Monthly Archives: February 2012

Elephant fun in the Indian forest by Josie

While we were staying in Kerala, we went to see some elephants for a day. We took a tuk-tuk (who didn’t have a clue where he was going until he eventually asked for directions) to Elephant Junction where we decided to have a half an hour ride on two elephants around the whole park.

The first elephant that came along was a male (we could tell because of his massive tusks!) which Morgan and Mum went on.

Mog and Mum

Then a young girl elephant came along which me and Dad went on.

Josie and Dad

Me, Morgan and Dad thought the ride was AMAZING!!!!!!!

Mum on the other hand was completely terrified!!!

Once we got going Dad got out the camera to take some photos but before he could take one, we came to a halt as the elephant in front of us had stopped. We watched we waited until I whispered to Dad ” I think the elephant’s got a little bit of constipation!!!” Then plop… (you get the picture).

After our ride we fed our hungry elephants and got a very painful experience of fire ants as unfortunately me and Dad were the taste testers and were attacked!!!

Feeding her a watermelon

After a little show about elephant strength we went off to go and see them bath, (or so we thought). We followed the man to a shallow pool and the man said get undressed. Morgan was like yeah! I was like nooooo way!!! But he eventually got me undressed until I was only in my leggings then we went… scrubba scrubba dubba dubba scrubba dubba dub!!!!! As soon as we were told to get out me and Morgan thought let’s go get dry!

But it wasn’t over yet… The man asked who was going first and Morgan said me! Me! Me! Not knowing what was going to happen, so he got a boost on to the elephant’s back and said “what is going to…” SPLASH!!!!!!!! Before he could finish the sentence he got a nice cold shower out of an elephants nose and the same thing happened to me which I’m not going to explain but I will say this, you had to block your ears because I was shrieking with joy!!!

[Dad says: we have some videos… show you when we get home!]

By Josie!!!

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Roadtrip to Madurai: Temple City

“Travel is only glamorous in retrospect.”

Paul Theroux.

Several things were booked way in advance. For example, a place to stay, giving certainty on arrival in a new town. Thought let’s face it, when they have to resort to the name “Hotel Supreme”? As you pre-pay your booking, you wonder: is it going to be a minger? In the interests of mildest suspense, I shall tell you if it stank or if it rocked later on (as it is of no consequence to you whatsoever). I may resort to the word minging/minged/minger elsewhere in this post on an unrelated matter, so stay sharp.

We were really sad to leave the tranquility of the Tomichen homestay and wave bye-bye with misty eyes. A gentle 25minutes of tuk-tuking sees us in the town frontier town of Kumily. It’s only the frontier between two Indian states – as I’ve written before – but still gets it’s own (don’t) care-worn checkpoint barrier which I awkwardly limbo under to annoy the officials on duty. It doesn’t work as they are the very image of we’re-on-duty-and-we-couldn’t-care-less.

Nice staying with you!

It’s not long before we’re being hustled. About 20 seconds I’d say. The vibe in Tamil Nadu is noticebly different from minute one. After being messed around we return to board our bus for the 144km ride to Madurai.

The bus itself is worth a moment of sdescription. It’s not a museum piece as that would imply some form of notability. It’s certainly a scrapyard dodger whose best years were – at a guess – in the 1970s. Deciding it’s best not to think about it too much we climb aboard and meet India’s most surly bus conductor. (A coveted post for which the many thousands in his role are – it seems, I imagine – in fierce competition for.) He charges us 60IRP each plus an extra 8IRP for my bag because it won’t fit on the luggage shelf. 232IRP equates to £2.99 for all of us (and my bag) to travel almost 100miles. You can see the appeal of buses, no? Plus, if you squint it looks like a stunt vehicle from one of the post-apocolyptic Mad Max movies. Which is, er, nice.

Anyway, the vehicle carries no form of visual identification nor livery. It is 100% bereft of signage suggesting it’s destination and the conductor gives no commitment (as is the Indian wont). I am shouted at. And again. I pause and realise that it is my new task to stow my bag at the front of the bus. (Where’s the rack? Oh I see, you want me to wedge it between the front seat and the engine cover: why didn’t you say?) Before I can get back to my seat we set off down a “thrilling” mountain road. Within a few minutes one realises why the first few rows of seating are vacant: (cracked) widescreen 3D terror. We’ve cooked the brakes on the coach and drive’ is trying to engage a gear, any gear. Massive crunching noises ensue from the bowels of the behemoth. The bus gearbox is quite noisy too. Presently – nanoseconds before careering to a cliff-plunging doom – we discover the joys of engine braking and lurch into a more controlled descent retarding velocity from ludicrous to merely breakneck as the motor howls with the strain. We whizz past families of monkeys viewing from the kerbside – they love a good bus crash – and somehow avoid the heavy buese/trucks lumbering up the mountain. (I have video. But – as is oft the way – it seems undramatic and the soundtrack of my whimpering and sphincter squeaking seem incongruous. You had to be there.)
The switchbacks criss-cross some enormous water pipes. The fruits of a British engineering project in the late 1800s. A story that has all the hallmarks of colonialism and that became a personal mission for it’s engineer Major John Pennycuick. The contents of the piping feed the once barren Tamil Nadu interior and is causing political strife today. Within moments we are trundling across an agricultural landscape of rice, grapes, pineapples, coconuts – irrigated thanks to the good Major – fringed by the mountains that we were resident in the three nights previously. Mighty high they look and somehow mighty distant.

We hesitate randomly on the road for casual bus stopping and have more punctuated stops at town bus stations. There is a conistency with these facilities. They ming. [There it is!] How so? A) Because they are invariably strewn with rotting waste. B) They stink. Every time. They pong with shuddering, determined, eye-watering consistency of “poo and wee”. I asked Josie what defined an Indian bus stand and that was her instantaneous reply. A particularly piercing pungency that makes you instinctively want to douse your person in strong bathroom cleaning chemicals. Be thankful this blog isn’t scratch’n’sniff.

Ach, it’s only a smell and you typically move on within minutes, but the airborne taste lingers. Did I mention the bus was specified without the option of windows? (I mean glass, not Microsoft.) Drive’ switches off the motor at one stop and various passengers debus – ugh – to add to the minging fug. Suddenly, we’re off again leaving several passengers behind. Cue lots of shouting from their parties. In grumpy response we stop sharply and park around the corner. Presumably to teach those with weak bowels/bladders some sort of lesson. When all are present and correct we’re off again barrelling along in the increasingly hot late morning. Any thoughts of answering the call of nature are repressed, our legs firmly crossed. A succession of fellas sit next to me. (Women avoid sitting next to foreign men. Chaps are less shy.) They range from comically teeny – seemingly without the means to afford shoes – to barrel chested and affable.

The latter is in a kakhi uniform of sorts. We converse in pidgin English with good cheer. Memorably he says (adopts Goodness Gracious Me accent) “culture in India very nice, but watch for the many dirty fellows isn’t it?” Then he’s asleep. Like a hypnotist has put him under: click! Annnnd sleep. Then after a moment of profound snoring he wakes with a start and comical Tamil version of “whassat?” He smiles broadly and click! Gone again. This repeats for some kilometres with swaying and leaning his considerable bulk upon me until I get the giggles which – quite unintentionally – wakes him up. He smiles a broad smile and instantly nods off again.

Next time he wakes for longer than a moment and we converse further ending with my stunned, silent, blinking amazement as follows:

“What is your job then?”

[With cheery pride] “Long distance bus driver isn’t it?!”

Narcolepsy strikes: aaaaaaaaah

____________________________________

After much ado and a particularly meomorable incident with a hay-ldaen tractor (see youtube) we arrive in Madurai bus station where I promptly misplace my sense of humour. Zero signage, piercing heat, minging atmosphere, persistent touts and utter avoidance of response to our queries to locals humour exits stage left. Gilly to the rescue and we’re in a tuk-tuk and soon at Hotel Supreme where our reservations materialise.

Result.
Madurai is famed as the temple city and we spend time respectfully gawping at the main complex after dusk. Bats swoop and call, the devout make their prayers and the hot stone soaks warmth into our tired, bare feet. Ignoring the addtion of electric lighting – see below as it happens – one can easily imagine this place being as ever thus.

temple gate: 50m tall

It’s a huge place and tourist numbers here – though considerable – are dwarfed by the worshippers. The surrounding town – for me – has not changed since last I was here: it’s hot, dusty, crowded, pushy and just not very pleasant.

Hmmm. Madurai is in the crossfire of industrial action where the coal workers are witholding their product from the state power companies. This means frequent blackouts as the grid fails to cope with supply and demand. Shop keeper? No matter, have a small petrol generator outside your premises belching fumes to poison your customers inside. Hotel? Industrial gennie plumbed in and ready. Power or no, it’s a hot evening so we head to the rooftop terrace of the Supreme and take in the views of the towering temple gates (one per compass point) with a cold drink.

Meenakshi Temple Complex across the rooftops

(Nice weather back in the UK is it?) Tomorrow night is an overnight train ride 500km north Bangalore, so we go for the early night and the promise of a lie in.

This doesn’t go well in any respect. The final sob inducing straw is the pumping Indian pop music fed through a garage-door sized PA at dawn the next day following a trying night. I spy this cacophony from our decidedly dodgy, filthy, fifth-floor balcony. So we go for breakfast. It mings.

Actual Supreme table decoration

Hotel Supreme? Am considering the following TripAdvisor entry:

“An utter minger: avoid.”

Never mind, we’ve a rail journey to cheer ourselves up! I booked the seats in November 2011: what could possibly go wrong? Three sweaty visits to the railway station later… am getting nowhere. Now where did I put that sense of humour?

Kites circle the temple gates

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Leaving Kerala on high.

[Pre-warning: bit of a long one this, best put the kettle on.]

“A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world”

John Le Carre

I started a pre-set-off blog using that quote to make a point about perspective. Yet a writer should have a desk, no? Aspirational Sunday supplements oft carry pictures of authors writing spaces for us plebs to ponder, appreciate. So on this occasion, dear reader of blog, I shall describe “my” desk. In terms of furniture, it’s a fairly sorry piece of rough sawn timber and bamboo: unevenly topped, slightly wobbly. However, as Phil & Kirstie have built an entire TV career on it there must be something to be said for location, location, location.

"My" desk

Perched at an altitude of 1600m (near 4,800ft) on the trailing (eastern edge) of the Western Ghats range the desk overlooks the Blue Mountains. In the distance – it’s not long after dawn – the lumpy outlines of the Peryiar wildlife preserve are becoming more sharply defined by the minute as the morning haze lazily burns away.

A stitched panorama of that view

There are some 40 tigers in them thar hills, wild heffalumps and other protected/rare species.
Afore you gasp for fear of us Beers becoming big cat breakfast, rest easy. We are protected by the natural barrier of a great valley that forms the eastern most spur of the Indian state Tamil Nadu. When I think “state border” my imagination runs to conflict and squabbles. The cold war Checkpoint Charlie, Hadrian’s Wall, North vs South Korean soldiers facing each other down. The fence around the garden of our homestay is the Kerala/Tamil Nadu state border and our lookout tower is a (magnificent) treehouse. No machine guns, no searchlights. Missions to the “other side” involve nothing more than opening a garden gate. (If only someone had told me, I spent ages furtively digging down below in the night before finally going commando across no-man’s-land. But that’s another story Mrs Beer might tell you about.)
So opening this gate takes you onto Government (common) land and to a precipice. No thoughts of tossing off here though – better sleeping arrangements as hinted – because it’s a lonnnng way down to the coconut, rice and teak plantations (over 1000m/3,000ft) below. It was the late 1800s when British forebears created Lake Peryiar and diverted it’s outflow into the previously parched hinterland of Tamil Nadu. Now in the 21st century the Tamils and Keralans are still a little brusque with each other (he says with understatement). No matter, this magnificent viewpoint shows a plentiful agricultural landscape.
But this splendid outlook is not the only lush, green view. By dint of tremendous planning skills/sheer luck we have landed at the Indian equivalent of Colin Creese’ domain. For those of you not fortunate to know Col’ let me summarise by saying that he has both vision and energy in gardening. Take it from me that the following are direct parallels to his Worcestershire exploits: a Keralan doppleganger if you will.

[Correct and proper reading instructions for those outside the Creese circle: the following is so jaw droppingly similar to Ashbee – the Creese abode – that it will cause an OMG! reaction. If you do not know Col’ Creese and wish to replicate this feeling, read the next section with your mouth agape – jaw swinging in that breeze – and gently gasp in amazement at every point.]
Thomas Tomichen is a gentlemen of agri-business. His entire family moved up here from the Keralan lowlands in the second half of the 20th century to settle. He has an acre or two of (spice) garden and his main business is cultivating organic pepper and cardamon with local farmers (which somehow happens whilst he is at home). He has developed a beautifully laid out, yet unfussy, natural feeling garden. There are veg plots near the house, fruit trees including banana and papaya. He enlists me to catch Papayas he dislodges ripe from some trees. Pineapple plants here and there counterpoint numerous ornamental shrubs. Potted plants, ankle-height hedge borders and pathes punctuate teak, rosewood and other hardwood trees. All of this outrageously healthy foliage in hills where your daily cuppa comes from: this is tea country.
So to take the in-laws parallels further, Thomas takes in paying guests at the family run Manyath Heritage Homestay He then offers them excellent food – mainly prepared by Mrs Tomichen – and their own home-made passionfruit liqueurs, home-made (pine)apple squash and rustic yet delightful Keralan fayre. Eggs come from his own chickens. The kitchen has some strange labour saving/cooking devices languishing in the cupboards that surely are never used. They are into alternative (Ayurvedic) remedies – we discover on a guided walk – holding strong opinions on genetically modified crops. We spot a deer just outside the garden. He even drives around in a suitably rustic 4×4.
So with country walk out of the back gate and a large garden to relax in we’ve stumbled upon a little slice of hill country heaven here in Kerala which is oddly, incredibly familiar… Within minutes of arriving, Morgan was swinging in the hammock singing loudly a song of his own creation for no other reason than sheer joy. Gilly wore the broadest smile, as did I. Josie had legged it up to the treehouse with Super-Rosie (teddy bear shaped defender of all things good). So immediate was her delight she may also have been spontaneously skipping. Our lodgings are a 140 year old teak lodge. Simple, with a steeply pitched tile roof, wide shady porch placed out amongst the trees and shrubs. Peaceful and private.
Col & Jen: when you come to India come here, you’ll feel right at home. They even have a pet mongrel called Maxie! That’s a lie. Were it true I’d’ve not bat an eyelid.
[Note to non-knowers of the Creese clan: you may close you jaw now, please check for ingested flies as you do so.]
It’s a noisy quiet place though. It bothered me as I found sleep last night. We are so used to processed nature and commanding sounds in the UK with our double glazing, 7.1 surround sounds and so forth. I smile as the penny drops that the “full Dolby” of sound effects here are simply nature’s high-jungle soundtrack. Crickets, goats, chickens, pigs at ground level. In the trees calling hornbills – bringer of rain apparently, none yet though – and fast moving dog-fights of swiftlets cheeping at each other on the wing.
Breakfast is coconut and flour cakes with a curried peanut salad. Well, I enjoyed it. Served with a cuppa to our thatched veranda. Pretty soon we’re bouncing down the road to a state aided primary school whose morning – as far as I can gather – we’ll be crashing. The family is Malabar Syrian Christians and so is the school which was built in 1967. They take our distracting arrival with good grace and pretty soon Teacher Beer and the kids are presenting to class. It goes well, smiles all round and minor pandemonium as we leave. Similar in intensity to a X-factor runner-up arriving at a UK facility I imagine. (Although they would definitely fail a CRB check on account of being fame-seeking-gits and be banished to a far away place for simply wanting to be famous. I live in hope.)
I’m not finished with Kerala by any means, but the consistency of being welcomes and people with ready, genuine smiles is endlessly refreshing and I’ll wager an enduring memory in the making. What a contrast to, say, a wealthy farmer in Wiltshire.
Historically, this area was even more sparsely populated than it is now. But following independence and wars (one with Pakistan) India was poor. Government encouraged families to up sticks and settle where they could sustain themselves and produce surplus foods. Politically also, this was a Tamil area and the authorities – rightly or wrongly – wanted to address this by migrants from the Keralan lowlands. It must have been tough going for all back in the day. It’s no picnic for many folk now, but communications links (road, phone & web) are hauling the new century up into the hills making life easier. Roads bring tourists – following in the long distant footsteps of the British colonialists escaping the heat of the plains – and catering for tourism is less toil than digging a ditch. So it is we find neglected fields where it’s no longer appealing nor economically viable to farm. In one high plateau there’s an expanding tract of wasted land ready for compulsory purchase. Here the “vision” is for a “small airport” within the next decade. Thus India is changing: what price progress?
Ooh dear, I feel a dreadful narrow western view coming on here, bear with me. Much of the India that I have travelled – a small percentage, let’s remind ourslves – is best viewed with the lense focused on the near distance. Close up shots reveal details which can jar one’s sensibilities: raw sewage, poverty, unsafe construction, corruption. The daily press here are filled with stories on these topics. (Sounds like home, eh?) Set your focus slightly futher out and the richness of the picture is often deeply moving. Here in the hills it is simply mesmerising.
Our final full day in Kerala is a morning of an elephant ride for the kids (of all ages). As people have domesticated the lands, so the elephants have become marginalised. The Periyar sanctuary (among others) is the last haven of the wild elephant in the south. To villagers and farmers the elephant has become a heavyweight pest. No longer are they required to do the heavy lifting as earth/rock/lumber moving kit is now freely available: paciderms replaced by JCBs: unemployment is rife. So the beasts we encounter are part of a jolly circus that seems them fed, bathed and – kind of – employed. Are we there because of them? Yes. Are they there because of us? Probably. What else do you do with tonnes of mammal when nobody wants them on their land? Elephants eat 350kg of greens a day and need 250litres of water. You’d soon tire of them munching upon your hard won crops. Their mahoots? They’d be wiating for fares at the tuk-tuk stand. It leaves you feeling uneasy. J&M however have no such qualms: they are exstatic to play with real elephants.
We check out the bus departures from Kumily – you should see Gilly’s face at the, er, quality of public transport on offer – and note that it’s like a ghost town. More politics: there’s a strike due to the tensions with Tamil Nadu and most businesses are closed. Perhaps a good excuse for a day off. There’s a counter-weighted border barrier on the edge of town signalling the start of Tamil Nadu. In a typically Indian way we walk around it unhindered to the bus stand.

Unburdened by any new information by the denziens of Tamil coach travel we pause to watch cheeky monkeys scurrying through the emptying newly arrived bus from Madurai for scraps to eat. In the utter absence of help from officialdom we ask some newly arrived back-packers how the ride up was. They say “no big deal.” Gilly’s face says otherwise. We’ll find out in the morning who’s right.

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Nanni India! (Thank you India!) by Gilly

Nanni India! (Thank you India!) 

Yes folks, “nanni” is the only word we have mastered whilst in India which is somewhat of an embarrassment, as even the youngest of children here can speak a few words of English and so many we have met are perfectly fluent! The difficulty lies in the fact that there are so many different languages spoken here, we have encountered both Hindi and Malayalam (Nanni is Malayalam: there is no such thing as Indian when it comes to the spoken word.)

Here we are, at the end of our amazing trip to India. All is well and my worrying is finally subsiding. In fact my only worries have been; the kids getting car sick in the taxi up the mountains, a few mosquito bites, some minor heat rash and the crazy traffic!

Delhi was a manic but fascinating place to start our trip, so many people everywhere and so much going on, a complete attack of the senses in every direction. What surprised me was the lack of begging and pestering which I had anticipated. Also, proper flushing loos and loo paper!! (I’m sure all those tissues I packed will come in useful another time). The Indian people are incredibly friendly, happy and kind, especially to the kids who got lots of attention along with Rosie and George (the kids cuddly toys). Morgan was very patient with all the hand shaking and hair ruffling he received! (Catch his blog later about the celebrity status he encountered).  He was not so keen when one very friendly lady wanted to take him home with her and kissed him on the cheek!

In Kerela, the temperature was the only thing that I struggled with, as every day it was 30C plus! This added to the worry factor, as Morgan kept getting heat rash as soon as his lovely pale skin saw the sun. Helpfully, on arriving in Alleppey, Mr B insisted on walking around to explore and get to know the area (only mad dogs and Welshmen go out in the midday sun). He assured me that this was a good way of burning off the kids energy (burning being the operative word here, hence the heat rash). I kept getting flashbacks of my childhood when my Dad would take us walking on our holidays and his encouraging mantra would always be; “Not much further now!” as we plodded on and on and on……..
Needless to say, after that, we have stayed out of the sun as much as possible and Granny Pat will be happy to learn that I have bought a brolly for the sun, as this is what most of the locals carry to stay in the shade.

In his favour though, Mr B has been an absolute star in putting up with my slightly tetchy behaviour when arriving in every new place that we get to. A terrible trait of mine is taking at least several hours to adjust to a new location. Once I have sorted the room, had a shower and made the place feel like ours I start to relax a little, unlike the kids who seem to be able to adjust immediately and throw themselves into every new situation with gusto! They have been fantastic and we have been amazed at their stamina and energy.

Mr B has also done a fantasic job of organising and planning out everything meticulously which has made the trip run smoothly and is helping to reduce my worry levels dramatically.

The food has been great with a suprising amount of variety and choice which has pleased the kids no end, as they are not great with anything more spicy than a pepperoni pizza! Saying that, they have both been great at trying new things, especially at the Homestay in the mountains, the Manayath Heritage Residence, where we were the only guests and had our meals cooked for us. Once prepared, the family then stood and watched us eat (no pressure kids)! As this was the only meal they were getting, they had to give it a go! Morgan has now decided that he loves fish which is a major culinary breakthrough!

This particular Homestay in the mountains was an absolute haven (as I am sure Mr B will describe in much better prose than myself). One of the highlights for me was visiting a small local, rural primary school.

Footwear outside class please children!

Presenting Ogbourne to Kerala

They had never had European visitors before and rarely even saw white folk like us (we are particularly pale let us not forget)!! On arrival, we caused quite a commotion and I was slightly concerned that we had completely disrupted the mornings’ education. However, they were delighted to meet us, especially Morgan and Josie who stood at the front of the class and told them about our little school in Ogbourne St George. Josie had prepared a presentation on the laptop with some photos which the children found fascinating. There was only one teacher who spoke a little English and the others spent most of the time giggling shyly and taking photos on their phones.When we left, all the kids rushed to the door to shake our hands and wave goodbye. A great experience and one we will always remember.

All in all India has done us proud and we have loved it!!

And finally, for all cynics out there… no Delhi Belly!

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Driving in India: a handy Highway Code digest

With warm affection.

(Government of India: I knocked this up after a traumatising trip in a tuk-tuk, refined it following 100k in a taxi and edited following 150k on a bus. I then threw in reflections on being here 18 years ago and watched a repeat of the Top Gear India special. I’ve left it random for you to have some creative input in prioritising/grouping etcetera. I have avoided images as they may be too terrifying. Feel free to cut and paste the whole thing into officialdom because, really, no one seems to have a clue out there.)

  • Always drive on the left
  • Well, notionally make an effort to.
  • If it suits.
  • Give way to the biggest vehicle but only at the last possible moment. (Experiment suggestion for self: wait at an urban crossroads for 2 “Fast Passenger” buses to see what happens.)
  • In general: Biggest vehicle wins. Got a sea-container on the trailer of your rig? Got air-horns? You rule. Simple as. Go find a cross-roads.
  • The horn. If your vehicle has one, use it use it use it. The horn is an indication of presence. The horn is a request to move over. The horn is sounded to say “I am passing on the left or the right or I am not stopping or look out here I come or none of the above.” So stay sharp.
  • If you’ve got a kick ass air-horn and a bus, go crossroad hunting.
  • Motorcyclists always… no. NEVER… no. Ah, I’ve got it: There are helmets on the market folks, feel free to purchase. But as for any other form of even rudimentary safety gear? What’s the point? It’s way to hot to wear shoes let alone gloves. Leathers? Haha, my leg you are pull isn’t-it?
  • After dark: Turn your lights on unless you don’t have any or they are broken. In any case just carry on as normal. Maybe use the force if you’re a Jedi. Otherwise, make peace with your deity of choice and go for it. What’s the worst that can happen with everyone careering around in the pitch black at speed?
  • Vehicle ornaments such as turn indicators wear out if you use them. I mean, look at the number of popped (or possibly deliberately disconnected) brake lights. Bulbs are expensive, so it’s pointless wearing them out willy-nilly. If you see a fellow road goer employing signal-lighting ignore them as they need to get the message that using them is a waste of good light bulbs. How else are they going to learn?
  • Park just where-ever the hell you want.
  • The wrong way down dual carriageways (with paying customers aboard your cycle rickshaw) is just fine. Let the oncoming cars, vans, buses and trucks deal with it, you’re a busy man.
  • When learning to drive in an appropriately garish liveried vehicle, do so at an exaggerated slow-mo pace as if there was a deadly spike emanating from the centre of the steering wheel sticking in your throat and you have no seat belt.
  • When you are through the learning phase, forget anything you may have been taught and go for it.
  • Drive an enormous mid-20th-century rigid-chassis lorry? Overtaking without checking who’s alongside? This is dandy because hey! You’re A TRUCK.
  • Truckers: Nice religious liveries on those wagons guys: psychedelic primary colours rock. Great – presumably 100% ironic – use of safety legends such as “STOP” on the rear. If you drive one of these monsters, please do so with a wild (quite possibly chemically induced) 500mile stare. Make sure your truck is cartoonishly overloaded with inadequate load securing devices more suitable for decoratively securing Christmas pressies. Also, have a mechanic/acquaintance/vagrant aboard. It just seems sensible somehow to have a cab-based chum.
  • Long distance overnight heavy goods/passenger vehicle driving: Before you drive, fail to get adequate rest. Perhaps consider over-loading your antique, zero maintained vehicle yourself in the heat of the day and then set off at bedtime having little to eat. Take drugs. (The 500mile stare starting to make sense now.)
  • Notes on having a massive truck accident during the hours of darkness. For instance: something which tears the axles out from under the vehicle and sends it tipping over into the oncoming carriageway. As you awake from your slumber and hopelessly attempt to correct the doomed trajectory of your behemoth, ensure this violent overcorrection leads to fishtailing and – thanks to your poor grip on the term “overly high centre of gravity” – certain partial, or even total inversion. This inevitable wreckage can be pre-enhanced by carrying a load of suitably dramatic character if scattered upon the highway. Terracotta roofing tiles (X several thousand) are an ideal choice: they make a visually exciting redish scar on the road and entail quite of bit of dust. Driver and mate: wait by your truck doing nothing following your smash. This serves as a message to other road users as daylight fills the scene and other accidents you caused/road users you’ve collected by being an unlit hazard act as poignant accessories to your misfortune. (See the points of lighting above.) Again, stay close by – sitting in a shady spot under the split gearbox casing for example – particularly if you are traumatised, don’t know what to tell the gaffer, or are by some miracle perfectly fine. Or dead.
  • Notes on having a minor road accident: no real cast iron advice except block the carriageway and draw a crowd. Even if it’s just a scratch.
  • Other road users. Gawp hopelessly at the scene of a juicy accident and then once by go like the clappers as if it could never, ever happen to you. (This is the standard in Europe, should be fine here too.)
  • Fast Passenger bus drivers. Although you are using the very same roads as everyone else, the clue is in the title. It’s not the notion that you leave the local buses to pull over and pick up at every bus stop. No-siree. Your role is to get your passengers there FAST. I look forwad to seeing you at a crossroads.
  • Ordinary Passenger bus drivers. Look man, it’s not that you’re a nobody. You’re SPECIAL. [We love you, don’t we guys? Right?] It’s just that you’re not a Fast Passenger pilot. Why not vent your frustration by overtaking other motorists in an ill-advised that’s-why-we’re-all-going slowly moment – say, in a crowded village during a festival with kids everywhere – and then pulling in at the next bus stop 25metres later. Repeat.
  • Bus drivers travelling down switch-back, mountain inclines with laughable safety infrastructure: treat it like a gravity challenge. Take the 1950s Ashok Leyland out of gear and let the good times roll! Or at least until you’ve cooked your brakes – that’s what that smell is along with that middle pedal gone all floppy – and then kerrrruuuunch it into gear whilst trying not to hit anything. There, you’re a natural. (Those broken bits of armco lining the precipice with skid-marks leading up them? Try to blank them out.)
  • If you are the driver of a “Fast Passenger” bus and you see a bald white guy waiting near a crossroads try not to think about what he’s doing there.
  • New small car owners. Sweet ride maaaan. Way to use that horn!
  • Taxi drivers. Make a fuss about the extra cost of AC with sweaty, wimpish Westerners aboard. They will pay ANYTHING for you to press that button and you can be rich beyond your wildest dreams. SO FOR THE LOVE OF YOUR CHOSEN DEITY, TURN THE DARN AC UP!
  • Tourist taxis (I mean YOU: Minibuses, MPVs, 4X4s and Executive Germanic cars): Blast that horn and whisk your occupants past the real India on every occasion. Deliver your fare efficiently chilled to their next pre-arranged, packaged tourist jaunt so they learn NOTHING about the people of the country they are visiting.
  • Got a vehicle with no lights but a loud horn? Nightime? Woo-hoo!
  • Drivers: Make NO EYE CONTACT. Nada. Zip. Zero. This rule is non-negotiable.
  • Kerala Passengers: Give an expansive friendly wave and smile madly at blonde western kids making them feel special.
  • Horns: Please choose from the following list:
  1. Goose farting in the fog
  2. Deafening
  3. Shrill
  4. Painful
  5. Ear-splitting
  6. Annoying
  7. Multi-note-but-somehow-not-tuneful
  8. Heart-attack inducing
  • Tuk-tuk Drivers: only know where the hell you are going in your own town about 30% of the time. (Stop and ask 2 or 3 equally clueless people before having your paying passenger point out the way.) Charge wildly varying prices for exactly the same journey. Hassle tourists when they are obviously enjoying a stroll then disappear when they’re pooped and want a ride home.
  • Broken tuk-tuk? Roll over onto its side and bash with a hammer. There: you fixed it!
  • Other maintenance: Optional. Road worthiness is a state of mind surely?
  • Bicycles: with only one tough gear on your almost Victorian Hero brand steed. To make progress take it slow and stately. No braking now, you have earned that meagre momentum. Appear utterly unflustered at anything else in this ‘Code. You rock and you know it. Big respec’ [thumps chest as if down with the kids].
  • Pedestrians? Best of luck.
  • Late middle aged pedestrians crossing national highways buzzing with cars, trucks and buses: Step off the curb into the oncoming traffic without looking. Make this apparently deliberate move stick by ignoring the horn/tyre screeching cacophony and repeating on the other carriageway. (Apparently a gender specific rule, or maybe men don’t cross roads in daylight cos it’s too sissy.)
  • Road signs: Optional. Where used, ignore. For example: Speed limits, STOP, Children Playing. It’s sweet that someone installed them and all, but they just aren’t relevant with so many other things to consider.
  • Safety Signage: on mountain roads, garnish the shoulders of the road with occasional rhyming advice. “Speed thrills, but also kills!” or “Watch the road, distracting view!” and “Stop driving like that, you utter….”
  • Traffic lights: Avoid. If encountered treat with suspicion and/or disdain.
  • Dealing with inclines: Do not change down a gear when clearly going too slowly for, say, 4th. Chug-chug-chug. Hoppity-hop. Stutter. There, you’re off again! (Would have been pointless swapping cogs.)
  • Potholes deserve your respect. They are world class open-cast depressions excavated by the Gods and you should traverse them accordingly. With reverence and mechanical sympathy (but without changing down from top gear. See above). Failing that, not slowing at all and simply swerving into the path of oncoming vehicles to avoid the hazard is fine too. (Side note to all Indian motorists: you are equipped to traverse the surface of the moon if the Indian Space Agency so chooses to go there. Your Moon-Rover CV credentials are in advance of anyone else on earth.)
  • Speed bumps: slow down* to 0.07mph and – ooooh – ease yourself over that fella as if you have the worst case of piles east of the Suez canal. Then chug-chug-chug up to speed again.

* Unless you’re on a motorbike, in which cane it.

  • Young buck motorcyclists: get your speed up, get your stance right, tip the ‘bike into the turn and take the racing line. No prisoners, maximum attack, qualifying lap commitment. Valentino Rossi is a two-wheel hero and you can be too. Although most likely posthumously in your case as unsighted crossroads with no apparent traffic control can’t have the greatest long term survival odds now can they?
  • Overtaking. In general? Go for it. Sure, just pull out. There’s nothing that could happen that you can’t sort out mid manoeuvre. Probably. And if it is starting to go pear shaped? For example: blind bend, you pull out, bend tightens and there’s an overladen, ill maintained bus coming the other way on a loose surface? Best carry on your intention as if they weren’t there. But do blow the horn as if it’s all their fault. Make no facial expressions nor vocal indication of it being a closer shave than a seventeen-blade razor. Steely eyed determination is the look you’re going for here. Besides, your Western (paying) passengers are making enough noise for everyone. Learn nothing from the experience, you’re alive right? So what’s to learn other than it’s an approach that works.
  • Overtaking an overtaker: See above.
  • Road rage: doesn’t happen in India, so let us not concern ourselves with it.
  • Mobile phone usage? Yes. (All telephone functionality permissable.) Additional for taxis: that call might be important, better answer deapite the prevailing traffic conditions.
  • Traffic hold ups: See overtaking. IE: Just go for it. Then, when you are inevitably toe-to-toe with an oncoming driver at walking pace and have effectively gridlocked the road, elbow your way in to a gap that isn’t there. (See No eye-contact & horn usage above.)
  • Animals: Lots of? Check. Look, a cow! A herd of goats. Monkeys. All over the carriageway. Your point is?
  • Delivery-spec plastic coverings on car seats are to be left in place in 30C+ heat.
  • Panel repairs are to be completed by the under-threes using papier-mache. (Apparently.)
  • All of the above is entirely optional.

To be continued (as India’s break-neck drive [sic] into the 21st century gathers inexorable momentum). Am awaiting the call to formally pen the Highway Code for our friends at the Indian Department of Transport.

Yours, waiting with sandwiches by the phone.

No, really I am. You need to sort this out.

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Alleppey & the road to the Hills.

David Hasselhof? Move over. We have Bay of Bengal watch here. Just about the coolest dude you could ever meet in a uniform – hat, shirt, shades, a slim shapely trouser & matching flip-flops in 36C heat – overseeing the safety of bathers on the shore in Alleppey. Total number of bathers? Two. In truth was simply too hot to spend time on the beach and this seemed to be borne out by the utter lack of locals. Pristine, palm fringed beach, shining sea, yet plenty of space to put your towel down. Even the sand crabs – which are mighty quick movers – seemed keen to get out of the sun, burying themselves in a jiffy. Mad dogs and Englishmen…

The Indian Mr Hasselhof in firm charge.

We retire to the shade of a local bar and find out more about our location. Alleppey was the premier port for the coir industry from the 1860s. The canals were dug to bring the product from the fields to the processing plants and on to the waiting ships. A British Captain – I’m imagining an impressive moustache here – drove the whole enterprise with the vision to construct a three-tracked railhead at a metal pier. The pier and docking offices stand decrepit and morose even under the blazing Keralan sun. The pier looks like a smaller version of the wrecked one in Brighton, but this one was only ever for industry. In 1920, Cochin outstripped Alleppey and that was that.

Former glory

Which brings us to the water babes who when they see a sea just want to fling themselves in it. I suppose in a similar way that when I see a nice pier I want to run to the end and toss myself off into the sparkling ocean. (Chaps: I think you know what I’m talking about.) Whilst I am a strong swimmer, caution is uppermost of the undertow that a fierce beach break can conceal. The men of ‘Baywatch won’t have a bit of it: get in there kids. Cool.
Alleppey on a Saturday evening equates to bustling turned up to eleven on the dial. “Even madder than Delhi” pipes up daughter as we forge through the cheery throng, son shaking hands with local chaps as he walks point. I manage not to buy spices despite their beauty (aromas and displays) as the mission is dinner. Malabar fish curry, tandoori fish, veggie rice & noodles, parotha washed down with fresh lime sodas, ice creams: clean plates all round. £9 well spent.

The most bustling of bustling places was a joint that seemingly all the young men in Kerala were trying to get a piece of. From a distance it seemed like a throng of folks clamouring to get a glimpse of a rock star. A little nearer and it had the feel of a mob or a swarm. Up close, just visible through the crowd, a shabby, metal caged, state-run shack. Behold the off-licence. Booze is not so easy to come by here and clearly a Saturday night thirst is too much to bear. How we laughed, tutted a little and shook our heads at their folly: Drink, eh? Who needs it? Then, how we were curiously parched when we got back to our homestay. Our host then played a blinder by rustling up a biiiig bottle of Kingfisher. [Uuuurrrp.]

Slept well and failed to rise early as our room was cool (a plus) and windowless (also a plus on this occasion). Time to bid farewell to the bashfully helpful Ashtamudi Homestay and take a ride up to the hills. We’re talking a mere 100k here in a new Mahindra/Renault.

It took six hours. (Welcome to India Gilly.)

No, not car trouble nor an accident. Partly due to car-sick kids – STOP THE CAR! – and partly due to an indirect, narrow road infrastructure with the odd diversion thrown in. But mainly due to it being a holy day with roads gridlocked by people let alone cars. Such is the diversity of religions and sub-sects that there’s always a “do” happening somewhere. If you’re on the road you’ll get caught up in one sooner or later in a way that is utterly alien to us Brits. Today? A festival in the name of Shiva: legions of bright colours, pulsing drums, ornate umbrellas, thrilled children (day off school: yay!), precision dancing, whole communities in procession. At the tail of this carnival – blink and you’d miss it – were a clutch of chaps arm in arm with a stout metal wire threading them together piercing their cheeks between upper and lower jaw. Blink again, shake your head and begin to question if you’d just made the whole thing up.

The second encounter was in the centre of a more populous hill village which shut the road. The boys bailed out to get a closer look at the festivities and made their way through the throng to the centre of the action. This thrilling, chance encounter saw Morgan bagging his first elephant sighting (which was a great moment for his Dad too). The mighty beast was bejeweled and painted with an elaborate head-dress. Riding the pachyderm on a platform shaded by another ornate umbrella were several youngsters. Focus on the animal distracts us from the people. Then we see the men with their cheeks and lips pieced with skewers. As if to emphasise the point they have halves of fresh limes kebabing their faces and seem to be almost delirious in a frenzied dance. (Video to follow when I can get bandwidth for uploading to YooToob.)

To this non believer it was a powerful symbol of religious fervour, with the energy in the crowd frankly disturbing. The girls in our party? Grumpily they bathed in the air-conditioned car whilst Mog and I gawped at the spectacle. (You snooze, you lose.) What seemed like minutes turned out to be nearly an hour. (Note to bald, Welsh self: wear a hat as sunburn flippin’ hurts.)
Pretty much your typical Monday morning drive in the hills of southern India.

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Relaxing River Rides by Morgan

We started by leaving the homestay in Kochi by taxi. After a long time in the taxi we finally arrived at the house boat.

We were on a houseboat just like this one

On the house boat my favourite thing was stroking the geckos when they were eating the bugs.

He was eating all the little bugs on the ceiling

I also liked fishing with the Indian men who worked on the boat. One of them was called Morgan! (Morhan)

We made fishing rods and went fishing

can you see the little fish we caught?

Dinner on our houseboat: Keralan traditional food yum!

This is a river taxi with lots of customers!

 

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Crazy Coconuts in Cochin by Josie

We stayed at Fort Kochi for two nights at Good Karma Homestay. On one of the days we went on a ferry (small one) and it only cost us 3p each (2 rupees).  When we got off the ferry we walked past a stall crowded with lots of locals. When we finally pushed through the crowd (it wasn’t easy) we saw a man next to a big pile of coconuts!!!

Can you spot George?

I chose a big green coconut and gave it to the man and first he chiseled a small hole in it and then stuck in a straw. He passed it back to me, I didn’t really like it (unlike Dad who drank it for me!)

Dad drinking coconut milk

When there was no juice left in it we gave it back to the man who then chopped the coconut in half to reveal white squidgy coconut flesh then he chopped off a bit of coconut shell and  gave it to us as a spoon!!!

Check out the freshly made spoon!

Eating the tasty coconut flesh: yum!

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Kerela, Socialism, Houseboats & Tourists

Another day, another chunk of the sub-continent. Where exactly is Kerela? Think of the map of India and imagine we are at the bottom left of the inverted triangle. The port of Kochi/Cochin to be precise as we bounce onto the tarmac on a packed Jet Airways 737. We de-plane – why this non-word is beyond everyone I ask – to the insistent embrace of humid tropical heat which grips tighter as we meander (nicely un-shephered) across the apron to the terminal. We are cheerfully greeted by Mr Taxi – immense relief on my part as BeerTours sole operative in this or any other latitude – and consider mini-cab mutiny when he is even slightly reticent with the AC. We’re dead ‘ard us Beers.

When you are your own tour company, it’s a twitchy business. (Thanks for the nod Tim, will be reading Twitchiker soon.) The family are all smiles and expectant: “ooh, what’s next?” Whilst I am fretting madly… will the pick-up be there? Will it be a pants place to stay? Hope the food is okay. What if they hate it? Am in need of un-hitching this anxiety wagon as it stops me sleeping. When I do, I have a dream about a version of Tripadvisor on the narrowest of demographics. IE: where spouse and offspring get to rate the experiences provided by BeerTours and I get the stocks if it’s less than 5-stars wall-to-wall. (We won’t be taking the BeerTours brand public for obvious reasons. Maybe DadTours instead? No, oddly specific and somewhat creepy.) A longer term project there I fear.

More immediately, it’s now a few days into the (near) tropics and I can report that I am utterly failing to get used to the heat in a particularly Welsh, slightly ginger yet manful kind of way. I am, unfortunately, coping only marginally better than Mrs B who really is tetch-tastic. Wipe that tear from your eye at the back there, we don’t want your sympathy.

Presently I am failing to get used to the climate on the foredeck of a houseboat surround by noises of crickets chirruping, locals chit-chatting, birdies singing, frogs croaking, the ubiquitous mini-petrol-generator chuntering and of our nice boat captain who keeps trying to chit-chat to me. The latter is sweet, lovely and all, but makes it difficult to marshal my writing thoughts. In any case, we don’t get very far due to my linguistic hopelessness. Bah. Where were we? Ah yes… Dinner was a hit with all concerned. Happy consumption of South Kerelan fayre by all in the party is quite a result with recent convert Master Beer tucking in with gusto. Still, a day of lounging on a converted riceboat watching the Alleppey backwaters glide by is a tiring business. (Oh and Josie Beer is well in the digestive department as-are-we-all-thanks-for-asking.)

Guide books tell us all sorts about Kommunist Kerela: it’s highly literate, socialist, pretty dry (booze wise), blessed with a splendid climate. It’s India after a well earned afternoon snooze: a little more chilled, always happy to stop and say hello. Both J&M are slipping into their “Hello… I’m fine… My name is… You are?… Nice to meet you” role with such aplomb it brings a paternal tear to the eye just writing about it.

Prior to our water borne escapade we spent a couple of days in Fort Cochin: a peculiar, crumbling historical mish-mash of colonial Portuguese, Dutch, Oriental, Syrian Christian, Jewish & British. Last time I was here we stayed with an ex-pat tea taster.

Sunset at the Chinese fishing nets

Much of the place remains true to my memories. This time it’s a “homestay” or as we Brits might refer to it, a B&B. It’s decor is functional – he says politely – and has wi-fi! So we Skype the Welsh Beers who can’t quite believe it. Sample of conversation [alt+tab to Gavin & Stacey mode]: Eggs for breakfast you say?! Dew-dew, tidy isn’t it? (We are taking photos of EVERYTHING as requested by Aunty Sue.) Outside the gates of “Good Karma” we find many more tourists per capita than Delhi and accordingly businesses are geared around them. We avoid the sight seeing boats and stick to the local ferry because it’s “more authentic.” (A white lie. Yet at 4p per person return, it’s worth a fib.) Iconic Chinese fishing nets are spied, freshly-juiced pineapples quaffed, heads are waggled and tuk-tuks are haggled with. Despite developed tourism, budgets still go a long way in this part of the world.

Easy on the budget until you board a houseboat as they see you coming. The houseboat industry is the preserve of sharply intentioned young men it seems out to make money from their customers: a fine example of capitalism in a socialist land with no shortage of punters. It’s referred to in some quarters as the “most expensive thing you’ll do in India” and so it proves. At one point I counted a regatta – fifty! – of these iconically styled craft and was saddened to note that they were beginning to equip them with car horns for use as per the highways of this land. The beeping could easily detract from the chilled ambience…

That said, the backwater experience is on the Lonely Planet global Top 10 for a reason: it’s magic. The bird life is abundant both on the water and in the trees: terns, kingfishers, darters, eagles, cormorants… Village life is on display too with locals all but ignoring the tourists gliding by. (Although when they spot J&M we get dazzling smiles, cheery waves and hellos.) The rich, (cowin) lush impossibly green fields, coconut laden palms and water hyacinth. The latter – aka Nile Cabbage/African Moss – looks delightful but is clogging up the smaller waterways alarmingly. Our photos don’t do the overall splendour justice – they hardly ever do, do they? – but the residual feeling remains. It’s a lovely glow. Shan’t write any further on the place as others with a more eloquent turn have already. I’ll close by saying that I missed out in 1994 and am delighted to have the opportunity to go back. You should drop by if you’re passing.

A houseboat, yesterday.

As I may have already said, we were advised to travel as if we would never be back this way again. This potential wanton recklessness is difficult to resolve against typically more cost concious habits. (Tightwad? Moi?!) I have pondered how we’ll get on. We had dinner in Fort Cochin for 4 at a total of around twelve quid. Josie was visibly guilty at ordering the most expensive dish by a factor of three. Woo-hoo: way to go, Idaho. Boy can we spend. Talking of which, we’re faced with a journey from the backwater country across the narrow plains and up into the Western Ghats in a day or two. Direct, air-conditioned, easy-peasy taxi? 3,000IRP. Ferry boat and bus for the same journey? 600IRP. Do we pay five times the price and miss out on the local thing? Or go mad and spend thirty-eight quid on a chauffeur? Answers to the usual address (or whatever the equivalent blogosphere term is). HINT: Choose taxi, because if Gilly dies in a freak bus crash she will NOT be happy.

Annnnd finally for this post. A touch of snobbery, dripping with so much irony that I fear for the lapdog keyboard. Imagine you are sitting quietly with your family in the corner of a cafe overlooking the water. A cafe at the back of an art reclamation yard/junk shop/gallery/rip off merchant in south west India. A wee family of blinking, bluey-white, just off the plane Western tourists, looking remarkably like the Beers. Got the picture? Then, pour in 20 or so other Westerners, many dressed like it’s a fancy dress Bollywood theme trip, who start dragging furniture around, yelling to each other in heavy accents ” GEE MARSHA, THEY GOT LIME AND GINGER SODA.”Then “HEY, IS IT FRESH?” And “HOW’S IT MADE?” “OOOH, WE’RE EATIN’ KINDA LATE TONITE, LET’S GET SOME FRIES.” Rounded off with “HEY, CAN I GET SOME WAA-DURR? WHO WANTS WAA-DURR.” Now who was it who said “You are a tourist, I am a traveller.” [No idea & I’ve probably mis-quoted. It’s not in this list of 50 at any rate, so here’s another.]

“The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.”  GK Chesterton

Morally speaking… is it right to be offended by this bunch? Seeing as we are displaced, utterly foreign voyers here ourselves, is it okay to feel anger at being robbed of a moment by other foreigners (when locals doing it would have been somehow fine)? Not sure how to feel about this one and my onboard moral/snobbery compass appears to be on the blink. It’s a dilemma that crops up again and again in the journals I write. Please let me know if I am crossing boundaries of taste, irony or something else (in apparent innocence). Thank you, normal service now resumes.

Two things, of course, are abundantly clear:

  1. Aren’t Americans bloody annoying?
  2. There is clearly a letter T in the word water. Y’all come back now, y’hear?
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Delhi: 18 years later.

As young Josie & Morgan have described in their Dizzy Delhi post , we had a busy time of it in the capital. One of the greatest honours Gilly & I will have on the trip is the opportunity to see our destinations through our kids eyes. When asked, of the maelstrom of the Indian capital to choose the best thing? Josie loved the chipmunks (stripey little Northern Palm Squirrels) and Morgan thought the cycle-rickshaws were cool.

It’s not a new city to me, although the last time I was in Delhi was 1994 as a backpacker with buddy NRJ. So what’s changed? Well, I have, clearly, but Delhi? There’s an Old & New theme here, neatly following the naming of the city. There must be countless obvious changes to the place. Yet there is one thing – from where I blog – that sums it up. Crammed in to a tuk-tuk bouncing up the potholed Qutab Road en route to Lal Qila (The Red Fort) we got slowed by a ox-drawn cart. (“Cowmels” Josie named them due to their characteristic hump.) These weary plodding beasts of burden are as Indian as a an Indian thing, no change there. So our driver starts beeping his horn furiously. Not that we’d pressed him on urgency, it’s just what Delhi drivers do. The reveal came when the Ox-driver – dressed in filthy rags astride a rudimentary battle scarred cart – turns to see what the fuss is. I note that he’s on his mobile phone.

And there it is folks: mobile telephony. No different from Dagenham, Droitwich or Durham: everyone’s got a mobile. Obvious and evident in the sales figures of telecoms companies worldwide. But – for some reason – I simply didn’t expect it to be so omnipresent in India and am embarrassed by my naivety. Wi-fi-tastic, bluetoothed headset-toting, thumb-texting telecoms have pervaded urban India. Of course it has. India is doing it on its own terms (natch) and it’d be a pace outstripping us in auld Europe.
The traffic problem, on the other hand, I did anticipate. This town has got serious congestion issues and a serious brown atmospheric haze to go with it. The middle classes have all got a boxy city-car and the 2-stroke tuk-tuks are everywhere. Buses use their muscle to get through but the outer (one way) ring of Connaught Place was so gridlocked on our first evening we could have walked across the roofs and bonnets of vehicles – 8 crammed lanes worth – to reach our cycle rickshaw on one of the side roads.

To describe Delhi would take an age (and a proper author) so I’ll keep it to a few random observations.

The skies are festooned with urban birds of prey. At times there are hundreds swirling in majestic arcs above. Booted Eagles, Black Kites and surely plenty of other species abound. Presumably due to the rich pickings of waste strewn across the streets and edible live prey everywhere. (Some Indians are quite small.) Unkempt monkeys wander around railings and rooftops. Mangey dogs lounging everywhere, the occasional skinny cat and – of course – “cowmels”.

The 1931 New Delhi is not so new anymore. The sweeping, grand colonial townscape now has a backdrop of angular ultra-modern high-rise buildings, mulit-story billboards and roaring, honking, snarling traffic like many a city.

Old Delhi? Now there’s a different story. If you can stomach it, the bazaars and back alleys of Old Delhi are spellbinding, intimidating (in their own way), oppressive, cramped, jam-packed, often startling but never threatening. My reaction on a first visit to the Chowri Bazaar this week? The craziest place I’ve ever been. Kudos to the small Beers and Mrs B for taking it in their stride. It’s the set of a (Slumdog sequel) movie brought to life. A fictional movie surely? One where people live in filthy cheek by jowl in the name of commerce. Tell me they’re all extras in a grand production and go back to their trailers after the elaborate shoot, yes? No. As we kept having to remind ourselves – aliens air-dropped in from rural Wiltshire – this is how people live in Old Delhi.

A well spoken emporium

Want a new tricycle rickshaw? Open air factory just there sir, mind the welding torch by your foot, cover your eyes from the arc. Shave? Take a seat by that tree-stump. Used shock absorber for your Hindustani Ambassador (Morris Oxford)? I’m sure there’s a good one in this pile of 50, I’ll just look. Handmade gift bags? 10,000? I’ll just get the porters to stack the bundles on their heads. 20′ steel reinforcing rods for your Grand Design X 100? Mind your back, here comes the pensionable rickshaw wallah with them now. Where in the name of all that is holy have you been? Sorry Meestah Beer, you can’t get the staff. Oh, he’s collapsed. Bananas? 50INR a kilo (tourist rate). Stone carving of your favourite deity? Small, medium or wardrobe size? Flat panel telly? Door handles? Wrapping paper? You name it.

Waitrose? Tesco? Hypermarches? All aboard at that end of the retail spectrum and travel all the way to the other end of the line and then stay onboard until the train reaches the depot then get off – mind the gap – and walk for a bit. Teeny,tiny little cupboards of commerce are where it’s at. This is the breathless, heaving, teeming reality of the Old Delhi bazaars. It’s intoxicating and – if you’re not of the mood – potentially panic inducing.

Then, you reach the gates of the Jama Masjid. This immense red sandstone mosque – it’s courtyard can accommodate 25,000 worshippers – rises up magnificently for the raptors to swirl around its minarets.

School mascot George the Dragon at Jama Masjid.

After taking in the main area of the mosque, we find ourselves climbing one of the minarets (tower) – up the narrowest spiral staircase – to take in the view. The platform at the top is not for the feint hearted. Avoiding toppling down the open stone stairwell, taking care not to lean on the loose railings… now check out that view. We have an Eagle eye view ourselves now. The reduced visibility of the Delhi smog somehow adds to the magic shrouding the Red Fort and the rest of the city in mystery. The soundtrack of traffic and bustling streets wafts its way up. The children are beside themselves with excitement which swells my heart. And scares the whotsits out of Mrs B. Time to carefully descend now folks.

Our visit to Lal Qila (the Red Fort) was tranquil enough. The huge and forlorn Lahore Gate has sandbags outside with machine gun emplacements. Soldiers defending a fort from the outside? Incongruous. I imagine that the Fort is blushing red sandstone with embarrassment. (In fact there is heightened security across the piece in the Delhi after a car bomb the day we arrived. We lose count of the number of times we are scanned and patted down. Of course, this being India, the luggage scanners do nothing like scanning and the metal detecting wands go off but no one really cares. It’s just going through the motions.) Once inside, we revel in the peace away from the throng. Peace that turns out to be short-lived as it’s school picnic day.

Smog = poor visibility even over a mile or so.

J&M are rapidly turned in to celebrities by dint of being white and blonde. Indian personal space does not equate to the western norm and soon the smaller Beers are being photographed left, right and centre. These snappers are mainly youngsters using – yep – phone cameras. The kids pose unselfishly, bemused by such attention from polite impromptu paparazzi. It’s an amusing sight for us (largely ignored) parents. J&M are hustled to line up with the Kumars for a portrait or beckoned to sit next to some too-cool-for-school teens for a snap. Pausing at a shady spot we find ourselves at the centre of a school outing. Slowly, the children line up around us and we get chatting to their teacher. In his class, he has 80 girls. Eighty! 400 students on this trip today, all smiles and good behaviour in their burgundy uniforms. The small Beers fall into a sort of wedding line up situation – “you must be sooo very proud?” – and get to shake hands with lots and lots of schoolgirls until Josie’s arm begins to ache.

The Fort itself has seen better days and its beautiful aqueducts are long since bone dry. These masterpieces of 17th century irrigation-cum-air-con bereft of water seem terribly sad to me. The only place with any water are the “paid WC” where an angry european tourist railed against the bog-wallah. “You charge us 250INR to get in here and now it’s money to use a toilet!?” He has a point: whilst Fort admission is good value at £3.20(UK) we note that the locals tariff is 10INR (12p).

The return trip to the airport at 06.00 that is highly symbolic of the changes to my eyes. Stepping over the sleeping homeless, around the dozing cowmels in the pre-dawn and skipping the puddles of raw sewage, we route-march rucksack laden across the bridge traversing the dozens of tracks at an already bustling New Delhi railway station. Presently, we descend into the bowels of the Airport Express: a clinically clean, world-class, 21st century transit system. (Fee? 100INR. £1.30! Take THAT Heathrow Express.) We are then whisked to the airport in quiet, clean, hermetically sealed air-conditioned comfort: isolated from the real India out there. The new, separating us from the old.

Next stop Kerela.

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