It’s 4am down a dark alley when my motor rickshaw slams the brakes to an abrupt stop. The headlights illuminate the cloud of dust obscuring a view of our destination. After a few seconds the dust clears, revealing a seven-foot fence of solid metal, the high wall sinister, had it not been painted in Rasta colors of yellow, green and red. Still, it’s an ominous welcome to my guesthouse in Alleppey on the southern tip of India. I’m not sure how to approach the seamless metallic wall in the dark of night. The driver gives a shout, as a section of wall swings open to a sandy courtyard with no lights. I’m quickly ushered upstairs into a huge bedroom furnished only with two single beds and a nightstand, the minimalism making the room appear even larger.
It’s a restless night in an uncomfortable sweat under the drone of a ceiling fan, it’s axis bent slightly giving it a precarious wobble as I wonder how long before it wiggles free from the ceiling, slicing me to pieces in my sleep. I figure I have minutes to live. The mattress is covered in a thin plastic sheet with its distinct crinkling sound with every toilsome body movement. The metallic screech of loudspeakers from the nearby mosque’s 5am call to prayer seals the deal that sleep will escape me.
It’s hunger that forces me out of bed, earlier than I would like. I decide to be selective in my search for food. I want to avoid having my first meal in southern India cooked by the stoner high school boys that appear to run my guesthouse. The morning sun is intense enough to slow my pace to a crawl, walking along the dirt path straddling the local beach. I walk by the late night food stalls, boarded up this early in the morning. I walk by upscale hotel restaurants, watching guests behind large windows eating toast and eggs with their cup of coffee. I’m not envious. It disappoints me. I may just be bitter, a food snob in my own right. Still, I can’t imagine traveling around the world for instant coffee and dry bread. Continuing down the road I see a shack, fitted together with bamboo poles and scrap metal siding. In front is an older man in a white tank top, enjoying a clove cigarette while he stirs steaming pots over a wood fire. As I approach he beckons me in with an offer of chai tea and friendly smile. It’s a single room that consists of 6 plastic chairs on the hard dirt floor, dug out 3 feet below the surface. There is one other customer sitting quietly drinking tea with a curious eye on me. This is exactly the place I am looking for. I am even more pleased not to be handed a menu or even asked what I would like to eat, the fact being he has only one dish to offer. I watch intently as the old man skillfully pours the tea and milk concoction in a flowing arc into another glass he holds below. Not a drop of the steaming hot liquid spilled in the process. He continues pouring the tea back and forth, the full span of his arms, numerous times, with each exchange making it frothier. I imagine if this were a requisite skill at Starbucks, they may be forced to turn into a juice bar. He hands me my chai, still too hot to drink comfortably and a pitcher of water and hard plastic cup. The water is both for hand washing and drinking. I walk outside pouring the water over my hands, scrubbing away the grey layer of dust that’s accumulated. I also decide to test my acclimation to local drinking water. Since arriving in India I have begun slowly consuming tap water, first by rimming my drinking glass and progressing to brushing my teeth with it over the course of the past two weeks. I decide now to see where full glasses will take me. Sitting down again, I am presented with a warm bowl of rice noodles, the thickness of angel hair pasta and a bowl of chana masala, a yellow curry of black chickpeas, stewed together with coconut milk. It’s as simple and rewarding as a dish can be. The curry has an undertone of caramelized onions, garlic and ginger and a milky sweet heat from fresh crushed chilies and thick coconut cream and palm sugar. Fresh turmeric and curry leaves finish it off with earthy flavors. I am proud to have found this hole in the ground restaurant surrounded by tourist eateries yet untouched by tourists. It’s the type of meal I love to eat at any time of day or night. The other customer next to me seems pleased with my obvious delight, as he flashes me a smile and two thumbs up. I reciprocate with the same gesture, my right hand dripping with yellow curry and strands of rice noodle. I wash it back with a glass of local water and pray for the best. The old man doesn’t speak English. I’m forced to imagine a life dedicated to a single dish, a simple dish lived every day for decades and brought to life every morning. I’m moved by such a humble yet meaningful experience. It’s soul food of the Indian south. The cost of my meal is 25 rupees, which is $0.46 US, a bargain for an experience to be remembered.
Returning back to the guesthouse, I finally see it fully in the light of day. It’s awkwardly named ‘Funky Art Beach House,’ a name and description when left to the imagination, a hippie hut involving sand and nightly sing along. To a square like me, it sounds terrifying. It is intriguing. It’s a large white colonial style house with marble floors. I see a homemade banner outside with the guesthouse name. Haphazardly attached to the sign is a four-pointed star woven together with orange yarn and Christmas lights. On the chalky white corridor walls, guests are encouraged to paint. It’s like walking through a junior high art class. I see bright suns, mushrooms, stars and cartoons smoking joints. A desk space and computer sit out on the second floor open-air balcony. The metal surfaces and connecting wires show corrosion from humid ocean air. An overflowing ashtray of cigarette butts completes the informal workspace. Sitting at the computer listening to Indian love ballads at high volume is the staff of high school kids looking after the guesthouse. They clearly love to interact with tourists, as they engage me with rapid-fire questions of where I’m from, why I’m here, to questions concerning my baldhead. They seem confident enough to make fun of me, having only recently met me. I’m okay with that. One of them spits out the word ‘Mor-ti-kay-em,’ in slow syncopation of each syllable. They all fall to the ground laughing hysterically all the while pointing in my direction. Finally they let me in on the joke. ‘It mean your head, round shape like egg, this what we call you.’ I’m happy to laugh with these jokesters, even if at my expense.
I’m happy to finally have social interaction after almost three weeks of keeping to myself. I’m overdue to start conversing with other travelers. I have questions that need to be answered. Is travel in India as tough as I’ve made it out to be? The honest answer seems to be, yes, backpacking around India is not easy and I’m comforted to hear of other’s hardships. My own struggles with India are surpassed, meeting a very young British couple. Still in their teens, India is their first overseas travel. There’s an inherent innocence in the British accent, a gentle inflection, as if a question mark were placed gently at the end of every sentence. There is never demand in their tone and a stark contrast to the loud and blunt approach by Indians. I see how young and how green they really are and wonder if India will swallow them up completely. Having traveled in other developing Asian countries I find it an invaluable reference point for navigating India’s chaos. The couple share stories of how taxi drivers have refused to give them change when paying for their ride and how they simply give up asking. For some reason this story brings out an anger deep inside of me. I’m not sure whom it’s directed towards, the young British couple or the Indians milking every cent they can from tourists. All of a sudden I find myself lecturing on the injustice and how they shouldn’t stand for such a thing, how they need to put their foot down and demand their money. Again, I’m not sure where I’m directing this rant. In their own way, they handled the situation. Giving up or letting go is not a wrong answer. In many of these transactions it amounts to only pennies that make up the difference. It would be easier and less stressful to accept these minor injustices, the detriment to your bank account negligible. I may need to rethink my approach. Maybe. Not a chance.