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 A RETURN VISIT TO INDIA, 1999
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Mysore

It had taken thirteen years to get round to making a return trip to India. It wasnít meant to be that long, itís just that time has a habit of slipping away, unnoticed. Now as the map on the TV screen in the Lufthansa 747 showed itís cartoon like image of an aeroplane approaching Madras I began to get butterflies in my stomach for the first time since deciding to make the trip.

For a start, the previous trip had been organised for me by an organisation I worked for. I just had to turn up and go. Everything arranged ! Easy !

This time, Iíd made all the arrangements myself. Iíd even found hotels on the Internet and booked by Email. Itís a great toy to play with but I was sure things would never work out as planned. It had been too easy and anything that easy had to be doomed.

I was staying with some friends for the first four nights and travelling with another friend who although of Indian origin had never been to India since he was about five years old. As we waited patiently for our baggage to appear on the rather primitive belt in Madras airport, I wondered if the trip was such a good idea. There seemed hundreds of bags coming off including, it seemed, half the stock of a department store but no sign of our simple, single suitcase.

Five jumbo jets full of passengers had it seems arrived together and most of the passengers were local people returning with their booty from overseas.

After almost an hour, however, there it was, our poor little lonely little suitcase, and with no trolleys in sight, we lugged it towards the exit. Immigration was a doddle. My previous experience years earlier at Bombay had been horrendous. Now we were waved through with hardy a glance.  Customs too seemed pretty disinterested, concentrating on the pilesof goods being brought in by returning locals.

We  emerged into the muggy heat and a vast throng of people all waving bits of cards with names on and there,  patiently waiting for us, was our friend and contact. Even he had begun to wonder if we had actually made it to Madras. We fought our way through the crowds towards a vehicle he had waiting for us and were driven through dimly lit streets to the haven of a simple hotel where we crashed out for at least a few hours sleep.

Room service at the Hotel Mars, yes it did exist even in this modest establishment, turned up with two cups of delicious Indian style tea in the morning and our hosts arrived from the less salubrious hostelry where they had stayed to whisk us off on a hundred mile trip south ,stopping only on the way for a breakfast of dosas and more thick sweet Indian tea.

Trichy

The roads in India had improved since my last visit, that I have to say. The improvement consists of adding about three feet of tarmac along each side of what had been a road wide enough for just one vehicle. Now two vehicles could pass without one having to drive into the dusty Ďhard shoulder. The driving however seemed much the same especially  the suicidal game of Ďchickení Indian drivers seem to love.  The one who swerves off the tarmac loses, but lives to fight another day. 

They still play it but now the fun seems confined to overtaking on blind corners or in places where the underpowered vehicles could never get past each other.. The unlucky ones were scattered, rusting alongside the road as reminders of the heavy price paid on Indian road every day by drivers who took one chance too many. Our own driver was skilled, of that there is no doubt, but even he took chances no sane person would consider. 

We detoured to see the shore temples at Malapuram and had our first taste of being hassled for money by women operating with gangs of children. Our host was not sympathetic saying that begging was not necessary but easier than working. I found a lot of admirers of Margaret Thatcher in India. Our host however had a point as throughout the trip it was only at touristy spots or temples and mosques that the hassle was intense. Most of the time there really was no problem.

We finally arrived at our hostís home, a simple but spacious house in a small town near Pondicherry. The hospitality was overwhelming and for the next five days we were treated like honoured guests. The only problem we had was not being able to consume the volumes of food offered. The heat cut down our need for a lot of food and reduced our appetite and we had to explain that it wasnít that the food offered was not delicious, it was, but we just could not cope with it.

Our host consumed two or three times as much as we could manage and we felt very ungrateful picking away and refusing extra top ups being offered all the time.  A table had even been purchased so we did not have to follow the local custom of sitting on the floor to eat. It was all very overwhelming.

We did visit among other places a village I had visited in 1986. This was occupied by gypsy families and although the families were still living a very simple life, their village was now surrounded by fields of crops, trees and a water supply none of which had been there before. The house too, although simple, were more substantial that the huts in which they had been living before. Progress is slow but it is happening.

We were conscious of many of the obvious changes in the last thirteen years. The electricity supply while a bit flaky, was more reliable, bottled water was on sale everywhere, telephones worked, cable TV spreads
itís, er...cables in every direction, the red Coca Cola and Pepsi signs had sprouted everywhere having been banned when I last visited. Then its was the local cola, Thums up or nothing. Thums up now carries the Coca Cola logo on itís battered bottles. Fosters lager adverts promised to turn Indians into Australians and the new middle classes were urged to suck on a Walls Cornetto or Treat after consuming their Kit Kat bar.

Indian chocolate is a disappointment, especially the Kit Kats. To avoid it melting in the heat it is made to a formula which produces a hard, concrete like texture which  refuses to melt in the mouth.  Bountys and Mars bars were a little better being made overseas and sold from chilled cabinets for the most part but even these were a pale shadow of the originals.

Pondicherry had a different atmosphere to the surrounding towns. It has a faded look but the past still influences the present. We set in a rooftop bar drinking local beer at a lower price than in the rest of India thanks to low taxes, and watched the sea. The promenade is wide and was once quite grand. It must have looked wonderful as graceful French women promenaded in the evening breeze. We ordered a plate of chips. Not bad but still a long way to go to beat Blackpool.

Pondicherry does has a charm, however,  but like much of India, it needs a damm good tidy up as my mum would have said. I still find India hard to fathom out. The interior of shops are immaculate, dressing and personal hygiene are to a high standard and yet public places are untidy and  uncared for.  The same thing to a lesser degree is true of the USA where many public areas, including Miamiís famous South Beach, are scruffy and untidy, while private areas are immaculate. The U.K. is not perfect but public spaces are on the whole looked after. I donít think it is just down to money. I just think the local people donít notice either in India or the USA.

One local man in India when I asked him why the people in one area didnít try to get a pile of rubbish moved replied that the local authority was supposed to move it. They paid taxes for it to happen but if they complained, the authority would find an excuse for raising their taxes and still the rubbish would  be there. I suspect that in Britain, a committee would be formed, petitions signed and in the end the rubbish would be taken away with a local newspaper featuring the efforts of the locals as itís headline story.. 

From  Madras we took a first class air conditioned sleeper train to Mysore at a cost of about £10. Madras station, I have to say, was the only place on this trip where I saw cock roaches. On the previous trip they seemed to be everywhere, under toilet seats, in bathrooms and just running around having a great time. We had a long wait having got there too early. The train left spot on time and our names were on the computer printout pasted on the side of the carriage. I was very impressed with Indian Railwaysí use of computers. Stations had huge banks of monitor screens giving availability of seat on dozens of trains.

The journey took about fourteen hours but I did get a little sleep. The air conditioning was fierce and a little noisy and the ancient carriages creaked with old age. One newspaper had a report that some new carriages are to be ordered from Italy and speeds of over one hundred miles an hour will be the norm on some lines. I hope someone has told the cows who wander at will disregarding all man made obstacles.

Mysore, a good hotel, the Sidhartu and only about £10 a night with a first class vegetarian restaurant on the ground floor. Clean, efficient and friendly. We used a car and driver for the day and visited the nearby hill temple, the Palace Hotel, the Maharajaís Palace in the city and Brindaven gardens,  a fairyland of lights at the foot of a huge dam on the Carverie river. We ate potato snacks at a small food stall and watched thousands of local people enjoying the lights.  For the whole day the car cost about ten pounds.

We decided to use the same car and driver to travel to Bangalore a distance of around eighty miles. The cost about £20. We had asked for a careful driver and were lucky to get one so we stuck with him. he delivered us door to door to the Highgate Hotel in Bangalore, which again was excellent with rooms at about £20 a night. 

Bangalore had changed a lot in thirteen years. For one thing the pollution was bad, really bad. It still has huge areas of greenery and parks but the traffic, especially the three wheel taxis, throw out vast amounts of smoke which at times can be choking. Again the place can do with a tidy up to make more of itís underlying beauty. It claims to be the most westernised city in India and it is true that it does have pubs and bars, hi-tech industries, soaring bank buildings and loads of cashpoint machines.  But it still has broken pavements, uncared for streets and that all too common sweet smell of sewage.

Perhaps it is all a phase the city has to go through but that there is a small of money in this city. That it is benefiting everyone is not so obvious. At night the local yuppies descend on the main area of Brigade Road and MG road leaving masses of scooters and small motor bikes parked as their symbols of prosperity before hitting the bars. We tended to eat in Koshyís restaurant where I had eaten on the last trip. A hangover from the old days with good service, a wide menu including many ĎEnglishí dishes, good beer and a nice atmosphere. The hotel too had a small coffee shop with good coffee and cakes 24 hours a day.

Jet Airways, one of the newer private airlines, took us from Banaglore to Bombay. Banaglore airport is simple but reasonably efficient. Locals want it expanded into an international airport in keeping with their status as a silicon valley city. If they manage this and flights start arriving direct from Europe, I would certainly consider flying there because the location is ideal for travelling around.  The flight was good, the plane modern and the service good. The flight was also spot on time taking off and landing.

Bombayís domestic terminal produced the baggage with unusual speed and a car I had booked on the Internet was waiting with a driver outside the entrance. It whisked us through the dreadful slums which surround the airport along a wide chaotic road into the southern part of the city. This was a suprise. The heart of the city was not at all hour I imagined it. Instead of masses of people, overcrowding and madness, I found the remains of an elegant Victorian city with wide boulevards, disciplined traffic, no three wheelers and even a few open spaces.

Bombay

Sure around the Gateway to India and the streets around the Taj hotel there were various street hawkers and beggars whose persistence would try the patience of even the most charitable person but move a couple of streets away and it all disappears. We walked and walked and walked and when we were exhausted, hailed a taxi and retreated to the air conditioned room of our hotel. Not one taxi driver tried to cheat on the fares, in fact during the whole trip nobody tried to rip us off, we had no tummy upsets and people were on the whole, kind and courteous.

The hotel we used, the Godwin was very good. Not much from the outside but a large modern, room, newly decorated for 3000 irp a night with breakfasts ( just over £40). We ate in the hotel some nights which was fine and also in Leopolds, a popular cafe for travellers with itís varied menu and pleasant atmosphere.

We stayed seven nights at the Godwin which was perhaps a little too long before spending our last three days at Juhu beach. people had warned us that Juhu was a waste of time with shacks, vendors, beggars, pollution and every bad thing in abundance. We lashed out on a room at the Sea Princess, a ten year old five star hotel. It wasnít cheap, £70 a room per night, but the view of the sun sets over the sea from the restaurant was worth every penny. 

Sea Princes hotel

The beach too was a suprise. Stalls were confined to specific areas and for the most part were clean and hygienic. There were one or two beggars but not too many and almost no beach hawkers. There were coconut sellers and all kinds of small fairground rides and a innocent seaside atmosphere to the place. We enjoyed it.

Juhu Beach

The hotel provided a courtesy coach to the airport which again took us in the middle of the night through some dreadful slums and the airport was not the most cheerful place on earth. Coffee at three American dollars a cup came as a shock after paying an average of about 15 pence most places.  My partner grumbled about the fact that we had to change planes in Frankfurt as a direct to London BA flight left about twenty minutes before our own. Maybe he was right, but I just donít like British Airwayís attitude to their Ďback of the planeí passengers. Still a valium and he hardly noticed the flights anyway.

Juhu

Back in London, it was cold but sunny. Everywhere looked incredibly neat and tidy and quiet. It took about a week to get the sounds of car horns out of our heads. We also though we would not want any Indian food for a week or two but within days our appetites came back. One aspect of the trip was to make us realise that Indian food in London is as good if not better than most indian food in India. Perhaps we have just got used to it.

We have an open invitation to go back to South India any time. Next time we will do less and travel less. Travel in India is exciting but tiring. If I had to pass through Bombay again, I  might stop off for a couple of days but otherwise I would concentrate on the South. There is just so much to see. With the speed of change, however, we had better not leave it too long.
 

One question we keep getting asked was how many guys did you pick up. The answer which nobody believes is none. It wasnít that kind of trip and personally while I like Asian guys very much, in India, for the most part there is a lack of sexual body language. Compared with some South East Asian countries where sex beckons from almost every direction, most Indians just seemed concerned about making a living. Perhaps I just wasnít looking and I am sure others have had totally different experiences.
 

I travelled again back to India in December 2000 and again in 2002, the second time including Sri Lanka

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