A political row had erupted over the Mulliperiyar Dam, a 100+ year old dam controlling the water supply for much of Kerala and neighboring Tamil Nadu. The Kerala government was convinced that the dam was in dangerous condition, at risk of collapsing at any moment and threatening the lives of 3.5 million people.
Tamil Nadu argued that the dam was perfectly safe, a position made convenient by the fact that its access to a cheap water supply was assured by a pact made at the time of the dam’s construction. Kerala wished to construct a new dam and demolish the old one, which would also mean the renegotiation of water rights. We finally made the connection that the bandh had to do with this political situation.
Everyone we spoke with agreed: travel was risky. The roads were to be shut down from 6 AM to 6 PM, and in India, bandhs are notoriously unpredictable. Cars get overturned. Buildings get lit on fire; mobs turn violent. On the other hand, paying more money to get stranded in town while this was going on didn’t sound that agreeable either.
“What if we leave early, like 4 AM?” we asked one shopkeeper. He considered it. “Yes, that should be fine,” he replied. We asked a few more people and they all agreed. Overall, traveling would be quite risky, but as long as we made it out of Idukki district by 6 AM we would be OK, and leaving by 4 AM should give us enough time to do that.
It was settled. We told the driver to be alert and ready to drive by 4 AM, and to make absolutely, positively, 100% and then some sure that he knew where to go. The thought of getting stuck in the protest because our driver was so grotesquely incompetent was maddening. We headed to sleep and prepared ourselves for a tense, early morning.
Morning came and all was dark and still. We headed down to the hotel lobby, where the front desk clerk roused himself from his bed on the floor to check us out of our room. Abin was dressed and ready, and we got into the car and started driving in silence. The roads were busy with other travelers fleeing the closure, but not crowded.
Bharath had told the driver the night before not to drive too quickly, and Abin took him a bit too seriously. We crawled along, and every car on the road passed us. I watched our slow progress on the GPS, and as 5:30 AM ticked by, I started getting nervous. The bridge we needed to get across was still many kilometers away. At 5:58, we crossed the bridge. Bharath and I breathed a big sigh of relief and tried to join Cassie in catching some sleep.
We were headed back to Kochi, and after we started waking up a bit more, I checked the GPS again to make sure we were on track. We weren’t. Instead of taking the major highway that headed directly toward Kochi, we were on some tiny road heading too far north.
Bharath confronted Abin with the evidence of the detour, and he scrunched his forehead and said “No, no, no!” We breathed an exasperated sigh. We were already far enough out of the way that it didn’t make sense to head back and take the quicker route, so we didn’t make a big issue of it.
An hour or so of waiting through standstill traffic in small towns led to the revelation as to why we were taking the detour. Abin wanted to return his USB stick of bad music to a friend in an out-of-the-way town. Bharath started to get riled up. “I swear, if they try to charge us one paise more for going over the kilometer limit!”
Even though we’d been driving for many hours, it was still early morning by the time we reached Kochi because of how early we had left. Theoretically, we’d still have access to the driver for the rest of the day, but I was eager to be rid of him and said as much, not getting much resistance to the idea from my travel companions.
I did some research and found an area of Kochi with lots to see within walking distance. Since we had the entire day to kill anyway, we decided to find a cheap hotel to split near Fort Kochi so we could take a nap and drop off our bags while we explored. We were excited about the plan, and ditching Doofus was an added bonus.
After breakfast, we had him bring us to the hotel. Bharath called Prasad at the tour agency office to inform him of our plan and see if we could get a discount on the trip on account of not using the full kilometer allotment (not to mention the umpteen detours) and having such a bad driver. They argued for nearly an hour, and the phone changed hands between Bharath and the driver a few times. Bharath was saying what I’ve said here, and the driver said it was all wrong and that he knew the directions perfectly and that we were just a bunch of whiny complainers. We didn’t get any discount, but we did get to say good riddance and get on with the day.
We had a great time in Kochi walking around. We checked out the Chinese fishing nets (huge levers built to lower and raise nets into the water) and a tourist trap synagogue. We walked down a road in the spice market part of town, dodging open sewers, dogs, goats, cows, and men heaving sacks of saffron, cardamom, and ginger.
We discovered the Solar Café, a little organic lunch and coffee spot with brightly painted walls and great lighting. We slurped down far too many iced coffees, read, talked, and laughed about our adventures.
We realized that this was the first time we’d seen white people in a long time and basked in how varied and authentic our experience in India already was. We doubled back, the sun set, and we got a rickshaw to the railway station for the next leg of our journey: beach time in Gokarna.