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Where tourists nest

Last updated on January 11, 2020

Santa Maria Hostel is a typical home for backpackers in Fort Kochi. They live together and share their travel tales and life experiences

SANTA MARIA Hostel is a preferred place for backpackers, located at the tip of Kerala’s Fort Kochi island. People from all over the world come and stay here. For some, it’s an escape from the familiar and for others, it’s a part of a self-exploratory journey that may last for months, even years.

Travelling to me is that special activity where one makes a home at an alien place, for home is not a static concept. Paradoxically, travellers live in a different culture to explore their inner reaches. They expose themselves to strangers and gain familiarity with the self. Therefore, adaptability is a key skill for a traveler without giving up being your own person. And that’s what Santa Maria has become — like many such hostels all over the world, a melting pot of culture where travellers coexist.

They are some who take time to open up, while others are very affable, enter into a conversation without much hassle – they always have something to talk about. All find time and occasion to hang out together even if they are not talking to each other.

Having the Internet on your phone has shrunk the world, it’s also done some irreparable damage to the true spirit of travelling. Backpackers are fairly often seen typing away on their phone — it felt like they left a part of themselves back home. Some claimed they were figuring out what to do based on the detailed accounts of other travellers.

I was in Santa Maria Hostel for a week, between two weddings I had to attend in Kerala. I would spend a good part of the day roaming around – it was fairly warm and muggy–but would often lounge around with other backpackers. There was a front veranda where guests would fritter away long hours smoking, sipping coffee or tea, playing chess or watching a video on their mobile. Occasionally, an animated conversation broke the general ennui that pervaded the veranda.

The hostel has private rooms and dormitory for six guests (three two-storey bunkbeds). Inmates would generally be out on the veranda or at big common room with an old sofa set, a dining table, a couple of guitars, a bookshelf with some bestsellers, a mattress on the floor covered with rexine and a few tits-bits. The walls were adorned with graffiti art, fairly good but could certainly be better.

The common space leads to a big kitchen where inmates are encouraged to make their own food. Breakfast was on the house. While Santosh — who wears a mundu like a native but is from Pune — is the manager during the day. Nikhil, a tall local, takes over in the night. They are friendly and facilitate all legitimate desires and try their best to make life easy for guests.

Travellers have one thing in common, they are repositories of experience. They are also curious enough to poke around for insights into the lives of others. One such person is a 74-year-old sailor who has visited 72 countries and has spent a sizeable part of his life outside his native country France. He was fit and fine till a few months ago, went jogging every day. Now he is inflicted with a condition — he doesn’t name it — that will progressively make him lose his eyesight and his ability to function independently. He is getting himself ready for this new reality.

He likes to spend time lying on his bunk bed, which he’s made into a personal space by hanging some towels by string, and hung pink curtains on the window that faces his bed. He’s getting an Ayurveda treatment and wants to transfer the wisdom he’s acquired over the past decades to impressionable co-travellers.

“I might not be there in the next new year’s eve,” he says categorically. He prefers to live alone rather than suffering before his family. He has his quirks — in the past, he disappeared from home for long periods of time, and surfaced all of a sudden when his folks had more or less reconciled to the fact that he’s dead. A brave man who’s not willing to give up, demands a lot from life, from himself. It’s not easy to be in possession of a spirited soul in an aged body.

There was another bald ageing man who seemed to be in good health and spirits, going about his daily routine with clockwork precision. He treated the hostel as his home, read a lot. I hardly saw him interact with anyone else, as he seemed quite self-contained. Sometimes he’d sit and just stare. I concluded that he was not gawking at anyone in particular but looking through them.

Then I met a local professional from Delhi who has been travelling for four months. Sometimes he was joined by his girlfriend but was mostly alone. He would just exist, away from the familiar, and make lovely masala chai to cultivate friendships.

I became particularly fond of Cloud — that’s how he’s known — a young film-maker from Columbia. He’d been in India for a few months. He was at the hostel in the final stages of his journey, during which he experienced India in all its diversity — mountain, desert, big cities and small towns, heat and dust. A very visual person, his body is a venue for elaborate tattoo artwork. A filmmaker likes to conceptualise visual projects — like he was planning to place mirrors on the beach to create freaky images. He likes to condense the lives of interesting people in five-minute films, and is very good at it. Distant yet involved, he peeps into the lives of others, wants to come back to India to make films. He’s in touch with some filmmakers in Mumbai.

And there’s Santosh JC, a poet on the staff who never says ‘no’ to a suggestion — whether it’s about drawing new graffiti, taking a bike ride by the sea, or dropping a guest to the airport even when tanked. It was wonderful to know him, share the joy of doing good for no good reason. Last seen, he was clicking pictures of graffiti made by Cloud that read ‘Sanity might be that goose we chase’.

On the last day of 2019, the guests, the staff and some locals got together to celebrate the new year. Strangers seem like brethren in this cosmopolitan enclave in Kerala.                   ■