Category Archives: South India

Lithe and alive in Sivananda Ashram

A short note on Christmas Day… the Ashram is providing plentiful material for this blog. The cast of characters gracing the Ashram include a producer on the Oprah Winfrey show, a 29-year-old Brazilian judge, a Parisian architect, and a whole host of other nationalities. I hope to post within the next week. Last night (Christmas Eve) was a story in itself.
Happy Christmas!


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Autobuses and Ashrams

A short note on traveling by bus in India.

Before I left the UK, a friend advised to make sure you get a seat near the front of any Indian bus. I had forgotten this advice for my first journey, and spent most of the time airborne a couple of feet off the back seat. The drivers see speed-bumps more as a challenge than an indication to slow down, and if you are atthe back, you spend most of the time either crashing your head against the roof or returning to the terra rather-too-firma of the inadequately cushioned seats.

On the bus ride up to Munnar a few days ago, I managed to secure one of the front seats. This was an entirely different experience – it takes a while to understand that the madness on the roads is in fact a sort of organized anarchy. Everyone (including pedestrians) has to stay on high alert. So in a strange way it feels safer, although there are many more tight calls. Most of them involving buses.

On today’s return journey from Munnar to Cochin, we came across a sign on an Indian road that said


Given the perilous nature of most roads in India, this was slightly concerning. If the Indians think it’s a “dangerous zone” then it’s a fair bet that you’re a couple of steps closer to reincarnation than you planned. We survived.

I particularly enjoyed transferring knowledge from the world of Scottish Country dancing to the domain of the Indian bus. Those of you familiar with cross-country prancing will know the “crossed hands grip”, used to increase strength while twirling a young lassie. A similar cross-handed grip on the bar of the seat in front provides stability above and beyond your lurching neighbours.

From tomorrow I will be in the Sivananda Ashram in the southern tip of Kerala for some time, hence the double post today. Click here for my daily schedule. I’m not sure what I am more concerned by – 5.20am wake-ups, the fact that there are only 2 meals a day and that they are silent, or the requirement to chant during Satsang.

Those of you intimate with my chronic inability to sit still and my astonishing lack of flexibility will no doubt share some of my trepidation. It will be an interesting experience, and one of the more unusual ways to spend Christmas.

I will be in the Ashram for up to 2 weeks, though I may be able to post briefly during the weekly day off. Happy Christmas to one and all.

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Negotiation tactics in India

1. Negotiate in numbers other than multiples of 5 or 10. This throws the other party completely off kilter, since they are used to rich tourists who they can fleece for an extra 10/20/50/100 rupees. (A rupee is c. 1.3 pence). Example:

You: “How much taxi to Cochin?”
Him: “50 rupee”
You: “22”
Him: [flummoxed] “Huh?”
You: “OK, 23″
Him: [still flummoxed]” “OK OK”

Job done.

2. Use the Indian head wobble right back at him. This is bold and audacious, and usually works. It requires a certain degree of patience and absolute silence, and relies on the other party feeling extreme guilt for trying to fleece you. Example:

You: “How much taxi to Cochin?”
Him: “50 rupee”
You: [Silence for up to 5 seconds. Hold his eye. Then gently wobble head. This signifies a silent "Do you think I was born yesterday?"]
Him: “OK, 30 rupee”
You: [repeat as above]
Him: “OK OK 20 rupee”

Job done.

3. Use of “-bhai” as a last resort. The suffix “-bhai” is a term of deep respect meaning elder brother. This tactic uses flattery to wrong-foot the other party, and is the most under-hand of the three, and is normally reserved for the most battle-hardened negotiators. It is also best used if the driver has a name badge that you can append “-bhai” to. It should not be over-used. Example:

You: “How much taxi to Cochin?”
Him: “50 rupee”
You: “20 rupee”
Him “[with determined glare] “FIFTY rupee”
You: “22 rupee”
Him: [dug in, arms folded] “FIF. TEE.”
You: “25 rupee, Arvindbhai?”
Him: “OK, 30 rupee”

Job done, though you will notice not quite so effective.

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Indian Student politics (via a wild goose chase)

Given the forthcoming elections in India, politics are front of mind here. A couple of days ago, I had a brief insight into the student version, via a circuitous route.

I had decided to try and get in contact with an Indian family that had looked after friends, Patrick and Mary Harrison, when they were here 15 years ago. Patrick (now retired) was Secretary of the RIBA and had been visiting an architect in Cochin. The architect had asked his secretary (Katherine Alencherry) to give them a tour of the Cochin backwaters.

The ensuing brief trip (with father Sebastien who worked for Indian Railways, plus two children) was one that I was told all had always remembered fondly. Christmas cards had been exchanged since, but no further contact than that.

To make the connection, I had been given a sparse architect’s scrawl – “ALENCHERRY, Railway Quarters 132/G (or 4?), Beat No.9, Ernaculam South, Cochin”. This drew blanks from the owner of my hotel, as well as from his friends rapidly assembled to help. More enquiries in town were met with similar puzzled looks. I feared a wild goose chase.

A couple of vague directions from random friendly looking people on the streets of Cochin didn’t feel particularly helpful at the time, but after a couple of hours I found myself on the first floor of a small building in a tight back street by the Ernakulam Railway Junction. I knocked on the non-descript door more in hope than expectation. (I recalled a discussion with my father before leaving where we had agreed that “the best thing about being a pessimist is that you’re never disappointed with the outcome”).

I didn’t have time to be disappointed. Instead I was taken aback by the welcome I got from Sebastien and Katherine Alencherry. It was pure chance that Sebastien had a days leave, and that Katherine had returned home for lunch. They had no warning that a random man would be turning up at their door saying he knew someone that they last spoke to 15 years ago.

Tea was conjured up; rapid telephone calls were made; in no time 3 turned into 6 as their law-student son Karol turned up with two of his college friends; plans were made without any consultation of me; and within minutes I found myself in a cramped Suzuki Maruti 800 heading for Cherai Beach with Karol and his friends.

Slightly stunned, I told them that while I was delighted with the rapid turn of events, I was concerned that I might be keeping them from their studies?

“Oh, don’t worry, there’s a strike at the college. There was an attempted murder there yesterday”. Gulp. “Oh yes, one of the BJP [Hindu Nationalists] student representatives tried to stab one of the SFI [Communist] reps in the neck with a sharpened screwdriver.”

Another gulp. I tentatively asked if they were involved in student politics. “Oh yes,” Karol responded cheerfully, “We have started our own party. Very important demands. We want that the college bus stops at the female college BEFORE they get here rather than after. This is very critical indeed – we need to meet girls!”

After a lengthy walk and plentiful conversation, I returned to Cochin for dinner, and an unexpected dip (fully-clothed) in the pool of the pricey Malabar House Hotel. (It’s a long story, not quite as loutish as it sounds, and not making it onto the blog).

I am now in the tea plantations of the Kanan Devan hills. Another amazing bus-ride to get here, and now traveling for a few days with the afore-mentioned Justin, who rode here on his Royal Enfield Bullet. We are staying with legendary Joseph Iype, made famous by Dervla Murphy’s book “On a shoestring to Coorg”.

Given the out-of-town location of Joseph’s home, moving anywhere involves riding pillion down potholed roads on Justin’s Royal Enfield Bullet motorbike. Which is just as fun as it sounds.

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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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Of bees, buses, and boats

Neither the Coorg region nor Kannur in Northern Kerala were on my (admittedly vague) pre-departure itinerary. As a result of my visits to both in the last eight days, I now have a passing knowledge of the world of the apiculturist, and experience of the incredible ancient spirit possession ritual, Theyyam.

Chance is a great mentor while on the road. A fleeting encounter with a crazy American girl Alissa a couple of weeks ago led Swiss Hanna and me first to the Honey Valley “Homestay” in the Coorg region. Coorg nestles in the Western Ghats, the mountain range stretching from near Mumbai down to India’s southern coast. (Apparently it was referred to as the “Scotland of India” by homesick colonials, although as my host Suresh pointed out, there’s not much coffee growing in Scotland).

From his idyllic home (accessible only by jeep), Suresh and his family built a business from scratch as the largest honey producer in Asia. At their height, they produced 7 tonnes of honey, until an imported disease struck Asian bee-keeping in 1991. Since then he has built a business from coffee, cardamom and pepper farming, the homestay business for travelers during the week, and most importantly a regular gaggle of loud Bangaloriloos (splendid new term for Bangalore residents, coined by one of the workers at Honey Valley) who travel for seven hours to escape here from the city at the weekends.

I could have listened to Suresh talking about bees for hours. His encyclopaedic knowledge of the apicultural world, combined with a guru-like ability to draw philosophical analogies from the world of bees, were legendary. I learnt about the wiggle maps that scout bees dance to communicate directions to colonies before migration; the remarkable ability of Asian bees to surround predatory hornets, closing in so tightly that the hornet suffocates; and the sad stories of imported bees from Europe bringing disease, ruin, and hardship in the name of so-called agricultural economics. (“The problem with Agricultural Economists”, he said quietly, “is that they think like a laserbeam. I understand them and know they are needed. But they don’t understand me and my land.”)

In between more fantastic South Indian meals, and my starry-eyed sessions at the feet of the Suresh-guru, we trekked through the beautiful Ghats, swimming in the river, passing over an ancient salt route, and generally getting lost in the beauty of this amazing region. And all this for under a tenner a day.

Apparently everyone stays longer than they intended at Honey Valley, and we were no exception staying 6 nights.

The next adventure started with a fun six-hour jeep-bus-jeep-bus trip which brought us to the virginal Malabar coast of Kerala, peppered with unspoilt beaches, white sand and palm trees.

We stayed in another Homestay (Costa Malabari), with the usual assortment of interesting fellow travelers. This time they included an independent film producer making a series of Channel 4 “Three Minute Wonder” programmes on monkeys, an amateur photographer doing a project on tourists in context in India, a biker traveling to hippy colony Auroville from Goa, a painfully try-hard 50-year-old who we christened “Trendy Dad”, and a cast of other minor characters.

I had read about the spirit possession ritual Theyyam, and it was one of the reasons for heading to Kannur. Kurian, the host of Costa Malabari, is an expert on this little known religious ceremony where villagers are body-painted and don extraoadinary costumes to assume the roles of Gods, pass advice to fellow villagers, and enact ancient stories. If you want to know more about it, click here – I won’t bore you with the details. Kurian arranged for us to visit a remote village where it was to take place that night. It was remarkable, and fantastic to observe a real ceremony rather than see some sort of show put on for tourists.

The return journey by minibus was more than a little eventful. Granted we were literally in the middle of nowhere, and so inevitably got lost as the clock crept towards midnight. The driver, with one hand on the wheel and the other glued to his mobile, tore along palm-tree lined one way roads, often in reverse, like Ayrton Senna at his most daring. On more than one occasion it looked like we all might be joining Senna in the Great Big Car Lot in the Sky.

We made it out alive, and I am now in Cochin, where the Volvo Round-the-world Yacht Race boats are in harbour. Given the remarkable longevity of the Phoney War, I think I might spike their food and see if I can get on the next leg to Singapore.

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A few photos have been added to the posts below. I am heading into the hills (coffee plantations) today for some R&R from the cities, the latest cyclone permitting. I will be there for a few days.

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Mysore muscles

Healing the poor denuded souls of the West is big business over here. In Goa, I sat in one restaurant and counted the adverts for yoga, therapies and relaxation etc on offer, just within eyesight: Sushana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Aum Yoga, Reiki Teach and Healing Yoga, Brahmani Yoga, Accelerated Healing, the Meditation Healing Centre, Eco-Retreats, Spiritual Tattoo Arts, Ayurvedic massage, even Swedish Massage (which I did consider briefly, purely on investigative grounds). All are aimed unerringly at Western visitors.

Even in Mysore, where I am spending a few days, the same pattern emerges – the hotel that I am in contains five over-sized middle-aged American Yoga-Bunnies with fixed grins, a Spanish conquistador masquerading as a Yoga Teacher in an attempt to snare the innocent young girls with his smooth mantras, an Irish-American over here seeking cheap dental treatment (not such a bad idea in fact), and a 22-year-old American boy who appears in a permanent trance, is annoyingly flexible, and arises at 4am every morning to commence his meditation. Sanity comes in the form of Swiss-Kiwis “Mars” and “Clouds” (real names Marcel and Claudia, and with an equally healthy skepticism when it comes to the spell of the Mantra) and Swiss Hanna, who have been great travel companions.

I fully intend to get into the meditative swing of things at some point by visiting an Ashram, but I suspect that the choice of venue is all. At the moment, I’m still finding deep sleep to be the perfect form of meditation.

For sustenance, the aforementioned Yoga-Bunnies (or Yoga-Rabbits really) persist in eating 3-minute noodles every night. It is astonishing that they come to India and miss out on the food experience, which has been particularly good in Mysore. Meanwhile Mars, Clouds, Hanna and I have been eating like kings every night for under 100 rupees (less than 2 quid) in a wonderful restaurant, off the tourist trail. If it’s got Indians eating in it, it’s normally a good bet, and the Green Leaf is packed to the gunnels.

Despite the Y-Rs prominent display of over-large knickers on the balconies of the hotel, Mysore has been great. The palace is remarkable, the people are justifiably proud of their city (and consequently less pushy). Last night, looking out over the city from a balcony after a game of Rummy, something seemed different. It was the streetlamps. Mysore has streetlamps. And the occasional pavement. And even traffic lights.

One of the proudest Mysoreans I have met is Krishne Gowda. Krishne was relaxing in his friend’s shop over a glass of chai as I walked past. I was struck by his open smile so I opened a conversation. It transpired that he was the ex-Curator of the Mysore Zoo (1964-1996), and had entertained the Edinburgh Zoo curator in Mysore in the 80s, had trained in Hamburg, and had visited Whipsnade on numerous occasions. He developed a specialism in breeding elephants and rhinocerii. He had a record four species of the latter in Mysore Zoo at one point, elevating it to dizzy zoological heights of fame. A fascinating man, and a subsequent visit to the excellent zoo was well worth it.

By the way, the Phoney war continues. South Indian food is superb (touch wood).

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Power power everywhere. (But only sometimes).

The Indian novelist Arundhati Roy once commented on the bizarre sight of an Indian worker installing a fibre-optic super-fast broadband cable – by candlelight.

Power – or rather the lack of it – is a fact of life here.

In hotels, hot water is frequently only available between certain hours. In my current hotel, it’s 5am and 8am. At least that gets me out of bed in the morning (if the fan hasn’t stopped in the middle of the night first). Virtually every city has “scheduled” power cuts, even Bangalore’s Electronic City, where all the hi-tech firms have to cut across to alternative generators every day between 2pm and 5pm. And if the generators fail, you might be waiting a long time for that UK Directory Enquiry to be answered.

In restaurants, the lights go out every night on cue around 8pm, normally just as a piece of highly-spiced vegetable is perched precariously on your fork intent on increasing the laundry bill again. You get used to the familiar sound of someone scuttling across the restaurant floor at high speed heading for the alternative generator switch.

There are exceptions. Earlier this week I ended up in a smart cul-de-sac in Bangalore drinking Laphroiag at the house of the CEO of a software company I had arranged to visit. His house was next to many of Karnataka Province’s government ministers’ houses. No power problems there, funnily enough.

Everyone gets used to it, and as with most things in India, it’s just “the way it is”, another of the massive contradictions and contrasts here.

Driving on the road to the mirrored building and manicured lawns of Electronic City, the squalor, deprivation and makeshift housing on both sides of the road is hard to ignore. An elevated super-highway is being built, presumably to mask the sight and smell of the reality of the streets for well-dressed IT professionals on the 45 minute ride from the centre of town.

Probably the most memorable thing from my visit to Electronic City was the word “No”. The guards on the Tech Parks were determined not to let me in to any of the sites, demonstrating a paranoia worthy of the most self-obsessed security man in the UK. They were convinced I was a dodgy journalist.

In fact, I managed to get round this by visiting the Electronic City Association and getting an under-the-table referral to Jacob, the Facilities manager at one of the Tech Parks. Jacob gave me a tour, and I ended up with fantastic views across the area from one of it’s highest buildings, along with a potted history of this cultural phenomenon (interspersed with bizarre homilies to the American evangelist Billy Graham – Jacob was a 7th Day Adventist).

Along with tech parks in Hyderabad, Delhi, and increasingly Chennai, Bangalore is the engine of the service-driven Indian economy.

Electronic City’s emphatic “No” is in stark contrast to the general culture of “Yes” in India that I have so far experienced. Occasionally the continual Yes can be frustrating (especially when it masks a bare-faced lie in an effort to get some of your cash), but overall I know which I prefer.

Finally, thank goodness something positive has come out of the Mumbai terror. England ‘s cricket team is saved from further embarassment, in the One-Day series at least.

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Not in Mumbai

Just a quick note to say I’m quite a distance away from Mumbai and heading South. I am obviously following developments after the tragic events yesterday. Cafe Leopold, one of the targets, is a cafe well known on the traveler circuit which I went to every day.

Given I was in an aeroplane from South America to London on Sept 11th 2001, and was in a tube on the way to Kings Cross on July 7th 2005, this is about as far away as I’ve been from a terror attack.

Pretty sure it will be connected to the elections that are going on over the next couple of months.

I was going to post on the power cuts here, but that can wait.

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