How to walk in Trivandrum, Kerala

Trivandrum, or Thiruvananthapuram (most prefer the former), is not a typical tourist destination. There is little to recommend it in terms of sightseeing – it’s chief destinations being the softly fading palace of the former Thirunal royal family and a few crumbling museums near the somewhat depressing zoo in its one public park. Though the grounds at the latter are, admittedly, lush.

Like most of India, the city is noisy, dusty and overflowing with rubbish. The pecking order on the roads goes from truck to bus to car to tuk-tuk to motorbike to cyclist to pedestrian – the latter, I imagine, thought to deserve death for their stupidity. For those brave enough to try though, a walk through any part of this city is well worth it.

During the ten days I found myself an almost daily visitor to Kerala’s capital and it’s fine hospital (more on that later), I was a happy ambler; the trick, I soon realised, being to hold my nose past the particularly large or smoking rubbish piles and any open water, and to start out early.

Being in the south of the country, the Trivandrum heat is intense, particularly around March time, when I visited. To battle it, you need early exposure – be up and moving in it from 8am then come midday when it’s full weight bears down, you are adjusted. Hide out in an air conditioned room until then and you’re done for. You will pour with sweat all day. Not that you won’t pour anyway, just less profusely.

On my final day in town I took a left out of the hospital gates toward the East Fort. Passing a cage of sweltering puppies that had been a daily heartbreak for me, I found myself on what I discovered later was the bazaar road. I was on the hunt for a nail cleaning brush and struggling – while you can find an Ayurvedic cure for everything from headaches to herpes in India, a scrubbing brush and antibacterial soap are often harder to come by.

On the journey I stopped at a tea shop for a lemon soda and met Atil. Like almost every Keralan I have spoken to Atil had very good English. He introduced me to the local beautician – Ripi – who Atil frequently reminded me was from the north. While we discussed what could be done to improve my looks, a wealthy Delhi family stopped to buy some water and snacks. Chat stopped for a moment while the family – outfitted in Western style shorts, jeans and T-Shirts – were served. As they left Atil seemed to warmly thank the tuk-tuk driver for corralling the rich herd to him and after they were gone he and Ripi argued over whether southern or northern Indian women are more beautiful.

Later I got chatting to a trader in a spice shop that reluctantly sold me a bag of ‘second quality’ almonds for 200 rupees (rather than the more expensive ‘first quality’) but who liked me enough to change a 2,000 rupee note as payment.

‘You from where?’

‘England’ (if English, you say England in most of Asia – the UK draws a blank, or is mistaken for Ukraine).

‘Oh, very nice. I have sister nurse in London’

‘Oh great! You know which hospital?’

‘No, no…. Selfie?!’ *pulls out phone

The latter is the ultimate result of most conversations or interactions in India and while awkward at first, you get used it. I’m also fairly sure it’s a significantly warmer reception than the first Indian visitors received in the UK.

Indeed, every day of wandering the streets of Trivandrum I found people that genuinely wanted to talk to me, even in the absence of a cash transaction. Many were concerned for my health – the big bandage on my face making me an even more alien presence – while others, especially hoteliers and my nurses, were keen to ensure I had eaten and always enquired exactly what that meal had consisted of (thin women are rare in South India). I felt genuine warmth from almost every person I spoke to in this city and indeed, almost every person I walked past; a smile always returned with an even bigger one (rather than the suspicious scowls offered by many in countries and cities that shall remain nameless, England, London).

The city also boasts two of the best eateries I have found in India: a Swiss cafe named Kaffeehaus and an organic health food restaurant named Pathayam. The former I spent a very happy birthday in over a chicken salad and warm chocolate brownie for dessert and the latter I recovered in via a green pea curry with steamed rice, carrot and beetroot cakes for breakfast and a ‘special’ salad of all things natural and delectable for dinner. Both were a blissful luxury in the dust and heat.

And so Trivandrum’s strengths lie not – like Delhi – in its historic forts and monuments, or – like Mumbai – in its parks, beaches and arts scene – but in its people and in its interesting dining options. I look forward to visiting again.

Time Inside Fort Kochi, Kerala

There is a rebellious spirit in Fort Kochi. Despite existing almost entirely for tourists for the past forty or so years, this old Portuguese/Dutch port seems to be a vibrant hotbed of politics and art. The former is evident in the many hammer and sickle flags and murals that grow in prominence as you enter the town from the airport and through Ernakulum. This culminated- it seemed – in the communist office next to my hostel (Maritime) emblazoned with the image of Che Guevara flanked to the far left by a pensive Karl Marx, the quote underneath extolling the virtues of death on ones feet rather than knees. Kerala, it turns out, is one of the few places the Communist Party of India has a strong following. While I was there they were protesting against the privatisation of the former government owned ferry service, which had reduced its service significantly.

CREDIT: Penny Steele

(Photo credit: Penny Steele)

The town’s art is equally visible. As is the Indian way, few spare patches of house, wall or fence go unadorned with murals or flashes of eye popping colour. From a full jungle / city montage facing the local school – I assume a comment on growing urbanisation – to banksy-esque silhouettes to simply beautiful jade coloured doors speaking of the crumbling facade’s former splendour. Perhaps the most impressive works are found on the trucks, though. With one motorised celebration of Jesus too spectacular for words.

This was, infact, parked outside of a small Christian Shrine that I stopped to look at. Mixing Hindu traditions with Christian iconography, worshippers purchased a small bottle of scented oil from the industrious temple vendor then queued to pour this on the crucifix before walking around the statue of the virgin twice. It made me smile to imagine this same ritual in an English church where I’m sure pouring oil on a cross would be seen as some sort of demon worship.

Later during my wander around town I also met a local artist, Victoria, who proudly displays her feature article in The Hindu (South India’s best selling daily, so it claims) at the entrance to her terracotta house and studio ‘Namasthe’. A tiny woman of around 50, Victoria told me she had recently lost her mother and so her recent work is concerned with her childhood. Her paintings are mystical and deeply feminine – the largest work showing two girls sitting underneath a banyan tree, one drenched in daylight, the other moonlight.

‘Jewtown’ – further colonial echoes – housed the most bizarre little museum I have ever seen. Like the galleries and museums of Morocco, you have to walk through a shop to access the ‘antiques’ housed inside, where the displays include purported 3,000 year old water urns, an ‘ancient’ Christian printing press (made in Finsbury, London) and a pile of used cameras, all presented with equal historical status.

Kochi, like India, makes its own time.