Tuesday, 28 September 2010

A short story from Fort Cochin

I've got my Kashmiri scarf pressed close to my nose and mouth. The dust and fumes are really getting to my already inflamed throat. Our driver is beeping his horn at every vehicle that we pass as we weave through the crowded street. This is a palatial rickshaw as rickshaws go. There is a fine woven pattern on the roof, the plastic seat coverings are all intact an clean and a plastic stature of Shiva in a hollow above the drivers head is flashing alternately blue and pink. The driver clearly takes care of his vehicle if not his life on the road.

The headlights and the interior lighting of the rickshaw is operated by two household switches that you might encounter in an Indian hotel. Of course in the hotel the switches would be in amongst a bank of other switches which control all manner of things in the room in no particular order. Every time you want to turn on the fan you cycle through the bathroom light, the bedroom light, the bedside light, the TV (if you are lucky), the overall power, the plug switch and the other plug switch before you get the air moving again. Each time you change hotel you need to learn again. This electrical system mirrors Indian life; inefficient and complicated.

From behind our rickshaw comes a louder, more unusual and more insistent horn than all the others. It's very close behind. "Must be a very important person behind us darling with some pressing business" I note sarcastically. We are overtaking a stick thin man on an ancient bicycle, a scooter and another rickshaw as the "important vehicle", a local bus, decides that this would be a good time to pass us. His loud unusual horn is somehow able to avoid us crashing into the oncoming traffic through will alone.

We are returning from the beach which we departed before sunset to avoid the crowds. The sky to my right however has turned into a magnificent spectacle heavy with rich colours. Indigo, violet, blue, pink, orange and red. Silhouettes of palm trees cut upwards into the palette of the sky, adding to the drama of the sun's final act of the day. My gaze has been alternating between this natural wonder and the continual near miss interplay of the road and so when we reach the ferry port I haven't noticed the sky over the mainland to the east. Indeed it's only after handing over a bunch of ragged Rupee notes that I feel the wind swirling around us. There is a storm coming.

The small rust bucket car ferry is just leaving port. We have missed this round. There is a wedge of around thirty scooters and cars penned in by ropes waiting to board the next and a crowd of people hanging round clutching tickets. I go to the ticket booth but the man has just left. He'll be back for the next ferry so I take up position in the light coming from his booth. At least I'll be the first to get a ticket. I look east again, now more interested in this view. I can see the large shipbuilding cranes of the mainland gripped by thick, angry cloud. It's pitch black over the water but in the distance the murk is back lit suddenly by lightning and a distant rumble travels across the bay. It's as if the east is angry at the attention the sun has been getting and is about to exact its awful revenge.

The wind is whipping around us and we start to huddle under the small roof that juts out from the booth. I look towards the peninsula where we are headed hoping another boat would appear. Nothing. Then back to the mainland and now the cranes are gone, obscured by rain. A minute later the boats moored in the harbour are lost too. A sharp crack of thunder.

People are all around me now peering past me from the dark into the unmanned brightly lit office. I look back to the peninsula. Nothing. To the mainland; no sea, no boats, no cranes, no mainland. Fat spots of rain spot the ground and we huddle closer to the wall. Lightning illuminates the whole scene and thunder shakes the ground. "It's ok you can't be struck by lightning on a boat even if it's metal" I lie to reassure. No need for panic now. The rain is falling in solid sheets and I am already soaked through. But then a glorious sight. The boat is back,  full with waterlogged passengers, scooters and cars.

The ticket master arrives back into his hut and despite my commanding position I am third to buy a ticket. Brown hands push past me, round me from all sides clutching ten rupee notes. For a moment I am like a many armed Hindu god.

The rain is now as heavy as I can ever remember seeing and thunder and lightning clash overhead with ferocious power. I feel very small under the angry, vengeful sky. Before the ferry is empty of its cargo of vehicles and people, the onshore crowd are pushing themselves on. Two ticket inspectors try in vain to hold the throng back but the crowd surges forward, sharp elbows from underneath Sari's and pressure from behind sweeps us forward nearly crushing an old woman in front. I manage to stuff the now sodden paper tickets into the inspector's hand just before we are spat onto the deck like the contents of a tin can of food emptied onto a plate.

Rain pounds and electricity threatens to rip the sky apart but the ferry departs. We cross the tidal gap of swirling water clutching each other soaked to the skin. Finally we are home again.

Friday, 24 September 2010

A new unit of measurement

When I sit down to write each of these blog posts the amount of things that have happened in only a few shorts days is just overwhelming. Where to begin? Well lets start with current affairs shall we? The Indian press is full of stories of their countries shame regarding the state of the athletes village for the Commonwealth games. Delhi is not ready in terms of roads and general infrastructure as I previously discussed, but it seems that even the athlete accommodation is far below par. Human shit and filth spread around the bathrooms, stray dogs tearing up sheets and ransacking bedrooms, a footbridge collapsing injuring 27 and a roof in a wrestling/weightlifting arena falling down. Having seen the north of India and it's attitude to hygiene and what constitutes habitable conditions I am not entirely surprised. Couple this with the extended monsoon, the flooding (which we experienced first hand in the Himalayas), the resultant Dengue fever outbreak and the threat of terrorism it's not a great time for the capital.

After our failed trek and the flooding we decided that the best plan of action was to basically sack off our plans in the north and head south to Kerala. There the living would be easy, the sun would shine and there might be some sort of semblance of reason.We changed our internal flight and attempted to head to the airport. Of course this wasn't to be plain sailing. Trains were cancelled, buses were full and when we tried a long distance taxi, road after road was blocked. In the end we needed to check into a hotel in Saharanpur. A place with more than one hotel (thankfully) but which gets no mention in the guide books for good reason. It's hard to describe what a day of travelling around India is like. For those of you of the scientific persuasion I think a new unit of measurement is required. This will denote the rate of things unfamiliar, repulsive, annoying or hazardous to health thrust in your face per minute. I call this unit the "Delhi".

Getting from A to B is never easy it seems. It all starts well with an internet booked train ticket (cheap as chips) and a rickshaw or taxi to the train station (also cheap as chips). Once deposited at the station the problem starts. Already figures of great interest to anyone and everyone simply by not being Indian and one of your contingent being a blonde lady you have committed the faux pas of carrying a massive backpack on your back. Instantly your shirt is soaked through with sweat. You pass by the gawping hoards to try to find a spot to plonk down your bags and afore mentioned blonde interest gatherer. On the way the Delhi levels are high. Amputees, Sadhus, flies, filth, spitting, begging hands. Then you must find out which platform your train will leave from. The enquiry kiosk is tiny a window with one man behind it. In front thirty or forty men battle each other to reach the front and shout out their enquiry to the single man peering through his bolthole. The Delhi level is off the scale here and not worth dealing with. I have started to simply march into the station superintendent's office and ask him. One benefit of being an interesting foreigner I guess. The answer is quite vague and so I seek two or three different answers from other offices and take an average of all the answers discarding those that seem too far from possible.

The maximum Delhi level "Train is cancelled" reply gives you that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach. "The road is blocked" is another classic that we have heard too much and achieves much the same gut twisting sensation. Attempting to find other trains or simply buying a ticket at the station is nigh on impossible. At one station we simply couldn't physically manage to push our way past the crowds to buy another ticket. All the while your hands hover over your pocket to check that no tiny fingers have been off with our wallet and the sweat continues to pour. I found sweat marks on the shins of my trousers the other day. Who knew that could happen?

Sitting from the comfort of a taxi or an air conditioned coffee shop you can marvel at the scene played out in front of you. Amuse your self for hours at the Delhi levels that you don't have to deal with. From a coffee day store I watched smoke drifting lazily up from piles of smouldering rubbish on the other side of the road joining the cloud of dust hanging in the air. I marvelled at the fat pigs snuffling around in the rest of the roadside crap. A buffalo pulling a wooden cart with a semi naked man sat on top of the wooden platform, a well to do family of four without helmets whizzing by on their scooter, a cycle rickshaw driver pumping his stick thin legs to pull an entire room full of wooden furniture along. On top of that you add the constant beep beep beep of the horns from every vehicle that owns one. The horn is as essential to the driver as the brake or the clutch.

We are beginning to realise from hard worn experience that looking at a map and guide book and saying "oh it only takes five hours to get to this place lets go" is foolhardy. Leave yourself two days...


Sunday, 19 September 2010

Not to be

Well it's been an interesting few days. We have been chilling out in Rishikesh, venturing out from our hilltop guesthouse between the rain showers of the tail end of the monsoon and enjoying the sights and sounds of the town. The monsoon here normally ends at the end of August and the Himalayan trekking season is generally fully under way by now. However this isn't the case this year. It's extended by a considerable amount but people seemed quite positive that it was about to end. So we have sat tight and waited a few days before attempting the eight day trek on the Kuari pass in Utteranchal under the shade of Nanda Devi India's highest mountain.

I have been thinking about and planning this trek for some time in the build up to coming. Our backpacks are stuffed full of extra stuff that we won't need for the rest of our trip but would be essential on the walk at the high altitude. I've been reading books about mountains and mountaineering and sitting in the Himalayan foothills watching low hanging rain clouds in the valley excited and worried at the same time. Were we being foolish attempting this walk in these conditions? We had signed up with a trekking company who would be providing horses, a cook and a guide for us and they seemed confident that the conditions would be ok as long as the road was clear of landslides which had hampered other treks.

So the day finally came after a night of near constant rain and electrical storms. The company manager decided that as the other road had been blocked on the other days he would send us on the back roads to our destination to camp for the night then begin our trek the following day. The drive was to be about ten hours. We had some nice companions. Two italians. a dutch woman and a south Indian man from Tamil Nadu. Morale was high as we set off and got to know each other and our guide Pheem.

Then we hit the mountain road. Hairpin after hairpin we climbed higher into the mountains past the bulging milky tea coloured Ganges river in the valley below. I was enjoying taking in the scenery out of the window but a few rockfalls and streams running across the road started to warn of potential landslides ahead. And so two hours into the trip the inevitable happened. The road was blocked by a huge landslide of rubble and earth and past that we could see a few more blockages. Other cars at the scene informed us however that a JCB was on its way and the road should be cleared in a couple of hours. Knowing Indian timings and the actual likelihood of this plus the fact that the rubble looked like it would take at least two hours to clear made me very doubtful.

Amazingly about ten mins later a JCB could be seen snaking down the mountain from above and was with us clearing away the blockages in no time. I was very impressed. Probably the only JCB in a hundred miles. So far so good...

We read and played cards and watched with the locals as the digger scooped the rubble over the edge and sent it cascading down the hill into the valley below. Almost every one of the assembled group had some helpful comments on digging technique for the JCB driver although the collective expertise didn't manage to prevent half of the actual roadway crashing into the valley. The road on closer inspection was sitting on top of a dry stone wall with no cement or concrete in sight.

After a mere four hours we were on our way holding our breaths as we passed the crumbling road and higher into the mountain range. At this point the road got really scary. Our driver seemed to be trying to make up the time and the road became simply rubble lying on top of semi organised rubble. It was clear that this was now, for want of a better phrase, a really fucking stupid thing to be doing.

"How much further to our destination is it Pheem?" 

"Oh about 150kms"

"Are the roads all like this?"

"Yes I would say so"

The drive had turned from being quite exciting into a punishing ordeal.

Within an hour the road was blocked again but another JCB was on hand and it was cleared very quickly. Half an hour after that another landslide and two more JCB's. My initial assessment of the heavy construction equipment in the area was way off. This was obviously a very common occurrence. By the last blockage we decided enough was enough and walk into the nearest town having driven a grand total of 50km in ten hours. We received some really nice greetings from the villagers in this small, quite pretty but clearly not a tourist town. Dinner was a good, honest, no frills local affair of rice Dahl, Paneer cheese and Chapatis.

The mood was again high in the group. We had had some excitement and seen a town that we wouldn't have normally encountered, well off the beaten track and our bellies were full of good food.

The gap between joy and despair was to be about ten minutes. News from the driver after our meal was that the ongoing road had a number of blockages and that we would have to stay in this town. By this time it was dark. The town didn't seem so nice anymore and our guide was struggling to find us a place to stay. We drove to "the only hotel in town". A tag that never inspires confidence.

The next morning we decided that the best thing to do was to go back to Rishikesh if we could on another road. Our lives were more important than the trek. So with bitter disappointment we arrived back after another grueling day, more near misses on the roads and all the time accompanied by continual pounding rain. 

What I had considered to be the highlight of the whole trip was not to be. Gutted.

Waking up today and after 15 hours of solid rain the massive Ganges has burst its banks and the first level of houses, temples and restaurants on the river bank are flooded. We are high on the hillside but its a sobering sight. Hopefully we can leave tomorrow and head to drier climes.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Delhi addition

In speaking to a few travellers and from reading the papers it seems that Delhi is currently basically a construction site. Main bazaar has been half knocked down (to me it looked like it had been bombed), the Connaught place area is all being redone and the roads are doubly congested. All for the Commonwealth games at the start of October. It is by most accounts not normally as bad as that.

So anyone who has already been to Delhi and either found my blog post a little harsh or fully agreed with it. Then imagine it with half knocked down and construction going on constantly.


I've lived in London for six years and become used to its ways. London life is hard at first. It tires you out with its constant assault on your senses. You are bombarded by advertising at every turn. There are signs which tell you where to stand, when to move, when to think, what not to do, what to buy, how to think. Street furniture guides you along the road in neat channels and clean rows. The rat race at rush hour seems so alien. Thousands of unsmiling faces rushing about their business. It seems like the rush hour last all day. You tell yourself you will never get to the point where it makes you cynical or that you will stop smiling at people in the street.

Slowly, however, it becomes normal. You become adept at sifting through the information and noise levels and take what you need and ignore the rest. It's still there and at some level you process it but you don't let it come into your conscious mind. The street signs and funneling of people in certain ways becomes a comfort because you don't need to think where you are going. It becomes automatic. You curse if someone fumbles their travelcard at the tube station turnstile making you pause for a heartbeat. Your assimilation is complete.

Now I have been dumped into a country very alien to the UK and even to the hectic nature of London.  Needless to say everything is different. My London armour doesn't work here. Suddenly it doesn't have the familiar things to filter out. There is a finely honed part of my brain now with nothing to do.

While on the train the other day from Patiala to Rishikesh I put on my mp3 player and listened to a few songs. Every one sounded sublime. I had shivers running up and down my spine at songs I have heard a few times at home and thought were just ok. The music sounded completely transformed. Clear and pure and perfect. Such moments have been few and far between in the last couple of years. I haven't had the time to sit and really listen to the songs. To appreciate them wholly. My London filter had started to tune out the good things too and not just the bad or unwanted.  I'm glad I am wiping the slate clean for a while.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

"The" first week.

From Delhi we travelled by train five hours north to the relatively small town of Patiala. The town is in the Punjab which takes its place amongst the very best places in the world afforded the prefix "The". You know like "The Kings road", "The Gambia" or the mighty "The Wirral". Answers on a postcard for the reasons these places are given such a mighty intro.

Patiala is not a tourist town as such but there are still some cool things there. We were there to stay with a lady I met at my last school who runs a primary and secondary school. Rosa had invited us to stay with her and see her schools. As with any invitation like this from someone you don't know all that well you can be filled with a certain trepidation en route. I really didn't have much idea what to expect. However we really landed on our feet. Rosa had a huge house in a walled enclave with a lovely garden, a driver, cooks and three dogs. Our room was lovely with air con and en suite bathroom and beer and nuts were served promptly at five. The primary school was inside the grounds and the sight from our window was of the cutest little kids running around in turbans and little tunics. Just a brilliant way to start the day.

We spent Monday to Friday here chilling out, eating amazing food, sleeping, reading, playing cards, visiting the schools and a couple of local sights, attending a Sikh family birthday party (with pin the tail on the donkey included) and generally having a good time. Rosa is a brilliant host.

The highlight was a trip to the fort in the town which took our breath away. We were allowed special access to certain areas thanks to our contacts and saw the Chandelier room which takes opulence to the extreme. The story goes that the Maharajah was in Paris and one day while not in his royal readiments, visited a Chandelier shop. Upon asking how much a chandelier cost the shop owner informed him that a man such as he could not afford it. Annoyed at the condescension he promptly bought the entire shop. We were only allowed one photo in this room but I fired off two. In your face "The" man.The fort is crumbling away now from neglect and it's such a shame as it was stunning. Apparently this is common in the Punjab through the lack of tourism.

We will return to Patiala on our way to Rajasthan but for now we were headed towards the Himalayas and our first stop Rishikesh. "The yoga capital of the world" it is said. The monsoon has extended here and trekking is potentially not going to happen. I will be gutted if it doesn't as this was one of my must do things of the trip. Fingers crossed. Judging by the electrical storm that hit last night and the size of the Ganges river flowing through the valley the weather is not to be messed with.

We are in a great spot up on the hill away from the madness below and going to take in the spiritual vibes flowing through the air maaaan. 

Peace out.

Thursday, 9 September 2010


I can hardly believe that we have only been gone for a week. So much has happened that it's difficult to know where to start with this blog. I guess I'll just launch into it and see what comes up.

So we arrived in Delhi early on Friday morning and it was evident by the end of the taxi journey that  India was going to be full on. I'm not naive. I have read about India and spoken to countless people and I've travelled in Asia before including Nepal. However Delhi has surpassed anything that I have experienced before or could imagine from words written or spoken. No amount of exclamation marks can do it justice. We stayed in Paharganj which is in Old Delhi just north of the main bazaar which I guess is Delhi's equivalent of the Kao San Road in Bangkok. The location of a cluster of backpacker hostels is about as far as the similarity goes. It is total bedlam. Distilled chaos. It's amusing to walk through there at first and marvel at the high voltage cables strung along the pavement at head height with washing hanging from them and cows and piss and shit and dead rats and people cooking and people selling and men digging up the road and people asking you things and telling you the way to the tourist office or the wrong way to the place you want to go to and cars and bikes and scooters and rickshaws and people and people and people and people. But if you have to do anything of the slightest importance its a living nightmare. Confusion reigns. There is no sense. It's awful. Particularly after dark...

One evening we got a bit lost coming out of one of the new metro stations which we knew was very close to our hotel but it's so confusing and I had to make an educated guess through the crowds and over an unlit bridge with all manner of vehicles flying past and hands grabbing at Gemma. Making a bad move is not an option in the humidity and confusion after a long afternoon of bewilderment. It turned out I had made the correct guess and as we took the foul smelling dark steps down from the bridge to join the main road I saw a man sitting there with blood pouring down his leg tending a bandaged wound on his knee. Gemma didn't see him and I'm glad. It was the final straw that day.

We spent three days there braving forays to have lunch and dinner and see the odd tourist thing with frequent trips back to the safety and comfort of our nice hotel. Thank god we decided to ease ourselves in gently with plush surroundings. You recharge. You rest. You have mad dreams. Then you are ready to step out again for the next adventure.

There were however snatches of joy that made me hopefully for the rest of India. The smell of flowers on a market stall selling garlands amidst the filth, the genuine smile of a rickshaw driver in passing, a trip to Humayun's tomb in New Delhi and of course the food. The food has been out of this world. Roti's, Dhal, Butter chicken, pickles, chutneys, spinach, paneer cheese, paratha, and naan bread better than any I have ever eaten before. Truly amazing.

If I continue at this rate I am going to get very fat. I have a feeling however that something will intervene in this respect and I don't have much to worry about but we shall see.

Much more has happened since but I think I am done with writing for now.