An Inauspicious Arrival in South India

I knew I would like would like South India even before I landed there. I heard the Indian South described in a similar way to the American South—slower, friendlier, and with better weather. Sure, maybe the roads were worse. Maybe they were further from the seats of power that other states (though I was told that the southern state of Kerala is the richest in the country). But there was just something about it that was different—and different in a good way.

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Relaxing by the water in Kerala

Our beginning there was not auspicious, though. When we landed in Bangalore, where Boyeon’s friend Roshan was meeting us, we got a text from him telling us things were “a little tense” but he was on his way. Earlier, a friend of my sister’s in Bangalore had warned us that there was an impending conflict over water supply between two states (Tamil Nadu and Karnataka) that was about to get heated. Turns out, the conflict boiled over right in Bangalore.

More than that, though, it boiled over in the very streets that Roshan drove up to get us (he was coming from Tamil Nadu into Karnataka). When he arrived, he told us our initial plan to go to Mysore was a no-go (he’d driven that way and had to reroute due to rioting on the streets). The usually busy streets of Bangalore were almost empty. The restaurant he tried to take us to was closed up—as was almost ever other restaurant we passed. His dad called and offered to fly us to Tamil Nadu because he worried it was too dangerous to drive anywhere.

We decided to take the middle road: Roshan called a hotel by the airport and booked it for us. If things were bad and we decided to fly out the next morning, we could. Or we could drive further west and avoid the conflict entirely before heading down to Kerala. As for that night, we’d just missed the last flight to the airport closest to Roshan’s house.

We watched the news that evening and the next morning. The anger between the two states ran deep—each pointing fingers, each claiming the other was to blame. Others blamed the federal courts for forcing Karnataka to release water to Tamil Nadu. Cars and buses were set on fire. There were reports of beatings. Groups of rioters pulled over cars along the road and forced them to identify themselves—only to pummel them if they belonged to the “wrong” state.

Fortunately for Roshan, as he drove through that madness the day before (a normally 3-hour drive that took 12 hours), he was driving a car with Keralan plates (his friend) instead of his own car with Tamil Nadu plates. (And even though he lives in Tamil Nadu, he speaks fluent Malayalam, which he used to get by the rioters.)

(I should add, for the sake of storytelling, that because Roshan drove around for 12 hours the day before and many of the gas stations shut down to avoid the riots, two minutes after he picked us up the night before, the van ran out of gas and we pulled over to the side of the highway to wait for him to make two trips to the gas station, bringing back diesel fuel in one-liter soda bottles. It was one of those days for the poor guy.)

The next morning, we decided not to risk anything—but also not to do something so absurd as book last-minute flights that could cost hundreds of dollars, leaving Roshan’s friend’s car behind. Instead, under Roshan’s guidance, we hopped in his van and headed west, taking the long route to get to the far-southern state of Kerala.

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It was an epic road trip. And not because we encountered any trouble. In fact, we were lucky enough that things were fine all along the way. But Roshan drove for over 16 hours during the course of the first two days, and Boyeon and I worked to keep him entertained (and awake).

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We stopped at tea and coffee stalls. Ate heaps of Indian food at roadside establishments. We watched the hills turn into mountains and back into plains. We talked about all the differences between Indian, Korean, and American culture. We listened to Indian music on full blast and played our favorite Korean songs and sang along with Adele. Met Roshan’s friend, who owned a hotel we stayed in along the way when he finally gave up driving at 4:00 a.m. the first night.

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And we finally arrived in Kerala, God’s Own Country, as it’s known. A land of beautiful waters. Of seafood and coconut-based dishes. Of meals served on banana leaves.

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A typical South Indian meal (this one specially prepared for a local holiday)

We would drive many more hours during our time together, and in India—whether by train, boat, or automobile—it turns out that some of my best memories are tied to transportation. Because, to be admittedly cheesy, sometimes the journey is just as important as the destination. And those hours watching the Indian mountainside roll by are no exception.

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