishing attention on my partner and pretending I don't exist until we are compelled to give her money.  Eventually, we start to roll out of the city into the country and up into the Western Ghats. Unexpectedly, we have a second class sleeper compartment to ourselves for the entire eight hour journey, the plaintive cries of chai- and pakora- and sweet-wallahs plying their wares up and down the Wedgwood-blue carriages our only company. We climb higher, entering and emerging from tunnel after tunnel dug through green hillsides covered in cloud. The chug-chug of the train lumbering along the tracks is almost drowned out by the thunderous whoosh of waterfalls cascading down precipitous rockfaces that cradle us on our right hand side. To the left is a sharp drop into a lush green depth, where sunlight breaks through slow-moving coils of mist to dapple the valley floor below. We pass so close to one waterfall that for an instant I think we are about to go through it, but it stays at arm's length.

We emerge into a patchwork of tiered rice paddy fields surrounding a village named Castlerock, where the buildings are made from a dark, moss-covered stone, and the mountain air is fresh and cool. Being here, immersed in a beautiful, timeless landscape, makes me wonder why people leave this for the dirt and decay of the city. But my romantic naivety doesn't last long. I know that behind the veil of Castlerock's quaint, pristine beauty is a constant struggle to make ends meet, to grow enough food for everyone and to raise a child past the first few years of life. People head to the city in search of work and money, a better life for themselves and their children and their children's children. I imagine that three generations from now, Castlerock will be a fairytale place nonni (italic) (grandmother) calls down from her memory when she's trying to get the babies to sleep.

At times, travelling in India is not for the faint hearted. I was challenged daily by the needy attention of street vendors and beggars, by the lack of autonomy in the lives of women, by the watchful eyes of men, by the need to cover up in a hot, muggy climate, when what I really wanted to do was dress down.  I reflected in my journal that travelling, in the privileged Western sense, is really quite strange.  We invest hard earned time and money in geographical displacement, giving away everything familiar to embark upon a huge personal challenge.  Just as a journey is often a potent part of a fictional narrative, a journey becomes a part of our own personal narrative, a significant experiential event around which we mark our discoveries and developments. I realised years ago that the grass is not (italic) greener on the other side, that I will not be majestically transformed into the new and improved version of myself I would rather be by going and being somewhere else.

It has been nearly five months since I returned from India, and I still think about it every day. I already knew that I was living a privileged life. But witnessing the challenges of daily living in India, where there isn't enough food for everyone, where female infanticide and bride burning happen often enough to be recognised problems, where the karma of birth and rebirth lays the foundation for a lifetime, and where, despite all this, people still smile, has humbled me.  I've returned wiser, rested and renewed, to my reality, my struggles in perspective and my heart opening like a lotus.