long-overdue update

When Mood Music
2006-06-25 15:59:00

OK then, after a blogging break caused by being on the road and in places where even CellOne (India’s rural – but crap – cellphone service) won’t reach, I’m back in Nedumkandam for a few days to do laundry, dry out and arrange the next bit of travel. Meanwhile, here’s an enhanced version of what made it into my diary over the past week or so. Some of this goes over time I’ve already blogged about but I’m sure you can synthesise the two into one coherent account. If not, remember the secret is to keep banging the rocks together.

Yet again, I’m appalled at my prose…

Thursday 15th (Calangute, Goa)
We’d originally come to Calangute so that I could meet up with a former colleague who was visiting India. I hadn’t heard from her after she arrived in India and was beginning to get concerned but this morning she sent me a text: it turns out she got sick and escaped Calangute the day before we arrived. Hope you’re fine now, Ms F!

This was also a very tense day. Ajeesh and I hired a bike from the guest-house owner so we could go further without being at the mercy of Goas’s bus company (Kadamba Road Transport Company). We didn’t sign a hire agreement and Ajeesh (who did the negotiations in Konkani or Tamil) assumed that the 150 rupees per day he was quoted for a 100cc bike would also apply to the 150cc bike he eventually got from the guest-house owner. Both lead to trouble later and not checking the bike immediately led to extra expense. I’m annoyed with myself for not insisting we take the bike half a kilometre or so to check it. If we had checked it, we might have noticed that the fuel gauge wasn’t working and so not have bought a lot of petrol which we didn’t then use. Also, I’m sure I would have seen that the speedometer wasn’t working and insisted on another bike so that I could just tell Ajeesh “keep below 40kpmh and I’ll not leave a brown vapour trail or scream at you to SLOW DOWN!”. Finally, I’d have insisted that the helmet rack be removed from the passenger hand-grip so I could hold on properly!

Ahem. So we went on our merry way to Anjuna and had a look for the famed flea market. H’mm – something wrong here. My diary says Thursday but the market’s on a Wednesday. Perhaps that (and not it being off-season) explains why the market ground was empty. We biked through Anjuna’s back paths and over a grassy and rock headland, then came back via the sea front, passing some paragliders on the wat. We also amazed a California who’se now resident in Anjuna that we arrived where he was from this direction.

He recommended we head up the coast to Arambol. With no other thoughts as to what to do and a whopping three litres of petrol in the tank (ooh!), off we went. The beach was deserted apart from Ajeesh and I and two para-surfers, the sand was scorching hot and the surf was fun and warm. I know this mightn’t amaze you but after 20 years of living in a seaside town but only once braving the sea, it’s brilliant to me.

On the way back (a journey punctuated by Ajeesh’s search for paan), I persuaded him to keep slow but he asked me to hold his shoulders rather than reach back. I’m not sure I felt any safer. However, just outside Baga, our luck ran out. We, along with others, were signalled to stop by a police-person. Their fun for the day was checking that motorists passing this spot weren’t driving stolen vehicles or committing other offences . The papers proving that the bike belonged to the hotel owner were locked in a side compartment we couldn’t open. With hindsight, this was probably a good thing: the papers would have shown for sure that the bike wasn’t ours and we had nothing to prove we hadn’t stolen it! The police-person dealing with us didn’t seem to hear or understand my suggestion that he phone the owner and get him to confirm we’d got the bike from him legally.

As we were struggling with the compartment door, a bloke in an orange shirt came over and asked me what the problem was. Ajeesh and I replied, mentioning that we couldn’t get at the papers we needed and that we didn’t have any hire documents. The bloke replied “you shouldn’t say this: that’s illegal too and you’ll get a bigger fine.” Ajeesh replied to him but I wasn’t sure we should carry on the conversation: who was this bloke. I asked the uniformed officer who beckoned us back to him whether the Orangeman was a police-person. I received a mouthful of abuse for this: apparently I shouldn’t have talked to him if I had doubts. Pointing out that I didn’t start the conversation led to more tongue-lashing. Ajeesh tried to intervene, mentioning his social work in the hope that we’d get off because of his good character. This may have helped – we were fined 100 rupees while a couple of Mumbaikars were fined 500 rupees for exactly the same offences.

The police weren’t very thorough: to start with, the bike wouldn’t have passed a UK MOT. Nor did they check our ID or luggage. I’m sure Indian law says you should wear a helmet and I’m sure I never want a run-in with foreign police ever again.

Later Ajeesh got on the wrong side of my tension from this event and from breaking British (telephonic) social conventions he couldn’t have known about. I’m embarrassed to say I went on about it for some time. I’ve apologised profusely since and I think that what I said was true but I’m still embarrassed by this.

Friday 16th (Calangute, Goa)
I hate being stupid. For about the fourth time, I went swimming in the sea while wearing the ring my father made for me over 20 years ago. The inevitable finally happened. I didn’t notice until we got back to our hotel room – and then I cried and cried. How could I be so careless? I feel like I’ve thrown away parts of me and my father: stupidity almost to the point of being evil. I hate being this stupid. I know logically this ring is just a thing, that I wasn’t born with it and that I can’t take it with me but right now my emotions are over-ruling logic.

Saturday 16th (Calangute, then ‘Old Goa’)
We packed and left Calangute after being gouged for an extra 150 rupees for the bigger bike. We bussed to Panjim and then to Old Goa. This is the former capital city of the Portuguese colony and a few centuries ago was a throbbing metropolis. However now it consists of a few huge Portuguese/Catholic churches, a few chai-stalls, a grotty hotel and a few shops. A hotel tout took us to the hotel and charged us 30 ruppes for a 500-metre drive: The outside of the hotel looks ok but ht eroom we were offered was so filthy we rejected it immediately. We were offered another but this too was too manky even for me. We accepted a third on condition that they brought clean bedclothes, used some disinfectant and swept the floor, especially to get rid of the used condom in the bathroom.

I was in need of some solitude so Ajeesh went for a walk while I stayed in the room for a while and then watched the Portugal/Ivory Coast football match. After Ajeesh returned, we at indifferent curry and chapattis and crashed out.

Sunday 17th (‘Old Goa’, then Panjim)
We looked around the cathedrals and churches. The amount of gold and other riches in these places made me feel slightly nauseated. I must admit I have difficulties with Christianity at the best of times. (It‘s the religion that most informs my atheism), especially with hierarchical and sexist versions. When so much wealth is wasted glorifying a deity that doesn’t exist while all around there is poverty, I tend to get very annoyed. I think I better avoid South America and the southern US for the rest of my days. Ajeesh and I had a long talk about our reactions to people we’d met in Goa. He told me some about some things he’d discussed (in Indian languages) with people there. They didn’t seem to square with the snippets of English that had been in those conversations: I felt depressed and confused because I’d also received other impressions when talking in (admittedly very broken) English with these people. I don’t like being split between people: this feeling continued to dog me for the next few days, on top of my ongoing feelings of loss about my ring.

We bussed to Panjim: there was no need to stay any longer in Old Goa and the room was still unappealing. At the local tourist office, we asked a guide if she could recommend somewhere within our budget. While she was sorting this, we were bothered by a piss-head who used to be PA to the former tourism minister and now comes to the tourist office to mourn his lost job. We went to where the guide had said she’d booked us: this turned out to be piece of dilapidated street with no sign of a guest-house or hotel. A stall-keeper beckoned us and asked me in reasonable English if I spoke English. I’m sorry to say that I replied ‘better than anyone else in India, mate: it’s my mother tongue and my profession demands perfect English’. The stall-keeper replied ‘I doubt this’ and then went on to say that he was a local person and had never heard of the guest-house in which we’d been booked. He beckoned his mate, a motorbike/taxi driver: he took Ajeesh around looking for potential guest-houses. This seemed to work: we got a room for 250 rupees. H’mm: I’m sure the owner was being racist against his own country-folk when he said that he only rented to us when he saw me. Maybe I’m wrong: maybe he could sniff a fellow journalist.* Whatever, the room was clean, had its own mozzie nets, a TV, almost non-flaky electricity supply, a balcony, separate beds and a clean bathroom with a flushing squat toilet.
*yep, I’m a paid-up member of the National Union of Journalists, for whatever that’s worth!

Just in case you’re ever in Panjim, here’s the details of the guest house: Vincent Residency, behind Tourist Residency, Near Secretariat, Panaji-Goa 403001, phone 0091-832-222-3928, email vincent5552004 @ @ yahoo.com, proprietor Vincent De Souza.

We ate at a restaurant that’s apparently run by high-caste/Brahmin folk from Karnataka. It was clean, the service was fast and the frankincense they used frequently was beautiful. Ajeesh is interested in trying to build links between the different states by bringing Keralan children here (and letting them experience trains and boats), so he negotiated with the restaurant owners about packages for feeding his ‘tourists’ and got a good potential deal. Just in case you need to eat in Panjim, it’s the Kamat Restaurant, 1st Floor, Dr. Joao-De-Castro Road, Near Tourist Hostel (Panjim Residency), Panaji-Goa 403001, phone 0091-832-242-2077.

Monday 19th (Panjim, then train to Kerala)
See previous entry for our run-in with baksheesh. One thing I didn’t mention there was that I finally lost my patience with people pushing into the queue ahead of us and pushed someone back behind me. I didn’t manage to dissuade the arse who barged into the middle of my transaction with the ticket vendor and I’m annoyed that he just sold the bloke a ticket, rather than telling him to wait.

Tuesday 20th (train to Kerala, then Nedumkandam)
We arrived in Ernakulam roughly on time, feeling grotty and sleepy (even though I’d slept for 7 hours on the train). Ajeesh had arranged for Shaji and DS (his journalist and social-worker friends) to drive his car to Ernakulam to meet us. They’d been delayed by a puncture: this gave us time to eat at the station’s vegetarian restaurant (Yummy dosas, as I recall).

About an hour into the journey, we stopped in a place called Muvattpuzha and took a kettu valam (old-style boat/taxi) across the local river to a landing stage. DS and Shaji stripped to their underwear and Ajeesh changed into a very short lunghi. (I’d changed into trunks back at the car). We swam and washed in the river – it was brilliant to float and drift in the current, but quite hard work to get back to the landing-stage. However, I felt clean again: hoorah!

We also called in at a Maruti/Suzuki service station where Ajeesh negotiated about a replacement tyre – apparently Shaji hadn’t know he carried a spare wheel and had had a new tyre put onto the afflicted wheel. Also these tyres were still under guarantee and Ajeesh naturally wanted his friend to be reimbursed. We stopped later for lunch at a small restaurant: boiled tapioca with onion, tomato and chilli salad. (The others also had beef[!], chicken and fish dishes.) We arrived at Nedumkandam late in the evening: I don’t recall much else about the day.

Wednesday 21st (Nedumkandam)
I woke at 10 am and read some more of the Mahabharata (I guess I must have started it the previous night). I’m not sure it really taught me anything other than the basic caste system was already in place by the time the book’s events took place (assuming they ever did, of course). A strange sound turned out to be Ajeesh’s mother grading peppercorns by shaking them in a flat-ish tray. The bigger corns don’t move so much as their shaken: this and gravity concentrate them near the shaker. Ajeesh and his father (Gopalakrishna) loaded a sack of home-grown coffee beans and a sack of the graded pepper into an autorickshaw that had brought some visitors, then Gopalakrishna and the produce were taken to town. Jaya (Ajeesh’s youngest sister) had cooked rice noodles and sambal containing jackfruit seeds.

I have to say that the best food I’ve eaten in India has been home-cooked. Small cafes make good masala dosas with sambal and chatni but Suria’s tomato bhaji (amongst other things) is delicious and Jaya has given me at least two food-gasms.

Ajeesh and I took an auto to town: the whole town’s internet connection was down so that bullet point was postponed. I had a severe haircut and beard-trim (please comment if you want to see before and after photos) and was persuaded to buy a dhoti and matching shirt. Apparently it’s socially unacceptable for Brahmins to wear lunghis except when at home or doing manual work: dhotis appear to be the equivalent of a UK white-collar worker’s suit. Also, apparently, I’m nearly a Brahmin because of my dietary choice, although I suspect my educational and (former) professional status may have something to do with it, as (I believe) will Ajeesh’s family being Brahmin.

We met up with Gopalakrishna and Ajeesh’s neighbour and drank yet more khardum chaya. I bought a fine comb and raked my itching scalp: I badly wanted the shower I’d been persuaded to postpone until after my haircut. Meanwhile Radio Bruce was playing Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting. The video to this song has always moved me to tears. I just wish today I could have echoed her feeling that

Ooh, I just know that something good is gonna happen.
And I don’t know when,
But just saying it could even make it happen

Ajeesh took me to see a Malayalam film at Nedumkandam’s other, posher cinema. It was a police/political intrigue/action movie full of interchangeable fat gits with moustaches hitting each other for good and not-so-good reasons. (Male Malayalam film-stars, despite being slimmer than their Tamil counterparts, appear to all be fat gits who pack punches like mules.)

Thursday 22nd (Munnar)
Shaji had invited Ajeesh and I to lunch. He lives in a tiny house with his wife (Mini), their son and Shaji’s(?) mother. Their house is one of many that’s reached by following fairly perilous tracks up from minor roads and has plastic sheeting instead of glass in the windows: even so, this is better than many I’ve seen. Again, my blog is a victim of my poor memory and not diary habits: I can hardly picture Mini, I know I was told the boy’s name and I’ve completely forgotten what we ate and talked about.

Ajeesh and I then set off towards Munnar: we wanted to show me more of Kerala and the place where he hopes to build a restaurant and toilet block. He has a tiny piece of land on the main road between Idukki’s two main (and much-visited) tourist spots, Kumily/Thekaddi and Munnar. They’re over 100 km apart but there’s no clean restaurant on the way and the road demands you take breaks. He wants to create this so he can find a job for an orphan his parents house and fund some social projects. So if anyone feels like investing in India and has two lakhs of rupees (about 2500 UK pounds) to invest, please let me know! Failing this, can anyone offer him a job?

Ajeesh dearly wants to live up to the financial aspects of his social responsibilities: these include Jaya’s dowry [another 2 lakhs] on top of the dowries for the older two sisters who are already married. I’ve met Rajesh, Jaya’s fiancée, and I can see there’s enough love there for him not to reject her if the dowry doesn’t materialise but the rest of his family apparently would never accept this. Ajeesh is very happy to do anything that will enable him and doesn’t want ‘charity’: he says ‘don’t give me fish: give or lend me a fishing-rod so I can feed myself’.

I think my brain was switched off most of the journey to Munnar. I vaguely recall us trying to get into a nearby national park but finding it closed for the evening. After we’d met up with two of Ajeesh’s friends who are teachers at Munnar, Ajeesh coaxed his car up some impossible-seeming paths to a grotty-looking school and hostel for tribal kids. They put me in front of a classroom full of kids and asked me to give an impromptu spoken English lesson. I thought the best way to start this was to get each of them to tell me their names and hopes for the future and hear their opinions and feelings about Kerala: things they could speak about. I was also given a few addresses and I’m sure I’ll be getting more by email and snail-mail: anyone else want a pen-pal in Kerala?

Back in Munnar, we collected some food froma restarant and ate at the local government school with Ajeesh’s teacher pals and some of their colleagues. By now exhaustion at being bombarded with Malayalam conversation (which no-one stopped to explain) and other tensions had reduced my conversational abilities to monosyllables. One of these tensions was the appearance of a bottle of brandy. I slammed about 10 ml for appearances’ sake and made sure I ate lots.

Again, Ajeesh had conjured us a decent room at a price within our very limited budget in another hotel that in places was a building-site. Rooms in Munnar tend to cost over Rs600 per night and can run to several thousands: this was all of 300! I slept quite well despite the unbroken sound of pouring rain.

Friday 23rd (Kanthaloor)
Munnar’s two ATMs were out of order and both of us were short of cash. We were also very low on petrol but fortunately (it seemed) an Indian Oil garage took mastercard. 10 litres were already in the tank when I got nervous about a UK card being accepted here (I’d had some problems in the US a few years ago). The transaction went through OK so we got another 10 litres. Problem: we’d either have to wait an hour to make another credit-card transaction or pay some other way. I showed the cashier I had traveller’s cheques and so all they needed to do was wait a bit while I cashed one. He seemed to accept this but the manager came out and started giving us abuse. Eventually Ajeesh scrapped up enough cash to pay for this petrol and we escaped.

I can understand a bit of the garage-manager’s annoyance because cashing regular travellers cheques at a national bank in a well-known tourist resort took 30 minutes, interminable-seeming paper-shuffling and at least three staff gabbling at each other. Efficiency appears not to be a priority in this bank (State Bank of Travancore)

We drove to a place called Echo Point, near Mattupetty Dam. I was eventually persuaded to try chewing tobacco – bleurgh. There was also a wonderful ‘no shit, Sherlock’ moment: on the dam, a sign saying ‘Mattupetty Dam: 0 km’. Love it to bits. The way Ajeesh had planned to go had been blocked last night by a landslide so we drove the long way to a tiny village called Kanthaloor (the nearest town is Marayoor/Maraiyur) in the north-east of Idukki district, where one of Ajeesh’s many cousins lives. On the way we passed many tea-plantation workers, working outdoors without waterproofs in absolutely filthy weather. Most of the plantations in this area are owned by the Kanan Devan brand/division of Tata: apparently it’s a relatively good employer: it pays its workers twice the usual rates (90 Rs per day) along with accommodation, sick pay and pension contributions. Others pay Rs50 per day with no such benefits. Bear in mind that 1 UK pound is Rs80 and that a night in hospital here might cost Rs500.

Around Marayoor is India’s best sandalwood growing area: apparently nowhere else has the combination of altitude and rain shadow this area enjoys. It’s under heavy government protection: taking a sandalwood tree could net you 2 lakhs but also entitles you to around 12 years at Mr Gandhi’s boarding house. We stopped briefly at Kovilkadavu to visit a Tamil-style temple (many people here are Tamils – it’s about 12 km from the Kerala/Tamil Nadu border) and look at some ancient structures that are apparently prehistoric houses and graves. (When I get to place that offers broadband, I’ll put up some photos.)

We also stopped at a one of the local jaggery (raw cane-sugar) outfits. Local sugar-cane is pressed to extract the juice. A pan about 10 metres in diameter and 1 meter deep is heated over a fire fuelled with pressed cane for a couple of hours to evaporate most of the water. The residue is then poured into a cooling pan where the still-hot product is shaped by hand into balls. We were given some: it’s bloody delicious!

Ajeesh’s cousin, Suresh, lives with his wife and their young son in a house behind the telephone office he runs in Kanthaloor. Behind this, he grows cardomom, tree-tomatoes, brinjal, peaches, apples and plums: This flabbergasts me: his house is at about 2000 metres above sea-level yet he can grow crops that rival Worcestershire’s and it’s at only 50 to 100 metres. The secret is apparently that this area is in rain-shadow, sheltered by 2500-metre mountains in all directions.

Just as we arrived, the local police commandeered Ajeesh and his car to take away a bloke who’d been caught running an illegal still: spirits are a government monopoly in Kerala. There’s also the fear that the products are cut with meths and other nasties. The police and the arrestee reappeared in a police jeep a few later minutes later. This was a great relief – all my stuff apart from my passport, cash and ticket home were still in the car and I certainly didn’t want the police going through it.

Various locals (apparently village-level politicians) came out to argue with the police. (Ajeesh reckoned they profit from such stills.) I suppose I’m lucky that my camera batteries had just run out – otherwise I might have really pissed off the police, the arrestee or the local politicians. Hmmmm………..

A local bloke took us to a tribal village below Kanthaloor. Most of the houses are made of mud plastered onto wooden frames and have roofs woven from leaves and earthen floors. They’re about 2 or 3 square metres in area with the roofs and very low – it’s just possible to stand under the ridge but everywhere else you have to crawl, sit or crouch. Such houses are homes for families of 5 or 6 people. This is also the first time I’ve been in the presence of royalty: one of these houses, in which I was incredibly warmly greeted and offered local coffee, is home to the ‘village-king’ and his family. It didn’t appear to be any bigger than the others. There are some government-funded cement houses in the village but the locals don’t like these because they’re insufferably hot in summer. Screens of woven leaves alleviate some of this but don’t do anything about the poor quality of the cement. I was told that outsiders (both Indian and European) have bought much of this village’s land very cheaply and now its former owners are poorly-paid labourers on it. It looks a fantastic place to live: 2000 metres up yet surrounded by fertile (but severe) slopes and effectively isolated from much of the modern world but sadly hit by our old enemy, capitalism. Ajeesh wants to set up an eco-development committee here so that the locals can effectively combine to deal with outsiders.

We spent the night at the hotel ‘Mountain Shine’. It’s apparently run by a Scotsman who’s settled here because he likes the local produce: no further comment m’lud. It’s clean and fine apart from the lack of hot water: probably because the electicrity supply had been cut off by the same landslide that had delayed us.

Saturday 24th (back to Nedumkandam)
We walked through a ‘semi-tribal’ area near to the hotel: kids were playing with kites made of paper and old twine or cassette-tape. I stopped to fix one for a young child and got some appreciative laughs from nearby adults and one of the best smiles I’ve ever received. Most houses here are cement but there’s a few traditional ones. However, this area’s more organised or fortunate than the one we visited yesterday: the apparently well-made sewers and water supply are quite recent and should last a decent time and some of the children have been to school for, ooh, 8 years! There’s also a big resort and a large house owned by a European woman: I’m told that inside it’s plush and has all mod cons: outside it looks like a traditional tribal structure apart from having two stories.

On the way back we stopped at Evrakulam park to try to get a glimpse of Nilgiri Tahirs – a very endangered species of deer that lives only here. It was pissing down so all we saw were the insides of umbrellas and sodden hillsides. Not much for Rs300 but they did warn us that seeing the deer was far from guaranteed.

We spent most of the rest of the journey listening to a female singer who makes devotional songs well-worth hearing. I’ll try to buy a copy of the CD.

About 10km from Nedumkandam we stopped at the house where ‘Bhindu 2’ (i.e. not the Bindhu who invited me to her wedding but the Bindhu who Ajeesh took me to visit in hospital. Her mother and Ajeesh’s mother are sisters.) She invited us to stay the night and fed us tapioca, chapattis, chatni and fried bitter gourd: yum. We watched Tamil TV and played with her children: a great way to relax. It rained hard from 6pm this evening until 6.30 the following morning and hasn’t actually stopped. I woke many times in the night due to my own eructations and flatus: Bhindu told me I sounded like a rifle-range! I also had a weird dream involving a bloke who’s intgerned at L&L several times and I being in school together (I was older and a prefect!). His mac was away for repairs so he’d constructed one ENTIRELY from modelling-clay and got it to run a screen-saver!

Sunday 25th (Nedumkandam)
Now back in Nedumkandam, airing out my head, about to do some dhobi and get ready to move on!See you later, space-cats!

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