Delhi to Jaipur
You either love India or you hate it, but a first time arriving in a place like it can hit you right between the eyes.
Memories are forever stamped as your feet struggle to find firm ground in this city of 16million. Being white skinned and carrying a rucksack makes you an easy target to be bombarded by rickshaws, taxi drivers, tour operators and porters , all wanting a bit of you, and all wanting to be the first to rip you off. Your mind desperately tries to remember the tricks and cons people and guide books have warned you to avoid. While the sweat’s dropping of you, jet lag sweeps in, your mind goes blank as you sense piercing stares with calculating minds eying up you and your possessions. You are cultured shocked and you don’t know it yet.
When we arrived in a dark Bombay in 1999, a drunk pre-paid taxi driver played us good as he whirled us for a mid-night dodgem car race across the city, calling at every hotel but the one we asked for. Stress levels went through the roof as we found demanding to be brought to the hotel throughout the journey was the only way to get what we wanted. The slurring driver was intent on making extra rupees by commission from the hotels on his list. We stuck to our guns.
Zombified is how we felt. Less than an hour’s sleep in the last 24 hours was taking its toll. We just wanted to get out of the airport and to the hotel. This time around we pre booked over the net, and the free pick up from Delhi airport had been arranged, which left fingers in the mind crossed that there would be no hassles. The shuddering effects of culture shock were regulated as they angled through its burning atmosphere and into the Indian way of life. There was no getting used to being on the road again. It was simply natural to slip right back onto the travelling path.
We sat swatting at a mosquito as we waited at the baggage reclaim in the antiquated but clean airport. We tried to take in the sights. There wasn’t much to see, as with any big airport it had wide open spaces harbouring lots of people who just wanted to get out of there. An airport clerk, dressed smartly in his uniformed shirt and trousers, approached us coyly with the typical Indian head wobble and a clip board in hand. Knox duly filled in the questionnaire, humbly handed to him, about his impressions of Delhi airport. He was unable to give it much thought but was at least thankful that his first close encounter didn’t involve a con or one of Indians three favourite questions.
“What is your name?”
“What is your country?”
“And, what is your profession?”
An array of people hung over the railings like paparazzi either side of the walk way all vying for customers and clients as we headed for the exit. A rapid scan reading of hand held boards brought our darting eyes to hotel Ajanta and the name ‘Moore’, scribbled in chalk underneath; our password for an easy ride out of there. The young man caught the recognition in our eyes and broke away from the crowd to meet us where the barrier ended. Following the driver, we wheeled the trolleys down the under pass to the car park. Smirks revealed amusement at the battered Ta-Ta Indiga, the waiting chariot.
An Indian city wasn’t going to hijack our senses this time around as nothing could compare with the shocking night ride through shanties and the tangled aroma’s of shit, piss and curry that greeted them in Bombay. At the very least day light brightened the picture. With over full rucksacks loaded one in the boot and one safely belted into the front passenger seat, the driver pulled out into the wacky races which is India’s roads. With a glance at each other and nervous smiles we braced ourselves. Hold on and enjoy the ride, the car maybe battered but its still in one piece so the driver must be well experienced. He certainly knew how to join the cacophony of horn blowing as he bobbed his head to the Hindi music playing through his earpiece. You aren’t a true Indian driver unless you know how to use the horn to great effect. Copious amounts of finger pressing blasted this unconscious past time throughout the whole country.
This was India, where culture doesn’t so much as flow over you but rather it draws you uncontrollably in, swirls you around, sucks you down the plug hole and flushes you out backwards into a sea of a billion people, transforming ones perspective of size and matter. This time we were prepared for the ride. This little car was their figurative boat to whisk them off to the rock pool haven of their hotel. On this late morning the roads were wide and if they were even divided into lanes then these lanes were completely ignored. Vehicles cut in and out without warning as the driver weaved past such obstacles as pedestrians or the odd holy cow.
Traffic lights found them captured. The red-light for the TaTa with its Western occupants was a green light for the hordes to descend on the car like characters from the ‘Dawn of the Dead’. Windows were knocked as grubby faces peered in, flowers and peacock feathers poked through gaps and sadly beggars pleaded. Disfigured limbs jostle, from rag bearing bodies, while stain teethed mothers carried tear stained and snot nosed children. All with pained eyes and gestures intimating money was needed for food. One is instantly disarmed as heart strings tug open eyes. Our looks were lowered to the floor with bowed heads feeling helpless at the sight. The lights turn green and the driver gushes forward with the flood of the other vehicles.
Racing past brightly coloured shrines decorated in oranges, yellows, greens and reds with vibrant ribbons and garlands draped from the arches and off golden images of the particular god worshipped, they awaken to their dream life. Beauty mixes with harsh reality, smiles rain through poverty and life spews through the streets of Delhi. The respectable tree lined avenues give way to rubbish strewn lanes of crumbly buildings and shanty towns. Heat seeps under the collar allowing dust to mix with droplets of sweat. People stare at the new comers. Eyes glimmer as they count their rupees. Outrageously decorated in tacky tinsel and bouncing Ganeshs, auto rickshaws duck and dive in clouds of cough inducing smoke. Blow your nose after an hour here and it will be filled with dirt black.
Our heads turns to follow an arc as our eyes fix on a beautiful bright green coloured bird perched on the fence of an army barracks, surrounded by lush gardens. And, so it goes as they sit on edge taking in the city sights and dreaming of exuberant country side and the golden beaches of the coast.
The monstrously large city is over bearing with its hectic streets, tight allies and asthmatic fume soaked air. One such lane crammed between buildings and littered with stalls, people, animals and both engine and peddled powered traffic reels the car in. The driver pulls up at Hotel Ajanta.
Porters rushed out from the large, bright, airy reception and snapped up our bags.
A plump, crimson saried woman ushered them in a side office. A quick glance at our bags prompted the woman to give assurances that the luggage would be taken to the room.
A solid mahogany desk took prominence in this modern Indian room. Walls were adorned by local icons such as the Red Fort- Lalquila , The national museum, prowling tigers amongst crumbling temples, and the world famous Taj Mahal. With a smile from the other side of the desk we were encouraged to sit. A snap of her fingers procured water for the weary travellers.
We watch the water arrive in beakers, wondering if it was bottled water.
Pleasantries over, a huge ledger was opened before us. India’s full of red tape and life can take an age for the simplest of tasks.
Checking into an Indian Hotel requires each persons name, address, passport number, expiry date, visa number, where you have come from, where you are going to, what’s your profession, how you travel or plan to travel, and how many days you plan to stay! Exhausting isn’t it?!
While we were toying with the water and following the rigmarole, the well-spoken lady garbled on about how we would be shown to our room shortly.
Her intentions were made clear when she thrust a book of possible tours in our faces.
Sometimes one feels like a walking opportunity for the business minded Indian and these entrepreneurs abound throughout the whole of the sub-continent encapsulating the full range from the very poor to the very rich. We found it difficult to interrupt the woman as she bombarded us with sales talk, but with their last ounce of strength they raised their hands saying
Her eyes narrowed and a tight-lipped smile begrudgingly acknowledged their sentiments. The lack of a quick sale clearly gave her great agitation.
A few rupees dropped into the palm of the porter’s hand before the door clunked shut, and wefinally had some refuge. Sighs of relief preceded the words “it’s clean!”. A fairly modern room, it had an Indian charm to it with touches like a bucket in the bathroom to compliment the midrange amenities.
Knox flopped on the bed with the remote control. Flicking channels searching for football, already having withdrawal symptoms, and not even 24hrs away from the UK. Miko lay on the bed stretching cramped limbs and with eyes closed in her mind she was finally spreading her wings and living the dream. After both had a shower, luxuriating in the therapeutic massage effects of the hot water before succumbing to tiredness and drifting into a sweet slumber.
The daylight blocking effects of the thick curtains had enabled a good sleep. But, now with the arrival of early evening hunger pangs rumbled stomachs. A roof top curry filled the gap, and the first pages of their journals were fed by the sights and the aromas of their strange surroundings. Fatigue still gripped educing an early night.
“Bark, bark, bark!”
All night long some pesky mutt wouldn’t give it a rest. Of course as soon as the sun rises the dog feels its time to lie down and bask. The canine shenanigans washed over us as the morning developed. This was Delhi, packed to bursting point with all kinds, real and imagined.
Certainly we were encouraged to stick to the agenda and get out of town. Big, bad cities are maybe the big cheeses but for us, they just don’t cut it.
We sliced our way past ram-shackled carts, speedy rickshaws, caged buses and sputtering trucks that crammed the dusty pot-holed streets. Our eyes guarded against the mayhem. A 15min walk to New Delhi railway station was an expedition along the cracked pavement housing a commotion of street vendors, cobblers, fortune tellers and hot food stalls selling spicy snacks straight from the pan, washed down with a hot sugary chai. It was a relief to finish in the air conditioned foreign tourist ticket office.
On seeing the counter clerks straight ahead and the information desk to our left we instinctively targeted the latter.
Our aim was to purchase tickets that would beat a trail from Delhi through, Jaipuir, Sawai Modpour, Udaipur, Ahmadabad to Mumbai and finally to the start of our beach tours beginning with a return to Palolem , Goa.
The stolid lady behind the desk declined to look up and make eye contact. No information was offered; a noticeable Indian trait requires specific and direct questions to be asked. Persistent we gained the required train names, numbers and times as well as how much the journey would cost.
The next task was to join the procession to the counter clerks. This was the foreign ticket office so even a long queue here was a mere centipede and not the millipedes of the jostling lines down stairs. Today was busy in the office as the winter season was gearing up. The arranged cushioned chairs and sofa’s offered the impatient westerners a more luxurious wait. Seven places from the front gives the idea that this wont take too long, but the counter clerks are in no hurry, no hurry at all. Pity is felt for the poor souls who dis-regard the information desk for they then come up against bureaucratic, officious pen pushers whose job it is to book tickets and take money not give out train details even though the computer screens in front of them provide this. For them this is a game of snakes and ladders and this is their big slippery snake.
Two spaces had been progressed when both men behind their desks on our side of the office decided to shut shop and cash up. Groans reigned but there’s no option but to wait. Knox took the opportunity to converse in his journal. Around paper backs appeared while others milled in chattering groups. The national dress or western version of it is donned by some as they descend into their perceived view of Indian culture. Sarongs, Pyjamas, scraggy cotton shirts mingled with dotted foreheads and saris as attempts are made to immerse into the culture of self-evaluation. Their fashion is such that locals turn around and ask “why?” Maybe it’s the local Ganja! It’s as if some tourists would walk around with a bucket over their head and sporting a pair of Speedo’s if that were a counties national attire. Miko huffed and puffed as she found her eyes wondering to the clock every 10 minutes. She focused intently on the booking agents as if to spell them to get on with it. This didn’t work off course as she give up with a sigh, relaxing back into the long wait.
The excuse that, ‘”This is India, you gotta expect it”, wears thin quickly. It is a tag that high-tech India wants to be disassociated with.
Armed with a pre-calculated price, we caught the clerk out as he tries to add a number of rupees for himself to the cost. There’s no apology or even shame, just a knowing smile and the famous Indian head wobble. We smiled back in satisfaction. Exasperating! After a couple of hours it was time to get the hell out of there.
Knox assured Miko that it was only a 5-10 min walk to Connaught Place. Experience taught to put a few plus signs in front of his estimated walking time. She humoured him and walked the 20 minutes into the concentric circles of Delhi’s classically facaded hub of western ideology. A late lunch was had at the air-conditioned ‘Café 100’, where dickey-bowed waiters ushered
We were made to feel genuinely welcome. It’s hard to beat a chilled beer in hot, sunny weather.
Afterwards we felt contented to stroll around the shops and restaurants that line the inner circle. Not being stared at gave a distinct advantage for relaxation as well off Delhites were more concerned with spending wads of rupees on universal brand names and feeding out of American food franchises.
Life whizzed by like a brightly lit funfair ride from the open top bicycle rickshaw that rattled them back to our hotel in the darkened evening. Nerves jangled as the flimsy frame came razor close to the roaring devils of Delhi’s automated traffic. Mesmerized we fumbled for the camera thankful we didn’t tumble on the side walk, when a wheel tips into a pot hole lurching the carriage sideways. The journey was a cheap thrill that only cost 10 rupees.
Not quite the top of the world but Ajanta’s roof top terrace offered some fascinating pictures of Delhi. We loved these times being faraway from tourism. Reality in its harshness and beauty. We sipped at our water and jotted some in our journals, but mostly we observed in awe of the surroundings. The cities sky-line is hazy at the best of times and this was it. Temperatures in the low 20’s Celsius making the city bearable and allowed an easier transition from the November cool of the UK. The noise of the place is just unreal. Silence is an alien concept. A fan fair of horns tooted incessantly tumbling in with the barking dogs, Hindi music, shouting kids, and growling engines. The bustling radiates from the ground rising into the air. The haze may as well be a collection of the senses as the kaleidoscope of smells, sounds, tastes and vibrant scenes waft into the atmosphere.
Outrageously painted flat-roofed buildings shoulder for position and prominence with the cities moving life blood and the dotted trees and gardens. All struggle to survive, growing and decaying, becoming a new layer of proved existence. The distant high rise offices, with their neon lights of the CBD offer a new place of worship to the traditional temples and mosques, and like the gold inlayed into these religious houses, the glass multi-stories are a reminder of the fabulous wealth that is generating this country.
Down below, we watched a grassless park, dusty and dishevelled but a haven for the tattered clothed kids that abound on these pitted streets. A couple of parched trees, tall, and threadbare, overlook a rocket tower, paint flaked, metal climbing frame that would have western parents up in arms. They don’t know how lucky they are! Yet everything is relative and the group of kids have a whale of a time with their make-shift wickets and bats as they dream of being the next ‘Tendulkar’ on one quarter of the parks cross path way. This is a back against a wall life that isn’t lived on the back foot.
A day of remembrance cast a quest for a peaceful existence within the mind. The troubles of the country were we were born, trying to put a lid on its violent, intolerant and confrontational mind-set lay thousands of miles away. Not the worst place on earth but a country hovering below average at learning the lessons to its best life. We were glad to be 5 floors up living life and watching birds in their ariel home. Pigeons and crows go about their daily labour; the pigeons pecking and cooing their wee dance, the crows squawking and chattering as they lord it up. And, high above, caught by the uplifting air, stretched wings soar and swoop as squadrons of hawks circle and keep an eye on the world below.
As the call to prayer blared out from the loud speakers tucked into the minarets of local mosques, we found amazement to catch sight of colourful flying kites. Strings stretch out to expert hands mastering their creations from tight roof-tops. It’s a different calmer world up here away from the hustle of the saturated lanes at ground level.
Paharganj, a swill of a large hectic Indian Bazaar flavoured by backpackers, an anthill of cheap grubby lodges, fake designer wear, and an array of eating dens lay five minutes round the corner from hotel Ajanta.
We cut a swath through the bedlam in their search for Dejam, which the guide book described as a discreet bar, serving excellent food. The place was so well hidden that it was bloody impossible to find.
The forlorn hunt saw us re-treat into the Metropolis restaurant at the edge of the bazaar. A few steps led to the tables and on the wall an interesting sign read, ‘Guests our kindly requested to switch off their mobile, due to the inconvenience to others. Arms, ammunition and pets are not allowed!’ This caused a giggle at the strange combination and we felt suitably reassured by such an absurd policy!
A meagre doughy pizza and spinach laden veg lasagne reminded us that such cuisine is best left to the Italians. The meal was a wash out and expensive for Indian standards as the taxes piled up. Even the hotels poor curry from the night before out-shone this!
An early rise saw us pile into the hotel’s pre-arranged taxi while darkness still shrouded the city. The glum, unamiable driver brought us to the main entrance of New Delhi station.
Unfortunately this was the wrong terminal for the Jaipur train and when we pointed this out to him the reply came back, “Yes, Yes”, in his I don’t care attitude. He refused to go further unless the price was doubled. Not to be ripped off we lugged the 50 kilos of luggage up the bridge stairs, crossing 15 platforms amidst dripping sweat and a multitude of stares. Finally the carriage awaited.
The A/C coach of all forward facing soft chairs, with air-craft like fold away trays, was a new experience in India, the usual rail journey involved the bench like seats of sleeper cars housing fold away beds that transport millions of passengers over the vast distances of the sub-continent. Some journeys can take as long as two whole days thankfully this was a little jaunt of 4 hours.
We squeezed along the narrow canter aisle before Knox heaved the humongous backpacks onto the overhead rack, worried that too much juddering motion may cause them to clatter to the floor or worse on to someone’s head. We settled into the rhythm of the tracks glad to see the back of Delhi’s huge metropolis.
Tigers prowled in our minds as Ranthambore drew ever closer. A stop off at the pink city was first and Knox’s dream of a delicious and diverse ‘eat all you want thali’ that would cost the princely sum of 30 rupees. A visit to Shiv restaurant six years ago had opened Knox’s taste buds to the scrumptious culinary delights of really fantastic and cheap Indian food. His feast was finished off by a kitchen tour into the dark cavernous medieval- like heart of the restaurant with its open fired ovens and was conducted by the delighted head waiter.
Miko declined the individual food tray proffered by the uniformed railway attendant as hygiene risks rumbled through her system. Knox on the other hand was curious to find out what was on offer, because food was never far away from his mind. A surprising breakfast was revealed as he poked around the tray. Two slices of plain white bread wrapped in paper matched with butter. An Inquisitive, yet repelled Miko quipped,
“What, do you get chips with the ketchup?”, as she spied the distinctive logo on the red sachet.
Knox laughed as he peeled back the lid of the warm foil box to reveal chips, a massive portion of 3, two tofu-style fingers, peas and carrots. Knox ate his confused breakfast to the incredulous disgusted looks of Miko.
Across the aisle sat Tom, a recently qualified lawyer at the ass end of a four month tour to several different lands. His lean frame, probably more so after a bout of Delhi belly, and dark curly hair with wisps of grey- blonde complimented his genial character and down to earth look. He lacked the pretentious, immodest attitude that mars too many travellers and haunting the name backpacker, making good conversation and showing real privilege in his freedom before he took up the cell of a London office. Sport was high on the agenda and time raced by.
Ploughing through a vibrant countryside relaxing under the cooler hazy blue sky of the dry winter season fresh after the monsoons of summer, the train eats up the track. Fields of green and dusty earth stretch out spattered with trees, dilapidated houses, haystacks and the flicking tails of fly tortured oxen. The concrete jungle and unstoppable juggernaut of traffic lay far behind, a distant memory. The wide open spaces of the plains allowed a fresh breath of life.
The platform jumbles into a flurry of activity when the train pulls into Jaipur station. Shouts echo across the choca-block stage. The hordes disembark into the chaos flooding around the obstacles of vendors, carts and hessian covered parcels on their way to the exit. Porter’s eyes light up as they see foreign tourists with heavy bags, and scowl in disappointment as they get the brush off. Tom’s help was a god send as another bridge loomed. The hot sun shone high in the late morning, blue sky dazzling the eyes to a squint. Miko’s hands raced a breezy gust to catch her skirt and save her smiling blushes.
We braced themselves for the ambush at the bottom of the stairs. Hotel touts and rickshaw drivers scrabbled with each other for their custom. Miko led the three in her favourite sport of haggling. Standing firm she procured two rickshaw drivers for a fair price knowing that the drivers, who always held the upper hand, were getting a good deal.
Jaipur, capital to the state of Rajasthan, is much smaller than the huge conurbations of Delhi, Mumbai or Chennai and has a more likable charm. Obvious disorder still reigns even within the walls of the regimented grid plan of the pink city. Atithi’s garden of luscious shrubbery and an immaculate lawn was an oasis in this dust bowl. We had called ahead but unfortunately there was no room in the Inn for Tom. The three arranged to meet for dinner and went their separate ways.
Cycle rickshaws cause a tug of war within the mind. A contradiction to the modern era yet an integral part of Indians charm. It’s a tough life, a real struggle for survival, and it seems cruel and callous to see these slight riders labour to pull their passengers along the busy streets. Behind most of these scrawny men with hardened muscles lies a family to feed, and generally a large one at that. Feelings of guilt, ridiculousness and even embarrassment can well up while perched on the narrow seat of the trap with heat bearing down on the droplet filled brow of the poor guy peddling in front. Don’t kid yourself though, as you watch these men cycle around all day looking for a fare and not getting anywhere, this is a job.
This is a lively hood, the difference between eating and not. Besides in a country choked with pollution this is a green mode of transport. Maybe one should not eat so much so they have less weight to carry!
These thoughts zipped through our minds when we agreed a price with Ikbal. Unlike the pouncers who loiter outside lodgings he didn’t badger or push, he just accepted where they wanted to go.
Subsequently the job and therefore the fare grew for him. We delighted as the genuine smiling Ikbal showed his note book with comments from other tourists that he had transported.
Our cycling host retreated to the shade as the pair entered the city palace complex. The Hawa Mahal, Palace of the Winds, was beautifully built with its façade being its most prominent feature. Intricate arched windows of brick lattice screening and balcony’s provided the necessary seclusion for ladies of the court, held by the custom of purdah, to enjoy street life and the many festivals that enriched this baked earth pink washed city.
We whirled through the independent tour appreciating our surroundings while bypassing the groups that thronged the precinct in the over whelming heat.
Tiredness crept onto us but we wanted to investigate the Observatory of Janter Manter. Ikbal waited patiently by the arched gate at the top of the hill leading from the back entrance. We hopped up and trundled on.
We were truly were amazed at the sight and size of this astronomical masterpiece. Our mouths gaped ajar in awe when we first set eyes on the open court yard layout. Like toys for Finn McCool, these brick devices catch the actions of the Celestial bodies, pin pointing the configuration of the heavens Jai Singh, designer and constructer, was captivated by.
Skipping around these exhibits, crawling in and out, and climbing up and down the gigantic structures like kids in a play park. Miko enthused at the beauty and extraordinary detail of the zodiac symbols. The camera clicked as their stomach’s butter flied seventeen metres up one side of a sun dial, not a place for vertigo sufferers. Outside steps, two feet deep, carried us back down a rail less staircase to the relieving touch of terra firma. Smiles buoyed the spirit. The observatory was fantastic wonderland, like a scene from an Alice fairy tale.
Tom waited at the plastic table sipping his cola when we arrived. The restaurant they choose was at the top of a hotel roof. The smell of urine and flaking paint made their minds up before they reached the top. The three of us copped out at Pizza Hut, were the crack was good, the food was staple and arrangements where made to meet the next day.
We were exhausted after returning from dinner. The weeks events, a long day of travelling and touring, coupled with lack of sleep due to the night time habit of Delhi’s canines had finally caught up with them. We slept in the next morning waking up at mid-day, and unfortunately missed the appointment with Tom. We never did get meeting up again and felt regret that email addresses hadn’t been swapped the night before.
An afternoon was lazed in Athiti’s garden. The sun was blistering hot as we took time to jot in their journals.
When darkness fell and Knox’s stomach started rumbling there was only one thing on his mind. Thali! He hadn’t remembered the name but knew were it was; besides he was armed with a photo of the waiter taken on our last visit. The dark streets were a hive of activity. With evening kicking into gear, locals piled into canteens and milled around stalls chattering as the traffic spewed past. Near the bus station two local canteen style restaurants stood side by side. This was it, but which one? Knox stepped forward and showed the photograph to a man standing at the open shuttered entrance who had been watching. As usual a few crowded around. One laughed in a knowledgeable manner.
“Ah Calcutta ha-ha!” he said triumphantly. We exchanged confused looks prompted a second glance by the guys, causing a spark of recognition to ignite a pointing finger to the dining hall next door. A few excited words in the local lingo brought forward the waiter. He looked at the picture with a broad smile and ushered them into the brightly lit restaurant.
Other patrons stared intently at the foreign guests. Immediately steel, portioned platters were brought and a feast of rice and chapatti’s accompanied by five different curries and sweet biscuity crumble was served.
Miko ate frugally while Knox left looking like a smiling Buddha with his stomach pressing through his shirt, gratified for this return visit. The price had gone up by five rupees, inflation that was easy to bare!
A gloomy, grubby a/c carriage greeted us when we next boarded the wildlife express. The practically empty car was destined for Sawai Modhupur. All minds were trained on tigers. This was the stop for the acclaimed Ranthambore National park, the setting that guidebooks claim your best chance to see these majestic cats. We choose a different park for our second attempt yet were mindful that tigers remain an elusive customer, especially with such low numbers world wide. Would fortune be on their side?
We were full of excitement as we drove up Ranthambore Road to their lodgings at Ankur Resort. That excitement would slowly evaporate. A grand gated entrance, complete with uniformed security, and a modern glass frontage to the main reception was a promising start. The large spiral staircase with its painted tree-like columns was a prominent and appropriate feature for this jungle lodge. Even though dim the large open planned reception hall continued the ostentatious theme. However, at the desk an instinctive alarm was triggered by the laboured smiles of the disinterested staff. The entrance led through a half lit corridor decked in tatty tiger posters and to an annex off the main building. Here we were shown a disappointing dingy, dark room housing a squad of afternoon mosquitoes. We weren’t having this!
We left our bags in the room and went in search of another hotel that would meet their expectations. After sighting a few guest houses we came to a fairly new resort that was brighter and more understated than the pretentious Ankur. A round of negations offered a price comparable to that already being paid, but the room was of a much higher standard. A rickshaw brought us back to Ankur Resort to retrieve their bags. A shocked and dismayed management were forced into action to save face.
“Sir, please look at this room, its much nicer!”, as they showed a room at the top of the spiral staircase. Straight talk ensured that they would pay no extra for this room even though it was supposedly several hundred rupees more expensive. Tired, we accepted this new room. The rickshaw driver showed obvious disappointment at the news as it looked like they would have been the only occupants at the ‘new hotel’.
Away from Sawai Modhupur town centre one is trapped in a village of resorts, hotels, restaurants and tacky souvenir shops lining the way to the park entrance. The area is so geared up for wealthy tour groups on short holiday stints, that independent travellers budgeting for a longer sojourn are being priced over the odds for everything from accommodation to simple water. The park tours were no different. Rules understandably only allow a certain amount of jeeps in the park and everyone who comes wants to see tigers.
Tour operator’s pre-book jeeps weeks in advance enabling them to grossly inflate the price, holding park visitors to ransom. The alternative is the cheaper ‘canter’, a noisy, worn-out, convertible truck that seats about twenty, painted khaki in an attempt to blend in with its surroundings. The romance of this beautiful countryside slips into the undergrowth as it hides from the rampant commercialism beating an ever-winding path. Tour groups don’t care how much they’re paying. It’s cheaper than what they’d normally pay on holiday. They have no idea about relative prices in India because they never bother to find out. Everything is handed to them on a silver plate, organized by others and they don’t attempt to discover the real India. Maybe their consciences couldn’t cope.
The uncomfortable feel of being surrounded once in a shop takes away from any crafts, paintings or knick-knacks that they have. All the staff are pushing, shoving this and that in ones face trying to hijack your wallet. Dazed and in need of air the retreat is sounded. Instantly, like an email from bogus rich people who need your help to get their money out of Africa, the sob story gets fired at you.
“My artist colleague here needs the money tonight”, rattles off the manager.
“His wife is going for an operation today, she is giving birth. No-one has bought today and this is his last chance”.
This isn’t fun as one scrambles out of the shop to escape. The guilt trip sales tactics make a mockery of the millions of poverty stricken Indians who struggle for breathe everyday. Their crowbar technique precludes any further visit to a craft shop along the road. It’s hard not to be cynical and sceptical in Ranthambore.
Our hand was forced to take a couple of seats on a canter for the next morning. The jeeps were beyond what they wanted to pay and the majority of the money wasn’t even going to were it was most needed, the tigers and other park animals. Instead it was filling the greedy coffers of the bulging tour companies.
At six in the morning the black of the night was still in the last throws of its power. We shuffled about the gate, wrapped in layers of clothing to protect against the early morning cold. About thirty others joined the mission. Jeeps and canters thundered by, some full and some yet to be filled. Of the two canters to stop at Ankur, ours was the second. We managed to bag a front seat just behind the driver, and huddled together in hope. With a guide in the front, the driver rumbled the half full truck forward. Progress was slowed as the truck trundled in and out of several lodges, picking up other passengers, while the driver hopped out and nattered. The last group ambled out well after dawn break and, instead of taking up their seats at the back of the canter; we decided that the divider between passengers and driver was the best place to plonk.
Yelling and the sudden on rush of thirty ware waving sales men greeted our arrival at the park entrance. Furry tigers, printed sweaters, hats and gloves were amongst the merchandise thrust at the besieged passengers. We had the feeling that these furry toys were as close as we would get to tigers on this trip.
There is no doubt that Ranthambore is a truly striking landscape. A decaying stone arch greets the flocking tourists as they pass into the park, setting a hushed tone and increasing the anticipation that hangs in the air. A rugged hill climb through thick bush and ancient trees traversed the canter past creeper-skirted ruins of this once royal hunting ground for the Rajputs and onto the plateau. No bird or animal, never mind the big cats, had been sighted by the time we reached the corn coloured grasses were the ground levelled out. Everyone’s eyes scoured the sun-bleached scrub, peering into the spaced out trees and fiery leaves, straining to see wildlife. Cameras at the ready with fingers on the button, the beady-eyed tourists try to will the coy animals out into the open.
The whining engine and squeaky springs lurched to a halt. Spotted deer lifted their heads and turn to look at these gawkers disturbing them from their breakfasts. A lack of pugmarks in the sandy dirt gave a relaxed air to her and her young but her guard was still evident. Everyone clicked with glee at this first sighting. There was no whispering word from the guide to explain about the private life of a chital. This silence continued throughout the whole expedition. Fleeting sights of pecking peacocks were caught amidst the twisted gnarled bark and long grass. An odd bird squawks from their camouflaged position within the trees. We felt a shiver from the lingering night chill as the truck passed a lake that shimmered in the morning sun. A few waders get busy in the distant water but are to far away to stir interest from the group.
After an hour the driver pulls into the ranger’s camp. An agitated Miko recalled her dislike for restrictive tour groups. This was as much a time wasting exercise as anything else. Although it was a relief to use the bush toilet! We wandered in the grass taking a quiet moment together. We were the first to get back on board, eager to get on with the hunt.
More time was wasted as the group was driven ten minutes beyond the camp, only for the vehicle to be turned and its tracks re-traced past the rangers singular cantonment in the direction they originally came. There was no fumbling for camera’s and a near audible groan replaced the “ohs” and the “ahs” when the dis- interested driver pulled up behind another canter for the umpteenth time allowing passengers to view deer. A jeep hurtled by as the calm silence was once more disrupted by insensitive traffic. As the driver rounded a corner, Knox spotted some paw prints but was ignored by the driver and so called guide. They were on a schedule and it was time to make for the exit. Hats and jumpers were removed as the sun continued to rise. A few playful monkeys bounced on over hanging branches as the canter passed underneath. A whoop of excitement stirred from the languid group. Heads ducked and swivelled as groping hands reached in bags for cameras but the truck sped on. It must have been breakfast time!
Ranthambore was not the right place for us to realize their dreams of seeing tigers in their natural habitat. We decided to call time on this expedition early rather than give these cowboys any more money. An afternoon trip to the railway station saw our departure brought forward two days, and we would now leave on tomorrows night train. We felt relief to be leaving from this package holiday circus.
A duff meal, scowling staff, cold water instead of the advertised hot and a big mosquito problem were just the start of Ankur Resorts problems. If it were a football team it would be at the wrong end of the league after receiving a pasting week in and week out. Even bad sides have a star though and here it was the garden. An immaculate green lawn is edged and split in half by tall trees. Dabs of pink flowers and yellow shrubs contrast the greenery. Bird’s song and squirrels scrabbled as a blissful afternoon shone over us on the day of our departure.
The train wasn’t due to depart until 11.45 at night allowing them to put their feet up and listen to Leonard Cohen’s poetic vocals echo from the tinny speakers of their personal CD player. The beers were got from the English ‘wine shop’ down the road and were less than half the price than the overcharging resorts. Knox cheekily got a couple of glasses that he needed to re-clean from the restaurant.
We had half the garden to themselves. The other half, the pool area, was occupied by unashamed tourists who don’t feel the culture and strip down to give all foreigners a bad name. The sense of disappointment was put behind us as we looked forward to new sights. Off course the resorts attempts to extort extra money were thwarted when the ‘triple the price transport’ was declined by us, who easily managed to organize our own way to the station. These hotels must think every visitor came down in the last shower. We kept to our firm politeness and held their heads high as we bade goodbye.
An hour late the train rolled into the station. Wheels clunked on the metal tracks and breaks screeched as carriage after carriage found the platform.
Most of the lights were out at this post midnight hour, as people had bunked down for the night. We screened the carriages to determine which one was ours. The crowded and noisy second class cars were easily discounted by the bars on the windows that distinguished them from the more comfortable a/c sleepers.
Second class takes up the majority of the train. Even though inside second is split between the hard wooden benches of unreserved and the softer cushioned seat beds of reserved, the caged look of the outside remains the same. We had chosen one of the few thick windowed air-conditioned sleepers. Once again opting for the two-tier version rather than the cramped three tier for that little bit of added privacy.
A scroll of the finger down the reservation list tacked to the side of the car at the door confirmed that this was the right carriage to enter. A vague blue night-light offered a dim passage within as snores rose up from behind closed drapes.
Knox struggled to view the berth numbers as we fumbled down the narrow aisle. The absurd boarding brings out Miko’s weird sense of humour as she starts to giggle at the rucksack straps catching drawn curtains and disturbing disgruntled passengers. The comedy continued with Miko struggling up the chain to the top bunk while a fully laden and unamused Knox turned quickly catching a button on his back trouser pocket which spat off and pinged a dozing mans head. She continued to laugh at a stressed Knox whose annoyance is increased when she shines a torch in every corner on the hunt for cockroaches. This illumination was a throw back to the rail journey six years ago where one of these creep-inducing creatures screamed Miko awake as it crawled up her arm.
With Knox’s lack of sense of humour, Miko stropped into the made up bottom bunk flicking on her reading light and drawing her curtains. The Alsatian in Miko came alive as she guarded the base from behind her drapes, listening to every move. Glad to finally get his head down Knox struggled into the bed above.
To role out of bed and into the romantic city of Udaipur is a dream. The rugged, parched scenery entices one into the valleyed city. A hardy land in a constant battle against failing seasonal rain comes out fighting as the lake holds its water and the flora maintains its dry green. Surprised, we were plucked from the usual station melee and offered a reasonably priced rickshaw from the start. Poking our heads out from this whining hairdryer on wheels, they glimpsed at the labyrinth of alleys, milky washed haveli’s, busy market streets, temples, guest houses, and signs for rooftop garden restaurants offering fantastic views over the lake from six stories up.
It can be hard to negotiate or shop around for lodgings when one is lugging heavy bags about. Many hoteliers figure they’ve got you by the short and curlies and one doesn’t want to hold up a rickshaw driver or deviate from the haggled route as this will invariably cause rupee signs to roll to jackpot in his eyes. We got dropped off at Ratan Palace, a guidebook recommended haveli. From the description our imagination had drawn a different picture than that which transpired. The gaff was very average on the cleanliness stakes, being more basic and of a lower standard than expected.
Initially we had booked into Badi Haveli for the original day of arriving but the quick exit from Ranthambore brought them to Udaipur early giving us the option of checking the guest house out before checking in.
This is were we started the hunt in a rabbit warren of a city. Up a tight ally, a complex of higgledy pigglidy buildings rose in the air. Steep steps and a stone archway brought them into a garden courtyard. The haveli had a quaint eastern charm as more rail-less steps brought them onto a flat roof walkway atop the close towering outer wall. The clean dim but airy room was viewed and the window seat offered a different vantage point for the eyes to explore the scene spread out below. There was no attached bathroom though and the communal one was a bit of a hike in this old building. The property beside had no courtyard but the similar feeling room did have an en-suite. The vivacious lady owner didn’t apply pressure. “Its okay, take a look around”, but gave us a price to mull over as we stepped across the alley to Udai Niwas.
A smiling, young man greeted us at the entrance to this six-storey building that fronted the main road holding off the cram behind it. Each room was individually decorated using imagination, splashes of bright colour, mosaic light reflecting mirrors and cleanliness that bettered the viewed others. This was the right place. Miko led the negotiations and a fair price was had; only one hundred rupees more expensive than the so-called palace we were booked into; yet a gulf of class separated the two. It was time to return for the bags.
We had been away 45 minutes and it wasn’t even eight thirty am yet. The unhappy response by the family owners was expected, but Knox knew three people had arrived just behind them looking for two rooms when only one was available. They had settled to share a room. An air of arrogance hung in the atmosphere around the father who was now demanding one hundred rupees for the time they’d been away.
We therefore approached the three people explained that the room was being vacated and it was now available for them.
The single guy, who was bunking in with a couple on the floor, initially jumped at the opportunity but then stuttered to allow himself a better bargaining angle. All of a sudden his enthusiasm had waned in the face of the owner, thus weakening our position.
We took the hundred rupees sting in the knowledge that their chosen accommodation would afford them a vastly increased appreciation of their stay in this dreamy city.
Something that was priceless. We made a quick exit and a weight fell from our shoulders.
The room was colourful without being garish. Set a foot in from the pale pink walls, a thin black strip boarded the meter by a half-meter marble slab floor tiles that contrasted well with their whitish hue and veins of green and brown. A serene brightness from the morning sun penetrated the room at the alcove window. Here terracotta walls reach to the floor where a two-meter long cushion created a warming seat. Simple marble tiles were used to make shelves giving style to a practical use of the other alcoves. The simple plain walls influenced the effectiveness of the large feature taking up the space behind the double bed. Here a delightful mirror was the centre for the Rajput arch styled surround. A combination of mosaic and delicate paintwork enriched with vivid blues, reds, greens and a touch of earthly brown stood out against the white background as the flower chain laced a design along the edge. The icon at the peak of the curvaceous arch were a pair of romantic swans posed in the act of touching beaks. A tumble of colourful mosaiced flowers lay at the sides, square to the foot of the piece, and haloed by silvery splashes set into the base of the white plaster.
The room was alive with imagination and not just thrown together with the basics because it is expected travellers just accept what they are given; an idea bred from the difficulties in seeking an alternative. The ceiling was the proverbial cherry on top. Simple in the main, a plain off white look was cantered by the practical fan. It was the skirting that lifted the whole wall above the ordinary as the decorators had continued to keep to the tone set by the attitude of this decorative city. Deep colours tracing classical designs were entwined with flowers and leaves to crown the work of art.
A clean tiled and unobtrusive bathroom along with an upturned table casket and woven stool gave added practicality to a beautiful piece of art.
Our eyes lit up the instant we set sight of this picturesque chamber. It was an easy trade to make and We felt the better for it as we relaxed in the romance of this comfortable thoughtful abode. Even at the cost of a bit more money, its value was immensely better than Ratan Palace.
Namaste and smiles greeted us from the shoebox, general stores as they trailed the narrowed twisted streets in their search for a bank. There were many moneychangers in and around the hotels but they offered a poor rate, pocketing a good slice for theirselves.
Money that has been worked hard to earn means that one likes to maximize its potential, besides a walk through these back allies and up main roads act to open up the city, discovering a local scene separate from the tourist district. The sun shone and the exercise was good, as long as one avoided stepping in cow dung or strewn heaps of trash.
A few scraggy, nervous dogs encouraged them to stop at a store to buy three rupee biscuits. We made chitchat with the elderly owner who was enthusiastic about selling them more, producing a photograph to show off his tourist credentials. The purchase of postcards kept him happy.
Some arseholes leched at Miko, making rude gestures in a sly manner spitting derogatory comments in the local lingo. The type of idiots that belittle themselves by their own coarse manner and cocksure body language is universally and easy to read. We learned to ignore them. A Good rate justified the walk and Knox gained some satisfaction that his queries on directions served to show that the right road had been taken. More confident and less alien, we were now ready to take on sightseeing.
The city palace stands proudly at the edge of Lake Pichola. Strong and tall the plain walls are coroneted by rich architecture giving turrets and battlements a noble majesty. Uninterrupted mountains give this royal home of arched windows, domed peaks, gardens and courtyards a shining location. Visions of decorated elephants regimented in line for the march into battle and being checked by their commander, flowed through our heads as we stood in the courtyard. Intricate mosaic-tiled doorways or simple trees, shrubs and lawns around ornate fountains decorate the palace complex.
Inside the thick stoned walled grandeur was complimented by a practical protection of tight corridors on varying levels and steep steps that connected the sections and history of the castle, designed to confuse possible intruders. The museum was a room who’s walls where of shiny marble with exclusive miniature artwork hanging and the stained glass of the windows flickered in the sunlight. It was a gallery though, and the past wasn’t grasped with effect as the cleared rooms were unadorned of the personal life of the many Rajput royals that once lived here. The jabbering crowds stampeded through the mind that chased the ghosts of the past. These flitting thoughts faded out of reach as we squeezed past the groups who followed the tour guides like sheep and bottle necked the narrow passages.
A breather was taken in the Zenana Mahal, the ladies quarters, a dolls house of exquisite rooms with secretive alcoves and delicate petite portraits with Krishna being the most celebrated deity on show.
This is the city of the rooftop. A selling point for the guesthouses and eateries that is rivalled only by the prosaic drama of James Bond’s Octopussy. Standing atop six floors, Udaipur’s treasures were opened up under the dazzling sun. Lake Pichola shimmered and like a mirage the Lake Palace hotel appeared to float on its surface. The evenings drew a magical picture as a fiery globe sinks behind the barren hills creating a wide sweeping orange haze.
Local Wedding processions fan-fared by trumpeting bands are regularly viewed dancing their celebrations in the streets below. The true kings of these heights are the marauding monkey’s who playfully go where ever they wanted giving dining that extra edge. Drag ones eyes away from this enchanting vista and catch how this flat-topped metropolis bows down to give prominence to the imposing city palace and the glinting gold peaked pyramid of the Jagdesh Temple.
The panorama extended for miles. We leaned on the yellow painted railings and happily gulped it in as we sipped on the kingfisher. A disturbance below in the hemmed in streets was announced by the blaring sirens of police cars and jeeps as they raced ahead of the uniformed troops. These baton wielding, gun carrying, moustachioed foot soldiers rattled a few cages, asked a few questions, checked a few ID’s, and rapped the doors of some establishments. They had marked their presence and the tension was felt throughout the district. Hurried footfalls climbed the steps behind us.
“You must put the bottles under the table!” was the nervous request of the young hotel manager. “What’s going on?” enquired Knox, as we both wondered what all the fuss was about, and did as asked.
“No-one has licenses and they are checking for alcohol!” came the reply.
An understandably nervy response, but it didn’t tell the whole story surrounding this show of force. The sight of a heavily escorted and darkened new Mercedes, a definite Indian rarity, sprinting away from the area left an intrigue that would never be solved. The police retreat was quick and normal life resumed. The conversation tacked away from the hullabaloo and coursed onto the subject of relationships.
Although we bore no rings, husband and wife was how we expressed themselves in India. This saved a lot of time and energy for an opinionated Miko who didn’t want to argue the case that marriage isn’t the be all and end all of a union for this very conservative society.
The first time in India had taught us this.
“No, I have a French girlfriend”, was the response to the question of whether Mangesh had tied the knot. The impression we assumed quickly unravelled as he divulged more information. Seduced by a promiscuous traveller Mangesh still clung to the belief that his ‘French girlfriend’ was anything more than a passing acquaintance and he was not put off by the fact that since their brief encounter the year before contact had been severely limited. “Would you not settle for a nice Indian girl?” teased Miko. “No, there are too many complications.
You can’t hold hands with them in the street. I prefer the openness of a western girl”. Miko’s eyebrows raised at his naivety.
We bobbed on the surface of Lake Picholo as the captain coxed the small tour boat away from the jetty. The fierce morning sun was unrelenting and the group was glad of the shade from the wooden roof.
The outboard kicked in and the journey around this eight square kilometres of water began on its anti-clockwise route. Cameras were poised.
The superb white wash structure of the Jag Niwas, now the Lake Palace hotel, emerged from the calm twinkling water to elegantly observe life around it. Always prominent in ones mind even if physically it is only out of the corner of an eye or over the shoulder, the regal summer residence of old captivates. Yet it was the whole surroundings that had the video camera rolling in our hands.
We had chosen the seat well, the back inside seat that afforded us uninterrupted views of the star attraction in the centre while enabling great shots of the outer sights.
The lively steps of the large high arches at Ganguar Ghat, where clothes were washed and families bathed filled lenses with activity and strained the excited clicker fingers. Colours flared as dhobi wallahs and wives thrashed dhotis and saris without mercy, people scrubbed lather on their bodies, and children dive bombed to send great splashes in the air. The continuing arc brought them past the Northern entrance to the lake. The graceful arches and gentle incline of a Venice-type bridge, acting as a boundry marker, straddled the narrow passage leading the canals to Fateh Sagar the parched sister of Picholo. Shoreline hotels bank right to the water following to the lands edge, as the boat broke for more open cruising.
We felt the romance, as our eyes took in the charming sight of a gondola style craft, complete with honey-mooners. The couple lunched in the carved pavilion draped with delicate lace that stood in the body of the vessel. “Oh how romantic, someday I will do that instead of a dopey tour boat”, Miko thought.
The foreground to the serenity of the Lake Palace behind. It’s finely sculpted windows and soft snowy white domes accepted the stares from its inquisitive adorning public with stately aplomb. We gasped as they imagined making this grand residence their abode and the red-carpeted jetty drew their eyes into the splendour.
For now imagining was as close as they got to set foot on what was once Jag Niwas. We sailed onto Jag Mandir, a second palace on the lake, and the captain anchored up. Large, stone elephant statues commanded the outer protective ivory-coloured walls. Inside lay the peaceful gardened courtyard with its flowers, shrubs and creeping vines that were gracefully tended to by the palaces only inhabitants, the three gardeners. An unlived in eeriness enveloped the palace that consisted of open passageways within the outer wall, gazebos in the corner and a main hall that had been turned into a small museum. After twenty minutes we were shepherded back to the boat for the trip to the mainland.
It takes a while to successfully defend and bat off the busy tailors touting for business. The lines are well rehearsed and the show continues day and night.
“My brother is just back from London, he’s here on holiday”, goes the story.
“He’s brought some great designer styles”.
One is meant to stand back in amazement as the name-dropping begins. Ably fend off the tailor the first time and they soon lose interest. We listened to one guys friendly enquires as to were they where from, but were not impressed by his sales patter. We explained ‘maybe some other time’ as we tried to let him down gently before continuing their early evening stroll to the Ganguar Ghat.
A huge elephant swung his head under the arches that lead to the ghat steps. His giant frame brought awe and curiosity and a big undertone of wariness. Miko stepped back and moved away disgusted that such a noble animal is confined as a tourist attraction to the city. Knox still wanted to get a photograph but will not use the elephant to take a ride on. Timidly he strokes the rough blue-grey skin covered with coarse hairs. He found a real wonder to be in a position to do this but was wary of how well elephants like these are treated. Luckily this big guy was not chained up and not acting as if heavily stressed. Animal welfare is of paramount importance to us.
Together we moved through to the landing platform. We shared a slice of chocolate cake bought from one of the delicious German bakeries dotted around this quarter of the city. It was funny to watch a couple of wandering cows take it easy in the retreating sun. Their freedom allows them the luxury of being inquisitive and they root in the rotting rubbish to see what they can find. One cow couldn’t be bothered and lay down to chew the cud.
On our return to Udai Niwas the Indian lady who had offered them a room in the building next door patted the concrete step for Miko to sit beside her. She was genuine when she stated that she wouldn’t hold it against us if they didn’t take the room and seemed to be of opinion that friendly chitchat was of more importance than money. She was dressed in a typical Indian sari but had a confidence and manner that was more in tune with the West. She introduced us to her shy husband who quietly stayed in the background. She smiled well and surely knew how to chat. She talked and laughed out loud gesturing with her hands. It didn’t matter what she gossiped about as she flowed through the topics of family, friends and business, and would have gone on all night if they had let her. We felt the liveliness and joy and giggled to bid her goodnight.
“You like your privacy?” she asked bluntly with a mischievous smile.
“You like going to bed early?” she nudged Miko with a glint in her eye and a couple of winks.
A tad bewildered by this unexpected twist at the conversations end, we gasped with rosy cheeks, laughed and expressed that genuinely we were just tired, before making a quick exit.
Ah, the trusted guide book eh! Don’t let their rough maps take away from your senses or one may find oneself up a blind ally. Anyhow this detour to the post office gave us a chance to dispatch a bundle of pens to smiling kids as well as giving Knox a Pamplona style brush with danger. The bustling, narrow street would have been a tight squeeze even for two rickshaws to pass. Shops housed in crumbling two and three story tumble downed buildings of blue, white and pink flaky paint lined both sides as the open fronts showed their wares. Gold chains and bracelets, stacked with trinkets smiled from the window of the jewellers. Rolls of cotton and silk piled in large quantities lined the tailors like a haphazard rainbow. Proudly fixing his metallic display of pots and pans, the shop boy beams as his boss counts his latest sale. The boy at a similar store a few doors down gets a cuff around the ear by the frowning owner because the sale wasn’t his. Lunghi’s are hitched up as chatting men chew over their thoughts at food stalls steaming up some fresh samosas and bhajis. Flies flit from turd to dog to the decaying veg that is strewn on the wayside, a gourmet meal for the holy cow, rummaging canines and attracted vermin.
A motorcycle ploughs through the throng, huge bundles top the heads of some saried women, and scruffy kid’s dash about playing games. Gossip abounds in whispered tones as females eye a heated discussion at the corner ahead while picking the daily vegetables that splash tropical colour on the bed of the stationary cart.
Threads of doubt started to tie a knot in Knox’s mind as to the validity of their route. The blaring horns and swirling dust made Miko huff and puff, and her need to find a toilet increased.
“Are we even on the right road?” she asked.
“I don’t know!” came the reply.
“So why are we still walking this way, surely we should have reached there already by your wonderful estimate!” Miko fired in with impatient sarcasm.
“I’m just following the dopey map, we’ll just go a little bit farther!” stropped a beleaguered Knox.
The guidebook exasperated him sometimes with their duff information. Miko held on a little bit longer.
Miko pushed ahead passing a cow on her inside. Knox, with directions on his mind and finger in the book, went to follow. The cow had other ideas. Flicking her tail she looked over her shoulder, 10” long horns menacingly visible. Huge brown eyes glared with intent. Then the body followed. Knox was certainly the intended target as her head dipped and nudged forward in a butting motion. He wasn’t about to argue and beat a hasty retreat.
He was given a defiant stare before the cow flicked her tail in triumphant warning as she plodded on. Crossing the road and marking time for a few seconds to allow the narky cow a head start. Knox tried once more to pass. Miko marched on oblivious to the contest. This wasn’t going to be as simple as that. The cow’s eyes burned a sideways glance and she banked around, dipping that horny head and making to charge all in a second’s motion.
The rear of a parked car gave a modicum of safety to his retreat as the cow advanced a few steps towards him. His heart raced in the face of this intimidation as his mind struggled with the ridiculous humour of the situation. Some locals had gasped at this latest twist to the unfolding drama, others suppressed giggles and smiles, and yet even they edged back in the nervous tension. The misbehaving, tetchy bovine trod on.
Still unaware Miko was 25metres ahead leaving Knox no option but to call for her. He shouted a quick explanation that filled in the gaps as to why a few people like him, were standoffish behind the cow. Miko tickled inside as she realized that this scary mamma was giving Knox the run around! Letting several meters to open up between him and the holy cow’. Hugging the far wall he slipped past, putting in an extra kick to his step to gain distance and catch Miko up.
Fifty meters further it became evident that this was the wrong way so they turned with dread to retrace their steps. Thankfully it seemed that trouble had wondered up a side alley. Certainly this was the most plausible explanation for her disappearance. Soon the correct road was found, Miko eventually got to empty her bladder and postcards were safely mailed.
Once the sight seeing is over five days can be a bit of a drag. It’s a struggle being at a loose end but sometimes one has to hang loose’ for a while. It suited us this time around as the obligatory sickness hit. A touch of Delhi belly for Miko with watery poo that splashed the bowel and a mystery ear-ache for Knox gave time for reflection. The dream is in the past and the reality of their present reigned. Under the watchful eye, Jagganath peered from his Jagdesh temple, Miko lay within her own sanctum of the net covered bed. Protected in this art house room from the afternoon sun, she let the traffic ease through the streets of her mind. The air is disturbed by the swish of the ceiling fan that sways the damp clothes on their washing line. Riders in the storm floats into the ears strengthening the calm, counteracting the back ground beeps and whining rickshaw engines. Even though she lives in brief confinement, Miko’s day-to-day traffic jams have eased now that she has time on her side to produce the magic from within. The pictures of dreams and reality have a definite shaded partition with the reality now in full Technicolor while the dream hangs as a prized sketch on the memory wall. A guide through the transition from conception, passing the hard work of realization and into real life of touching. Though her day to day living goes on as she still washes, eats, drinks, and concerns herself with the rituals of a daily life, Miko has the taste of success. Life is much more now as she surveyed the roof gardens on the mint edged, cream walled haveli’s and winks at the glint of the sun off the gold peaks atop the temple tower of Jagganath’s abode.
A broken down rickshaw didn’t hamper our journey out of Udaipur. Knox’s time keeping and his insistence to allow for mishaps ensured there was no stress when the engine conked out halfway to the station. After pulling the starter several times the driver stood in front of the on-coming headlights of a colleague and waved him in. With the fares split and the bags transferred we were on our way again.
Miko’s poop had kept running, toilet roll was in short supply and Knox wanted to ration it! Miko was adamant that she would not; under any circumstances use the jug of water or her left hand to wipe her ass! The traditional Indian method.
The loos on trains in India, especially on a lengthy trip, can be a challenge. If you’re lucky it’ll be western style, if not then you’ll have to get used to squatting on two grips for the feet with a hole in between. The squat areas are usually covered in piss and shit that have missed the hole and one must take extreme care that loose clothing remains hitched up. A very difficult knack! Whatever the toilet, the waste that manages to go down the hole flushes straight onto the track. The intense smells have one reaching for the sick bag. For the whole journey, all Miko could think about was a hot soapy shower.
The carriages were strange to the rest of India as they rode on a narrower gauge. Doors opened up off a corridor into separate compartments, housing four bunks and potluck as to who would occupy the other two. It was an older car, but that was no excuse for dirty linen and a crummy unclean floor. Their companions were a middle-aged Indian woman and man business team. With shoes off and legs crossed we relaxed opposite them on the lower bunk. We caught up with our journals and felt the querying Indian nature wonder.
“I see you are writing?” enquired the woman with a touch of nosiness.
“Our journals”, Knox stated, and the conversation began.
They were sales people for Texsa, a water proofing company. She had travelled extensively in her profession and was dressed in western style. Both spoke good English. There was a hospitable offer to share their meal but with present dodgy tummy syndrome we declined. As is, they were forced to try something in their parcel. Miko continued to resist but after a few no’s Knox felt obliged to accept a sticky, almost luminous syrupy Indian sweet. Knox tried not to screw up his face as they watched him intently.
“It’s very sweet”, he said as the goo slid down his throat. He couldn’t finish it all and discreetly disposed of the remainder.
Conversation fizzled out as tiredness crept on. The lights were dimmed and we fell to slumber as the Indian pair nattered on well into the night.
Attempts to obtain a retiring room for a few hours in Ahmedabad station while waiting for our connecting train were foiled. At 5am the concourse was already a hive of activity. Indian cities truly are places that never sleep. To escape the bustle we lugged ourselves and belongings up to the quiet 1st floor. From the gallery we watched the crowd grow. Expectant passengers, some sprawled sleeping on open rugs, while others breakfast, sit and chat or just mill about, share the cool floor tiles with parcels, boxes, rolled up blankets and suit cases. Scantly, threadbare dogs scrounged for the first meal of the day all while trying to avoid the kicks and hisses away. It’s everyone for themselves as the jostling queues snake back from the ticket counters. We were glad to be looking down from above and are even happier when the train departed at 7am.
Shantytowns with masses of tin-roofs and blue tarpaulin draws one in and then absurdly you catch sight of satellite dishes prodding above the parapet. Mumbai, seventeen million people squeezed in and a glut of paradoxes like the pampered pets who get walked by the servants through the dishevelled streets. We hated this place and begrudgingly accepted that they had to spend a night here. At central station car park, the tired yellow and black Ambassador cabs were lined up. Knox was failing in negotiations even though the drivers were trying to rip them off. Miko wasn’t one for backing down.
“Ask the policeman the right price”, came the spirited voice of a flowery dressed, sweet smiling mature European lady. She was very comfortable with her surroundings, having the confidence of Miss Marple to send the cheating drivers slinking off to the background. The snidely, leering driver fumed when he dropped them off at the wrong side of a busy 6 lane junction and only got the agreed 60 rupees instead of the 250 rupees he wanted.
Hotel City Palace did not live up to its name. After an eagle-eyed inspection of a few rooms, seeing a couple with obvious sanitation problems, we opted for a clean, air-conditioned shoebox with shared facilities at the top of the building. At least this floor had been recently renovated. With the subterfuge of phoning another hotel from City Palace’s tiny lobby, we put rucksacks on backs as if to leave. We wanted to organize a late checkout without having to pay extra as the extortionate price for the room still neared what they paid for their Delhi comforts.
Bollywood has a lot to answer for here, like the extraordinary cost of £3,000 for a typical shanty dwelling, a lot of Indian doe! This is the grotesque side of the sub-continent, it is huge and in your face. Technically advanced and yet socially inept at a level beyond the family where they can be the most caring people on earth with generations looked after under one roof.
In Mumbai every square inch of pavement is in use. Shiny shoed business men, bare footed rag pickers, designer trainers of the young and trendy and sparkly sandals of fashion conscious women all snake past a multitude of stalls and straight through the lounge of a family living on the street. Suddenly feeling invasive one finds oneself scrambling off the curb and onto the road giving room to the babies sleeping near their mothers who are checking for lice in children’s hair, and weary patriarch’s reading the daily newspaper. A pen makes a kid smile so much while his counterpart in the western world would be trying to work out the joke, and wondering when the real gift was coming, really makes a statement.
In the morning we decided to go and cash in some travellers cheques at a bank to save them dealing with the heavy levying of the moneychangers in the Goan resorts. Several choices lay only minutes from the hotel so the job should have been a quick and simple affair. This is India though and life just isn’t that straight forward. On DN Road the selection wasn’t limited but after being shoved from pillar to post by a half a dozen different banks, we were exasperated, strained and peeved. Each establishment said, ‘Go to Thomas Cook’. We really did not want to step in the place because we knew what the outcome would be.
There was no other option. Hot, sticky and stressed we walked to the next block stepping into an a/c ambience with well spaced desks, relaxed attitude, and ‘can I sell you something’ smiles. It was obvious what the answer would be before they even asked what the rate of exchange was. Off course it was well below what a bank would normally offer and the grinning thief also had the audacity to slap on a 50 rupees charge for each cheque plus a 1% government tax.
We said no-way hosay and waved them goodbye, preferring to deal with the Goan changers. The whole street seemed to be working like a syndicate, as if all the banks had done a deal with Thomas Cook, a nasty legal scam, sucking on the wallets of tourists. We were ready to blow a gasket, as we dodged the people traffic past stalls of fake jewellery and designer goods.
Luckily we found a sanctuary in the cool air of the restaurant under their hotel. Delicious chilled watermelon and pineapple juices refreshed us as we made humour of the day, and the fact that in a matter of hours we’d be on our way to the white sandy beaches of Goa’s south.
GOA BEACH BUMS
Knox glanced over at Miko as she hit a brick wall in the vain attempt to make conversation with the girl from London who had shared the compartment on the sleeper from Mumbai to Margao. Her boyfriend had stood in the queue with Knox at the prepaid taxi counter. It looked like the decision to accompany each other on the ride to Palolem had little to do with friendship and a lot to do with convenience. It wasn’t until inside the taxi van that the names of Brian and Tina were exchanged and even then the odd couple remained resolutely unfriendly. Brian was at least moderately talkative as he detailed the couples six week zip to many of India’s tourist attractions. Tina spent most of her time sulkily peering out of the window. Maybe India didn’t live up to the expectations that they had envisaged when stories abounded in their homeland of a uniquely diverse and cost effective destination.
For us this was a trip down memory lane. A concoction of emotions that ranged from the excitement through to apprehension as to what awaited them. The states Deep South with its thick green forested hills and stepped paddy fields filled our eyes as we traversed the highway.
Bends clicked into place and landmarks stood out just like our minds were racing ahead and drawing the picture. There wasn’t much change even as they rounded the final corner that gave way to the main road leading through the heart of the village. However, it was noticed on the edge of the village that new restaurants, shops and guesthouses had been established. Groves of coconut trees and wild growing thickets that surrounded the rough cast housing hadn’t changed and ‘Sun and Moon’ was still at the start of the main strip. Our darting attentions drew together as we passed this favourite restaurant from their last visit.
From here on in it was noticeable that extensive growth had taken place during the intervening years and Beach Road was a swarm of activity in this high season. Culture had been abandoned with tourists no longer caring to cover up as they strutted in bikinis and tight Speedos amongst the shops and restaurants that lined the road.
It was also clear that the Goans themselves were being muscled out. Shop signs declaring Kashmiri and Tibetan roots were highly visible along with the fashion and surf shops of the west. Money changers and air conditioned Internet joints squeezed in to complete the busy resort feel embracing us with dread as their cab dropped them at the beach entrance.
We had booked ahead at a place called D’Mellos, which lay further back in the village, but decided to come down here to see what else was on offer. We looked at each other questioning the wisdom of that decision. It was no surprise to see the backs of Brian and Tina clearing off without so much as a ‘see ya later’. We dived into the mayhem of room touts following a guy who said his place wasn’t a hut.
“No, not a hut. Nice room come see!”
They stepped onto the beach.
Palolem, oh Palolem what have they done? Your sacred idyll, the paradise where dreams were transformed into reality has been butchered and the slices snatched by the hut builders, shop owners and restauranteurs. What a carve up! Knox’s knees were close to buckling when he panned along the crescent beach and Miko’s heart cried in revulsion to see the choked sand supporting loungers, complete with umbrellas, backing onto a fringe of blue plastic as far as the eye could see. Topless westerners, turning on the spit every half hour like clockwork, sprawled out in front of the countless bars and restaurants and between the multitudes of fishing boats come dolphin tour operators. Trance music boomed from stereo systems under the canopy and blackboards announced English D.J’s, set barbeques and nightly entertainment.
The European package holiday had smashed into Palolem. Coco-huts cursed the shoreline and the coconut groves that stretched behind. Hundreds of semi permanent and temporary thatched dwellings had flourished to the detriment of the environment. An eyesore was only the surface of the problems created but certainly was the most visible. The promise of a proper pad was just another leaky plumbed shack on stilts with rotting mattresses and gaping holes crammed into a compound along with twenty others.
Staring tourists watched vacantly from their rickety veranda, we took a cursory glance inside to show them how lucky they were not to be paying extravagant money for a Kak-house. We ran away as quickly as fifty kilograms of luggage would allow them.
‘Hello people, look around you if you want to discover how the Goans traditionally live. You won’t see any living in a shack on stilts!’
D’Mello Tourist home was set towards the backside of the village, away from the beach, amidst the local residences. It was by no means a royal palace with its basic rooms but it was a solid three storey brick structure that was a damn sight better than what we had just viewed. Cobwebs adorned the upper walls and the window surrounds. The paintwork was flaky and a manky mosquito net was black on its frame making one wonder if the cleaner had a moonlight job with the Munsters. But at least the windows allowed plenty of light in and the balcony looked out on waving palms towards the distant hills. So after getting handy with the feather duster and discarding of the net, it began to look like our own wee pad. We could deal with the three minute walk to the beach everyday.
Mrs. D’Mello, ‘Mar’ as she became affectionately known, had a shrewd business head. She hated giving way but we weren’t naive about the costs of Indian accommodation as they soon found common ground in their negotiations. Three hundred rupees a night was reasonable considering other establishments were charging as much as four times that for sub-standard accommodation in the resort. Mar was happy to get a chunk of money upfront.
To act as a gauge, We paid one hundred rupees a night for a near beachfront en-suite room six years ago. We would make the place home for a month as they had to bide time to allow the retreating monsoon to pass over Kerala. Disappointment of the place gave us many talking points as we settled. It’s hard to return to an area that was so beautiful and full of good memories only to see it irrevocably corrupted. Still there were numerous visitations we wished to undertake in their search for remnants of the past. After we unpacked and freshened up, Knox armed himself with another photograph.
Sun and Moon was just around the corner. Not too hectic yet not so quiet as to be dead, this little unpretentious spot had that family owned relaxedness and friendliness. While the food wasn’t art on a plate, it was fine and fresh besides they did a mean mashed potato, boiled veg with cheese sauce and veggie cutlet. Chest high walls at the front and one side gave this wee pad an alfresco feel despite its tin roof. Walking through the iron gate, the place hadn’t changed a bit; even the cows still poked their heads in for a free meal. The small bar on the right with its fairy lights overlooked the six plastic tables. The painted concrete floor added to the colour of the green checked table clothes. A waiter came down from the kitchen steps to greet this hesitant couple and was confronted by a photo. We gabled about how we had been six years ago asking if the owner, his teenage assistant and the younger boy that were pictured still worked here. A light bulb sparked and the waiter laughed pointing to the teenager in the photo.
“Ashwin, he is our boss!” stated Seby the waiter. He passed the photo around to give a few other workers a giggle. “Ashwin will be here soon, please sit”.
We took no time in ordering our favourite dish and a couple of drinks. Freshness was guaranteed as Seby hopped on a bicycle returning a few minutes later with a smile and a pineapple so the juices could be made up. As we waited for the food Ashwin arrived and came straight up to them with a shake of the hand. It was obvious that he had been alerted to our presence but he still had a genuine smile. He sat down cringing with a chuckle at the photo.
“That is my uncle and his son,” replied Ashwin to the question of who the other two were. “He is retired now and living out of town and my cousin is still at school.” He continued. He was pleased to reminisce with us and we were pleased Sun and Moon was still thriving.
Seby served up the delicious meal and Ashwin went about the business of continuing to set up a new restaurant along the beachfront. A live Liverpool match only enhanced the flavour of the evening to Knox’s great joy as they washed down a few beers.
Miko awoke from her slumber a year older on this beautiful sunny day. Down by the seaside is where she had wanted to spend her birthday and we’d got here just in time. Knox was up early (an absolute amazement) to put his plan of action together giving Miko the time to pamper herself. This wasn’t a day of extravagant spending and expensive gifts but one of simple, romantic gestures to express love.
A picnic on the golden sands had been dreamt of and Knox aimed to fulfil and exceed Miko’s desire and expectations. His first trick though was to thrill her with a handmade card complete with a new verse from his ongoing poem to her called ‘Rosemantic’.
A noticeable change, as Knox treaded the paths of Palolem, was the emergence of the German bakeries. Basically these were counters within the local restaurants that sold breads and cakes akin to the produce sold in European bakeries. Knox selected a couple of personal baguette rolls, croissants and a large slice of sticky chocolate cake. The grocer provided him with tomatoes, cheese and crisps to complete the food set. On the way back to surprise Miko with the goodie bag, Knox called into Sun and Moon and organized for fresh pineapple juice to be refrigerated and collected later. The cheerful welcome that we would become accustomed to prompted a stumped Knox to speak with Ashwin.
“Its Miko’s birthday and I want to make it special for her, is there anywhere in the village where I can buy some flowers?” asked Knox.
Ashwin just smiled and was pleased to reply “leave it to me”. Knox felt the good vibes as he returned to the room.
The morning was relaxed, there was no hurry and the sun rose high to fill the day with brightness. When we set off a happy Miko was unaware that extras lay in store for her. Knox tugged on her hand to bring her into Sun and Moon. Smiling, Sanjay the cook came out with the bottle of fresh pineapple juice. Miko was astounded, gasping and blushing, when Ashwin produced a colourful bouquet of flowers for Knox to hand over. An unexpected treasure that made her cup overflow with Joy. We left the flowers in the restaurant for safekeeping and went to the beach. We paddled the full length along the shore to catch a quiet spot. The sarongs of rich hues were laid out on the soft sand and the banquet was set. Miko beamed smitten with it all. We laughed at the cheeky crows, the riff-raff of the bird world, who eyed balle us, or rather the food. Surrounded we shared tasty morsels with the birds and watched as they scrapped with each other and cawed their gratefulness. We both frolicked in the Sunshine when the meal was done.
India’s dogs always shine a bright light in our hearts. Being anywhere for more than a few days it was hard not to get close to them. We hadn’t forgotten our dear friends Waggy and Honey and over the years photographs had always brought a stream of memories to mind. Dogs struggling to survive shown some love.
Honey was an older dog and protected his sidekick Waggy. She was younger, frailer, more timid and yet had big brown saucer eyes and a tail that beat excitedly every time she saw us. Our attachment though wasn’t just because of grub. Knox having a go at a guy for stamping on Honey’s head and warding of an angry pack of mutts intent on mauling Waggy gave the pair confidence in their human companions.
We clung to the hope of finding these beautiful dogs alive and well but we knew the chances were slighter than slim. This proved the case as there was no sign of them and the only hope left was that their demise wasn’t down to cruelty. For years the seasons end brought disaster to Palolem’s dogs. Months of scrounging off tourists, lying under tables, sitting nice with big staring eyes, salivatating at the mouth and nudging noses gave a dogs life a lift.
This fairly relaxed atmosphere and regular morsels of food allowed for growth, not only of the individual but also of the population. Even during this busy time though, some of the signs aren’t good. Some visitors are kind while others are fearful, fuelled by warnings from guidebooks. A majority of locals generally had no qualms in shooing the dogs by whatever means were deemed necessary and fearful westerners gave them a freer reign to do this. Too many were down right cruel. During season, this malevolence would be of a more surreptitious nature. A stamp to get a laugh and prove what a big man one is, stone throwing, kicks aimed, whacked by sticks all would be done when it is thought that tourists aren’t watching.
These incidents are seen and some would stand against them in an attempt to readjust a few attitudes. The tourists don’t hang around all year though and sinister methods were enforced during the off-season to control population. No doubt a few vendettas for being made to look foolish were meted out. These culls were an annual and brutal occurrence hidden from foreigners because of the outcry they knew would happen. Thankfully it didn’t remain hidden and has finally been made illegal by the government.
We didn’t subscribe to the idea that it is not good to feed and befriend dogs because it makes them dependant, but rather prefer to show love and encourage others to do the same thus enabling the community as a whole to be more aware. We got looked at by some, both local and foreigners, with dumbfounded expressions but had managed to decrease the fear within some locals and even got a few to pet a dog. In the end its locals who will make the difference. An increasing number are being passionate, protective and working to change things.
It was a pamphlet that alerted usto the International Animal Rescue sterilization clinic in Chaudi. We had picked this up in Casa Fiesta, a restaurant that had four resident dogs who were all differing generations of the same family. We wanted to do something to help and sought out the place. We hired two rusty bicycles for six rupees an hour and took a leisurely ride. Just before the bus station, four Kms away, and after a few duff turns, we rode up a heavily pot-holed dirt lane to find the hidden practice. A couple of blue collared dogs came running with wagging tails while one backed off barking.
The building wasn’t salubrious. It was just an old chicken coop but the banner above the doorway announced the current occupants. IAR started working in Goa in 1998 with the aim of reducing the terrible suffering of the huge stray animal population. There priority was to reduce the number of dogs and cats by sterilization and to help the sick and injured. The Goan headquarters were located in the north of the state near Vagator Beach but they had expanded clinics throughout the state. Chaudi near Palolem is one such place and opened in 2004.
We really didn’t know what to expect. The building was more rudimentary than imagined and inside the cages were grim. The dogs barked excitedly with the intrusion creating an echoy din. A young Indian man came out to meet us and brought us inside where we were introduced to Mark, a thirty something English guy.
“I assist around the place as well as going among the tourists and raising funds. We have collection boxes in establishments in Palolem,” explained Mark. Mark brought us in to give us a look around the kennel area. It was sad seeing animals behind bars. A few dogs barked incessantly. Mark’s face tensed, “They’re so noisy but you do get used to it. I don’t really like dogs, I’m more a cat person.”
We found this strange for someone working so closely with the animals.
Mark knew the conditions were far from perfect and a couple of the fourteen enclosures had been separated, unfit for use, and therefore to be removed for fixing. He placed a cloth over one pen to try and keep a dog quiet. Clipboards gave information at a glance about each canine’s stats, medical condition and when food or pharmacy had last been given.
The dogs were fed well and cleanliness was maintained to a good standard but one could really feel for the animals. Most were scared cowering with tails between their legs as big doleful eyes looked timidly for a little love while worrying what rough justice would be dealt out to them now. There was violent shaking from some as they preferred to distrust completely, baring teeth and not letting anyone close enough to chance petting.
There were a few long termers because of injuries that needed time to heal. The clinic wasn’t just about sterilization as it also opened to pet owners to bring their animals in to be seen to.
“It’s horrible to see them in cages” we echoed sadly.
“It’s not nice” Mark added.
He explained the work of the sterilization camp. Every week they would round dogs up to bring to the clinic. On Mondays the operations would take place as vets travelled down from the headquarters. The dogs would be checked on the Wednesday and released, complete with clipped ear and animal rescue collar to easily identify their snipped-ness, a day or so later and dropped back to where they had been picked up from. The process would then start over again.
Mark was quite matter of fact about the job. His way seemed superficial, even somewhat detached, neglecting love of his charges.
“So how did you get into this sort of work?” Miko enquired
“I was an animal activist, you know very extreme” he whispered boastfully without disclosing any details. It was like he wanted his ego stroked to the end of boosting his ‘macho image’. Yet the flip side of the coin was that Mark was doing a difficult job that was mentally hard to take in. It was interesting that of all the times that we went, they only saw him twice including that first visit. He was more visible having a few drinks during evenings in Palolem while ‘collecting’. His full agenda was unclear but the we didn’t really take to him.
Mark was a small cog in the wheel as many Goans were involved in the whole setup. A couple of dedicated Chaudi men worked at the clinic and even stayed overnight for the safety of the operation. The building itself had been leased free of charge by a local politician/business man. Newspaper articles had been written about IAR’s work and the media was a good tool in actively seeking to change how the local community treated animals. Success was evident and not just because the sterilizations were greatly reducing the number of new pups. Humans had benefited also from less dog bites and associated diseases. The animal’s lives were improved and one is a lot less likely to see sick and injured cases lying untreated.
Lucky was a new breed of Palolem’s mongrels. He was part of a small but growing number of dogs that had a place to call home and Indian owners to feed him on a daily basis. Raj and Rupa, from the Internet cafe by Sun and Moon, had Lucky vaccinated and sterilized. He was comfortable with them but they were unsure of how to show him affection. As with many Indians, they didn’t understand the concept of petting. He had been pampered by an Italian woman as a pup and she of course spoiled him.
She had to leave though but Raj and Rupa were happy to take him on. He was a loveable pet with his cream coat and brown continent spots. A latcher on when shown a bit of love and attention, he was cute with it as he looked up with soft eyes and ears pinned back.
Closed gates were no boundary as he would find a way around to get where he wanted, which is where they where at. At night a whimpering outside our room would alert them that Lucky had climbed the stairs at D’Mellos. Often he would lie outside the door and on one occasion he blagged his way to spending the night in the room. Similarly he would try to follow down to the beach but this wasn’t a good idea as it attracted the attention of extremely territorial packs that lined the seafront. Their teeth and attitudes were uncompromising leading us to make sure that Lucky was safely kept behind with Raj and Rupa. He could be moody blues sometimes, curling himself into a ball in the corner.
Firecrackers were a part cause, but we also witnessed an alcoholic Indian man, who roamed about, smacking him across the head. Miko had a right go at the man and so did Raj and Rupa when they found out. The incident opened up a chance for us to encourage the Indian couple to stroke Lucky and improve the affection they showed him.
The majority of IAR treated dogs didn’t have homes but rather etched out an existence on the street or down by the beach. We met a wily old fox whom they called Baggy Ears. A real scruffy mutt who’s skin was like cracked old leather under his balding coat. A constant scratcher, this mangy old boy was smelly. He certainly knew a meal ticket when he saw one and the spring in his step belied his unhealthy appearance. Baggy ears would lead from the front, Skipping into the restaurant ahead in an attempt to prove he wasn’t following and if one didn’t go in he would bounce back out and try the next one. In this way he would eventually get it right. There he would curl up under the table, give an adept look and wait to be served. There was no budging him unless it was for a scratch or to investigate another persons table. It was every dog for itself as far as he was concerned. Invariably he got the chow he was waiting for.
His hard life had given him a jealous streak and he would hurt his charisma by sometimes snapping at other dogs who he felt were invading his meal ticket. We didn’t like this side of his character but one could understand his hardship, besides he would wag his ratty tail when being scolded and curl up again under the table or go on the scrounge elsewhere unabashed. We got our own back on him one day. We lured him to the back of Sun and Moon with biscuits and pounced on his mite ridden coat with some ‘special powder’.
We hoped this would help him some but knew his skin and fur were probably beyond a helping course of steroids. He stood there regardless because he was getting a load of biscuits. These two dogs were rarely far away during our stay in Palolem.
They donated rupees to the cause but the situation demanded more than that and our hearts were open to hear. “We need more volunteers” Mark had said, and dog walking gave these incarcerated animals a bit of freedom and exercise. Three times a week we would hire bikes and cycle to Chaudi. Being cooped up in a small enclosure isn’t fun and the busy workers were pushed for time, not always getting to walk the dogs. We offered a little bit of ours. It was best to go in the afternoons as the dogs would have been fed. A couple of Chains with clasps became leads and two at a time the cage doors would be unlocked.
Some dogs would be excited to get out of their temporary confinement and, waging their bodies never mind their tails, they would jump about getting so worked up they’d tangle themselves along with their walker in their leads. Too many of the inhabitants cowered, with wet patches on the newspaper, beside the uneaten food drying in the metal bowls. Nervously they would be coaxed out and stood timidly quaking. A few were much more impassive and withdrawn, compliantly stepping out of their prison with no excitement. The odd feral animal had to be left alone.
The walks were a lark and we sometimes wondered who was taking whom for a walk. A few acres of disused fields that surrounded the clinic meant that the legs could get really stretched. We would run with them, taking the dogs to the furthest corners and walk them around the long straw grass and baked mud of the clearing. Sweat would run as the afternoon temperatures soared and grassy debris would stick to the legs and feet and Knox’s back would drip under the knap sack he constantly carried. We’d try and give each dog an equal workout but some just didn’t want it. Fear gripped and froze their limbs, a sad sight of skin and bones not comfortable in the open air. Injuries or illness prevented some dogs going too far but they enjoyed the fresh air. One poor guy had a urinary infection and every few steps would see a rather raw looking extended member trying to pass a few drops. We got him round a short circuit that took at least as long as the more energizing excursions of the majority. Each had their own idiosyncratic way and endeared themselves to us who talked to the doggies and lapped up their playful games. Miko’s heart broke seeing them put back into their awful predicament. It was harder to see the ones who loved running around as their big eyes would just cry freedom. The fact that they would be released soon made it easier.
We do Love to be beside the seaside. Palolem was our first beach holiday since Gran Canaria apart from a day trip to the beautiful sandy, dune backed stretch of Murvagh Bay in Donegal, Ireland. Murvagh was a sacred place for Miko as her Mothers ashes had been scattered on its shifting sands.
Despite Palolem’s busyness, we were determined to make the most of it and went to the beach near everyday to lap up the sunshine and listen to the soothing music of the sea. Short stay holiday makers mingled with those on longer journeys that encompassed a larger part of India. Western beach values had replaced the ‘No Topless Sunbathing’ writing on the rock face wall. Restaurants, not content with defacing the beauty of the coconut fringe, encroached onto the sand in their attempts to be noticed and chosen above the thirty others that lined the crescent. Gawkers thrived and this wasn’t just leering Indian men, whose eyes feasted on the sight of so much uncovered skin. The magazine brainwashed, people watching cultures were out in force checking out anything that was in sight from their umbrella loungers or café bar vantage points.
Stepping onto the sand at the end of beach road was like walking into an ambush. With no rucksack on it was easy to escape from the thirty or so loiterers peddling transport with fake Cockney accents as the tarmac faded into the sand. “Alright mate, motorbike?”, “Taxi?” When Knox gave a negative answer to one, the next guy, amongst the snidely sniggering, would still ask the same adding, “Good price” as if one would suddenly jump at the chance. “Don’t even bother speaking to them” Miko would scold when she got stressed.
There is a few second lull as the flip-flops are removed and steps are taken towards the sea. “Dolphin trip, Sir, Madam?” would hit while still ten metres from the first boat. The approach would be loaded with a follow up patter that got fired off whether you wanted to hear it or not. We had to fend off sales pitch after sales pitch as they passed 50 boats before breaking free only to find themselves in a mine field of gawkers splurged among the trash created by the over activity.
It’s not only the beach that is crescent shaped but also the infrastructure as it struggles to cope with the booming trade. Plastic bottles, bags, and packaging are burnt daily in little piles with the rest of the rubbish. Wells were drying fast and had to be dug deeper as several pumps would feed pipes to the surrounding hut camps. The area just isn’t coping with the thousands that pass the season through Palolem.
At the top of the beach the crowds finally thinned out. We got a quiet spot and laid out the tropical coloured sarongs and were happy to be at least 30 metres away from anyone. This time we didn’t cross to the hushed opposite bank of the river as the tide was high. Other times we would navigate the puddle sands that crawled with the thousands of digging crabs before paddling through the river mouth waters. A bridge had been erected further up stream to give access to a new camp and restaurant. This bank was no longer the wild and free. Once teaming with dragon flies and bouncing monkeys, the wildlife had retreated to safer pastures away from the hedonistic gate crashers. Down here though, either side of the waterway outlet, a few quiet spots could still be found. It was interesting to see local culture and beach life entwine as on occasions funeral pyres would be erected to fulfil Hindu customs. As a mark of respect, if this happen we would move on.
When we lay down and closed our eyes we let the years roll back imagining no-one else around as the breeze wafted through the coconut trees while the Arabian sea washed the shore. A year and a half of long working hours and a hectic couple of weeks running around Rajasthan had zapped the batteries leaving us requiring a recharge. A cow or two rummaged through the rubbish that gets dumped by the swampy reeds. Crows would squabble over a drying fish dropped by the fishermen while overhead a few graceful fishing eagles soared to remind one of the beauty around.
“Fresh fruit, Pineapple, Coconut?”, “Necklace, Henna?”, “Massage madam?”, “Maps?”, “Drum?”, “Postcards, stamps?”, “Books?”, “hats?”, “sarongs?”, would come the cry as a horde of Hawkers descended.
Miko would cover herself as they would stand over and not budge.
“No thanks” would come the reply.
The ‘No’ gets repeated. The hawkers ears would remain resolutely shut.
“Anklet, Bracelet, Good price?”.
“No”, gets dispatched again with a hand signal to present complete disinterest.
Now the eyes would follow the example of their ears. Tiringly, this would continue.
“How about this one, looks nice, Bright colour?” as a piece of ugly tat gets jangled.
We smiled with teeth clenched.
“No, No, No, No, No, Thank you!”
Eventually they would accept defeat.
“Okay Sir / Madam” would come the dejected reply.
“Maybe next time, good price” was the parting shot as they edged away.
The eyes closed and relaxation returns for just a moment.
“Ears cleaning, Sir, Madam?” as a scruffy guy would automatically charge with a well waxed, sharp implement at ones ear.
Ducking from the assault, Knox collapses ready to laugh at the irony as Miko donned her heavy weight gloves to strike a knockout blow. He retreats, still trying to coax them but from a safe distance, before giving up reluctantly in search of an easier victim. Exasperating as this may be, they learn quickly and one gets bothered less and less as the days go by.
This wasn’t true for one river cruiser. He prowled along the beach hidden behind his sunglasses and his sneer. Everyday he came up to us. He would stand and letch at Miko, looking her up and down even though she had covered herself up. He made her skin creep. This ‘Pervy Pete’ just wouldn’t take no for an answer and still didn’t budge when Knox told him firmly to go away.
“No, How many times do I have to tell you?!”
He would just give a wry smile until Knox got up and told him to move on. This didn’t stop him trying it on subsequent days. It didn’t help seeing a couple of giggly bimbos prance along beside ‘Pervy Pete’ in their bikinis after being snagged on a boat trip. It was good to see though, that he got his comeuppance when the police paid him a visit. Thankfully most of the pesterers weren’t like him.
It was lovely to play in the sea enjoying the refreshing cool as the blazing sun beat down. A game of scrabble or ‘Name Game’ passed some time as we felt our fair skin begin to glow. A few beach dogs came close attracted by hellos and kiss calls. Thry enjoyed the attention, wiggled their behinds and lifted up their sparkling eyes in smiling excited faces. If there is more than one, they vie for the attention. It’s funny to watch when one races off towards the river in a vain attempt to catch a wading bird, growling and barking as the flight lifts away from danger.
One dog in particular drew Miko in. Her gaze followed this copper coloured mongrel as he laboured his way to a lone beached fishing boat. Half heartedly he dug a hole in the sand and slumped into its shade. Miko made her way over. She knelt before this sickly canine with his threadbare mangy coat. He breathed heavily and his tongue lolled out of his mouth as the heat of the sun took its toll.
“What’s up, eh?” she asked as he barely lifted his head and looked through sore, gungy eyes, pale but for the red ring around the edges. For a moment Miko thought he was blind as he buried his head into his paws. He was an older dog that had lived a tough life.
“Is he sick?”
Miko looked up to respond to an Indian man now stood beside her. She explained how the dog didn’t look well. Knox looked on from a distance.
“A doctor lives over there” The man pointed across the bridge. “I shall bring him over”.
Miko thanked him. The old boy panted as he struggled to shift himself around in his cooler lair. He looked parched and, even though he was well built, unhealthy. Miko instantly decided to give him water and got Knox to cut the bottom of a plastic bottle to make shift a bowl. The dog didn’t seem to be interested and after a few slurps lay his head back down.
We sat close by talking to him and pitying his state for a while. Almost an hour later there was no sign from the Indian man or doctor and cynicism debated his original intentions. Eventually they left ‘Beach Eyes” with his water and prayed he would be okay to see him the next day.
This simple gesture by Miko was a catalyst to a friendship based on mutual respect. The dog approached us on the following visits and started drinking the water given to him to go with a few biscuits and leftovers from a meal the night before. His nose nudging the water bottle showed he wasn’t blind and definitely not behind the bush in expressing his appreciation of its benefits.
‘Beach Eyes’ was still lethargic from the fierce sun but was better within himself. He had a comical character and was ultra loyal. Baths didn’t seem his forte though, as his bit of a pong advertised, he just didn’t like going into the water. One day when we started paddling across the river he stood at the edge and watched. We laughed and prompted him but he wouldn’t budge to cross the shin deep stretch of water.
We took out a biscuit from the bag and this was enough encouragement for Beach Eyes to trust and wet his paws. He successfully completed the distance and got his prize. With sarongs laid out and the dog attempting to lie back on one, Knox waded back across to pick up some cold water from a nearby café. After five minutes Miko willed Knox to hurry up as a local man walked towards her direction. There was no-one else around at the time.
“Rupees!” he demanded, putting his palms out. She shook her head indicating she had none on her.
“Rupees” he repeated menacingly.
“No! Now please go away” Miko replied firmly.
Knox was still the other side of the river and this guy wasn’t for going. He had noticed the man and had picked up his pace.
“Rupees!” he growled and edged closer threateningly.
“Go!” reiterated Miko in a more louder tone.
A rumble rose from Beach Eyes throat as he manoeuvred ominously towards the man. Suddenly he snarled and roared a charge, attacking exposed ankles. He didn’t bite but the Indian man scurried to safety being snapped at all the way.
Miko called Beach Eyes off and satisfied that the ruffian was far enough away, Beach Eyes responded. He wagged his tail and put his head on Miko’s lap as Knox finally came running up. We both laughed at the situation but Knox was appreciative of Beach Eyes actions. He was a special canine who knew his boundaries and always walked us to the edge of it when they splashed their way back towards their room.
During the month in Palolem our journaling dipped. Inspiration was dampened and the writing didn’t flow. Part of that was down to the holiday mentality adopted here. Nearly everyday was down by the beach and most nights was eating out with a few drinks. Work was far away and would remain in the recesses of the mind. Some partying was done and the general aim was to slump into relaxation.
Slumping was easy enough to do and not having to cook was great for a while. Sun and Moon was a regular haunt and they opened up a good rapport with Seby the waiter. He is a good example of the human toll of Goa’s growth. Money was being made by the owners of businesses but the workers, although earning more than they would outside the tourist industry, were earning a pittance. The biggest problem is the separation from family. Seby was from Karnataka where his wife and two children lived. Basically he was missing out on their lives as he only saw them for a few months a year. He missed them dearly but also wanted to take care of them financially the best he could. Real difficult choices but he was glad to have a job and knew how to smile. The place was a home from home as the menu said. We liked the family atmosphere and the genuine people who worked there. We would play CDs that customers would bring along and showed plenty of live English Premier League football to go along with the wholesome food and craic. Because it was a small restaurant, one noticed anyone who came in with any regularity. Invariably communication of some form would occur.
Liverpool was playing the first match of a football watching Saturday. It was late afternoon when an anaemic looking, drug haunted, straggly haired girl, took it upon herself to keep watching us. When this didn’t work, she sought attention by dancing past our table a couple of times. She then tried to shout over and talk to Knox asking a silly question about football when it was clear she didn’t have a clue and didn’t care about the sport. We preferred not to strike up a conversation with the girl they later found out she was called Sharon.
To avoid situations like this we decided to try out different restaurants. Casa Fiesta lay across the street. We’d heard Sharon and her partner Gary down trod the restaurant even though it transpired they had never been in the place, which was always full. Mexican was specialty on the menu but delicious Pastas, creamy soups and scrumptious fresh salads were also stars on offer. The place wasn’t pretentious but rather included a wide selection of clientele attracted by the great food and friendly service.
It was refreshing to see the restaurants dogs lazing confidently around yet not bothering the customers because they were well fed. Martha and Shanty, the youngest two, only came to the table when called, and if they could be bothered, and never begged for extras. The older parents Coalman and Milky, although at ease with their surroundings and with the touch of their owners, shied away from the customer. The other draw were their fabulously inexpensive and exotic cocktails, a favourite of ours who were delighted to accept happy hour prices all night.
After a few of these one evening we got talking to Rob, a down to earth dreadlocked, Scottish guy who had been born in the South Pacific. An experienced traveller with a dislike of the bulging tourism of Palolem, the three of us found the same wavelength. This friendliness was kept over several meetings and conversations. The chat was very easy going and flowed through subjects like Travel, music, literature, football and the perceptions of life. It was a shame we neglected to swap email addresses before Rob made his escape from the crowds in search of more cultured pastures.
On that first night Rob introduced us to a 60 plus year old called June who croaked like a frog. She was an English pensioner battling high fuel costs and was reaping the rewards of spending the winter in warm, cost effective India. A confident lady, some may have considered her sharp but she had no problem in expressing her opinions. First impressions saw us liking this straight talking woman but she had a habit of talking over you and not listening. She had a free spirit attitude, spending 6 months of the year in India, but controversial views saw her fall out with most people. She didn’t really care.
June knew Mark from the animal rescue clinic as they clicked into the same social group. Real back biting emanated from their circle. One could see, when certain peoples names were mentioned, contempt was shown by others with a roll of the eyeballs and raised brows. Indeed every time we chatted to Mark he seemed to be sniping about someone. We couldn’t be annoyed with this bitchiness and generally gave the group a wide berth as we didn’t want to get involved in petty squabbles.
It was impossible to avoid them all of the time in this relatively small community. One evening in Sun and Moon, Mark and June, part of a larger group, chatted across several tables with us. Sharon and Gary were well mixed in with this concoction and we were happy to remain at our separate table.
The call came though, for us to join the whole company and being put on the spot we reluctantly accepted. Soon we found their CD selection turned off and changed to teenage pop and tacky dance. Right from the start Sharon and her friend were dismissive and jagged edged with the little they had to say.
“Where are you from?” asked Gary in his Birmingham accent with a warped smile.
“Belfast” came Knox’s reply. Miko waited for the derogatory comment.
Gary was obnoxious in his statements when he found out where we came from.
“So you’re carrying guns and semtex in your bag” he splurted and sniggered out and looking around the table he emphasized “You better watch what you say to this pair or they might shoot you!”.
“In this day and age you should be more careful what you say Gary” Miko replied straight away.
We refused to take the bait but there is no excuse for his words. It’s not fun living ones lives in the face of terrorism and the global threat at the moment should have provoked more thoughtful comments. There was no rapport here and it was time to leave when we had finished their drinks.
Gerry was another guy from Birmingham. He resided on the ground floor of D’Mellos lodge. He moved around the edges of the bitchy clan but he was a different kettle of fish completely. One would usually here his loud excitable jabber before there was any sight of his happy face surrounded by his dark, curly jaw length hair and his favoured ragged vest top. His hair-brained antics were funny to watch and we couldn’t help but like him. At times we thought him lonesome yet he had a genuine quality around him that shone through as he ignored the snide remarks of some. He certainly had no problem in chatting and was forward in making contact with us. It was Gerry who coined the name ‘Mar’ for the mothering Mrs D’Mello who saw her guests as ‘her children’. She didn’t quite know what to make of his brash comments and tomfoolery. I guess he used his joking to mask his intelligence but he was wise enough. Jack, a friend of his from Liverpool, related a funny story about Gerry on his way to Palolem.
He went to one of the many thousands of tea stalls in Mumbai and asked for a couple of cups of chai. The owner saw the white skin and a chance to earn a few extra rupees. Gerry was no fool and knew he was being ripped off. Quickly he turned.
“You, how much did you pay?” he demanded from a local customer. He swivelled again, “and how much did you pay?” he fired at another, his big frame dominating.
Shocked and intimidated they gave a true reflection of the price. Gerry swung back round to face the vendor.
“Why are you charging me 20 rupees when the real price is 2 rupees?”
The stall owner hung his head in shame like a scolded schoolboy. Jack composed himself in an attempt to control his mirth. Gerry received his tea for the correct price and looked the man in the eye.
“Now go to bed,” he commanded like a punishing parent with a severe face.
This was too much for Jack as he exploded into laughter while they walked away from the stall.
He was good fun to be with and he had a habit of shifting a few boundaries, for instance, once in Casa Fiesta when he had finished his soup he picked up the bowl and licked it clean. We just chuckled “did you enjoy that Gerry?”
“Aye, it was great” Gerry replied unabashed.
Christmas day passed and a cloud rolled in on Boxing Day as Mar reneged on her promise of a late check out. The disagreement quickly escalated, erupting into an argument between Knox and her as she demanded more money. She shouted and inadvertently pointed a large, sharp pair of scissors at Knox’s chest and called him a liar. This was stress we didn’t want. Knox told her they would organize a different taxi from her son’s. He came back down later to speak with Mar again in the hope she’d calmed down. Before he could speak she offered him a full apology for her actions.
“It is the Love that is important” she expressed queerly while explaining that they could have the late check out. Rosie’s, Mar’s good Catholic values won out in the end eh! The comment was a laughing point at the end of a bizarre situation.
We said goodbye to a few in the restaurants and exchanged addresses and e-mails. It was quite sad to be leaving. A sweaty Gerry ran up from his swim to see them off as they lugged their bags into Mrs D’Mello’s son’s taxi. He gave Knox a hug and handshake and hugged Miko with a kiss on both cheeks. We would miss the comical nature of this friendly guy.
As the mini van rolled away, we popped our heads out the window.
“Don’t forget Gerry, It’s the love that’s important”!
KERALA – THE DEEP SOUTH
In our race to spend New Year in Varkala, we could afford to ease up in Ernakulem. This was one of the gateways, and our chosen launch pad, for the sparkling and much vaunted waterways of Kerala’s spectacular backwaters, a maze of tenuous channels and thickset countryside that opens up all of a sudden into rich emerald green paddy fields. Tiny glimpses of rural village life can be caught between the forest showing simple homes and temples of the local fishing and farming community.
Fears about the weather and a late passing of the retreating monsoon were dispelled by the scorching 30 degree heat radiating from the clear blue sky. As usual the sweat rolled as the bags came crashing down on the room floor. It’s surprising what you can get for your money in India sometimes. Ernakulam was a small city but a city none the less in the middle of season. For the same money paid for their basic cobwebbed abode in Palolem, we had picked up a simple but smart room that was fully tiled, nicely furnished, well cleaned and it had cable TV. A Bargain! Did this bode well for their Kerala adventure?
First impression of the state was one of difference from the rest of India. Simply put it was cleaner, more structured, modernish, better organized and yet still India. Few dogs were to be seen anywhere which was a shock for the system. Poverty was less visible and for most the bare foot had been shod, apart of course for those westerners who had taken it upon themselves to follow their form of going ‘native’. In fact it wasn’t hard to see the distinctions from the rest of India, as if a blurred picture had been brought more into focus. Houses were of a generally higher standard and in better repair often being larger than in other states. It became clear how Kerala prided itself on its achievements such as 100% literacy and an efficient health care system.
We had one shot here at getting a good backwater trip as they were restricted by time constraints. Reluctantly we booked a half day tour.
“It won’t be busy will it?” Miko asked the tour operator in the office.
“No, No, not busy” he responded. We were cynical. We knew these tours were often purely money orientated, ‘quick fire them in and out’ was the usual motto but they had little choice.
The next day we made our way to the KTDC office for an early afternoon departure. A large ageing coach pulled in to the dusty car park outside the office and was instantly thronged by a rugby scrum group of Indian tourists. Realization sunk in that this was not going to be the serene adventure we had dream’t of . The tour operator had told us that the bus journey would be half an hour there and the same back. After an hour and a half of bumps and swerves we pulled up at a rural village and the passengers disembarked amidst the racket of blaring Hindi music. Hot and bothered and glad of a bit of air. A short 5 min walk along the edge of a field and past a few buildings brought the group towards a wooded picnic area. We used the toilet and were ready to get on with the tour but when they came out they were amazed to see the majority snacking on packed lunches and it was clear that more delays were to ensue.
“There was no mention of eating by the operator” Miko pointed out.
“How long will this take?” she continued.
“We’re already late according to the information given” Knox added.
The guide had no answer so he organized for the people who were not picnicking to be led down to the boats.
The trees arched them into a natural tunnel as they followed the soily trail to the waters edge. There was two types of boat, the larger ‘Kettu Vallams’ that plied the big open waterways and the smaller canoes for the intimate streams that criss-crossed through the coconut groves, tropical thickets, open fields and the small back water communities. We decided on the latter because of their imagined romance of the narrow streams and the thought that the canoes would be unable to hold many people. We were shocked at the reality. Ridiculous red plastic chairs were plonked into the dugout and sat unsteadily out of place between the traditional bench seats forcing all pretences of the idealistic setting out of the window. The three canoes looked as if they would comfortably seat six each yet the amount of tourists scurrying forward to claim their place ensured that more than double that amount would pack in.
“Should there be so many people in this?” Miko snapped worriedly from her precarious position.
“Yes no problem Madam” came the reply.
It was always ‘No problem Madam’ were Indians were concerned regardless of what sensibility expressed otherwise. Two hours into the half day tour and they were finally in the water. Pole pushers fore and aft propelled the boat like gondoliers.
“You cannot be serious!”
After five minutes of floating down this reflective narrow canal under the shadowy canopy produced by the lush green vegetation flourishing on the banks, they docked at a clearing. As if caught unaware, two women leapt up from their nattering to engage in their performance for the tourist. It was a charade of a working industry, a classic tourist scam. Everybody was ordered off the boats to watch the women spinning coconut husks into rope. It was the tour nightmare as the group was herded along to listen to the verbose description of what was taking place. After twenty minutes everyone wobbled back into the waiting crafts.
A further delay occurred as a different canoe drew along side the one that we were in. A stout, moustachioed Indian man, who later transpired to be the excursions head guide, stated without any explanation that they were required to swap boats. We took the opportunity to get on his case.
“Why did we stop so soon?” Knox enquired and Miko quickly followed.
“And why have we been told we would be getting a five hour tour when plainly it will be much shorter? Is the rest of the time going to spent in the boat on the Backwaters?”
Once again they felt duped by organizations overly interested in exploiting the opportunities for financial gain.
“Most of the time” he grinned through lying teeth.
“Maybe just some short stops”, he nodded his head and trailed off as his hand shot for the hip alerted by his phone’s ‘Auld Lang Sang’ ring tone.
Tranquillity was lost as this ringing shrilled frequently throughout the trip. All we could do was block out the disturbances arising from within the canoe and concentrate on the beauty of where we were.
We glided with grace along the waterway. Large paddle leaves bobbed at the verges of the stream, their stems reaching up the slopes to grasp the soil amongst the tangled roots. Palm trees angled in overhead closing around the channel along with a mass of varied greenery and vivid flowers, shaded apricot and crimson that poked through. Wooded trunks curled out of the muddy muddle before bending straight up. At places thick branches, big enough for boys to sit on and laugh at the tourists stretched a natural bridge across the glassy ripple causing the pole men to dodge as the canoe passed under. Baby pineapples grew from their fronded plants, sweet, bright and pink in their infancy, but beginning to take on their well known bulbous, prominently spiked shape minus their tufted, needled, hard green leaved hairdo. A four inch long scarlet dragonfly hung limp upside down, crucified in the middle of a huge spider’s web, which was strung between two shrubs.
We flashed the video camera but the swift moving canoe was too quick to allow a good take. Tender burnt umber speckled ducks quacked and paddled their webbed feet splashing the water as they quickly edged towards grassy covers up rivulets taking them away from the disturbance of the boats. A murkiness kept much of the below surface life hidden and the site of a few plastic bottles and bags showed that nowhere is safe from the worldwide problematic litter louts.
Car culture is swapped for canoe city as one sees them parked up little water alleys or by rickety jetties. Simple houses were dotted along both sides but they still had modern amenities like televisions in each. Wicker fences and plastic sheeting indicated many locals desired to maintain privacy as their environment was invaded on a daily basis. We spied a man bathing in the river. Suddenly feeling invasive we turned her head away and shrunk in our seat wincing as the rest of the group flashed their cameras. The man quickly dived indoors away from prying eyes. Gaps appeared between the trees as space opened up into fields and a natural dock used as a boat-building yard along the sides of a lake. Villagers toiled in the blistering sun and in the distance fishermen could be seen returning with the daily catch. The guide barely opened his mouth to explain anything about the wondrous surroundings as he was too busy speaking to someone miles away. Twenty minutes after we left the cooked up fibre making station they arrived at a weaving house.
“Everybody out!” came the shout.
We had had enough of being treated like sheep and stayed in the boat. This stop lasted twenty-five minutes and boredom could be seen creeping into others within the group. When everyone boarded once more the boats went five minutes further along the stream. Here they came to a fork in the waterway that the craft used to turn around and back along the direction they came. Incredibly there was another stop at the weaving house so coconuts could be sold to the tour. The employed villagers worked their machetes to hack the tops off the tender husks and release the sweet milk. Some children ran out demanding “One pen, one pen” as the guidebooks had warned. Once again we remained in the vessel and a few others followed their lead. Their decision paid dividends as a squabbling din emanated from further up the channel announcing the clamour of hundreds of quacking ducks swimming towards them from fifty metres away. A spectacle of brown speckles, sun burnt pinks, deep greens and pearly whites rushed for feeding time at the farm. Paddling along flapping, splashing and turning to jump on land, they scrambled up the muddy bank before loitering around the grass, preening and cleaning, slowly moving towards outdoor enclosures. A tremendous display, it was fascinating to view the multitude following their daily ritual.
And that, as they say, was that! The light was now fading and it was a race back. An hour or less of actual water coursing with little explanation of its flora and fauna, at least an hour made for tourists ‘traditional industry’ and 3 hours on a bus encompassed the half day tour.
We did enjoy some of what they saw but felt the idylicness of the backwaters was lost with the hordes of tour groups floating through it. We vowed that this would be there last time on an organized tour. From now on they would concentrate on independent thinking.
TIP OF THE DAY: –
Stay put until the festive and New Year celebrations are over. It’s a lot less stressful!
The sun blazed on mid afternoon, New Year’s Eve. Outside the railway station we tried to haggle with the rickshaw drivers for the short ride to Varkala’s cliff-top. It struck them immediately how the drivers stuck to their price and wouldn’t budge. These fat cats syndicated and didn’t go below the agreed highly inflated threshold for any tourist. It was a take it or leave it offer and the driver had no qualms about scooting off if their demands weren’t met.
This off course was just for the tourist! Indian’s pay a lot less and this discrimination on a racial basis happens throughout India and not just by privateers. The Indian government cash in on the flocking tourists money by controversially hiking up the prices of national monuments and parks for the foreigners alone. The Taj Mahal’ is a good example where foreigners pay nearly 750 rupees while Indians pay 20 rupees. The theory is understandable as the native population is generally poorer than the visitors from other countries but what message does this give across? ‘We are downtrodden people and the way to get them back, is to say its okay to rip foreigners off’.
Does this confuse Indian’s who travel to other countries? There is a point to be made that India has plenty of rich people and rapid growth within its middle classes yet there’s no distinction of price made here.
We took the ride to the cliff top forcing ourselves to fork out the 50 rupees demanded. From the helipad car park at the southern end the rickshaw shoehorned down the tight walkway as far as he could go.
We had been excited at discovering a new place and wondered what we might find, but there was always a dubious feeling at the back of our minds to balance that out. Experience had taught us not to believe everythingyou read or hear, as people’s perceptions can be completely different.
Excitement choked as we stepped onto the crag’s crown. A Costa del Sol feel smacked us in the chops. To the left shops upon shops piled in with restaurants and Internet cafes revealed Varkala’s glaring glorified commercial heart. We glanced right and our eyes fell down the rugged rocky red cliff to the beach below. It was a packed bowl, of bathers, umbrellas and loungers. A vision of the 2-week holiday nightmare they travelled far to escape from.
“So they’ve invaded here to”, Miko grumbled.
Swallowing hard we had to get on with things, hoping the swell of it was due to the New Year’s Eve factor. With backpacks squeezing the sweat and energy out of us, we marched the last 100 meters along the narrow path towards ‘Hill-top’, the pre-booked guesthouse.
“No rooms left Sir”, the desk guy pre-empted calmly.
“We have a booking, the names Moore”, Knox fired back.
“I’m sorry Sir, all rooms are occupied now, he stated with an unconcerned flick through his note book.
“You confirmed the room twice with us”, Miko informed him as her irritation rose.
“But it’s New Year’s Eve madam, very busy”, He defended.
“No shit Sherlock, that’s why we booked ahead”, a sardonic Miko snapped exasperated.
We walked away biting our tongues. The afternoon rolled on as they traipsed to a few places in search of a New Year’s Eve abode. It was a week on from Christmas but still it looked like there was no room in the inn, or extortionate prices were being charged for depressing, dull, musty, basically furnished concrete floors and walls. Our heads drooped in our hands to say a silent prayer. As we walked a leafy road set 100 meters behind the cliff front, Knox was ready for going back to the railway station, but Miko refused to give up. Silly bickering snarled at their dream before Miko spied the ‘Sunshine Home’, aka Johnny Cool’s.
“I’m going to check in here”, Miko declared.
“What’s the point”, a defeated Knox asked, as he hadn’t seen the signs.
“The point is, that its getting dark and we need somewhere to stay”, replied Miko has she dumped her bag, and strode for the fat white dog that smiled at them from behind the gate.
The front tables of the pretty garden restaurant lay empty and a rope swing breezed gently were it hung from a thick branch. Bright decorations and fairy lights were strung amidst the trees and bushes, and the ornamental golden sun took pride of place above the door of the 2nd floor balconied apartment. ‘Johnny Cool’s Sunshine Home’ was Miko all over and she saw this as a good omen.
A chubby Rosie waggled her tail and followed her in through the front door. The homely reception lounge increased the peaceful atmosphere as her eyes feasted on the colourful artwork on the wall and the unfinished painting sat on the easel to compliment the cushions, sound system, bookcase and soft lightening that separated here from the rest. It was no surprise to see a young Bob Marley look-alike appear through an archway to greet her, as mellow reggae music filled the room. Manu honestly explained that he only had a few rooms and the only one available was the small one at the front of the lounge. As he showed Miko the simple but clean room he stressed that it could be noisy because of the restaurant. His price was acceptable, much lower than the greedy cliff front and she happily agreed to take it. She hurried to tell Knox who by now had taken several deep breathes and noticed the chilled out feel of the guesthouse. Finally we had a place to stay.
We settled in, got a couple of bottles of illicit beer and chilled. The discussion was on whether to get the first train possible back out of Varkala. The dilemma asked where else would they spend months at the beach in India. We didnt want an extended stay in Goa. The decision was to sleep on it. For now it was the 31st December 2005 and time to see what the cliff top offered. Not much was the answer! Little intimacy radiated from the restaurants just creaking necks because every chair faced in one direction; seaward. The food at the restaurant they choose was mediocre as the cliff top displayed the trappings of good eatery choice without much actual tasty substance. Due to the states archaic licensing laws, the fiasco of keeping the beer bottles hidden under the table and drinking out of mugs was arduously played out. All the restaurants served alcohol, everybody knew it, most of all the police, but this was the way of things.
Everything was tied into the premises paying into the corruption of the authorities that would then turn a blind eye to weak subtly. If a restaurant failed to pay up a heavy handed raid would be sure to occur and heavy fines would be levied when anything was found real or planted.
A twenty-five minutes walk along the scarily fenceless cliff path revealed abysmal entertainment. A concoction of disjointed youths body jerking to Indian pop, mindless western trance, movies played back on large televisions and drastic love songs karaoked to death, gave reasons to many a bored face. The evening fizzled out and by 11.30 we gave up and headed to an Internet café. In a way this was real nice as Miko got to message with a lot of her family who had gathered in the early evening in one house before venturing out to live it up. We passed the midnight hour here before soberly crawling into bed soon after.
We’d spent money and time getting down to India’s Deep South so decisions had to be made. We did like the chilled out ambience of the Sunshine Home but the beach and the cliff top wasn’t their cup of chai. When they arose the next morning it was in our hearts to take a walk down past the end of the cliff where we had spied some smaller coves along the Northward coast.
The first bay was only a few minutes from the bluff and the narrow strip was still fairly busy with a lot of onlookers from the slope behind it. We strolled down an incline dotted with the huts of a fisher mans village and crossed an outlet stream.
Two twenty foot long wooden fishing boats rested on the beach as we traversed the latice work of nets strung along the sand. We followed the path as it took us past the impressive white washed walls of the green minareted mosque facing out to Arabia. Pink walls of a quieter and more reasonably priced guesthouse gave more promise down here. We followed the promenade further to see a beach open up in front of us and spotted a crop of guesthouses sitting up on a hill. The place turned out to be Odayam. We climbed the hill to the cluster of buildings that quietly looked out over the sea. Four or five single storey establishments held prominence here with another few places along the inland road. The general atmosphere was more sedate and definitely in the region we were looking for. We looked at a few places before arriving at ‘Oasis’. It looked fresh, prices were reasonable and they had kitchen facilities we would be able to use. Ishmael, a young man in his 20’s was the owner’s son. He negotiated strongly and with confidence while having a good manner and relaxed position. They were full for another couple of days but a ballpark price was pre-arranged. We would head back to the cliff to mull over their options. Uplifted was the best way to describe the evening.
A couple of days later a rickshaw dropped us and bags at Oasis. We hadn’t viewed the room they were to stay in, but when they did it was a disappointment compared to the one they’d been shown. An awkward shape, smaller, shabbier, with a sink precariously attached to the wall, its only saving grace really was the view and a secluded balcony. Negotiations had to rewind a few notches and money was now being asked for the use of the kitchen. The whole package was looking less attractive. Talking stalled, as Ishmael wouldn’t budge.
He had to talk with his father, the ‘big boss’. A pro-active Miko took a walk. She returned to Royal palm’, a new guest house that proffered one of the best rooms we’d come across in India. Shain’s price had been too high and even though he now reduced it, it was still more than we wanted to pay. He had submitted the use of a single ring kerosene stove, a contraption that they used last time in India. Miko stated the price they were willing to pay, but Shain was reluctant. A mature woman with a kind face smiled at Miko from within the reception area, as Miko turned to go back to Oasis. She walked out the gate and rounded the corner to the inland road when Shain came running out after her.
“Okay, I accept your price”.
Miko took the news to Knox. At Oasis the ‘big boss’ arrived and we give him their terms. He wouldn’t budge and was being tetchy about the kitchen use.
“Take it or leave it!” he snapped, his grumpy moustache huffing.
“Well with that attitude, we’re inclined to leave it!”
“Get off my property then!” the shout came as he stormed into his office.
“No problem we’ll go to Royal Palm, we’ve got a better deal”, Miko fired back.
Shain was delighted to have got the business, although his four rooms were full for the next 2 nights, but he arranged for us to stay across the road at ‘Crystal palace’. Although run down and a bit basic, it was clean. The price was the same as Royal palm and we had the feeling it had been inflated in the deal.
Never the less the room at Royal palm had won the dealing. It was spotless, modern, bright and open with its clean white décor’, contrasting an aqua en-suite. The large balcony was personal to the room and was nicely finished with varnished balustrades and ivory floor tiles. The view straight ahead was half Crystal palace and half a down hill path. To the right were three houses spread out set amid a grove of coconut trees and the left angle offered views of the sea.
It was funny the next day when Ishmael paid them a visit. The ‘big boss’ had obviously thought about the 2months worth of cash.
“We accept your terms for the deal, you can move in now”, he said.
“Sorry, it’s too late”, Knox replied.
“No, no, it’s not too late” he impressed. They have no kitchen”.
“They have a stove, I’ll make do”, Knox stood his ground. “We have booked to stay at Royal palm now, how can I let Shain down? Besides your father made his position quite clear to us, so no thanks, we’ll stick with what we’ve got”, he added.
“Please forgive my father. He didn’t know what he was saying. He just gets upset at times, come and move into our room”, Ishmael pleaded.
“I’m sorry Ishmael the deal is done”, concluded Knox.
A dispute between Shain and Ishmael about the deal blew over quickly.
It was nice for us to unpack and lay our hats in Royal palm for the coming weeks; a real joy not to be living out of a suitcase. We wished to enquire into land prices to find if this could be the first step on making it their home for a bit longer. Our initial investigations of the possibility put the frighteners up them as quotes given exceeded prices in the UK, therefore much higher than Goa, and made alarm bells ring about unscrupulous dealings. In the first couple of weeks we had tried a few cliff restaurants and the verdict so far was thank goodness for home cooking!
In general the food we found in Varkala was some of the worst they’d experienced in India. Not a good recommendation. The places were pretty much dressed up okay to entice the punters in, complete with PR guy and iced display of supposedly fresh fish, which they had a hard time keeping the flies away from. The dishes were disappointing with quality way below average to match the painfully slow service. In one ‘Italian’ restaurant, Knox’s lasagne had more resemblance to an omelette. Meals would be served 20 minutes apart, i.e.; one person would be finished before the other had started. Hygiene was a huge suspect with dirty tableware, unclean cutlery and festering, soap less lavatories (and even sometimes waterless)! Prices were high and it really became a chore to eat out. In the end we just had to take a stand while ordering in one particular restaurant.
We had stated that it was essential for our meals to be served together, nothing was extra ordinary about the order and simple co-ordination would allow for simultaneous delivery. Forty minutes we had waited while supping beer that had been poured from a teapot into mugs. Miko’s pizza arrived.
Twenty agitating minutes passed and still there was no sign of Knox’s veg rice and veg Manchurian. He brought the pizza back, cancelled the whole order then we left. We had finally had enough of this sloppiness and of complaining so decided to give eating out a wide berth.
Apart from costs our organized alternatives give a much welcomed break from restaurants. Knox cooking up his culinary delights had Miko’s mouth watering. She was amazed how he coped with the one kerosene stove. It was an eye opener for Shain and his two friends, come employees, Nishad and Rushel, who only used the stove to make tea and were of the mind that chefing was women’s work! Fending for ourselves give great opportunity to learn more of the daily culture of the community we lived in. A ten minute walk inland tracked them past walled gardens and strong spacious modern houses. The avenues were narrow but the overhanging trees gave a luxurious feel.
A lot of the wealth here was from the locals working in the Gulf States and sending money back. Shain explained that nearly every household had at least one person who worked abroad; indeed his father had worked in Saudi Arabia for many years, and his mother had been the business mind to use the wealth well, while maintaining a healthy home to bring up the family. A mosque stood proud at the corner of the street and the main road, acting as a very handy signpost. At the end of a 5-minute walk from here lay a colourful fruit and vegetable stall-fronted shop.
The prices were ridiculously low, but who was complaining, this was were most of the fresh produce was bought. Potatoes, carrots, onions, tomatoes, peppers, capsicum, garlic, oranges, pineapples, banana’s, melons, milk, eggs, were just some of the things that could be bought here and a weeks produce would only total a couple of pounds. A few minutes further up a collection of shops included the bakery where we purchased butter, cheese, biscuits, crisps to add a few extras. Yes, there were stares from some at the start, but this eased with time. The exercise was good and regular taking a leisurely forty minutes. We felt comfortable in the place we lived, learning about the area and travelling by bus into Varkala’s main town to get items unavailable here.
One morning we were surprised to be greeted by Shain’s mother on their way back from the market. She was the kind faced woman who had smiled at Miko from the reception in Royal Palm the morning of negotiations. At the guesthouse, despite the language barrier Anima approached Miko communicating through gestures and a few local words about the surrounding life.
Miko admired her respect and knew that she had prompted Shain to take up their custom. We were invited into the family home for a cup of cardamom-flavoured tea. We were ushered into the entrance lounge leaving their flip-flops at the door, and sat on a bench like settee. Shyla, Shain’s sister, her children Matchet, Amel and baby Ayshea came in with smiles to stand and watch. We felt honoured when Rashid, Shain’s sickly father joined the get together, sitting beside them. Anima brought the tea, along with a selection of Bombay mix and fried jackfruit. Rashid chatted using his good knowledge of English remembering his days in the Gulf and an Irish friend of his. He related our words back to his family. The hospitality was lovely if a bit over awing as we were the only ones drinking and eating apart from Rashid, while the family stood with huge smiles and watched.
Shain’s rudimentary cooking facilities included all plates, cutlery and pots but not a fridge. After a chat with Crystal Palace across the lane, they agreed to let them use theirs. Knox checked how much and was grateful when they said ‘no charge’. Life was settling into an easygoing pattern just as we had hoped for. Our journaling had increased once more along with their verve for living.
Odayam beach was picturesque, a haven for the soul and a work place for the fishermen who pulled their nets ashore here in the morning. Lines of men would play a daily tug of war drawing on all their strength to wrestle their catch from the mighty sea, with smiles wide they would encourage the tourist to muscle in. It was hard work as Knox found out while helping. As part of a 15-man team, he pushed and pulled a 20-foot wooden vessel onto the shore and later lifted, along with two Indian men, one of the heavy carved three log rafts out of the water. Loud heave ho’s reverberated along the coastline, where many onlookers would come to watch.
The sand changed from burm to vale along the undulation of the beach shifting from day to day in its mix. A deep silky jet black with millions of sparkly diamonds like the darkest starry night, interchanged its aspect with the rich golden hues normally associated with a strand. Like a magicians wand commanding the change the water curls to a crest before crashing down in great splashes. The whitewash fizzed as it faded into the shore, pushed by the on-rushing waves of the uncompromising Arabian sea. Above, the near cloudless sky is adorned by the kissing sun, an occasional twisting white wisp and shrill crying eagles. Shaded eyes watched the fiery, bronzed bodies with white head and breast or the speckled brown varieties with fork tails hanging like children’s kites before they descended in a swooping dive to scoop up the silver fish into skillful talon. The sky faded to the ripple glass water that licked the sparkling distance in a hazy horizon. The beach was backed by heaped rocks that stretched a huge defensive wall along the coastline all the way to Varkala cliff, only broken at points to allow access. The boulders were piled high from the base of the okra cliffs at the northern end. The drenching tides had eroded the rock face producing little coves with crabby islands, remnants of where the precipice used to protrude to. Numerous large crabs inhabited the nooks and crannies created, poking their nervous heads out and scrabbling for safety at the sight of the monstrous humans. These little bays could be a wonderful hideaway if only the local fishermen didn’t spy them from above and gawk intently even when told to ‘podo’, which meant simply in Malayalam ‘go away’.
The sun-faded fronds of the palms behind the shielding rocks would bristle gently in the breeze while the tame puff on our warm bare skin cooled them with a sigh of relief. The branches of these trees are permanently spread-eagled towards the land as a reminder of the nastier monsoon winds. Voluptuous tender coconuts bulged from the point where the crown sprouted from the long peduncle trunk. The beauty of the environment was highly evident. Most days the beach was to ourselves and we felt like castaways in the tranquillity. Time, for a moment, would stand still as we larked about in this seaside paradise.
The crows gabbled and gossiped in their unmistakable squawking style sometime just after five thirty. It was still dark at that time, in the minutes before the pre-dawn grey slid into the morning, and their social chatting filled the idyllic setting and would continue through the day until their palm homes called them to rest as the sun seeped into the horizon. We opened our eyes in the fresh room to this new morn. The opaque window at the foot of the bed, scattered with embossed stars, fed light into the room. Golden patches flickered onto its glass as the leaves in the trees fluttered and filtered the sun through. Just after eight, feeling alive and determined to get up as the beauty of the day lay bathed in sunshine without.
The whitewashed walls and Romanesque pillars of Royal Palm beach resort helped the easygoing single story guesthouse stand out from the rest without being obtrusive. A sandy garden with flowers blooming red and orange and shrubs tinged with purple and pink breathed living beauty into its surroundings. Baby palms no taller than a half meter reflect the infancy of this beach resort. The wicker chairs that graced the veranda lent them a comfortable position with which to view this natural landscape. Surrounded by hundreds of swaying coconut palms whose beauty tickled the air under a joyous blue sky, we sat under their shading roof safe in the knowledge that falling branches or heavy fruit wouldn’t hinder our days progress. We breathed in the untainted air. About 60 meters away children played on the steps of a large thatched roof house and in front a stony path winds down to the cool blue of the Arabian sea. The morning traffic sauntered past on the narrow path separating Royal Palm from its neighbours opposite, Crystal Palace. A cow and its calf, led by a girl in her bright kaftan, head for their daily pasture down at the marshland where the stony path ends and sand begins. The wonder we felt at being alive and part of this greatness grows each time we take scenes like this in. It gave us joy to coax our senses into taking stock of what we behold. Knox got up to a bleating goat, Amu, who had got herself tangled in a choker again. Anima had taught them how to get the animal’s attention, while Knox circled the stubborn goat to freedom.
A couple of kids ran up with a machete to chop the shrubs but Knox preferred to go the long route to save both Amu and plant. This ritual had Miko, Anima and others giggling as they watched. Life was so relaxed.
Our wee veranda was in use in the evening as well especially when the ‘old cask’ was opened and our German friend Gunther would join us for a nightcap. A well-educated man approaching his 60th birthday, he was a bespectled linguist with a goatee beard, a comical sense of humour and a keen eye for strategy on the black and white board. Gunther along with Shain and Nishad joined Knox in some absorbing games of chess. Miko laughed at the nail biting moments as the games took on a competitive edge.
Gunther was a well travelled gent who’d be on his own until his ‘friend’, Gabrielle, caught up with him in a few weeks. Not a man to give much away about himself, conversation was much kept to talk about travel and everyday life. Luckily his excellent understanding of English allowed for good chat, as our German didn’t stretch too far past ‘scheisse’! It was Gunther who first shared a taste of his rum that encouraged us to search out the concealed ‘wine shop’, in Varkala town to purchase our own supply and give Shain kittens as to whether we’d kept the receipt or not. He was scared the police would think he supplied illegal liquor.
Gunther was his charming self when Gabrielle arrived. We took an instant liking to her. She was a smiley person from Berlin who thought her English was awful but they actually felt it was good. Her lack of confidence in her language skills was more than made up for from her friendly and genuine attitude. We all conversed and understood each other well. On a late Sunday evening Gabrielle joined us as Gunther retired early. Us three sat up for a few drinks tucking into a bottle of rum.
As this was her first trip to India she was glad of Gunther’s guidance. Drunken tales of interesting meetings, insightful thoughts and funny slurred anecdotes ensued, like the story of her best friend at home called ‘Marie Theresa’ (MT) Pott, and her son Jack, even at this late hour this had their other German neighbours laughing in their beds. By 3am we staggered with Gabby to leave her at her room, just at the steps to her veranda, ‘the stumbling trio’ managed to unbalance ourselves and we tumbled in a heap of sniggers, and sshh’s. An obscene bellow from the room next door had them looking at each other with faces of naughty school children as a drunkenly unconcerned Gabby giggled on. She didn’t feel the bruises until the next morning but the night had been good. There was a complaint made to Shain by Gaby’s disgruntled neighbour the next day.
“What can I do?” asked a puzzled Shain.
“You’re the manager!” explained an infuriated neighbour.
“But they’re my guests too!”, responded Shain matter of factly.
Shain laughingly related this story back to us, obviously not particularly bothered and aware that these shenanigans didn’t occur on a regular basis.
Gunther wasn’t really interested in football, to which Knox had a chuckle, as Germany would be over run with fans in the summer when the world cup hit town. He wondered how the poor chap would cope. Knox on the other hand loved football, as his regular homage’s to the TV screens had testified on this trip. There is nothing like playing though and when he caught sight of the sandy football pitch he just knew he had to have a game. Miko chilled in the room because she knew a football-playing girl would bewilder the local male population. Knox went to investigate. The afternoon was late but the sweat still clung from the heat. A match was already underway but that was no problem, and he was just absorbed into a team. It was hard going for soft feet and an unfit body. The sinking sand made manoeuvring difficult as the ball caught up and the toes buckled on the various levels. The centre circle and one wing was harder, more rocky with loose pebbles and presented a completely different challenge. After a couple of minutes Knox was knackered but he dug deep for that second wind to carry him through the hour. Being European Knox was expected to show off some fancy footwork. This was not always an easy task. His body produced buckets of sweat and he inevitably stumbled and fell only to rise as the sand man. His team-mates chortled at this. The players were all local kids apart from one other white guy who, when he spoke, revealed the thick brogue of a Southern Irish accent. It’s a small world really. In the end Knox dived into the sea to wash down. It was great to play and Knox got a couple of goals but he did end up side lined for a week to allow his bruised toes time to recover.
Anima was the business brain owner and ensured that things ticked over, but Shain was the manager. At 25 he was sometimes a mixture of super serious, a hypochondriac and extremely childish. He could be down to earth and happy though as well. It was a small operation run with the help of two of his friends. Nishad was a big man who had been friends with Shain for more than 20 years. He was a friendly respectful man. He didn’t talk much but that was because his English was very limited. He did make the effort though and enjoyed playing chess with Knox. It was easy to see he was a proud man and he wasn’t scared of hard work. He had a really good heart. Rushel was Shain’s other sidekick. They had roomed together at college and had become the best of friends. Rushel was 2 years younger than Shain, smaller of build and had a permanent limp from a serious leg injury received as a young teenager when he fell from a tree. This boy was the sociable one of the three. A comic spirit made him outgoing and carefree on the surface. He was interested in connecting with the guests, improving his English as he went along, and of course having a joke with them. He didn’t see it as a proper job and he still placed himself above Nishad in the pecking order and avoided as much work as possible. With his jesting he tapped into Shain’s childish nature and managed to get away with a lot.
In the first few weeks Rushel joined us, chatting and having a laugh. We helped him with his English, but also wished to learn a few words of the local language, Malayalam. We were happy when their learning was greatly received by the local population, who enjoyed the giggle at the odd mispronunciation from these westerners. Joking aside it was a form of respect for the culture and an enabler for the visitor to interact on a new level with our surroundings. Interaction with us and Rushel opened up insights into the lives and characters. Situations developed from the curious relationships that evolved from a greater mix between staff and paying guests. One off shoot was the invitation to attend a wedding, with Rushel as chaperone.
It’s a rare occasion that one gets invited to an Indian wedding. Our first experience from years back was the evening-do of a Hindi affair that we stumbled into were they were tormented into eating lots of sweet cake while dancing to a mix of Hindi and western pop. This one though was different. It was a Muslim wedding and the groom, a friend of Shain’s, had asked them to attend the ceremony. We never got to know the names of the pair getting married and didn’t know what to expect from such an event. Does one need to bring a gift, or have something prepared to say to the happy couple? The consensus was not to worry about that, just bring ourselves. So with excitement we got ourselves together. An intrigue was in the air as to what the day would bring. One thing was for sure they wanted to dress well.
“Ha-ha, I told you so!” a triumphant Miko quipped about her astute planning as she had implored Knox to pack some smart gear.
Knox felt extra hot in his dapper wear. He mused on the gorgeous Miko in her pastel green skirt, silky ivory top and her sparkly diamante sandals.
“That’s my woman and I love her!” he thought.
A fresh pineapple for breakfast put something into our stomachs while a quick rum and lemonade each kick started the celebrations. We were ready for the off. Jumping into the rickshaw, Rushel introduced us to the driver and prattled on as they zipped along the back road. Across the rail tracks, they motored for another few kilometres listening to the sorry tale of Rushel’s love life. He pointed to the house of a girl he’d liked at college. It developed that he had never been romantically linked with her and she was now married to someone else.
“She is fat now, so it doesn’t matter!” he remarked.
“With an attitude like that, she had a lucky escape!” Miko thought to herself.
In this world where arranged marriages were the norm Rushel thought that he had little chance.
“I don’t have a proper job”, he whined feeling sorry for himself. “No father would take me seriously, they would wonder how could I look after his daughter”.
He was full of excuses but didn’t seem to know what he wanted to really work at. He seemed to be ‘in love’ with many different girls, especially every single foreign girl he clapped eyes on. His naivety shone through.
The rickshaw trundled into the car park of a large auditorium. The usual stares abounded at the sight of the strangers.
Hundreds turned out whether they knew the bride and groom or not. The women and children sat in the row of seats facing the stage as the ceremony was in full swing. The men bolted along the side corridors that led to the dining hall all the way to the back. The first sitting of the meal was a ‘men only’ affair.
Western ideas of a wedding got fired out the window, as the scene impressed itself. Clerics performed the union on stage as the couple sat on their thrones, two blue plastic chairs. A painted backdrop of floral gardens, columns and archways stretched across the rear of the platform. When the clerics finished a crowd of relatives fussed around the bemused looking duo bringing gifts of money, jewellery and white flower garlands for them to swap. Like two strangers they sat nervously under the spot light as hot bulbs shone for the wedding photographers.
The bride was adorned in a crepe crimson sari, embroidered with fine gold that shimmered in the light matching the bracelets decorating each arm. Her chiffon veil was held by a diamond tiara set with rubies and sapphires, and a single gold necklace was prominent under her chin, which had been given to her by the groom, who was simply dressed in pressed black trousers and white shirt. We joined the multitude of photo hunters and the couple barely had the courage to show happiness as they were caught in the headlights of an unstoppable machine. But when she looked up catching Miko’s eye, a smile etched across her lips.
“Come quick, it’s the second sitting”, flustered a hungry Rushel.
A queue was already forming as they lined up outside the Iron gates that led into the dining hall. The men had finished and a speedy clean up operation was in progress. People pushed and shoved despite the still locked door. As usual an Indian queue soon became a scrum and a stampede ensued when the gates opened. One just had to go with the flow or be crushed. As this was a Muslim wedding mutton biryani was high on the menu but luckily for us this was India, and there was also a veg thali option. It was a simple process. One just found a bench seat in the canteen, sat down and was served. Tin plates, cups of water, popadom and a small banana positioned each place, and waiters dolloped rice and curries. Left hands lay idol while the right replaced forks in scooping up the grub before being shovelled into the mouth. With the food done it was time to leave, no hanging around here! The majority of the 500 plus guests departed back to everyday. The rest would join a more intimate affair with the bride and groom, just family and close friends. This was Rushal’s 7th wedding in a month. They were sure he was glad at the lack of speeches. To round off the proceedings the rickshaw returned via a Hindi shrine. It must have been the season as another wedding was taking place here. We left happy with the day and pleased with their host.
The wedding was over but the day was only half way through. After a quick hour at the beach, we sipped a few more rums before giving Knox the night off and heading out to dinner.
Admittedly, on some ‘rare’ occasions booze-fuelled antics did occur on the cliff top without ever planning to do so. We promised Manu they’d grab a meal at Johnny Cool’s, so this was their first time. The atmosphere was relaxed as reggae wafted out into the garden restaurant. We opted for pasta this time as a change from the traditional meal eaten at lunch. We had an instinct that the food here would be good and we weren’t disappointed as the delicious meal exceeded expectations. The cook knew the standards that Europeans would expect. Penne pasta was mixed with a light freshly made tomato sauce stirred up with chunky veg, seasoned with herbs and melted over with grated cheese. This dish would have the Italians quaking in their boots! A desert of homemade chocolate cheese cake was a fabulous way to complete the meal. We were thankful of this wonderful experience on the mediocre cliff.
Since there was no TV in the room Knox would itch to watch Liverpool play. Like a kid at Christmas his head would imitate a toy railway going round and round picturing the match, the star players and them goals! Football wasn’t easy to catch in Varkala. Surprisingly for a football state, but they found Sea Rock the only restaurant that showed live matches. We hurried round to view the action after piling praise on Manu. When the game finished with a disappointing score line we decided to have one for the road over a game of chess.
This aroused the interest of the owner, ‘Atche Sagar’, and we ended up at a group table were one of the couples they chatted to was Anna and Michael. It turned out thier friends had been in Kerala the year before and became pally with Atche. Anna and Michael’s friends give them a bottle of Johnny Walker black label to bring back to Atche as a gift. The music got turned on, the drinks flowed and the night rolled into the early hours of the morning over the dim lit gathering while workers slept on tabletops recharging batteries for another day. Anna explained to Miko how they were staying on the cliff top, and she seemed to be a bit miserable with it all. Miko let them into the secret of Odayam. In the end with the whisky finished and a bottle of gin, the hour was 6am and bedtime called. We hadn’t had to buy a drink since the footy ended and those before hadn’t even been paid for as Atche had fallen asleep. When they called a week later to pay up, it was great to find Atche waived the bill. Saying the night was on him. Exhausted we flopped into bed. What a day! The next was a blur.
Not every night turned into a session and a stroll back to Odayam would ensue. When the sun went down the lights on the cliff top lit the path but at the end of the crag the lights stopped and the trusty torch was needed to guide one safely home. It was actually very romantic as the big old moon would shine. Its soft glow on the rippling sea or the visible stars would play a game of hide and seek through the ruffling palm leaves. Knox would always look out for Orion and Miko would tease that it was the only constellation he knew. When the little brook had to be crossed Miko would hop piggyback style onto Knox to avoid any possible unpleasant creatures nibbling at her toes. We really loved this time to see the world differently, its shadows were enchanting, a bit scary but smooth as velvet.
Two days before Knox’s birthday and after a lovely meal at Johnny Cool’s that annoyingly took an hour and a half in the making, we strolled back to Odayam. The night was darker. A silly tiff saw Miko 10 meters ahead of Knox, she off course had no torch. A deafening scream from Miko echoed around.
“What’s wrong?” called Knox rushing up to her.
“There’s something stuck in my leg!” she yelled.
Miko had managed to veer off the stone path and into the cactus bushes that lined it. She had scrapes on her legs and a few spikes protruded from her left ankle. Through her shrieks and sobs Knox had to extract them and in her panic, the pain was excruciating though a sober Miko was content that the thorns were out.
The next morning Miko hobbled and hopped about. The pain was worse but she thought it was due to bruising as the punctured marks were truly revealed. A closer inspection in the afternoon showed a lump under a shadowy mark. It looked like a thorn embedded under the skin just above her left ankle. With careful poking, we both attempted to edge it out. We were unsuccessful being unable to get a hold of it.
“There’s only one thing for it, Knox announced.
“We’ll have to get you to a doctor”.
“I’m not going to the hospital”, a defiant Miko asserted.
She could kick and scream all she wanted but as far as Knox was concerned there was no other choice. Miko was not amused and her fear was starting to create panic as she did not like hospitals or doctors. It was quite an effort to keep her calm but she realized that the culprit of her pain had to be removed. The risk of infection was too great yet hygiene in these provincial facilities worried her. Frightful horror stories raced through Miko’s mind but she reluctantly faced up to dealing with her problem. Nishad organized a rickshaw and the driver Ajeev, took us across the tracks to the local hospital at Edava. He was very attentive as he entered with us translating the problem to the reception.
The building was antiquated but clean. The hygiene level was a comforting sign. We were directed to a side room near the head of a corridor and Miko sat up on the bed. Modern medical equipment such as single use syringes and packaged wipes looked a tad out of place among the brown bottles with rubber teat caps that lined the stone shelves. Miko eyed these items suspiciously to ensure the packages were sealed. Intermittent electricity supply only tightened Miko’s nerves as she sobbed at the contemplation of her position. Patients from the waiting room, forgetting their own ills, stood eyeballing the situation at the door.
“Lie down, and lets have a look at it”, demanded the stern lady doctor as she strode through the doorway.
Miko not lying down lifted her leg.
“I will cut it out!” came the stark declaration, without discussing possibilities with Miko. Her unsympathetic view did nothing to dispel any fears, and screams erupted at the mere thought that the effected area was going to be touched.
The commotion only fuelled the curiosity of the bystanders as they strained their necks to see.
“I’m not getting it cut open”, she screeched looking at Knox with teary eyes.
“It’ll be okay love”, he soothed, sickened by her unabated wails.
“Lay down!” the doctor commanded again.
“No, I’m going!” Miko reacted getting down of the bed in her very dramatic way.
“Sit, sit”, pleaded Ajeev calmly with an open hand gesture and followed the tutting doctor out of the room. Miko’s mind still needed time to come to terms with the knife and the minor operation needed. Ajeev did his best to relieve some of the tension through sincere concern and spirit lifting jokes.
He informed her that the ‘big doctor’ from the city would arrive shortly. The news eased her nerves slightly and through her tears she gathered herself together a bit, even managing to laugh at Ajeev’s jesting. It was very warm and when the electricity cut out so did the fan leaving the room stifling hot.
Thankfully when the surgeon arrived the lights were on. His manner was much more placid and polite. He looked at the wound and sympathetically explained to Miko the procedure he would have to carry out. Her reaction wasn’t much better to this description or his gentle prodding, but she stayed.
“Please make this not be happening!” she begged Knox as her imagination galloped away on the road to make believe.
“The context of the word operation is a bit dramatic Miko”, calmed Knox. “It’s really just a simple procedure”.
The audience outside was getting to both us as we had no desire to be the entertainment for the evening.
“Daye Puko!” said Knox politely, and Ajeev closed the door. With privacy ensured, it was time to go to work. Ajeev held on to Miko’s calf and her foot as she reclined on the bed, while Knox held her body and hand, speaking gently to her. She was facing away but turned her head round to see a needle plunged into her leg.
“What’s that”, she screamed.
“Only local anaesthetic, to numb the pain when cutting”, the surgeon explained.
Miko buried her face in her armpit and struggled to remain still as the liquid was pumped into the area surrounding the wound. Knox felt his body temperature rise as beads of sweat dribbled down his forehead. He was anguished to see Miko in so much discomfort. The nurse wiped iodine around the ankle to sterilize the area and had her instruments and swabs at the ready. Lifting the scalpel the doctor made an incision.
“AAAGGGHHH!” shrieked Miko as she lifted her head to see the slice.
“The anaesthetic hasn’t worked!” she exclaimed, in excruciating pain.
But the surgeon had started so he needed to finish. Knox felt nauseous because of the drama being lived out and the oppressive heat. A failed first attempt at extraction meant that the scalpel had to cut further.
“Does he really need to cut that deep?” Knox thought to himself, amidst the deafening screams, more akin to someone getting murdered.
Finally the inch long spike was tweezered out of its fleshy bed, and dumped into a bowel. Ajeev concentrated, Knox felt his arms tingling to his faint pushed head, and Miko hollered. The calm medical staff cleaned the wound, applied plastic stitches, antiseptic ointment and a dressing. Knox flopped into the bedside chair that was conveniently placed right beside him. With pale face, his head swirled and stomach churned as he sipped from his bottled water. He was thankful for the swish of the fan wafting some air in his direction to revive him. Miko calmed now that the ‘operation’ was over and was glad to keep the thorn as a trophy. While the doctor went to write up a prescription, Ajeev made sure Miko was okay before faking a scream and having a giggle. Knox joined in and this helped raise her spirits as she laughed, a bit embarrassed at her antics. The onlookers were back so Knox exhibited the nasty culprit. All that was left to do was pick up the antibiotics and anti inflammatory from the pharmacy that Knox made sure she took. The total cost of the hospital and chemist charges was less than a few pounds!
Anna and Michael, the couple we met on that ‘Johnny Walker’ night, ended up trying Odayam out. They walked down to visit Shain at Royal Palm and a few days later had moved into the room next door. It was a strange relationship that developed, amicable but never evolving into a friendship.
Michael was the most talkative of the two and liked to have a chat with a funny sense of humour. One never really knew how to take Anna. After Miko’s injury she was concerned and confided to her about her jellyfish sting some years ago. It was gratefully received when she offered Miko some arnica and herbal drops to help the healing process. If Miko was on her own Anna would be nice and light hearted. Yet at other times, when we all were talking, she would not look at Miko but voiced what she was saying primarily to Knox. This made him feel uncomfortable as it was disrespectful to Miko as a person. He didn’t like the over attention or the fact that Miko was being treated like she was not even there. Some of Anna’s contradictions were startling. She was relating about a book called ‘culture Shock’, and the need for a woman to cover up in India and respect the culture. Miko thought it was strange then how Anna would walk up to Shain, unashamedly in a skimpy bikini!
Anyway, we were neighbours and easy acquaintances. There had always been talk of having a meal out. So when Knox’s birthday came around in February the opportunity was taken. It was 8.30 before all of us and Anna and Michaels friend Horst were all sat round a table at Johnny Cool’s. The food was ordered along with some beers by 8.50 and the chat started to flow. Time ticked by though and after an hour of waiting in this late evening, conversation became stretched, stomach’s rumbled with hunger and awkward silences crept in.
We felt agitated because we’d raved about how good the restaurant was and had chosen it for the night. All had ordered the same pasta dish to ease Manu’s preparation. It didn’t work. Two hours passed before the food came, which was a ridiculous amount of time for a fairly simple meal. In general the group was patient. Horst was the exception as he could barely contain his annoyance and was even more disgruntled when the bill came believing it to be a con. The food was delicious and plentiful when it came, but we took the evening as a let down. The others preferred to walk home while we grabbed a rickshaw home.
The relationship with Manu, kind of turned sour after another few let downs. Manu was an excellent cook but all too often the meals took to long to arrive. It was plain to see the dope had gone to his head and he was more stone dead than chilled.
On Valentine’s Day it had been arranged to have a romantic dinner but when we arrived the place was shut. Manu was sick and this could be viewed as unfortunate. A week later Manu ‘forgot’ that he’d organized with Knox to cook a veg lasagne, which left us at a loose end after making the effort to walk up to the cliff. His was the best food sampled on the cliff area but it was a shame that Manu’s ‘toking’ got in the way of his business.
Miko’s unfortunate run continued a bit. One morning after sharing breakfast with the crows, there was a mess to clean of the balcony tiles. Knox didn’t want to bother Shain to wipe the poop but was sloppy in his own work. He left a lot of surface water, which turned the area into a skating rink. A half-hearted warning didn’t help Miko, and she slipped on the steps banging the side of her shin and calf. It was another painful flaw, and she could have strangled Knox. Luckily it didn’t require a trip to the hospital or prevent them from visiting the beach.
We spent an hour or two each day on Odayam’s relaxing shores. It was fantastic to be able to do this, and we dived into their inner child while playing in the sand. Drawing pictures with a stick, and building sandcastles thatwe decorated with feathers, stones and shells. We were uninhibited and free. We weren’t the only ones with a liberated imagination as they noticed a lone guy build a fort around himself. With the rocks behind, he’d built a sand wall a foot high in a semi circle to protect a lounging area easily enough to fit two. With a meter wide moat a second wall gave a defence against the onrushing tide. When they spotted it empty they invaded and conquered “fort Weirdo’.
It was our beach home for a week before the waves took it to Atlantis. The surging Arabian sea was refreshing but undoubtedly urged a certain amount of caution. Its immense power was never to be under estimated, as Knox dived into another fierce wave. He was further in than Miko, who stood up in the water that reached up to her waist. When he resurfaced from this exhilarating plunge he saw Miko being forced to the ground by the billowing wash. With a flick of its little finger the sea tossed Miko along the shore spinning and twisting her across the sand like a rag doll.
He was powerless to stop it and could only watch and hope that she was okay. Luckily Miko escaped with only a few minor grazes and bruising. She had felt helpless against its might but was able to put this brush into perspective. It had only been a couple of days since they had come across a grieving widow. Her husband’s fishing boat had been discovered drifting empty in the early morning light and a search had proved fruitless. Her heartfelt tears mourned the loss of him and ran with the dread of how she would feed their seven children.
An attempt by a person to make a fool out of someone else requires a firm but dignified stand as a counteraction. Rushel attitude changed the last few weeks as he displayed a moody and rude demeanour. He showed absolutely no sympathetic concern to Miko regarding her accident with the thorn and the subsequent drama. He had no concept of the trauma Miko had felt and no desire to understand. Others laughed and so did he but Rushel was malicious and didn’t relate to any other feelings. He huffed when he was rebuffed and his brooding led Shain to become unprofessionally immature.
It had been practically a week since their room had been cleaned. They gave Shain the room key as they said good morning on the way to the beach. Shain gave a vexed look as he sat at his desk, not for the first time, and flicked through a notebook to check his cleaning dates while Rushel lounged on the floor smirking. We had learned to live with this bizarre behaviour.
“Ah”, Shain expressed, as he found the page he was looking for.
“Not today, maybe tomorrow”.
“Look Shain, it’s been 6 days since it was cleaned and the room needs it”, Knox said firmly.
This wasn’t the first time Shain had showed a lack of professional pride in his rooms. It was hard to understand their negligence as there was only four rooms to contend with and they spent most of the day lazing in the reception area.
“I don’t believe you’d treat other guests like this Shain!” Miko reminded him.
Shain squirmed a bit smiling inanely, not really knowing what to say because he knew she was right.
“You pay less than the other guests!”, spat Rushel as he propped his sprawling body up on his elbows. We were taken back by his insulting comments. We were paying a reduced rate that was agreed upon negotiations because we were staying in the room for a couple of months.
“Don’t speak to us like that Rushel!” Miko flashed him an incensed look.
“Are you going to let him speak to guests like that?” she enquired of Shain.
Rushel sat up mumbling words to Shain in Malayalam, his face all screwed up in a temper. Shain just smiled and chuckled as if it was all a joke.
“It doesn’t matter what we pay Shain, we have a deal and you should have some caring regard for your business”, Knox stated calmly.
His actions as manager really did himself a great dis-service. We were not about to get in a slanging match with the pair, but we were close to packing our bags. Retaining their key, we went out the gate, shocked at the fiasco that had just unfolded. We decided to visit Anima.
At the door the smiles were replaced by concern as our mood was revealed. Like a scene from the Godfather, we were sat on the couch as Rashid edged in on his walking stick to talk sincerely to us.
“We felt we had to come to see you about our stay in Royal Palm”, Knox started.
The whole family’s eyes watched intently and anxious looks developed as Rashid related our story.
“I’m very sorry for this”, Rashid offered genuinely with his rasping voice.
“Rushel had no right to speak to you like that, he is only a servant”, he continued.
“I will be sure to speak with Shain also, and this will not happen again”.
Anima implored us to stay as she laid her hand on Miko’s in empathy. Miko impressed they didn’t have to apologize for the actions of others and Knox showed gratitude for their understanding attitude. Rashid swapped a few words with Anima and a phone was produced. It appeared Shain was getting quite a lecture as the call proceeded. We left glad that they had got the problem off our chest.
Relations with Rushel remained very frosty for the rest of ourstay. After being warned by management he fumed and sulked at his treatment. He declined on several occasions the hand of peace offered to him by Knox. He just scowled. Shain was given a private dressing down by Rashid and Anima. It was appreciated by us when he came forward in sincerity.
“I’m sorry”, he added truly with hand on heart.
We off course accepted his apology, along with an invitation to have lunch at the family home.
We felt honoured to be guests and wanted to return the respect as we brought a fruit parcel, and chocolate bars for the kids. Amel was watching them from the steps of the house. When he spied them in the distance he jumped up and waved excitedly. Eyes grew wider, lips got licked and his smile beamed broader as he caught sight of the candy through the taught plastic of the carrier bag. Anima and Shyla greeted them at the door and beckoned us in. They gratefully accepted the gift and led the us down the black marble hallway and into the family room. Sitting drinking cool, sugary, lemon soda we talked with the children and Rashid, who had got up especially from his sick bed. We knew there would be a slight language barrier and were prepared for some longer silences. The video camera was whipped out and shots of the wedding a few weeks before delighted the gathering who had been unable to attend.
When lunch was served it was a sensational spread. Veg biriyani was accompanied by a salad of tomato, onion, cucumber and carrot. Homemade coleslaw, curd and fiery hot mango chutney complimented the light crispy popadoms and chilled bottled mineral water had been bought specially to wash it down with. Rashid and Shain sat at the ends of the table while the kids were opposite us, but there was no place for Anima and Shyla. We felt uncomfortable with this.
“Is your mum and sister not going to eat with us?” Miko whispered to Shain.
“They’ve eaten already”, he assured her.
The two women catered brilliantly and stood watching to ensure everyone was happy. The right hand spooned once more, with Miko being very dainty in her work and Knox’s acting like a shovel. The food was delicious and the atmosphere was relaxingly homely. Knox had no hesitation in accepting a second helping.
After we retired to the living room, where freshly sliced pineapple and segments of oranges were passed around, Shain proudly offered them mini Snicker bars as an indulgence. To carry on the wedding theme the photos of Shain’s brother’s marriage were brought out. The albums were beautifully made up with sketches of suns, storks, and palms edging the pictures. New photographs were made as Shain and Knox produced their camera’s to capture the moment. Shain then brought the pair through to his room to show photos of his computer. He always talked about his ‘better half’, the girlfriend he tried to keep quiet from his parents. He had fun with the graphic’s adding hearts and roses to sweeten the images. He got on like a naughty teenager even though he was 25, but life was to change for him soon as he’d be travelling to Dubai to work at the end of March. He was sort of dreading this but felt compelled to do it for his father as much as his own future prospects. The whole day was a success and there was an easy interaction between everyone. We felt fortunate to be shown such wonderful hospitality, and it’s an experience they would never forget.
Miko covered her bronzed shoulders with a, light cotton orange, elephant print shawl in preparation for the drama, dance and singing of the nearby Shiva Festival. We were both excited and thrilled as they followed the blaring vocals to find out where the action lay. The noise was electric and ears rang at the sounds of the spell- binding pitch which pied pipered us up the Northern Cliff to the seaward entrance of the temple. The celebrations had lasted all week, with firecrackers exploding even at 5am. People were everywhere on this the last day of the festival, scrubbed, preened and dressed in Sunday best. It was a heady splash of colour as sari’s shaded scarlet, lemon, turquoise, lime and violet rain-bowed through the gates while jangling jewellery flashed and glinted majestically off the golden sun. Little girls smiled innocently in their frilly, bowed dresses while the smart trousers and shirts of the boys matched that of the men with their coconut oiled hair. We squeezed down the narrow lane, past the coming and going revellers, and in through the hole in the wall entrance. A sandy grass courtyard opened up before us centred by the god’s inner sanctum were the idol sat in his glory.
Crowds gathered in front of a stage. The heavy green face makeup of the solo dancer hid his concentration during the mesmerizing performance of the ritualized drama. He wore full skirts of yellow with crimson trim while garlands of apricot and cream draped ornamentally round his neck. A flamboyant headdress crowned him with orange and red-mirrored pieces that looked like tiny lights when the sun hit them. He danced on the spot using delicate, feather steps together with effeminate arm and hand gestures while his three piece stringed and drum band applied a background of rhythm and strange vibrating twangs. The PA reverberated the gaiety as the climax was heightened. A 20-meter high chariot tower stretched into the air bristling with thousands of glinting mirrors that hung off its red and gold background. Pictures of the deity were arched in his differing guises on the front while the body of a horse protruded from the shimmering fortress, head to the front and ass to the rear. Two sturdy trunks of timber acted as a support and carrying bars, which many men would prove their strength by lifting this enormity.
Under a large decorative arch the couple made their way out the front entrance were a market was full of energy. Selling was in full swing as proprietors were rushed off their feet, spinning to the music to sell their wares. Everything was on offer, from buttered popcorn, dinky toys, sweet cakes, hot breads, and Samosas, through to costume jewellery and cloth. It was a vibrant and vivid swarming mass. Balloons kissed the air waiting for the hands of children to set them free as we strolled the less populated road that skirted the outer wall of the temple. Brick walled wells stood in the surrounds of old-fashioned stoned houses. We had a giggle photographing each other playing out a medieval scene of feeding the roaming chickens and drawing the pail. It was hilarious to be caught up in the festive high.
“Photo, photo!” partygoers proposed jumping in front of the camera all teeth showing. They would pose with arms locked around us, beaming at the lens. When the chariot finally lifted off the ground the pandemonium was intense, and fireworks cracked into the sky leaving an explosive effect, banging a lasting impression.
Packed and ready to go, Knox went over to Crystal Palace to gather bits and pieces of veg left to make a good lunch before their journey. Fizzel, the manager got the food from the fridge then asked Knox to wait a minute. He wondered what the surprise could be.
“This is for you”, said Fizzel on his return with a nervous chuckle, and passed Knox a folded bit of paper. He opened it up and saw the ‘Crystal Palace’, headed bill paper. Underneath the statement read “450, rupees”, in one column and for ‘use of fridge;’ in the other.
“Is this a joke?” a flabbergasted Knox asked with raised eyebrows.
“No, no joke”, said Fizzel unashamedly.
Shaking his head Knox folded the receipt back up and held it out for Fizzel to take. He would not accept it.
“I think you will find that no payment is necessary as this was discussed when I first used the fridge”, an incredulous Knox explained.
Knox slipped the bill underneath a shoe on the step and walked to the gate. Fizzel chased after him.
“You must take the bill, you have to pay!” he shouted.
Knox looked over his shoulder.
“Catch a grip Fizzel”, before walking up to a confused Miko.
“What’s happening?” she asked after catching the end of the commotion.
Miko cracked and wanted to give Fizzel a piece of her mind, as he retreated into his office to consult with the owner of Crystal Palace. Knox explained a plan that was hatching in his mind and told her under no circumstances was he paying the trumped up bill.
A few weeks before, Crystal Palace asked the our help in drawing up a cocktail list for their new restaurant. We obliged with good will and used our time topping up the knowledge with information gleamed off the Internet. Knox talked them through the 30-drink menu and offered them tips from his cocktail bar experience. Knox now headed some paper with, ‘MikoKnox INC’, and drew up a bill of ‘450 rupees’, to counter the charge. He then got on with cooking because they had a schedule to keep. On seeing Knox in reception, Fizzel came over to Royal Palm, still spewing his demands. The folded slip of paper was handed to him.
“No, no, no!” he exclaimed wagging his finger after reading its content.
“I am the manager of Crystal Palace, and it was Jo-Jo who asked you, not me!”
“You were there Fizzel, you accepted the list, and you should stop being ridiculous. No money is going to change hands”, Knox put it to him straight.
Miko was ready to burst as she shouted at Fizzel. Anima quickly calmed her down and he was told to leave. He never appeared again. Shinot, the son of Crystal Palace’s owner came over and explained there was ‘no problem, and to forget about it all’.
When the dust settled it was sad to say goodbye.
“Will you miss us Shain? Miko said laughing.
“Yes, I will”, he said smiling.
Miko and Anima exchanged a hug.
“Thanks for everything”, she told Shain’s mother.
Photo opportunities were taken amidst the smiles in a replication of Gunther and Gabrielle’s departure.
A happy Shain shook hands, and gave Knox a bundle of cards. “You must tell everyone about Royal Palm”.
A respectful Nishad shook Miko’s hand and gave Knox an honourable bear hug. Amel waved with a cheery grin wearing the lopsided sunglasses that wehad given him. Michael and Anna wished us well for the onward journey and hoped that we would ‘jump the triangle’ for joy.
It was amazing to see twenty crows lining the trees beside their room to squawk their farewell. The birds would surely miss their breakfast. Rushel was nowhere to be seen. After being on the other end of Gunther and Gabrielle’s departure, it was now our turn to peer out of a rickshaw and wave cheerio at the sunny faces.
Of course little runs smooth in India but, as we’d crossed the jagged ends before, it was like water of a duck’s back.
We’d booked into ‘Hotel Masa’. It was a fleapit, hellhole, the same as the lot of hotels on Kennett’s Lane, which the guidebook stated was largely a tourist area. Maybe this was once the case but not anymore as there was not a foreigner in site, only intently staring men.
We got the hell out of there, grabbing a rickshaw to take us to the Triplicane area and ‘Hotel Paradise’. While Knox checked it out this time Miko sat and minded the bags. Martin the driver seemed pleasant enough, talking generally in a light mood, then a second later his mood flipped.
“Muslim boy!” he spat as two schoolboys passed.
Miko was shocked and as stunned, as were the two young boys at the sudden bigotry.
“Muslim boys!” he repeated disgusted.
Miko eyeballed him glancing at the Hindi god, ‘Ganesh’, hanging from his mirror. He wasn’t fazed and Miko was glad to see Knox re-appear with positive news.
Chennai is much like any other huge Indian city. It is India’s fourth largest and had little to offer them with the exception of course of the ‘Enfield motorcycling factory’, but unfortunately our timing was wrong to get to see it. The metropolis was just a quick stop over before we caught our flight. The mixture of poverty and riches splurged together in the Triplicane area. Modern glass offices and malls live side by side horse driven carriages, narrow allies, pokey shops and whole families in rags who have nothing but the pavement as their home, to cook, wash, chat and sleep. This can be heart wrenching for the soul as the whole spectrum gets played out. We couldn’t do much but lighten the load in their rucksacks, clearing out some clothes, rolling them with rupees inside, and handing them out to the needy as a departing gesture from the taxi. It wasn’t much but cracked lips part in happiness buoyed by the small parcels. Most in the west don’t know how lucky they are. Feelings were mixed on leaving India but the predominate sense was one of excitement as their adventure moved on to a new chapter.