Travellog 4: All Good Things

I'm now down in Kochi/Cochin and this is where my trip appears to both have stalled and be ending. And unless my flight home is particularly amusing (as it may be - it promises to be a bad one anyway - far too long and too many changes, but better than the 41 hour train journey before flying) this is my final update.

The reason it stalled was an incident sufficient for the Indian Health and Safety Inspectorate to have got involved (not with me personally). And I'm sure by now if you've been reading my log (or know much about India) you'll know that that must have taken something depressingly spectacular. I was planning on heading to the Periyar Nature Reserve (and tiger sanctuary). But a boat sank there with 44 on board, and the boats (which are the best way to see the nature reserve - especially if you don't want to see a tiger sanctuary on foot) are therefore beached for the moment (and the inspector has been arrested). And it was a long way to go south beyond that - plus the fact I need to leave fairly soon, so wanted to be somewhere with an airport. Which means I've been in and around Kochi for almost a week, watching the world turn.

That's not to say I haven't done some travelling. First Kochi - which is incredibly hot and sweaty due to being a port. (I like to see the sea, but I detest this humidity). Portugese headquarters (with a house claimed to be belonging to Vasco Di Gama), taken over by the Dutch after the South Indian empire I mentioned in travellog 2 fell (and the Portugese had behaved abominably enough no one wanted anything to do with them), and then later taken over by the British (I think as a part of the trade of India for the world's supply of Nutmeg).l I looked at one building and thought "Bloody hell. I didn't know that colonial architecture got that stereotypical." It only turned out to be the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company.

But I'm enjoying Kochi. It is not really on the tourist trail (although there are things for tourists to do here - see the old part of the city I mentioned earlier) which means I'm not being pestered every five seconds or so by people either trying to sell me things or to con me, and instead get to see more of what is actually happening. And for all I complained about Mysore, there is nowhere in India I've felt actually unsafe in any way - just harassed.

I'm down here in Kerala in part because I like the sea and travelling round backwaters (which were lovely and peaceful although nothing spectacular), and in part because the sociology sounded interesting - Kerala has 99% literacy (with some places claiming 100%), and a decent social welfare system - but limited employment opportunities as no one invests in Kerala (I'm not sure why - I think it's been a long time since they nationalised too much). Possibly correlated with the low violence and accidental death rate, but the very high suicide rate. Anyway, one huge advantage of here is that whereas in Mysore if someone spoke English it was to probably rip off the tourists, here they speak it because they speak it - and they seem to like Tourism (it being one of the few sources of money for the region). Means it's a lovely place - and full of energy (this being the largest city in the region even if not the capital). But it's not easy to explain. It's a city with a tourist reservation attached (I'm staying in the city part but currently in the tourist reservation).

But other than see things I can't really describe without taking a long time, and go on nice quiet backwater cruises, what have I done? Gone up into the hills where things are lovely and cool to see the elephants and to watch the tea being picked. And to see some lovely views. The hills of Kerala look (like other tea plantations in my experience) as if someone had taken an idealised picture of unspoiled soft green English landscape and inflated it. Thousand metre high mountains covered in mottled light and dark green (the light green being unpicked tea bushes, the dark green having been picked more recently), plunging valleys (with some beautiful and high waterfalls - although I wish the Indians wouldn't drop litter all over them, as apparently does every other backpacker I've heard mention it). And the day we went there was low cloud cover. So although we couldn't see above us, we could look down along a valley 500 or so metres below us, and wisps of cloud clung to the mountainside like the breath of a sleeping green dragon, the mottling only adding to the effect.

Of course in order to get to that view, we had to *get* to that view. In the car of our local driver - who seemed to believe that the speed to take mountain hairpin turns was between 25 and 30 mph (the two of us in the third row of seats were bouncing around like peas in a can). That was mildly worrying even if the tarmac was fairly new (it had been dirt less than ten years ago). But even more worrying was, for about quarter of an hour, hearing this choking sound behind us - tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk. Yup, we were being tailgated over those roads and at that speed by a tuk-tuk.

(For those of you who haven't been to India (or elsewhere in the far east), a tuk-tuk is a small three wheeled vehicle with open sides, a motorcycle engine, and ... limited suspension. An integral part of India and you find them absolutely everywhere. But they really do not feel safe. Great fun tho. )

On that trip, as well as visiting a tea factory (and being inundated by corporate propoganda) we also saw and scrubbed elephants, and watched the handlers shave them (I hadn't realised elephants were bristly creatures). I was surprised by how roughly the handlers were scraping over the elephant's eyelids as well as everywhere else when they bathed them. And amused by how most of the tourists were scrubbing with the flat of the husk rather than the edge that the handlers were using and cutting. Which brings me onto the subject of coconuts (sorry if I'm rambling).

Coconuts in India are sold everywhere as green things by men with kukris. You buy them and they hack the top off and hand you a straw (sometimes used) for you to drink the fairly pure milk inside - a nice, slightly sweet drink. Then you hand it back to the seller and he cuts a piece off as a scraper and cuts it in half so you can eat the thin layer of coconut on the inside. An older one has a much harder shell round the meat and milk - and when fully ripe they turn into the solid brown coconuts I normally think of. But that's not the cool part - not only do you eat the meat and use the outside as a scraper (or elephant scrubber or to make a ladder for toddy-tapping or...), the green outside decays into fibres from which the fairly rough coir rope (doormat quality, but pretty strong) that you find everywhere. You use every part of the coconut (and not as fertiliser), and the number of uses brought to mind Flanders and Swann's Wampom

Tuk-tuks and coconuts. I'm rambling. But I hope these updates have been entertaining reading and given some clue about my trip to India and what I've found. And I fly home between tomorrow evening and Friday so this is me signing off from India. Hope to see many of you soon.

Travellog 3: And a smile on the face of the tiger...

Well, I've spent the last three nights in Mysore (as I said I would in my last update). I'm slightly (but only slightly) less tired than I was last time - although hopefully this update will be a lot better written and won't miss half as much of the actually interesting things I've been doing out.

First a digression on one reason I'm tired. It's not technically true that every single Indian who has spoken to me has been trying by some means or other to get money out of me. But it comes remarkably close to the truth (especially for me in Mysore). Everywhere I turn there's someone trying to sell me something (and for what it's worth, they take "No thank you" as a signal that I'm interested and want to bargain rather than that I'm walking away). Or some duk-duk driver trying to convince me that I want a lift. And I normally when I travel ask for advice from waiters or taxi drivers on where the best place to do something is. Not in India I don't. They are almost all on commission - and will try taking me to a hotel that gives them kickbacks (and in Mysore in my experience (and other places) actively lying about the hotel I've said I wanted - claiming it's either full from a conference or that it's three miles further out of town than it actually is - and that was when hunting for a hotel in Mysore alone - in the end I just got out and walked). And then there's what I perceive to be the standard of honesty. This isn't a slam, merely different standards. Not once have I been robbed by anyone from India - or has anyone welched on a bargain. On the other hand, Indian culture involves a lot of haggling whereas I'm used to things like fixed prices and things like the Trades Description Act. And haggling involves a lot of deliberate misrepresentation. This isn't considered dishonesty by any in the culture to which it belongs. But to this tourist, this standard of behaviour - which is seen as entirely normal - feels like (and in many ways actually is) dishonest. They say travel broadens the mind - but in my experience it also narrows it by telling us why we do the things that we do. And honestly, it is so much *easier* to go through the day under the assumption that vendors are honest and cons are minimal rather than routine that I wouldn't have Britain any other way. Here's to the Trades Description Act and regulation!

Also because of issues like this and not staying in dorms (and so not having had interesting conversations with people who weren't trying to sell me things pretty much since the day after I arrived in Mysore) I've been feeling pretty lonely and isolated for the past few days. What's been going on back home?

Anyway, after that mini-rant and philosophical digression, I'm going to digress again. Because I'm in Mysore. And to any student of either colonial or military history, Mysore is famous at least in part for Haider Ali and in particular for his son Tipu Sultan. It was against Tipu Sultan that a certain Colonel Arthur Wellesley learned his craft before later going on to fight Napoleon (and become the Duke of Wellington). He, like many other such figures, is controversial (his Wikipedia talk page is fun!) - he was a definite Islamic ruler in charge of a Hindu population, fought highly successfully against the British (with French support) and took four wars to finally defeat (at which point the British gave back the region to the previous Hindu dynasty). There is no question that he tried to modernise his region of India and that he was a superb military commander (who probably gave Congreve the inspiration for his rockets). On the other hand, he was definitely a devout Muslim, and the jury is out on exactly how he treated Hindus and Christians in his territory. Or more accurately there is so much nationalism and propoganda flying about from everyone that even if anyone does know, they have absolutely no way of making themselves heard. But his main stronghold was fascinating to see - a 7m deep river that has a natural two hundred and seventy degree arc is a pretty good start - and the walls he put up were ... impressive (as they would need to be for facing almost-Napoleonic artillery). And he added railways to the mix.

His palace was also quite spectacular. The night I arrived turned out to be lucky - the palace is only lit up at weekends for half an hour per day - the entire thing has been covered with literally hundreds of thousands of incandescent bulbs and it's one of the few places where a static photograph to my mind does justice to the whole thing - so see the link below. Inside it was truly opulent and as spectacular as the lit version of the outside. Some of you will be aware of my views on St Peters' in Rome - that that much opulence and lavishness made me almost literally physically sick. But if the palace showed me nothing else it showed me how it's possible to use a lot of gold leaf paint tastefully - you use it for highlighting the tips of the shapes rather than just throw it around. (Particularly inspired, I found, were the
sitar-playing angels whose wings were deep red at the roots, fading through orange to yellow, and with the tips covered in gold leaf). That said, I thought the palace was tasteful only until I saw the throne room (gold everywhere, solid silver doors, etc.)... It was also very interestingly styled - it had to have been a modern construction because you could not use that much stained glass before the industrial revolution - but I know of very few palaces that were constructed that late, and more impressive modern buildings tend not to be actual palaces. (At this point it's worth mentioning that one of the few Indians I met who wasn't trying to sell me something - someone sitting next to me on the train from Bangalore - mentioned that he was very disappointed when he saw Buckingham Palace, and I'm not surprised). The floor itself was tiled in a specifically British design - for all that short-lived dynasty wanted Britain out of India, they definitely wanted to emulate some of our traits (including industrialisation). Still, I'm really distrustful of any large palaces even if that one was really well done.

As for the rest of Mysore, Mysore is at the centre of both a silk and a sandalwood industry, and is one of the places in India to buy various forms of oils. Which means that I've had eople continually trying to sell me both. And to take me to a "museum" (read: not even thinly disguised shop). And to take me to about fifteen different variations of the Cauvery (the fficial government shop where you only pay a strictly limited amount over the odds) at which prices were really inflated and there were kickbacks for whoever took you there. And at least three different people have managed to persuade me to look at the local oils, claiming I'd see them being made - once I arrived it was a simple attempt to sell me oil I neither wanted, needed, nor had a use for. And for which the person guiding me there was getting kickbacks. (Not that I bought anything). The only pricy things I bought I actually found on foot - mostly because I knew the taxi drivers would take me to the wrong places and claim they were the right ones. Because they wanted kickbacks. And it's very hard to tell a taxi driver the difference between the Cauvery Arts and Crafts Emporium, the Kauvery Emporium, the Carvery Emporium. the Carvery Arts and Crafts Emporium. the Cauvery, and any of the other dozen or so different spellings that are used to lure in unwary (or even wary) tourists. I just love being that much on my guard...

Travellog Update 2: The Best Laid Plans

When I left off last time, I was in Mumbai, and slightly overwhelmed and short on sleep and planning to head to Goa for some R&R. The short on sleep is still true (although at least I think my body is in the right timezone), and the slightly overwhelmed remains true. But most of the rest has gone the way all my travelling plans do.Collapse )


My lovely bank has quite possibly cut off both my cards on suspicion of fraud as I'm in India. AGGGGHHHHHH!

Update: Finally managed to call Lloyds anti-fraud line. Panic over - they've reauthorised my cards.

Moving on

I've got a new job - at Guy's Hospital setting up an information team for their Urology department. (Yes, the jokes are obvious). Better hospital, better location, better pay, more interesting job (I trust). And also an easier commute.

Review and incomprehension: The Taming of the Shrew

Yesterday I went to see the RSC perform the Taming of the Shrew in Stratford upon Avon. It was played uncut, very straight, and performed extremely well with all the characters being more than understandable. At a technical level I would therefore have to give it full marks. I have just one basic question about the performance.

Why would anyone want to watch a play like that?
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