Going South

So our trip to the South was moderately successful. One thing Indian airlines have going for them, is that the food is consistently edible. The coffee is unsurprisingly the worst on the planet, but the food isn’t bad. It sort of even makes up for the fact that no-one ever wants to see any ID. They instead prefer to have you show them your boarding card about five times, and God forbid your hand luggage has no luggage tag, or even the luggage tag of a different airline. They have a little box with the luggage tags from all the different airlines, and you better pick the right one, or else it won’t get stamped as the bags get x-rayed. The box looks a bit like a box of candies, so in that regard, their security measures are kind of cute, although probably even less effective than the ridiculous taking off your shoes ceremony they invented in the US.

Anyways, we arrived in Bangalore and were almost impressed with the fact that Bangalore’s name Green City isn’t entirely pulled out of thin air. It’s noticeably greener than Mumbai, which of course doesn’t mean much. There’s a whole bunch of colleges, an army of software companies, and then the real army in town. I don’t know for what purpose exactly, but the Indian Army occupies large areas right in what seemed to be the middle of town. Or maybe it was the Air Force, because there was also a sad looking statue of some little jet fighter or something right in the middle of some intersection.

We eventually made it to Nrityagram, which was quite nice. Right next to it is a fancy Taj resort, and Nrityagram itself is a nice little place. They take on only six dance students every six years, two of which, we were told, actually make it all the way. We saw them rehearsing for an Odissi performance, which was really quite fascinating. The were performing at The Joyce Theater in NYC last year, and apparently will go on tour in the US later this year.

We then took off to Mysore and arrived pretty late by train. As we got off the train, we got, as usual, mobbed by an army of rickshaw drivers, but we always prefer to stand in line for the pre-paid rickshaws, even though it might not actually be cheaper. This time, we got yelled at by some guy who told us that it’s against the law to smoke in public and that we should study the law before coming here. We were too tired to tell him to shove it, so we just stepped away from him. Presumably it’s decidedly not against the law for the rickshaw driver to yell out to everybody standing or sitting around which hotel we had asked him to drive us to, because that’s exactly what happened. At least no one gasped ah, expensive hotel! like the rickshaw driver in Kotchi did a few weeks ago.

Anyways, the next day our itinerary brought us to the Karnataka State Silk Factory, which, sad as that may be, turned out to be pretty much the highlight of the trip. Basically, they just let you walk around the factory, no one bothers you, everybody was friendly and no one made a fuss. So we walked by a zillion machines (the older ones Swiss, the newer ones Japanese), from where they twist, wind, double, and rewind the silk yarn to rows and rows of screaming loud silk saree weaving machines, all operated by one or two guys. Unfortunately, photography was not allowed, but the machines were quite complicated, and some of the patterns were quite elaborate. The people were obviously proud of their work, and were happy to try to show us how the machines function. This one jolly happy chap was asking me how much money I make in Mumbai – it’s a pretty common question of strangers to ask – and then he complained laughingly that the Rs6,000/month that ($150) he makes after 30 years of service are not quite enough.

Our next stop was the Government Sandalwood Factory, pretty much next door, but that place was more like a deserted museum and there wasn’t much to see. So we went to the Mysore Palace. For some reason, we couldn’t really warm up to that building. Maybe it’s because it’s probably the youngest palace I have ever seen (it’s not even 100 years old), or maybe it was the crowd. Our Brahmin tour guide told us at least six times that the palace is decorated with 100,000 light bulbs, which didn’t really help, and by the 10th time he marveled over useless stupid facts like this chair is made of 65kg of silver, that box is made of 17kg of gold, these windows were made in Belgium, those mirrors were brought here from Bohemia, and so on and so forth, we were about ready to smack him. Funnily enough, their website only mentions 97,000 light bulbs, so maybe that explains his silence when I asked him whether those 100,000 light bulbs all work. By the way, the palace was occupied by the last Mysore Maharaja, whose father had built it (well, he didn’t build anything, he just went on an expensive shopping trip to Europe). His big fat son is now a politician.

After that, we had about enough of royal families and annoying tour guides, so we took off in a bus to Mudumalai. It was a bit of a challenge to actually find the right bus, because no one seemed to know or care when there’s a bus going in that direction, or if they did know, they all seemed to be talking out of their asses, because we got about five different departure times from three different people. Eventually, we found our bus, kick boxed our way to some seats and there we went and arrived pretty late in the evening.

We stayed two nights in Mudumalai, because it was green and calm, and because it turned out that it wasn’t actually simply a rumor that there’s wild animals living there. The first morning we went for a two hour walk with a guide and a French couple from La Réunion, and we saw a whole lot of elephant shit. No elephants, but at least their bathroom. We saw a lot of deer, some peacocks, but no tigers or even boers. I wouldn’t completely rule out that people here would simply get up even earlier in the morning than we did, just to strategically place some elephant shit here and there to scam the tourists, but the next day, we did actually see a real wild elephant and a boer. And tiger shit, or so we were told. The evening before, we had also seen a pretty impressive elephant feeding ceremony in an elephant camp and made acquaintance with one elephant that was rumored to have killed 18 people. He was a bit mad, we were told, but now he is fine.

From Mudumalai, our trip went literally downhill. First we made a stop in Ooty, which was pretty unattractive. Always on the hunt for the ultimate fabrics, we were led to the house of a Toda family. The fabrics weren’t very impressive, and the man sadly smelled of alcohol on this early afternoon, but their houses were quite interesting.

Then we took the toy train to Mettupalayam. Because that utterly unhelpful woman at the Mysore train station ticket counter was not in the mood to make reservations for us, we were left with buying last-minute tickets, which got us standing room only in the completely overcrowded general admissions car, right behind the criminally loud steam engine, with hot steam and smoke for added pleasure. That trip lasted about three and a half hours, and really wasn’t all the fun that it’s made up to be. Judging from the ecstatic screaming every time we went through a tunnel, the other passengers were having the trip of their lifetime though.

These three hours of madness were only the beginning for us. We then changed into the Express night train to Chennai. Luckily, we got a private sleeper coach, but we didn’t get much sleep, not least because the train conductors were helpfully knocking on our door asking about this and that and insisting that we fill out their customer satisfaction survey before they would leave us alone and let us sleep. The train arrived at 5am, and by that time we were seriously ready for a shower, but we still had another day to kill, and what better than taking a two hour bus ride to Kanchipuram, a town of many temples and many hand looms for silk weaving.

We went to RIDE and had a chat with their director, who was quite the character. There weren’t many sarees to see, but it was still pretty interesting. The director was basically saying that the poor get screwed by religion and corruption and that his organization is trying to teach them how to take their lives into their own hands, especially the women. We didn’t quite get what he was saying about getting death threats from some Swedish guy, and what the story was about him getting his feet washed by his maid, but it was an experience nevertheless.

The bus ride back to the Chennai airport was another death trap, but we somehow survived it and actually managed not to miss our flight. For some reason, you get cold wet towels in the plane these days. This time, we didn’t mind, and as we wiped our faces with them, they turned suitably brown from all the dust and dirt, so at that point it was definitely time to get home.


Our trip to Kerala started at 3am in the morning with the riksha driver making a big detour via the international airport to get us to the domestic airport. I suppose he was assuming that we must be wanting to get out of India, even though we repeatedly told him domestic airport. Or maybe he just wanted to take us for a ride and a little early morning scam. Either way, we were passing hundreds of parked rikshas, most of them with the driver sleeping under a blanket on the back bench. Even Mumbai gets a bit cooler at night at this time of the year.

We landed in Kochi at 8am, and the air was noticeably nicer than Mumbai, even while walking from the aircraft to the terminal, which looked like a repurposed train station. Most men were wearing white lungis, which look very comfortable. It would be nice if one could wear those in NYC, but then again, seeing that all the men in Kerala are constantly playing with their lungi, tucking them in and out, lifting them up or down and adjusting them, maybe not.

The can ride to the ferry for Fort Kochi was a bit of a ride from hell. The roads are much better than in Mumbai, but the drivers are even more suicidal. There was a disturbingly large amount of huge advertising posters everywhere along the 20 miles road, but eventually, we got dropped off at the ferry. Of course it was the wrong ferry, the ones for the tourist, so we got immediately harassed left and right, as we must have been the day’s first prey. But we successfully dodged this second scam of the day and rather than paying Rs400 for the tourist boat, we walked a bit further down to catch the Rs2.5 regular ferry, which had the added bonus of watching the security guy lock up all the passengers behind a steel gate as they were waiting for the boat to come in. Which it did, 15mins late, with another ferry in tow, whose engine had apparently given up.

In Fort Kochi, we had our first of many encounters with riksha drivers who simply refused to turn on the meter. At first, we were rather annoyed, but over the days it dawned on us that maybe this is one of the features of Kerala’s long history of communist governments. Maybe you can’t have the highest literacy rate and lowest infant mortality rate in India, a noticeably more equitable distribution of wealth and a school in literally every village, and still expect the riksha drivers to use the meter. Of course, the rikshas were still pretty cheap, but at two or three times the going rate in Mumbai, one had to wonder whether this was the tourist rate or whether the locals really pay Rs2000 or so a month just for their daily commute.

Kochi is quite nice, but the some of the aggressive sales tactics got a bit on our nerves quite quickly, and almost every riksha driver made the same joke about wanting to give us a ride in his Ferrari, which also got a bit old. One driver tried to tell us that petrol is much more expensive in Kerala than in Mumbai (it is not, as the central government sets the price). A waiter ordered us to sit and relax. And we tried a ayurvedic massage, which Ksenia loved and I found a bit too up close and personal for comfort (I take a Thai massage any time over that).

Somehow the nicest part was to sit in a tea house just a bit away from the main drag. But in the evening we saw a Kathakali performance, and that was great. Yes, there were virtually no Indians in the audience, and it was more an exhibition than the real thing, but it was very interesting and beautiful. We finished the evening with a pretty bad dinner and the next day we had a cold shower and decidedly horrible breakfast in our overpriced hotel – white toast and jam consisting of 50% sugar and 50% gelatin. What the hell happened to idli, we wondered).

After that, we took a two hour bus ride to Alleppey. Ksenia got a seat and observed a very suave guy quietly and slowly slipping a piece of paper into a female passenger’s hands, who took it after fifteen minutes with a coy smile, while I was standing the whole time, watching the communist flags go by. In Alleppey, we got picked up by the cook for the houseboat that we had rented in Kochi, and then we argued with the riksha driver, who also refused to turn on the meter. The cook got quite annoyed with us and said come on, sit down, everything is ready to go, which of course it wasn’t. But eventually our houseboat got moving and we got some food, which was actually quite nice.

We spent 24 hours on the boat, which is about enough for our taste. It’s nice and relaxing at all, but looking at rice fields isn’t really all that thrilling, nevermind the fact that one basically takes the boat through other people’s back yards, where the women wash their clothes, bathe, and brush their teeth, and some children (much better dressed than in Mumbai) ask the tourists for money.

Ksenia and I entered a lengthy discussion about possible explanations for the size of the paddles that the locals use with their little wooden boats. These paddles are basically teaspoon size: they are very small and look almost fragile, with an undersized surface for effective paddling, and they are only one-sided, i.e. they have to change their grip, if they’d like to paddle on the other side of the boat. If they had better paddles, let alone contraptions for actually rowing instead of paddling, they’d be quite a bit faster. After pondering many theories ranging from lack of materials or engineering expertise or rowing muscles, to they aren’t in a rush to get anywhere, to maybe they had never thought about it, we settled on the explanation that maybe they used to use these little boats to go on tiny canals into the rice fields, where rowing would have been impossible and paddling with teaspoons offered the best balance of moving forward and protecting the rice fields.

Anyways, somehow the engine of our own boat gave up pretty much in time for sunset, so we got towed for a bit by another boat, and the next morning we woke up to the smell of diesel exhaust as the cook and the two other crew members tried to repair the engine. Eventually, we got back to Alleppey, where we found a number of touts who didn’t understand the meaning of the word no, but also a bus station attendant with badly deformed legs who pointed us very helpfully towards the right bus to Thiruvalla, our next stop.

Thiruvalla has the only temple in Kerala where Kathakali is performed daily as part of the religious ceremony, and it also has a number of temples in the surrounding villages, so that’s where we wanted to go. But first Ksenia needed another ayurvedic massage, so we went to a place that was listed in our Kerala travel book, but that place really looked more a hospital than anything else. They didn’t seem to have any patients, because the owner/doctor pretty much spent his whole afternoon with us, embarrassingly eager to please us, to make us want to come back tomorrow, and to tell all our fiends. He even reserved a room and drove us to a hotel that he insisted we stay in, even though we had told him a few times that we don’t know how long and where we want to stay and that we might actually leave town altogether.

So instead, we just had lunch at the hotel, pondered our options and called a place outside of town, which sounded much nicer than this hotel in the middle of Thiruvalla. Of course, the receptionist followed us onto the street wondering where we are going, but ah well. We took one of the many HM Ambassador taxi cabs, and even the cab drivers that were immediately surrounding us were laughing with me when I laughed about the price the driver wanted for the 2km ride.

But at least we got there, and we were quite happy with our choice this time, the Vanjipuzha Palace in Chengannur, where it was quiet and green, the food was great and the staff was very helpful. Maybe a bit too helpful, because, since it is more a homestay than a hotel, the staff had no problem asking us all kinds of private questions, insisted on watching us eat while they served us very yummy food, and tried to walk into our room for our wake up call at 7am. Like many in Kerala, they are also Christians, which got a bit annoying when they started preaching about it or acted as if that were a special accomplishment, and downright embarrassing when one of them gave us a tour to a number of Hindu temples while going on about how Christianity is the opposite of Hinduism’s idol worship, as he called it. Strangely, he also was a devout anti-communist, the main reason seemingly being that the communist government was to blame for labor costs being too high and so many rice fields were no longer economical.

Either way, he was quite knowledgeable about the area, and he showed us a lot of things that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. In the evening, we went to the Kathakali temple and apparently he was able to tell us what the story was all about just from reading the hand gestures. Amazingly, the Kathakali performance is almost every night from 10pm to 5am. Not there were many people there apart from us, but it was quite impressive. Later on, there was a bit of a cat fight amongst the staff, because he hadn’t told the others where we were going or when we would come back, so they got all worried and showed up at 2am at the temple to find us and take us back to the hotel. Sadly, both staff members were strongly hinting that they would like to help us get themselves or their children a work visa for the US, again emphasizing that they are Christians.

Anyways, we left after three hours of sleep to catch a 6am train to Trivandrum. We only had time for a quick stop at the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple, whose inner square was closed for non-Hindus anyways, as is the case in a number of temples, and then it was back to Mumbai, Ksenia’s backpack enriched with a number of fabrics and a hand-made metal mirror she had bought and me already looking where should we go onto our next little trip.


Monday evening I drove downtown to see a German/Turkish movie called Gegen Die Wand / Duvara Karsi (Head-on) at the Goethe-Institute. The little room where they were showing the movie was packed with maybe 80 people, mostly Indian intellectuals, young and old. The movie plays in Hamburg, Germany, so I was happy to see some pictures of my hometown. It is about a slightly confused young Turkish couple living there. He is suicidal (well, they both are), she wants to get out of her traditional Muslim family. They meet and ten minutes later, she asks him to marry her for show, so she can live a little, have a little fun, do some drugs and fuck around a bit, and then it goes downhill from there. Not surprisingly, the movie is rated R in the US for strong graphic sexuality, pervasive language, some brutal violence and drug content, while it is PG13 in Germany (actually FSK12). So watching this in India, which is even more prude than the US, was quite interesting.

I quite liked the movie. The characters are very believable, the music is great, and the story is pretty good. Also, the couple might as well have been Indians living in London, so I thought, I wonder what the audience is thinking. After all, there’s a lot of suggestive dancing in Bollywood, but certainly no real kissing, let alone full-on sex, full nudity, or cocaine – and there was plenty of that here. Some seemed to be squirming around in their seats a bit and going tsk, tsk, and at least one was leaving early. Unfortunately, there was no talk or discussion afterwards, but given that censorship is still alive and kicking around here, this movie won’t make it to the theaters any time soon.

Tuesday was another long evening in traffic, and when I got home and the next day I felt kind of sick. It wasn’t anything serious, and I am actually surprised that I’ve been here for three months now and still haven’t been really sick. Judging from the doctor in NYC, who had given me all my shots, I would have thought that I’d be guaranteed to catch a life threatening disease just by looking at the food here. So I guess he was just full of crap. Another expat at work did actually end up in hospital for a few days a while ago, but that was because he went to get food at the local Subways, and, well, you kind of deserve to get hospitalized for going to Subway in India, or anywhere else, for that matter.

In other news, yesterday I read in the paper that India ranks way behind Iraq in terms of doing business, as measured by number of forms to produce and red tape to consume in order to open a business. It doesn’t really surprise me, because bureaucracy really is spelled in all caps here. There is a pervasive culture of rules and regulations that don’t seem to make any sense whatsoever and for which no-one seems to know or care about what’s the reason. My simple standard question Why? is regularly met either with blank stares or with excuses and explanations that are incredibly surreal and mostly represent a very tight circular loop.

But I’ll stop my rant there and move on to the Western Express Highway, which I have basically stopped using. After the sewage of the big floods had receded (final number is 944mm in one day), they had fixed up the highway pretty well and traffic was moving swiftly. A week or so ago, everything was great. Then there was another day or two of heavy rain last week, and the surface developed potholes the size of the Grand Canyon again, and the road looked like someone had set off thousands of little landmines. It was truly ridiculous. The funny thing is, there’s only a few long stretches like that. Other parts of the highway are perfectly fine. So it is obviously not incompetence or lack of construction materials or engineering skills. It is simply criminal corruption and big business. Well, if they fixed it up properly, they wouldn’t make any money, I was told. Is anyone going to try to throw the construction companies and the politicians that give them the contracts into jail? I guess not – after all, everybody seems to agree that law enforcement and the judicial system are pretty much non-existent. So I guess the Haliburton business model is alive and kicking here as well.

OK, enough of my rants, I will go get some sleep so that I will be fully rested and prepared for tomorrow’s final Ganesh extravaganza.