Saturday, 11 April 2009

Leaving India

My Vietnamese friend Huy’s wife (Minh Sa) told me that when she lived in Vietnam as a child she used to feel so hot that she would hold open the freezer door and put her head in there for two minutes. I got there today.
Our last day in India is upon us in a flash. I am sitting in Bangalore with one of my last pints of Kingfisher and wistfully wishing that we were here for just that little bit longer. India, overall, has been good. As Kurt Vonnegut said in the preface of “Slaughter House Five” (if memory serves me right which is unlikely), “Then it was time to go again. Always time to go.”
I’d love to say that I found myself in India, if only for the pretension value in that. Happily I remain unfound (“Only the shallow know themselves.” Oscar Wilde. Discuss.) It has been fascinating as an experience, in some ways I am left in awe, others disgust, some admiration. I guess the giveaway though is that I wish we were staying longer. Most of all I am really happy that we have had this opportunity though. There are thanks to give to many people, not least of all my wife for thinking of this whole trip in the first place. True, India has been deeply frustrating in many ways. The battalions of touts. The smell of urine and faeces striking your nostrils in the most unlikely of places. Cockroaches the size of rats and rats the size of aardvarks. But for every tout there has been friend, or at least a friendly person, for every unwanted smell a tantalising aroma and for every cockroach, well we’ll leave the story there. Unless cows on the beaches count.
I get ahead of myself. The last post written on the way to Kerala which is one of the most beautiful places we have been to on our journey thus far, and indeed a place that I wish we had had far more time to explore. We arrived in Ernakulum Junction, close to Cochin at about 11.00 pm after a train ride through coconut trees, banana plantations and lagoons meeting the ocean. We checked into the Hotel Excellence, and the Hotel Excellence did what it said on the can. Clean sheets, clean towels and a shower that could flay a man alive. The restaurant too was pukker to use the word in context, we tried it on our last day and kicked ourselves for not having tried it earlier.
After settling in and spending the first day exploring Cochin we went to watch Kathakali (traditional South Indian dancing) in the evening. The jury is out on this one. It was ok I thought, but I would been happier watching the sunset over the Chinese fishing nets with a refreshing beverage close to hand. Maybe that is just the cultureless bum I am. Or my fascination with fishing.
Kerala is famous for it’s backwaters and the house boats that cruise it’s idyllic waters. And no that is not cruise in a George Michael kind of way. We took two house boats trips. The first was day trip organised through the tourist board which was really good and took us firstly on a larger boat around some of the islands (indeed next to the island where Arundhati Roy, Booker Prize author of “The God of Small Things” hails from) and then later, on long boats through the smaller canals and into the villages. Sure, it is a little contrived with three trips a day being poled down the canals, and yet it was really worth doing. Whilst I suppose it was not a unique experience, it was a unique experience to this young country bumpkin from Zimbabwe.

In the evening Nipun and I went walked down to a local temple where we had been tipped off about a festival that was taking place. This turned out to be to be something of a highlight of our journey. The festival involved three (deaf?) elephants, an army of Tabla players (they bang the drums), trumpet players and an irascible priest who took exception to the gigabyte of photos I took. About half way through the evening whilst I was minding my own business (as you do) I was befriended by a ten your old boy, who then bought a friend who bought five friends who bought along a few more mates too. You get the picture. Nipun and I thronged by ten year olds, all of them great fun and relishing the opportunity to practice English and gentle tease the Foreigners (me). It was really refreshing, they only wanted to chat and laugh. For example, Vishnu - the apparent menace of the class room - approached us and said “Hello, what is your good name?” (They say that a lot here.) We told him, asked about his to which he exclaimed something in Malayalam whilst laughing and then ran behind his mates. His friends too fell about laughing. I assumed he had said something a bit daring, rude or mischievous. It turns out that he was not that good at paying attention in English and that was all he knew how to say or understood and he had confessed as much to the other kids, evoking much mirth. To be fair, Vishnu got more abuse during the evening than I did. Nipun and I beat a retreat when we had about 30 vociferous children about us all cajoling for attention and creating a racket that was not unnoticed by old friend the bad tempered priest. I really wish I had taken some photos of this kids, they were great fun. Sadly though, coming from the UK anyone who points a camera at a child other than their own is a probable pervert and old habits die hard. Much to my retrospective regret the camera stayed in its bag.

The following morning we caught a passenger train (i.e. one size fits all, there is only one class which was great) to Alleppy where we stayed at Gowri Guest House and then embarked on an overnight boat trip on the backwaters. Again, this was fantastic and we had a wonderful trip. The house boats are quite expensive (worked out to about £60.00 for one night) but for your money you get the boat for 22 hours, a chef who would out cook Gordon Ramsey and two other crew hands to pamper you and ensure happy travels. So not bad value at all. At times the backwaters can seem a bit M25 like with house boats coming at you from all angles, but we had it good. In the high season there can be triple the amount of boats we saw and a house boat with set you back a whole lot more money.

The house boat was worth every penny for the sights along the way. Urban India can sometimes make you forget what a beautiful country it is and the boat allowed us the opportunity to kick back and relax, surrounded by water, country side, tranquillity (and beer).
We caught an overnight train (departed 0015) to Bangalore yesterday and went out briefly in the evening. Banglaore is modern (and expensive) and seems different to much of the India that we have seen so far with regards to it’s commercialism and consumerism. For example we ate KFC (just around the corner from McDonalds) and went to the very swish Rock Bar. The Rock Bar was ultra modern and trendy other than the fact that they played Bon Jovi DVD’s at us for the forty five minutes we were in there. It struck me that if ever there was a man that should not have a Superman tattoo on his arm, Jon Bon Jovi would be him. Poor Clark Kent.
And so it is farewell India. In a few minutes we will be on the bus to the airport and stage 2 of our trip will be upon us - Thailand

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