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