Days 592-597: Now Then, Kerala

17.08.10-22.08.10:

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.

Anthony The First, Anthony The Second and Louise

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.

Dumbo
Jumbo
Funbo
Runbo

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!!

Shambo

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.

A nice hot cup of chai with Helene, Anthony The Third and Vipin

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.

An Atheist Babe, Yesterday

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.

The Tea Bungalow, Kochi

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…

Day 598: Never The Twain

23.08.10:

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*

3. Spitting

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’.