Archive for March, 2010

on travel

March 31, 2010

So India is a pretty big place and our route looks like a disoriented worm bathed itself in ink and then squirmed across the map – which has meant a lot of time on the road.

Most likely you already know what we think of sleeper buses, but much of our travelling in the south has been on local buses, which are criminally cheap and delightfully hassle-free. They also provide us with an ever-rotating cast of characters, along with their kids/mysterious boxes/tricycles, to spy on as we are invariably the only passengers going the whole distance – these are buses that take the least direct route from point to point, servicing every minuscule village and hamlet on the way. Saner people might take a private express bus but we’ve become quite fond of the local ones; they’re a great way to see the countryside and the sight of a sunset over palm fields is the perfect tonic at the end of an 8-hour journey. After a year of being passengers at the hands of madmen, we’ve become quite blasé about the whole imminent-and-certain-death thing – which only means the driving in India must have a special sort of mental quality about it, as we still have “I’m going to die” moments on a regular basis. On the many occasions when drivers narrowly avoid a collision, they like to stop and hector each other about it for a few minutes, as though either of them has some self-righteous claim to being a superior driver which, I can assure you, they don’t.

We have taken to travelling in non-AC sleeper class on the train, which we first took to out of necessity but later came to prefer, once we worked out that a sarong was vastly inadequate bedding for the winter’s night and that sleeping on the bottom berth was akin to sleeping in a draughty igloo. Our bags were hauled out in the middle of the night and every stitch of clothing taken out and donned in an attempt to avoid death by exposure. Hol put Linds’ thermal underwear on, over her clothes, in the dark, waking the next morning to interminable teasing from us as they were back-to-front with the “convenience” hole, uh, conveniently positioned over Hol’s butt. Blankets were quickly purchased for the next journey.

We’ve also had a dizzying array of cabin mates, the worst of which was a fat guy who had the most polished English but spoke only in riddles and decided that a vigorous ear massage would be the perfect antidote to Linds’ tiredness. Although he did tell us that the old lady in our compartment had dobbed on us, in Hindi, for only eating chocolate and biscuits for the whole journey. In fact, lack of a common language has been no barrier to us carrying on conversations with plenty of people, especially grannies who are desperate to know whether we’re married, why I’m not wearing a bindi and why on earth we don’t have any children yet. One group of “aunties” caught me trying to catch a peek at what they were eating for dinner and then proceeded to force feed both of us to bursting point, much to the amusement of other passengers. Bless them, they even boxed up what was left and insisted that we keep it for our breakfast the next morning, all the while thumbing through my magazine and tutt-tutting over the scantily-clad models within. We’ve been woken up by pneumatic snoring and vigorous prayers of “Hari Ram, Ram!” but I don’t think I’ll ever forget falling asleep in the mid-afternoon as the quiet young pilgrim in our cabin softly sung his prayers while we chugged through the barren plains of Madhya Pradesh. If ever there was a holy sound, this was it.

A year of long journeys has also fostered some behaviours in me that I imagine are akin to those of a wartime bride – namely, I obsessively squirrel food away for times of famine and in even the blistering summer heat, I still can’t bear to part with the aforementioned blankets lest we encounter an unseasonal cold snap.

And then there’s the post-travel inertia where we find ourselves perversely wishing for the already protracted journey to be further extended, simply so we can delay the tedious routine of fighting off rickshaw drivers and beginning the search for lodgings. At least in Agra, the fighting off was done for us by a policeman who baton-charged the assembled crowd of plundering drivers as they surged towards the fresh meat.


tropical beer notes #28

March 30, 2010

? Varkala India

So I am temporarily back from my self-imposed beer hiatus.

Welcome to drinking Varkala style. The Commies make it quite difficult for the restaurants to get a license in these parts. This is beautifully and simply subverted by nearly every beach side shack with the aid of the humble teapot. An unintended bonus is that the ceramic pot and mug keep the beer nice and cool – Bavarian stein style.

Perhaps this is how the good fight can be taken to the licensing recalcitrants at the Town of Vincent?

we want a sixer

March 29, 2010

I’m writing this sitting in Varkarla, southern Kerala. After the hard yards of Tamil Nadu, I feel like I’ve taken off an iron suit after a few days of swims, fresh air and porridge for breakfast.

The Indian Premier League caused many a late night back at Bagot. So when we happened to be in the neighbourhood of the mighty Chennai Super Kings, it was decided the time was ripe to get along for some cross bat slog cricketing action.

The excitement began well before the game; after booking online, it was off to Chepauk Stadium to exchange the printout for actual tickets. This whole process turned out to be wonderfully Indian: exciting; banal; beautiful and bamboozling. It all started with a cross-Madras autorickshaw ride to the ground. On arrival, we accidentally wandered unhindered into the hallowed halls of the Madras Cricket Club, past long forgotten touring side honour boards; old trophies and mementos of more genteel cricketing days; members billiards rooms; squash, badminton and clay tennis courts and multiple bars. A true pity that we’re not members of the WACA, as we were told by the accommodating staff that they have reciprocal arrangements (being a West Coast member didn’t cut it). The MCC even has lovely old-fashioned accommodation, which we got to gaze at longingly as we remembered our Rs 250 ($6.25) digs where we were subjected to our first police ID check in the middle of the night – reckon it had something to do with the Hungarian fgitive types staying across the hall. Nice place.

We were entrusted to a baksheesh-seeking, safari suit-wearing groundsman and guided through the bowels of the stadium, past what looked like the team dressing rooms and into a lobby where we looked at pictures of memorable moments at the ground.* After being deposited outside the stadium manager’s office, we were then told to go to another floor and wait for the ticket dude; not surprisingly, the manager turned out to be responsible for managing something other than tickets for sweaty tourists. We eventually found the ticket dude behind an unmarked door in an inlaid wooden wall, like where you might expect a butler to emerge from, only to be told that the tickets hadn’t actually arrived yet. After all that adventure, we were almost disappointed when things went far more smoothly when we came back the next day.

After many years of watching tours of the subcontinent, I was a touch concerned about taking the small wife into the ground. Indian crowds are uniformly crazy; after all, the boundary is not a white picket fence but a 10 ft cyclone number topped with prison-style razor wire. As it turned out, the lads at the game were far more interested in MS Dhoni than CLES Parsons and our stand was populated largely by couples, kids and middle class types. However the cheapest, most passionate and exclusively male area was right across the ground from us – so we had a good few of the antics, fuelled by what could be the world’s most modestly dressed cheerleaders, that make the grassy hill at the WACA look like the members’ at Lords.

No soggy hot dogs or  Mrs Macs pies here: fresh coffee, cake, channa masala and biryani were all on offer. The latter was sold by a kid who must have snuck in with a pot that looked like a 44 gallon drum in relation to him. No pics sadly, as you can’t bring anything into the ground (well, except giant pots of biryani). Here I am after the game with my collection of free things:

Tonight the Deccan Chargers took on the Superkings. A good game for Australians to be at, with that great champion of the people, Adam “Gilly” Gilchrist, captaining the Chargers with help from the once great champion of the people, Andrew Symonds, while the Superkings have Matty Hayden to open the batting. Aside from Shane Warne, they are all the retired Australians going around the IPL this season.

Deccan won the toss and batted first making 159, a total that would see them winning by 31 runs.  It was a fairly pedestrian game of 20/20, the clear highlight of which was Gilly smacking two sixes in a row. The Superkings were never really in it but that didn’t seem to matter as the crowd went berserk for any boundary, six or wicket. The group of young boys seated behind us, accompanied by one dutiful mother, did a good job of working the crowd up with their almost clairvoyant ability to predict a six by shouting “We want a sixer!” and their adolescent enthusiasm for Mexican waves. Truly it seemed that cricket was the winner on the night. My lone cries of of “carn Gilly!” did cause a few slightly bemused looks but mercifully for all involved, I left calls of “do a merry dance” to the distant past of the WACA hill.

To spice things up, there were several pitch invasions throughout the game  – not streakers inspired by a dozen beers in the hot sun, but a couple of stray dogs. Much of grounds seating is being rebuilt in time for next year’s World Cup (I swear I saw them building the stand we sat in the Tuesday before our game) so I imagine they snuck in through a shoddily patched hole in the fence. Once on the pitch, a most glaring example of the Indian system of division of labour, a.k.a. “It’s not my job”, takes shape. I’d read in the local rag that there would be 600-odd police at the game – and there certainly seemed to be at least that many, along with multitudes of security guards, groundsmen and hangers-on, many of whom sat right on the boundary, presumably to get a good look at the match. Yet when four-legs ran onto the ground and the ump called for the game to be stopped, nothing happened. Nothing. The little hound was as happy as Larry with 50,000 people cheering him on while he trotted the outfield, occasionally pausing to lick his nether regions. At one point he even stopped to casually sniff a policeman’s shoe. This particular copper just looked around as if to say “What? Why are you (50,000 people) looking at me?” while completely ignoring the pooch who stopped the game again moments later as he ran back on the ground.

Comically and in an ultimate act of upwards delegation, a foreign guy with a clipboard – undoubtedly the  manager of ground operations or some such – came running out of the members’ at the changeover to chase the dog while literally thousands of underlings watched. Of course, said dog was right back five minutes later and in the “who really cares?” spirit of 20/20, the umps just let the game go on, leaving Fido to enjoy perhaps the most rickshaw and motorbike-free night of his life.

*I’ll just take a little narrative time out to expand here. Most of those who assemble around the Bagot BBQ would know that Chepauk is famous for being the site of one of the only two tied test matches in history (“Wow!”, I hear the rest of you say) . It was during this game in ’86 that my childhood hero, Dean “Deano” Jones made his legendary 210 despite acute heatstroke, constant vomiting and loosing control of his bladder on the pitch. He lost 7 kilos that day. Legend. The team put him in the shower at lunch (1980s sports science at work) to try and lower his body temperature. He tried to retire on 170 but Capt Grumpy Alan Border essentially told him he was a weak Victorian – so riled up, he staggered back out after being dressed by his teammates – who forgot to put in his box. Without that innings, India would have won the match (boo). Alongside that and in perhaps the greatest ever moment in Australian masculinity, Greg “Yeah Yeah” Matthews wore his cable knit vest for the whole game – in the stupefying Madras heat – in an effort to psych out the Indian team and prove that the Stralyans were unconquerably tough and/or crazy. Back on the mean streets of Swanbourne this game was talked about for years.

love fest india 2010

March 21, 2010

For some reason, we really like Tamil Nadu. I have no idea why, given that it’s crowded, dirty, chaotic and hot as Hades. Perhaps it’s just that we’ve finally reached the elusive point of travelling India where you begin to really love it and instead of having to actively remind yourself to notice all the things that make India pretty darn amazing, you just notice them automatically – the beautiful sari-clad women sitting sidesaddle on motorbikes and eating icecreams at the bakery; the smell of jasmine garlands wafting over the stench of diesel and urine; the autorickshaws ferrying a tonne of tiny, immaculately uniformed kids home from school; the cows wandering in the middle of rush hour traffic; the sheer scale of commerce in an economy of a billion people, with every square centimetre of available pavement being devoted to the selling of an infinite variety of wares. Readers may have detected some slight anti-India sentiment in a previous post, but after three months it seems we have turned the corner.

Heck, we even find ourselves liking things that would otherwise be considered unanimously crap. Like the overnight bus ride to Kodaikanal. Despite the fact that it’s only about 200km, that doesn’t stop it requiring two buses and nine hours of travelling time. We got turfed out in the nowhere town of Palani at 3am, but you’d never had known either that it is a nowhere town or that it was 3am – it was like Piccadilly at rush hour and we were agog at the crowds that mobilised each time an empty bus pulled around the corner, with people chasing and leaping on board the moving vehicle and throwing items through the open windows to secure a seat. Having taken our time deciphering the Tamil script on the front of the packed bus, we were the last to board but seats were miraculously found for us at the expense of some skinny grannies who squished two to a seat.

Kodai was one of a string of colonial hill stations in the south and also where my grandmother was sent to boarding school from the age of five. Having now been on a few ill-fated jaunts in search of Parsons family history, we were a little shocked when we found the convent with no trouble on our first morning in town (its location on Convent Rd was a bit of a giveaway). We were appropriately met by two dour-faced women of the sort you might expect to be in charge of an Indian convent school and quizzed on my grandmother’s details, as though one of them expected to know her, despite being at least half her age. Dour faces cracked momentarily into smiles when I mentioned that I had also attended a Presentation convent school and we were allowed to check out the stone buildings which seemed virtually unchanged since the days when my nan was, by her own admission, a good but rather naughty student.

The other highlights of Kodai are the lake, honeymooning Indian couples and colonial buildings that could almost make you think you’re back in the mother country, or at least until you get back to the incessant honking of the main drag. We didn’t get to observe many of these things, as we were both struck down with head colds and bedridden for a few days.

We hadn’t really planned on going to Madras but we ended up racing there just in time to spend an afternoon with our buddy Shark, who we met in Nepal, talking ourselves hoarse and squeezing in not just one, but two tasty meals. In making our plans to meet up, Shark also reminded us that we had wanted to try and catch a cricket game whilst in India and conveniently, the IPL season was starting that weekend. Linds will regale you with the details in due course but for now, it will suffice to say that it was complete pandemonium from beginning to end and a good time was had by all.

Lonely Planet describes Mamallapuram as home to the only backpacker ghetto in Tamil Nadu and that alone was reason enough for us to limit our visit to a day trip with the government tourism agency. In keeping with our current India love-fest, we didn’t even mind the obligatory stop at a silk emporium, gleefully watching from the sidelines as the Indian ladies on our tour picked over a veritable mountain of saris, collecting armloads while dutiful husbands paced the floor and forked over wads of currency. A neatly wrapped package of temple visits, some awesome monolithic rock carvings, tasty lunch and a dinky boat ride made for a rather satisfying day, which left us to rest on our sightseeing laurels for a few more thereafter.

A final word about Tamil politics. As far as we can tell, the chief minister – 85 years old; hasn’t taken his sunnies off since 1964 – and his son and heir apparent, Stalin (!), are in perpetual rivalry with the main opposition party, which is led by an ex-Kollywood actress and a guy with a silly hat. Running the state seems to play a far distant second fiddle to saturating the electorate with as much propaganda as possible, including partisan flag poles erected to be ever higher than their competitors and enormous billboards depicting the chief minister, sun-like, at the centre of the universe, earth and planets actually positioned around him. Policies be damned! K-Bot had better get himself a some shades and silly hat before the next election.

ra ra for kerala

March 13, 2010
Remind me again why we chose to travel on another dreaded sleeper bus? The Indian model provides a less coffin-like arrangement, with a double bed sized bit of flat foam that is comfortable while stationary at least, although most of the night was then spent bouncing around like dice in a cup and fearing that either one of us might flung out the open window or into the aisle.

We were disgorged some 12 hours later in lovely Fort Cochin, with its baking Keralan heat, sleepy laneways, good coffee and the odd elephant. Luckily for Fort Cochin, it is charming enough that its popularity doesn’t have to rely on actual sights, which are limited to a some smelly Chinese fishing nets and a crumbling museum containing a few moth-eaten fezzes from the most F-grade monarchy of all time. Perversely, this is actually the sort of museum that we love – a museum of museums, with confusingly wordy signage (or none at all) and invariably crap exhibits – so we weren’t too bothered. There’s also a synagogue in the somewhat awkwardly named “Jewtown” but we never made it inside, thanks to rarely seen Indian efficiency which only seems to raise its head at closing time.

Walking into a pole in the dark at Honey Valley finished off my already decrepit spectacles, so while we waited for the new ones we settled into a happy rhythm of lazy days, sheltering from the midday heat on the “poop deck” of our excellent nautical-themed digs and rising at dusk for an evening constitutional and dinner at the peerless Dal Roti, run by the bombastic Ramesh – his long dormant blog is worth checking out for several recipes of extreme tastiness.

We also celebrated Linds’ birthday, in slightly better style than last year’s premature hangover and visit to the Thai embassy. In between Linds fielding calls from his adoring fans, we checked in for a few days of air-con comfort, only to have our dinner plans forcefully rearranged by our matriarchal host – seafood platter, choc-laden desserts and a bottle of Indian plonk later, we toasted her good taste and the family and friends we were missing as we realised the novelty of spending a birthday away from home had lost its sheen since last year.

As an aside, it’s quite hard to get a drink in Kerala – which strikes us as strange, given that most Keralans are either Catholic or communist or both, depending on the company. A bit like Linds, really. How can this possibly lead to prohibition when both groups are well-known boozers? Linds’ conclusion is that, like him, they too have concluded that the local brews are an affront to God and/or the proletariat and thus, deserve the heinous tax they attract.

When the time came for us to leave Fort Cochin, we were saddled with so many goodies and well-wishes that it was a bit like leaving home. Tourism is largely a cottage industry in Kerala and it shows in the incredible kindness and personal attention we received. Ramesh not only insisted we enjoy our last meal on the house, with so many trimmings that he surely undid all the profits accumulated from our week of patronage, but sent us off with bottled water and enormous kathi rolls for the bus, in case we felt like a snack “at around one in the morning.” Our delightful host, Joan, organised our bus tickets, let us stay in our room until 8pm at no extra charge and raced down the road in the dark to rouse and instruct an autorickshaw on where to take us. Even as we were about to drive off, already overwhelmed by kindness, she beetled inside to fetch us an extra carry bag for Ramesh’s goodies, as her daughter shouted “Mum, what are you doing?!” in a manner common to embarrassed teenagers the world over.

Kerala, we heart thee.

yoga school dropouts

March 1, 2010

We had high hopes for Mysore. Reputed by everyone we spoke to as a great city and South India’s home of yoga, albeit mostly ashtanga, we’d been looking for a place to stop a while and it seemed for a while that Mysore might be the answer. But alas, no.

It’s not that Mysore isn’t a great city – in fact, it’s lovely. Small enough to be very manageable, but big enough to keep you entertained; great food; perfect climate; very little hassle. And footpaths! Big, wide ones where you could walk without fear of being mowed down by human or vehicular traffic. Huge novelty value there.

It was the yoga. We always knew it would be different to what we were used to, but it turned out that strict Mysore-style practice was too much for our hybrid Iyengar ways. For starters, no props. Our beloved, free-wheeling teacher at home, Sam, isn’t insistent on many things, but a shoulder stand without blankets is a deal-breaker, most especially for those of us with desk job and bucks party-related neck injuries. And despite having a recommendation from a guy whose classes we attended, and loved, for a week way back in Chiang Mai, the school we attended had kind of bad vibes. A bit stunted and awkward, nobody really seeemed to know what they were doing and had their noses stuck in booklets setting out the sequences with stick-man drawings. People were falling out of poses and face-planting into the floorboards, which strangely didn’t seem to bother the teacher much at all.

It also became apparent that we were in a sort of yogic no-man’s land – not really beginners in the wider yogic sense, but beginners in this style. The solution might have been to sign on for a beginner’s course, but we were too impatient, non-committal and tight-ass to do so. Lots of other schools in town won’t even let you attend a casual class to check it out before signing on for a course – one replied back to our email that it was against their “ethics” – so I guess the upside is that we weren’t locked in to something we quickly worked out we didn’t really like.

I don’t view any of this as ashtanga’s fault. I know lots of people practise ashtanga and love it – although strangely enough, we met more than a few ashtanga devotees who didn’t like what they found in Mysore either. As Sam would say, “expectations breed frustrations” and although we tried to keep our expectations to a minimum, it just wasn’t going to work.

But no matter. We soon set ourselves another task, and a noble one at that: working our way through the entire chaats list at Indra’s Cafe. Our incessant ordering eventually became a great source of amusement for the waitstaff, who got to know that every time they walked past the hairy guy and small girl’s table, they’d order another dish, so we stopped needing to flag them down and they’d just stop at our table every few minutes or so. Convenient for all parties, really.

In between chaats I bought a sari, under supervision from a platoon of giggling shopgirls (tip: sari = excellent for hiding chaat-swollen belly), and we checked out Mysore’s sights, including the market, palace and train museum. Lonely Planet describes this as a “must-see”, which is probably stating it a bit high, but for Rs 5, plus a little baksheesh to the guy manning the maharaja’s carriage exhibit, we got to see one of the cutest things ever: nuns riding a toy train. Nuns. On a toy train. I was beside myself.

Which leads us to one of the most fortuitous incidental stopovers on our whole trip – it was on the way to where we were headed and it sounded nice, so we thought we’d check it out – Honey Valley, aka The Happiest Place in India*, perched in Coorg on the edge of the Western Ghats. Within minutes of arriving, we were already making plans to extend our stay. It speaks for itself that many of the other guests were repeat visitors who had all travelled extensively in India and unanimously agreed that there existed no other comparable place; the guest book comments all remarked that “This place is wonderful – not at all like the rest of India” – which, if you follow that logic, implies that the rest of India is crap. I can’t deny that it was a very welcome and pleasant change from the frenetic pace of India outside this lovely cocoon – incredibly peaceful; the silence at night was almost deafening. We made the most of the clean air by sucking lots of it down as we explored the surrounding forests and plantations, generally hiking in the morning (couldn’t possibly miss the tasty lunch) and whiling away the afternoon reading on the veranda. After originally planning to stay for two nights, we only just managed to prise ourselves away after a week.

*Vying for this title is the Delhi metro, which I somehow forgot to include in the already fairly brief list of Good Things About Delhi. Clean, efficient, eerily deserted outside rush hours. It would have won the award if the network currently extended to anywhere vaguely useful. Apparently it will by the time the Commonwealth Games roll around in October. Mmm, good luck with that.