Asia/India

My Departure

All good things come to an end, and often they do so more quickly than is expected. The last few days gallop past and suddenly it is time to leave the for the journey home. Things for which one thought there was plenty of time are left undone. Goodbyes that should have been formal are reduced to mere telephone conversations and declarations that future meetings should not be shunned if possible.

For all my attempts to see a little of the country whilst stationed here, it has become so apparent that the surface has barely been scratched. For every town I have visited there have been ten, a hundred, a thousand I have missed; for every marvel I have gazed on, a myriad I have never known. But perhaps you do not need to be exhaustive in your travels to get the flavour of a place. Perhaps you do not need to visit every hamlet to learn of a people’s heterogeneity, their generosity, their quirks and delights, their exuberances and foibles, their fears and prejudices and even their hypocrisies. For India is the fabled land of the East, magical and strange but it is not some utopian world. There is inequality and social bigotry and it suffers from ills just the same as every other country, but none of these stops it being amazing.

Incredible India, runs the Government slogan.

It is, and I shall miss it.

Asia/India

Fifty-two hours home

It was supposed to take a mere forty three hours to get back to my flat in Mumbai from Dalhousie. Thirty four hours of bus and train with a half day stop-over in Delhi. All in all, it should not have been too bad. Friday’s stint in Delhi had been pleasant enough, affording me the time to reacquaint myself with New Delhi. Monday was to be Old Delhi’s turn, but, oh, what a difference a day can make.

Five thirty in the morning is never a good time to arrive in a difficult city after no breakfast and a broken night’s sleep. But Old Delhi makes it all that little bit harder, bringing together as it does so many of India’s negative sides. The endless wallahs with their endless cries of ‘Here!’, ‘Sir!’, ‘This way!’, ‘Rickshaw!’, ‘Sit!’ and ‘Taxi!’. The people on the make, the scams in the attempt. The hassle and the noise and the irritations. Then, as the sun goes up, the cries only increase: a double attack with the inescapable heat.

During a much needed breakfast I found myself surrounded by the jetsam of so many European countries. People who would peer into a shop selling poles of plastic tat and squeak with delight as if somehow there, in that moment, they had discovered their nirvana. Of course, Old Delhi is full of sights that must be seen: the buildings and crowded bazaars, but the endless arguments with rickshaw drivers do not, nor does the casual have-a-go begging, or the spitting and snotting in the street. I found Old Delhi lacked the peaceable quiet and space of New Delhi, it lacked many of New Delhi’s fantastic monuments and in a return had a crowded bustle far less energetic or agreeable than Mumbai’s. Mumbai is an infinitely more grown-up city, where commerce and individual endeavour are the most important things. Even the professional child-beggars in Mumbai are, well, more professional, neither pinching you nor shouting at you if you send them away empty handed. In Old Delhi they would do both.

So when my train out of Delhi back to Bombay was rescheduled twice (read delayed by seven hours), my sister’s insistence that I visit the Imperial Hotel became a temptation I could not resist. It might have involved another argument with another rickshaw driver but inside it was cool and quiet and for a moment it helped to forget that I was stuck in the middle of what had become a fifty-two hour journey home.

What a holiday. In nine days (about 210 hours) I had slept in a bed only twice and travelled for over 120 hours. Sometimes one really does go back to work for a rest.

Asia/India

Dalhousie

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The train was a little late and the bus journey unnerving but eighteen hours after leaving Delhi Dalhousie was as close to the Himalaya’s as I was going to get. Even then, though, the mountains and snow capped peaks were more than a little beyond my grasp. The view, though, could not be begrudged.

The mismatch between the hotel and its description in the guide book could be, but how else does one choose between hotels Grand View, Mount View and Megaview? Still, Dalhousie, with its clear sunlight, slight chill in the air, blankets on the bed, Dahlias in the garden and conifers on the grassy hills, could almost have been England. It was a place that forced one to relax and do nothing, especially after six-thirty when the sun went down taking the views with it.

Asia/India

New Delhi

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The station is chaotic, the taxi-wallahs excruciating and the fares colossal, but New Delhi is a town more different from Bombay than can easily be imagined. Wide, open, well maintained roads; green parks and spaces, tranquility and emptiness: these things are not to be found in Mumbai and for a moment you could imagine yourself in a dusty version of some European city. Traffic even appears to obey the signals. The architecture drags itself from two imperial extremes: British and Moghali, but happily they sit, side by side. The Viceroy’s Palace and its broad approach. Humayun’s tomb, forerunner to the Taj in Agra, was spectacular, its beauty only magnified by the dearth of other visitors. As always, though, there is are reminders of India beyond the architecture and this time it came from the dogs.

In the morning, treading amongst the ruins of an sandstone fort, I disturbed a stray. The poor dog scrambled to avoid me, its body embroided with the scars of life amongst an unforgiving crowd. Its face looked haunted with fear but it could not flee with speed. Its right hind leg hung useless and shattered by its side, dangling painfully.

The true fly in the ointment came in the afternoon. Standing in the quiet of the Lodi gardens, a public park, I heard a sniffling and felt a weird dampness on my leg. Looking around I saw a dog peeing. This was not tinkle, no few drops, but a gushing torrent of warm dark dog piss. In that single moment it took me to realise what was happening and send the dog running my leg was soaked and his marked made. Thank goodness for the dry, evaporating heat of Delhi.

Asia/India

Jaipur

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We got into Jaipur late on Tuesday evening and I am afraid to say that hunger was rather clouding my thoughts and words. Late enough that almost all the restaurants were shut, when we finally did stumble into an eatery i may have, shamefully, turned to my friends and said “Give the man what he wants. Just get me a butter naan.”

Jaipur’s beauty, and that of the Amber Palace, is just a little marred by the actions of some of its people. A tourist hot spot, the levels of dishonesty exhibited by its inhabitants was breathtaking. After over five months in India I was shocked by the attempted scams and constant petty deception of the hawkers in Jaipur; it is not an India-wide trait but is very prevalent in the Delhi, Rajasthan and Agra triangle. Ludicrous prices, constant scamming, casual begging. Lies dressed up as favours. It can mar a place because it leaves you trusting no one.

That of course is what made the difference between living in India and travelling in India so stark for me. Living in Mumbai, one operates through a network of trusted others. One is shielded from the scams by intermediates and you can avoid some of the sharp practices by learning from others what the price ought to be or what the practice really is. But travelling makes you a novice in an area and whether you are alone or with others, you are that much more vulnerable. Even if you can smell a rat, you often cannot place it. You cannot work out quite what is wrong or what would make it right, but you know that something does not add up. Jaipur took this to extremes though, for I felt it all more sharply than I had on any previous trip. In part this was because I felt protective towards my friends but also almost proprietorial towards India, wanting to show off its finest qualities. And I felt so angry that I should thwarted in the attempt by Jaipur’s very own.

Asia/India

Agra: mausoleums big and small

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The night train from Lucknow seemed to pass through Siberia on its way to Agra for we all woke during the night from the cold.

A common practice of those hawking cars or taxis is to help you off the train and offer you all sorts of help as you leave the station. They never leave you and are deaf to your attempts to dismiss them. They hope to wear you down into accepting their kind offer of an overpriced taxi to somewhere you do not want to go. Sometimes, though, you can turn the tables, wearing them down into accepting a more reasonable rate for a journey you actually want. The taxi pimp turned away scowling complaining that I was as bad as any Indian for striking a bargain and we piled into a battered Ambassador for a trip to breakfast, the Taj and whatever else we could find.

The sad thing about the Taj Mahal is that its beauty does not sweep you off your feet. Its image is so well known, and so often shown in pictures and on the screen that finally seeing it in the marble is the bathetic experience of meeting the familiar with such high expectations only to discover that it is just as you had been led to believe. Beautiful and impressive and well worth visiting but not awe inspiring. Perhaps most damning for this most famous of monuments is that some of Agra’s other sights struck me much more deeply. The earlier and smaller Baby Taj was, for me, a more delightful visit. But let me not knock the Taj, for it is amazing and I am very glad I went to see it, even if it was the single most expensive entrance ticket I have ever bought out here. As a resident here, the India Government gives you a little blue book which its immigration bureaucrats insist must (not can or should) be used when travelling in India to allow one to avail oneself of the Indian (vs foreigner) prices. Unfortunately, the tourist department bureaucrats in Agra were equally insistent that the little blue book did no such thing. So to the delight of my friends I was stung for the full ten pounds.

Agra seemed to lose its colour a little after lunch. Lunch itself was dire. A Tesco’s freezer cabinet has probably thrown up better naans than our highly recommended (deary me, why do I persist with the guide book) lunching hole. The rest of the food was cold and meagre. Then, returning to the car, I explained to the taxi driver what we wanted to do in the afternoon. He told me flatly that the time for sight-seeing was now over. He would take us to some shops instead because there was not time before our train. I asked him what he meant, since three hours looked to me to be ample time indeed for a visit to a Mosque and a market. In any case, none of us wanted to visit his choice of shops before our own itinerary was exhausted. ‘No!’ he cried. Why would I not listen to him. ‘Listen to me,’ he said. These were special shops that we had to visit. (No mention, of course, was made of the commission waiting for him on our arrival.) With the driver insisting that I listen to him and then rabbiting on about how we could not see any more sights but had to, had to, go shopping and my friends standing behind him, shaking their heads and silently imploring me to put my foot down, I could do nothing but wait my turn. Finally he let me speak.

“Now listen to me,” I said. “We are going to the Mosque.”

Asia/India

Lucknow

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The Residency...

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...and its Resident.

Lucknow; I arrive late, my friends very much later. As I step out from the railway station the rickshaw-wallahs clump round me like so many barnacles. I almost cannot move for them and their cries but foolishly they leave the entrance to a small, dark alley unguarded. I slip down it and inside a street cafe. A remarkably restorative glass of chai and an aloo paratha are soon brought forward.

I had no idea when my friends are going to join me so I set out to find the Botanic Gardens, confident that they would not be interested in them. I never did find them, but as I knocked about town, waiting for their arrival and receiving a series of alarming progress reports, I walked and got lost, visited a walled garden, read of heroic last stands (and heroic rewritings of history), and tried to slake my ever building thirst with the odd nimbu panee (lemon water). One of them was made with tap water, alas, which rather went through me like a dose of Epsom salts, putting the kybosh on a quiet evening.

Still, arrive my friends eventually did with tall tales of adventurous journeys in rust-bucket cars. We headed for the Residency or what was left of it. Left to crumble it has not been touched since the end of the siege in 1857. Bullet marks and cannon wounds still adorn its walls. The plaster gone, revealing the red brick underneath. In the shimmering heat and sun and with such neo-classical architecture around us, we could have been standing in the Mediterranean, surveying Roman ruins. But we were not. We were in India, in Lucknow, in the grounds of a bloody battlefield, where unequal armies pitted themselves against each other and tales of derring-do arose to inspire generations. There were the signs of battle and of destruction, and there the signs of death. Amongst the others, the ostentatiously simple grave, with its certainly self-aware epitaph, for Henry Lawrence, Resident at Lucknow. Here lies a man who tried to do his duty.

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Lucknow at night

But what duty was it and what does it mean today? On a national holiday to celebrate Gandhi’s birthday, the grounds of the Residency were filled with relaxing Indians. I could not help but feel that it was an odd choice of location for such a day: Gandhi the symbol of India’s independence from Britain; the Residency at Lucknow a symbol of British endurance.

Asia/India

The Pushpak Express

All day was spent on the Pushpak Express, a 25-carriage-long passenger train, as I headed across India from Mumbai to Lucknow, there to meet up with friends. Travel by train is what travel ought to be. It is relaxed and calming: the motion, speed and course all outside your control. The journey itself is an experience that can be just as involving as the destination. With the wind in your face and the fields, houses and trees flashing by it gives a real sense of progress, of distance covered and of speed. A sense of speed even in a country where the trains probably rarely get much above 60mph for any extended periods.

And as I slept and slumbered, ate and read on the train, my friends were experiencing another very Indian affair when a man came up to them saying “Understand me. I am not a beggar: I am a Brahmin. Now give me thirty rupees.”

Asia/India

Flowers

The monsoon has been back with a vengeance since I said it had ended. Yet one forever hopes that it has finally died and for the past few days the sun has burnt down upon the formicating city beneath and the rains have felt a world away.

Making things rather awkward is the fact that the security girl at the bottom of the lift has started giving me flowers. A single rose at a time. Thank goodness they are not red.

Asia/India

Three days in Kerala

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Friday
The usual panics at work; the usual delays with transport. No matter how much planning you put into things out here, so often it all ends up being rather last minute. You leave work in plenty of time but get called back with only moments spare. You set off hoping to beat the traffic to be told of two hour delays that would have afforded time for supper if you had known about them early enough but now just lets you eat the soggy sandwiches back in the flat. Still, everything has a beginning and my trip to Kerala was, finally, no exception.

Not to be daunted by beginnings, I settled into my seat, relishing the weekend ahead. Perhaps my enthusiasm for what will probably prove to be my last weekend adventure here in India spilled over a little too much for I was soon in conversation with the very attractive and sprightly girl in the seat next door. Reciprocity is a wonderful thing and an exploration of things in common turned up some delightful surprises. Less delightful were the insights into the weirdness of foreigners (in this case, me) that she wished to share. Did I know Mr Bean, for if not she felt I could do worse than simply peer into a mirror. And what of that ghastly pale skin the English persist in carrying about with them? What did I think of that? Its near translucent, death-like qualities could, she felt, assure me a place in any horror film without even the need for cosmetics. Indeed, she became quite expansive on the subject. Throughout this unlooked for detour in the conversation, I felt her agreement to meet for dinner was some sign that she did not, in truth, consider my mein either so death-like or so repellent.

So we parted with smiles, she to her destination and me to mine, which in this case was the taxi booth where I was shanghai’d with such thoroughness that I could have looked for no more singular a welcome to Kerala.

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The Backwaters of Kerala, and Alleppey

Saturday
Up and out of the dismal hotel early. Capaciously drab rooms with Dolby surround sound noise from the builders next door did little to make one want to linger. Nor did breakfast: an insipid collection of uninspiring offerings kept luke warm from the glow of tired paraffin flame. Too few hours asleep and chai too weak to make up for it were the backdrop to the first full day of the Keralam progress.

The guidebook recommended a trip to Kollam, so we took ourselves off to the railway station. Alas, if buying the right ticket was easy, finding the right train was not. I asked what time the train left and was told 10:30am but to find out from which platform I needed the help of the information kiosk. I looked at the crowd for information and thence to my watch. It was half past ten right then and there and there was certainly not enough time to try to queue for an hour. A train sat idling in the station, but its very presence threatened imminent departure. We dashed to the platform, confident that in a country continuously swarming with uniformed officials we would be able to ask someone closer to the train. The platform was deserted of useful uniform. A passenger replied to our queries with that typically Indian yes: a sort of non-committal utterance of nothing in particular. It was not much but it was all we had. We jumped on board, the train departed and we discovered our error. The train was not going to Kollam at all. What could we do, we asked the conductor. His only advice was to continue on the train to its end, then turn around and come back, and then try again for Kollam. Where was the train going? Alleppey. We looked up Alleppey in the guidebook and resolved on a day spent there.

So Alleppey it was and of all the unintended outcomes it could have been very much worse. The morning was fine, the town pleasant and the jetty easy to find. I asked the jetty-master where we could get a boat to go along the backwaters. He recommended boat number 25: it would take us to Kottayam in an hour, give us an hour to explore a charming village and then bring us back. A public-transport based guide to the backwaters and it sounded like just the thing. So we jumped on board boat number twenty-five and bought our tickets. But if the jetty-master had said boat 25, he had not meant it. No sooner had we got off the wrong train, then we boarded the wrong boat. But sometimes it is not about the destination and more the journey. If we were not going to see Kottayam, we were at least go to sit back and enjoy the moment, and savour the calm and the country. School had obviously just ended (many many schools out here have Saturday morning lessons: a fine practice) for there was a succession of school-boys first boarding and then alighting from the boat. All seemed bright, fun and energetic souls and all seemed to want to sit near the weird ferengi. I was shown their work books and their textbooks and invited to discuss their lessons. And all was spoken with such enthusiasm and fervour, their eyes wide and flushed with the pleasure of learning.

We never made it to Kottayam (or to Kollam for that matter) but we did make it back to Alleppey for lunch. Fearing for his stomach, my companion in travails said that he would stick to the paneer, but a single sight of the tiger prawns held out for our inspection put paid to such cautious ideas and plates of prawns (such excellent prawns) were soon served up and gulped down. Feasted and restored we returned to the jetty having decided upon a last throw of the dice. We would hire a boat for two hours and visit an out-of-the-way village in the back of the backwaters.

On our return to the footbridge across the canal we were not a little surprised to find all the boats, and the jetty itself, gone. The situation, and our attempt to remedy it, was not helped by the sudden reminder that the monsoon was still in full swing. In a flash we were soaked. But, huddling under the awning of an umbrella shop, we finally discovered the truth to our mystery. There were two canals in the town: one north and one south and we had turned right out of the restaurant and not left.

In the end it seemed pointless to rush. The water stopped in its own good time and our clothes dried in theirs. The boat we hired to take us to a village never did take us to any such thing, but I suppose it was agreeable in its own way to have the chance to re-explore the morning’s journey, just the two of us in a boat noisier than was strictly necessary and at sixty times the morning’s price.

And then, of course, all good things must come to an end. I will admit that, as I left the jetty for the second time and returned to Alleppey’s railway station, I was thinking of the particular more than the general, but the sentiment remained true. We bought our tickets, failed to find the correct carriage despite our best efforts and the help of the conductor and returned to Ernakulum: the town of the night before and the transfer point for the ferry to Fort Cochin. En route I was relieved of the heavy burden of my telephone and forced to argue with the rickshaw driver before he finally agreed to take us to the ferry. All the while, even almost to the point of our boarding the boat, he persisted in telling us that the ferry had shut and that he could take us to a hotel. Then, in the lull before the storm, we, unsuspecting fools that we were, dined superbly and went to sleep contentedly.

Sunday
Morning has broken, blackbird has spoken and the bananas in my porridge turned out to be reconstituted plantain. My chai was a Tetley’s teabag boiled in milk and my lassi more than a little cheesy.

Walking into the town we passed a garishly lively church. Multicoloured flashing lights, dolled up shrines, painted murals and red plush seats. Then, the true glory of Fort Cochin: the old cantilevered fishing nets. Easy, if heavy, to handle, these contraptions spend each day being raised and lowered into the sea front. It is hard to tell, though, if fishing is the main source of income for the fishermen anymore, so keen are they to lure the tourists into their nets for more. No, the morning was spent in tourism, pottering about the town, poking heads into shops and looking over monuments. It was with lunch that things began to go seriously wrong.

The guidebook listed Addy’s Kitchen: simple Indian food if a little pricey, it seemed exactly what we wanted. When we arrived there I noticed the restaurant called itself a 1776 house and if I commented at the time that it was an inauspicious date I could hardly have been more right. The place was deserted of patrons; the stuff had to be flushed out from deep within the building’s bowels. The menu was massive, but nothing was on. We chose simply: some spicy paneer and a grilled fish. Then we waited. And waited. And waited. Good things come to those who wait, but so, it appears, do bad things. Raw fish and paneer so fruity that my companion’s stomach (fine with prawns more raw than not) began to complain. As I poked about my measly morsel looking for something cooked enough to eat, my companion finally threw down his fork saying that he had probably eaten more than enough. So had I. Finally we could extricate ourselves from the restaurant, finally we could return to the sun outside. But Fort Cochin was shutting itself up. The shops were barred or empty of enticements. We returned to the jetty (with the fruity paneer still rumbling in-stomach) and took the ferry back to Ernakulam. Half way across the water, the heavens opened. We crowded into the centre of the boat but the wind shifted, the rain lashed in almost horizontally and my clothes were plastered to my skin. The boat docked, we dashed ashore and huddled under covers. The rain intensified and, unforgivably, the temperature dropped. We were not just wet, we were very cold with no way to warm up or dry off.

Ernakulum is a town so exciting that it does not warrant and entry in the guide. Its bright lights and intriguing architecture speak volumes for itself so we decided to cut our losses and head to the airport early. We might have ended up getting to the terminus ridiculously early, so our kindly rickshaw-wallah got lost on the way, killing a few minutes here and there. Obviously fearing that he might get so lost that we would be late, our connection was delayed by first forty minutes and ultimately an hour. For two and a half hours, then, we sat, still drenched, in an hall devoid of warmth, huddling till we could be shepherded to our seats.

Two hours late, still cold and damp and riven with hunger, returning home was a joy almost over-whelming.

I was back.