'Right, maybe we better give up and get a tuk tuk now', I try to convince Erica as we pass yet another row of dilapidated colonial warehouses. I have to admit that we are hopelessly lost. It's gotten colder now, but it's still about 24 degrees and the air is thick with the musky scent of cardamom.
It had been my idea to just walk home to Fort Cochin after our dinner at the fancy seafood restaurant the hostel had recommended. It was fancy – there were no Indians among the diners, not even the rich families from Mumbai that came on holiday here and acted as if they owned the place.
During the day, the little island between South India's mainland and the Arabian sea had been disgustingly hot, so much that you would be covered in sweat after just standing outside for 2 minutes. It seemed like a good idea two walk, now that it seemed physically possible. Only that we managed to walk in the completely opposite direction of where we had to go. Nightlife, closely related to alcohol, is a touchy subject in Kerala, and so there's barely anyone on the streets after 8 pm.
Two weeks before, I had been warned by several Indian friends not to walk around outside after dark, nowhere in the country. Not even tough Indian guys thought it was a good idea!
Yet here we were, two Western girls walking along the city streets at night. Before giving up, we had asked a group of guys for the way. In 80% of all other countries that are not part of the rich western world, this would have let to people trying to sell us a taxi ride, a room in a friend's guest house, or at least staring or amused looks and plenty of leg-pulling. Not here: they looked at the map and politely told us, not this way, exactly the other direction, and that was it. No 'hey pretty girls how are you?' , not even 'Where are you from?'.
We then had managed to actually walk past the street our hostel was located, and asked yet another random stranger 'Hey, where's the ocean? We need to get near the ferry jetty!'. He pointed us in the right way and offered to walk us there. This had happened to me many times before, and often ends up with at least a chat-up line. But no – we said no thanks, and he went his way.
Finally, after an hour of walking around, we realise that something must have gone wrong and after a short discussion, we hail the next auto-rikshaw that passes us. We discuss how much we are willing to pay, expecting to hear a ridiculously overpriced rate, like $8 for a ride that should be a tenth of that. Especially given that we look, and are, totally lost and it's past 10pm. But no: the driver suggests 20 rupees, around 35 cents. Even less than we paid to get there. Is he expecting us to haggle?
Within 5 minutes, we are back at the hostel, where some girls who also have only travelled in Kerala tell us how 'dangerous' and 'exciting' and 'overwhelming' India is. We just stare at each other in disbelief and can't help making some cynical remarks. It feels more dangerous to walk to the bakery in the tiny German town I grew up in.
I could head to North India now to experience the 'real' India I have been warned about – there's no doubt Kerala is safer and that there is less in-your-face poverty and dirt. It feels like I imagine what Thailand must have been 15-20 years ago. It's easy, and beautiful, and people are astoundingly polite (Japanese folks seem downright rude in comparison!).
Don't get me wrong – it's beautiful down here, but I'm failing to be amazed. I had actively been craving a place that's crazy, crowded and yes, a little dangerous. South India is none of these things, unless you've never been outside the 'Western' world.
I've also discovered that although I have many Indian friends – or maybe because – I am not dazzled by the 'exoticism' of it. I have witnessed many a London living room pooja, visited Hindu temples all over the world and been overfed by countless Indian mothers. I love Hindu mythology, yoga and Indian food, I am not nearly as much into Indian culture as I thought I was.
I've longed to travel to India for 20 years, and my biggest fear has come true: it's not all that I ever wished for. Expectations are a nasty thing. The art is interesting. The spirituality and how deeply Hinduism is rooted in people's lives is fascinating. I like the food. The people are nice. But I just don't feel like exploring all that for months and months. It's not my place. That's why I'm not going to North India, but back to London.
Have you ever travelled somewhere that you felt was overrated in terms of how difficult it is to travel there, or expected too much of a place?