Saturday, January 12, 2013

Finally resorting to this

(Late afternoon view of Varkala Cliff and beach: midday this is a sea of beach umbrellas
Note restaurants and shops along the clifftop and sample litter in foreground)
(some of the smaller fish available - and one huge one)

I wonder how many people here in Varkala feel that they are in India. Geographically of course they are but culturally they are on Planet Tourism, that place where the home culture barely intrudes but life is lived in a indeterminate multi-national melting pot. There are places to stay, places to eat, particularly places to shop and a beach. You can rejoin India by going beyond the margins of the resort, as I did almost as soon as I arrived, in reaction against leaving India prematurely. Within the core, the population is of such diverse origins - Russians, Israelis, Germans, Brits, Americans, Australians, Canadians, Scandinavians, Spanish, Portuguese, as well as the more local Tibetans, Kashmiris and Keralans - it could be seen as a localised manifestation of that Global Village we once heard a lot about.

Fortunately within a little while I remembered another of those back ways into India and was soon out there again ordering a delicious and authentic thali and eating it overlooking the temple "tank" i.e. large pond or reservoir, while locals swam and washed themselves and their laundry.

Phew: I was beginning again to feel a bit pathetic, dipping out early. Now I can keep at least one foot in India till I leave. 

(fisherman sorting a huge catch of sardines)

Ragbag of impressions 

The last time I was here I did a blog called "India is ...." and really the only way I can see to summarize things is to give a ragbag of impressions of the myriad things you see as you move around - which is a significant part of the enjoyment of being here. As Forster showed in A Passage to India, and particularly in his description of a temple festival, the only way to summarize chaos is to give little bits of it.

 Anyone's ragbag is likely to include examples of the Indian way with English, not least some wonderful misprints.
(a little Eductaion might have been useful)

(What was meant by "weary?") 

(Still, the basic issue is a common UK error too, among those people who spell seperate etc.)

(again the UK seperate brigade also use alternate for alternative every other day!)

(very suitable if you know Osho)

And then there is the different way the Indians have with our common tongue. I saw a mobile phone advertised for its quality of "pocket-friendly sleekiness" (well, you can see what they mean) while a bus shelter is a Waiting Shed, which is a bit more accurate, really. Or slogans:"Full cream I scream!" - quite good use of an old joke. "A One Chicken Stall" (I completely missed this but of course it's obvious when the penny drops).

(the things that get advertised)

Or strange contraptions . . . I saw one "Boadicea scooter" - a reversed-T shape vehicle with two wheels added either side of the back one, making three in line: lethal for scything through traffic - and I thought it was a one-off until I saw more and more. But what is it for apart from added stability? I never saw the back stabilisers being used for load-carrying or extra passengers.

Trees by the roadside sequentially numbered - by cutting back the bark in a square, painting a background (usually yellow) and then numbers in black. Again, why? Perhaps to discourage theft of trees from the highway.

How do Indians drink from bottles? They treat them as jugs and pour the water from a small distance into their mouths. More hygenic, in fact - especially if a bottle are shared - but it takes some skill on a swaying, bumpy bus.

Seen around, from the train: a man ploughing with oxen followed as in England by flocks of white birds - but not gulls here: egrets!

Seen around, on Varkala beach, a poignant vignette: young Indian wife hangs on her husband's arm and nuzzles his shoulder while he, half-turned away, stares at the bikini-clad sunbather not that far away. Easier to read his mind, perhaps a cocktail of lust and disapproval, but what thoughts were going through her mind, what feelings through her senses? Perhaps I should have gone up and taken their photo?  It's a bit complex: this is a Moslem area and westerners are encouraged to cover up out of the water but then again .. this is hardly India, as I've suggested. And I'm not comfortable with the argument that sunbathers bring the unwanted attention upon themselves. Discuss!

The Indian head wobble: seen a lot especially in the south. There's a lot of rubbish about it on the internet - I believe it's something much subtler than just "maybe"! My version is that it is a gesture of placation, used when you're giving uncomfortable information (forest ranger talking to underling, both wobbling, the underling perhaps indicating "I understand: it's OK." or the internet woman reassuring me about a slow computer: "Next time take number 4" wobble, wobble. It can also mask prevarication, as when giving bad news evasively!

Down here in the South, at least, nearly all Indian men seem to have a moustache, a paunch - and a tailored shirt, however informal the lower garment may be: quite incongruous. (Perhaps we Brits are responsible for that one, among other issues, like the levels of bureaucracy that still persist.) Maybe the moustaches explain why there's still no kissing in Indian films (I'm led to believe)!

Infinite tolerance for high noise levels: e.g. on Madurai station a huge compressor was proceeding slowly along the platform, driving a high pressure jet cleaning the tracks. The noise was phenomenal, far worse than a pneumatic drill, and yet people went on sitting, no-one moved away or covered their ears. India is a good place to be deaf in! And yet it was me alone that felt I just had to shift!

And of course the traffic is a quintessential reflection of India's apparent chaos. Auto-rickshaw drivers typify this in the way they weave around and squeeze through minimal gaps. Turning right is accomplished by cutting across the junction at the earliest opportunity and then tacking, weaving and barging through the legal flow until "safely" back into the left hand lane.

Aggressive male transvestite beggars have a very different style, not supplicant at all, but clapping their hands loudly and poking people, or touching them on the head, in a demanding way: their dress may be feminine but their techniques aren't. 

Littering is utterly shameless. One man I saw did restrain himself from throwing a plastic bottle out of the train in a statio - he waited until we got out into the countryside before letting go. To me that was utterly illogical: at least the station get cleaned up periodically and some scavenger particularly target plastic bottles. (Later a Nepali explained to me that people get nicked for littering in stations - so the countryside gets the result.) Overall, littering is simply worse than before, what with the accumulation over time and the fact that more rubbish these days is non-biodegradable.

Money: the problem with having/getting enough change persists and you have to be ruthless in proffering the largest note you can get away with if you are to avoid being unable to pay the rickshaw driver the agreed amount - for he will never have change - or claim he hasn't. Ditto the man selling chai (Indian tea). A more recent problem is with coinage: issues of new coins have created several sizes for the 1 and 2 rupee coins, so that even shopkeepers have to examine the coins before accepting them or giving change. Not a country to be blind in  (although it has to be admitted that at least the notes are sequentially graded in size).

Laterite: ever since I was in Ghana on VSO I've known the value of laterite - soft in the ground but hardened on exposure to the elements, it makes good roads if you can't afford tarmac.  But what about laterite bricks? How have I missed the fact that here in South India they predominantly form the basic building block for smaller constructions - and some quite smart ones, too. Cheap, I guess, effective and, when no longer needed it can be crushed into road surfacing material.  It doesn't even need to be rendered - it can look quite smart - a russet-brown textured surface. It's a kind of tropical Thermalite block - but usually we would render Thermalite, wouldn't we?

No ticket inspectors!  This is different from before, I'm sure.  In 8 long trips, my ticket was not checked once. Hmmm! Of course, in reserved coaches one's ticket is a useful proof to other passengers of one's right to claim that particular seat. (Still, I'd like to be able to do a head-wobble while insisting. It would be the appropriate gesture!).  Train hawkers seem to do a poor trade - except for one: the chocolate bar kid - he was doing a roaring trade. (Invest more - sell more?)

No comment section

Well, there you have it - or bits of it! And  Mysore toe is nearly healed!  At 11.30 p.m. tonight it's a  taxi to the airport: take-off 4 a.m. Monday.

Landed safely at Heathrow. Temperature -2 C - a drop of 32 degrees!

Friday, January 11, 2013

Now where was I?

 Wasn't there some dodgy pop song about chasing the bright elusive butterfly of love?  [Val Doonican I fear: there are no depths to which my memory for words won't sink.] Well, not love in this case but a number of other elusive butterflies have led me round about the place recently. I last wrote when I was in Tanjore and enjoying frequent visits to my favourite temple. One elusive butterfly was the puzzle of how to get into the gardens behind the temple, which I had visited on previous occasions. They are beautiful, secluded, full of birds, butterflies and flowers - and unique views of the temple and its outer walls. The search for a way in (apart from the obvious one, which some official seemed to want to exclude me from) took me  round the neglected side of the temple, where I found a charming little pleasure park full of the people of Tanjore enjoying various diversions including a miniature train, the shortest and slowest cable car in the world (I assert) and little boats on a small "lake".

 I then went further round and found an area of small houses in a cul-de-sac, where I fell in with a number of friendly people intent on interviewing me and/or helping me.  One family showed me their view of the temple from their roof.
The next day I got into the gardens by the conventional route but was determined to find the back way.  En route I scored a close contact with an Indian roller and quite a few butterflies and, looking for a secluded spot found steps down to a gate that couldn't be locked, further steps and there was the other side of the pleasure lake. Further investigations led me up more steps, through some ruined buildings along a track and out into the world again! Having found the way, I came back and saw a couple of hoopoes (the remaining bird of my core wish list) but I didn't get very close.  I did have the chance to see both the rollers and the hoopoes in flight but to capture the brilliant impact of that (the rollers brilliant kingfisher blue, the hoopoes strongly marked - with an inverted multiple w, I think) would be a challenge for a professional - or someone with professional equipment.  A crock of gold at the end of a rainbow.

(another bird on a wire! At last the Indian Roller)

(a grasshopper in its beak, I guess) 
(just to show I did see a hoopoe, but against the light and up a tree!)
Finally I tore myself away from this private haven, as it felt, as found myself suddenly  back into the flow of happy brightly dressed pilgrims thronging the well-known paths of the main temple and playing games (some complicated form of team tag) in the forecourt.

I eventually had to leave Tanjore and resume to chase for other elusive goals.  The overnight train took me back across the Western Ghats (hills) and down into Ernakulam.  In the four-person cabin (this was a.c. luxury for a change) was a retired sea captain and his wife, Indian now resident in Singapore (and very much preferring it), and we had a wide-ranging and stimulating discussion until it was time to turn in - quite the best conversation with a Indian here (my dentist perhaps excepted) - you get a better educated class of person in first class!!

On arrival at Ernakulam, I was planning to take two days in Cochin and maybe go on a backwaters trip - but by the time I was approaching the ferry at about 7 a.m., I was already beginning to think I was a bit lame not to be going for a more adventurous option when ... I get to the terminal and find that there's a strike.  Without the ferry and public buses, I would have a long and tedious way round (and then be partly stranded). Rejecting the immediate alternative of two nights on the "mainland", I turned right round and went back to the train station and took another train (6+ hours) north to Kannur (Cannanore) where there was a recommended home stay by a secluded beach.

When I eventually got to the place (and findingits location in a very rural and meandering village was a prolonged challenge for the rickshaw driver - and me), I managed to get a room (although I'd been told on the phone that it was full): great relief. And pleasure as it turned out to be fascinating (a converted weaving factory), run by an intriguing man (an expert and enthusiast on trance rituals in the vicinity), offering excellent food in-house and home to 6 other guests, all very interesting in their different ways - a Greek couple full of measured insight on Greece today, an Austrian couple very knowledgeable about obscure temples and fascinated by these trance rituals, an older American woman from Oregon full of twinkling energy and enthusiasm for travel, and a German woman of indeterminate age but who seem to act as a cohesive force in the group. And I had just one day!  The beach too was all that I could hope for (and I actually went for two "swims") and with its own offering of wildlife (shore birds) and local colour (football on the beach for the local lads). I could have stayed for a week and gone to some of these trance rituals that the other guests were so enthusiastic about. It was still real India, but calm and quiet.

However, the next day it was back on the train to Ernakulam and then on Thursday morning another 4 hours on the train to the beach resort of Varkala, of which more another time.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Back on the rails, at last

From Trivandrum to Erakulam to Goa and back to Mangalore - all by rail, but then I took to the buses (perforce: few trains in the hills and long waitlists on those that are). Mangalore to Mumbai to Mananthavadi to Tholpetty and back, to Kalpetta, to Sultan Battery, to Coimbatore, to Madurai, all buses with some other urban ones thrown in. At last Madurai gave me the chance to get back on the rails and that's how I got to Tanjore/Thanjavur in time for my birthday.
(Ancient and modern: shoulder to shoulder)

I imagine most travellers in India would opt for rail over road when and where available. Trains have most of the usual advantages (although not reliably faster than buses or reliably on time). They're a smoother ride, more relaxed, offer better views (not ribbon development along the rail lines), space to move about, use the amenities, all in your own time. And apart from the passing scenery, there's. the passing show of on-board life, the vendors, the beggars, your fellow passengers, face to face not face to back. However, availability is the problem. Not only do trains only cover certain routes, as you might imagine, but they are generally overlooked, so that the only way to be sure of a berth on an overnight train is to book well in advance, frustrating the ideal of flexibility - unless of course you're willing to book several days in a scatter-shot approach and then cancel nearer the time.

One reason for overcrowding on the trains is that there are not enough to satisfy the demand. A given train may be very long but what it gains in size it loses in frequency - and punctuality. The trains are also cheap compared to the buses, again increasing demand and reducing the incentive to book only the tickets you will actually use.  What can be said for buses is that there are lots, they go frequently and they keep going!  And so, sometimes, they are unavoidable . .

(There she is: Parvati, Shiva's consort)

Anyway, as I was saying: back on track - I got a day train to Tanjore. It's a kind of birthday present to myself, as it is home to my favourite temple and the best collection of Chola bronzes, home to the original of the bronze I had made here in 1997 - see above. But having got here by train, I was afraid I would have to use buses to get back to Kerala, my chosen trains being full and long-waitlisted for days and days ahead ... but then Indian Railways came up with its very own birthday present for me too: a train I didn't know existed, starting in the middle of nowhere (near here) and going to the middle of Kerala! And there was space on Monday. It's called the Tea Garden Express. Perhaps I'll find out why . . .

[Later I also nailed a final link from Ernakulam to Varkala for a couple of days chilling by the sea near the airport. That leaves me free either to have a couple of days doing side trips from Kochi (backwaters? tea-plantations?) or to do a dash up to a "new" quiet beach place at Cannanore beyond Calicut (the old imperial names, of course - we're meant to call them Kannur and Kozhikode now).]

The last time I was here, my blog gave quite a lot of the story:
This time I'd repeat that the big draws are the temple and the "art gallery" of bronzes.  The temple stands out for its openness (literally much more open to the skies than the typical murky stone corridors of many a place) but also for having a tradition of openness to all-comers, specifically being open to "Untouchables" as they used to be called well before other places. This tolerance now extends to non-Hindus, who are welcomed into the heart of the rituals of fire, ash and so on - but that's all in the earlier blog. The openness extends to the atmosphere and the friendliness (perhaps the friendly ones are those who don't get in elsewhere. Certainly a few aren't friendly, and they look like brahmins or another superior caste, as visible from clothes (colours) and skin (paleness). This lot were a jolly crew:
although they don't necessarily show it!

Tanjore these days is a pretty extreme contrast (see top picture) between the noisy bustling town on the one hand (the noisiest, most persistent "horning" - honking - I've met this time anywhere) and the peace of the temple and the genteel decay of the old palace. But apart from the outstanding greed of the rickshaw drivers (of course piffling sums to us, I know), people here are charming and gentle and friendly - and so keen to have their photos taken, as we've seen: sometimes the camera builds bridges not barriers!

On Sunday, I benefited from Lady J's birthday bounty and had an extravagant day's taxi ride to a remote location (Point Calimere) and a bird and wildlife park and managed to track down a painted stork:
some distant flamingoes and spoonbills:
(yes, distant) and an unidentified ibex sort-of deer:

among other things. A lot of the pleasure of the journey was the view of the lush rice-fields of the Cauvery Delta (the same Cauvery we met at Mysore) and then the remote salt-pans and marshes as we neared the Point. Coming back a different way, we skimmed the coast and more salt extraction - as well as a Christian pilgrimage centre (about as remote as it could be) where a vision was seen way back, and like Lourdes, Knock etc. the place has grown around it.  and

Tomorrow I hope for a quiet day in preparation for a night rail ride (a.c. no less!) and an arrival back in Kerala, joining up the loop - and overlapping, in fact. The last few days are still open, but that's the way it should be, in my book.
(A doorstep decoration. I remember them as just white outlines but they've become more sophisticated in the meantime. Any chance of one of these on a street near you any time soon?)

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

And suddenly I'm in Madurai

This could be entitled "Through the hills from Mysore to Madurai" but - as so often happens here - things didn't go exactly to plan.

(Mysore Palace)

Having missed trekking opportunities in Coorg (between Mangalore and Mysore, as you may remember), I was intent on heading back into the hills (the Western Ghats) in search of wildlife. First it was a bus over seriously broken-up roads across the Keralan border to Mananathavadi (takes some remembering - but then it rolls off the tongue) and thence to Tholpetty to a charming villa very close to the gate of the park and therefore convenient for late evening and early morning jeep rides. Almost certainly I have been spoilt for Indian wildlife by spotting tigers most days at Kanha, further north, another year, so I was underwhelmed (if you allow the word) by only seeing deer and bison on two very bumpy drives through the forest. OK, tigers were unlikely (although two had been seen the previous day (isn't it ever so?) but this area has large numbers of wild elephants which are seen more often. Not by me, though.

Promises, promises! (but I did see bison, up close: like huge cattle, really.)

(tiger food)
(more tiger food:spotted deer - but relaxed: no tigers around!)

The bouncing around in the jeep added to the lack of hope of larger wildlife set me off on the road again. But had I learnt my lesson? Do not sit at the back of the bus, particularly in the bone-shakers that Keralan State Transport use for public conveyance. The back seat is convenient for stowing baggage - and the front is reserved for women - but for one's stomach it's bad news.  After three buses and three such seats, I had the first case of travel sickness I can remember ever having (it was either that or my once straying from my veg-only rule - as far as chicken - was coming home to roost - ha ha!). I was really a bit of a wreck by the time I got to Sultan Battery (suitably named) and I crawled into the nearest half-luxury hotel room I could find and crashed out.  I owe to my nephew Nicholas the advice that however big a pickle you are in in India you can get out of it with the expenditure of relatively little money - so I went for the best place in town!

The next day I felt fit enough to face the road again and had the luck to catch one of the few direct buses from Sultan Battery to Coimbatore just as it was pulling out. I was heading for another sanctuary, Anamalai. I fell into conversation with an English couple heading my way but only part of the journey - so after 3 hours standing I could have their seats. They worked in IT and were interesting for the thoroughness with which they had pre-researched and booked their trip, right down to booking their bus seats from the UK (asking for trouble in India, I'd say, but so far no glitches) At that stage, they were heading for a reservation on the "toy-train" up to the British hill resort of Ooty (a.k.a.Oudhagamandalam - no wonder they shortened it). The bus trip went through sensational scenery, mainly tea plantations at the lower levels until we approached the clouds where they gave way to euchalyptus , but lush, green and varied. The man was recording slices of the view on a videocam: not a bad idea, really: still photos could never do it justice, especially from a moving bus. (He also records street scenes and markets similarly, but with the camera held inconspicuously at his side: crafty!)  

After they got off, I was soon joined by an Indian medical administrator, who, despite having wonderfully Victorian English was an interesting conversationalist. After some chat, he lent me his English Language newspaper - a point scored, I think, that he wasn't reading in Tamil or Malayamalam. Call it luck or call it ill fortune but when I turned to the second page, there was an article about the annual wildlife count in Anamalai sanctuary - starting that very day and closing the park for 5 days. I wasn't really disappointed although I was looking forward to staying overnight in the park in a treetop shelter: that could have been something!

So, instead of the telephoning that I had planned to do, I was able to change plans and go straight on through from Coimbatore to Madurai. A typical narrative: my seat-mate had waxed confident in his knowledge of transport arrangements in the area, and assured me that I could get a connecting bus from the same bus stand as the one we arrived at (there are several in Coimbatore) but when we pulled in he was gone with the wind and, would you believe it? - the connecting bus left from a place the other side of town, a 20-minute bus journey. No matter - the staff at the bus stand were very helpful and there was no real hold-up, buses leaving almost as soon as I boarded them, and the last one being fairly empty.

And now I'm in Temple-Town Central, arguably the South Indian answer to Varanasi or at least a very important spiritual centre, along with the other temple-towns of Tamil Nadu, of which perhaps more in another blog. The huge temple here is dedicated to Meenakshi, one/the wife of Shiva (who also gets a secondary place in this ancient seat of worship: the compensation is that the images get to spend the nights together: nice for them!).  It's impressive to walk barefoot through the dark vaulted stone corridors that have been down the ages and still are trodden by many thousands of pilgrims every day, some walking barefoot from location to location, town to town.

The temple also has the bonus for a lover of bronzes from the Chola period: it has an interesting museum with some excellent examples.

Many of these bronzes (made by the lost wax method 800 or so years ago) were later hidden (by being buried in the ground) when the iconoclastic Moslem Mughal emperors pushed their empire southwards.  Some, perhaps most, are still lying hidden today.

(Nataraja: Shiva dancing the dance of creation)

I think of Madurai as the quintessential South Indian town, teeming with life, noise, disorder and vitality, with spiritual Old India mixing side-by-side with the new modern India (symbolised, for example, by black or orange-clad, face-painted pilgrims in the temple whipping out smart-phones to capture their visit). It's an exciting place but one where you have particularly to keep your wits about you, not only for traffic from any direction but also to be alert to touts and scam artists and, allegedly, the odd pickpocket.  The roads are quite as littered as anywhere, although clean for a brief blissful period in the early morning when the dustcart comes round to collect the piles gathered by the sweepers. Perhaps, in fact, littering is simply job-creation for the sweeper caste?  There must be a better way!

I am staying in the same place I stayed back in 1997 and I could swear not one thing has been done to maintain or even clean the place (apart from sweeping and changing the sheets) in the interim.  I thought it was OK then but it's really pushing my, admittedly high, levels of tolerance now.  If I ever come to Madurai again, it won't, I think, be to stay at the Hotel International!

One last thing to say about Madurai is the food - a great selection is available - although I am tempted to keep on ordering my favourite: masala dosa.
(half-eaten already!)

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

You may not wish to read this blog (about "the"Delhi rape)

If I may be serious for once.  I have been trying to be light and informative, but for nearly the whole of my time here there has been a national issue that you will have heard about (so I don't have to repeat the details): the horrendous violent physical and sexual attack on a woman on a moving bus in Delhi.  She eventually died of her multiple serious injuries but not before she had been flown to SIngapore to a hospital specialising in organ transplants

It has become a national cause celebre, with many public figures jumping up with their contributions. The Prime Minister and the eminence grise Sonja Ghandi were are the airport at an unearthly hour to receive the corpse and the deceased's family on their return from Singapore. (A bit like Princess Diana and Blair?)

Why has it been on  my mind (apart from the obvious reasons)? Puzzling over why it happened and what can be done.  Many figures have their own recommendations, like outlawing reflective film on bus windows, and others ideas closer to an Old Testament approach, but few seem to have thought about the first question.  I don't want to suggest a bleeding hearts approach to the influences that perverted the minds of the attackers ("poor victims themselves of forces they could understand or control"). However, surely some attempt has got to be made to understand how a group of men could contrive to perpetrate such an enormity - for it was almost certainly a premeditated event. Do men hate women - or some woman - SO MUCH? Are they unable to see them as human beings at all?  I would ask whether the alcohol component may have been significant - as well as the very teasy style of Indian movies.

By at least one index (Reuters), India is the worst place in the world to be a woman. Historically, there was sati (obligatory self-immolation of wives on the death of their husband) and the dowry system (now illegal but widely flouted, leading to mistreatment or murder of wives who bring not enough  according to her in-laws, who may well in any case treat her after marriage as an unpaid household servant).  And as a result  in many parts it is considered to be a curse to conceive a girl-child, so that female foetuses are aborted or new-borns killed. Of course, there are a few gestures towards women but rather patronising, I feel: separate compartments on trains, separate queues, preferential seating on buses.

One explanation that has been put forward is the migrant workers coming from traditional areas cannot cope with modern styles of dress of the student community. But do we want to advise these young people to "cover up"? Another explanation is that many of the victims of rape are "Dalits" (once called Untouchables) and men have no respect for them due to the caste system. A third area of focus is the failure of the police to take rape accusation seriously (sound familiar?) - and how many female police officers are there?

There are of course on excuses but I for one would like to try better to understand how such a terrible event could happe.  And of course it's not an isolated case, just one that has come so prominently to national and international attention.

I promise something lighter next time!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Mysore toe

 It would be a joke if it wasn't. Maybe it's a known medical condition. Anyway, the rest of me is fine - and even the toe is starting to get better.
What a contrast since leaving Agonda (above)! The train ride provided a pleasant, sometimes spectacular, view down the coast from Goa to Mangalore.  As I may have said, train travel gives you a view of people's back doors while bus travel shows the front. Sometimes the back view is more than a person wants to see!

On arrival at Mangalore at 9.20 p.m., I thought I'd do the independent traveller thing, so I strode off to the centre of town, the filling in my backpack sandwich, running the gauntlet of the rickshaw drivers offering guest houses ("my brother's, very nice place ...") but by the stage in my solo hotel search that I had met the third "all full" response I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of my bravado. I was almost contemplating having to surrender to the clutches of a rickshaw driver when my fourth choice, a huge hotel, had space. "No A.C.!" they apologised. "No problem!" was my response ... and even fewer problems when the room turned out to be very comfortable and with profuse hot water - I was soon a very much cleaner me. Not so much can be said for the Mangalore skyline ... (view from the room)
 It was beginning to dawn on me - as was reinforced several times over the next 48 hours - that a weekend approaching New Year's is a difficult time to travel. Too many people, particularly Indian tourists, are doing it at the same time. Deciding to book ahead, I found that there were no rooms at all to be had in known venues in the Coorg region (spice plantations in the hills, trekking opportunities) and, even after I switched objectives to Mysore, I again had to try several places and only got the last room in the hotel I hit on by booking on line - and immediately had to rush for the bus (it was by then nearly noon and the trip from Mangalore to Mysore is 7 hours +).

I had been planning a drive-by appreciation of the countryside of the Coorg region but some kids on the bus had other ideas.  In some circumstances, I would have found them a bit trying but this was a group of primary school kids off for the weekend with their families and they were actually bright and engaging, educated and good at English. First we had the usual mutual interviewing, then looking at pictures, then of course cameras came out and there was a lot of camera play, then songs, games (scissors, paper, stone seems international; they also had lady, tiger, hunter: apparently the lady slaps the hunter. Hmm, he might need more than that!) And jokes and storytelling.  And this was the girls.  The boys just sat back watching, being cool - or shy (how often that happens!).  I couldn't help reflecting that such a thing would be highly unlikely to happen in the UK, what with "stranger danger" and all, even with the parents and relations right there.  Should I worry about their innocent trustfulness - or be glad?


The girl in the middle has the same birthday as me good opportunity to teach new English phrase: "That's a coincidence!". Old habits die hard!

Arriving at Mysore, they suggested I get off at the same place but I'd already paid for my room so I thought I'd better go there - although in the event it became a bit of a saga.  I'll spare you the details but it was a crumbling old-style government-run place where the A.C. room I'd paid for turned out to have no operational A.C., no hot water, defunct TV etc. but it was late to look for another hotel (and I'd paid etc..). My requests for a discount (down to non-A.C. rate anyway) were met with job's-worth obstruction, procrastination and evasion (at which some Indians are particularly good). None of which has soured me against Mysore; rather, I've been reminded how stately and civilised the place is, largely as a result of the reign of Maharajahs influencing the development of the city over many centuries right up to independence. Lots of colonnades, towers, marble, wide streets - and the air perfumed with flowers, sandalwood and other more pleasant scents than usually waft through the Indian air. And finally I found a room in another hotel with A.C., hot water and a view - and much better value. I can even view the Maharajah's palace as I go up in the glass lift! Whatever happened to the rugged backpacker?

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Boxing Day hangover (in a manner of speaking)

I have to admit my time here is running down when even an attempted trip to a vaunted bird reserve was a bit of a disappointment. I set up a rickshaw and got up early for the purpose, trundled through various towns along the road south then turned off into some scrub. At the checkpoint was a scruffy little zoo (a few cages: a snake, a small crocodile and some mangy looking deer) and then off to find "Treetops". Eventually found, it turned out to be a minor version of the Western Australia's Gloucester Tree [elevated lookout tower reached via a spiral of hefty spikes driven into the trunk of the tallest tree around], only with metal steps and not half as high, therefore dwarfed by surrounding trees.  Alone at the top I could detect not a bird in sight or to be heard.  It didn't help that an Indian family with three noisy children coincided with my visit.  I heard some birdsong on the way there and back to the road but only saw ... a spider!  It might have been better if I'd gone on a scooter when I could have explored at my own speed but, with a rickshaw driver counting time as money, there was little hope of that.  Today's man won the record for being unable to respond facially (smile? forget it!) away from a dogged scowl. C'mon! You set the price, didn't you? [PS Got the same man for the run to the rail station!]

It's getting time to move on. I think I'll head gradually south tomorrow to or towards Mangalore, maybe stopping short at Udupi. There's an afternoon passenger train that should be a gentle run. My aim is then to head into the hills between the coast and Mysore and find some more tangible wildlife before going down into Tamil Nadu and some temple towns and the Hindu side of life. It's been rather Christian so far.

Inland from Mangalore is the area known as Coorg/Kodagu, which I remember from Dervla Murphy's On a Shoestring to Coorg: an Experience of South India  but have never been there.  A little further south is a group of reserves in the Nilgiri Hills, some of which sound really promising.  I really need to push on to places I've never been: Kochi and Agonda were both Old Ground!

Not sure when the next blog will be but I'll wait until I have something uplifting to report. Meantime, mustn't grumble, there's beachcombing to be done and a beautiful long beach to do it on!