Tag Archives: incense

Travels and Tribulations: Part 3

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Waking up to the steady rain of Kochi on the morning of Tuesday 18th June, we caught a ferry across to the old fort for 2.50 rupees. Who ever actually has a 50 paise coin on them? It didn’t matter anyhow seeing as there was two of us.

With ambitious plans in our heads to discover the man-made island in a day, we didn’t arrive at the jetty until lunchtime. As we stood near the eager auto-drivers, I felt a sharp sting on my right shoulder, and turned around to see a huge ant shaped like a spider scuttling away. It was like having a bee sting!

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Feeling sorry for myself, we headed to the Dutch Palace, which turned out to be a hidden gem. Lonely Planet didn’t get it wrong for once! Inside the professionally presented artefacts and information boards covered everything from the rajas outfits and weaponry, to crumbling murals of the Ramayana in the other rooms – including one of a demon having her breasts and nose cut off. Charming.

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Then in a bid to reach a synagogue (I don’t know why it was meant to be special) in ‘Jew Town’, we became distracted by a myriad of emporiums selling leather bags, brass deities, lotus-shaped incense holders, chess boards, and dressing stands. There was even one hoarding a 30m long, 10 year-old Snake Boat – from the still annual Nehru Trophy Boat Race, where each colossal canoe is powered by 100 men – that dominated the entire shop.

Calling it quits, we grabbed some overpriced tea and cake from a shop-cum-art gallery before heading off to see the Chinese fishing nets. Exhausted, we jumped back on the ferry, and Roy reached new levels of zoologist ecstasy at the giant fruit bats circling round the landing jetty.

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To finish where we left off, the next day saw us back on the ferry to reach the Dutch Cemetery (a let down) and the Maritime Museum (it was closed). Taking shelter from the rain inside a convenient ice-cream parlour, we were treated to an eclectic mix of paintings on the walls. Several Hindu deities were painted in a style that I can only say reminded me of the Disney ‘Hercules’ film – but it worked.

To fulfil our tourist obligation of appreciating the local culture, we ventured to the cultural centre. One and a half hours of Kathakalli Dance later, and we were suitably enlightened, if not very bored. Whilst the fantastical costumes were good to look at, the dance itself revolved entirely around facial gestures, eye movements, and hand positioning. A surprise ending helped wake us up again though, as the female character whipped around screaming and holding her hair on her lip like a moustache. More of that would have been made the whole thing far more interesting!

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We made it to Alleppey the next day, and after some running around managed to secure a houseboat to take us round the slow backwaters that Kerala is so famous for. Converted from old rice barges, these boats ranged from (our) cheap and cheerful single-kitchen-and-bedroom option, to floating palaces with A/C and separate sunbathing areas, not forgetting surround sound home cinema system!

Though it was still raining our 24 hours on the backwaters took us through narrow waterways and huge open lakes; past paddy fields hovering several metres below the canals; around man-made islands where women washed dishes or laundry and men fished; and to an overnight mooring at our captain’s home.

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Jumping between dry patches along the paths almost totally flooded by the monsoon rains, we glimpsed a Snake Boat team drilling for the August race. Roy ‘rescued’ a fish, which turned out to be the supper of two fishermen sat not two metres away. They didn’t manage to catch another one.

Finally, after a delicious dinner cooked by the on-board chef, and a good sleep rocking on the water, we headed to the Funky Art Beach House back on solid land. Not spitting distance from the waves crashing onto the white sandy beach, we spent the next few days lazily meandering up and down the sand, trying each of the different local restaurants, and chasing crabs in the dark on the way back. One morning I woke up to the sound of a gang of scrawny old fishermen heaving their boat towards the shore, and then found a litter of shivering puppies in the sand when I went to investigate!

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Thankfully they were still alive the following morning, sunbathing under the protection of an upturned boat. We ventured into town that afternoon on two bicycles so rickety, their handlebars were both on backwards. Navigating the Indian traffic was actually less terrifying than expected, though I guess it helps when you act like you own the road.

Leaving the relaxation and sea air of Alleppey was hard, but we’d already axed so many places from our original itinerary – Munnar, Periyar Wildlife Park, Madurai, Rameswaram – that it was time to move on. Resigned to sharing a single narrow bunk on the over-booked sleeper train, we started towards Chennai that night. Luck was feeling generous however, and a couple doubled up with their children to give us one each. Not to say that it was any more comfortable though.

Reverse Culture Shock

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Whilst at first the tea tastes watery, the food has no (spice) flavour, and there are too many middle class boys with hipster haircuts overly happy to share their yelled conversations with the street, I am glad to be back. Now that I’m into my fifth day back in England I feel much more at ease with all things England.

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That’s not to say that I didn’t have some problems. Even driving to Bangalore airport at 2am in a taxi on Tuesday morning, a strange nausea started creeping up on me and a dizzying feeling – which I assumed to be the result of hunger (I’m always hungry) and tiredness. After landing and reuniting with my boyfriend however, and with a good night’s sleep, the next day it happened again. We were in one of Woking’s indoor shopping centres when I started feeling inexplicably exhausted and dizzy. He sat me down in the open cafe area where I felt a little comforted by the sight of a ‘Spice House’, and waited for him to get me something sugary.

Nom nom nom

After wolfing down a Gregg’s doughnut though, I realised it wasn’t just a bout of low blood sugar I periodically experience, but the onset of a growing sense of panic. Everywhere I looked, people were walking around in shorts, and spaghetti strap tops, and bras were hanging out all over the place. Given that it could have been no more than 25 degrees that kind of clothing was clearly absurd.

But it was more than that. I felt suffocated by the silence, the absence of traffic beeping and revving, the empty streets, the conspicuous void of incense-pollution-rotting refuse-cow dung-garam masala mix assaulting the nostrils. It was like being in an alien landscape where all the people had vanished.

Noisy, busy, blissful India

A couple more days in though, and my perception is changing again. Whilst I can’t shake the unsettling sensation that the world before my eyes is a mirage drawn across reality, that Bangalore will re-materialise in due course, it simultaneously feels like I never left. Did I even go to India? Was it all a dream? Though I’m not panicking each time I think about the empty street outside now, and my taste-buds have quickly relished a return to olives, houmous, pizza, and pasta, I’m craving rice and spice, and I’ve been mostly living inside the house of my boyfriend’s parents.

Breathe in that English suburbia

My life is no different being in England. I am still looking for a job, I still too many things to do in inadequately short spaces of time, and I still (apparently) wobble my head all the time. My brother tells me I have an Indian accent – well I pity him for not having one, it’s the best accent in the world.

I think the relative isolation period that I’ve put myself in within the confines of the house is vital to allow my subconcious to adjust. I never fully felt comfortable in India, but I think to some extent I understood it. Whilst I still rail against the misogyny and the corruption, the lack of female autonomy and the stifling social controls on personal movement, I’m finding that home is no longer home. I feel a stranger in my origin culture, and not just at the superficial level. I’m really starting to question the way society is structured in the UK, and gendered behaviours here too. The contrast in how British young men and women behave is too stark against their Indian counterparts not to notice – and I’m not sure I like it anymore. Or perhaps time will erode the harsh edge off my memory, and I’ll quickly come to love my country again.

More than ever though I feel I’ve become part of a British diaspora – a reverse cultural and migrational flow of people, ideals, and values – into modern India. Like anyone whose culture is rooted in one place, as their everyday continues in another, I feel suspended between the two. I cannot go back to being English, but the prejudice and hierarchy of my second home means that neither will I ever become entirely Indian. I want to live in both places, in both cultures, and neither entirely, at the same time. The difficulty lies in negotiating the contradictions between them. What to do, ah? I think several more visits to the land of Gandhi and Shah Rukh Khan, for better or worse.

Mysore

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This weekend has been an eventful one. Julika and I left for the nearby city of Mysore early on Saturday morning, catching a local bus which only took three hours or so, and arrived to wide avenues with trees, and clear air. It made me so glad to escape the pollution and crowded streets in Bangalore.

After taking an auto (-rickshaw) whose meter seemed to clock round at an alarmingly fast rate, we checked into India’s very special international brand of youth hostel. I’ve never seen a hostel looking so well-maintained. It had huge gardens and lots of benches amidst the palms, and we even got our own sheet and pillowcase! Clean showers, flushing toilets, washing facilities and drinking water – there was even ping pong in the canteen – and it only cost 100 Rs. for the night. That’s about £1.30.

I was starting to feel a little bit awful around lunch time, as we got a local bus back into the centre for some sight-seeing. I didn’t expect to get sick so soon into my trip, but we had been eating out a lot, and in most street-based restaurants they don’t have soap. Anyway, I nibbled at an idli in a back-street by the main circle (roundabout) before attempting to have a gander at the Maharaja’s Palace. By this time I’d already taken painkillers and Julika’s natural remedy for painful stomach cramps, to no avail. Doubled over by the main road and hanging onto a railing, I was in no mood to be the centre of every Indian national’s attention.

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A cow tries to catch a rickshaw ride

When an auto driver came to stop next to us I just ignored him, but Julika then told me he was offering to drive us round to the palace gate for free. Once we realised he wasn’t trying to con us, I collapsed into the seat and he took us the 600m or so to our destination. He was a very rare man indeed, and insisted I sit for five minutes to recover inside the auto, and he didn’t want a penny off us. It was when we saw the masses of people swarming into the palace gates that we decided to recuperate in the shade for an hour, after waving him off.

As the cramps finally started to abate, we made it through the hordes of people, and I pulled my trick of producing the visa registration certificate at the ticket counter.

“200 rupees M’am.” The foreigner’s price (I call it white-person tax).

“Oh no, I work in India.”

“Please give me proof.”

“Here you go,” handing over photocopy, with impressive-looking government stamp.

“OK, 40 rupees.”

Wohoo, I’m officially an Indian!

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Maharaja’s Palace, Mysore

The Maharaja’s Palace itself was breath-taking – all red and gold domes and grandeur. In walking towards the entrance I think at least three or four different people asked to be photographed with us. Whether it’s a status thing or not to be in a photo with a white person I don’t know, but I often get people walking past who comment on my “beautiful pale skin”. One woman even stroked my arm. Children are always trying to touch you, or parents proffer their kids’ hands to shake. This is fine in moderation, but on this day there were so many people due to it being a public holiday, that we didn’t get given space to breath.

It was so crowded inside that only a shuffle was possible. Apart from other people’s heads, I can really only recall what the ceilings of various rooms looked like. When we stopped to sit and rest in the main hall, people would look at us as they passed, or comment, or point. So far, so normal. Then out of nowhere, a large family group suddenly pressed upon us trying to get their children to speak English, and all wanting to ask the same questions – “What is your good name?” “Where are you from?” – and treating us like animals in a zoo.

It was too much, still being ill, and I was so glad to escape into the cool gardens after we swam through the rest of the crowds.

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Coloured powder at Devaraja Market, Mysore

A trip to Devaraja Market with plenty of haggling over incense sticks and coloured powders made the day complete. I was looking forward to some sleep and hopefully no more stomach cramps back in the hostel. Almost as soon as my head hit the pillow however, a large party of over-excited young Indian girls crowded into the female dormitory, and subsequently spent the night chatting and laughing. I think I had no more than 4 hours sleep. To top things off, we arrived in the canteen for breakfast at the allotted time, to be told that it only lasted half an hour, and we had just missed it by two minutes. Grrrrr.

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Hindu’s performing puja at Chamundeswari Temple, Chamundi Hill

Not to be perturbed we devoted our Sunday to Chamundi Hill, site of the ChamundeswariTemple. Taking the bus up, a road sign declared it to be one of the eight most sacred hills in south India. A vision of incense and quiet meditation entered my mind’s eye, with pilgrims going to worship in the temple, perhaps with the sound of the wind rustling the trees. In typical Indian fashion though, things were very different to the expectation. Rows of stalls selling stuffed tigers and ice creams lined the street, and so many food stands surrounded the main circle that I couldn’t even see the temple.

I managed to lose Julika as we separated in the market, and spent the next 45 minutes running from one useless police officer to another. “Oh yes Madam, make an announcement…loudspeaker! Loudspeaker!” Then they would walk off, leaving me in the middle of a crowd of Indian tourists and pilgrims to try and find someone else who would help me. In the end, I got so frustrated and it was so hot, that I marched back towards the bus drop-off, ignoring one poor girl who really wanted a picture (again), in mounting panic to try and find my friend. Then I suddenly saw Julika jump up from the roadside where she had been waiting patiently for me. It turned out she hadn’t really moved, and I’d been spending my time running around at the wrong end of the market. It was time for some lunch.

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The 1000 steps to the temple

To edit out the boring bits, suffice to say that we finished with a leisurely walk down the 1000 steps of the hill, passing several youths placing coloured powder onto each step as they walked up. I should do some research on this – it looked like a rite of passage or something. We also had our first follower of the trip, a man in his forties skulking behind as we descended. After I told him to go away, and we waited for another group to pass which we could join with, he disappeared, only to re-emerge further down. He was like our very own Gollum, slithering over the boulders and just looking at us. Pretty harmless though.

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Shiva’s Bull statue

At the large bull statue halfway down, built in dedication to the god Shiva, I did a small currency exchange with a street hawker who couldn’t change a £10 note somebody had given him. Taking advantage of the favour I’d done him, I bought one of his gorgeous miniature statues at a steal of 50 Rs. Mini-Shiva is now sat in the SICHREM office, watching that I don’t go on facebook too often.

We caught the bus back after a long, long queue for tickets across the tarmac, with buses trying to run us down every five minutes. Once in Bangalore again, we caught the last bus to Majestic Bus Terminal, plus one bum-grope by a tiny man who was no more than five foot tall. Then we had an altercation with the auto driver, who turned a 6km journey into 14km in an attempt to rob us of our money. Eventually he took what we offered him, after Julika’s male host stepped in. Finally, at 2:30am, it was time to sleep.

Despite all the grievances, or maybe because of them, it was a fantastic weekend. Just getting out of Bangalore and feeling like a tourist renewed some of that love for India which has been hiding away in me for the past couple of weeks. Obviously working in India was going to feel very different to being a tourist, but it was good to feel the smile spreading across my face, every time I saw a mandir, or thought of the Hindu priest who put the tikka on my forehead. There is so much more to see of this country, and I want to see it all.

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Hanuman statue, Mysore