Days 585-592: The Boat Race

09.08.10-16.08.10:

“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:

Oops

Eek
D'oh
Wasn't Me!

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.

Guess Hugh's Coming To Dinner...

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.

Look!

Boat Race, Indian Style
Follow me everyone!!
I think the guys in the middle got the short straw...
Bringing up the rear...

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.

Absolute madness!

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.

Crikey.