Some years ago, our daughter was in India working for a charity for six months which gave us the excuse to celebrate our Silver Wedding Anniversary somewhere exciting and unusual. We spent a month travelling the length and breadth of this extraordinary country and E was able to join us for about 5 days.
We had arrived in Elephant Valley in the Eastern Ghats (one of 25 World Conservation sites) after an 8 hour drive by road from Kochin in Kerala where we had been washing elephants in the river.
But, to go back a few days, it was some 24 hours after leaving home that we made it to Kanchipuram, E’s village and the silk centre of India, on our wedding anniversary. We enjoyed a memorable evening with the surprise of a cake and a true understanding of what “service”meant. A request for G&Ts had taken some 25 minutes to materialise because the waiter had been despatched to purchase gin somewhere in the village.
The following morning, we enjoyed our first temple experience. As we emerged from the novelty of being blessed, prayed for, daubed with both red and white, decked with strongly scented flowers, we were 1400 rupees (about 14 pounds) poorer and we agreed with E's contention that we had indeed been very badly ripped off! At least we learned a lesson and it was an extraordinary 1300 year old temple, the focal point of so many people’s lives.
That evening, an auto rickshaw ride was negotiated to E’s favourite silk shop and the return 3 mile journey, including an hour’s wait whilst we drank tea and selected our purchases from the most stunning array of beautiful silks, cost us the princely sum of about 30 pence. The constant cacophony of horns, beeps and parpparp (a la Toad!) as you place your lives in the hands of these extraordinarily skilful drivers, is an experience not to be missed. Any rules of the road which might exist are totally ignored as bicycles, cars, rickies and buses, not to mention cows, horses and oxen – and of course, people of all colours, sizes and descriptions – combine to create a chaotic movement along roads full of potholes. No one loses their temper and somehow, we emerge unscathed from another death defying journey.
Having slept so soundly on our first night, we had had no time for breakfast before our car arrived at 9am to pick us up so this morning was G’s first experience of a true Indian breakfast including Idli, a type of rice dumpling served with hot curry sauce and coconut, garlic pickle. I contented myself with beautiful fresh fruit as did E, who was delighted to avoid the normal curry breakfast. G was in seventh heaven with curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The next part takes us to Kerala, a totally different and exciting part of the whole experience….
Mohan was our driver for the following 7 days. He was, I am pleased to report, somewhat more cautious and circumspect than the previous guy. He overtakes, undertakes and beeps as well as the next man but he was a steady number whose English was passable (and certainly better than our Malaj, as spoken in Kerala, or Tamil). Kerala is so different from the Tamil Nadu we had so far experienced. The lush greenery, combined with tidier, cleaner streets and better dressed people introduced us to a very different India. Certainly extreme poverty still exists but the Keralans are a very laid back people, so laid back that even I became a little anxious knowing that the boarding time for our rice barge was 12.30 and at 12.40, Mohan advised us that it was only another 20 km! On our arrival half an hour later, the boat wasn't even there. "Don't worry" the agent had told me "the boat can't leave without you" It was only as we approached the coconut palm clad houseboat, with the crew of three standing to greet us, that I understood the significance of the comment. Of course the boat wouldn't leave without us, we were the only passengers! There were just two cabins, each en-suite and we all kept pinching ourselves as we began to appreciate fully another magical Indian experience. I can't remember whether a houseboat in the Keralan backwaters is one of those "1000 things to do before you die" but, if not, it certainly should be. Gently chugging through these waters observing life as it is and seeing thousands of beautiful birds of all colours and descriptions, seems somehow very unobtrusive. The basic simplicity of rural life with their dependence on the water running inches from their tiny shacks and homesteads, the "splatting" on the stones as they wash their clothes, is only shattered by the sight of mobile phones, as much part of Indian rural life as they are for western teenagers.
Our next night was on a 100 acre rubber plantation in what is here described as a homestay. We were the guests of Jose and Daisy, who have a huge plantation house with five rooms which are let out to guests. It is far more than a normal B&B and we found ourselves in the company of my nephew’s former Headmaster together with a doctor and his wife on a 6 month contract in Poona and a couple from Cumbria. The Indian food, all cooked by Daisy (no doubt with an army of staff because of the cheap labour), was fantastic and Jose, a flamboyant and entertaining host who obviously loves showing off his estate, gave us a full tour, including seeing for real the full process of rubber tapping, collection, mixing, drying, smoking. For all of us, probably because we were of a similar generation, it evoked those geography lessons in the 50s when we also learned about those unforgettable Ox Bow lakes! We couldn't believe how labour intensive (cheap labour again) the whole rubber making process still was, done in exactly the same way except that the collection cups are now plastic rather than half coconuts. We were shown a huge variety of exotic spices, fruits, plants and of course cows and goats behind each smokery to provide milk and manure.
An early start and an hour's drive brought us to the river where we eagerly awaited the arrival of elephants coming down for their wash. These are rescued elephants - they are no longer allowed to trap and capture them in the wild - but still magnificent beasts and each with its own mahout. The thrill of scrubbing the five elephants, including one baby recently rescued from the river following a monsoon, with coconut husk "brushes" was an unbeatable experience. E, in her only remaining trousers which had reverted to a less than pristine white condition, was well up to her thighs in the river, communing with nature with little thought of her flight back from Kochin to Chennai an hour later.
Elephant Valley, another homestay at Kodaikanal (a very Indian hillstation resort) Madurai and now Tanjore, where we are just enjoying our final day with E before we all climb on the night sleeper back to Chennai, bring us to the half way point of this amazing holiday. Pondicherry (remember Life of Pi?) will be followed by a flight up North where our driver reliably informed us they are all thieves and beggars. We'll see! Taj Mahal, here we come…
Delhi is so different from the other cities we had seen in India. The contrasts are probably more extreme as well – from the wide avenues and colonial buildings of Lutyens and Baker’s Delhi to the shambolic backstreets surrounding the biggest mosque in India. We took a half hour rickshaw ride through these extraordinary markets – fruit, vegetable, wedding goods, English books – you name it and I’m sure you could find it here. Look up and you appreciate why the electricity supply in India is erratic. Even knitting with many dropped stitches does not describe the jumble of cables, wire and junction boxes which hang down everywhere. It will be a long time before Health and Safety legislation is on the agenda here. Our guide Prashant could best be described as corpulent but he was a good honest operator with a very cynical sense of humour. “I’ll take you to the government shop but don’t worry, you don’t have to buy anything, I get paid a fee anyway”. The reason for his corpulence was also made obvious when we went for lunch. “Don’t worry, there’s no embarrassment, I always get mine on the house”. He recommended us to book the Spice Route Restaurant in our hotel, shown in several listings in the world’s top ten hotel restaurants. The décor reflects the Spice Route with hand painted murals and different themed areas – quite fantastic. Although expensive by Indian standards, the experience was well worth it.
Sadly, we were unable to benefit from the Imperial Hotel for as long as we would have liked. We had to be up at 4.50 am to be in good time for our train to Agra. The station was chaos but our 2 ½ hour journey to Agra was more like a flight. The two waiters in our carriage efficiently served up a 4 course breakfast, each course on a new tray. I was by this time, very excited at the thought of finally seeing the Taj Mahal. No amount of excitement or preconceived ideas can prepare you for the real thing. It is stunning – and so extraordinarily calm and peaceful. The whole ambience and atmosphere of the place creates an aura of tranquillity which persists despite the thousands of visiting tourists. The hotel was lousy and Agra itself is a fairly horrific place but such minor irritations pale into insignificance – The Taj Mahal is a ‘must see’ in a lifetime.
Our new driver, Bharat, was I am pleased to say, another well experienced, safe driver and the next morning we headed for Fatehpur Sikri. This is another of India’s treasures – a palace built by a Mughal King and occupied for just 4 years in the late 17th century. What we had noticed so markedly in Northern India was the appalling, abject, inescapable poverty. So many people had warned us about the culture shock of India’s poor so we felt well prepared for what we saw in Tamil Nadu. It was in the North that we really appreciated what people meant. It is horrifying and indescribable – has it always been this bad? Did the Mughal Emperors build their magnificent, opulent palaces and ignore these poor or were they all employed in their construction and it is perhaps the downfall of these dynasties which has created the abject poverty? Did the British Raj enjoy their privileged lifestyle despite this poverty? The beggars and hawkers are so persistent that one has to learn not to make eye contact and change the inbuilt habits of a lifetime. The occasional 10 rupees relieves the conscience and reinforces the basic fact of Indian life: at every stage the wheels are oiled by baksheesh – from 5rs to the loo cleaner to 200rs per day to your driver (this is the tip) to the lakhs (100.000) of rupees apparently paid to politicians and even high court judges. With just days to go until our Indian experience comes to an end, we found ourselves in the most delightful hotel, in Jaipur. We managed to spread ourselves around this enormous suite in a Haveli (formerly a nobleman or maharajah’s home). The solid marble bath took an hour and a half to fill and, as we guiltily soaked up the luxury, we were able to reflect on the unforgettable experiences of a lifetime. There are so many other stories to relate and our overloaded suitcases will remind us of so much
From "East Brent Parish Magazine" issues 5, 6 & 7
Author: Not Credited
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