Monthly Archives: November 2015

Masters in the Art of ‘Bullsh–ting’

After a while, you learn to take an Indian promise with a huge pinch of salt…  The  sin of lateness is expunged by the elasticity of Indian Standard Time; birthday party invitations arrive without venue or address attached; debilitating bugs strike conveniently at the eleventh hour incapacitating hapless victims;  the desks and chairs for my classroom which were supposed to make an appearance by the end of June, then by the end of July, then end August were actually never ordered;  ‘here’s my  phone number.  Let’s meet for coffee….’ ‘WITH caffeine???’  ‘I’ll phone you on Sunday, (but only if it is to my benefit….)’;  ‘It will happen when it happens’, to use Indian Man In The Know’s expression, although should we perhaps add ‘if it happens at all’??  In India words are just meaningless utterances fluttering  fecklessly in a capricious wind… It is only Westerners who are diistracted by their possible significance.

Tea workers on strike in Munnar

Tea workers on strike in Munnar

And yes, on a personal level, I have (ALMOST) learnt to go with the flow and lowered my expectations below the lowest of the catacombs; lest I get confused with Western values such as commitment, honesty, reliability…   So remember how I wrote just a few weeks ago about the tea pickers’ strike in Kerala which had finally reached a conclusion…  A promise was made by the plantation owners, agreeing to a pay rise for the tea pickers.  Not quite on the scale hoped for by the tea pickers, but a pay rise nevertheless…

Fast forward a few weeks later, a mere week actually after the local elections saw gains for the Government’s ruling party in some parts of Kerala and a real trouncing in other states…  The eagerly awaited declaration of election results drew jubilant parades and motorcades wielding triumphant candidates’ banners and flags onto the streets in and around Trivandrum.

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elections 1

Last Monday, I picked up the newspaper at school.. .  Headline news: “Plantation Owners make a U-turn on Wage Hike’.  The official explanation pointed to such an increase being unaffordable at a time of low prices for tea and rubber.  But delving a little deeper, it transpired that the Association of Planters of Kerala had only agreed to the salary increase to help the government during the local elections, or so the Association’s Chairman is alleged to have said, suggesting they never intended to keep their word…

So much for promises and agreements… often not even worth the piece of paper they are written on…   Let’s see who will win in the stand-off: the Plantation Owners, the workers, or a government distancing itself stating that there will be no going back on the agreement and the pay rise will go ahead…  All has remained quiet on the tea front since Monday and so far no new strike has been called, but then maybe the tea pickers cannot afford another period without income and this may be exactly what the Plantation Owners were banking on…

 

Exploring all that Munnar has to offer.

sunday munnar

Munnar was definitely on our list of touristy things to do!  Tea and spices;  the crisp cool of the lush, green hills shaping unrivalled scenery.  Dr. Anne and I pencilled in a long, long weekend.  With so many adventures on offer, we needed more than a couple days.

We left on a Friday, before the crack of dawn for me, my dutiful and reliable auto rickshaw driver arriving punctually at 5.30 am!  We had decided to  make our way to Munnar by bus, as per usual when travelling with Dr. Anne as my companion.  Having learnt from my previous long distance travels, I limited my intake of coffee in the morning and had stocked up on snacks for the eight-hour journey.  But this time the driver was equally in need of sustenance and a toilet break and we stopped at a roadside café where passengers enjoyed a delicious meal of dhal and parathas at Indian prices!!

We reached Munnar in the early evening, passing the still striking tea pickers taking up prime positions in the centre of the town.  Too late to start exploring Munnar at that time, we found a local tourist shop and booked two days of sightseeing by  taxi, with chauffeur.  Even Dr. Anne agreed that local buses might not be the most efficient way to check out Munnar!

striking women

On Saturday our driver took us up, high into the Munnar hills, where the tea is growing and clearly one ‘not striking’ tea picker carved out a job posing with willing tourists.  In no time, cars, motorbikes and people milling around caused an early morning traffic jam… Being the weekend, obviously Dr. Anne and I were not the only visitors admiring the beauty of this part of Kerala and we were guaranteed to have plenty of company throughout the day.

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And in between being chauffeured, we lapped up all kinds of adventure:

We ate fresh passion fruit, sucking out the deliciously sweet seeds from its soft, spongy cocoon, overlooking the lake near Mattupettu Dam:

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mattaputa dam

I agreed to another elephant ride, sitting astride the huge beast – they promised to find me a small one!!  Luckily, it was only a five minute jolt in the jungle.. at the astronomical price of 400 rupees… but at least I could still walk at the end of it;

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We listened to our echoes bouncing back from the surrounding hills at the aptly named Echo Point, where luxuriant green hills  turn the lake into a cauldron of witches’ brew – just the bubbles are missing.

echo point

We learned to steer a pedal boat on Kundala Lake.  Both Dr. Anne and I were experienced ‘pedallers’ but had on earlier trips left the steering to the men folk: husbands and sons who generally were deemed more capable.  Not so any more.  After spending some time enjoying going in circular motions, we got the boat under control and manoeuvred it expertly back to the starting point.  And managed to take in the view as well!!

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boat lake

We positioned ourselves in between the greenery of the tea leaves, with no intention of picking a single one.  We were not in the business of breaking the strike!!

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We were charmed by the incredible display of exotic flora at the ‘Rose Garden’, before heading back to Munnar to indulge in a little shopping for spices to take home…

passion flower

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flower

At a spice plantation, we spotted the ‘exotic’ spices and flavourings that add fragrance and heat to Indian curries, inevitably followed by a detour through the shop and some hard sell…  but how many cardamom seeds, cloves, cinnamon, black peppercorns, mace and nutmeg will I need in the next few weeks??  We saw cocoa and figs, ready and ripe, and Arabica coffee beans.

cocoa

We witnessed spectacular scenes over the hills, courtesy of moving clouds alternately hiding and revealing parts of the tea bush covered surroundings.

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We drank sugary Indian tea delighting in the bluish hue of the distant Nilgiri mountains and glimpsed faraway views of waterfalls tumbling down the steep cliffs and hills.

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munnar flower

And then we continued our adventures the next day: a day of trekking, waterfalls and elusive spectacular views stubbornly shrouded in thick mist…

misty munnar

misty munnar 1

Munnar is nestled in the hills at the convergence of three rivers,so  no wonder that there are many dazzling waterfalls about…  We viewed many, but also managed to have a dip in one, and as always, the company was excellent!!

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waterfall 8

waterfall 1

waterfall 2

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waterfall 5

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waterfall 6

sunday munnar 1

And to complete our stay in Munnar, we were entertained by a martial arts display and obviously could not miss out on the photo opportunity…

martial arts

We eventually headed back home on Monday, a trip that should have taken us about eight hours or less as this time we were going mostly downhill towards the coast. But having various possible routes available to us, we opted for a bus that would take us to Ernakulam where we could then board a train to Trivandum…  Clearly any journey on Indian public transport was bound to add to the adventure, and so it did….  but this will be the subject of another post.

When going for a coffee does not involve caffeine…

 

coffee
Did I want to go for a coffee, Smartboard Man asked, way back in early March.  He was a friend of Academic Director and at the school to persuade the management of the benefits of installing a Smartboard.  Indispensable in any reputable school, he argued, and he had sold several to other schools in the vicinity…  So prestige dictated the school should follow suit.

Smartboard Man was giving me a lift home as he was going through N on his way home to Trivandrum, so it made perfect sense.  And coffee?  Where was the harm in this, I thought.  Maybe if I had been asked to join him for a drink in the evening, I might have been on my guard and declined the offer, but coffee…

Did I know of any place to go for a coffee, he inquired.  As this was the first time I even considered accepting such an invitation, I had no idea where in N one could get a decent cup of coffee.  Most establishments I had seen were not exactly inviting to a single woman, so up until then I had my caffeine fixes at home.  Luckily, Smartboard Man knew the place to go and we found a hotel near my home where indeed we enjoyed a coffee and engaged in small talk.  The usual stuff: native country, good name and where is your husband…  After having my background thoroughly investigated, and established that  I was single and he was married and had a daughter, we went as far as exchanging phone numbers with the offer that when I got back in June, he would show me the delights of Trivandrum.  Seemed all above board and very innocent.

With very slim pickings on the socialising front available to me in India, and some encouragement from open-minded Indian women, I decided to take the plunge.   ‘Not all men are after… you know what,’ S, who I met on my first trip to Kanyakumari, had assured me.  ‘Go with the flow, lots of positive thinking and yes, maybe moving closer to Trivandrum might oil the wheels of a social life,’ she insisted.  At the end of July, mulling things over with flatmate A, and mooting the idea to Indian Man In The Know, I took the courageous step to drop Smartboard Man a text message.  As I had not spoken to Smartboard Man since March, I decided on rekindling our acquaintance via text, rather than making a phone call.  I had by then, courtesy of A, been put in the picture about the possible alternative meaning of ‘going for a coffee’.  Was there indeed an ulterior motive??

I cannot really remember the wording of my text, but it would have been along the lines of, ‘Hi! Remember me?  We met ages ago at the school?  What are you doing on Saturday?  Would love you to show me Trivandrum, as you promised,  and meet your family.’  I contacted him on Wednesday, plenty of Indian time to arrange something for Saturday.  You learn that planning things too far in advance here is just a waste of time.  Things are done on the spur of the moment, no forward planning, no forward thinking…  See what will turn up; no effort involved.  Twenty four hours lapsed before his reply:   ‘Oh friend.  I remember you.  Talked to many people about you.  Everybody eagerly waiting to see you. Regards. XXX’  Really?  A bit full on, or so I and A thought.  Who was ‘everybody’?  We asked the opinion of Indian Man In The Know who, as a man and an Indian man at that, might be able to translate those words.  He did not see any problem with Smartboard Man’s keenness but agreed that the suggestion of  A accompanying me would be a sensible move.

In my next text message, I gratefully accepted Smartboard Man’s invitation and asked for more specific details, such as time and place.  And I might have let it slip that I intended to bring a friend, an Indian teacher who was also new to the area..  Did he mind?  Thursday evening came and went, so did Friday evening…  Saturday grew cold without any response…   The silence spoke for itself.  Needless to say, I have not contacted Smartboard Man again.  Maybe the coffee was indeed the one the Urban Dictionary alludes to, not the one with caffeine in it.

It does not bode well for having opportunities to socialise in India…

 

Travels in Kerala with Dr. Anne.

Fishing in backwaters of Kumarakom

Fishing in backwaters of Kumarakom

Talking about a banana boat..

Talking about a banana boat..

Saturday afternoon - kids having fun in the river

Saturday afternoon – kids having fun in the river

I met Dr. Anne on my first trip to Kanyakumari, way back in early July, almost a life time ago.  It certainly feels a life time ago.  Dr. Anne is a ‘retired’ doctor, and at 68 still fully employed and in the thick of it.  A misfit in Indian society: a woman who makes her own decisions and tries to break the mould, with a husband who allows her free spirit to blossom.  Whilst hubby takes charge of a menagerie of cats and dogs in Maharashtra, Dr. Anne provides palliative care for cancer patients in Kerala.  Dr. Anne hails from Kerala but has not lived here for quite some time and is just as keen as me to explore all the wonders the state has to offer.  So as soon as I returned from Nepal, we met over a sumptuous dinner of chicken biryani and came up with a plan of action, or rather a list of places on our to-do list.

On our first weekend we headed to Kumarakam, a bird sanctuary not far from Dr. Anne’s ‘home’ town.  I cannot say that birds are my thing, but any chance to escape the little hamlet of N has to be grabbed with both hands.  So off we went, early Saturday morning, by bus.  Dr. Anne is a firm believer in using public transport, especially using buses.  ‘It may well take a little longer than by train but it is definitely more exciting than going by taxi.  You meet more people,’ or so she  claimed.  Five hours later – including my extra hour getting to our meeting place in Trivandrum – we reached Kottayam, bursting to go to the loo and dying for some sustenance.  No such luxuries as toilets on Indian long distance buses, nor time for food stops. And then one more hour by bus saw us indeed to our destination.

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And the bird sanctuary? A backwater trip by boat was required to guide us along tranquil Kerala  rivers to spot the resident wildlife.  Only having arrived at midday, we missed any dawn chorus as well as the magnificent deep pink sea of lotus flowers in full bloom.  By lunchtime most of them had sealed themselves shut, carefully guarding their secret morning display.  And birds?   We counted about three…  apparently Kumarakam’s birds migrate and were not expected back in the area until December…  Still, not all was wasted and lost.  We had a fantastic lunch of fried Karimeen fish and succulent prawn curry after carefully selecting the seafood we wanted to eat.

kamarakam

kamarakam 5

Luckily the rest of the weekend had not been planned in detail, as per Indian tradition it all got changed last minute.  Instead of finding a hotel for the night, we were invited to spend Saturday night with Dr. Anne’s family…  So I met her brother, sister-in-law, her nephew’s wife and two children, her friend and the neighbours; got the grand tour of the house; uprooted Dr. Anne from her usual bed which I was to take whilst she slept on the sofa; was confined to the house whilst heavy monsoon rains kept us company; spent most of the evening, the whole night and the best part of the next morning in darkness as an uprooted coconut tree caused a power cut; had dinner by candlelight and storm lamp without the romance; and entertained a three year old bouncy boy who had great fun imitating my English.

The rains finally subsided on Sunday morning, in time for us to start our journey back.  As it had taken six hours to get to the bird sanctuary and another two to reach Dr. Anne’s family house, we left before lunch heading for Kottayam, by bus of course!  And then onto the train, which was full to the brim.  But Dr. Anne is a seasoned traveller and used to elbowing her way into a carriage, and squeezing herself into the tiniest bit of space…  I, however, found a seat all to myself.  Being in a sleeper carriage intended for long distance travel meant there was room right at the top, on a berth just below the ceiling fans.  I clambered, not quite ladylike I must admit, on the metal ladder and hoisted myself up.  I used my rucksack as a pillow and put my head down – not enough room for sitting except in yoga pose – and slept all the way to Trivandrum,  four hours of blissful rest to the tune and the hum of the railway.

Squeezing into a space on the train.

Squeezing into a space on the train.

Travel on the top, in comfort.

Travel on the top, in comfort.

The next weekend we ventured on a day trip to Punmoody, the highest ‘hill’ in the area, a gem ‘just outside’ Trivandum at a mere 50 km away.  And indeed in the Western world, 50 km is hardly worth worrying about.  But this is India, where snail’s pace traffic is the norm and crawling up the hills mandatory, if only because the buses can’t get up speed!!  No such rules for motorbikes menacingly weaving in and out, racing around blind corners and giving chase.  We set off for Punmoody in the early morning, arriving well before lunch time and ready to hike the last few kilometres.  At the entrance, I was relieved of 600 rupees, whereas Dr. Anne – being Indian – paid just 20 rupees.  Not even the hills are free in India, the Indian tourist industry has clearly smelled an opportunity to make a quick and easy buck!!  My indignation did not get me anywhere as I had not brought my passport or visa registration documents to prove that I was NOT a tourist, so no concessions for me.

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Nevertheless, it was amazing to witness the constant shapeshifting of the hills in the Monsoon season. Low hanging clouds, pregnant with rain, swept across the sky, trailing sheer cotton-wool layers.  People spectres hazed  in barely translucent fog.  Rocky outcrops appeared naked, people ants precariously balancing on top. And just as we were ready to climb the outlook tower, it was swallowed up by a thick, impenetrable mist . Punmoody is difficult to describe, but definitely worth the experience.

ponm 6 punm 7punm 12punm 8punm 10On our way back, we stopped at a waterfall, MY entry fee again inflated because of my ‘tourist status’.  We walked at a brisk pace; it was getting late and rain clouds threatened a soggy hike.  On our way up, we glimpsed some visitors dipping in the swollen river, where nature had carved out a small pool. We climbed higher, stumbling over rocks and tree trunks. We held on tight to the railings and ropes on the sides and pulled ourselves upwards, the sultry afternoon heat making our clothes clammy with sweat. Fewer and fewer people shared our path…  Had we missed the waterfall?  I went ahead and eventually spotted a waterfall between the trees.   Was this it?  Apparently, the best spot to view the waterfall, the whole waterfall, had been closed off because the heavy rainfalls of the previous days made it too treacherous.. But they did not tell us, nor adjust the astronomical (for me) entrance fee…

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Our way back took hours longer than expected. Because of our little detour, we missed direct buses to Trivandrum, the one hour journey took about three.. But we got there in the end…  Maybe there are some advantages to using your own personal taxi driver, and I may need to discuss this with Dr. Anne after all…

Three ubiquitous questions posed by inquisitive (or plain nosy??) Indians….

boby ewing

Typical.  Just as I am preparing to leave India and the little hamlet of N, things are on the up!!  A brand new gym has opened, just two minutes from where I live. Apparently it has been there now for about five months, but as all the adverts and billboards stubbornly and exclusively make their announcements in Malayalam, it was rather lost on me.  I only found out about it last week courtesy of Anandu.  Yes, Anandu still sporadically darkens my door, but I suppose we have settled on a truce:  I do not offer any work and he has stopped asking, so we just chat standing in the doorway.  Not only does N now have a gym where ladies are welcome, we also have a new supermarket in the same building as the gym.  I can combine a daily workout with daily stocking up on vegetables, fruit and milk.  I  have even spotted exotic items such as red and yellow peppers, purple spinach (I know, it’s not green, but it IS spinach!!), papayas and watermelon.  My food trips to Trivandrum are numbered, hooray, unless I want basil, or courgettes, or pak choy…!!!

Looking at yet another merciless downpour courtesy of the Retreating or North-Easterly Monsoon last Saturday, I paid the new gym a visit. And after ironing out a few crucial issues – I wear shorts in the gym, not a churidar, and will use the machines on the men’s side as much as on the women’s – I handed over my 1000 rupees and became their latest member.  It has been a while since I have had the pleasure of meeting new people in N as my face has become a familiar one here, but in the gym on the treadmill I am clearly fair game for the women and girls who give their curiosity free rein, as only people in India would…

‘What is your good name?’  A simple question, easing you in gently, after all it is only polite and it helps to be on first name terms in the neighbourhood.  Not that I have any chance of remembering their names.  But what is this issue about my ‘good name’?  Am I supposed to have another ‘not good’ name??  Is my ‘good name’ the one that appears in my passport and my ‘not so good’ name the shortened version I use every day?  The mind boggles…  After sifting through myriad internet entries on the subject, the consensus seems to suggest there are two viable interpretations: 1. it quite simply means ‘what is your name’ and is a rather interesting literal translation from Hindi; or 2. it refers to your proper/full name, as opposed to any nickname you may be using.  The meaning is clearly all in the context, or the origin of the person who asks the question…  I stick to giving them my shorter name, seems the easiest solution and has worked so far.

Once this hurdle has been negotiated, questions move on to your ‘native country’.  What’s your native country?  Native country???  All they want to know is which country I have come from…  So why not phrase it like that?  Simply: ‘Which country do you come from?’  But it seems that Indian English and its expressions have not moved with the times and are still firmly stuck in the post-WWII era…  Whereas the rest of the world has integrated and forged close bonds and all kinds of English have amalgamated into a universally understandable language (possibly excluding the accents of the North of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the West Country, the drawl of the Southern US states…), Indian English has bucked the trend and gone its own merry way, relying on the English of the Raj and books!!!  It was like a breath of fresh air to bump into an American tourist on Thursday who shared my view after encountering similar problems with reading an ‘English’ newspaper in India.  Just like me, she needed to read each sentence at least twice to be able to grasp the meaning…

And then things turn to the last, inevitable question… ‘Where is your husband?’ as if the thought of a woman on her own in India, unsupervised by a man, is totally incomprehensible.  ‘Are you married?’  I used to let out a deep sigh before uttering the inescapable ‘D’ word whilst I could feel the tarnish spreading like a rash all over.  It does not matter where the blame lies, being a woman means that I am to blame.  A good woman does not lose her husband…   So, I have been tempted, tempted to use the ‘W’ word instead, as widowhood does not infer burning guilt.  And when I reach a country where the D word does not have the same stigma attached, I would definitely resurrect him and give him his ‘Bobby Ewing In The Shower*’ moment: of course he did not die, it was all a dream.  But for now, I have no intention of answering Remya’s indignant, ‘Why are you not married?’  I turn away, stung by the unintended accusation, and leave her question suspended in the thin air.  Some things are just too personal.

*for those unfamiliar with the infamous scene in the soap, Dallas, Wikipedia has the details, of course…. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bobby_Ewing