A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: mountaingoats

India 3 / the end

Fights, bruises, being shouted at by old ladies - another bus journey across India, as we head up to the mountains of Tamil Nadu, taking hairpin bends at top speed, overtaking on blind corners and the usual array of life-threateningly appalling driving that thrill-seeking Indian bus drivers love so much.

Kodaikanal where we spend the next couple of weeks, is very high up, about 2000 metres, and the hostel we're staying is perched on a mountainside with a fabulous views of the surrounding forests and the valley below - on clear days. Other days we're just looking down on cloud, nothing visible at all except grey, like gazing over the edge of the world. The town is surrounded by natural beauty - forests, waterfalls, wildlife, dramatic mountain views and clean air. It's a perfect spot for Indian families to roar around the quiet country lanes in their SUVs, horns blasting constantly, taking photos of each other in front of picturesque views while making as much noise as humanly possible and leaving behind as much rubbish as they can muster.

The hostel is a cluster of little self-contained buildings, occupied by western backpackers and Indian families. One night a group of local work colleagues stay in the dorm room next to us, dance drunkenly round a bonfire, sing, fall over, dance some more, then come over to 'chat' to us, which involves one of them insisting he has an important message we have to give Britain about his placenta, weeping, and being carried away by his friends. Apart from the odd placenta-related outburst, rainstorms, and water buffalo in the garden munching the shrubbery it's very peaceful and beautiful, which is just as well, as I end up being grounded there for a couple of weeks with an infected leg. Three mosquito bites on my leg have turned into big seeping ulcers which refuse to heal and get bigger and seepier to the point where walking is quite difficult. So no hiking for me, just a lot of sitting enjoying the view, which is fortunately wonderful, and watching the birds and the changing light on the hills.



We have a few days away from this rural idyll at somewhere even more rural and idyllic, an organic farm on another nearby mountainside, run by an old man with a long white beard and flowing white robes who looks like a proper guru and rhapsodises about London in the 60s and acid and festivals, as proper gurus should. He has transformed the hillside from a bare potato farm to a wonderful huge green oasis, planting thousands of fruit and other trees and crops of vegetables, spices, bananas and coffee. It's an incredible achievement. It would be even more idyllic if there were no mice in the house, a proper toilet and electricity in the evenings, but in daylight it's heavenly. Again there is nothing to do apart from read, write, think and enjoy the nature. So I start to write some short stories.



Our stay in India ends with a few days near Pondicherry on the east coast. We stay in an indescribably bad hotel by the beach, in a room promising a sea view - if you stand on a chair, on tiptoe, you can just about see a tiny distant patch of blue. But you can hear goats bleating in the adjoining field, and it's cool and quiet (as no-one else is daft enough to stay here) so not completely terrible. We visit Pondicherry (French, occasionally pictureseque, mostly annoying), Auroville (big creepy utopian community/possible cult) and go to the beach (mostly filthy). Other than that we read, reflect on all the things we've seen and done, and look forward to being back in London and having our lives back.

India has been beautiful, frustrating, hilarious, maddening, depressing and wonderful. But more maddening than usual - six weeks of constant overcharging, petty dishonesty, belligerence and horrendous traffic are starting to wear us down, to the extent that we won't feel too sorry to leave. Apart from the push of accumulating annoyances, there is also the pull of things to come home for - music, friends, new projects, my cooking, our garden in May. We've had an epic six months, seen incredible places, and had some major realisations. It has been a real journey in every sense. But now - we're ready to go home.

Posted by mountaingoats 13:42 Archived in India Comments (0)

India 2

We stay in an Indian Fawlty Towers in Thrissur, the hotel manager gangly, manic and omnipresent, hectoring the small mournful brylcreemed cook/waiter/cleaner/night watchman. Our room was about the size of a football pitch, and completely empty apart from a bed placed in the centre, like the viewing room of a mortuary.

Despite initial misgivings, somewhat reinforced by there not really being any other guests here, this turns out to be a lovely place. Manuel spends all day making us food and drinks and snacks, and Mr Fawlty asks us lots and lots of questions - what are houses in London made of, what is snow like, do we take tiffin to work etc. It's too hot to go anywhere so we spend all day happily sitting on the verandah eating and chatting and not really doing anything at all. If we do go out, he goes into anxious father mode - where are we going, what are we going to do, what time will we be back, don't walk around after dark, dinner will be at 7 so don't be late. Normally such paternalistic supervision would irritate me, but it was meant with such genuine kindness and care that it was impossible to be annoyed. We make friends with a German couple and decide some beer would be in order one evening, when the manager has gone home. Buying alcohol in these parts is not at all easy but fortunately there is a bar round the corner. You can tell it's a bar because of the people lying unconscious in the street outside. We get take-outs and hurry back to the hotel, feeling very illicit knowing the lecture we would get if the manager knew. (We are all in our late 30s and 40s.)

The reason for visiting Thrissur is the poorums - Hindu festivals - for which it is currently the season. The first one we go to has two elephants standing around munching their way through enormous piles of leaves and bamboo, a large blind man singing karaoke, and stalls selling snacks and tat. The rest is off limits to non-Hindus so we leave after about ten minutes. The next one is huge, lots more stalls selling lots more snacks and tat, the same blind karaoke man, lots more elephants standing around but this time with boys with cheerleadery pompoms prancing around on their backs. But still not quite doing it for us.

We reluctantly tear ourselves away from Manuel's wonderful food and Mr Fawlty's amusing interrogations and head to a small town called Ottopalam where we hit poorum gold. The town's main/only street is filled with a procession of religious floats, bands of drummers and men in baffling costumes and exuberant make-up, most of which it must be said look like the carnivalesque drag queens more commonly seen at Pride marches. A float with a giant multi-armed goddess seated on a lion is too big to pass under the power lines crossing the street so she is unceremoniously tipped on her back with her legs in the air in order to get past. Re-enactments of various Hindu myths take place on the back of haulage trucks. All the drummers are drunk (naturally). The drag queens pout and sashay and flock to have their photos taken. It's all wonderfully mad. Suddenly the skies darken, thunder rumbles and the heavens open. I am convinced it's the goddess's revenge for the undignified treatment of her effigy (India makes you think like this) and we dash for cover under the nearest shop canopy to escape the downpour. We are quickly joined by a crowd of drunken over-excited drummer boys, which whom we spend the next hour in extremely sweaty and rather too close proximity, as the rain and wind lash harder and harder. They are shy and giggly to begin with, but not for long. An older man runs through the rain from the next shop, shows us some freaky dance moves, inexplicably, then runs back to his shop. The rain eases from absolutely-torrential to just really-bloody-heavy and the drummers decide to send one of their number to the bottle shop for reinforcements - this is our cue to leave, so we squelch hastily back through the mud to our guesthouse.







From here we retire to the peace, cool and sanity of the mountains. Or so we hope...

Posted by mountaingoats 10:58 Archived in India Comments (0)

India 1

India is the only country on this trip that we have been to before. We like it so much that we are back here a third visit, for six weeks this time, travelling round the south. As our final destination, and as somewhere we're already familiar with, the time here is more about reflecting on the preceding months' experiences and starting to prepare for the return home. Also it's now too hot to do much else.

The drive into Bangalore from the airport reminded us of some of the things we love about this country: we passed the Institute for Research of Agriculturally Important Insects; officious and universally ignored rhyming road safety signs like 'A little care make accident rare'; giant haulage trucks covered in handpainted psychedelic artwork of religious symbols, slogans, deities and animals, and the ubiquitous black and yellow little three-wheeler auto-rickshaws that swarm through the traffic. I don't know why I am happy to see these - clearly I have forgotten what a pestilential menace they are.

We stay with a lovely family for a few days, a retired colonel and his wife and daughter, in their shabby-genteel home in a Bangalore suburb. They are ardent anglophiles who have visited Britain a few times, and rhapsodise about fish and chips, charity shops, Scarborough and our terrible weather. They also provide the most wonderful east-meets-west breakfasts: fresh fruit, a big pot of something South Indian and delicious each morning, accompanied by unlimited toast and proper orange marmalade. (My favourite was what she called her 'masala bread', a hearty and delicious pot of stewed tomatoes, peppers and onions with some sweetish spices, with chunks of bread added at the end and left just long enough to absorb some juice - sets you up for the day perfectly).

Bangalore embodies all that is infuriating about India. It's one of India's biggest, most affluent and most 'westernised' cities, a boom town thanks to the thriving software and IT industry. The street with the big shiny Nike, Levis, Samsung and Apple stores also has cows wandering in the traffic, piles of stinking garbage, old ladies sweeping litter from one place to another with twig brushes, and children going through bins looking for plastic bottles and cans. There is a brand new city metro with ultra hi-tech stations, and ancient hulking buses with wooden seats and people hanging off the back and out of the doors; the streets are filled with smartly dressed young professionals, and there are beggars at every junction. Advertisements for gurus, fortune-tellers, palm-readers, IT consultants, accountants and web designers; ayurvedic medicine, spiritual healers, plastic surgeons and cosmetic dentists. Modern India - lots more new rich people and gleaming new buildings and big expensive cars; the same old caste-enforced poverty, hopelessness, illiteracy, superstition and ignorance. And don't get me started on the relentless advertising of skin-lightening products.



Polluted, overcrowded and traffic-choked, Bangalore is inexplicably known as 'The garden city'. It has a large central park, but it's closed to the public. There is also a botanical gardens, an arid dustbowl containing a locked high-fenced compound where some roses are imprisoned, and a dismal Japanese Garden, so devoid of life or beauty the only Japan it brought to mind was Hiroshima post-atom bomb. My favourite part was the topiary. Well not so much topiary as a cry for help.






It's not all this scary. There is a wonderful old market area in the city's muslim quarter, gorgeous crumbling Arabic-style buildings, narrow streets and little alleyways, lots of life and bustle, and shopkeepers leave us alone, most refreshing. The suburb where we are staying also has its quiet charms. In the more affluent parts, houses always have a little plaque by the gate proclaiming the owner's name with all their titles and honorifics - Lt. Col. Jayakrishna (Retd.) in our case, lots of professors and doctors, but mostly former military officers- the leafy suburbs are stuffed with retired majors and wing commanders, to Wodehousian levels. Finally there is the Guzzlers Inn, a pub we were obliged to visit purely for the name of course, but turned out to be quite pleasant, for India - reasonable music (Led Zep, Rammstein, Alan Parsons Project AGAIN) and English football on tv.


We leave Bangalore for the nearby (for India) historical city of Mysore. Caroline manages to cause chaos at the bus station by being in the WC at the moment the bus is due to leave. Indian buses are overcrowded, uncomfortable, deafening, bruising and filthy, but they are punctual. The conductor shouts at me that the bus MUST LEAVE NOW. I tell him my friend will be just a moment, please wait. No no no, we leave now without you, no waiting, he and the driver are yelling. A couple of ticket clerks come over and offer some opinions. Heated debate ensues. Heads are wobbled. The station manager comes over, so I ask him to ask the driver to wait for my friend, she will be along very shortly. More animated exchange and head wobbling. It is ok, he assures me, your friend can finish her business (troubling visions of Caroline rushing across the station concourse to get the bus, her business not quite finished). The bus leaves at 12.01 rather than 12.00 - and then sits in gridlocked traffic at the bus station exit for quarter of an hour. Ah, India.


In Mysore we stay for a few nights in a new age vegan yoga cafe thing, run by two French women. All the vegan dishes involve surprising quantities of cheese, cream and eggs - the French, there. I come out of our room one morning to find a young man doing yoga on the kitchen table, rather unnecessarily. Westerners flock to Mysore for the yoga. We are the only westerners in town not carrying yoga mats and even more conspicuously, the only westerners wearing western clothes. Mysore is also awash with past-life healers, chakra realigners, aura polishers and various Institutes of Advanced Woo-Woo. Caroline decides to go for a drop-in yoga session at the Mystic School (hmm), only to discover, once the class has started, that it's ultra-advanced. The teacher shouts at her for not being able to do the positions, then after further humiliations tells her to get out and no refund. Very spiritual.

A far more enjoyable learning experience is the two tabla lessons we had with a lovely gentle patient teacher. Although we are both used to hitting things in a musical capacity, the tabla was a real challenge - the subtle changes to achieve the different sounds were surprisingly difficult to master. And you have to do different things with both hands at the same time, the drumming equivalent of rubbing your belly and patting your head simultaneously.

Apart from the charlatans and hordes of French women in paisley, Mysore is delightful. The residential suburb where we're staying looks like Dolly Mixtures in architectural form. All the elegantly geometric houses are painted in vivid shades of pink, mauve, orange, yellow, turquoise and green, usually several at once - actually rather classy, and not at all unlike the art deco housing in South Beach, Miami. The city's centrepiece is a huge ornate colonial-gothic palace, covered with several trillion lightbulbs which come at dusk. We go along one Sunday, when lots of Mysorians go for an evening stroll, and the palace suddenly lighting up is actually quite magical. We gasp and ooh, as do the assembled throng; however this being India, where power outages are a frequent daily occurence, most of the lights go off again a few minutes later.


We move to new accommodation, a cosy homestay where our hosts are Steve, an affable Yorkshireman, Manjula, the enigmatic housekeeper/cook, and Lucy, a daft black and white dog. This is a happy and fun time, good conversations, lots of laughs, playing with the dog and visits to some fascinating places around Mysore. We visit the Tibetan settlement at Bylakupee, where there is a huge Buddhist temple and monastery complex and a Tibetan village - I'm not sure why as we are a very long way from Tibet indeed. We stand transfixed outside a prayer hall listening to the monks chanting, accompanied by horns, bells and powerful drums, a hypnotic and spine-tinglingly primal sound. We go in an eerie Vishnu temple, a dark labyrinthine incense-filled structure with numerous little decorated alcoves where swamis sit dispensing potions and blessings. We also see a river burial site, where clay jars of ashes of the deceased are ceremonially broken on rocks in the river to float downstream - also, surprisingly, a popular bathing spot.




From Mysore we have an excellent bus journey to Thrissur, our next destination, which takes us through a national park, a tiger reserve, the dramatic mountain landscape of the Nilgiris and then into verdant Kerala. There are no tigers to be seen in the tiger reserve of course, but the incredibly dull scenery of parched grass and leafless trees suddenly becomes fascinating knowing they are in there somewhere. It's like in The Little Prince - 'what makes the desert beautiful is knowing that it hides a well'. Or if you prefer, Abba's Super Trouper - 'somewhere in the crowd there's you'.

Posted by mountaingoats 07:24 Archived in India Comments (0)

Burma 4

A little piece of Surrey nestles high in the hills above Mandalay. The British in Burma have always flocked to the town of Pyin Oo Lwin for the cooler climate and strawberry jam, including amongst them my grandparents in the 1930s. I was on a mission to find the house they lived in, armed with nothing but a photo taken at the time to help me find it.

We took a pickup there, driven at the usual breakneck speed by a cackling psychopath, and arrived in a couple of hours, which seemed preferable to the all-day train journey leaving at 4am, the allure of rail travel having waned somewhat since arriving in Burma. Once a little way up in the hills, the blanket of smog covering Mandalay was so thick that the city was invisible.

To arrive in Pyin Oo Lwin feels like passing through a time warp. It has not changed a great deal since the British left: the town centre has more cars and trucks passing through now, but pony carriages are still the main local public transport, and the British-built clock tower still forms the focal point of the main street. The local shops offer little apart from jumpers, woollen blankets, jam, booze and mothballs - the British legacy, there. The leafy streets where the Brits lived are testament to the early twentieth century English mock tudor craze. All the houses have names like Fairview, Meadowbanks, Primrose Lodge, with privet hedges and rose bushes in the front garden. Apart from the heat and the palm trees and the dirt roads, you could imagine yourself in Dorking or Ashtead quite easily.


However time doesn't stand still, even in Pyin Oo Lwin, and changes are starting to take place. The polo club is now a restaurant, and the chummery is a hotel (chummery, the delightful Wodehouse-esque raj term for the social venue for young batchelor chaps). More frustratingly, a lot of the old houses have recently been bought up by wealthy Chinese (we are not too far from China here) and either altered beyond recognition, or demolished and bigger swankier new houses built in their place. And it seems that was the fate of my grandparents' house. After two days of cycling round examining every single house, I had to conclude, regretfully, that it no longer existed.

Apart from fruitlessly searching for nonexistent houses and enjoying the cognitive dissonance of Burmese Surrey, there's not a huge amount to do in Pwin Oo Lwin. Fortunately there was a bar next to the hotel. Unfortunately it specialised in Spirulina beer, which I understood to be a type of algal scum scraped from the surface of stagnant ponds. But beer is beer, so in we went. Spirulina is meant to have anti-aging properties, and after an old man who came to chat to us told me he guessed my age to be 25, it was clearly working (I'm nearly double that). We naturally ordered another jug. The town also has a beautiful botanical gardens, with a lake, ornamental beds, lawns and woodlands, giving Burmese people somewhere pretty to throw their litter for a change. It dawned on us that we hadn't seen flowers for ages - they looked inexpressibly lovely. Things you don't realise you'll miss.


From Pyin Oo Lwin we took the train a few stops down the line to Hsipaw (pronounced See-por). A 'few stops' is still an all-day journey, the train was still a filthy decrepit wreck, and buying tickets was a painful and surreal process consuming hours of our lives that we will never get back. We arrived at the ticket office the day before we were due to travel, a shabby room with two ancient and collapsing wooden desks piled with dusty ledgers, grubby books of tickets, bits of carbon paper, curling post-it notes and dead flies. The stained walls were covered in faded handwritten lists of numbers, affixed with crispy sellotape. At one desk sat the officious ninny who job was to write out tickets, at the other a gormless old man whose role was unguessable. Our startling request for tickets threw them into total confusion. There is one train a day to Hsipaw. There are only two trains a day through this station. Terror and blind panic ensued however. The ticket officer shrieked at us to come back tomorrow, then demanded to see our passports, then shrieked at the gurning old man, then threw things around and shrieked some more. A blizzard of dust, carbon paper and dead flies whirled around us as we backed out of the room, while he continued shrieking 'Which? Which? Where? What time? You come tomorrow!'

We did come back tomorrow and further chaotic hours were spent in pursuit of these precious tickets, but eventually we were on board and headed towards the Goteik Viaduct, which I was quite excited about seeing. It's the world's second highest rail viaduct, and it is very very high. What you see in the distance is an ethereal structure that appears to made from paper straws and unlikely to survive a stiff breeze, let alone hundreds of tons of cast iron Myanmar Railways rolling stock trundling back and forth every few hours. The train crosses very slowly indeed so you have plenty of time to imagine it slowly toppling off the tracks and plunging down the sheer drop below, or the structure gradually buckling under the weight of one too many sacks of potatoes (compulsory for Ordinary Class passengers to carry, it seems). Until recently it was forbidden to photograph the viaduct as its construction was classed a state secret by Burma's crazy generals, although it was built by British and American engineers. But now we can all snap away, fortunately.



Burma's railways redeemed themselves on this journey. We weren't offered fried sparrow, my internal organs were in more or less the same place when I got off the train as they had been when I boarded and a friendly young teacher chatted and sang Michael Jackson songs to us. In all our travels, I have never been anywhere with such a love of singing, loudly, coupled with what seems to be a national tone-deafness. Our new friend was no exception, but he persisted with his uniquely tuneless rendition of 'We are the world' undeterred, and repeatedly. The guard bashed away at the coupling between our carriage and the next with a large club hammer every few minutes, presumably to keep the train together. A group of ticket inspectors slept in their vests. Another Burmese rail journey crawled by.

Hsipaw turned out to be the nicest place we visited in Burma. Even higher up than Pyin Oo Lwin, the cold mountain air in the morning was delicious - cold air, something else I didn't think I'd miss. The surrounding countryside is the Cotswolds of Burma, full of pretty villages, thatched cottages, rolling green hills and wild flowers. Local traders have adopted a helpful naming system to enable foriegn visitors find what they need around town. The bookseller calls himself Mr Book, there is a restaurant called Mr Food, a milkshake seller called Mr Shake, and so on. There is also a Mrs Popcorn. As this is Burma, she doesn't sell popcorn at all, but does run a lovely cafe in her front garden, where she serves up wonderful fruit salads, all home grown produce, and delicious home-made drinks, in between swishing at her nine cats with a long cane. All of which is quite charming, and she is a sweet old lady, and then you find out that her pension as a former teacher is about 5 GBP a week. Burma might be a poor country but it is certainly not cheap, so she will be serving tea and fruit to foriegners in her garden for the rest of her days to make ends meet.

And next to Mrs Popcorn's there just happens to be an old crumbling stupa with a tree growing up through it.


I promised earlier that my slagging of the French and the USA that pervaded the previous posts on this blog would be balanced by some harsh words about Britain when I came to write about Burma. So here we are. The colonisation of Burma is one of the most shameful episodes in British history. Britain absolutely raped Burma. A bogus invasion was launched in the 1880s under the pretext of liberating the country from a tyrant, but was just a cover to get our hands on Burma's immense natural resources. The welfare of the Burmese people was of no interest - oil (sounding familiar?), gems, minerals and teak certainly were. British troops took Mandalay with machine guns - no match for the king's soldiers armed with swords and muskets. The king was exiled, driven through the streets in an ox cart as a final humiliation, and the royal palace turned into an officers' club house, once all the treasure had been looted and was on its way back to England. The library of ancient manuscripts was torched. When the god-king was deposed, the Buddhist religion collapsed, and with it education. Rebellions were numerous and were put down with bloody force - public floggings and mass public hangings were common. Quickly deciding the Burmese were ungovernable, Burma was made a province of India and millions of Indians were brought in to adminster the country. Burma no longer existed as a nation, and the Burmese became third-class citizens in their own land.

Fast forward through decades of repression, exploitation, poverty, illiteracy and enforced non-development to the Second World War, when the British bomb Mandalay to repel the invading Japanese, leaving the entire city in ruins and hundreds of thousands of Burmese dead. The independence movement led by Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, succeeds in winning freedom from British rule after the end of the war, when we have little further use for this shattered country. As a final toxic legacy, the independence agreement promises a vote on autonomy for the ethnic groups of Upper Burma, who make up a considerable proportion of the population. Naturally they all vote for self-goverment and Burma collapses into the world's longest running civil war, lasting from the 1960s until, well, now. Aung San is assassinated, with British involvement, a brutally repressive military dictatorship takes over and things go from bad to worse for the long-suffering Burmese. Oh, and we then piously impose sanctions in response to the regime's 'human rights abuses' and leave Burma to rot.

Burma is an absolute mess. Everything is broken. That's how Britain made it, and left it. There is nothing positive that can be said about the British occupation of Burma at all. It has been suggested, in reponse to a previous anti-colonial rant here, that there is no reason why this generation should feel guilty about abuses perpetrated by our forebears - after all we didn't plunder Burma, they did. I disagree. Britain enriched itself at Burma's and the rest of the empire's expense. The affluence and quality of life we enjoy as a nation now, and take for granted, is built on that plunder. We reap the benefits still. That's why I think this matters.

/ Lesley

Posted by mountaingoats 06:11 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

Burma 3

Bagan was once a city but is now a hot dusty plain scattered with hundreds of ruined temples, most about a thousand years old. It's sublime. The plaster and gold that covered them have long since disappeared; only the brick structures remain, housing Buddha figures, the remnants of frescos and nesting birds, slowly dissolving back into the red earth of the plain to complete their cycle of existence.

Hmm... have I been around Buddhists for too long?

It's an eerie place, despite the blazing sun. There's no life, apart from lizards and a few goats, and you can go for hours without seeing anyone if you choose. The temples are sometimes mirage-like, a faraway shimmer, appearing and disappearing, size and distance unguessable. The bigger ones were often better viewed from afar, when the distance lent a mystique that evaporated close-up. Actually this is true of Burma in general.








Posted by mountaingoats 02:33 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

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