Tag Archives: Economics

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

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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The marrying types

The “Matrimonials” supplement in the Times of India makes for far more interesting reading than the trashy Cars/Travel/Weekend/Gear sections in the UK Papers.

It’s eight pages long, and there are 41 categories of groom advertising for a bride, with slightly more categories of brides looking for their man. Most of the categories are either region or caste-specific. Some advertise “sub caste no bar” or “suitable bride sub-sect no bar”, but the majority demonstrate that the caste system is alive and well, such as:

“Brahmin 27/5’7″ boy empld. Chevron Corpn. USA seeks prof girl.”

(Although given the continuing bad news for the US, he may be limiting his options with that one). Other ad categories are more explicit, for example “NRI/Green Cards” (10 entries) – an admirable display of 21st century realism. There’s even a category for “HIV Positive” (1 entry).

Currently in Bangalore, with a ticket for tomorrow’s England v India cricket game, which came my way for free – story in due course.

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