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.

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’.