Easy rickshaw rider

Can you really get a taste of India on a package deal? That depends on who you know, says Tina Lofthouse...

When it comes to travelling, I don't class myself as hardcore, but I did manage a three-month trip across three continents with a backpack - and without a hairdryer or the aid of a perma-tanned clipboard-wielding tour representative to take me from the airport to the safety of my hotel.

Afterwards, the very thought of being stuck for 14 nights with the same group of people, whingeing about the heat, the food, the water, filled me with dread. So when it came to planning our trip to India we were all set to dig out those bargain flights and make our own way.

Small problem � there were no bargain airfares. And the cheapest way to get to our destination was a package deal. Flights and 14 nights accommodation for a knock-down price. It was an offer we couldn't refuse � but we made the one proviso � we'd do as much as possible to do our own thing.

We crammed on to a plane more suited to short-hauls to Europe and prayed for deliverance from DVT, especially as we were being charged �1 for a small bottle of water. Ten hours later we'd swapped a miserable February day in London for the sunny beaches of Kerala.

"Coconut, melon, papaya?" "Beach mat, sarong, lungi?" It was our first day so naturally we were whiter than the sand we were walking on and accordingly it made us prime prey for the vendors who plied their goods on Kovalam beach. Every step we took, another entrepreneur would rush up, eager to tell us about the merits of their wares.

We're easily persuaded, the vendors persistent, and by the time we headed back to the hotel, we were laden with goods we didn't even know we wanted, and probably didn't.

The next morning we made a firm resolution that we'd learn from the experience and headed out again with a mission not to be talked into anything.

"Hello, my name's Leslie. You want to sightsee in my rickshaw?" He smiled, he had a smart shirt on and his motorised rickshaw was gleaming. He beamed. How could we refuse?

We hopped in and headed down the dusty highway with that sudden rush of panic you get when you realise you have probably done something really, really silly. Memories came flooding back of our little �detour' in Bangkok which surprisingly only left us a few bhat lighter but wasted a whole day �sightseeing' back street factory shops.

Leslie's enthusiasm was undented despite our wary grimaces. Narrowly missing a ramshackle van with a cargo of franticly clucking chickens that had decided to veer onto our side of the road, the panic didn't abate. But pulling into Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), Kerala's capital city, the fear turned to excitement as we watched the chaotic scenes before us.

Indian city centres are not for the faint-hearted. Drivers spare no mercy for pedestrians and the exhaust fumes and the heat combine in to a horrendous smog. But its manic energy is exhilarating. Women in colourful saris were heading for the market, a deliveryman coaxed an ox-drawn cart down the narrow streets and businessmen scurried to the office. We visited the packed market and then took in the imposing Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple.

Leslie was eager to show us more so as we were heading back he suggested we meet his �friend' who could take us cruising down the river. It's a beautiful stretch of water, surrounded by palm trees with dwellings dotted along the banks.

Most of the residents along the river seem to enjoy trying out their English, waving and asking for school pens (come armed with plenty) but several had erected make-shift screens to block out the intrusion from what has become quite a mini tourist boom. It was an idyllic way to pass the afternoon sat in this tiny boat being punted down the river and just as we were basking in the simplicity of it all, the skipper's mobile phone rang. There he was happily chatting away on his mobile in the middle of a river in Kerala and I can't even get a signal in the Balham Sainsburys.

Yearning for more tranquillity we decided that the next morning Leslie would drop us at a more peaceful beach � there's only so many Kovalam sarong/lungi hagglers you can cope with in one trip � and for the first time we actually managed to read our books in peace.

The next few days we took off on a road trip we'd organised through the hotel � the manager had a brother who had a friend who had a cousin who'd take us far and wide for half the price of the official tours.

When we got back, Leslie looked hurt. He also had a brother who had a friend who had a cousin who could've helped for a quarter of the price. Anyway, he was on to the next plan. He could take us to a big festival the next night. We had visions of brightly painted elephants, lights, music...

But the next evening we arrived to something quite, quite different. Around a clearing in a wood there was a small temple surrounded by crowds chanting. Young lads painted a chalky white were dancing wildly. It certainly wasn't the tourist melee we had in mind. But Leslie assured us we were welcome and led us further into the gathering.

One boy, spotting we had brought a camera, was eager for us to take pictures (those of a sensitive disposition may like to turn away now) and he pulled us over to where his friends were recovering from having their cheeks pierced with long spears. It was an incredible sight and, after the initial shock, quite moving.

We followed the festival down to the main temple where the young men then danced through hot coals. This place thronged with tourists - and we felt pretty privileged to have seen what went before all this. It was an unforgettable night.

Our trip was almost over and we went spent the next few days chilling, eating, doing yoga (two hours in fact, with one hour dedicated to toe-wiggling � told you we were easily persuaded) and pottering around, which Kovalam is perfectly suited to.

Leslie arranged to see us off on our last day. We assumed this would be the scam part. But as all the other drivers and porters flocked around for a few rupees or, failing that, a school pen (be warned, Biros without lids will be met with disdain) Leslie came over, wished us a good journey and headed off with his rickshaw shiny and ready for his next customer.

Okay, so all of the above goes against what you've always been told � never accept lifts from strangers, don't go off with unofficial tour guides, avoid dangerous modes of transport � so I'm not endorsing any of this. But, hey, we had fun, Leslie made a few bucks, and for once our gullible trusting tourist nature paid off. And I must admit, I did enjoy the disapproving looks off our fellow package-tour passengers as we clambered aboard our coach to the airport with our perma-tanned reps...

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.