Deprecated: Methods with the same name as their class will not be constructors in a future version of PHP; plgContentembed_google_map has a deprecated constructor in /var/sites/a/aaltenvoogd.com/public_html/plugins/content/embed_google_map/embed_google_map.php on line 21
200311-India-14-01
View? Call this a view?!
200311-India-14-29
The toy train to Darjeeling
200311-India-15-09
Listening to the Dalai Lama's lecture

Wake up, sort of, in the middle of the night, 4am, to meet Rishi at 4.30 for our dawn visit to Tiger Hill, from where we may be able to see the mountains lit up in golden colours and even see Everest in the distance. It’s still dark and cloudy. We drive out of Darjeeling towards Tiger Hill. After a bumpy ride of about half an hour we reach the top. Many other jeeps and cars are making the trip but much less than in the summer months Rishi tells us. There is a three storey building at the top. Ground floor is Rs.10, the top floor, Deluxe, is Rs.40. Inside the bare rooms are rows of plastic chairs. Most people stay outside the fence which encircles the building. Tea vendors abound. We have some tea while we gradually see the daylight appearing, which means the clouds turn a lighter colour, that’s about it. No stunning views of Kanchenjunga today. We’re a bit disappointed but don’t let it bother us. Do buy a few pictures and have our picture taken with a couple of lads from Gauhati in Assam, and then walk down the hill. Remember one of the American girls in the observation house commenting on the statue of liberty sign on the plastic chairs: “these are free chairs!” The walk down is nice. Close to the top of the hill there are strings of prayer flags. A dog friend walks ahead of us.

Then we meet Milan again, who has picked up a small family for a lift downhill. Then we head for another Buddhist temple (name?). The monks are absent, gone to see his lamaness, but Rishi manages to track down an elderly monk. He unlocks the temple. Photos are allowed for a Rs.10 donation. The temple holds a huge statue of … and is full of scared texts, prayer flags, drums, pipes, yellow hats, offerings of bowls of water, pictures and frescoes. There are prayer wheels of all sizes, two big ones inside the temple gate and rows of smaller ones all around the building (as we go round clockwise). An unusual sight we get to see is the cremation area. A pile of ashes and bones lie to one side. Macabre but different. Then we drive back through town to our hotel for breakfast. The town has now started to wake up. Shops and stalls are open and traffic is building up. It’s still early and we have a relaxed breakfast and time to spare before Rishi comes back to pick us up again at 9.30.

Now we’re off to see the Dalai Lama. We drive to the part of town where he is holding his lecture. Cars and people are thronging the streets and we have to walk the last part. Banners welcoming His Holiness the Dalai Lama in flowery language are stretched across the road. The welcome wishers/sponsors are indicated. “Your epoch-making visit”, “With deep reverence and joy”, etc. Stalls along the roadside sell souvenirs and trinkets, but there is no pushy selling at all. We enter the grounds where the lecture is being held. From a distance we have already been able to hear the Dalai Lama’s deep sonorous voice over the loudspeakers. It’s a mixture of to us unintelligible speech, punctuated by the Dalai Lama’s laughing and monotonous mantras repeated at high speed. It sounds like completely unintelligible babble. Now and then a phrase is terminated with “Om!”

There is a gate for VIP’s with passes. Rishi asks if we can go in but no luck. We walk down a bit further and get access through a public gate where people are spread across the hillside, listening attentively to the Dalai Lama. Below us on a football-pitch sized field thousands of people are sat. These are the privileged seats (huge sheets of canvas). The field is divided into squared off sections, like huge cattle pens, using long bamboo poles. A section at the front, nearest the podium, is where the red and yellow robed monks sit. A massive podium faces the field. Inside the Dalai Lama is sat centre-stage on a large throne with groups of yellow-robed monks sat on the left and right of him, facing towards the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama carries on talking and chanting. Another voice seems to ask him a question every now and again, to which he responds with a long reply and chanting. We walk back out of the public area and Rishi suggests we try a bit further along the field. An American girl tells Ness we can get in further up so we turn round, back to the VIP gate. RIshi tries to get us in one more time and succeeds! They ask for our passports. Don’t have them with us. Then they say the passport number will be enough so I say “sure!” and make one up. Then we’re accorded VIP passes as foreign guests, scribbled on a piece of paper which we have to hand to a sentinel further on. Unfortunately Rishi is not allowed in, which we feel bad about. With hindsight I wish we had argued on his behalf.

We carry on down to the football pitch and are shown into the foreigners pen. Most of the foreigners, a mixture of westerners and Asians, seem to be followers of the Dalai Lama and I cannot make out any tourists. We sit on the canvas, take pictures and let the whole proceedings wash over us. It’s funny watching the crowd and seeing how absorbed some of them are. Bits of red cloth have been handed out which people place across their foreheads. Later they remove these on the Dalai Lama’s instruction. It’s a very unusual atmosphere and , whilst it holds no particular significance for us, it is a very rare thing to see the Dalai Lama in person and especially in this setting. It’s only his second ever visit to Darjeeling. His usual above is in Dharamsala, to the west of Nepal. We go and find Rishi again. We are given two pieces of string which have been blessed by the Dalai Lama. I give Rishi one of the two red pieces of cloth we received earlier (I went and asked the ticket chap for them). Rishi also has a small plastic cup with what looks like a urine sample. It’s water blessed by the Dalai Lama. He gives some to us to drink a bit and then brush the rest over your head. Het gets another cup, for his family. Then we go back in search of Milan and the car. We make donations to two monasteries on the way out and I end up buying a very silly hat. Just in that frame of mind where common sense had deserted me! Milan is having friends round in the car. We drive back to our hotel and arrange to meet Rishi again at 2.30. I figure this will give him enough time to distribute his sample of holy water! And it gives us a quiet hour or two to unwind. Lunch is a club sandwich, finger chips and tea in our room, and we cuddle up for a snooze.

At 2.30 we meet Rishi again, for a walk through the markets and botanical gardens. We walk through the shops, stalls, eateries and hotels of the upper town, down towards the middle town. It’s bustling with people. Lively shopping streets full of little booths, stalls and shops, selling all kinds of stuff. And then we turn round a corner and down some narrow alleyways into the market. Wow! It’s like stepping into a different world. It feels like… well… something out of a film. Dark small booths are displaying a colourful variety of vegetables and spices. Some are only lit by a candle or two. The narrow alleys between the booths are covered with plastic sheeting. It lets light through but altogether the place is dark because the booths are spaced so closely together. We’re not harangued by traders, in fact they don’t mind us simply browsing and taking pictures. Playing kids run through the alleys, and do a double-take or simply stop dead when they see us. This is not a place for westerners! After the veg and spice section we pass through various other parts of the market with clothes and textiles, toys, decorations, Indian make-up and accessories, religious articles and offerings (bits of red gauze with gold coloured edging such as my wristband), and it goes on and on.

200311-India-15-23
Darjeeling fishmonger proudly showing off his wares
200311-India-16-09
It's my game and I'll play black if I want to!

Rishi walks us through the various parts of the market and then through various other streets. We go through an area of tailors, cobblers, etc. In the market and everywhere there are lively little cafés. Some are packed full of people chatting and eating, others are empty. The little alleys are dirty, unhygienic, etc. Wouldn’t be caught dead going to the equivalent area in England, but here it has the charm of something exotic. Do feel a bit of a hypocrite though. I’m happily snapping away, lots of opportunities to capture people’s faces here as they go about their daily business. We make our way further down the hill towards the meat and fish markets. The fish “market” is a small dark corridor with about eight or ten cubicles on raised platforms. The fish vendors sit at the back of their cubicles, a bit like an animal in a zoo, which are dimly lit by candles. The vendor in the first cubicle poses for a picture with a catfish. Quirky. Then cross the road to the meat market. We enter through gates at the side, through an internal warren of dark narrow passages. This brings us to the middle of the building. Behind a gate which bars either side lies the meat market itself. Vendors with lumps of dead animal (mutton?) hanging behind them, chopping blocks, bloodstains, bits of offal. The corridor is lit and defined by light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. We leave the market and cross the road to walk further down the hill to the lower town where the tea plantations are and the botanical garden. Just before we enter I spy a shop which sells the local moonshine, “licensed” for consumption on and off the premises. There are two tables inside. The stuff looks clear and mean, and for once I’m not inclined to try it!

The botanical gardens are wonderful, looking a bit damp and dreary and in need of TLC by English standards, but here it’s a totally unexpected luxury. All kinds of tall green trees, plants, a rockery, an orchid house (would contain more than forty varieties normally, now only three), a greenhouse with chrysanthemums and other flowers. We carry on ambling down. A loud chanting monotonous voice can be heard in the background. He sounds as if he has been going for hours. Then we start walking back, uphill all the way. Oh yes, on the way down I tried some “paan” from a kiosk. A large leaf which is brushed with two or three different substances and filled with a few indefinables, then wrapped up into a small parcel which you pop into your mouth and chew. I pretend it’s “mmm, good” to the vendor (with gob full of the stuff), then promptly spit it out again as soon as we have turned the corner. Here’s one addiction I won’t be taking up! We take a different route back up, passing by some of the places we went through on the way down. It’s already getting dark by now. Stops on the way up for cashpoint (being a bit of a nerd, I like to see the exotic location on my bank statement), curio emporium and tea (shop). The curio shop is stuffed full of weird and wonderful things. It may be aimed tourists first and foremost but they also sell to monks. Rishi patiently waits inside while we are shown a variety of little statues, prayer wheels, ornamental daggers to chase away spirits, tooters, jade cups decorated with silver, etc. We settle for a prayer wheel with Bhutan coins and a tooter made of a bull’s horn. Makes a farty sound when you blow it properly. We head for Nuthmalls, the best tea emporium. Perfect for buying presents. They also have green tea for Mama and we buy several packs of “normal” tea as presents. Inside the shop three boys are sat behind a counter to one side, where they sit and pack, wrap and label the tea directly from the tea crates which are stacked behind them. From here we walk through the stalls up to Chowrasta and have a final chai from didi with Rishi. It’s been a great day, packed full of stuff. Whilst Darjeeling has a lovely feel to it, a relaxed atmosphere (by Indian standards), it’s time to move on. Three nights, two days, seems to be about the right amount of time to spend in one place before moving on. It gives you enough opportunity to get to know the place a bit, see some sights, not have to bother with unpacking and repacking for a few days and grow fond enough of a place to be sad to leave it or otherwise bored/sick of it that you’re glad to be moving again. Ness and I have also admitted to each other that right now we would happily settle for a lazy Sunday at home, watching a nice film at home, have a nice non-spicy home-cooked dinner, and maybe wander down the road for a pint or two!

Speaking of pints, back in the hotel we head straight for the bar and after a while Ness agrees to a game of pool. The longest game of pool in history follows, neither of us able to pot a ball for long spells. We decide to call it a draw after I pot the black in a different pocket from the one nominated (both of us had, somehow, managed to pot all our balls by then). Up to our room, freshen up, relax, shower (Ness) and then our last dinner in Darjeeling. Opted for the hotel restaurant out of convenience but later we agreed that this was probably the best place to be: the (wood-panelled!) dining room feels warm and welcoming, there are a few other tables with diners, candle-lit tables, friendly waiters. Afterwards, in our room, I jump into bed early – grumbling guts and sore bum on account of copious chilli intake!

200311-India-16-22
With the West Bengal Fire Brigade

We have agreed with Rishi that he’ll meet us at 6am if it’s a clear morning, 8am if it isn’t, as a second opportunity to see the mountains lit up by the sunrise. At 6am the day looks clearer than yesterday but there is still a lot of cloud. We get to have a lie-in, leisurely breakfast, pack for onward travel, and meet Rishi at 8am in the lobby. Darjeeling has been wonderful. A bit sad to leave it but two days have felt like a lot longer here, we have seen and done so much. A friend of Rishi comes with us as far as Silguri, near Bagdogra.

The drive back takes us around four hours. At first we don’t seem to be descending at all, simply switching back and forth, but the towns and green hills and vegetation everywhere stay the same and we get glimpses of views far down below without seeing the valley floor or the plains at all.

We’re rewarded with a view of Kanchenjunga’s summit. The mountain peak seems to float in the air, as if decapitated from it’s mountain body. Clouds and haze create the effect. The mountain peak is much higher up than where I expected it to be; when told to look at Mount Kanchenjunga I scanned the horizon, couldn’t see any mountains, and only on raising my eyes much higher did I notice it. Rishi remarked that “half a bread is better than no bread”, old Nepali/Tibetan proverb, a bit of wisdom that's been recalled many times since.

On the way down I feasted my eyes on all the street life as we pass through the villages. All sorts of little things catch my attention or amuse me, as they have done on every road journey in India. While we’re at a standstill I watch two Tibetan-looking men sat in a “bar”. They’re playing a game on a wooden table with pockets in the in the corner. One offers the other some tobacco or something out of a tin. A bit further along the same road a jeweller is waving incense over his displayed goods. It’s still early and many people are grooming or washing themselves. You see people stood by a water pipe brushing their teeth and washing their hair, women in particular washing their long black hair wringing out the excess water, or brushing their hair, or grannies inspecting their grandchildren for lice.

The toy train track runs beside the road, crossing it frequently. The track is used by all and sundry. One man has spread out cloth across the track and is sorting through a large pile of red onions. Some people use the rails as a ready-made anvil and are hammering away at things. One woman has set up a stool on the tracks and is knitting away.

200311-India-16-23
"Hurry burry spoils the curry!"

A bus load of young monks is ahead of us. We overtake it several times after making stops here and there. After driving for a long time we stop for a bite at a nice “tourist lodge” overlooking the hills and I have a chance to have vegetable momo after all. Just before we stopped, we pulled in at the West Bengal Fire Brigade and had our picture taken with the firemen, embarrassing Ness (but I know how much you like firemen really!) A road sign warns “if you believe in survival, don’t go for early arrival”. Another says “hurry burry spoils the curry”. Rishi and his friend recommend two Indian films: “Joggers Park”, a love story (older man falls in love with young girl) [Note: bought in the UK on our return – it’s a must-see!] and “Tere naam”, a bollywood extravaganza. The drive goes on and we start to descend, the air feels warmer and in the distance we can see the haze-covered plains. We drop Rishi’s friend at the cross-roads in Siliguri, and not long after that get to Bagdogra airport. Rishi can’t come in with us so we say bye at the gate. Promised to send him some “hagelslag”. He’s expecting a baby in January.

There is some confusion with our ticket. Turns out there is some misalignment between the printed spaces on the form and it’s soon sorted. The flight to Kolkata is delayed by an hour. The luggage scanning machine is kaput but soon fixed. We wait in the airport restaurant; more food with the excellent green chilli sauce they have here. Soon our plane arrives and we’re called to the security check and board our plane. Sat next to an American man, “Brad”, on the way. A bit of banter relieves the monotony of the flight. At Kolkata we remain in the airport, grab a seat in the small smokers area and read, drink tea, watch the people, let the time pass. The layout is composed of triangular blocks, even the announcement speakers and lights are triangular. Only spot one or two westerners, a few more past security. Some are clearly here on business, others are tourists, and some others are harder to place. The flight to Chennai is uneventful, we have decent exit row seats and chat with the Indian businessman sat in our row. Ness is piqued that he ignores her, not entirely but it’s clear that the conversation is between the men and Ness’s part in it should be to nod in agreement and smile politely, but not to be addressed directly by our Indian friend. At Chennai there is no TCI rep waiting for us (there should be) so we catch a black-and-yellow cab to our hotel. The driver has been to Mr. Lal’s master class! The Ambassador Pallava is a smart business hotel. Staff are very courteous and speak English more fluently than the past few places. Lime sodas and a beer in the room and then we both hit the sack. It’s been a long day and we’re driving again tomorrow, to Tirupati hopefully, if we can sort out driver and guide.

First impressions of Chennai: it stinks like an open-air sewer and the curly Tamil writing looks totally different from Devanagari.

First thing to sort out today is TCI. We need a driver and a guide. Plan is to head for Tirupati, explore the temple, a big one, and head back to Mahabalipuram the following day for beach R&R. We’ll try to see Kanchipuram on the way there or back. After initial fun with Indian phone system (dial ‘3’ before dialling a mobile number), we get through to TCI in Mumbai, get a mobile number for the TCI rep in Chennai, and driver and guide are duly arranged for 10am. Get the confirmation phone call as we’re having breakfast. Makes me laugh when the breakfast maître d’ answers the phone, hears it’s for me and asks “can I say who is calling?” We have been pointed to a table in the first section of the breakfast room, giving the four or five staff hovering with an excuse to serve us while they watch the cricket on the TV which has been placed in the room.

Subu (“Subramaniam”) is a friendly smiling driver, car is an … Ambassador! We’ll pick up our guide outside the Meridien hotel. Guide (he’ll have to be “Fred”, can’t remember his name) is very camp. I find him irritating from the word go, but am determined not to let that get in the way. For the next hour or more, as we make our way out of Chennai and into the countryside, Fred doesn’t shut up and tells us a long convoluted story about gods and how the temple came to be where it is. If it weren’t for his effeminate manner, sniffing and snorting, and insistence on telling us every last detail, the story itself would probably have been a gripping tale. As it is, Ness and I try to remain polite and nod now and again. At last he reaches the end of his story and shuts up.

For the past hour or two we have been driving through a flat tropical landscape. Palm trees, short ones, very slender tall ones, are scattered about in clusters everywhere. The air feels warmer. People dress differently. Some men wear a dhoti, a sort of skirt which is rolled up and tucked back in, the end result looks more like an oversized nappy. I’m wary about making jokes about men in skirts with Fred around. Skin colours are darker too, bordering on black. India is on display for us, rolling by. It’s a lazy and very enjoyable way to travel. If it weren’t for Fred’s incessant talking and Subu’s limited English (or our non-existent Tamil and Hindi), it would be easier to ask to stop here or there, see this or that, like we had with Madan and Rattan in Udaipur. Instead I snap a few pictures of the tropical landscape from the moving car. Earlier Subu had managed to get some new batteries for our camera, at the second or third attempt. He’d been gone from the car for some time, while Fred kept on going with his epic, and came back in sweat. He had obviously been all over the place. He later told me he had found a single battery in one shop and had had to go a long way down the road to another shop for the second, the latter shop also had just one battery of the type we needed.

There is not enough time to see Kanchipuram or stop at a village on the way up. We’ll try to see this tomorrow. Nearer Tirupati the landscape turns rocky, with huge lumps of white granite lying on either side of the road. The mountain range of the Eastern Ghats is visible on either side. The mountains look old, like Monument Valley.

Tirupati is a largish town which has developed at the plains below the hills on which the temple has been built. The town is without charm, a collection of hotels, shops, etc. Its sole purpose is as a service centre for the hordes of pilgrims. We drive into the town and pull in at a big building with various counters to buy tickets for the temple. There is no obvious way in and Fred doesn’t seem to know his way around. We leave without buying tickets. Apparently they’re not needed. We drive on to a hotel where Fred makes an enquiry. He comes back having been told we need to get the tickets at the temple itself. Then we drive on towards the hills which lie at the edge of town.

200311-India-18-05
It's all Tamil to us (we think...)

The roads are lined with fences. At a big roundabout with a statue of Garuda we reach a collection of temply-looking buildings. These form the entrance to the route uphill. There has been a recent suicide bomb attack and security has been increased to very high levels. Our bags are searched. Just about everything is forbidden, including lighters and smoking. My stash of duty-free cigarettes attracts attention, but we’re soon waved on our way. Then the drive uphill starts, with lots of numbered u-bends, and a flag-waving attendant at each bend to regulate the traffic. The road is sign-posted with all kinds of instructions and prohibitions, including a sign admonishing “chant om venkateshwaram ladidadidah…”

Busloads of people are being ferried up and down. There is a walkway that climbs the whole way, which we pass several times. The buses going down carry some people with shaved heads. Part of the ritual at Tirupati is to have your head shaved, women as well as men, as a sign of leaving your vanity behind.

The drive is long and besides the road all we can see are hills covered in greenery. A hill in the distance has a wind farm and tall aerial masts. Suddenly, unannounced, we enter the temple town. It was totally hidden from view until we entered it. Here is a complete town with wide avenues and block after block of housing for the pilgrims, offices for the temple administration, roundabouts, shops, etc. Lots of baldies around, some with some kind of orange paste on their heads. Not a single westerner anywhere to be seen. A visit to the JEO’s (Joint Executive Officer) office for permission to enter the temple. We’re told to present passports at the temple. Fred is still clueless but won’t admit it to us. Subu is much more use. We park near the temple complex and walk past long, long queues of people (privilege as a foreigner?) and end up getting sent back and forth. It’s a game of three steps forward and two back. We falter the final hurdle, in sight of the temple itself. Fred’s negotiating tactic doesn’t pay off and just seems to wind people up. Wish I could speak the lingo myself. I’m sure that a bit of pleading, saying how we have travelled far, have limited time and would be glad to make a donation (baksheesh!) would go further than Fred’s simpering. As we walk back we’re told by one official we had spoken to earlier that the man at the temple gate was simply towing the line, i.e. another hint at Fred’s uselessness. Back at the car we meet a group of people, including one who is involved in the temple cleaning or something, who tells us he can get us into the temple in an hour, as part of the scheduled visits for small groups for particular purposes, which sometimes have vacant slots. To cut a long story short, after much to-and-froing we abandon the temple visit and instead opt to see a bit of the temple town. Subu instructs Fred where to meet us. There are blocks of shops selling everything, food, trinkets, etc. And stalls with baseball caps everywhere, for those bald heads.

Nearly forgot the best bit, the shaving house! We get permission (no thanks to Fred) to enter the shaving hall. Women are on one side, men on the other. People are queueing to have their heads shaved. The hair is exported to the US and Japan to be made into wigs. No pictures, verboten! We are stared at by the bald devotees, and stare back at them in surprise. People with bald heads look very other-worldly, alien. Many of the baldies, here and elsewhere, brush their hands over their heads, surprised themselves at their transformation. What lengths people will go to for the sake of religion, whether for good or bad, or just the plain absurd.

We complete a small tour and head back to the car. We leave the temple town behind and drive back down Lal-style. The town is hidden completely from view as soon as you leave it, without even a single building or road to betray its presence on top of the hill.

The hotel is another smart but anonymous affair. Bouncy carpet in the corridors. Dinner is a fiery vegetarian job, very very tasty but it plays tricks with our already delicate stomachs. We take it in turns in the bathroom afterwards! The waiter was surprised when I ask for more. Our room looks out onto railtracks. Indian trains are run on the same principle as cars: lots of tooting! Still manage to nod off within seconds of hitting the pillow. Tirupati may have been disappointing at not seeing the temple itself, never mind the sanctum sanctorum at its heart, but was worth the trip just to see this other-worldly place. It’s the Hindu equivalent of Rome, Mecca, Jerusalem, although I suspect there may be several places in India, e.g. Varanasi, with a similar claim.

Guts still in trouble this morning. Both of us sh*tting for England now. Breakfast is a strict orthodox vegetarian affair, not even eggs, as this is a Jain hotel. Napkins are filthy but otherwise fine.

Subu and Fred are here to pick us up for the drive to Kanchipuram. The drive back takes us through the same landscape in the opposite direction, rocky hills, lumps of granite sticking through the thin topsoil, then a landscape of fields with tall palm trees and people working in the fields. It’s another feast for the eyes while we whizz (at 40mph) through Andra Pradesh and then Tamil Nadu. The occasional stop for a picture, until we run out of film.

Fred nods off. Subu gives him unapproving looks and exchanges knowing smiles with Ness in the back.

After several hours we reach Kanchipuram. It looks like a fairly ordinary town. It’s supposed to be the home of the ornate high-quality silk saris.

200311-India-18-11

Fred strikes a pose

First we’re taken to see two temples, Fred’s call, not ours. The first one is dark. We receive spots on our forehead. It’s all a familiar routine by now. The second one is built out of sandstone and extensively reconstructed. At the first one I had to stop Fred in his lecture with a, I hope, polite “too much information”, which had to be repeated again ten minutes later. A sandal vendor who tries to flog me some footwear, realising the limits of his collection, comments “ah, big feet!”

We drive to a silk weaving “factory”, expecting the usual emporium-style approach: demonstration, then the hard sell. The demonstration is interesting, seeing the huge weaving looms, the intricate work, the workmanship, etc. Upstairs we do the shopping bit. They are less pushy here which makes it easier for us to pick something. We pick a scarf and a silk wall-hanging thing as Ness has called it. Then it’s on to Mahabalipuram. On the way out of Kanchipuram we stop at a house. Outside two women are doing something with silk, bundling it together and preparing it for dying. For a bit of baksheesh we are allowed to take a picture and get to have a look inside the house. Two huge looms occupy the entire room. Fred is his useless self and lectures a bit to us on the weaving but I’ve had enough of him by now. The call to stop here was Subu’s I think. He seems to have more of an idea of what we’re after.

After Kanchipuram we drive towards Mahabalipuram. Lots of scenery, a few pictures, having restocked film at the temple. We stop for a cup of tea and a samosa at a little stall, á la Udaipur market, much to my relief. If we were in England I would probably be rather curt with Fred at the end of the drive, but decide the better option is to pretend that we’re grateful for his services, tip appropriately, and leave it at that. The final part of the drive goes quickly, on a road leading towards the coast.

Our hotel is the Quality Inn MGM Something Resort. The room is basic but perfect for our purpose. The hotel is located right along the beach, by the Indian Ocean/Bay of Bengal. It feels like a real beach holiday place, an Indian version. Palm trees all over the place, a nice clean swimming pool, a restaurant on the beach front. Looks like the beach is private. After saying bye to Fred and arranging to meet Subu again at 11am tomorrow, and quick welcome drink, we dump our bags in our room and go to explore the beach. Sensibly we changed into swimwear before going out. The beach is empty and pristine. The water is warm. We both get our feet wet and go for a bit of a paddle in the water. Ness is worried about the waves and undercurrent, which is strong, so I don’t go in too deep – shame, it feels nice and sandy underfoot, but I can see it slopes away steeply a bit further on. We head back to the hotel and laze a bit by the pool with fresh lime sodas. Glad we’ve got a bit of time here to chill out and leave the busy bits of India behind us for a while. There is a nice warm breeze which cools things down a bit. That evening we have dinner by the ocean in the hotel restaurant. Best intentions not to have anything spicy today are left at the door and I end up having the hottest dinner I’ve had in India so far, chilli fish (as I find out later). I am determined not to let this one get the better of me. “Spicy heh? I’ll show you spicy” The chillies or the heat must be getting to me – I’m talking to my food now. Worse, it answers back! The evening has a lovely feeling to it. I tell Ness that I’ll whisper sweet nothings into her eyes, then a JCB starts work, at 9-10pm, digging up the beach. A boy from the hotel walks over after a while and gets him to stop. I was tempted to suggest it, with an offer of Rs.100, having been told by our waiter that he would carry on working through the night! Chilli fish effects aren’t as bad or immediate as expected. Pah, I’ll show you spicy!

Okay, chilli fish has caught up with me and guts are dodgy again, which is to be expected. Subu will meet us at 11am to drive to the temple ruins at Mahabalipuram. Before then we have time to go for a stroll along the desrted beach. It’s lovely just splashing along in the water, soft sand underfoot. Lots of crabs scuttling sideways from their beach holes into the water, tiny ones and slightly larger ones. Walking south first, then we turn round and walk north, past our hotel, towards a collection of fishermen’s huts and boats. We walk over for a chat and a few pictures and I take up their invite to go out with them later today, at 4pm. Easy way for them to make some money and I think it will be fun. On the way back we get talking to a young newly married couple from Mumbai. They saw us both writing intently yesterday and thought we were authors. Should have played along with that one but “no, they’re just our diaries” flopped out before we knew.

Subu was already waiting for us. Quick change and then we head of to Mahabalipuram. He asks whether we thought our guide, Fred, was good. My reply is an Indian-style head-wobble which makes Subu laugh.

The drive to Mahabalipuram takes us along the coast road. On our left, leading down to the beach, plots of land have been marked out, some have been cleared of trees. Early signs of development for tourism. It won’t stay unspoilt for very long. It’s hardly “undiscovered” as it is but there is still plenty of space now.

200311-India-19-25 26-panor

Fishing village to the south of Mahabalipuram. The view made me think of the village of the indomitable Gauls, in the Asterix books. (click to enlarge)

A small settlement of fishing huts catches my attention and reminds me of the “village of the indomitable Gauls”. I ask Subu whether we can go and see it but he says he knows a better one we can see on the way back. Nearer Mahabalipuram the roadside is lined with shacks of stone “sculptors”, hammering away at blocks of grantite and producing all kinds of figures. On the left we pass a school for stone sculptors.

Mahabalipuram is a smallish town. We spot quite a few western tourists wandering about. The town is full of peddlers of stone trinkets. We pick up a guide, a squat elderly man wearing a dhoti. He’ll have to be “Bill” as I can’t recall his name either. Then follows a sequence of visits to temples and bas reliefs all carved out of the huge lumps of granite sticking out of the sandy soil. All very old (check book), depicting scenes from the Mahabharata, incarnations of Shiva, animals, etc. Bill provides elaborate stories as an explanation of what is depicted. He has some funny turns of phrase. Together with his slight lisp this creates a comical effect. “Look at the delissiouss maidens” “Who is the king here and who is the queen there”. He uses “who” instead of “this” or “that” which catches us both out and we try to answer, then realise it’s a statement, not a question. At the first temple a group of schoolgirls overrun the place shortly after we get there. The monuments are magnets for hawkers of stone carvings (intricately carved stone balls as paperweights), sandals, etc. They are pretty insistent and a nuisance. I’m not really interested in yet more temples and carvings and the whole thing passes me by a bit. I take a picture when Bill prompts. I think he is surprised we’re not snapping away.

On the way to the last temple we pass through an area where dozens of people are hammering away at bits of granite, shaping paving slabs by hand. The hammering sound, metal on stone, has a strange rhythm of its own. We buy two shells from a woman outside the fences encircling the last temple, which is right by the beach. Ness doesn’t like me haggling so we pay over the odds, but still nothing by western standards. On the way back we’re marched into the emporium. Ness has a bit of a browse but the scowl on my face is enough to put the owner off trying to sell me anything. Ahah, found a tactic that works! Can’t wait to get back to the car to try and find that fishing village Subu mentioned. I manage to take a picture of the “village of the indomitable Gauls” from a distance on the way back. Subu seems to have “forgotten” about the side trip to a fishing village and soon we are back at our hotel.

The rest of the day is a typical sun, sea and sand day, lazing by the pool with fresh lime sodas, swimming in the warm pool, reading our books, just dozing in the sunshine with the wind rustling through the palm trees and the sound of the waves washing over the beach. We were both ready for a day like this and I think Ness could happily be parked here for a few more days if it weren’t so quiet and the Indian attitude to women baring themselves in public.

We have asked Subu to pick us up at 2pm tomorrow. That gives us more time for lazing by the pool rather than go shopping in Chennai. Called my friend Rajesh to arrange meeting up day after tomorrow in Bangalore.

Dinner is by the beach, which is no more than 3m away from our table. We go for dinner rather late, around 9.30pm, and the place is buzzing. With several large tables occupied (one large family, one group of people who look like they are conference delegates), and several smaller tables. There is a fairly stiff breeze, just warm enough to sit in short-sleeved shirt. Banana lassi for desert. All in all a great day, but beginning to look forward to moving on again.

200311-India-20-03

Repairing the fishing nets

The plan is to have another lazy morning by the pool and leave here for Chennai at around 2pm. Breakfast by the Bay of Bengal again. I go over the top with four (!) fried eggs (my excuse was that they were small…) The rest of the morning is spent by the pool, or in it, with lime sodas, books and sunbathing. Much as I hate to admit it, I have enjoyed the day or two of poolside lazing, but am now getting totally bored and want to go and do “stuff”. We (I) finish with lunch in the beach restaurant. Spicy fish curry – nooooo problems. Then we check out and meet Subu again. The hotel seems to have only one or two tapes, a selection of greatest hits including “Save all your kisses for me” and “I am sailing”.

Subu has remembered the fishing village and we pull in to a side road shortly after leaving the hotel. It’s just a road leading down to the beach with ordinary modest houses and a few fishermen repairing nets but no other signs of activity. A bit disappointing after the image I had of a “typical” fishing village. When I take a picture of drying fish a men wants money and complains at the Rs.10 I give him.

It’s a short drive back to Chennai, only about 25-30kms. In Chennai Subu takes us to the exclusive-looking “emporium”. It’s full of tourist stuff but we’re here with a purpose: to buy a wedding present for Deep and Nandita. We settle on a table-cloth. Tourist duties fulfilled, I ask Subu to take us somewhere where we can buy dhotis. A government shop is the place. This time Subu comes into the shop with us to help with the buying and trying on. Foreigners get a 30% discount here, off the already low prices. The floors are almost empty, with counters round the walls of the large rooms. As a bonus we “do” a Gandhi outside. I try to buy a yellow lighter from a kiosk. The vendor must be completely dim-witted as he pulls out every single lighter except the yellow one I point at, but then Subu calls me and it turns out he has already bought me one (I did ask him earlier where I might be able to buy a lighter) He must be thinking I’m totally helpless seeing the kiosk owner pulling out all his lighters!

The hotel is just round the corner. We say bye to Subu, check in and, after checking on tomorrow morning’s transfer to the station, make our way to the pool for another bit of R&R. There isn’t really much else to do and as we have a 5am start tomorrow we’re not in the mood to go wandering around Chennai. The pool is busier than at Mahabalipuram, several Indian guests swimming lanes and paddling. When mosquitoes appear we flee inside to the hotel bar. I have another whiskey sour, with Johnnie Walker rather than Indian whiskey this time. Outside the sky turns black and it starts to rain.

Later, after a kip in our room, we come downstairs for dinner. A snug table (apart from the air-co which is on high) overlooking the outside pool on one side and the dance floor on the other. An Indian trio, consisting of keyboard, guitar/male singer and female singer, are set up at one end of the room. We sit down and order a drink. The trio kicks off with “Like a rhinestone cowboy”. Other classics follow, Elvis, Abba, etc. All performed in a country and western style. It’s not done tongue in cheek at all. A moment worth bottling if you could! Guess what? Best intentions on the spice front have gone out the window. The waiter’s reply to my request for pickles with the poppadums is an incredulous “pickull? PICKULL?!?”

200311-India-20-12

On the Shatabdi to Bangalore

Subu and a TCI rep drop us off at Chennai railway station for our 6am train to Bangalore. The station is lively but not as mad as I expected it to be, probably due to the early hour. The trains are relics from the past but look very comfortable. We find our car and seats, then the TCI rep leaves us. Inside the seats are numbered and arranged in airplane style, three on the left, two on the right, with fold-down tables and individual fans overhead for each row. The décor is light-blue throughout (cheapest paint?) The windows are darkened. Train leaves on time, which is a novelty for us!

Train attendants come round with trays with biscuits and a few sweets, then with masala tea, and later in the journey with breakfast, idlis with sauces. I go for a wander but all the carriages I can reach are exactly the same set up. In the spaces at the end of each carriage two train staff are preparing the breakfasts, heating the sauce in a metal bucket and then dividing it over the little cups.

The journey takes about five hours. We arrive in Bangalore at 11am. Glad we have at last managed a proper train ride. Ok, so this was the deluxe version of an Indian train but it still felt like “proper” travel instead of just sitting in a plane.

At Bangalore we take a taxi to Rajesh (*) and Geetha’s flat, in Raheja Residency in the posh Koramangala district. Rajesh comes down to meet us. Geetha has had to go out for a music recording or something. It’s good to see Rajesh again. I got on very well with him back in London and it’s good to be a guest of friends rather than a foreign tourist. Their flat on the fifth floor is simple but light and spacious, with a small balcony. I feel a bit of “vertigo” stood on the balcony. Rajesh and Geetha have prepared some lunch for us: dal, an okra dish, rice, paratha, and a minty/tomatoey/yoghurty dish. Even though I’m not hungry I do it justice. Ness also has a bit despite feeling pretty yuk and getting worse as the day goes on, now turning into a cold rather than just sniffles. After chatting for a while, freshening up and Rajesh checking emails and answering several calls, we head into town. Rajesh drops us in the shopping district (Bridge Road and MG Road). He has to pop into the office for a couple of hours.

200311-India-20-25

With Surya and Geetha

We wander up and down the two streets for a bit, have a couple of espressos and cups of tea, do a bit of shopping for silly stuff. Bangalore has a totally different feel to the other places we have seen and is much more westernised, obvious from the shops and the people. There is a Santa’s grotto outside a shopping centre, a Barista espresso bar which would be at home in London, people chatting on mobile phones, young people are dressed in western dress, especially noticeable on women, and their attitude is also different, more confident, taken up with their own world. We are certainly not a novelty here and see many other westerners, tourists as well as business types.

We catch a rickshaw cab back to Rajesh and Geetha’s and get there by 6pm. By coincidence we end up sharing the lift up with Geetha who we had not met until now. Rajesh is still at work. We chat with Geetha and have chai on the balcony until Rajesh gets back. Later we drive into town and go for dinner at a smart Punjabi restaurant, Samarkand. The theme is Afghan/Punjabi, waiters are dressed up, the menu is quirky. The food is fantastic, though a bit lost on Ness with her bunged ub dose. We round off the evening with a cognac at the flat and then try to sleep on the most solid bed we’ve had so far, plus I feel full of wind which won’t come out (does later, aah, relief!)

200311-India-20-29

Last known shot of Deep as a bachelor!

Rajesh and Geetha will be travelling to Mangalore by bus late at night, so we have chosen to fly after all. The idea was to see what Rajesh and Geetha were intending to do and possibly travel together. They have prepared some Indian breakfast for us: idlis, a vegetable chutney (which tastes peanutty) plus masala chai (recipe: boil water, chuck in cardamom pods etc., chuck in tea, boil, chuck in milk, hey presto). They don’t have any breakfast themselves as they will have breakfast around 11am. Then they drive us to the airport. The road to the airport is lined with prestigious offices, finished or in the process of being built.

The flight is in a small turbo-prop plane. The seatback is too low for me, finishing well below my shoulders) and I have to sit bolt upright. Still manage to nod off though. From the air Mangalore looks like a very ordinary town. The area nearest the beach is covered with palm trees, houses dotted between them (or rather, the leafy avenues of Mangalore are lined with palm trees). What look like refineries and processing plants are scattered around the outskirts of town. Deep has come to meet us at the airport and takes us to the hotel. This is in the same mould as many of the hotels we have stayed at (Mansingh, etc.) Several others are staying here, but we’re the first to arrive, apart from Geoff Goodman. On our way to the pool we meet two other guests, Damir and Damirka, both Croatian but living in the Netherlands. Outside the air smells of dried fish, and it is hot and sticky, but the pool is warm and pleasant. Afterwards we go for lunch inside and meet Geoff, Damir and Damirka, and John Peto and Beth. Deep turns up later. I think he has been shuttling back and forth, picking up people arriving at the airport and inbetween it all trying to spend time with his family. Whilst he is smiling he seems nervous. I can’t make out whether it’s the prospect of the wedding itself or the behaviour of his western guests, GG especially who seems totally unwilling to adapt his behaviour to Indian customs and is a typical loud-mouthed American.

At 6.30pm we meet Deep and the others again in the lobby, to take the ladies saree-shopping. I expected a small visit into town for a walkabout or tea/lassi/beer but it was purely shopping, with six blokes helping three women to choose sarees – I think we all felt a bit odd. Ness quickly found a colourful saree (or shalwar kameez?), Beth had more trouble and Damirka went for a tailored one, I think. Then it was back to the hotel, drinks in the (wood-panelled!) bar and dinner in the restaurant. Deep was keen to have dinner together but I could tell that he was not at ease, fidgeting, laughing nervously. He needed to be back home and had to leave after the starters. Accompanying music (live) was a choice selection of greatest hits, Michael George, etc. Dinner was very nice but Deep’s selection for us was mostly meat dishes; normally that would suit me just fine but over the past few weeks I have adapted my diet to more vegetables (and spicy) and found this to be too much meat! Conversation inevitably turned to Deloitte and I despaired! We made an exit after settling our bill.

The Big Day. Early breakfast as a tactical move to avoid meeting GG! At 9.30 a car comes to pick us up. We drive together with Rajesh and Geetha who are already like long-term friends. Several comments are made along the lines that it’s a shame we never got together in the UK. I think we’ll be keeping in touch.

The first part of the wedding is at XXX Memorial Hall, a modern open building, purpose-built for wedding ceremonies. The pictures will tell more about the set-up itself. We’re welcomed by Nandita’s father, wearing a traditional dress and turban, and meet various others. It is the bride’s family’s responsibility to look after the groom’s family and their guests. Since we are friends of the groom (and foreign guests) we are looked after extremely well and people go out of their way to make sure we are comfortable, get explanations of what’s going to happen, etc.

Deep’s arrival is accompanied by various welcoming rituals between the two families. Nandita’s father symbolically washes Deep’s feet as a token of respect, etc. It is all very very different from a Christian wedding. Inside the hall the front rows are occupied by women in colourful sarees, and we sit just behind them. Most of the men are towards the back of the hall. Deep and Nandita are kept on separate sides of the podium with their families and respective priests. Early on Deep occupied centre stage, and later a series of rituals are performed on either side. Music provided by a saxophone and a tam-tam thing provides an accompaniment to the entire proceedings.

Ness gets a running commentary from Geetha, which is relayed to me. Hopefully this will make its way into Nessie’s diary as I can’t remember most of it! There is a break for breakfast, which is served in a large dining hall below the main hall. Idli-like things, potato something, and coffee. Very tasty. Nandita’s family again look after us (e.g. as westerners we get cutlery, mineral water, etc.)

The rest of the morning is taken up by rituals on the stage, the “audience” almost seems superfluous to the whole thing. On stage both priests control the proceedings on either side. Lots of throwing of rice, over the head or into the ritual fire. Symbolic turn of a grindstone. At one point Deep tries, as part of the ritual, to walk away from the ceremony with his worldly goods (represented by an umbrella), Nandita’s father has to plead with him to stay and take his daughter and look after her.

Then follows lunch, served as a thali on palm leaves. Some of the server-uppers need a bit of training and liberally splash whatever they are serving. Again we get special treatment: cutlery, mineral water, commentary, etc. Ness and I adopt the Indian style of eating with our hands, which is tricky but fun. The meal is delicious, lots of different dishes, varied, and spicy. Lunch concludes the first part of the day; part two begins at 5pm. Ness goes back to the Saree Palace with the other girls and GG. I wait for the car to come back and camp out in the hotel room to catch up on diary. Ness gets back soon with her saree and spends some time altering the alterations (stitched on sleeves too small).

Our cars are waiting below and take us back to the wedding hall. Inside rituals are still being performed. The stage is now decorated with flower garlands and a few more musicians have joined the two from this morning. More people are streaming in, in dribs and drabs, and before 6pm the hall is full. 6pm is the auspicious time for the actual moment suprême and the rituals and music have been building up to a crescendo to this point. After the actual wedding has taken place there is an opportunity to go on the stage and congratulate Deep and Nandita and we join the crowd as a group so that we may have our photo taken as “the western friends”. This procession goes on for a good length of time, I duck out for “fresh air” at one point, and then the ritual continues with various ritual games, etc. Unfortunately we have no running commentary from Rajesh and Geetha this time as we are sat apart.

A buffet is served outside, some people take their plates into the dining hall, others stand around outside, like us. Food is tasty but not as grand as at the Udaipur wedding. If anything it is a bit bland, for Indian food. For the rest of the evening we trundle back and forth between the main hall, where ritual continues unabated, and outside for “fresh air”. Rajesh and I chat with Nandita’s uncle who is looking after us and making sure we’re comfortable, fed, watered, etc. Ness and Geetha seem to have hit it off and are obviously on the same wavelength.

A lot of people seem to have disappeared very shortly after the actual wedding and a bit at the buffet. By 9-9.30 the hall and outside are quite empty, only a couple of dozen people still around. We say our goodbyes to Deep and Nandita, leave the present and card with Maya, Deep’s sister, and drive back to the hotel, where we settle in the (wood-panelled!) bar for several rounds of Kingfisher-substitute. We also say bye to Rajesh and Geetha who are on a 10.30 night bus back to Bangalore.

The wedding was a real spectacle, colourful, elaborate, etc. but not a “big” wedding by North Indian standards where they sometimes go on for several days. Glad we came, but now keen to get on with the remainder of our holiday. First we have to go sightseeing around Mangalore for a day and there is a smaller reception at the hotel tomorrow evening.

Up early-ish to go sightseeing at 8am. Two cars, Tata Sumos, are waiting for us and we successfully manage to avoid the one GG gets in. I think the feeling is probably mutual. An Indian family is already in the car we join, Mr, Mrs and Miss “Patel” (don’t know actual name, must find out from Deep). Mr. Patel is with the Dutch consulate in Mumbai, Mrs. Patel is a teacher, and the daughter looks bored. They are acquaintances of Deepak. Vincent, a colleague of Deepak’s in the Netherlands, also gets in the car.

We drive north, out of town and along the coast. The drive will take us three hours, to get to a temple of some renown. The scenery is different again, with lots more palm trees, grand houses and villas set among them, as well as more modest settlements, shops, schools, offices. The road is much clearer than anywhere else we have been. When we are well outside town the scenery changes again with palm tree forests, backwaters, and rice fields. There is no opportunity to stop or take pictures as we’re travelling in convoy. Conversation is intermittent to start with and eventually dries up as people nod off. Ness and I are sat in the back, very uncomfortable if you’ve got long legs, and I can feel my spine twisted awkwardly for most of the journey, and the back seat squeaks with every little bump in the road. A long way out of Mangalore the scenery becomes a bit rockier but essentially remains the same.

At about 11am we reach the place (name?) A huge statue of a sitting Vishnu and a temple town in construction dominate the promontory. Scattered around it are a number of buildings and stalls selling stuff. No-one seems particularly impressed/bothered and we all dutifully trudge into the temple, the small main one, not the unfinished tower. I cajole Ness into doing a simple puja (act of devotion, where you are rewarded with a red dot on your forehead – I do it for the dot), and then we wander round for a bit looking at the minor temples. Wall panels explain in pictures various Hindu principles: heaven and hell, body and soul, “resolves” and emotions (?), illustrations of various deities. Without a guide it is difficult to understand more and our visit is short. Then we walk up the hill to the big Vishnu statue, walk around it, take a few pictures, and wander back down. We meet the Indian family in the waterside restaurant, have a drink and puri. Guts feel like they’re in a lot of trouble and I use an Indian-style loo for the first time, can’t recommend it.

In a group and without a guide it is difficult to get consensus of what to do. The “Patel” family hang around near the restaurant and are keen to head back soon. Vincent, John et.al. are after beer. Damir and Damirka wander about on the beach, as do we, and I get my feet wet in the Arabian Sea. Also an opportunity to convert my trousers into shorts! Would be nice to have a swim but we don’t have time. We drive off with the Patels. Damir and Damirka went to join the others, Damirka wants to see the waterfalls near here, the rest are happy with a cold beer, so we leave them to it.

The drive back is broken with two stops: a quick stop at a beach (just long enough for a cigarette) with two begging kids, and a visit to the Krishna temple at Udupi. This one is in Keralan style, with sloping terracotta tiled roofs. The layout is different, with a central block that holds the diamond-covered “god”, and over the speakers a continuous slow mantra “Sri Krishna ….” Is repeated in hypnotic monotone, sounding more like a Buddhist mantra. The Patels aren’t into temply stuff and wander round, except Mr. Patel who is looking after the sandals outside, looking rather bored. Again, no guide so no explanations. A priest does offer to guide us and if it weren’t for the Patels’ hurry I would have taken him up. A quick cup of tea together and then we continue our drive. We chat with the Patels, intermittently, and doze a bit. We get back to our hotel at 5pm, order some samosas, pakoras and lime sodas, and spend time updating our diaries. Just had a call from TCI rep to advise there is a strike in Kerala, but he tells us to take our 4.30am train as planned and we will be met at the other end. Let’s wait and see. Looking forward to having our holiday to ourselves again. First there is the reception tonight. This is a buffet outside, by the hotel poolside. There is a bar stocked with whiskey, rum, cognac, and on the other side a small buffet. Three semi-circles of chairs are arranged on the lawn. We are the first to arrive, passing Vincent, GG and John who are sat drinking beer inside. Deepak arrives and gradually people arrive: close family and western friends, and the Patels. Slightly awkward conversation initially with many pregnant pauses to start with but the evening soon warms up. We chat with Nandita for a while. She says she is looking forward to moving to the Netherlands. I think she has no mental image of what it will be like, especially when she asks whether Dutch food is spicy! Waiters come round with champagne and fruit juice. The westerners, or Ness and me at least, keep being offered champagne rather than non-alcoholic drinks. Indians must definitely have this impression of westerners as meat-eating drunkards! No-one goes first to help themselves from the buffet. We chat with Nandita’s parents and the Patels. Mr. Nandita and Mr. Patel are pleasantly surprised, I think, at how open and friendly Ness is, and it is noticeable how active Ness is in the conversation compared to Mrs. Nandita and Mrs. Patel who simply add a statement here or there in support of what their husbands are saying. Geoff walks by and tells me I’m far too nice and that it’s all an act. That may be so but at least we are making an effort which is more than can be said for some of the other westerners. We have a mega-early start tomorrow and are the first to leave the party, at 11pm, doing a full round of goodbyes to everyone.

We manage to get ourselves up at 3.30am to be ready in time for our drive to the station. Booked a car last night, but that was nabbed by the man who was checking out at the same time as us, so the receptionist drove us himself, in what I think is his own car but he calls it a “pool car”. The tiny little thing spluttered all the way to the station, but got us there on time. The receptionist saw us all the way to our carriage. The station is small, about twenty or so people are asleep in the station. The train has the same layout and seats as the Shatabdi from Chennai to Bangalore. It crawls along at a snail’s pace and makes many stops along the way. Service is different this time. A group of train attendants do rounds with various drinks and food: coffee, tea, water, puri masala, omelette, fritters, etc. Coffee and tea are carried in a large metal urn with a tap. The men clutch this bucket between their knees to serve the drinks. It takes dexterity not to spill it, and the floor is littered with evidence of less successful pouring attempts. Each attendant announces whatever it is they are carrying: “coffeeee, coffeeee, coffeeee”, “chai ha, chai, chai, chai, chai ha”, “puri, puri masala, puri”, etc. Most of it in a nasal unintelligible fashion. This goes on for virtually the whole journey. Different classes of carriage are at either end of our luxurious AC chair car. One has compartments to seat six or sleep four, without AC and with bars rather than glass windows, and another class simply has thinly padded wooden benches seating two on either side, seats facing each other. More like the types of train I had imagined from films, but it’s only late in the journey that I discovered them, too late to sit in them for a while.

Smoking is not permitted on the train but some people, including me, simply go and stand in the corridor at the end of the carriage, open the door and stand having a smoke by the open door as the train crawls along. The windows are tinted, almost brown, and low down, making it difficult to appreciate the landscape and scenery, which consists of palm trees, rice fields, villages and houses.

I had not appreciated that it would take so long by train; nearly ten hours to cover ??? kms. Flight would have been a damn sight quicker but this is much more enjoyable. Beginning to understand Paul Theroux’s dislike of travelling by planes and preference for trains. Only problem is that you need tons of time by train. We pass the time sleeping, reading, eating (veg. biryani for lunch), playing cards, smoking, while I poke my head out of the train door. At some stations the train stops for a while, long enough to pop outside. At one station a small crowd of men dressed in white shirts and long dhotis are seeing off a VIP, the minister for Kerala (of what I’m not sure). I have my picture taken with him. I’m doubtful about the end result as the man taking the picture was holding the camera unsteadily. The minister sits in our carriage and is accompanied by a security guard and a civil servant dressed in white.

We finally reach Ernakulam at around 2pm. The TCI rep, Nirmal, is there to meet us with the driver, Shaji, and takes us to our hotel only five minutes away. Another fairly anonymous but smart business hotel, well outside Kochi and Fort Kochi, the main tourist sites. There is a general strike today, from 6am to 6pm, throughout Kerala. It’s related to the elections, which means we have enforced R&R until 6pm. In the meantime we settle in our room and then head for the rooftop swimming pool at the adjoining Abad Plaza hotel, with great views over Kochi/Ernakulam, palm trees everywhere between the buildings. There is no poolside service and hotel reception says drinks are not allowed by the pool, so instead I get some lime sodas and pastries from a coffee shop in the arcade below.

At 6pm we’re ready to go out and meet Shaji. We have no fixed plans and no guide and decide to go to Fort Kochi. Shaji points out that we’ll be going there the day after tomorrow anyway but in the absence of other ideas we go there anyway. It’s still a long drive of over half an hour. We are a long way away from the action. Kochi has a very different character from other places we have visited. It is spread across several islands connected by long bridges. There are palm trees everywhere. Fort Kochi and the area around it feels Mediterranean. Relatively little traffic, many people sauntering around. Shaji drops us near the Chinese fishing nets. We go for a stroll around the little streets which are full of tourist shops, hotels, info centres. There is very little of the usual clamouring for our attention to come in and buy. We end up back by the Chinese fishing nets where stalls sell freshly caught fish of all kinds: snapper, prawns, and many kinds of fish I can’t put a name to. A bit further on are a few shacks with little tables outside, on the beach. The signs say “you buy, I cook”. We buy a very fresh snapper and some tiger prawns. The snapper is so fresh it’s still wriggling as we take it to the shack (“Café Little Italy”) Ness is taken by surprise and nearly throws the fish away. Dinner is a romantic candle-lit affair (candle in a dirty cracked sand-filled bottle), right next to the fishing boats. The snapper is fried in a wok with garlic, very simple and very very tasty. I had asked for the prawns to be made spicy. They arrive totally overcooked and covered in chilli powder, ruined, my fault. A plate of veg fried rice and finger chips are served as accompaniments. We can see the Chinese fishing nets in use while we eat. Some kind of cantilever mechanism, the net is simply dropped on the sandy sea bottom, five poles tied together at the top provide the structure for the “basket” which is brought back up after a while. A light serves to attract the fish. Unfortunately it’s too dark for pictures. At 8.30 we meet Shaji again. It’s totally dark by now and we’re ready to head back after a very long day. Bed v.v.comfortable. Guts still dodgy but have learned to live with it.