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Tea, art & an Indian gang

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The next leg of  my trip took me through to the city of Kochi, the peaks of the Western Ghats and a walk through India’s First ever Modern Art Festival

Typically my journey started bouncing on a steel frame on a 1950’s Leyland Bus taking me to the sleepy small town of Munar. We swerved through the high hills and my bus seat was the window to the world. Hills rolled on forever with tiny green trees painted on as the view lulled me to sleep.

We were greeted to the town by a frenzy of Soviet flags, with more old Indian ladies staring at us from their house windows draped in red and yellow. Our bus was not a time machine, and we were not in the USSR. The city of Munnar ground to a complete halt as a general strike griped the South West of India. Where best, I thought, to spend a strike: isolated in the mountains with all the time in the world to explore. With all the local amenities shut I was forced to stock up on bread and water to last a few days and it was finally time to stalk the tea plantations – void of any tea pickers.

Carved through the green canvas were little footpaths which separated the cauliflower looking trees into different fields. The peace surrounded me and I felt like I was in another planet with only one thing to do, climb the highest peak in my sights. I walked for ages to the sound of a natural spring echoing through the hills in what was the best shower I had to date. Hitting the peak I was welcomed by a cross which stood tall overlooking the hill top station village. A breathless view peeled open in front of me with the perfect spot to unwind.

Descending from my dream and enduring the return bus ride I found myself in the thick of a busy city once more. The strike had now ended and Kochi burst to life as market stalls lined the busy streets. Opting to stay well away from the chaos of a big city I stumbled into the most bizarre café in India where each male waiter wore a thick black moustache and a traditional outfit, made complete by a one-foot tall hat. With a strange choice of clothing, their dark eyes darted around the room ready to serve the next dosa to the esteemed clients. All the locals flocked to the Indian Coffee House and when travelling that is generally a good sign of the place. No tourists in site, just a bunch of friendly villagers.

Keen to stay away from the city I soon jumped on an old ferry which took me across the bay to a small fortified island which hosted a brilliant market and I was fortunate to be in time for India’s first ever art festival: the Indian Biennale, a festival usually reserved for the streets and canals of Venice. 80 artists contributed to the festival and the streets came to life over the weekend. Wondering around with no aim I noticed I had walked into an alley way housing five leather claden men resting on their motorbikes puffing away on their Beedis (Indian cigarettes). My luck in India had at last run out and I was soon surrounded with no escape. The alley way seemed to narrow and the words “residual traces” left in brick by an artist seemed ironic now.

I thought I could run away when a yellow motorbike scrambled in front of me blocking my exit. “Don’t go” he said, “Come sit with us”….

Uneasily I sat on the floor amongst the group of bikers as another arrived holding a box. Like a scene from a gangster movie he dismounted from his bike and headed straight towards me and handed the box to his fellow gang members. Distracting me with conversation the others opened the box and soon I had no escape. I was invited to their corner where their innocence at last shone through. The self called “Motorcycle Men” were sat there playing a board game, and I was to be their next victim. The challenge lasted three hours and I gained respect of the brotherhood, as I emerged victorious, counting in the local tongue to show off and gain points. In a puff of exhaust they soon sped off, leaving me to roam the streets freely once more where I came across some street art reading “For the tiger, humans are alike, the tiger just wants to be a tiger”

On that note my adventure came to a close. I had experienced a very local side to India in Pune, the humbling temples in Hampi, the pits of commercialization in Goa and a fantastic art festival in Kochi. As I pack my bags for my next stop in south Turkey the surreal lull India offers lives on and I can only dream of heading there again, even if to discover the more hectic north of the giant country.

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