Cochin, Backwaters, and Mel’s 5-legged elephant

Another week in Paradise.

The week started in style with a great connection with Polly Gough, who is the Medical Co-ordinator for the Volvo Round-the-world ocean race which is visiting Cochin. Over a magnificent dinner at the Malabar House restaurant (thanks George, Race Commercial Director), the conversation was filled with stories of the frustrations and challenges of getting things done here. I was left quite breathless by the story of… getting the Race Doctor in London to get the rep from a knee-brace manufacturer to get one of their employees to fly to Cochin stopping off at the Embassy for an emergency visa and getting here just in time to allow one of the sailors on the Green Dragon (Irish boat turned Chinese-Irish after the money ran dry) to continue to Singapore. Phew. The stories of dealing with DHL in Bangalore were equally draining.

The speed and organization required to run an event like this is immense, and it will be interesting to see if the race returns here. The security was so appalling that Mel (a friend who flew in from Delhi) and I easily slipped through into the dockside for the race start – me flashing my pass (which gave me no rights to be there) and Mel peering importantly through her Chanel glasses at her Apple i-Phone. Frustrating as it may be though, it is hard for any sport to ignore the numbers here – the crews were made to feel more like rockstars than ever with the crowd pressing madly up against the hastily erected fences.

I met the afore-mentioned (Australian) Mel traveling in Vietnam in 1996. After a 2-year stint at the Beijing Olympics, she and her husband are now in Delhi prepping the Commonwealth Games. Naturally, Delhi is proving a challenge, and Mel flew down to spend a few days in Cochin to escape the anarchy and noise of the capital, which couldn’t be more of a contrast with the control of Beijing.

Like any sensible girl (given she had no idea what to expect), she packed high heels and two pairs of sunglasses. This definitely increased my streetcred. Her Marc Jacobs bag, and Chloe and Chanel sunglasses attracted judgemental (read: jealous) glances from dreadlock-clad travelers in search of something more akin to the mystical magic that the Beatles wanted everyone to believe was India.

Curiously, one group that have challenged this hackneyed view of an Indian nirvana-in-waiting are Justin (who I had met on his motorbike in Kannur in the previous post) and his friends Kiwi and Aurosan. Kiwi and Aurosan are both residents of the Auroville experiment in Tamil Nadu (Aurosan was in fact the first child born of Auroville residents in the commune). They are, I suspect, very far from what the combination of the words “commune” and “India” are conjuring up in your mind – these guys are well-dressed, well-educated, well-traveled. Auroville is creeping onto my path I think.

I definitely get the sense that attitudes, not just economics, are changing facts here. Over dinner with Justin and the Indian owner of a recently-opened luxury hotel, Mel turned the conversation to the frustrations she had with India, and with Delhi. She railed against the corruption, the dirt and the noise, the water situation (where the poor have to buy water from the mafia) and the general inefficiency. Justin leapt to the defence of this India, making an equally strong and impassioned argument for the strange honesty of baksheesh, the reality implicit in the dirt and the noise, and the contrast between camera-laden streets of London and the freedom of the Indian streets.

I was intrigued to know the views of the hotel-owner, the only Indian at the table, who sat quietly until the argument subsided. Too polite to take sides, he simply gave the facts – 6 months, and 100,000 rupees in bribes had failed to get electricity to his hotel for the opening. That is the reality of the system of doing business here. But you get the feeling that it is under pressure as burgeoning economic success starts to reveal the cracks in a system that lives off corruption.

(On a related tack, ordinary Indians know what they want too – an Indian asked me yesterday what I thought of the trains in India. I replied, rather too gushingly, that I loved them. His reply: “That is so funny – you want Indian trains, and all we want is bullet trains!” I felt deeply colonial).

A lighter note. Mel and I took a trip to the beautiful backwaters of Kerala after the boats left. This stunning area of natural beauty took our breath away. We avoided the tourist traps by traveling first by ferry into Kumarkorum in the heart of the area, before hiring a houseboat over night. One of the strangest things was visiting one of the Syrian Orthodox churches, and meeting Father Cyriac, who kicked off the conversation with the usual “Where are you from?” A simple reply is often the limit of the conversation with Indians who have merely been demonstrating the four words of nglish they know. In this case however, the reply of “Scotland” was greeted with “Oh, Edinburgh, I love Edinburgh, we have many Keralan nurses in Edinburgh, and I visited Edinburgh many times.” Nice conversation ensured.

Finally, Mel’s enduring memory of the backwaters will be our encounter with an elephant by the side of the road, which she was convinced had five legs. In some ways, the poor girl was even more shocked when the fifth leg started gushing like a hosepipe, and she recalled her fifth-grade biology lessons, relegating the elephant back to the reality of the quadrapedic world.

Heaing into the hills tomorrow, and over to Tamil Nadu.

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Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, All posts, India '08-'09, South India

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