Monday, March 27, 2006

For all her faults I love her still

Well, I'm back in Blighty after 9 weeks in India and I thought a short retrospective might be appropriate.

The subject line was originally in my mind for Indian Railways. Her faults being: too few trains, too slow, not at the times you want, too often late by hours but then look at her virtues: once on, what a relaxed way to travel, quiet (apart from the interesting series of vendors' cries), cheap (my sleeper from Trivandrum to Goa (20 hours) cost less than a single from Paddington to Liverpool Street on London Underground - 20 minutes), comfortable, rocks you asleep, a place to meet actual Indians [not touts, rickshaw wallahs, Kashmiri salesmen etc. but a cross-section of those who can afford your class (that's one reason I go sleeper not A/C)], amazing computerised reservation facilities, something the Raj brought India that we needn't feel guilty about!

But of course I could be talking about Bharat Mata, Mother India herself. Without doubt she has faults, some of which have appeared in the posts of this blog, and new ones are appearing (the love of the horn by the newly motorised classes must be one) but still, for me and other Indiaphiles, the virtues outweigh them. As I may have said before Incredible India is actually very Credible - you can see her workings, her cogs whirring, the glugs and gurgles of her digestive system, and she seems utterly authentic. Not too many people in India have the time or energy to be phoney (Kashmiri handicraft salesman excepted) and in this sense at least the feeling is one of honesty (same exception applies). Of course, the traveller is frequently at odds with those who he has to make use of (rickshaw wallahs) or who approach him anyway (touts, beggars) but after all they're only trying to make a living.

For myself, I feel a bit of a flop this time in that I revisited so many places rather than striking out to more new destinations. There were reasons (cold weather kept me out of the Himalaya, dates to keep drew me south) but I regret that there are places in Madya Pradesh, Bengal, Gujarat, Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh and well as all the North-west that are crying out for a visit.

Another time, maybe . . . for . . . . I love her still.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The "Solitary Satellite" phenomenon

Thirty odd years ago there was no "Lonely Planet". Around 1974, someone else, not Tony or Maureen Wheeler, brought out "Across Asia on the Cheap" but it was the Wheelers who picked up the concept and ran with it (all the way to the bank and all around the world). So successful has it been that there's scarcely a backpacker here in India who hasn't got one stowed somewhere - or more likely held open in his sweaty hands as he tries to use its local town plan to navigate round the latest new stop-off point. Inevitably, some people are now confident enough to travel "independently" because of its existence (how many that is can only be speculation) but it does become quite a crutch. I freely admit that, when my Sri Lanka guide was "permanently borrowed" off me by a Kiwi on our arrival at Colombo airport years ago, I had a small panic. This grew as I first failed to track the culprit down and then discovered that the guide was reprinting and apparently unobtainable. In the end, I ran one to ground in a many-star hotel, whose clientele were more likely to favour guides by Insight or Dorling Kindersley. Without it, life on the Sri Lankan roads would have been slower but I would have made more contact with the locals - asking the way etc. With it, I was able to pack my three weeks with incident and exploration, with smooth transitions from destination to destination and with places to stay easily located.

More generally, the influence of Lonely Planet can't help but be substantial. Its recommendations cause some places (for "Sleeping" or "Eating") to prosper while others merely stagnate or decline. Some of these favoured ones keep the faith, maintaining standards and price levels: others exploit the surge of popularity that being recommended brings, by becoming lazy or greedy or both. Hopefully, these ones get dropped in the next edition. And, as I have suggested, the LP guides create a certain dependency in that international community that they have strongly helped to form. The scale of global backpacking, especially along the well-trodden routes, would probably amaze many who don't cross its tracks. Israelis frazzled from military service, Europeans (chiefly Brits, German and French) on a gap year and these days some Americans (I mean US citizens) shoulder their packs, consult their LP guide and set off. Along the way, they tend to congregate in certain hot spots where conditions are particularly favourable - Hampi in India is one, Ko Samui in Thailand another and, probably still, Kuta Beach on Bali. These people will probably disdain the description "tourist", preferring "traveller" or, more ambitiously, "world traveller". But where one category ends and the other begins is hard to discern. Tourists go in tour groups on tour buses but don't travellers flock together more informally? - for example on the backwaters ferry from Allepey to Kollam, which isn't used by locals who prefer the much faster and cheaper bus. Tourists go to see the sights: travellers go to feel the vibes - but the sights and the vibes frequently overlap. Tourists spend more, travellers spend less but they merge with each other in LP's "mid-range" sleeping and eating categories.

A whole generation and a half (if a generation is 20 years) have grown up not knowing what travel is like without their dependable guide; but some follow it so addictively that if, as happened at Canacona station in South Goa, the guide gives no guidance, they are lost. Having no instructions as to how to get from the station to Palolem beach, all but one of us took the soft option of hiring auto-rickshaws at some distinct expense. I thought the logical thing was to ask some local advice and track down the nearest bus stop. As it happened, a large, clean, efficient bus station was only 300 yards away across some fields and I reckon I didn't get there much later than they did.

When we reached Palolem by our various means of transport, we found another LP hotspot - a picture-postcard-perfect bay framed by two headlands, its beach populated by fishing boats and the young international traveller set. Fringing the beach was an unbroken line of "coco-huts" - basic shelters made of local natural materials - and other backpacker-friendly accommodations. (Sorry about the 's': it's the Indian language environment talking!). A lot of people seemed to enjoy being around a lot of other such people - and the accompanying merchants (handicrafts stalls, travel bureaux, restaurants, internet cafés and so on) seemed to enjoy them being around, too. I decided, however, to consult my LP guide again (still making it up as I went along) and found a quiet mention of a beach nearby which "is popular with travellers wanting to escape the resort scenes". It described the beach as "average-looking" and when I got there I was glad of the implied discouragement. The beach to me was fine (2 km of good sand between two headlands) and the village offered an excellent range of accommodation options, some eating options and even one, slow, internet facility. And not a lot of people. In fact, it was the kind of place where a certain type of traveller likes to believe they're the only ones there, so they look straight through other outsiders as if they are transparent but then get exaggeratedly chummy with the locals. I met a few of those! I didn't mind: I understand the feeling a bit anyway. In fact, sitting on the bamboo balcony of my "coco-hut" on stilts and looking across the beach to the sea I could manage to conjure up quite a Robinson Crusoe feeling myself.

I haven't much to report about my time there - after all, the beach experience is meant to be quite clear and empty, isn't it? - but there was a fair amount of walking the beach end to end, jumping waves, watching scurrying crabs and swooping sea-eagles, trying to photograph the fly-catcher-like flight of a bee-eater and exploring cashew orchards. (Now there's another story: do you know what a cashew fruit looks like, or why the nuts are so expensive?). It was all too short for me!

The holiday wind-down began with a journey north to Margao, main town of South Goa, and a day's detour to its beach at Colva. LP had warned me about the place with some mixed messages but when I arrived the words that stood out were "package tourists", "Indian tourists and the middle-aged European crowd". Back to the pages of LP to make it up afresh: the village of Benaulim was described as "much quieter" - I was hoping for "unspoiled": dream on! It was appreciably better but still package-tourist land. You see I've got some of that traveller-snobbery too. But "having" to sit at a table between a couple of Saaf London women (original description deleted) on one side and and an aged Essex couple on the other, all smoking profusely, made me realise the decline had set in, especially when slices of their conversation drifted over. (Not just a traveller-snob, then!) Perhaps a lot of Goa is like this: Costa del Goa, package-holiday-land. Also, it's the end of the season, too many tired, bored, cynical traders, too many dogs by far, plus the usual: parascending, jetskis, banana-boats, sunloungers - the lot. Touts, vendors, beggars all along the beach .... Perhaps I was luckier even than I realised on my coco-hut balcony.

But yesterday there was a good experience of watching a group of fisherman dragging in a huge net, laying it out, sorting and sharing the fish and then leaving the remaining tiddlers for the birds - the crows and the eagles: lots of aerial acrobatics and mid-air combat. Seeing an eagle flying low above me eating a fish in its talons was quite something! Ironically, most of the watchers had dispersed before the real show, bored by the process of the fishermen laying out the nets to dry. (I think the idea was to do the tedious work first and leave the exciting, rewarding business of dividing the spoils to the end.) By the time the eagles and crows really got going I had that part of the beach to myself. So I should curb my whingeing even here, shouldn't I?

Monday, March 13, 2006

Making it up as I go along

Having seen P. to Trivandrum airport on Saturday, I had ten days to fill before my flight. Some days before that, I had decided to swallow my anti-Goa snobbery and have a swift dash up the coast to actually see the place. (Sometimes infinitives just beg to be split!) I got the necessary sleeper bookings either end of the period taking me between Trivandrum and Margao in Goa and all that remained was to get the train and - make it up as I went along.

One error for which Indian Railways can catch you out is to board the train at a station later than the one you reserved from. The ticket inspector is unlikely to be imaginative about this flexibility and may assume that you are a no-show (and then re-sell your berth!). So, if you're going to edit your journey, do it from the end backwards - i.e. get off early. So, in this case, I was looking for ways of seeing Goa from the south up. But even before I reached Goa, Karnataka had a treat in store. My LP guide (aka "Solitary Satellite") has had to give in to the pressure of traveller's feet heading to Gokarna for some years now and admit that it exists as a potential lure. (For several editions, it seemed to keep this gem deliberately quiet - to preserve it, perhaps, from the hordes that a mention in LP is likely to attract). And, in their "Getting There and Away" section, it mentions a couple of stations nearby where express trains sometimes make unscheduled stops. When my train briefly paused at Kumta, I grabbed the couple of small bags I had with me (the Big Pack stayed behind in Trivandrum) and to the surprise of my compartment-mates detrained in the middle of nowhere! The beautifully secluded station on a small rise was staffed only by a station-master-cum-signalman and a reservations-clerk-cum-factotum. And not a rickshaw driver in sight to pester the unwary new arrival!

A gentle saunter down the hill past bee-eaters shining almost-emerald on the wires brought me to the main road and a wait of not-too-long found me on a half-empty bus heading straight for Gokarna. Described by the bible (LP, again) as the holiest town in Southern India (a Big Claim, it has to be said), Gokarna certainly is a one-off. Full of temples, priests, pilgrims and cows, wooden houses, temple "cars", priests' hostels, shops selling religious paraphernalia, bathing ghats, it has the trappings of a holy place. But there're also several peaches of beaches nearby and the high-water-mark of these is a motley crew of neo-(and not so neo-)hippies and other travellers in town, with their accompanying rash of handicraft shops, cafés selling travellers' fare (peanut butter toast, nutella omelette, yogurt-with-muesli-and-honey etc.) and guest houses.

It's a strange mix for what is still a small place and not entirely an easy one. For the first time in India, I am advised to register with the police, who warn of the dangers of walking alone along paths between beaches - and never at night on any account. And in town, so the Holy Bible say, there's a division of opinion as to whether the tourists are a good thing. From my admittedly biassed standpoint, the greatest threat to the holy atmosphere of this charming place does not come from us but from the motorised Indian middle classes and their obsession with sounding their horns. I have found myself conducting a one-man campaign (using gestures, fingers in ears, verbal pleas etc.) against this gratuitous hooting - in vain of course, except rarely when I get a response and a brief exchange of views! India is going down the same path as many places, discovering the hard way that - for the Public Good - Private Transport is a Bad Thing. Driving down the narrowest of roads, zigzagging between cows, priests and pilgrims, and repeatedly sounding the horn (usually a penetrating air-horn, at that) shows far less sensitivity to the religious aura than even the most thick-skinned tourist does. But then, which of us can honestly say that, put behind the wheel, secluded from social pressure by our mobile metalbox territory, we don't undergo the tinsiest wee bit of a personality shift?

Friday, March 10, 2006

Houseboat Millionaires

In the small town of Allepey in the middle of backwaters Kerala, there stands an incongruous building. In its own grounds, towering up to three stories height but actually only one, it looks like a Greek temple crossed with a modern cinema. Around the outer walls are giant niches occupied by sculpted figures larger ever than the Greeks made. Inside is a subtly illuminated sanctum in red plush and white marble. Whatever is it? It's a gold and jewellry shop.

I can't prove it - but from conversations with locals it seems that the wealth that created the demand that underwrote this Temple to Gold was from houseboats, pure and simple. Along the banks of the canal leading from Allepey to the backwaters lake and other waterways are boatyards turning out more and more of these romantic craft. Externally they look very "ethnic", clad in woven palm leaves and shaped like rice barges but inside they are appointed to the highest standards of comfort and convenience. You can hire one for between sixty and ninety pounds a night but that is all-inclusive of fuel, food and crew. You set off into the maze of channels inland from this gold-crazy town and spend a night - or several - bobbing gently on the shallow water, maybe having a bonding time with friends, maybe renewing vows on a second honeymoon.

Whatever it is that people want them for, it seems that hiring out houseboats keeps the good folk of Allepey in gold to their (and their jeweller's) hearts' content.

What does I.N.D.I.A. stand for?

It stands for "I'll Never Do It Again", apparently!

Certainly, many - if not most - visitors must think it at some stage during their visit and may leave India with that resolution in their minds. And yet they (and I) find ourselves coming back again for more.

It can't just be the escape from a northern winter - there're easier places by far to travel round: Thailand for instance. And it can't just be that it is unquestionably exotic in feel: you could just slip over to Marrakesh for that.

My answer would include challenge and adventure, the wake-up call to count your blessings, the heat, the mental stimulation, the change of diet, the ambient pace and yes even moments of pleasure! The place does mix revulsion and fascination in similar proportions - and on those days when the ad-man's "Indiaaaaah!" is drowned out by the all-present "Indieucch!", then I do tend to think I'll never do it again. But somehow the memory of the fascination, the stimulation - the challenge even - persist when the everyday negatives have been forgotten. So who knows?

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Later: Having spent several days at Varkala (see previous post) and after evidence from the luxury circuit in Rajastan, I have to backtrack a bit. It is possible to cocoon yourself from The Real India (should you want to) quite effectively with some planning and expenditure - travel exclusively by taxi, stay in starred hotels or ex-palaces, go straight there from the airport etc. and you could largely ignore where you are. Chacun à son goût!

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Stargate Through The Looking Glass

I think I have to revise my idea that no-one comes to India simply for pleasure. I've just passed through one of those wormholes in reality that crop up quite often in fiction when you enter another reality, a parallel universe. Somewhere between Temple Junction, Varkala (where we ate an excellent thali overlooking the bathing ghats) and North Cliff, I left India and entered a Holiday Resort. Here little of India remains at all. There are a few rickshaws hanging around the helipad (where Indira Gandhi used to land en route to the village's Hanuman shrine where she used to come and worship) and some of the items in the liitle grocery stalls are recognisable but suddenly there is no traffic noise, no horns, no litter (almost), no beggars, none of the familiar Indian architecture, no touts (almost) - only a paved cliff path fronted by a sheer drop to a large sandy beach and backed by an array of restaurants, guest houses and handicraft shops (no escaping the Kashmiris!). And the population is suddenly European plus Israeli, accompanied by those Indians who staff the various places set up to service their needs. Presumably a lot of them jet into Trivandrum airport and take a taxi here, doing the reverse on the way out, only seeing "Real India" through the car windows. There's hardly a Lonely Planet guide to be seen - they don't need thjem for the well-worn route they follow.

And I can't pretend it's not pleasant (sunburn and lassitude excluded) - with a reasonable beach, great views, a bit of a breeze tempering the undeniably intense midday heat and humidity, and - now the season is largely over - very reasonable prices for excellent rooms (balcony with hanging chair and sea view, palatial bathroom with real hot water and enough space for a small party, tiles and marble throughout: 500 rupees - under 7 quid!). Pity me, don't!

Friday, March 03, 2006

Breathless catch-up (3rd March 2006)

Well, where was I?

Yes, Thanjavur among the bronzes. Madurai, mad mad Madurai, came next, home of the huge and hugely-impressive temple to the goddess Meenakshi. [Her husband - a version of Shiva - also gets a look-in but it's definitely her place. In an evening ceremony, he is taken to her place to pass the night.] The large campus is surrounded by a high wall and there are high towers (gopuram) in the middle of each side, brightly coloured swarms of gods, goddesses and all sorts of unearthly and earthly creatures. Much of the inside is dark enclosed halls with little or larger shrines candle-lit or spotlit among the murk - and all the time a tidal flow of pilgrims, worshippers and visitors. It's certainly a very actively used place of worship - although, disappointingly after the openness of Thanjavur, "non-Hindus (and wearers of lunghis!) are not allowed" in the two main holies of holies. There is also an impressive museum (more bronzes plus statues and ivory miniatures)

Then an excursion south to Tirunelveli to meet up with the daughter who has been volunteering at "SCAD" - Social Change and Development, which has a large campus in a village a little outside town, where a number of different categories of student are catered for - from post-secondary technology students to younger people with a whole variety of physically and/or mentally challenging conditions. There are also several other projects of a more community-development type nature, aimed at improving nutrition for outlying villagers, for example, or providing creative or other outlets to others. It was a really humbling experience to see how much could be achieved by dedication, vision and carisma in the 20 years since the place was set up in this deprived and relatively remote area. Very largely staffed and funded within India, it seemed to me through the tour I was lucky enough to be given that it was literally exemplary.

Escaping from Madurai (which I have to admit is now much less chaotic, much cleaner and better run than 9 and 8 years ago, when it was a severe stress-test), we headed up into the Western Ghats, the mountain range that runs down the western spine-line of India and at this point separates Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Our destination was Kumily/Thekkadi/Periyar (variously referred to), site of a "Tiger Reserve" (although they are rarely seen by the paying public). The main way of seeing the park is by boat on the lake, an artificial construction from the imperial period, which now provides power and irrigation - principally for the state of Tamil Nadu over the border (a somewhat contentious issue, in the papers as I write this!). The lake excursion was quite pleasant - we saw deer and wild elephants - but we were disappointed in our hopes of taking a trek (either 3 hour or all day) - because there was a tiger census in progress. The trek I did last time was when there was much more wildlife to be seen - including a herd of elephants at quite close quarters. Never mind - just being in the park and exploring a little was a bit of a compensation!

The next day's activity was a rickshaw-borne trip to spice gardens and a tea factory. The driver/guide was quite pleasant, straightforward and honest (not always the case with those of his calling!) - and did a good job of showing us the range of spices and plants - with some fascinating aromas and tastes. The tea factory was less interesting and rather industrial (as you might expect) - what it seemed to produce was a sort of powdered tea in different sized lumps! No sign of a residual leaf form at all. Anyway, by the time we'd been thoroughly educated it was past noon and just time for a masala chai (spicy sweet tea) before crashing out for a slice of the afternoon. The spices we saw and tasted included cardomom, turmeric, ginger, cloves, all-spice, cinnamon, pepper, coffee (various sub-species), vanilla, curry leaf, and a herb used in Ayurvedic medicine with diabetics that neutralised sugar (P. tried it and couldn't taste sugar or bananas for an hour).

It was quite a wrench to leave the hills of the Kerala/Tamil Nadu border where we had such a good rest in our spice garden just outside the National Park - had a wildboar come rooting abround just outside the wall on the last evening! Calm, quiet, clean air, cool. Took the bus at 8.15 and careered downhill for two hours, it seemed, and then another 3 1/2 to get to Fort Cochin. Quite an urban sprawl just across the water from here (Ernakulam) but this place is relatively at the end of the road (albeit touristy). Down here it's much hotter and way more humid but the sea breeze lessens the impact a bit and the chance of eating fresh fish 50 metres from the shore is extra good. There is a much-photographed line of Chinese fishing nets - stretched on x-frames set on cantilevered structures - but although they are frequently operated (raised up from their position under water) the results seem hardly worth the effort - one tiddler or two a time, if that! More successful in their catch are the small fishing boats that ride in from the open sea and beach near an informal fish market, where their haul, whether a sack of crabs or a spread of tiger prawns or even a small tuna, is sold off to a few bidders for (we gathered) paltry sums. The buyers are the owners of the fish stalls nearby, who sell - among others - to tourists looking for a fresh fish supper cooked within sight of the beach. You buy, a rep. of a cafe whisks it away and quite soon you're having a tasty supper. The first night it was tiger prawns and a snapper - not totally cheap but utterly fresh (we have to believe) and simply but well cooked.The hotel was a bit of a rip-off (I realise Kerala's popularity enables them to hike prices but the combination of higher price and airless humidity got me looking for an alternative the next morning) but we did so well up in Kumily that the swings/roundabout calculation must come into it.

Yesterday we were doing what I almost like best of all in the tropics: cycling. After changing from the overpriced dank hotel room to a friendly much better homestay we set off through the crumbly ex-colonial-wholesale-traders streets to MatancherryPalace with its amazing murals (but no photos allowed and no p.c.s available) of the Ramayana and of Khrishna using his multiple arms (and two feet) to play the flute and titillate a bevy of cowgirls at the same time. Another mural had Shiva flirting with the female form of Vishnu while the whole of nature did what comes naturally(except for a snake more intent on catching a mouse) and except for wife Parvati who was distinctly not amused. Later, the oldest synagogue in South Asia and running the gauntlet of the Kashmiri handicraft-shopkeepers again. Then in the evening a Kathakali performance, quite as energetic and intense as I remember it - mime was never more meaningful or vigorous.

Today was the backwaters excursion, hurtling off through crazy traffic until fairly deep in well-watered countryside and then punted off in a covered boat (sitting in plastic patio chairs!), first across a waterway and down a side channel and into little narrow ways, the requisite stop for coconut juice etc and then another to learn about coir rope and get a bit of local village colour. I shouldn't be thinking like this but last time (9 years back) was better, smaller scale and more into the life of the villages. Today, after the coir spinning, it was out onto larger and larger stretches of water until we (well our punters) were battling whitecaps (slight exaggeration) and the tide to get across half a mile of open water to where I fervently hoped we would be having lunch -and so it turned out. An excellent thali - and, as should happen with thalis, the food just kept on coming. Plus we were entertained by the conversation of several travellers including a French couple who maintained, convincingly, that they were shepherds! After lunch only a small stretch more of waterway before we were disembarking and partly dreading the return battle with on-coming traffic. But, as the man said, cowards die many times before their deaths and the trip back was actually a relative (absolutely not absolute) cruise. We only nearly crashed four times - on the way out the number of near misses was uncountable!