"Where you from?"
"Ireland.........Irelande.........next to the UK"
"Yeah! Close enough".
We reached the south of India to be greeted with harsh humidity and a selection of colours and smells that smack your senses into overdrive. Drivers beep their way along the street as curious eyes and that beautiful head wobble would stop us for friendly interrogation. The temperature would drop a few degrees as you noticed the light on the buildings growing dark and cold. Clouds form overhead as the street quickly disperses with a sudden outburst of rain. A few moments later as people walk through the puddles and the cars, we realise that we may have stepped into an interesting location to try and make a surfing film.
I was traveling with Irish surfer Conor Maguire. We met in Dublin and laughed our way through the first flight. Two films and a sleep later we were bumped up to business class. (Side note -most projects don't start this well.) We had decided to make a surf film that was different to anything that either of us had done before. Rather than making surfing the protagonist of our film we wanted to focus more on the culture, the people, the wildlife and the beautiful unpredictable monsoon that we grew to adore. Creating a story around the interesting moments that happen along the way to a goal.
We landed in Kerala where we were going to be traveling around for the next three weeks before heading north towards Mumbai. We met with the talented bodyboarder Tom Gillespie who landed the day before. An overpriced taxi later and we were at a small seaside town that would be our base of operations. There was swell on the way but we had time to wait. My jetlagged mind was happy with this fact as we spent the first few days roaming the water soaked streets.
The food in India was something that I was more than curious about when planning for the project. Breakfast was either western with terrible coffee or a local dish of rice, sugar and bananas with terrible coffee. After a month in India I was complementing a coffee that I was drinking in Mumbai to the surprised and happy face looking back at me telling me I had a cup of Nescafe in my hand. We were having most of our lunches in a local vegetarian restaurant. You would walk in and be handed a menu with about three options depending on the time of day. A metal tray would be placed in front of you as the waiter served from large pots while walking between the tables. I was given out to only once for eating too slow as he topped up my tray on passing. The meal would cost about £0.40 per person with another 10p for a coffee after. Dinner was either a repeat of lunch or fresh fish bought from a market while restaurant owners offered you an arm, a leg and a table to let them cook it for you.
We decided to get away from the sea for a few days to explore the mountains of Thekkady. We were planning on getting scooters up the mountain but we were advised that we wouldn't come back. As we sat on an open windowed bus speeding around the narrow roads, a straight drop on one side and not even space for someone to walk on the other, we quickly agreed that we made the right decision. The bus driver would throw us around turns, overtaking on blind bends to come to a screeching stop at random intervals for his co-worker doing the same chaotic dance in the opposite direction. When the rain would come, shutters would be dragged down blocking out the water along with the light. We sat in the dark listening to the rain pounding on the metal roof as the bus screeched on. Seven hours later we were at the Kearla border.
Coming from the humidity driven coast we greeted the sudden temperature change with content. Finding colder, wetter and even more beautiful views of this country. The first night we asked a shop owner about the consistent electricity cuts throughout the town. He responded with the story of how a large transformer got damaged from the rain in 1972 and it was causing the power cuts since.
Two days later the swell that we were waiting for arrived and we made our way back down the mountain. We had to travel through the night and decided that a taxi might be a safer option. We sat in the rain and a traffic jam for thirty minutes to find out that a bus had fallen off the road two days previous and they were currently dragging it up. Seeing the smashed up vehicle as we slowly passed was a sudden realization of the dark side of the beautiful chaos.
A day of moving later and we were sitting in the bay that we had travelled to India for. A gap in the monsoon had us looking at blue skies that bounced off the life filled water. We had bumped into four Indian surfers who were accompanied by an older Australian. They were from an ashram further north. Kiran, the oldest of the Indian surfers helps run a surf school from the ashram. They were traveling with two younger girls and also making a film. They are on a mission to empower women in India through surfing.
The waves were small and not exactly what we were looking for but motivation was as high as the temperature. The next two weeks were spent shooting around the bay and reading absolutely everything that I could get my hands on. We were a bit out of the way with only the slightest of reception hitting our phones at random moments. Due to the heat, we were spending our time outside sparingly to avoid the sun. Watching a sunrise and a rain storm happen simultaneously is a dam fine way to wake up. Nights were spent quizzing each other about life, the universe, and other surfing trips while eating a variety of local vegetarian meals. Over the two weeks spent here we only got one day of the type of waves that we had travelled for but like all good surf trips its what happens along the way that makes the memories. This is exactly the kind of film that we were there to make. After the swell, everyone decided to move on. Conor and I were heading to Indonesia for the next part of the project but I shall keep that story for a future post.
When we flew back to India we had a few days around Mumbai as we were waiting for a flight. Mumbai was a place that I always wanted to see after reading Gregory David Roberts' 'Shantaram', although I can also thank Wes Anderson for this Indian motivation. We got to Mumbai late at night. Stray dogs seemed to own the dark and quiet streets as we drove in search of our homestay. The next two days were filled with jet lagged walks through the over crowded streets and markets that had both my mind and camera on overdrive. Walking past sleeping dogs and people who seemed to drop at will, we made our way around the south of the city.
My most memorable moments in Mumbai would have to be how awe struck I was by the transport. The trains are a strategic battle consisting of cheap tickets and crowded platforms. As a train would approach you see passengers spill off and hit the ground running as the men on the platform run and jump into the open carriages. Waiting for the train to stop is even more dangerous where you would be greeted by two waves crashing with elbows, claws and screams. Getting a taxi around the city, although a safer option for your own health, was still just as dangerous for anyone in the vicinity. Drivers would beep and break their way along the streets passed the sleeping bodies that lined the road. The only time that I saw what I would regard as sensible driving was when everything came to a halt as a hump backed cow casually strolled across a crossroads. Once she was safely down the road the game continued. From reading 'Shantaram' and discussions with Kiran at the bay I was fully aware of the driving situations in India – acceptable recklessness with concern. A driver who gets into an accident would be instantly punished by passers by. This conversation went on to inform me of how private buses operate. Bus companies that pride themselves on schedules inform their drivers not to stop for any reason. If a driver hits someone on the street they just keep going and let whoever is still standing call the company to rectify.
Sitting in the airport in Mumbai I was both sad and excited to be leaving this beautiful and chaotic colourful dreamland. We only got to see a fraction of what I am now calling my favorite country but it has left an imprint in my mind that I feel will last for quite some time. From the raw power of the monsoon to the smells of the water filled streets I already look forward to my return. From everything that it taught me, one thing has shone brightly through since I have been back in London – I have never felt so dam safe cycling around such organised roads.