Indian Briefs #6

I’m going to make an effort to jump ahead a bit, as I have a couple of other writing projects on the go and I’m running out of time. No pictures, though – I’m running on a 2G cell connection for the moment.

Jodhpur, Ranakpur, Udaipur

I won’t bother rehashing arcane facts about the forts and temples. You can look them up on WikiTravel if you’re curious.

What lodges most actively in my memory about Jodhpur were the elephants employed to carry tourists up a steep hill to the fort gates, amid the usual noisy traffic of taxis, buses, motorbikes and rickshaws. Up and down they lumbered, on hot asphalt and cobblestones, as horns honked and vehicles swerved around.

[Actually, on second thought I don’t think it was Jodhpur – this is the problem with delayed blogging – but never mind, the point’s still valid.]

I was sensitive to this subject anyway, but I was particularly sensitive to it while in Jodhpur (or wherever!) due to Nikki Reimer’s Twitter posts about a suffering Indian elephant named Sunder, about which there is a controversy owing to the fact that this “temple elephant” was being viciously beaten by his keeper. This after Sunder was supposedly removed to a safe sanctuary by Member of Parliament Vinay Kore, who’d donated him to the temple in the first place.

Poor internet prevents me from locating a quality link for further information about Sunder at this moment, but PETA is certainly one (if somewhat under-sourced) site that is active in the defence of elephants from abuse, if you care to look. Or, just google “Sunder”.

Every non-wild elephant I’ve seen in India has one thing in common: leg irons. I presume that the shackles and chains that bind each leg to the others (and often also connect to the animal’s neck) are intended to prevent it from running and/or rearing on its hind legs.

One thing I’ve had reinforced while travelling in the Western Ghats (habitat for wild elephants) is that elephants are decidedly not the lumbering gentle giants often depicted in popular media. I was repeatedly warned not to go outside after dusk due to the risk potential of elephant attacks, and while on a day trek my otherwise almost comatose guide was visibly afraid when we heard an elephant in nearby brush. It became apparent to me that an encounter with a black bear in Canada might be less a risk than with an elephant in India.

Knowing what it apparently takes to keep an enslaved elephant in a crowded human environment (I’d hardly call leg irons “domestication”) from rebelling against its tormentors, it’s entirely unacceptable to me that elephants continue to be kept in captivity for entertainment or outdated religious purposes.

Mumbai

I received mixed opinions about Mumbai before I arrived, and considered passing it by entirely on my way south, but since trains almost inevitably stop there anyway (I’ve tried to minimise my co2 impact by avoiding domestic flights in favour of rail), I thought I might as well visit. Besides, skipping Mumbai felt like going to England and bypassing London.

That’s a fairly relevant expression, as Mumbai is (unsurprisingly) a rather English city in many ways. In that respect, there was a comfort to some of its architectural and design familiarity. On the other hand, it is smog-choked and after one long walk I was congested and coughing up lumps of coal. Curiously, though it has a population of 12.6 million it didn’t seem that crowded to me.

As it turned out, my chosen hotel was in the same block as the semi-famous Leopold Cafe. Leopold’s fame comes, originally, from its having been a plot element in the 2003 novel by Gregory David Roberts, Shantaram, a copy of which someone gave me shortly before I left home but that I have not yet read.

Leopold’s fame and popularity are, somewhat perversely, further enhanced by the fact that it was one of the first sites hit in the 2008 terror attacks, despite being right across the street from the Colaba Police Station.

There might be more to the Leopold experience than was obvious to me, but it seems that western tourists line up in the afternoon and evenings, presumably in part for the pseudo adventure travel cred provided by having one’s photo take in front of legacy bullet holes. Their enthusiasm certainly can’t be for the quality of either the food or the service, if my breakfast experience there was any indication.

What I did enjoy in Mumbai was my visit to the National Gallery of Modern Art.

At the NGMA, there are four floors. The top floor is more of a gallery of modern art, featuring several Indian artists in various media in an exhibit called “No Parsi is an Island”. Nothing stands out in my memory, particularly, but some of it was quite interesting, especially the sculpture, and the craft seemed more advanced than at the nearby Jehangir gallery.

The lower floors, however, featured an exhibit titled “Across the Ocean and Flowing Silks: From Canton to Bombay 18th to 20th Centuries”. In theme with the top floor, it served to document the rise of the Parsis in India, from rural and (I presume) somewhat agrarian origins to rich and urbane. It contained an assortment of images and period effects, though I suspect that at least some were reproductions. This part really seemed more of a museum curation than art gallery.

What was especially interesting to me, though (and of which I had been largely ignorant), was that the Parsis gained most of their vast wealth through trade with China. There are many references and examples of Chinese goods (textiles, ceramics, furniture, etc.) being imported by the Parsis – mostly, it seemed, under the control of one guy, named Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, known as the “Merchant Prince of India”. Jeejeebhoy was apparently a saavy fellow, and recognized the opportunity available as an intermediary between the English masters and China.

Apparently the Chinese had little interest in importing anything that England had to export (not much of a surprise), but because England was importing huge (and increasing) amounts of tea from China, the balance of trade was so off that it was imperilling the economy of the empire. Hence, opium. (Perhaps some of this is old news to you, but I have deplorably little knowledge of Chinese history, or of the grit of colonialism, for that matter).

The exhibit also made a point of explaining how progressive an influence the Parsis were on India, as they funded schools, orphanages, education, etc., and pushed for democratic reforms and a lessening of caste distinctions, as well as independence. I’m not sure how much of that is fact and how much is propaganda (I suspect the exhibit is funded at least in part by the Parsi establishment), but I suppose it probably has a fair amount of truth, largely because Jeejeebhoy was just so absurdly rich.

Anyway, there were a number of images and textual descriptions of Canton, and references to the opium wars and the burden of opium on China, so that wasn’t entirely glossed over. Pretty interesting!

That evening, there was a recital at the gallery featuring three of my favourite composers: Mozart, Haydn, and Freddie Mercury. If that seems like a curious combination, the relevance of the latter, at least, can be explained by his Parsi birth name: Farrokh Bulsara.

Goa

India’s smallest (in area) state, and also its richest, largely due to the concentrated tourism and, secondarily, mining, Goa was somewhat destructively colonised by the Portuguese in 1510, though humans have lived there for at least 20,000 years. It remained in Portuguese hands even after independence, as the Portuguese refused to negotiate with the new Indian state. This lasted until 1961, when Goa was forcibly annexed by the Indian military.

I hadn’t originally planned to visit Goa, which I imagined to be mostly churches and beaches, neither of which is a significant draw for me. However, three things combined to change my mind: the fear that my Goan friend Rosario would be disappointed in me; the need to fill some time before I could arrive at my onward destination of choice; and that after three weeks in cold and intensely stimulating Rajasthan, to sit for a spell on warm sand began to seem unexpectedly appealing.

Contrary to advice I received from another friend, I avoided the apparently tourist-packed enclave of Palolem in favour of the much quieter Agonda. Five days there turned out to be quite pleasant. I did yoga on the beach in the early mornings, swam in the late afternoons, and read several books.

Pleasant as it was, such intensely tourist-focused places tend to irritate me before long. Partly it’s the ready evidence of how, by our sheer numbers (and of course our sheer relative wealth), we directly and severely impact local communities.

But it’s also about the scene itself. A few days in an apparently idyllic paradise and one starts to get a glimpse behind the curtain. The discovery that much of the staff in the hotel are temporary foreign labourers and work twelve hours a day, seven days a week and sleep in a shed. That the seasonally-contracted European yoga instructor – the one with the collagen implants and the size zero waist (how does that fit with traditional yogic principles?) – is having a rather public meltdown because the servants have failed once again to clean her studio properly. When the regular long-term guests – the kind referred to in Costa Rica as “the most wanted and the least wanted” – start to reveal their quirks.

Like Andre, a 60-ish Swede living in Spain who told me, while drinking a beer on my hotel’s patio, how he’d once hitched a ride across the Sahara in a Mercedes that was driven by three Palestinians who’d murdered the owner of the car. While sleeping one night, he awoke to find one of the Palestinians standing over him holding a large rock, about to crush his skull.

This guy sat at my table only because it was close to a booth occupied by four tall, young, blonde women, any of which he hoped to spend the night with. This man who had supposedly faced down death in the desert and survived wrung his hands and sweated nervously over how to approach the women. “What should I do?” he asked.

Now, anyone who asks me for advice about the seduction of women is clearly too desperately incompetent to be allowed to leave the home without a care attendant, never mind likely to bed a young woman approximately one-third his age. “Just go say hello,” I said. “What’s the worst that could happen?” (I had a pretty good idea, and hoped to see it come to pass, I confess.)

He chugged the rest of his beer and moseyed on over. I have no idea what he said, or what they said, but he left for his own hotel – alone – with only an unrevealing glance in my direction.

The next night he was back. This time, he was wearing a white Miami Vice-style linen blazer – with no shirt – and mirrored aviator sunglasses, though it was pitch dark out. He completely ignored me (yay!) and sat at a table in sight of the same four women. Never once removing his glasses, he posed seductively with his beer until the women finally retreated to their rooms and he disappeared into the night.

Kannur

Despite my lack of particular interest in beach culture, I opted to visit this small Kerala town primarily because the Kannur Beach House was enthusiastically recommended by Auntie Stella, who’d been there a few months earlier.

It isn’t really a beach town, per se, but a town near a beach. It isn’t especially well-known on the tourist track (so far), and thus is relatively quiet, tourist-wise. The town, too, while obviously benefitting from tourism, is clearly a long way from being converted into a primary life-support mechanism for moneyed foreigners, like so many other tiresome beach places around the world.

I stayed for five nights with the Indian family (born and raised in Kannur) who own and operate the intimate five-room beach house (I’d have stayed longer if they had space), and it was the best accommodation experience I’ve had in India. Rosi and Nazir, and their three young adult children, provided a nice room in an ideal location in the crook of a small river only 100 feet from the ocean.

The meals were home cooked and delicious, the stimulating conversations were a welcome relief after weeks of semi-isolation, and the guests had self-selected to weed out the most- and least-wanted (if I may be so bold as to exclude myself from those categories).

Wayanad

In search of some cool mountain air and a bit more of a natural history focus, on Rosi’s advice I took the bus up into the Western Ghats, to Tholpetty. It’s barely a town – some houses, a chai stand, and – most notable, perhaps – the entrance gate to the Tholpetty portion of the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, a part of the Nilgiri Biosphere, and (according to the Rough Guide) “one of the best places in India to spot a wild elephant.”

I checked into the “Pachyderm Palace” guest house. Usually, I would avoid a place with a name like that, but Rosi recommended it, and right she was. A very sweet – if sometimes unintelligible in English – man named Venu is the host, and my room was in a beautiful old mansion surrounded in coffee plantations.

The next morning, I went to the reserve gate at 6:30 in an effort to find some other travellers with whom to join up for one of the limited, forty-minute jeep safaris (the only way you’re permitted into the reserve) – mainly so I wouldn’t have to pay the full price for an entire jeep myself.

I was fortunate to run into Stace and Rick, two Australian biologists who welcomed me to join them. We bounced around violently in the back of a jeep, crinking our necks to see out below the roofline. We saw a porcupine (rare during daylight), Indian Bison, several varieties of deer, a giant Malabar squirrel, and a tiger print, but no elephants, which is apparently quite unusual, especially when you’re in the first jeep of the day.

When I returned to the Pachyderm Palace, Venu was there to make my lunch. “Where’s everyone else?” I asked, for I a sat alone at the table. It turned out I was the only guest for that night. It also turned out that not only was Venu’s son was getting married that very afternoon, but that Venu was in charge of making all the food for the hundreds of guests that were to be fed over three days, starting that evening. As his time was a bit tight, he said I should come to his house for dinner.

I decided Venu didn’t need me to deal with in the middle of all of this, so I volunteered to depart a day early. He seemed quite relieved at this prospect, so I packed my bag and moved to another nearby town, Thirunelly, to which Stace and Rick had invited me to meet up for a trek.

I checked in to the hotel in Thirunelly in the late afternoon and then took my binoculars and went for a stroll, but not before I got a very stern warning from the staff to be back before dark. Only a quarter kilometre along the road I found a well-trod trail along a ravine, so I took that, and kept my eyes open for birds.

I heard a rusting ahead, so I raised my binoculars, but I didn’t need them, even in the duskiness of the forest. The rusting was an elephant and her calf, just fifty metres ahead, right in the middle of the trail.

While I was out trying to get trampled by a defensive elephant cow, Rick and Stace met up with a young German couple, Veronika and Tobias, who agreed to join in on a mountain trek the following day.

We did a half day hike over a mountain and ate lunch while sitting on the border between Kerala and Karnataka. Curiously, the border is marked on the ground pretty much the same way it looks on a map. Someone (cheap labour, undoubtedly) has crawled over hills and through valleys and burned onto the landscape a line, about fifteen feet in width, that marks the frontier between the states.

Kochi & Alepphuza

The next day we said goodbye to Rick and Stace, and I boarded a bus to Khozikode with Veronika and Toby, bound ultimately for Kochi, back on the coast.

In Kochi, as Veronika and Toby and I walked home from dinner on an almost deserted, dark street, we were stopped by a young man who claimed to be casting for a film.

Now, I’ve heard from two other people who’ve not only been cast, but performed, in television commercials while vacationing in India, so we gave the guy a couple of minutes to make his pitch.

Because of my long hair (and sinister looks?), he wanted me to play a leading role in a full length film, specifically, a gangster / drug dealer. Because the story takes place in several coastal towns, it would be necessary for me to go to each of those towns for shooting over the next six weeks.

Does anything sound suspicious to you? Maybe I’m a bit paranoid, but it sounded to me like an effort to turn a gullible tourist into low-paid, high-risk drug mule, and since I’m not to keen on spending 50 years in an Indian prison, I sloughed him off with a tertiary email address and said “Have your director call me with an offer.” Unsurprisingly, I’ve had no contact from Bollywood.

Veronika, Toby, and I next departed for Alepphuza, where we went punting on the famous Kerala backwaters. This means that we sat under canopies watching rice paddies go by while a gondolier sat in the hot sun on the stern and paddled. It was a pleasant day, and we alleviated our social guilt somewhat by taking turns with a paddle when the channels were flora-choked or when we encountered a headwind.

Though I enjoyed their company immensely, I said goodbye to Veronika and Toby in Alepphuza. They headed north toward Mysore; I went south, for…

Varkala

My least favourite of the coastal townss I visited, Varkala is choked with tourists, and has many of the hallmarks of the sort of beach town I described unenthusiastically in the Kannur section above. Many of the tourists, it seemed, were Russian, perhaps the only demographic that makes Israeli beachgoers seem warm and worldly in comparison (if I may be forgiven a sweeping generalisation or two).

On the other hand, I enjoyed the away-from-the-beach-scene guest house at which I stayed. Mostly. It was a bit overpopulated with elderly Brits (barely older than me, shurely!) for my tastes, but the owner was very friendly and generous, even if she did have some peculiarly paternalistic staff management behaviours.

Back to the mountains

I’d half-planned to work my way around the southern horn of India, but I feared that I’d be more apt than not to encounter more Varkalas, so I instead jumped on a direct train to Coimbatore, which is in back in the Western Ghats, though on a relatively low-lying plain across the divide.

The only (apparent) appealing feature of Coimbatore is its proximity to Mettupalayam. In popular lore (or at least, in travel guides), Mettupalayam’s only attraction is that it is the departure point for the “toy train” to Udhagamandalam, more popularly known as “Ooty”.

The toy train – officially the Nilgiri Mountain Railway – is an old metre-gauge rail line built by the British in 1908 to haul sweaty colonial overlords up into the cool hills during the sweltering pre-monsoon heat. It consists of three coaches and one steam-driven locomotive (coal fired, I assume, though evidence was not obvious), and uses a rack-and-pinion gear mechanism to haul it up the steep (up to 8.3% grade) slopes.

I booked a first class ticket for the train, but by departure time I was still on the waitlist. I arrived at the Mettupalayam station at 6:30am to see whether I’d get on. There I met Amanda and Marco, two Torontonians who had just bought second class tickets at the wicket, and the three of us were first in line.

For some reason, the station dude checked Amanda’s and Marco’s tickets, but barely glanced in my direction. I tried to get him to look at my ticket twice, because it wasn’t confirmed, but he kept just saying “wait”.

At departure time, though, he just waved us all onto a second class car. Unfortunately, a railway employee who’d brought his wife and two sons were placed immediately in front of us, so we lost our coveted window seats.

The train stops periodically, mainly to refill its water tank, so we all got to climb down to take pictures of the vistas, shop at the chai and snack stands, and chase away begging monkeys.

The route is only 46km, but takes about five hours (uphill – the return trip takes only three). Personally, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re a particularly avid train nerd who likes being herded sheep-like onto crammed benches with no leg or elbow room.

Ooty

If the train was underwhelming, Ooty was even less satisfying. I have no idea why the place is a staple on the tourist track. There’s almost nothing to do except sit in luxurious colonial mansions and sip gin and tonics between rounds of bacci, but that was all gone decades ago, so the visitor is left with sitting in his dingy hotel room looking at the Rough Guide in an effort to map a convenient route to somewhere interesting.

Amanda, Marco, and I decided to go down the road to Coonoor, where – if nothing else – there’s at least a reasonably interesting day trek through tea plantations to enjoy. On arrival, we checked into the Coonoor YWCA, nicely situated on a quiet hill, though slightly overdecorated with tacky christian iconography. (“Footprints”, anyone?)

We decided to eat dinner in the hotel, and booked a rickshaw to take us on our trek the following morning at 7. I later discovered that the guy who cooked and served our dinner was also the night watchman. This is perhaps why Amanda and Marco (quite reasonably) backed out of the trek in the morning in favour staying in to continue the barfing and delirium that they’d been experiencing all night.

Oddly, I seemed unaffected, though all three of us had eaten the same things for the last three meals. I chalked this up to my iron constitution and carried on with the trek. The rickshaw dropped me twelve kilometres out of town, and I walked back via Dolphin’s Nose and Lamb Rock (or was it Dolphin Rock and Lamb’s Nose?).

Amanda and Marco decided to move to a better hotel (one that wasn’t frigid and dank) in order to facilitate recovery, and I decided to catch a bus back to Coimbatore the next day.

The following morning, I awoke with symptoms, the nature of which I shall not torment you by describing, except to say that it took a bit of will to get myself onto the bus. Despite a 1.5 hour ride down the mountain (that contained no fewer than fourteen hairpin turns), I arrived in Coimbatore having expelled no bodily fluids, save sweat.

Madurai

After one night in Coimbatore, I had another uneventful bus ride to Madurai, where I was booked in for two nights principally so I could visit the Meenakshi Sundareshwarar temple, said to be one of the most interesting in India. I figured I’d fill in the extra time with a visit to the Gandhi Museum across the river, for besides the temple Madurai holds little appeal for the generalist traveller.

Due to the peculiarities of the temple hours, I decided to visit Gandhi in the morning and the temple in the late afternoon. As the museum is under renovation, things are a bit unclear and I was directed to a small building adjacent to the larger one to buy a ticket. One that was done, the seller pointed me to a door and said “Museum.”

I went in and saw a lot of stuff mostly related to Indian history, but little about Gandhi. The most peculiar item in the exhibit was a stuffed beast that was labelled as a “Polar Bear”, despite a distinctly brown (and rather mangy looking) coat. As polar bears are only endemic to, you know, the northern polar region, I can only guess that this bear was likely a black variety shot in the new world by a colonial flunky and sent to India as a gift to the Viceroy.

Eventually, through my own exploration, I found a door into a larger building that contained quite a bit of Gandhi fact and memorabilia, including the bloodstained dhoti that the Mahatma was wearing when he was assassinated by Hindu nationalists upset with Gandhi’s perceived partiality toward Muslims.

I then returned to the hotel for further hydration and rest until the temple re-opened but, alas, symptoms flared unpleasantly for the rest of the afternoon, and I never did get to the temple.

The following day I departed for a nine-day rejuvenation stop at a lakeside resort north of Madurai, the final stop on this journey before I start making my way home. It isn’t the sort of place you’d normally find me, but I have to admit that after over two months of living from a backpack and eating restaurant food, I’m in the mood for it.

More about that later.

Comments

Indian Briefs #6 — 4 Comments

  1. Auntie Stella visited Kannur Beach House in 2008…….alas not a few momths ago. I am pleased to hear that it still remains much as it was then. Great report Edward.

  2. Auntie Stella visited Kannur Beach House in 2008…….alas not a few months ago. I am pleased to hear that it still remains much as it was then. Great report Edward.

  3. India? You are in India? I’ve just subscribed (why on earth haven’t I done it before) so these lapses in time happen no more.

    Did you know that my father was born and raised in Kerala? I have never been there or anywhere in India for that matter, so take lots of pictures for me and tell me of my origins when you return.

    I read somewhere (where?) that people put irons on baby elephants and chain them to something to condition them to confinement and a reduction of their power. When they’re older, the irons stay on and the elephants don’t try to escape or exert their strength of the early captivity.