I like to travel but dread being a tourist.
I don’t like crowds.
I don’t like getting the packaged ‘song and dance’ of any place.
If someone says, “if you go to (blank) you just have to (blank),” you can count me out.
I’d rather meet regular people and talk to them.
I’d rather find a weird restaurant that serves home cooking.
I’d rather get lost and discover something that’s not necessarily spectacular, but definitely real.
This weekend we went to Varkala. I think by Indian tourism standards it’s not even that bad— it is not as crowded as Goa. It is not an enclave of only Europeans, as there were tons of both Indian and Western tourists. These photos don’t do it justice, because when in an actual crowd I am watching all three kids at once and not able to take photos.
That said this was by far the most interaction we’ve had with Western tourist crowds since we arrived six weeks ago. With all the baggage that goes along with that.
It meant we had to be wary of our belongings more. We saw beggars for the first time. There were dozens of feral dogs. People tried to sell us t-shirts and cheap drums and ice cream and rides to “an elephant festival” and a “silk sleeping bag.” Those were a no, a yes, a hard yes, a no, and a yes (it’s as ridiculous as it sounds: a rectangle shaped cloth envelope. We got three of them).
There weren’t any seabirds– none– but there was an employee of the hotel restaurant whose task was to use a slingshot to keep back the crows that threatened to overtake the open-air dining room. In other words, Willy found his dream job.
“You have to be careful,” the young man told us, “that you don’t hit the people.”
Periodically a small bus would stop at the beachside road and vomit out another two dozen tourists. In one batch, backpackers, their lives squashed into enormous packs that towered over their shoulders and threatened to teeter over. Later, a group of yoga enthusiasts with mats, loose-fitting clothing, tattoos, and manbuns abounding, marching like ants toward some destination down the boardwalk.
Among the crowd were some odd folk.
How best to put it… walking around Varkala made me want to review the FBIs most wanted list. You know, just in case I could lend a hand. There were very sketchy Western folks in abundance—and I say this as someone who happily lived on Folly Beach in South Carolina in the 1990s and thought it was grand. I can handle weird, old, kooky, quirky crackpots. But some of these folks looked like they were running. Running from something terrible.
The Indians we met were nice, but at times the attention became overwhelming. We were as friendly as we are at our home base. But of course we’re protected in Trivandrum. In Trivandrum we are surrounded by our lovely neighbors and colleagues. Yes, if I wait on a corner for James’ bus, people will point, but our friends and neighbors here treat us like humans and not like a zoo exhibit. At Varkala we became exhausted with the requests for selfies. People would form crowds and stand near us, hovering and watching as we spent time on the beach. I’m not exactly sure why. There were certainly other westerners around to observe.
I don’t want it to sound as if we didn’t have fun. The hotel was great and we loved its restaurant. Admittedly, it was a bit of a red flag when they ask how I wanted my eggs Benedict cooked. But we were comfortable. We were close to the beach. The shells were amazing. We enjoyed everything we ate. Many of the people we met were friendly and we learned a lot from them.
Like the very kind pair of Indian gentlemen who came to talk to Alice and me while the guys swam. I pointed out the clay pots the children had been finding as the tide went out. We could see them in the shallows, and the kids began fishing them up, making a row on the sand. By this point we’d lined up half a dozen. Several of them were still whole and we couldn’t believe our luck. We planned to bring them back with us.
“What are they for?” I asked, “These pots. Do you use them for baking?”
Rajeesh shook his head, his eyes veering skyward as he searched for the right words, “No, these are for when the people have died, and we burn the bodies.”
My jaw dropped, “You mean to say, these have been used as urns, for cremated humans?”
“Yes!” he said, smiling that we were communicating and I understood.
“Oh no, no no no,” I said, aghast, “but are these sacred, have we destroyed something sacred?” Surely this is not what the Fulbright people had in mind for our cultural exchange.
“No, it’s okay,” he told me, “it’s not sacred.”
Despite Rajeesh’s assurances we did not bring the clay pots home.
We did meet regular people and talk to them.
We found a weird restaurant that served somebody’s version of home cooking.
We experienced the real more than the spectacular.
That’s something, right?