My travel buddies and I are waiting nervously in the hot sunshine, anxious to see the vessel that will transport us from Kannur to Allepey along the South Indian coast over the next eight hours. Eventually, a train – looking not too dissimilar to a cattle pen on wheels – trundles into view and we make our way to our seats, courting celebrity-status interest from other passengers thanks to our non-Indian appearance.
Dodgy ceiling fans rattle precariously and barred windows provide ‘air-conditioning’ for our three reserved bunks.We’d booked seats in advance, but soon discovered there was a more ‘free for all’ approach taken by the locals and we each budge up to fit in four generations of an Indian family off on their holidays.
Hours tick by, squished shoulder to shoulder, sweating in the thick heat, my nostrils heave in the sense-battering aromas of this wonderful country; tantalising coconut curries, spicy bajis and sweet incense combine with whiffs of gag-inducing latrines. Gazing out through the prison-cell-esque window, we meander over rivers, mesmerised by snippets of daily Keralan life. A carpet of green palm trees line the way, children play cricket in the midday heat, goats are tethered to the railway for safe-keeping, another vibrant flash of sari. People lie asleep on the tracks, oblivious of trains rattling past just a few metres from their feet and a stranger’s under-crackers lie out to dry on the hot rocks of the trainline.
While we wriggle uncomfortably, fighting an uncomfortable boredom, around us Indian families amuse themselves without a gadgets or gizmos in sight. They chatter boisterously or zonk out for hours without stirring on the rickety bunks. Mouthwatering treats in makeshift newspaper cones are handed out by our seat companions and shared with us (infinitely more appetizing than our crisps and mangled bananas). Eventually our travel buddies reach their stop, momentarily leaving us with space to stretch our legs… before five nuns pile in, desperate to know our names and offer us a taste of their jackfruit curry. An incredible snifter of one of the world’s most intense cultures.