So I wound up stuck in Dubai for four weeks. Tons of stuff happened, but not much of it relevant to the ongoing quest that is The Odyssey. I’ll divulge the whole sordid affair once I have more battery power on my laptop.
Here’s what you need to know:
It took two weeks to get a visa for India and then shipping myself off to the Sub-Continent proved amazingly difficult.
I was helped (immensely) by the following people: Mr. Kashi Samadder, Damien (Damo!!), Fajer, Ben, Dan, Alena, Pamela, Sarah, Martin, Youhan and Barry from CMA-CGM.
Mandy, my beloved, came up with the goods in the end, securing me passage onboard a ship bound for Bombay via Karachi. Hurrah for the Mandster!!
Whilst in Dubai, I sailed around The World, won at Laser Quest, watched the World Cup final in the Barasti Soccer Dome, learned to play backgammon again, attended a 4th of July party dressed as a communist, watched myself on telly, got recognised off the telly by a guy standing next to me in the urinals who was dressed as Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (eek!) and generally staggered about the place much in the manner of Barney from The Simpsons doing an impression of Keith Richards.
One sad piece of news for you, though – my kick-ass old laptop, Dell Boy, has finally gone to silicon heaven. His screen is cracked and he’s been shipped back to England for a formal burial. He’s been replaced by Sony Jim who seems a lot more delicate and has a nasty habit of ignoring the keys I press when writing stuff. Don’t know how long this guy is going to last out in the big bad world, but at least he’s got the processing power to play Psychonauts. Hurrah!
In the end it was Rickmers Group Shipping who came to my aid, they stuffed me on board the magnificent MV CMA-CGM Jade bound for Bombay via Karachi in Pakistan (two birds with one stone, so to speak). I’m eternally grateful to them and will be adding their name to my lists of helpers very soon.
Monday morning bright and early, the wonderful Pamela drove me to the Bur Dubai area of town and I headed over to the CMA-CGM offices to meet Barry Dinnadge, the fine chap I had met over a game of pool in Rock Bottom all those weeks ago. As luck would have it, he’s the CMA-CGM agent who was responsible for chucking my ass on the CMA-CGM Jade.
After a cup of tea and a natter, I headed out for my last two errands of Dubai – post my tapes and old Dell Boy back to the UK and buy myself a spare battery for Sony Jim here. Tasks done, I waved goodbye to the old place (whose culture stretches back decades) and was whisked, courtesy of Mr. Dinnadge, over to Jebel Ali port for boarding. Of course The Odyssey wouldn’t be The Odyssey without some shenaniganing at border control.
I had gone one day over my visa. I knew this and had called up immigration a few days ago and asked what I should do. The nice Indian lady explained that I had a “10 day period of grace” that comes with having a UK passport. Of course, the guys at the border control had never heard of such a thing. Neither had they heard of an English guy coming from Saudi Arabia overland only to leave on a ship. Unfortunately for me, neither had their computer. As I was obviously a deranged serial killer intent on sneaking into countries with my repertoire of cleverly-faked visas, I was made to wait for an hour or so. Wouldn’t have been so bad if the other security guards hadn’t recognised me off the telly and spent most of the time posing for photos with me. If you know who I am, then surely you know…?
Oh —- it. Let’s just wait, shall we?
So (eventually) I clambered aboard the good ship Jade and after introducing myself to the captain and crew, all of whom (save Vladimir the Russian) hailed from Burma, I decided to nurse my monumental headache (self imposed, I’m sure) in my cabin.
A couple of days later and we had arrived in Pakistan. My 162nd nation of The Odyssey Grand Tour Du Monde, and one that I thought would never come. But here I was on an overcast Wednesday in port in the Land of the Pure.
Little note about Lands of the Pures: they NEVER work. Never in a month of Sundays. Of course there have been many attempts in history: the British expulsion of the Jews in the 14th century, the crackdown on the Huguenots under Louis XIV, the burning of Protestants at the stake by the good queen Mary, the Nazi’s nightmarish dream of world dominated by the so-called ‘Aryan’ race, and here in Pakistan we have the case study to blow all the other case studies out of the water.
A demented dream formulated in an Oxford Common Room in the 1930s (the decade of demented dreams) of a land where Muslims can live in peace and harmony and… HA! Yeah. Right. To wit: The Partition of India: 1,000,000 dead. Two wars with India (both lost). Hundreds of thousands dead. A war with East Pakistan (lost!) resulting in the birth of Bangladesh. Al Qaeda, The Taliban, suicide bombers blowing up mosques, the Massacre in Mumbai, the Kashmir conflict, nuclear proliferation, a billion coup d’etats, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto… damnit, Pakistan. You FAIL. You FAIL on a grand scale. You even fail on an African scale.
You see what the problem is? Any Land of the Pure™ will by its very nature activate and encourage the crazies. Look at those weirdos with the curly sideburns running around Palestinian territory clutching a gun and a copy of the Bible, building settlements and, (one would assume) howling at the moon. No other country would tolerate such nonsense from the loony fringe, but a Land of the Pure™ must, because although these are seriously unhinged individuals (who are about as in touch with reality as a coma patient with a Napoleon complex) they are members of the ‘Pure’. Oh joy.
Anyway, I’m with Ghandi on this one (actually I’m with Ghandi on a LOT of stuff, moreso than the Indians, although to be fair, it was them who shot him), Partition was a bad, bad, bad idea.
INT. CONGRESS PARTY HQ, CLOUD CITY, 1947 – DAY
Old friends JAWALHARLAL NERHU and MOHANDAS GHANDI walk down a corridor towards a conference room, deep in conversation.
NERHU: …but I’ve just cut a deal that will keep The Empire out of here for good.
Nerhu activates a door. It slides open to reveal… DARTH JINNAH!!
Ghandi SHOOTS his PASSIVE RESISTANCE at Jinnah, who just crumples it IN HIS FIST!
JINNAH: I would be honoured if you would join us.
NERHU (to Ghandi): He arrived just before you did. I’m sorry.
GHANDI: I bet you are. Friend.
But here we are. We can’t change the past, we’re kinda stuck with it. I just don’t like places founded on religious principles – Pakistan, Israel, Vatican City, Saudi Arabia – they are all deeply silly regions which only encourage deeply silly children who have not (and will never) grow up. I prefer places founded because people lived there and they all got along and decided it would all be in their best interests if they didn’t run about (usually, might I add, in a dress) screaming about what an invisible man who lives in the sky may or may not have said. And blowing stuff up.
Oh, it’s nice to have got the Middle East out of the way so I can say stuff like that without fear of having my head chopped off. No, seriously.
Anyway, as we were hitting Pakistan, it was a Security Level 2 situation on board, which pretty much meant lockdown for us passengers (that would be just me, then). The crew did allow me to scoot down the gangplank at run about in circles in the port going w00t w00t, but only for about 30 seconds and then I had to run back onboard and hide in my cabin LIKE A COWARDLY FISH.
And that was my ‘visit’ to Pakistan. I’m glad. It would have been a LOT of messing to get a visa for the place and, lets face it, it’s one of the seven active warzones left on the planet (according to Wikipedia) and ginger boys with neat hats are high on the list of know-your-enemy silhouettes.
We were in Karachi Port for about a day. On Thursday we set off towards the swirling monsoon storms that heralded our passage towards India, the great sub-continent. One of the crew was getting promoted, so I was invited to join the chaps on a barbecue on deck. It was like the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and I was the only one wearing a hat. Sheltered from the wind on the port side of the ship, the vessel leered menacingly in the choppy waters and the containers (hundreds of ‘em) creaked and moaned like somebody was going a little overboard on the old ghost ship sound effects.
Meanwhile we stuffed our faces with beef and chicken and pork (YES!), drank copious amounts of Becks beer and Johnnie Walker and sang to the sirens with a yo-ho-ho and a (literal) bottle of rum. Before long I was DJing the crew aftershow and rocking out with my air guitar while the officers sung Burmese karaoke on the deck below.
The next day the combination of the booze and the waves made me a little worse for wear, but on the Saturday we had arrived.
I had made it to India. Country 163. At bloomin’ last. It’s frickkin’ AUGUST!! I better get my skates on.
So it was a cloudy, overcast day on which I returned to India after an absence of eight years. Not much has changed since then, but then I didn’t really expect it to: India is India is India and will be until the end of the world. A frustrating, intoxicating, bewildering blend of noise and nonsense with a few increasingly perplexed cows thrown in for good measure.
But I can’t help liking the place, possibly more than India likes me.
I said my goodbyes to the captain and the crew of the CMA-CGM Jade (a few times, as it transpired) and just six and a half hours after we arrived I was finally allowed to leave the ship with a couple of the crew who were leaving for Burma after a good ten months at sea. Customs took its time, and my bags were sealed with wax (seriously!) until I left the port. Which took another couple of hours.
It was when I found myself in a dank and dismal police station on the edge of the middle of nowhere waiting for the port police to come that I really started to worry. My stomach started to sink and I got that feeling I got in Cape Verde and the Congo… something was about to go horribly, horribly wrong.
I dived into my backpack (without breaking the wax seal, funnily enough) and pulled out my old, broken mobile phone. I then used my working phone to text “Help I’ve been arrested at Nerhu port, Bombay – inform the embassy!” and saved it to drafts ready to tweet at a second’s notice before stuffing the phone in my sock and placing the broken phone in my pocket to give to the police should the inevitable occur.
It wasn’t until much later that I realised my twitter account wasn’t updating from my mobile phone.
The port agent sat and waited with me, which was magnificent of him, but the feeling of dread was growing by the second. I had already paid the required bribe money and got my entry stamp and been checked over (thoroughly!) by customs. I had broken the golden rule of travelling in developing countries – don’t make a nuisance of yourself – and now I could see the next six days spent at the Maharaja’s pleasure, if you know what I mean.
It was now dark and it was starting to rain. To pass the time I pulled some card tricks on the port agent, but it was well after 8pm before the police chief finally arrived.
My arrival from Dubai on a ship clutching a multiple entry business visa had prompted the Indian bureaucratic nightmare into crisis mode. THEY DIDN’T KNOW WHAT LEDGER TO PUT ME IN! Terrified at the prospect of me not being entered into a ledger, I think the police chief had gone out and bought a brand new ledger for ‘Passengers on Container Ships’. I like to think that during the hour he kept us waiting he was drawing nice neat columns in the ledger with a ruler.
So, eventually, I was asked where I was going. It’s all a little complicated so I just stuck with Bombay-Kochi-Calcutta then out via Nepal, just to keep things neat and tidy. If I said I was planning to come in and out of the country a few times they would have probably chased me up the nearest flagpole and then cut it down with an axe.
So… I didn’t go to jail. Phew!
After thanking the port agent profusely, I took a taxi to the nearest train station and boarded the choo choo to Bombay.
The train was brilliant – no doors, no windows, chugging along at 100mph and only stopping for ten seconds in each station (seriously!). Ahh… this callous and foolhardy disregard for Health and Safety could only mean one thing… I was back in India, all right. And hurrah for that! On the Dubai Metro you could be fined for running in the station. In India running is compulsory.
Returning to Bombay I felt a tremendous sense of homecoming, back on the native backpacker trail. In fact, I had been off the trail ever since I left Central America, save for the trip from Cairo to Istanbul. There were so few backpackers in The Caribbean, Africa, Central Asia and the Arabian Peninsular I felt like an endangered species. But from hereon in it should be sandals and saris and dreads all the way to the Pacific. I might even meet some vegetarians!
Bombay was just as bombastic as ever as I flung myself through a flurry of tooting taxis towards the Colaba area of town, eager to find a place for the night. I had arrived at 11pm and the train to Kochi, my next destination, left at 11.40pm – there was no way I would be getting a ticket for that one, so I resigned myself to a night and a day in Bollywood.
I checked into the first place listed in the Lonely Planet (the size of a shoebox, but the price of a shoebox, so no worries) and got my head down for the night.
Grr. Sometimes your Lonely Planet can literally save your life, other times it can make your life a misery. Today it was a case of the latter. I got up, it was a nice quiet Sunday – well, quiet for Bombay – and I thought I’d have a nice little meander around Colaba, down to The Gateway of India and then up to Churchgate station – the place I needed to buy my train ticket for tonight’s train.
It would be midday before I got to Churchgate, but there was no hurry – according to the Lonely Planet, the train I wanted left at 11.40pm.
According to Indian Railways, however, the train I wanted left at 11.40AM.
I looked at my watch. Half an hour ago? You HAVE to be kidding.
Luckily there was another train heading down to Kerala state (the very south west of the nation) at 3.50pm, so I bought my ticket for that instead. Indian trains are like easyjet – they are so remarkably cheap, you really have nothing to complain about. Take this for instance – my journey down to Kerala would take 37 hours and cover over 1000 miles. It cost less than a tenner.
Less than a tenner!
Whoosh! After being stuck in the most expensive city in the world for a month, India is a real breath of fresh air. I may be forced to smack the first backpacker I see haggling over a 10rupee taxi fare.
So it was off to the grand Victoria Terminus train station, a testament to the utter brilliance of architects and engineers from back in the day. To say that India hasn’t managed to build a single building of note since independence would be a tangible fact, but it has nothing to do with the departure of the British and everything to do with timing – let’s face it, since 1947 no country ON EARTH has built a single thing that I would dive in front of a wrecking ball to protect.
When you look at this:
And then you look at your bog-standard bargain basement could-be-anywhere international airport:
No excuses can possibly suffice. It would be like trying to explain why this tasteless Vegas tack:
(which wouldn’t look out of place outside a municipal shopping mall in Scunthorpe)
Is in the courtyard of the greatest art gallery in the world. Go on – explain it to me, I dares yer. And you’re not going to win by saying it stimulates debate. The holocaust stimulates debate, it does not make it an intrinsically ‘good’ thing. When I gaze on a building I don’t want to start a debating society, I want to see beauty, love, emotion and happiness rendered in locally-sourced wood, brick and stone.
Anyway, most people aren’t really up for a debate on the street when they’re already late for work.
Don’t forget, India is the home of the Taj – the building that ruined me. Up to the day I visited the Taj I was prepared to give the soulless concrete holes the benefit of the doubt (I guess we need to keep counting them pennies… so we can spend them on the important stuff – you know, oil and war…), but since looking on that monument of human imagination, dexterity and endeavour… what can I say? Everything the human race has built in the last 60 years has been awful, just simply, completely, utterly and irredeemably awful.
Bombay has some absolutely cracking colonial architecture, though – the art-deco stuff is particularly worth checking out. Sadly, much of it is in desperate need of restoration. Where’s Griff Rhys Jones when you need him??
I clambered on board the S3 sleeper class carriage of the 6381 service to Kanyakumari, the Land’s End of India. I thought it was to arrive tomorrow morning… I didn’t check the small print. It was due to arrive the day after tomorrow morning.
“I always like going south – it feels like walking downhill” – Treebeard
India, being the awkward bugger that she is, flips the usual northern charm/southern coldness idiom on it’s head and gives us a country in which, in no uncertain terms, lures wayfarers down south to the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu and then refuses to give them back. After the frantic, pestering, unrelenting hustle and bustle of Delhi, Jaipur, Agra and Varanasi, the soothing backwaters of India’s most laidback state are more welcoming than a home-cooked meal and a cuddle on the sofa.
It’s tidy too – for India!
All of Monday was spent on the train heading down south, not much to report except that the train was remarkably cheap (less than a tenner), it was comfortable and (most importantly) fun. One of the joys of Indian trains are the chai wallahs: guys wandering up and down the train with a large canteen full of delicious cinnamon tea droning “Chai Chai” much in the manner of a Dalek (never have found out why).
I arrived in Kochi very early on Tuesday morning, waited for the hotels to open, threw my bag in my hotel room (en suite with fan: 4 pounds a night) and headed over to the port which is on Willington Island. Kochi is made up of a bunch of islands and the best way to get around is on the ferry boat which honestly costs LESS THAN A PENNY. Seriously, I’ve got a whole CAN of whup-ass for the next backpacker I see haggling over 10 rupee (that’s about 12 pence).
Over on Willington Island I got speaking to the Kochi port agents and found out a few things: there are only four ships that go from here to Colombo: ones run by the Indian State Shipping Company (no chance), Maersk (would be a chance, but I fear their Indian-Ocean-no-passenger policy) and OEL. OEL seem my best bet and they’re affiliated with the good folks at CMA-CGM who helped me get to Bombay in the first place.
So back to Fort Kochi and onto the internet, begging emails and phone calls ahoy! But bigger news was when I logged onto my email and discovered from Barry at CMA-CGM that on the morning I arrived in Bombay there was a major collision between two ships, spilling containers and tons of heavy oil into the bay. Check this out:
Can’t believe I missed it – I could have got a fortune for that footage!!
So onward, ever onward…
Throughout the week Mandy and I worked on the shipping options. One of my biggest problems here is that there are no yachts in India – since the Mumbai Massacre private vessels have been banned. This is heartbreaking as Sri Lanka (visa on arrival THANKYOU CEYLON!) is only about 17km away from India at the shortest point. I usually make a joke about it being possible to swim to my next destination, but in this case, I think it’s true.
The practical upshot of which is that the only way to Sri Lanka is on a cargo boat and as I discovered upon my arrival last Saturday, the Indian authorities frown up British chaps with nice hats mooching around the ports here.
But Kochi is a wonderful, wonderful place to be stuck for a few days, so I’m not complaining – it kicks Cape Verde, Gabon, Comoros, Kuwait and Dubai into touch, I tells ya! It’s sleepy, it’s shady, the weather has been great (there’s been the odd downpour, but that’s what makes everything so GREEN!). Many of the colonial relics have been restored, revealing the layers of history behind this old old port – evidence of Portuguese (including the tomb of one Vasco De Gama), Dutch, French, Persian, Jewish, Arabian, Indo-Chinese and some moustachioed chaps in top hats clutching a funky flag they called The British.
There was also the opportunity of a nice surprise: my auld mucka from Liverpool, Hugh Sheridan (who you can watch singing about The Odyssey here) is here in India on a business trip which included a day here in Kochi. After catching him at the airport attempting to leave for Bombay, I convinced him to stay for a night on the tiles.
Although Fort Kochi (being a sleepy place at the best of times) didn’t have much to offer us in terms of the traditional Graham n’ Hugh’s Boozy Rampage, Hugh did find an amazing hotel to stay in, a beautiful 300 year old Dutch villa boutique hotel. The price? Well that will be thirty quid please sir. Same as you’d pay for a Travel Lodge on the A4095.
Guys, please – stop asking me how I can afford to travel to all these places or I’ll start asking you the same questions… WHAT? You live in London/New York/Rome/Toyko…? How do you afford it?? Did you sell a kidney? Have you won the Lotto…?
Hugh left early on Saturday morning, taking with him the realisation that I can never go back to Liverpool. Of course I can go back to the place Liverpool, but not the time Liverpool. Not the Liverpool of my twenties. Everybody is moving on, moving out, getting married, dropping sprogs – it’s as if Mandy and I were the glue holding it all together and now we’re gone a wave of middle age has swept over the land we once knew. Bah!
Maybe I’m being overly-dramatic, I don’t know 😉
Saturday was also the day of the grand Alleppey Snake Boat Race. Now in it’s 68th year, this venerable institution is like the Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race only with two minor differences:
There are 16 teams.
Each boat has over 100 rowers.
I took a bus with a large bunch of fellow backpackers from Fort Kochi to a few km north of Alleppey. From there we took a ferry boat for a grandstand seat in the middle of the river. Once we moored up, there were a load of other boats alongside us, so many of us mutinied for another boat that had cold beers and less French people on board.
Dunno what it is with the Frenchies here; everywhere else I’ve been in the world, they’ve been great – I CouchSurfed with a ton of them in Africa and had some really great nights out. But here, man, they’re just plain weird. You smile at them and they frown and look the other way. You try to speak to them (in French!) and they’ll blissfully ignore you and continue their conversation with their French friend. I was speaking to a girl from Montreal and she told me that when the British guys hear another British accent (or American, Oz, South Africa, whatever) they’ll go over and talk to each other, whereas the French will actively ignore their fellow countrymen and hope they go away.
Don’t know what that’s all about, but I thought it worth a note in case some nice friendly Frenchies are reading this – come to Kochi! You country needs you!!
Anyway, getting back to the INSANE RACE, hey – the President of India was there! And she’s a CHICK! Fancy that! The weather was superb and the beer (for the main part) was cold. I met a crowd of really lovely backpackers and even got recognised off the telly by a couple of people (including a guy from Iran – boy did we bond!!) so my tale didn’t seem quite as tall as it usually does.
The boats were amazing – they were so long and had so many people on board I’m still wondering how on Earth they didn’t sink. Each boat had a number of coxes, but no loudhailer for these guys, they beat a rhythm by banging a wooden pole down vertically on the deck so hard I’m surprised they didn’t smash a hole in the boat.
I still have no idea who won, or indeed what the hell was going on, but damn it was entertaining!!
Sunday was India’s Independence Day, surprisingly not much was happening and everything was closed, which is a shame as a waterpistol fight between the Limeys and the Natives would have been awesome. I enjoyed breakfast with some of the backpackers I met the day before and had evening drinkies with a gang from Manchester and watched Liverpool v Arsenal live. Yes, the spit and sawdust places here in India have better coverage of the Premiership than you. Ha!
Today (being Monday 16th August) all I have to report is that we still haven’t got a yay or nay from the shipping guys in Sri Lanka, but the ship which was supposed to be leaving today has been delayed for a couple of days, which gives us a bit of breathing space. But I’m running out of time, man – I’m nearly up to 600 days on the road.
Well it was another frustrating (but remarkably pleasant) week in Kochi spent contacting shipping firms, tour companies, even the head of the Sri Lanka tourist board in the UK, but it looks like hopping over the 15 miles from India to Sri Lanka is going to be more difficult than balancing an elephant on your head. While on a unicycle. In a hurricane.
The mad thing is that it will probably be easier to take a ship from Malaysia – 1000s of miles away. It’s like the only way you can get to France from the UK is via America. But I didn’t waste my time in Kerala, I made a lot of new friends (including three different people all called Anthony) and I got my story published in The Hindu newspaper.
On the Wednesday, me and my new chums Anthony, Anthony and Louise (all hailing from Manchester) got up bright and early to watch a family of Elephants getting a bath. This was 100% awesome.
I also got chatting with a guy named Joseph Sham who was tremendously excited to have me visit as part of my expedition. He treated me to dinner at the Tea Bungalow, lunch at the Brunton Boatyard Hall, a show at David Hall and a tour of Kochi with the newly named Odyssey Kochi Rickshaws. What a guy!!
I’m particularly impressed with how Kochi is restoring its heritage buildings. In Bombay I commented ‘where is Griff Rhys Jones when we need him?’, well, it appears he’s in Kochi painstakingly restoring these amazing old buildings – some Dutch, some Portuguese, some British, but all unmistakably Indian. David Hall (400 years old, still using it’s original Jewish name) has been turned into a wonderful art and exhibition centre – just two years ago it was just about ready to collapse.
It warms my heart that the daft Modernist mantra ‘new for the sake of new’ is slowly but surely being put to death – and a trip around the brand-new, but old fashioned, Brunton Boatyard hotel just added more fuel to the fire I’m helping to raise – light-years away from your awful Marriots, your soulless Hiltons and your more-depressing-than-Radiohead-on-a-rainy-day Holiday Inns: boutique hotels are growing in popularity all over the world – and even though I never stay in hotels I can say quite frankly, thank —- for that.
As I said in my last blog, Kochi isn’t exactly a party town. Beer is delivered in tea-pots (ask for ‘special tea’) and everything closes at 11pm. The bored policemen then scoot around the town telling anyone they meet that it’s time for bed. No, it’s not a curfew, it’s… er… well, it’s a curfew. And while I wouldn’t want my favorite bit of India to turn into some kind of horrible party town, a late license in a nice quiet bar wouldn’t go amiss.
Joseph and my new friend Vipin (who tracked me down after reading about me in the Mumbai Mirror) did their level best to find me a passage to Sri Lanka, but it was sadly in vain and by Friday I realized that it was time to move on. Like The Seychelles, Sri Lanka and The Maldives will have to wait until the end of the Odyssey – I guess if I’m going to attempt the Seychelles from Malaysia then Sri Lanka and The Maldives are on the way.
If anyone is thinking of crewing a yacht from SE Asia or Australia to Europe early next year, give me a shout and you’ll have yourself a able-bodied shipmate with a nifty kanga hat who you don’t even need to pay.
So the new plan is to high-tail it towards Nepal, hitting Bangladesh and Bhutan on the way. There’s no other way across to China (the border with Pakistan is impassible, the border with India is closed, and I can’t escape through the ‘back door’ into Burma – it’s mined!) so I’m going to have to do the run from Kathmandu to Lhasa and then take the Sky Train from Tibet down to Beijing. Easy!
On the Sunday it was the Kerala Harvest Festival and the place was nuts with people (India’s nuts with people at the best of times, but this was moreso) and it made me observe something that I’ve never picked up on before, and obviously this doesn’t cover all 1.2 billion Indians, but I rarely see an Indian looking like they are having a good time. It’s like everything – even parties – are treated with po-faced seriousness. For a good example of this, check out an Indian’s wedding album – it’s hard to match the words ‘the happiest day of my life’ with an image of a glum groom and a bride with tears streaming down her face.
So I say to you, India – chill out, kick back and enjoy yourself a little! I loved the bus campaign started by the delightful (and let’s face it, hot) Ariane Sherine last year “There’s probably no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life” – when you consider that India has over a thousand deities ranging from elephant-headed boys, black goddess with human head necklaces to blue chaps with a flute and a penchant for cows – you might just see that the anxiety caused by that feeling that EVERYTHING YOU DO IS BEING WATCHED causes the average Joe.
In fact, doing even the simplest thing becomes incredibly difficult when you have someone hovering over your shoulder, doesn’t it? I much prefer Ms Sherine’s take on the matter. But this is India and never the twain etc., so getting transport out of Dodge was more tricky than it really needed to be, but I eventually found myself on a night bus heading to the town of Salem, halfway to Madras, (which has now been renamed Chennai but you won’t catch me ordering a Chicken Chennai in Rusholme). Moving on, I felt a little sad – I could have stayed in lovely little Fort Kochi for a long time, drinking Masala Chai in the Tea Pot Café, enjoying a bottle of Kingfisher in the XL bar, helping restore the cracking old buildings and attempting to outwit the fun police.
One can only hope that Kerala state is the future for India – after all it has the highest literacy level of anywhere in India (99%!) and the people there live, on average, TEN YEARS longer than their fellow Indians. Its defiant communist heritage (Kerala had the first – and possibly only – elected communist party back in 1967) probably didn’t help Kerala succeed in creating a Marxist utopia (because such a thing is impossible!) but what it did do was just as important – it got people into politics because they wanted to make the world a better place, not because they wanted to line their greasy pockets. I may not agree with their politics, but I certainly agree with their motives. If only I could say the same about the rest of India’s political elites…
Arrived in the town of Salem at some disgraceful hour of the morning – it wasn’t even light yet. The bus was an old rust bucket held together with gaffer tape, but I did manage to get a few hours shut-eye. The bus station, like everything in India, was TEN TIMES everything, so there was possibly 200 buses crammed in there, all tooting their horns like it was Eid in Rusholme. Which is wasn’t, it was four in the morning and damnit, I’m convinced that Indians drive by means of echolocation, because they seem to think that pressing a button that goes PARP! every two seconds is more important than, I don’t know, TURNING YOUR HEADLIGHTS ON AT NIGHT, or maybe DRIVING ON THE CORRECT SIDE OF THE ROAD. I’d love to see an episode of Indian Top Gear where they slag off the Bugatti Veyron on the grounds that the damn horn just isn’t LOUD ENOUGH.
Yes, it does go faster than any other car on Earth, but, seriously – does it wake the neighbourhood up at the morning with a ear-splitting HONK HONK HONNNNNNNNNNNNNNNK…? Don’t think so!
Another thing (while I’m having a moan) is the rather startling attitude the Indians have concerning what is rude and what isn’t. For instance, on the train last week, I was lambasted by an elderly Indian woman for crossing my legs in the incorrect manner, but here’s a list of things that the majority of Indians don’t seem to regard as rude in the slightest…
1. Blaring car horns 24 hours a day
2. Blatantly staring at you with a dead-eyed expression*
4. Going to the toilet in public
5. Eating with fingers
6. Hacking up at the top of lungs in public
7. Pushing you out of the way in a queue
8. Pushing old ladies out of the way in a queue
I could go on.
So I will…
9. Making you wait for three hours for the slightest bit of bureaucratic nonsense
10. Throwing rubbish on the ground
11. Treating lower caste people like shit
12. Being gob-smackingly racist (usually targeted towards Muslims)
13. Invariably making stuff up when they don’t know the answer to something
14. Driving like maniacs
15. Never saying sorry
16. Reading over your shoulder when you’re writing stuff – STOP IT! STOP IT NOW!!
*yes, you get stared at in Africa, but at least it’s usually accompanied with a warm smile and a friendly wave.
Anyway, I muddled my way through and somehow found the next bus that was leaving for Madras (now inexplicably rebranded Chennai – maybe ‘Madras’ means ‘Scunthorpe’ in the Tamil language). I arrived around noon and headed to the station to grab a ticket for the next train to Calcutta (now Kolkata), but tonight’s train was sold out, so I had to get a ticket for the train in the morning. No biggie – I’d just be arriving in the morning rather than late at night. I had a little mooch around Madras, but to be honest with you, there wasn’t much to see, even the Lonely Planet struggles to come up with interesting things to say about India’s 4th largest city – so I’ll just tell you that Winston Churchill was stationed here when he was in the army, and he still owes 50rupees to the Yacht Club (or something like that).
Had an amazingly depressing time that night trying to find somewhere to drink coffee and do some work on the website. As I putt-putt-putted around on an autorickshaw, everywhere was shut, or empty, or both. Eventually I returned to my hotel and just worked on my own in my room. Yeah, Madras, or Chennai, or whoever you are; you’re ‘not that hot’.
Bright and early for the 27 hour train journey to Calcutta and it was indeed sweet to be back on a train again after the horror that is an Indian night bus. I had gone for Air Conditioned class this time, the ticket cost twice as much (something like a tenner) but even though it’s not hot enough at the moment to make AC class strictly necessary, the prospect of a working plug socket next to my seat/berth filled me with glee.
The train was, predictably, a monster: at least 35 carriages long, it stretched for over a kilometre. I made a bunch of friends onboard including a nice Indian kid named Sonu, who not only worked out why my mousepad wasn’t working (110v is not enough!) and was mad keen on helping me get to Bangladesh tomorrow. I could do with some local assistance, so it seemed like a good idea.
Now being a wily chap, I have no intention of jumping through all the hoops required to get a visa just to step foot in Bangladesh. And before you start piping up the old mantra of ‘you’re not really seeing these countries’, let me explain I’ve already been to Bangladesh and spent a few days in the capital, Dhaka. It was poo. Heart-breakingly impoverished, hideously polluted and someone tried to snatch my bag – although the long distance buses were a billion times better than any you’d find in India, Nepal or Pakistan. However, let’s face it, Bangladesh is not high on anyone’s list of tourist destinations so you and I are not going to miss much by giving it a cursory hop, skip and a jump.
The train journey took me up alongside the Bay of Bengal, but unfortunately I never got a glimpse of the Indian Ocean from the window (or hanging out of the open door). I had done this journey in reverse eight years ago, only that time, Maoist rebels blew up a train station further down the line, so the one day journey became a three day journey. Thankfully, there were no such hi-jinks on this trip and by lights-out we were bang on schedule to arrive in Calcutta tomorrow morning.
And so the train pulled into Calcutta’s Howrah train station around 11am. The plan was to head to the border with Bangladesh, do a quick border hop and then come back in time for tea and a train up towards Bhutan and Nepal.
However, my first problem was that (after queuing up a five different booths) the guy in the ticket office told me that the late train that left at 11pm was full. I would find out later this was a lie, but never mind, I’m getting used to it now. Therefore the only option was the Darjeeling Mail train which left at 7.35pm. This meant my trip to Bangladesh was going to be a bit of a race to say the least.
Sonu accompanied me across the Hooghly River that runs through Calcutta and together we went to investigate options for taking the bus to the border. It took us a good two hours just to get to the bus ‘station’, and when we arrived, I was informed that all the buses for today had left, and that even if they hadn’t, I couldn’t get on board as the buses went all the way to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, and passengers weren’t allowed to get off early.
I don’t quite know why India feels it must be so infuriating, but somewhere along the line somebody must have mooted it as ‘a good idea’.
So Bangladesh was a no, then. In any case, I might not have got over the border, considering how much India’s security has been ramped up in the wake of the Mumbai Massacre. The last time I was at the western border of Bangladesh, I could have just walked straight through and nobody would have noticed.
So Sonu and I grabbed some lunch and Sonu invited me back to his house so I could scrub up and go and see his local church. The journey to his on a local train was so typically Indian it almost seemed farcical – far too many people squeezed into a carriage that hadn’t been cleaned since… well, ever. And that’s something that blows my mind about India, the relationship with dirt. I’m not one for living in a sterile bubble, but this place is the equivalent of my dad’s old carburetter shop in Liverpool only times 1.2 billion. Everything – from the streets to the buildings to the trains to the temples – must must must be grubby as hell. But the weird thing is how everything is meticulously ordered, like a freak who hoards his rubbish in his living room, but sorts it into neat piles first.
Sweeping up in India requires you to push the dirt somewhere else, the concept of litter bins are as alien here as being a vegan is to an Argentinean. The mounds of rubbish, rubbish everywhere and the public health menace they pose would make anywhere else rise up and incarcerate the powers that be, but not in India. Like Ethiopia, the concept of germ theory is an undiscovered country, if you get ill well you mutter something about it being the will of the god(s) and quietly die without complaint – after all, you’re going to get reincarnated… right?
One thing I just can’t fathom about the concept of reincarnation is this: what’s the point? In Battlestar Galactica, the Cylons could download their memories – and consciousness – to a new identical body whenever they died. That seems perfectly sensible (within the realms of science fiction) and I don’t see why not. But to be downloaded into a completely new body (or even one of a completely separate species) but not retain your consciousness nor indeed any memories whatsoever seems, well, a little pointless does it not?
What exactly is being downloaded? And what lessons can be learnt, given you don’t remember anything from your previous life?
Anyways, I’m going off-topic a little here, but after grabbing a quick shower and sending a couple of emails at Sonu’s gaff, he drove me back to Calcutta. Unfortunately for me, his ludicrously optimistic view that he could get back to the city in 45 minutes was exactly that – ludicrously optimistic. Even twice that time would be gilding the lily somewhat. Try three hours, that would be a safer bet.
Needless to say, I missed my train.
As I had bought an ‘emergency’ ticket (at a 200rupee markup) my ticket was completely non-refundable. My discontent at this situation wasn’t helped by Sonu’s reckless driving – when there is a heady mixture of cars, rickshaws, cyclists, pedestrians, potholes, trucks, buses and cows vying for space one would tend not to drive like Toad of Toad Hall – doubly so when there are no streetlights. But Sonu’s over-optimistic appraisal of the time situation also translated into an over-optimistic sentiment that God was protecting his car and therefore it was impossible for him to crash.
I did point out that as a (rather militant) atheist, that if he did actually exist, this God fella has probably got it in for me, and that would seem to be the case as after a hair-raising two hours, Sonu managed to drop me at the wrong train station. Thankfully, a guardian angel called George came to my rescue. He worked for the trains and was on his way home when I ran into him running with all my bags along an unlit railway line. “You’re at the wrong station”, he told me – “but don’t worry I’ll get you on the later train”.
“I was told it was sold out”.
“They always say that. Come with me.”
So George and I hopped in a taxi and sped over to the correct train station. It took the best part of an hour to get there, but when we did, he sorted me out with a ticket on the 22.35 up to Siliguri in the north of West Bengal – not far from the borders of Bangladesh and Bhutan. The possibly of ticking off two countries in one day was a particularly sweet idea at this time.
With a hour or so to kill before I got on the train, I said my hearty thank-yous to George and bought myself a copy of Newsweek, very interested to read their list of the best 100 countries in the world and see how much it tallied with mine.
As they didn’t include rock n’ roll, lemurs or ladyboys in their criteria of what made a country ‘best’, the list was somewhat different from my League of Nations – with their top three nations being Finland, Switzerland and Luxembourg – three of the most boring places on Earth. India is a lot of things, and I could go on all night about how nuts it is, but at the end of the day, at least it’s never dull – and that counts for a lot in my book, yes India – you’re that lousy friend that we can’t help forgive because they make us laugh, you’re the nasty spiteful Dr. House who we admire because he’s always frickin’ right and the vacuous blonde we tolerate because she’s got a cracking pair of norks.
My League is based on places that excite or surprise me – I guess that’s why the top ten includes the likes of Egypt, Bolivia, Thailand and Iran. Finland, Switzerland or Luxembourg – godbless’em – are all very sensible and nice, but sometimes you need a little madness just to keep things interesting.
Today started with a bit of a disaster when I awoke to find that my new laptop, Sony Jim, that I had cunningly placed between me and the wall the night before, was a lot more delicate than my old laptop, Dell Boy. The screen had cracked in the night (I must have rolled over against it). This was not a good start to the day and I was determined to not let it overshadow the rest of today’s shenanigans. I had two – maybe three – countries to reach before the end of the day and a cracked laptop screen was the least of my worries – I had no visa for any of the countries I wished to visit.
The train pulled into New Jalpaguri station in Northern West Bengal at 8am. After throwing my bag into the station cloakroom and a bit of negotiation, I managed to score a taxi to the Bangladeshi border at Chengrabandha. It’s not that far away – perhaps thirty-five miles – but This Is India, so the trip took over SIX HOURS. No, really.
The road to Bangladesh was the worst I’ve experienced in India so far, and was so chock-a-block full of gaily painted trucks there was no chance of escape. And by ‘gaily’ I mean it in all senses of the word – happy, homosexual, a bit naff. Come to think of it, India has to be the gayest country this side of Saudi Arabia (which is by far the gayest country in the world). Funnily enough, being gay was illegal here until very recently, but let’s look at the evidence:
1) You often see men holding hands but never men and women holding hands.
2) Have you watched a Bollywood film? They’re all musicals! With song and dance routines! The only people who like musicals are a) middle-aged women b) gay men. There have been over 64,000 Bollywood films made since the thirties. And all but three of them have been musicals.
3) The brightly coloured floral designs adorning each and every truck and look like something from a Gay Pride parade.
4) LOTS of men have moustaches. Which are gay.
5) Everyone is gay or NOTHING MAKES ANY SENSE AT ALL.
A-hem. So, er… yeah, Bangladesh. Eventually my driver took me on the back road to the border and after a quick natter with the Indian border guards they let me go and have a chat with the Bangladeshi border guard who was literally three metres away – no big fence, gates, barbed wire etc. here – in fact the only thing that gave away that I was now in another country was the flag and the large ‘welcome to Bangladesh’ sign.
So I got to cross the border, touch Bangladesh soil and ask if I could take a photo (my request was denied). Ack! But the GPS showed I had crossed the border so at this point (and over 600 days on the road) I’m beyond caring. After a good five minutes of jumping up and down going ‘whoop whoop whoop’ I came back to India and got back in the taxi.
“Back to NJP (New Jalpaguri) sir?”
“Nope. Let’s go to Bhutan.”
“We won’t make it before dark. The roads are very bad”
“It took us six hours to get here. Whatever happens, it will be quicker to go to Bhutan.”
After a bit of haggling, my driver relented and off I jolly well popped. Again, the border was around 30 miles away, but it still took us three hours to get there. The roads were indeed, very bad.
But the Indian countryside was magnificent. So so green and yes there were ladies in saris picking leaves from tea bushes; paddy fields and cotton plantations: the rural idyll Indian-style. Farms and farmers, villages and villagers, I guess what hacks would call the ‘real’ India. Luckily for you, I’m not a hack so I won’t go down that road, but let’s just say that although the rural poor are the poorest of the poor, there was a measure of contentment that I found lacking in the big cities round these parts. Isn’t that always the way?
Oh, I almost forgot – Bhutan – yeah, file it under the same heading as Sao Tome, Comoros, Djibouti and Kiribati – under “countries you didn’t even know existed.” It’s a tiny, secretive kingdom in the Himalayas that has (successfully) shunned modernity for a long, long time. I think they only got televisions a few weeks ago. Lucky them – imagine wondering all your life what it would be like to own a television set, you finally get one and the only thing to watch is ‘India’s Got Talent’. Urk. Unlike Bangladesh, I would quite like to visit Bhutan, go for a tour, that kind of thing. However, in this trip it’s just going to be a border hop I’m afraid, but for a very different reason than my Bangladesh innie/outie – like St. Petersburg, Samarkand and San Francisco, there are places that I don’t want to ‘do’ just yet and I certainly don’t want to ‘do’ them alone.
I need someone to nudge and say “wow – look at that!” Yeah – sad but true.
So it was getting dark as I hit the Bhutanese border. There was no Indian ‘side’, just a big Chinese-like gate announcing ‘Welcome to Bhutan!’ Fantastic! I walked up to the gate, chatted with the border guard (a kid dressed in jeans and a t-shirt), showed him the article about me from The Hindu and he smiled, nodded and let me through!
Unbelievable! It was so so easy!
So I found the first sign I could find that said ‘Bhutan’ and filmed as much as I could on the other side, ensured my GPS was getting a good signal and after about five minutes headed back.
Then I got into trouble.
The guard on the way back was wearing a uniform and he wasn’t happy about my little bit of international subterfuge. I tried to explain, but he didn’t speak much English. Luckily, at that very moment the kid in jeans came through to the Bhutanese side of the gate.
“He told me I could!” I said, much in the manner of a schoolkid ratting on his mate. The kid in jeans smiled, explained something in Bhutanese to the uniformed chap, and then it was all smiles and handshakes and don’t do it agains.
But by then it didn’t matter. I had done it. Two nations knocked off the list in one day; 165 down, only 35 more countries to go – and I’d be hitting nation 166 tomorrow morning. I walked triumphant back into India.
The taxi ride back to NJP was just as terrifying as the night before with Sonu, but with the added terror of the monsoon rains belting down so hard I’m amazed we weren’t washed away. It was around ten o’clock by the time we got back. I paid my long-suffering (and, hell with it, long complaining) driver, checked into a hotel and crashed out for the night.
For the first time in a long time I felt as if I was moving again.