Published: April 30th 2006March 4th 2006
World class mountain biking
In the tea plantations of the Western Ghats, Kerala. Contact www.mountainbikekerala.com
To the casual observer the engine behind the world's 3rd largest economy might well appear to be India's numerous hawkers, con-men and beggars, the persistance of whom would please any hard-nosed western capitalist. Of course, in the Britain of Norman Tebbit and John Major, beggars were either indolent miscreants too lazy to get on their bikes to look for the jobs that, unskilled and with no employment record, would magically materialise as a result of their plucky Britishness; or unscrupulous fraudsters who live it up in the lap of luxury thanks to the generous donations of the kindly, but ultimately gullible, British public. In their last days this bunch of smug odious lizards chose to raise political capital by openly attacking the poorest and weakest in society - those who could least defend themselves. Ten years later they are no nearer to defeating a badly wounded Prime Minister who many voters know for certain to be an open liar : "Prime Minister, will you go to war in Iraq without a second United Nations resolution?" "No". Honestly, I heard it with my own eyes, but then maybe the BBC doctored the tape, who knows what to believe these days.
a great fan of Viz's rather spendid pastiche of Torydom, "Baxter Basics"
(no relation, well maybe just a little) I can only be greatful that we now live in the Britain of the Labour Party, where unsightly tramps and beggars can be forcibly removed by the Police without even the need to label them a Muslim ... er sorry, Terrorist. Again, I've seen it happen. Maybe the homeless charities should dole out free fox costumes with the free food - as a witty New Zealand journalist pointed out of Blair's government - "This is a government that bans the hunting of foxes but has a shoot to kill policy for terrorist suspects."
From observation it seems India does not yet have such forward-looking and socially benevolent legislation for constraining beggars, unless of course the noveaux-riche scoundrels cunningly circumvent it by smoothing over the attentions of the stick wielding Indian police with the liberal application of baksheesh, the addictive brand of monetary lubricant without which India would be as paralysed as the West will be without oil. (BTW, Glad to see the French Government jumping on the bandwagon and helping out their unemployed youth by removing any rights to a
fair contract termination - that'll teach you to throw stones at the Police.)
In no place we have visited so far has it been so heartrending to turn people away on a point of principle - we don't give money to begging kids, or people using kids to beg. We have tried to give to the many elderly, crippled or blind, many of whom deport themselves with as much dignity as they can muster, until inevitably our change runs out. Of course, a fair number really are on the make, but with 25% of India's 1.09 Billion people estimated to be below the official poverty line there are clearly quite a few of Mr Tebbit's magical bikes needed. Getting rid of the persistent little tykes can be difficult; covered in dirt and grime, dressed in rags that would shame a Ugandan AIDS orphan, clawing and pawing at you, reaching repeatedly hand to mouth in pathetic feeding gestures and muttering a continuous mantra of "1 rupee, 1 rupee, 1 rupee" (India really is a spiritual and holy country). A Tebbit-like shout of "Learn more English than 1 rupee and you won't need to beg" seems to go over their heads.
The extensive ruins of the 14th - 16th century temples and fortresses of the Vijayangar kings, spread across 26 square kilometres of boulder strewn rock landscape.
Helpful locals suggest their own remedies - "kick him", "slap him" but so far I have managed to desist - except for the one case when a Mumbai street urchin in his early teens came at me more like a WWF wrestler than a down-and-out beggar. Angry due to the possibility of pick-pockets, I administered a slap somewhat harder than I intended, but, after he shook off his confusion he just grinned, bearing it more as a sign of honour than of rebuke. Usually though it is the helpfully harsh words of Hindi shouted by the local adults that cause them to leave. I don't know what is said but it seems to work where almost nothing we can do does.
In China we had met intrepid overlanders who had made their way from Southern India, across Nepal and Tibet, and were heading for Beijing and the Trans-Siberian to Russia. The advice was to tackle India from South to North, preferably starting in Sri Lanka, perhaps the most gentle introduction to the madness of the region. We can say this was sound advice, the hawking and touting in the South being of a definitely more gentle and cricket-like nature
than the continuous trickery experienced in the North. All over India, but most particularly in the South, a smile is most often met with a smile. Even so, every day of our first two weeks in southern India we tackled a new hurdle, from the indolent jobsworths working for Indian Railways to the opportunistic and sly touts and rickshaw drivers to the mad chaos of bus travel. Now, near the end of our Indian trip, we are still encountering unknowns, but we have a much better sense of background and context against which to place them and evaluate. After several maddening rickshaw trips in Jodphur and Agra, in Varanasi we finally managed to force the driver to go where we wanted and pay what we wanted, but only by using a combination of physical intimidation and clear up-front threats of non-payment unless everything went as we wished. The problem of course is that the rickshaw drivers extort commisions from unwilling hotels and shops, or work closely with willing hotels and shops, many of whom have setup with names identical to those praised in the common guidebooks - Lonely Planet, Guide Routard, Footprint, Rough Guide, Let's Go etc. You think you
are being taken to "Fawlty Towers" but you will be deposited at "Flowery Twats" some distance away and the driver will pick up his 100+ rupee commision, which is added to your bill. Of course to the average westerner these amounts are not worth the hassle of trying to circumvent the game, but quite quickly it becomes a point of principle. You find you can't easily get from A to B because a driver wants to take you to a trinket shop where he gets 40% of anything you buy. If some tourists persist in going along with this, all tourists end up suffering.
It is worth noting that there are fixed per-kilometre rates for all forms of rented transport in India. They vary regionially but not by much. Motorised Rickshaws are around 10 rupees per km, long distance taxis are generally between 4 and 6 rupees per km, but they will charge for return kilometres. A stationary day is generally charged at around 300km. Rail tickets are priced by the class of travel and the distance of the trip. This uniformity gives a great basis for negotiation. As a tourist pay a bit more, but don't get taken
for a ride.
India is a massive country which mixes both beauty and horror in liberal portions. Spending only a day here it is easy to see why many people fall in love with it and return regularly for the rest of their lives, and why many others quickly run away hating it and never return again. In that sense in terms of the tourist experience comparisons with sub-Saharan Africa are just, as are comparisons with the world's second largest economy, China.
For me, a large white Western male with reasonable English (my cousin's cry of "Call Greenpeace" as I lay on his kitchen floor still echoes in my head) I would say India, with the exception of the railways, is easier to travel around than China. If you are a white skinned female however you may not find this the case - it depends on your tolerance to sexual harrasment, be it kids and teenagers trying to feel your bum and breasts in crowd situations, or the attentions of older males, either staring, covertly photographing, or just generally trying to chat you up with cheesy lines. The latter is no different to say, Italy or Greece, but
there often seems to be a more sinister side to the treatment of the western female. All hail the Norwegian girl, schooled in self-defence, who pinned an agressively flirtatious teenage youth to the floor in the street. His response - "What's wrong? I thought western woman liked it." Hopefully the pain and public humiliation put him straight. Thankfully we have met many Western and Asian woman travelling on their own through India and thoroughly enjoying the experience, even if at times it becomes overwhelming, as it does for everyone who strays from the sanctity of $200 per night hotels.
Are we Western tourists really any better? It is fairly obvious from both their dress and behaviour that many Indian women, whether Muslim or Hindu, are not keen on being photographed. But that doesn't stop the average tourist. Many times I've seen people sneaking around with telephoto lenses and telezoom digicams, and I've seen people just walk right up and take a picture without even having the courtesy to ask. And they certainly don't pass on the baksheesh that is as standard here as tipping your waiter or hotel porter is in the U.S. As it is I've done my
bit - I must have appeared in at least a thousand photos whilst I've been here, and I've never asked for a dime.
Ok, I know that wanting to be a photographer is the middle-aged man's version of wanting to be a pop-star, but if that is really what you want you could do a lot worse than reading Simon Cowell's autobiography. His sound business sense applies to any business, not just Pop. Jumping ahead a little, we've just returned from a dawn boat cruise on the Ganges to view Varanasi's ghats. It really is true that all life is visible here, and with the thousands of tourist boats, the old saying "if it hasn't been photographed it doesn't exist" seems doubly appropriate.
I know that, as with much of what I write, there is a strong element of hypocrisy, but both Kim and I were rather saddened by the ghoulish behaviour of our compatriots. Our small rowing boat included one other, a continental European in his mid-thirties. He had a reasonable Canon digicam, a Powershot G5, with a narrow maximum aperture, a maximum ISO of 400 and bad noise artefacts above ISO 50, a maximum zoom of
140 (35mm equivalent) and no image stabliliser. He was clearly an enthusiast as he had added a 430EX external flash unit, which popped off regularly as he fired into infinity. In the pre-dawn low-light on a rocking, moving boat he had little chance of getting a sharp shot other than of the general scene from a distance. Yet he seemed to be suffering from photographer's tourrettes - he just couldn't stop his fingers from pressing that button.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with not knowing how to use your gear - I'm still struggling with my own flash-unit and the very basics of exposure. But here we were, viewing the morning worship and ablutions of pilgrims in one of India's holiest places and this prick thought he had the right to ignore the wishes of the locals and snap away. It is made perfectly plain that you are not allowed to take photos of the ghats where cremation is taking place. Our rower firmly made this clear to him over and over again, yet he persisted. Maybe if a bunch of Indian tourists barged into the funeral of one of his loved ones and started taking photos he would
start to think differently. At one point I asked our guide to take us into the bank so I could get a shot along the shoreline. This took Mr David Bailey and his ego very close to a bunch of bathers. Sure, they were extremely photogenic - to me one looked like some kind of sufi or holy man. He quickly signalled he didn't want to be photographed, but that didn't stop our friend. After he had taken several shots the sufi started shouting, no doubt throwing a curse upon us - I wonder, as on our way back through the narrow back streets of the old town we were attacked by a bunch of very large and very aggressive monkeys. Locals were scattering in all directions as the monkeys bounded across the corrugated iron rooftops that bordered the narrow allow, growling and snarling menacingly just above our heads. Whilst scared, I felt fairly safe as I waved my tripod at them and snarled back. The only other person to face them down was an elderly woman, who had clearly seen it all before and started banging the roofs with a stick. Our gallant rickshaw driver redeemed the previous transgressions
Coconut break, Kerala Backwaters
Coconut milk is supposed to help the body cool down.
of his clan somewhat by rescuing a terrified Kim. Monkeys are ubiquitous in India but I've never seen a troop so possessed. Careful when you point your camera at a holy man.
Again, I'll repeat, I am being somewhat hypocritical here, but just stop and think a little. If a bus load of Indian tourists burst into a public swimming pool in the UK or the US, pulled out a bunch of Canon Pro-series telephoto lenses and started clicking away there would be pandemonium - shouts of outrage, screaming mothers, cries of "paedophiles", "terrorists", "reality tv". So next time you lift your lens towards some unsuspecting victim, just have a think first. Don't delude yourself - chances are the shot will be shit anyway.
For many people photography is a catharsis, a quiet and peaceful absorbing occupation. Whether it takes them wandering over the hills in search of the elusive combination of good composition and fleetingly powerful light, or whether they simply retire to the back garden to study the strange and fascinating close-up world of insects and flowers, I believe a lot of good can come from life with a camera. For me this trip has been
Swiss Army boatman, Kerala Backwaters
He has fifteen different functions, including removing boy scouts from horses hooves ... as long as you keep him fueled with ciggies.
a process of learning and evolving, but at this point I can think of no baser and more jaded form of photography than travel photography. Perhaps, in this holiest of holy places, I've had a spiritual nirvana at last - when I get back I shall concentrate all my efforts on glamour.
Still, the local people don't always help themselves. We had booked the tour at our hotel, but as we pulled away a small girl boarded our boat with a tray of floating offerings. Without a word she started to hand these out to us. Fairly quickly we realised she wasn't anything to do with the tour and wanted money. We told her where to go and said she should leave the boat. Seeing his tip rapidly disappearing the our guide quickly took her to another boat and she left. Religion that extorts, my favourite.
Along the cruise we were pestered by floating hawkers, both old and young. One chap approached with postcards depicting scenes of the burning (cremation) ghats. "Look, look, you can't photo these." At this we had a cynical laugh but he countered with "No, no, government approved, government approved." Maybe you can't blame
them - if they have to face clicking tourists everyday why shouldn't they try and trick them out of their money. Which came first - the hawker or the tourist? (According to Kipling, the Hawker).
Cultural differences are indeed the stuff of nightly conversation. It is very clear many westerners come to India seeking some form of spiritual reward, many more than I had ever imagined. Spritually-based health-tourism, for example, is booming. The word "Ayurdevic" appears on almost as many signs in tourist areas as the phrase "Recommended in Lonely Planet". Now don't get me wrong - the two things I did learn in my wasted western scientific training are the very limitations and basis of that science. I now fully believe in holistic treatments and the positive powers of placebo, a change my mother correctly predicted many years ago when confronted with a callow and argumentative youth. But I can't help feeling that those westerners, disillusioned with the limitations and drawbacks of their own culture, who then jump in wholeheartedly searching for a miracle cure, are likely to be somewhat disappointed. Indian culture and Indian religions exhibit the same issues that arise in every state and every society
in the world.
A real joy in India is reading the English language newspapers. Admittedly many of the reports are taken directly from the more left-wing English newspapers and American commentators with an anti-Washington bent. These of course portray western society in a poorer light, but I enjoyed reading the editorials immensely - to my jaded view they are often spot on in their assessment of so many issues facing the West. But of course when it comes to commenting on Indian society the bias is writ very large to someone who has studied the place from the outside. Good to know Indian media bows to the political need for propaganda just the same as the rest of the world.
The atrocious behaviour of touts and tricksters is also partly condoned by some travellers, put down to cultural differences. "We shouldn't deride them - it is their culture". Well, if I was Indian I would find this attitude far more insulting than someone who said "this is appalling, you need to police it better". Sure, it is fair to describe the behaviour of these people as a culture, but how come the cultural response to the arrival of
rich westerners is similar, varying only by degree, in every developing country in the world from Bolivia to Zambia, from China to Kenya, from India to Indonesia? You can't say they share religions, language, history or culture (in the broader sense). Of course much of the blame goes to the tourists themselves - thank your gods these people have learned to cook Pizza or I would be even more raving than I am now. But the rest of it is purely a response of human nature, just as are bullying, rape and murder - "We're poor and/or starving, you're rich. You've just spent as much on that beer as I can earn in a good day. Why shouldn't I try to trick you". This doesn't define Indian culture any more than having a nuclear bomb does, although the widely applicable word can be used to describe this behaviour if you wish. After all, the locals are targets themselves when there are no rich gullible tourists to prey on, just as in the India of Kipling or the London of Dickens. Anyone who has been tricked out of their money in London, Paris, Rome or Venice would surely agree.
The sleepy touristy beach resort of Varkala was our first port of call after landing in the busy Keralan city of Trivandrum. Varkala has to date avoided the package holiday hotels and remains a place off, admittedly well built, bamboo cafes and cheap backpacker accomodation. There is a beautiful beach full of westerners and free of hawkers - it seems the Indians have moved off, either voluntarily or through the threat of force. North of the beach is a line of cliffs upon which the main cafes and guest houses are perched, availing themselves of the pleasant sea breeze to aid cooling. All in all Varkala is a splendid place if you like hanging around on beaches, but after a couple of days we were rather bored.
However it was here we spent an afternoon chewing the cud with our new friend from Canada, Jerry. She billed Mike the Bike as the best thing she had done in India. We were impressed by the recommendation, but wondered if ten days flogging yourself around the Western Ghats on a mountain bike guided by a shaven-headed English cricket fan dressed in a
variety of lightweight but fetching bondage gear - shinpads, helmet and rubber gloves - would be every young women travellers cup of tea. As it was Jerry liked it so much she headed off to Bangalore to buy a bike of her own on which to continue her own personal Indian Odyssey.
We'd better give it a go, we thought, and we weren't disappointed. At the end of our trip Mike's impromptu tour still rates as the best thing we did in India - and this includes Kim's rather "upfront" encounter with England Cricket legend Michael Atherton at the Nagpur test. For the record she was propelled by a gang of groping Indian schoolkids, and Mr Atherton was nothing less than a gallant, if slightly startled, gentleman.
But first we headed up the coast to the historical and rather pleasant city of Kochi, previously Cochin. We stayed in the now very touristy district of Fort Kochin, which is rather relaxed with the sad consequence that the influx of rich tourists is pricing the locals out. A port since Roman times, much of Kochi was under control of the British who replaced the Portugese from 1795 until Independence, a
Evening warm-up ride.
key stop on the main trade route between Europe and China. It offers the usual array of temples, plus the picturesque sunset over the Chinese fishing nets, but the most interesting thing to do is simply wander the streets of the old quarter and watch the world go by.
Two recommendations are needed here - Kashi, on Bhurger street, produces breakfasts and lunches that would be regarded as excellent in any country - there is no choice on the menu, they just do one thing every day and do it really well. If you've got the money also consider an evening at the Brunton Boatyard. Rack-rates at this stunning colonial hotel, which in my view is far more stylish than Raffles, exceed $300 per night. However the restaurant is priced relatively cheaply. The food is good but not necessarily excellent, but the ambience makes up for it in spades. Treat yourself to the full colonial experience - we did for Valentines. Also see if you can get the ball to drop in the fifth hole in the unusually fiendish test of dexterity they have on the bar. We did, but it took two nights of practice.
must see in Kerala is the backwaters, the extensive river and lagoon system that runs just behind the ocean shore for more than forty kilometres. Whether you take a tourist boat or a local ferry the backwaters offer the chance to get away from the bustle of modern India and take a look at how life really should be lived. Our day trip proved a good introduction, although we would really have liked to spend more time exploring.
Lunch was taken on an island, cooked in a small shack by the water's edge. The local women produced some of the best food we have eaten in India, a thali served on a banana leaf with several different vegetable curry's and dhals, mixed with rice, papad and chappati. Clearly fresh spices had been used as the taste was outstanding, underlining the old adage that in cooking it is the ingredients that count most.
After a couple of pleasant days in Kochi, we took the train back down to Kottayam and then the local bus up high up into the hills to the local hamlet and crossroads of Kuttikanam. Here Mike has befriended a local hotel owner and our rather
quiet and pleasant room was complemented by an even more pleasant terrace view, plunging down 1000m off the edge of the Ghat's plateau.
Mike has been roaming the back roads and trails of India on bikes for more than ten years now. More recently he has concentrated his efforts on scouting out scenic and technical singletrack amidst the tea plantations of the beautiful and welcoming Indian state of Kerala with a view to building up a tour business. He has brought out four decent Kona hardtails as well as his own Specialised Enduro, and at the moment he is covering costs by guiding backpackers at very reasonable rates. He aims to start tours in earnest next winter (Nov/Dec 06).
I predict Mike's tours will be a great success. For hairy mountain bikers he offers a mixture of Keralan culture and tourist sites -Kochi and backwaters trips as a starter with a well earned dessert on the sublime beach at Varkala, plus plenty of time for the main course of the demandingly beautiful trails in the hill country.
I don't think I would be exaggerating to say that this terrain provides world-class mountain biking, and is suitable for
all levels although the more technical riders will probably enjoy it the most. Covering an area easily bigger than the Peak District and the Lake District together, the great thing about tea plantations is that there are hundreds of trails and, at least for the moment, the owners seem more than happy to have you there as long as you respect their wishes. The tea-workers themselves are amongst the most friendly, pleasant and generally nice people we have met anywhere, although they don't speak much English. The moderate altitude helps cool the agressive midday heat making mid-day riding conditions hot but pleasant, whilst mornings and evenings are the perfect temperature for biking - I spent the whole of our second evening ride just grinning at the beauty of it all - in truth almost tearful.
The Ghats hills themselves also provide an ideal playground. After an evening warm-up ride the following day Mike took us on a long five-hour ride following the edge of the plateau to a rocky outcrop that forms a sufi shrine. Here, exhausted, we took a jeep back, but for hardier souls there are downhill routes that tackle the 1000m descent off the plateau and
into the valleys below.
Sunburned due to a combination of our anti-malarial doxycyline and our dodgy Indian Nivea suncream (use the local 'herbal' variant by Himalaya - it seems to work fine) we took a five hour jeep trip across to Munnar, a larger town offering tea plantations, a university, and a few other tourists. Mike's aim here was to scout some new rides, and this we did, my photographic needs taking over so that the start point of our explorations became a photogenic valley that Mike might otherwise have ignored. Here we spent a fantastic afternoon exploring the seemingly endless tea plantations, with steady climbs and steep descents, until a well-earned cruise into Munnar took us straight into the local bar.
Spending time with Mike also helped us adjust to Indian life in more subtle ways. He is happy eating and drinking in the cheapest of local places, and this helped us overcome our fears of food-poisoning somewhat. As in Sri Lanka, Indian food in India is fantastic, far better than that which is served in most "Indian" restaurants in Britain. The principle that the cheaper the food, the better it is likely to be, also applies.
Whilst we have eaten sumptuous delights in many tourist restaurants, it is rarely much better than the stuff the locals eat everyday. Of course there are exceptions - we've had some awful food in places to contrast with the highlight, an exceptional lunch in Pune courtesy of some newly-met friends.
If you are a grizzly mountain biker looking for some good winter training and an easy introduction to all things Indian then I can recommend Mike and Kerala most highly. His website is Mountain Bike Kerala
Sadly we only spent four days in his company although we wished we could have stayed longer. Time, as ever, was pressing, and we took the local bus in the early morning chill across the mountains and into the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu to the holy temply city of Madurai.
It was 5.00am in the morning, staggering bleary-eyed to the Minakshi Temple, that I beheld a sight I never though I would see in India - a completely empty city street. Well, empty except for a sleeping cow. It didn't last long, and a couple of honks of a horn over my shoulder distracted me long enough for the street
to suddenly fill with rickshaws, bicycle, chai-wallahs, shopkeepers, beggars, touts, sacred cows and stray dogs, all assembled and cued for action as turned my head back round.
Why such an early hour? We had come to Madurai with one single purpose - to witness one of the oldest religous ceremonies known to man. Practised at the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans and every day since then, the nightly transportation of the God Sundareswarar (an incarnation of Siva) to his consort Minakshi, to 'sleep' by her side. Since this is Minakshi's place, it is Sudareswarar who must do the visiting, and after a night of consorting, he is returned to his own temple in the south of the complex. Described in great detail in William Dalrymple's
excellent "The Age of Kali", this seemed like something we ought to see.
The trouble was, as always, the modern day version of the Biblical plague of locusts had descended on the ceremony - that is tourists. Tourists, of which I was one. We all crowded round the entrance to the inner sanctum, nervously exchanging notes, until the sedan containing the statue of Sundareswarar appeared, and we descended into a bloodlust
The ubiquitous Hindustan Ambassador
Better known in the UK as the 1956 Morris Oxford.
of flashing cameras. It seemed almost as if every tourist frustration, every pestering hawker, every cry of "HELLO, Where are you going? Where are you from? Do you remember me?" was to be revenged on this simple but bizarrely ancient ceremony. Disgusted with myself as well as others I put down my camera and watched, not the ceremony, but the behaviour of the digicam generation, wandering around like Mr Bean, randomly pointing their cameras at anything and everthing, no attempt to hold them steady in the very low light, or even to pause to consider what they were shooting. Christ, all mobile phones come with cameras now. To parody that nauseating Kinder-Surprise advert - "Phone and
camera? But that's two lobotomies".
As it was I found the interior of the temple sufficiently atmospheric and impressive to want to see it tourist free, and this proved a good move. After a pleasant half hour observing the early morning pilgrims, the dhoti (loin-cloth) wearing deity-wallahs came cantering past with their impressive retinue of acolytes, bearing the no doubt tired god back to his own resting place. This time I resisted the urge to give them a blast with my high-powered flash
Fancy a cup of tea, Ern?
The scenic road between Kutikarnam and Munnar
gun and just watched the procession with growing fascination and wonder, for once really able to feel I was observing a ceremony more than two millenia old.
It got better. Around ten minutes after Sundareswarar had left the building, Nelly the friendly elephant was brought through the temple to guard the East gate. Her job is to bless pilgrims by a forming a fleeting skullcap with the end of her friendly trunk, but only if you have crossed the keepers palm with silver. I had seen her the day before, but watching her lumber amidst the ancient columns of the temple interior itself was far more rewarding. Finally, around 6.00am , the official opening time for those with cameras, the first tourists arrived in dribs and drabs, and shortly after I left for a well deserved cup of chai at the roadside stalls just outside the temple gate.
In Madurai, Kim's love of sport reared its ugly head and she decided we should head to Nagpur to watch the first India versus England Test match. This was no problem, except that Nagpur was some 1500km to the north, and overland Indian transport isn't the swiftest in the world.
We had about five days before the test match started, and wanted to visit the highly praised (by fellow travellers) village of Hampi on the way. The problem was Hampi is in the middle of nowhere.
Naively we approached a travel agent to help us, happy to pay him relatively handsomely if he was able to book us tickets. All we got was a surly lack of interest. We tried another one, but he was absolutely clueless, repeatedly telling us incorrect information and failing to grasp that we had already researched the problem enough to know how to get to Hampi, just not how to get to Nagpur afterwards. In the end Kim, bless her, tackled the obfusticatingly complex and error-ridden Indian Railways timetables and found an obscure train that ran only once a week but that fitted our needs. She then spent the requisite hour queueing in the station to book the three tickets we needed. She was exhausted but happy from her efforts until I read the tickets and pointed out we were only on a waiting list - we had no reserved seats. This caused quite a lot of consternation, as the booking clerk had taken
a small fortune from us, until several enquiries reassured us this was normal and we would almost certainly get on all three trains.
Many Indians we have spoken to are rightly proud of their rail system, which every day transports millions of people great distances across the country. However, unsurprisingly as it was inherited from the British, the system is filled with rules, counter-rules, idiosynchracies, jobsworths and people who just simply don't know what they are doing. More than fifty years of independence has only improved on what the British started - "In the event of death your family are entitled to a full ticket refund as long as they apply within 3 days of the incident". Indians and Western Indiophiles really don't like to hear that the train system in China is vastly superior, but I'm sorry, it is.
The waiting list system is particularly tedious - our preferred class of travel, for which there is only ever one carriage on the train, has roughly fifty seats. We booked from Madurai to Bangalore less than twenty four hours before departure and were numbers 17 and 18 on the waiting list. Yet we got on, and more to
the point the carriage was quite empty. So who were these phantom people who had booked at least 18 seats only to cancel them at the last minute. We honestly don't know, but we can only surmise that these seats are held in reserve for politicians, civil servants, businesses and tourists (there is a tourist quota on all trains but you need to jump through so many hoops to book using it few tourists bother). Presumably when some deadline passes the unused seats are automatically freed to be allocated to those with waiting list tickets. As it is we managed to get onto all the trains we needed to, but we have been told that this is because it is a quiet season when the school children are studying for exams. Our guidebook helpfully offered the advice - travel slowly through India, take time, don't follow a deadline, go with the flow and you will be fine. Good stuff, except it also said - you need to book train tickets as far in advance as possible to ensure you get a seat. Great.
Our route to Hampi left us with a day to peruse the IT and Call Centre
Wile E. Coyote (Beep Beep)
Shortly before our jeep reached this narrow cutting the JCB in the picture pushed these large rocks off a cliff above and onto the road. We can only figure it was a short-cut.
metropolis of Bangalore, a place I had visited ten years previously whilst on business. It had certainly changed, although your average caller to an English bank would be quite shocked to see the state of one the worlds greatest IT centres to which their queries have been routed. Whilst we were there we read that Siemens were pulling out of Bangalore and relocating to Kolkata, lock stock and barrel, citing lack of infrastructure and appalling traffic as the reason. I have to say I have very mixed feelings about this - it is companies like Siemens that have caused rapid growth, spiralling costs, pollution and traffic jams and now they are just jumping ship to go and devastate some other Indian city. On the other hand I've no doubt that companies like Siemens have every right to feel the money they have poured into the area could have been more wisely spent in infrastructure development. I wonder where all that money went. Hmmm.
We also read about a Hewlett Packard call-centre operative that had been raped and murdered by her company taxi driver on the way back from work (obviously these people are working at night due to time
differences.) A photo showed a line of female call-centre workers with placards calling for the death sentence for the offender. The article described the war of words between HP, the local government and the unions, all of which were blaming each other for the death - the sad fact being this was the man's first offence and he had no prior history of criminal activity whatsover. This, of course, could happen in any western country, the difference being that in the west it would be entirely the responsibility of the women to get herself from A to B by her own means.
As it was we did a bit of shopping (new shorts Mum, a miracle), tried some western fast food which was pretty awful, and I spent most of the time uploading the Sri Lanka blog. Job done, we went in search of a bar full of IT professionals so I could feel at home. We found a suitable joint, dressed as a spaceship, all low lighting, neon strips and barmen and waiters in suitably treky uniforms. However the first waiter seemed to want to stop us from joining the imbibing hackers and we queried, puzzled. It boiled
After a long hard day in granny gear, all a bloke wants is a long cold beer.
down to the fact that Kim was a woman, and hence wasn't allowed in the main bar, so we walked in anyway and sat down. No-one batted an eyelid except the fuming waiter, who was even more enraged by the merry chuckles of his more western-savvy colleague.
The boulder-strewn and temple-filled landscapes around the small village of Hampi form another laid-back hippy backpacker paradise in the Varkala mold. Sadly the aggressiveness of the touts seems to be proportional to latitude, but once you are installed in a friendly guest-house you can get out and explore the beautiful scenery relatively untroubled. The land around Hampi comprises small granitic(?) hills and outcrops covered in rounded boulders ranging from anything between the size of a baby elephant to the size of a large ... elephant. Hidden amongst this startling scene are the remains of 14th to 16th century temples, many of which are constructed of rectangular stone pillars with rectangular stone roofs. Much of the area is deservedly a World Heritage site, and the Indian Archeological Survey are busily in the process of reconstructing many of the sites, but as the temples cover a vast area this work is likely to go
Engineering students ...
... the same the world over.
on for a long long time.
We didn't really do Hampi justice, mainly because we were short on time but also because I caught a stomach bug through drinking a cup of unboiled tea whilst watching the sun set over the small set of paddy fields by the river. We only spent two days there, but if you like exploring and getting away from it then the area deserves a lot longer - I'm sure it is one of those places that will grow on you the longer you stay, and it is definitely a travellers favourite.
Because of my straightened circumstances we decided to rent a car and driver to get us to the railhead at Guntakal, about 3 hours drive away. This proved a good move as once out of Hampi we passed through the stunning beauty and harrowing simplicity of rural Indian life. Some 70% of Indian people live in the countryside and the conditions we saw were at times bordering on medieval - objectively this is probably an exaggeration but that was the overwhelming feeling as we witnessed some of the primitive farming methods - wooden ploughs and water-wheels, basic irrigation and farmers scattering
Road gang, Munnar
These guys were incredibly nice and friendly, even though we couldn't speak each others languages. One cold dawn they kept us supplied with hot tea when my rear-mech got trashed on a discarded piece of steel wire.
grain across the roads to be crushed by any vehicles that pass be they powered by motors or not.
Nagpur is a fairly typical small Indian city comprising a mere two million people. Based around a crossroads between major north-south and east-west routes, it seems to be an industrial trading post which attracts little interest from tourists. We watched the first three days of the Test match there, buying a 300 rupee ticket which covered all five days - most of the English were in the seated stand which cost 2000 rupees for the match.
It was great to see England in action in the flesh, but even more fun to join in the banter with the friendly, if occasionally over-zealous, Indian crowd. Kim discovered I have a fair old pair of lungs on me as I bellowed support for Monty Panesar, the first Sikh player to play for a team other than India, who was struggling admirably to stay in at number eleven whilst Paul Collingwood completed his critically important innings. Over time my cries of "Come on Monteeeee" were taken up by the Indian crowd ... I suspect in jest but I can't understand Hindi, but
nonetheless it was great to see.
Had we wished, we could have spent five days in Nagpur and not spent a single rupee on food or drink, such was the good nature of the friendly Indian hosts we met in the stands. In three days we recieved three offers to come to dinner, people wishing to take the opportunity of the rare chance to introduce their families to westerners, and we were treated to lunch and many drinks by a group of young Sikh's who refused to let us buy anything in return. Sadly again time prevented us from accepting, but one University professor brought his two children, eleven and seven, to the train station to meet us before we left for Mumbai. Initially shy, the precocious eleven year old who spoke great English warmed up after a while and entertained us with accounts of her school exploits. The seven year old just wanted to play marbles.
We didn't do all that much in Mumbai, suffering a bit from temple and city fatigue. We took advantage of the expensive western-style restaurants in the touristy Gateway to India area, home of the famous red-domed Taj Mahal Hotel, before realising
that the Indian local places were much better quality at a fifth of the price.
Central Mumbai is really quite a pleasant and impressive city and I can fully understand why well-off locals and visitors love it. We ambled around the Gateway of India, constructed for the visit of George V in 1911, and wandered through the Taj, whose old-building really is a lovely colonial structure. Sadly the best bar was only open to residents, and the bar for non-residents was simply of the standard bland international variety, so we skipped the chance of a drink.
The guidebook describes the area of backpacker hotels behind the Taj as being full of "drug addicts, drunks and prostitutes" but for some reason they don't seem to think this is an attraction. They might have added "backpackers" to their list of miscreants. As it was the lower-priced rooms (500 rupees) resembled sweaty rabbit-hutches so we decided to pay a bit more and found an excellent room at the Regency Inn - the a/c rooms without ensuite are excellent value at 1000 rupees - you pay double for a bathroom.
The highlight of our stay in Mumbai was the now
Tea estates, Munnar
customary slum tour, this time with a newly established outfit Reality Tours and Travel
. We can highly recommend them and I would say the tour is a must, although brace yourself if you have just flown in from a western country.
The focus of the trip is the Dharavi slum, with 1 million registered people said to be the largest in Asia. The slum is something of a success story, with an estimated turnover of $665 million per year and unusually 85% of its inhabitants are employed, against a 15% average in the other slums. Mumbai itself has 14 million registered people of which 55% live in slums - a quick calculation giving over 5.8 million unemployed people in Mumbai alone. We're not clear if these figures, or figures given for the population of India in general, include those millions of unregistered people who officially just don't exist.
On the way to Dharavi we visited a nearby shelter for street kids, NGO funded, a place where they can rest and cook relatively unmolested, and also Dhobi Ghat, the massive central laundry of concrete vats where the bedsheets and towels of the city's hotels are hand-washed by an army
North Gopuram, Minakshi Temple
Madurai. Vijayangar architecture, contemporary with the Taj Mahal ~1650.
of toiling men and hidden women. We passed through the street-side brothels of Kamathipura where sex-slaves from the rural villages, often young children, ply their trade whilst the government refuses to take any action against the pimps and slave-owners. We visited the unregistered pavement-dwellers who have no right to vote, don't appear in any official records and simply have no right to even exist. In Mahim slum the houses at the edge are officially recognised, and have the right to remain erected (at least for the moment) and the right to access basic amenities. Behind this front-line are thousands of homes of unregistered people who must buy water and electricity at very inflated rates from those lucky enough to be on the right side of illogical but nonetheless impenetrable barriers erected by Indian beauracracy.
Arriving in Dharavi itself was quite an eye opener, as we stepped off the garbage and faeces strewn main street into the slum itself, the smoke from fires adding to the dream-like realisation that we were walking through a real Indian slum and it looked just as we had imagined. We were in the recycling quarter, where industrious workers were pulling to pieces anything they
could get their hands on - suitcases, radios, furniture - returning the components to their original state and selling them for recycling. As we moved away however the general condition of the streets improved, and the slum began to resemble something more like an average Indian town, with paved roads, electricity pylons and primitive drainage. This is perhaps misleading, as only 1% of the slum-dweller have toilets in their houses - open communal toilets and sewers are common and so are cholera, typhoid and malaria.
This efficient free-market slum arose when the unions in a nearby textile manufacturing area became "too strong". Demanding better pay and working conditions it became clear it was cheaper to hire workers from the many immigrants to the city and run small enterprises (sound familiar). As property prices in Mumbai spiralled the factory owners looked to sell their factories for profit whilst Dharavi itself prospered. I have no indication of how much money stays in the area but we were told the average wage of a Dharavi worker is 50 - 100 rupee per day (US$1 to $2). This actually seems quite good, and if workers get paid this most days of the year
there isn't much room for profit for the sweatshop owners (to compare, tea estate workers get a similar wage, but they are provided free accomodation and food - no wonder they are so happy). Wandering around the back alleys of the slum we passed through tanneries, potteries and papad (pappadum) making areas.
To give another example of the local economics, a papad maker gets 16 rupees per kilo of papads. On a good day a skilled worker can make anything between two to three kilos. However in the monsoon they are lucky to make anything, as it is difficult to dry the papads when it is raining. The same problem applies to the potters, who moved here en-masse from the village of Kumbharwada in Gujarat to find a bigger market for their goods. We watched one chap skillfully churning out the small disposable pot cups that are used by the roaming chai-sellers to serve tea. It seems really wasteful to just throw them on the ground once used, but I guess this is a lot more environmentally friendly than plastic or waxed-paper.
Unlike the favelas in Rio, or no doubt parts of Soweto in Johannesburg, it is safe
for you to visit Dharavi on your own, but I would certainly choose to go with Reality Tours for a first visit. They seem a responsible set-up, requesting you leave cameras at home and act sensitively if you do bring them, and
paying 80% of their profits to a local NGO that operates schools in the area. Support them - their business deserves to succeed.
Well, I'll break the blog here. Apologies it is so long but India is an amazing place and this writing comprises part of our memories. Apologies also it has been so long since the last blog, but we've not been idle. I suspect some readers will feel this is a very negative portrayal of India and its people - if that is the case I'm sorry, but I'm just describing things as we have seen them. We have met many really lovely, kind, thoughtful and considerate Indian people and had many really great experiences, but we've met some real plonkers also ... but then that is travel.
There are more photos below