Sundays are on your terms, in your time. Here we catch up with a different weekend warrior each time to hear where they go and what they do with their Sundays.
Graphic designer, Daniel Cooper, takes us along on his journey of journeys through India. Bus, train, motorbike… anything to get the view, meet the locals, taste the food, and make it as hard as possible to leave at the end of it all.
Paolo Sorrentino begins his film “The Great Beauty” with this poignant Céline quote;
“To travel is very useful, it makes the imagination work, the rest is just delusion and pain. Our journey is entirely imaginary, which is its strength.”
I thought about this a lot as I sat on the London Overground home from Clapham Junction. I clenched my backpack firmly between my knees and leant forward on my seat to study my fellow passengers. Everyone wore grey, navy, or black. The volume never rose above a whisper, other than the warnings calls of the closing doors. Hanging from my backpack, the crumpled luggage tags read COK – LGW (Kochi -> London Gatwick).
My mind wandered back to that very same point the day before. It was the last leg of my journey in India, the same backpack between my knees. A blow of the conductor’s whistle signaled a fond farewell to the South Indian city, Mysore, as the last train doors slammed shut. In the opposite couchette, a young family shared a steaming hot dabba full of curry with one another, whilst countless chaiwallahs rushed up and down the carriage clutching metal flasks full of tea.
My journey through India felt a world away, but here are a few highlights from a trip with my old friend Jack.
Firmly gridlocked in traffic, I dreamt of the welcome respite Munnar would be from the sticky heat of Kochi. Five hours east, high up in the foothills of the Western Ghats, this hill station is synonymous with rolling tea plantations and casual hiking.
As our bus began to move, the dust and noise of Kochi’s ceaseless roadworks was gradually replaced by a fresh breeze streaming in as we began to tuck and twist our way up the narrow pass. As we met another bus coming in the other direction, I looked down at the ground, drew a deep breath and watched as the tarmac crumbled from beneath the wheels, plummeting into the subtropical melee below. Next to me, Jack began to plan his escape route; half his body now hanging out of the window whilst both buses slowly edged forward. One foul move, and I’m certain he’d have leapt into the other bus and ridden it merrily back down the hill.
We arrived in Munnar in the early evening, the temperature was bliss compared to what we’d left behind. We’d only planned to stay a couple of nights, so we booked into the Green View Hotel, well-known for its pre-arranged hikes. For ₹1,000, the full-day trek would take us up through the local tea plantations to a peak of 2,100m, where we would eat breakfast and then back down through the spice gardens to finish with lunch around 4pm.
The next morning, we woke early to a selection of locally grown teas with our tour group, setting off into the dark morning, across the fields and up to the plantations. Our guide’s knowledge of everything green was astounding; he tore leaves from low-hanging trees and thrusted them underneath our noses, promptly naming them in the process. He pointed out that at this time in the morning, the tea pickers would usually have been out in the fields, but it was off-season so it felt unusually still as the sun slowly edged its way up, bathing the tea in the day’s first light.
Most of the crops are now owned by an offshoot of the Tata Group. Its workforce is made up of people from the Other Backwards Class; an official, and horribly degrading, term used by the Indian Government to classify those who are educationally and socially disadvantaged. The tea-pickers are supplied with accommodation, healthcare and childcare, in exchange for a measly ₹89 a day. Put into context, these workers will receive around 2p ($.03) for enough tea to fill a box that will sell for £2 ($3.05) in the UK. Their options are limited, but this job provides them with the stability that others in their caste would feel lucky to have.
We continued to climb until we reached one of the highest points in the Western Ghats. The mountains around us slowly receded into the distance, each layer fusing delicately with the sky above until they melted away. The small villages that clung to the hillside now seemed so minute, almost as if they’d been placed there with tweezers.
After a few hours in the sun, we all welcomed the stumble back down the mountain to the shaded canopy of the forest. Head down and single file, I trod cautiously behind the person in front, mimicking their footsteps as the forest became denser. There, growing side-by-side was an abundance of exotic fruits and spices… Cardamom, ginger, lemongrass, jackfruits, pomelos, pineapples, coffee, cacao, cloves, cinnamon, peppercorn, turmeric, vanilla, nutmeg. Everything was edible, like a natural version of Wonka’s candy forest. I resisted the urge to sink my teeth in, instead I held out for the promised curry finale.
The trek was completely exhausting; leaving us barely able to stand after we arrived back. Munnar is certainly worth making time for in any itinerary, it reveals an unexpectedly gentle side of India free from the urban chaos down below.
We found buses to be an incredibly cheap way to dive head first into local Indian culture. Routes and timetables seemed to operate on a word of mouth basis, but for a mere ₹74, we rode a diesel-chugging, rusted leviathan two hours south to the backwaters.
The bus stop in Fort Kochi was frantic with people travelling all over Kerala, hauling their goods from bus to bus, shuffling their families and dodging the rickshaws.
“Aleppey?” we asked in hope as each bus rattled by. Buses were rarely marked, but locals always greeted our questions with a beaming grin and a casual head wobble.
When it did arrive, it didn’t really stop… it merely slowed to a gentle jog whilst we hurriedly clambered on, closing the rickety door behind us. With nowhere to sit, I left my bag at the front and gripped the handrail as tightly as I could.
And then straight away, it was full lock left, full lock right, beep beep beeeeeep.
“The might is right,” they always say, but perhaps this was a mistranslation for, “outta the way!” because without much choice in the matter, cars and trucks parted like the Red Sea as we piled through streets of tangled traffic. With all the grace of a drunken elephant, we clumsily navigated our way around any and all obstructions, including the odd miscreant cow grazing on a pile of litter.
My palms ached from holding on so tightly, swaying from side to side. There was nothing else I could do but stare out of the window and study the mayhem with contrite fascination; pedalling along the kerb, elderly men balanced towering sacks of plastic on their upright bicycles, unperturbed by the erratic swarm of traffic that surrounded them. Exuberantly decorated trucks spluttered alongside, covered in hand-painted markings which are meant to bring good luck and a safe journey to drivers. Scrawled across the back was “Horn Please,” because in India, everything deserves a beep. Changing lanes? Beep. Overtaking? Beep. Slowing down? Beep. In a country where mirrors are optional, and overtaking mandatory, persistent beeping is used as a way of letting others know they’re coming.
As we reached faster roads, our bus began to overtake the truck ahead. The driver sounds the obligatory horn and pulls out into the stream of oncoming cars. Most bus drivers would pull back over and wait until it cleared, but not in India. We continued straight on, ploughing head first into a terrifying game of chicken. Closer and closer. Until, at the very last moment, the cars simply swerved off the road and carried on unbothered.
The roads operate on a delicate system of self governance that’s utterly bizarre and petrifying. It’s pandemonium, but the total lack of order just works. Sure, taxis are cheap and plentiful, but to me, there’s no better way to observe modern India than by bus.
We arrived back in Kochi with a day to kill before we travelled north to Goa that evening. After the previous day’s trekking in Munnar, our sore muscles begged for a day lazing on the beach, which is hard to come by unless you leave the city. I’d read that Cherai beach was just a boat ride away, and offered the travel brochure dream of lonely palm trees and spotless white sand.
As we waited at the boat jetty for the captain to return from his afternoon snooze, a shrewd local boatsman offered us a ride on his ferry (which runs the same route at an inflated rate). Not knowing when the captain would return, we deemed it worthwhile and boarded the ferry with the other Indian holidaymakers. Astonishingly, they’d all mastered the art of taking selfies with their left hand whilst jovially waving to the passing boats with the right.
We slowed as the back of the boat silkily overtook the front. “That was quick,” I thought, as we hopped from the ferry onto a crumbling timber jetty. We shared a look of confusion as we noticed everyone else was still on board, now gazing back at the poor stranded tourists. A quick inspection of the ferry map confirmed we’d got off six stops too early. Cherai beach was miles away, and there were no ferries until the evening.
Our grumbling stomachs led us through hushed alleyways lined with affluent homes, and out onto a small public square. At the far end, an ornate 17th Century Indo-Portuguese church, Our Lady of Hope, presided over a pristine lawn.
“Where can we eat?” I asked a man leaning against the church hall. His moustache blew upward as he let out a puff of excitement. His phone never left his ear, regardless of what was on the other end. He seemed frustrated that he couldn’t answer me. But I asked again, to which he ran inside, emerging which his brother, both now gesturing to join them.
He and his brother, it turned out, were celebrating the christening of their newborn nephew. Inside the church hall, 60 or so members of the Selvarat family sat tightly along folding tables piled with curry, parathas, appams and rice. It’s fair to say, I felt pretty uneasy crashing an unknown christening.
But we didn’t leave. Well… we couldn’t leave.
Before I could air a second thought, we’d already exchanged pleasantries with half the room on all things cricket, the Queen, and Manchester United. We met the mother, the son, the father, the uncles, the aunts, the grandparents, the cousins, the chefs. Friendly doesn’t cut it. This was genuine human compassion. Mable, the mother, tended to her newly christened son who slept snugly in his white cot. The glint from the golden bangles dangled from his wrists danced across the ceiling as she swayed him back and forth.
I joined one of the tables and dug into some of the best dishes I had in Kerala. The kitchen centred around two large stone hearths built into the floor, which were capable of boiling 20kg of rice at a time for the guests, as well as the freshly caught king fish from the Cheena Valas (Kerala’s famous Chinese fishing nets).
As I spoke with the family, it was clear they were proud to be Keralan, and for good reason. The state has the highest literacy rate (90%) in all of India, and on average, they live 11 years longer than the rest of India. 20% of Kerala is Christian, again the highest in India, and they live alongside a sizeable Muslim and Hindu population peacefully.
Though I’m not a religious man, I think just this once I’ll thank divine intervention for prodding us off the ferry and into the welcoming company of the Selvarat family.
Nestled within the ancient ruins of Vijayanagara, Hampi has become a faithful stop on the South Indian traveller scene. 2,000 monuments have stood here for over half a millennium amongst the alien landscape.
To capture Hampi at its best requires leaving the tourist centre and heading out of town in the direction of Anjaneya Hill. According to Hindu mythology, this hill was the birthplace of the monkey god, Hanuman. Today, a small functioning temple named after him sits high up at the top.
Desperate to catch sunrise, and with only one opportunity to do so, we hired a couple of motorbikes from our hostel for ₹100, and at 5.30am we fired up the rattly 2-stroke engines and set off along the dirt paths. It took around 20 minutes to reach the bottom of the hill, where you’ll have to park up and do the rest on foot. There’s a couple of stalls where you can refill on chai and stock up on bananas to offer the monkeys.
A set of 500 steps awaited, twisting their way up around a steep boulder face and aggressively carving their way through when left with no other choice. What started as a sprightly ascent slowly reduced itself to a silent struggle punctuated by our heavy breathing. As we climbed higher, a faint ringing from the small manjira cymbals inside the temple grew louder until we reached the whitewashed outer walls.
Three young monks draped in saffron robes trod lightly as they crossed from their dormitory to the early morning prayers held in the temple. We were the only ones to make the climb that morning, and our presence hadn’t go unnoticed. The cohort of monkeys had scheming expressions on their face, carefully eying us up and looking for anything to steal.
We perched ourselves as high as we could, and waited patiently for the sun to eke its way up over the hills. It’d already become a lot brighter than when we first set off, and I became more and more disheartened by the thought of the sun rising behind the clouds.
Below, I followed the course of the Tungabhadra River with a pointed finger as it threaded itself around the rocky mounds, nourishing the lush green basin that straddled it. My eyes became fixated as colour began to radiate from the riverbed up toward the surface. An iridescent spectrum of fuscia, scarlet and marigold diffused across the tranquil morning sky.
The dark cloak that shrouded the landscape began to recede, the remains of the Vijayanagara Empire stretched further than my bleary eyes cared to focus. I tried to imagine it all in its halcyon days of the 16th Century. This was once the world’s second largest city, home to more than half a million people. The landscape would have been brimming with agriculture, and the streets filled with people trading spices, cotton and gems.
Now, only around 10,000 people call Hampi home. Many moved to outlying villages after being evicted from Hampi Bazaar as it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They now struggle to earn a living after their businesses (which relied heavily on tourism) were bulldozed.
Over my short three weeks in India, what really stood out to me was the relationship between old and new. It seemed very difficult for these two concepts to coexist peacefully. Most Indians consider themselves part of the new India, the emerging global superpower that can rival China and Brazil. If the old India is corrupt and chaotic, then the new India is competent and clever. The aggressive rate of development is truly mind-boggling, and somewhat worrying to a Westerner that believes in post-consumerism.
My memories of India are that of a country that expressed itself so vividly through its tastes, colours and sounds. Memories of a country filled with magnificent warmth and happiness, as well as heartbreaking poverty and sadness. Memories of a country that’s home to some of the most resilient people on Earth. It feels strained to just describe India as a country of extremes; but in honesty, for every reason I could find to hate India, I could think of ten more to love it.
My Sunday Somewhere in partnership with Boat Magazine, written and photographed by Daniel Cooper. (http://daniel-cooper.com)