Mishaps in the South

This morning I woke to the symphony of 9AM traffic. Gurgaon, Sector 43. Laying in bed, I could distinguish every car and it’s driver from the tone of it’s obnoxious honking. It was a sobering wakeup to the morning after. This time yesterday I was ordering breakfast on the merry beach of Mamallapundram. This morning I have the hangover of Gurgaon and a date with work, which I am late for. Last night I slept at Hex Tax for the simple reason that there is no food in the fridge at Kapoors, and perhaps I don’t like the thought of coming home to an empty house.

The smog is hanging lower in the sky, clinging to the office blocks as it descends in parallel with the temperature. It’s much colder now and visibility is next to none. My feet are numb from the walk home in flip flops. In the harsh transition from warm south to cold north, I remembered I might need a jumper but forgot about my feet. Bea’s boss dropped me at Infinity Towers and I walked the remainder to U block. Now I am sitting on my bed, listening to Punam as she comforts her baby while she should be cleaning. This morning I can forgive her, because its the first day back at work for both of us and she is the only one on time, and because there is no light or power for her to do her job properly. Come to think of it, there isn’t anything keeping me from the office. There is no hot shower waiting, no internet to dither on or check my mails and no point in waiting for Punam to produce the clean, ironed shirt I am short of, because there is no power. All I can do is to shave my Crusoe beard in the unlit mirror (assuming there is any water), and trundle late into work. Oh, by the way, there is no water.

So I spent Christmas and New Years in the South, taking leave from work because Christian festivals are less celebrated in the North and you only get Christmas Day as holiday. Me and Alex gave ourselves ten days, leaving work after lunch on Christmas Eve, returning yesterday ready for the new week. Of course, as is normal with our Indian escapades, it was not without mishap.

Thursday 24th, early afternoon at the office. In an effort to make an inconspicuous exit I email my team the final version of the report I am leaving them to finish and make briskly for the exit. Sid spots me on the way and just as I am bidding him well wishes for new year festivity the CEO passes and catches my eye, not the discreet escape I had envisaged. Nevertheless, we have lunch with Bea and Mari, who join us in Mumbai a couple of days later, and head home to pack. I throw a bundle of clothes into my bag and hop in the cab. Bad timing, rush hour on xmas eve, the road to the highway was blocked and we got stuck in a jam for an hour or more just getting out of Gurgaon. Nevertheless, our frustration lapsed into fatigue and we nodded off, coming round at the airport still on track to catch our flight. We touched down in Mumbai late evening and took a pre-paid cab to our hotel where Dasha checked in that morning. Drinks and a late walk around the district, feeling a little closer to the festive spirit than Gurgaon.

Pre-trip foot massage in the airport

Christmas Day and we wake for a day of sightseeing in Mumbai. Breakfast at a greasy spoons where the omelets were eggless and spicy as hell, compensated by a fresh black grape juice. We were staying in Khan West, a convenient minute walk from the station, so we jumped on the train south bound for sightseeing central. That’s when the first mishap befell (and last for Alex). In the holiday spirit and a little lapse on sensical thinking, Alex trailed his arm outside the door while the train was moving and in a second it collided with a metal pole with a high pitched “clang.” Understandably in pain, he barely muttered a word for the next hour. Yet we procured some pain killers from the station shop and Alex resolved to continue with the day’s itinerary (Dahsa has it all planned out), a red mark and a slight dent in his arm. Nothing undeserved, but it didn’t seem like a deal breaker at the time.

The three of us persist with the sightseeing. A statue of some significance, the train station that featured in Slumdog Millionaire, some colonial buildings, an art gallery, the Gateway to India and an hour ferry across the harbor to Elephanta Island, prized for its carved 17th century caves. Dasha flutters her eyelids and the ticket man drops the extortionate tourist price. The last boat back was at 6 so we hurry to the jetty, and everyone else does the same. With the sun setting and the cityscape faint on the horizon, we wait with a thousand other Indian tourists for the return boat. I hate that Indian’s can’t respect the decency of personal space, or the sense in waiting patiently without jabbing the person in front to get an inch closer.

After the boat back we stop by the Taj Palace, the hotel devastated by the 2008 bombings, and venture down Marine Drive to admire the glow of the city lights reflecting in the water. A much-needed dinner in a Chinese and we meander back to the station. On the way back we stop for a drink at a Hard Rock Cafe, though it took several stops for directions and following a man down a dark back alley to find it.

I like Mumbai. It’s a progressive and forward thinking city, I can tell from the buzz of the people. There is a trace of organisation, a sense of identity and the sign of a well functioning economy (where the consumer sets the price as opposed to the ignorant price fixing rickshaw wallahs). This is quite unlike the slow moving, backward looking political hub that is Delhi. No, unlike Delhi I really could live here.

Saturday morning, fresh juice and spicy pancakes again for breakfast, anticipation of another day sightseeing. Alex’s arm is still giving him grief, so we determine to pay a visit to a local hospital to check it isn’t broken, just for peace of mind. After a while waiting in a dirty reception the x-ray comes back. He has broken it, severely. Next step, consultation with a private doctor. We find his office but it is closed, so an elderly neighbor says to knock on his door at the top of the apartment block. His son opens (who happens to be a top 60 tennis player) and calls his dad to make special arrangements for us. When he comes the news is not so good. We had thought, worst case, a plaster and an extra day in Mumbai, but the break was so bad it required an operation to fit a metal plate, and it had to happen within four days. One more thing, sixty thousand rupees please sir. So the rest of my day was spent running around with Alex, fixing up appointments with surgeons and calling insurance companies. We find a way for his parents to send the money with a bit of help from Western Union and make the necessary arrangements. When we are done it is evening and Mari and Bea arrive at the airport. We meet them in a bar an auto ride away with Lavina, an acquaintance from our Goa trip.

Saturday night the six of us hit the club next to Hard Rock, followed by a whimsical visit to Marine Drive. Finally we crash in our cell of a hotel room, five to a bed. The morning brings one final breakfast of spicy omelet and grape juice. The waiters are intolerably slow and despite our protests, or perhaps in spite of, it takes half an hour just to get a menu. More troops arrive, Wendel and Helen find us waiting for our food. Finally the food comes; the first to order but the last to arrive, me and Bea scoff our breakfast with the departure time of our train looming. By now it is apparent we cannot all four pursue the trip we had planned. Mari volunteers to stay in Mumbai while Alex has his op, I carry on with Bea. Suffice to say Alex had the op the next day with the added complication of a floating a piece of bone that the surgeon had to figure out what to do with. They flew to Delhi the following Sunday, shared a cab from the airport with us and now Alex is resting up with his personal nurses in Hex Tax.

After breakfast we rush to find a rickshaw to take us to the station. In my haste, I leave half my luggage in the hotel room. The station is further out than we thought, Mumbai is a big city. We finally arrive a couple of minutes late and a rush of cabbies around us so kindly inform that the train has left, we are late and that is the end of world. Ironic, the first time an Indian train leaves on time we are two minutes late. We check the board to be sure we are not being scammed, then we are flooded with offers from cab drivers to take us to the next station to meet the train there. One man proffers “if you don’t catch it you don’t pay,” so we take him up. We failed to establish that the next station was 45 minutes out of the city and the guy wanted double the fare for the return journey. So, after we were safely on the platform waiting for the train, heated bargaining ensued. The kind of exchange I had hoped to avoid but inevitable on a trip like this. An expensive mistake, but we were out of options.

Relief from catching the train wears thin within a couple of hours as the hassling begins and the proximity of people, packed into a small space, grinds me down. One man sitting opposite is determined to be my friend but his arrogant persona and pushy commands only serve to aggravate me more. I’m happy enough to be lumbered with less pushy “friends” whilst waiting for my phone to charge in the connecting part of the train; one chap works for the air force, another is from Gurgaon. Yet before long everyone knows my name, even a passer by I have never spoken to, and enough people get in my face to make me want to jump out the window. A couple of hours down, twenty nine to go.

I slept soundly that night on the bottom bunk, despite several times awaking to find a man sitting on my feet. I would simply fall back to sleep, making sure that I kicked and shuffled enough that when I woke again he was gone. Another morning and afternoon floated by, nothing to do but read and gaze, nothing to eat but banana chips and veg biryani. Absorbing the view from the carriage door (making sure all body parts were safely inside), I watched rice paddies and green transition to palm trees and sand. It’s amazing how much the sight of a palm tree against a setting sun can lift your mood.

We got off a few hours early, altering our plans slightly to spend a day in Allepe where Angie and Steve were shacking up later. We bypassed the town and headed straight for the hotels on the beach. We found a good deal for a place a minute from the beach, enough space to accommodate the four of us. First thing’s first, a swim and a jog. The beach was deserted bar a few fishermen repairing their nets and some kids playing cricket. Wherever in the world I am I always feel at home by the sea.

On the backwaters

Early evening we set off to meet Angie and Steve for a boat cruise along the backwaters to see the sun set behind palm tree forests, a pleasant way to spend the evening. Then we headed back to the hotel and found a restaurant to eat. Again, the service was painstakingly slow and the menu wasn’t quite as abound with sea food as I had hoped, but the company was good and I was content to be by the sea and not on a train. After dinner we walked past a large stage on the beach, a local festival with Indian music, and took a stroll along the shore before retreating to bed.

Tuesday, Angie and Steve take off for Cochin and Goa. We hang back, review our plans over breakfast and make the most of the beach. In the afternoon we head back to the station to catch a train a few hours south to Varkala. All the rickshaws are on strike but a couple of the guys working at the hotel have bikes so we hitch a last minute ride. By evening we were in the bubble that is Varkala. We shared a cab with a couple of Swedish backpackers, bypassing the town and heading straight for the beach. Varkala is a tourist trap, a busy beach perched below a cliff top along which spans a strip of massage parlors, souvenir shops and seafood restaurants. For us it was paradise; fewer hagglers to deal with, sand and sea and all the seafood we could desire. Red, white and black snapper, barracuda, pomfret and calamari. That evening I got the meal I had been so looking forward to, red snapper in banana leaf with Keralan rice and real Tandoori.

Wednesday morning we setup for breakfast on the strip and met a couple from the AIESEC Chennai crowd. We ate breakfast and wondered along the beach to find a quiet spot while they picked up the rest of the group. The afternoon was spent sipping beers on the beach (disguised in coffee mugs because none of the restaurants are licensed) and a seafood lunch. The Chennai group depart after lunch to catch a train to Cochin, leaving us to enjoy food (apple crumble and cheese cake) and beach until sunset. Another beer and another seafood dinner. By now we have settled on a second night.

Paradise in Varkala

The following morning we pitch up on the main beach for a last bit of reading and tanning before the afternoon train. A man sidles up to Bea and asks to take a photo. She politely refuses, tired of creepy men asking for photos with foreign women. He doesn’t understand my aggravation over his manner and lingers for a while. Eventually he gives up and I look on to see a group of his friends staring at a girl getting changed in her towel. As if reading my mind, a man in uniform arrives with a stick and prods the drunks until they are safely down the beach and away from the “nice white people.” It looks like he is herding cattle back to their pen. There is the conflict, of willing the locals to be herded away with a cattle prod, whilst not wanting to invade their holiday on their own beach and in their own country.

Next stop, Cochin. The train drops us early evening in Ernakulam and we get a prepaid cab, a boat and a rickshaw to Fort Cochin, where Team Chennai have us a hotel room. Its late and we rush through the shower before joining them in a restaurant down the road. We order around 10 but the place is busy and the kitchen is tiny and we are many. I take leave with a lively Brazilian to pickup beers, but the food is still absent on our return. Plans are made for a party at an island resort a free cab ride away, but midnight arrives before the food and we call the new year in with our plates full of fish curry and nan. In the early hours we make our way by cab and then boat, picking up Italians en route and disturbing lone fishermen on an quiet backwater, to an old-school dance rave with fresh pineapple vodka and trippy lights. It’s meant to be an island resort but really it’s just a house on an island with a bunch of inebriated Indians and backpackers. When we’ve had enough we wait on the jetty, and the jetty almost sails off on it’s own. Finally we get a boat to the other side, but the cabbies are all drunk at the party. So we wait.

Boat to the Rave

New years day, 7:30 in the morning and a couple of hours after finding my bed, a man knocks on the door with a breakfast we didn’t order. Never one to pass an offer of food, I sit down for fresh water melon, soggy toast and eggs. In the afternoon me and Bea explore Fort Cochin, starting on the seafront alongside giant Chinese fishing nets, stopping for a colonial church and fresh watermelon. We pick out a fish from the market and take it to the nearest restaurant to cook for lunch. As if it is a Keralan fashion, we were presented with our food no less than two hours later.

Lunch anyone?

Back to the hotel to collect our bags and take a shower before the next marathon train. We discover our train tickets have not made it onto the “confirmed” list and were therefore invalid. I hate the way they do the train bookings here, sticking you on a wait list a month in advance and not telling you if you have a place until the day of departure. Anticipating problems but lacking alternatives, we made our way to the station anyway. Rickshaw-boat-rickshaw-foot. It took much longer than we had allowed for, but the train was a delayed a few hours so there was no need for the rush. After much consulting with the guard and some friendly passengers we determined the best option would be to buy a “general” ticket that permits admission to the train but does not entitle you to a seat. In other words, you either sit on the floor or convince someone to share their seat. Problem was, it was possibly the busiest time of the year to catch a train. When it finally arrived we took one look at the crowded sleeper class and made our way directly to the more privileged AC class. Our ticket does not entitle us to be here, but it is worth the risk to avoid the mess in the lower class carriages. I sense it is going to be a long night.

A few stops down and my fears are realised as a ticket man arrives and kicks us off the train. He is clearly not willing to negotiate and enjoys wielding the power he holds over a couple of foreign travelers. He brashly advises that there is another train stopping at the next station and we should alight and see if there is any space on that one. We oblige and hop off, only to discover that the train does not stop at this station and we have to catch a further train to a station where it does stop.

Onboard the next train to Thrissur we found a cabin in which the occupants were willing to squash to make room for us, as if they weren’t already squashed enough. As I sat with my book I could feel the heavy aura of hundreds of bodies, the smell of their sweaty flesh and the taste of the expired air from their filthy lungs. What was supposed to be a one-stop half hour journey turned out to be a living hell, purgatory perhaps? I buried myself in my book and tried to go somewhere else in my head, but I couldn’t escape the glares from the gentleman sitting next to me. He said hello and I politely returned the greeting, rapidly retreating back to my book. He had demonstrated great generosity in saving us from standing room next to the noxious smell of the squatter toilets so I felt compelled to humor his curiosity, but I all I wanted to do was to burry my face in my book and never speak to a soul again. I could sense his eyes boring into me as he investigated my face, and then came the second attempt. “So basickallaly… you are from the US.” When we finally reached Thrissur we clambered between body parts of women sprawled over the soiled floor and past children stacked on top of eachother on precarious beds, to find the exit to the platform. Safe again.

At Thirssur I make for the information desk to get details on the next train to Chennai. The chap was pretty unhelpful, but Bea manages to attract the attention of an official who advises that the train is full, unless we be willing to pay a little more? A small bribe and the guy is on the phone to the conductor to ask if he could find a couple of places in AC sleeper class for the right price. Armed with a piece of paper with the conductor’s name on it, we wait for the train to arrive. When it pulls in the conductor stands by the door to welcome us and show us to our beds. He even organizes a wakeup call for us. No smell, no bodies on the floor, no irritating neighbors. I settle down to finish my book and then make the most of the four hours to sleep. A chubby face appears between my curtains, the conductor wants his money. That is how the system works here and I admit to playing along as long as that is what it takes.

India is both power and money hungry and those two faces of greed can be represented in the railway ticket men. First there is the scrawny, unrelenting conductor who takes pleasure in asserting his authority and ditching us at the wrong station. He is not vulnerable to the bribing sort because he gets too much pleasure from demonstrating his power. Then there is the paunchy, nonchalant chap whose oversized belly indicates a diet paid for by “tip money” from his obliging customers, people like us who were willing to milk the system for a few hours of extra comfort.

Rather than riding the train all the way to Chennai, another balmy city of dust and fumes, we got off a little earlier and took an early morning bus to Pondicherry. This quaint relic of French colonialism kept us busy for the afternoon, wondering along the promenade and exploring winding back alleys with French road signs and tranquil architecture. In a fine little restaurant we even found a French speaking Indian family, imagine that. After a rest in the park we took an auto back through the furious Indian quarters of the city to find a bus to the coastal town of Mamallapuram, a couple of hours south of Chennai.

Mamallapuram

A last minute dash to make the most of the beach, we figured a night spent close to the sea would be favorable over a day of sightseeing in Chennai. It was a serene little town, if a little seedy with the tourist trail. We took a room in a guest house right above the beach amidst a bustle of ramshackle houses catering to backpackers. With the buzz of peak season there was plenty of activity, even a traditional dance festival that we skipped for a swim and a quiet dinner. Not quite the serenity of Kerala, the sea was stormy and there was a gusty wind. Nevertheless, the sun showed its face the following morning and the sea breeze worked its magic before we gave in to Gurgaon’s calling. One final seafood lunch, Calamari and just enough spare rupees for a fruit juice, before we hopped on the final bus into Chennai. From the city centre a long auto ride took us to the airport, long enough to get a feel for the city, at least we can say. Everything felt a notch slower, more gentrified than the Delhi suburbs. Palm trees, grass, greenery, sea and warmth, I’d consider the merit of packing up Gurgaon for here. And then we waited in the strangest looking airport before a brief flight back to the cold smog that we call home. Ah, Gurgaon.

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