Protests and Festivals

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April 18th 2017
Published: April 24th 2017
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Croissant madamoiselle, Monsieur? Not something you'd expect to hear in India! Okay I admit it, we didn't hear anything of the sort as the French bakery set up in Pondicherry has been taken over by an Indian family, but the croissants, pastries and gateaux were pretty genuine and a tasty start to the day.

Today is another travel day. We are on the road to Madurai, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and the third largest city in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. It's also known as the city that never sleeps so I should fit right in! We learn from Mouthou that most Sri Lankans originate from the Madurai district emigrating to follow jobs in the tea production.

For now though we sit back and watch the crazy hustle that is India flashing by. Every time we go through a village or town as soon as people notice the smart looking minibus they look to see who's on board and break out in smiles and wave when they see it's foreigners. It's like being a celebrity, only fun, as you catch their eye and wave back.

We're not far into the journey when we come to a grinding halt. We're at the front of the queue of a newly formed road barrier made of mopeds, motorbikes and a growing group of people blocking the main road. Police start to arrive and Mouthou goes to find out what's going on. We see the crowd begin chanting and fist pumping the air. As a regular attendee of protests I recognise a bit of direct action when I see it so am not surprised when Mouthou returns to tell us we are being held up by a protest about the new alcohol law brought in at the beginning of this month. In an attempt to cut down on drink driving in India the central government has passed a law banning the sale of alcohol on main roads. In a stroke they have destroyed livelihoods and people feel there will also be a detrimental affect on tourist businesses now unable to provide alcohol to their customers and they're not happy about it! ' What do we want? Alcohol! When do we want it? now!'. It's interesting to see the police taking photos with their mobile phones, but they seem to be allowing people to have their say. Mouthou says that protests like this are usually hoping to get a bit of publicity in the papers so once someone with a more professional looking camera turns up and the requisite photos are taken, the motorbikes are moved we are allowed through. Exciting!

And so back to the hours of travel, stopping every so often at a coffee place for drinks and what Muthu calls a 'comfort break' but being India the levels of 'comfort' in the places we stop are variable to say the least. I have to say that conditions in this respect are far better than in northern India, either that or travel companies have improved their selection of stopping points in the intervening years since my last visit to India 9 years ago. There is never toilet paper, instead a large bucket of water and a jug are provided. There's usually a sink and sometimes, if you're lucky, even some soap!

As if a protest isn't enough excitement for one travel day Mouthou gets word of a massive festival going on at a town next to the road we're on. Sure enough we soon start to see hundreds of people from surrounding villages trekking along the roadside to get to the festival. It's baking hot and some of them are bare footed. Every so often along the roadside we see showers set up for people to cool down and water trucks are cooling the path so it's not as hot to walk on. Local businesses get together to donate food and treats and we see many temporary food outlets dishing up free meals and handing out ice lollies and other toys and treats. Sadly we also see the mass of litter this festival is creating, the roadside now carpeted with paper plates and associated rubbish. It's not likely to be cleared either, this being India where refuse collection doesn't seem to be a high priority. People seem to be really enjoying themselves though and we get loads of people waving to us as we go by. Holiday spirit is in the air. For some this festival will be the highlight of the year and worth the long walk from surrounding villages in the heat to get there. Eventually we get to the town the festival is being held in. We are on a dual carriageway so are able to look down on the crowds massed on a road that runs beneath us. It's heaving! As we continue on our way people are still walking in for miles. What an amazing sight and a lovely unexpected addition to our long journey to Madurai.

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