Tag Archives: mysore

Trials and Tribulations: Part 2

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The start of week 2 in the tour of South India begins in Gokarna, where we left off. We set off through the small pilgrimage town towards the beach, even though it won’t stop raining. Turns out the Indian tourists were thinking the same thing – little huddles of people with umbrellas are braving the surf with their trousers rolled up, getting soaked in the horizontal rain.

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We retreat inside to our grotty hotel room, where the clothes I had washed the night before are no dryer because of the humidity. After it finally stops raining at about 3pm, we decide to risk a walk to the next bay, as there’s little else to do in the town. Over the sea cliff and into Kudle Beach, we discover that everything has closed. Just as we’ve nearly walked along the entire length of this equally grim bay, being chased by street dogs and a little black puppy (and walking past a cow carcass), an isolated resort seems to be serving food. Then some people miraculously appear from its inner depths and start playing badminton!

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The next day we escape Gokarna for Murudeshwar – site of an impressive giant Shiva statue on an isolated promontory into the Arabian Sea. All in all a very chilled day, before catching the sleeper train to Mysore, for an onward bus to Bandipur National Park the next morning. Well that was the plan. Roy is still incredibly sick from his anti-malarials, and we traipse around Mysore at 7am looking for a toilet, then an internet cafe. Somehow the day disappears in trying to decide where to stay in Bandipur, and looking after Roy. Eventually we catch a local bus to Bandipur National Park, and book into one of the expensive rooms, tagged as ‘luxury eco-lodges’ run by the Park Service. Were they hell.

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INR 2000 for a cold bucket of water, dirty floors, broken window frames, and a tepid thali dinner. Our INR 300 room in Hampi at least had a shower and towels! The evening film screening of a David Attenborough documentary almost made up for it (for Roy mostly, as he literally wants to marry the guy), and I managed to get some shots of a deer herd, and some random wild boar running around at dusk. Boar babies for some reason look like chipmunks.

At 6:30am we boarded the park minibus for their version of a safari, and given that the other 10 passengers were incapable of keeping quiet, we inevitably saw only some deer, a wild peacock, and – wait for it – a bunny hopping into a bush.

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Then we suddenly heard an elephant trumpet very loudly close by, and the rush of adrenaline came. A glimpse of grey skin through the leaves before losing it into the undergrowth, and then – we turn a corner in the track and a wild elephant is across an open stretch of small bushes, munching on some branches.

Unbelievably, the guide stops for about 1 minute, then drives on! Clearly the roads and dirt are more interesting than the fauna to him! So much for seeing tigers and snakes and stampedes of all the other big game they advertise on their website. Disappointed, I write an essay in their complaints book. Whilst waiting for the bus to our next stop at Ooty hill station, the local langurs gradually edge closer. One female has a baby so bald and wrinkled clutched to her stomach that it might actually be the primate re-incarnation of Gandhiji.

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I slept through most of the winding bus journey up to Ooty, and I’m glad I did. The hour that I was awake was filled with the sound and smell of people vomiting from the hairpin bends, and my stomach was almost joining in by the time we pulled into the bus station. After selecting a hotel for its hot water availability, and making an emergency purchase of a thick woolly jumper (Ooty was freezing!), we snuggled down into what felt like a luxury bed.

Saturday was a day of world bests. A visit to the Botanical Gardens turned out to be half-decent, with different smaller gardens and of course a fossilised tree. Climbing up one of the little paths to reach the bonsai garden, I started feeling inexplicably exhausted and dizzy. Roy didn’t look too good either. That was when I read in my guidebook that Ooty is 2000m above sea level – we had altitude sickness! 😀

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It wasn’t so bad that we couldn’t go to the ‘World’s Best Rose Garden’ though, or the ‘World’s Miracle Thread Garden’ – which turned out to be a hidden gem. Every ‘plant’ in this little museum by the lake was made from hand-wound thread, to such precision of form and colour that I honestly thought they were real. Such a dedicated, pointless success! A quick trip down to the neighbouring creepy wax museum with Gandhi, Christ, and a drunk driver with his arm ripped off (who planned this place!?), then we had a fantastic evening at a little arcade by the boat jetty. It was just like being back home in Cleethorpes, but in a nostalgic way. There were dodgems, air hockey, a bucking broncho, and we even terrified ourselves in the haunted house, which had so many mutilated people and a man hanging upside down in a sack screaming that I fully anticipated terrible nightmares.

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After trying to leave Ooty via the over-booked steam train, we conceded to taking the bus again, and overnighted at Coimbatore, where the temperature became tangibly warmer and dryer the more we descended. A lazy complimentary breakfast and copy of The Hindu slipped under the door later, our onward bus to Fort Kochi took far longer than expected, not arriving until it was dark. Disembarking at Ernakaulam’s bus station, a good thirty people fighting to board the bus nearly pushed me to the floor as I stepped down. The press wouldn’t even move when I tried to shove individuals out of the way, and Roy was helpless following behind me. Eventually we emerged from the press and found a hotel.

To end the week, I finally got traveller’s diarrhoea!

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So many things to do, so little time…

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Again, with good intentions I started writing this post a week ago, but time and other commitments pushed it to the bottom of my list. I guess I should take that as a good sign.

Let’s start with two weeks previous; I went to what was meant to be my fourth or fifth Hindi lesson (I have no idea which, the time is just passing too quickly) to find that my tutor had become a grandmother! She was still in hospital with her daughter, whose new baby girl I got to meet in my next lesson – as Razia spent most of the hour and a half holding baby Huda in one hand, whilst correcting my Hindi with the other.

I spent most of the weekend house hunting. After viewing a PG (paying guesthouse) for 10 girls and deciding I definitely didn’t want to stay in that sort of accommodation, I then visited some expat sharing flats. The first reminded me too much of messy university shared houses, and I would have opted for the shared room in a young Indian girl’s apartment right near the office, if I hadn’t visited the last place.

Off a small street full of shops, and nearer to the centre of Bangalore, this shared expat flat was in a block that had its own gardens and security. I ended up spending an hour with three of the other four girls staying there, chatting and eating biscuits (heaven!), and my mind was made up. So, with the deposit paid, and my predecessor vacating at the end of this week, I shall be shifting to the new place at the start of April. I can’t wait. More than anything I intend to make full use of the oven for cake-baking!

Bhanwari Devi (right), iconic voice against violence against women, with her daughter Rameshwari, in Mangalore on Thursday. Photo: R. Eswarraj

Padil ‘homestay’ to be hub of women activism – The Hindu.

Following my meeting with the soon-to-be flatmates, I hurried to a talk with Bhanwari Devi. Bhanwariji was, and still is, an activist against child marriage, and her outspoken protest against a particular case in Rajasthan resulted in her being gang-raped by a group of politicians. That’s the short story, but Wikipedia has it in more detail. A tiny lady wearing a bright orange shawl over her head, she came into the room as everyone stood up, and quietly got onto the stage. It was only when she started speaking, in passionate Rajasthani, that you could see how much the anger still filled her. Her daughter did the translation into Hindi, and another man into English. I wish I could have understood more of what she said – so much was lost in translation.

After ending with a defiant speech, Bhanwariji slipped into song with a group of women. I approached as one of many afterwards, all wanting to offer their help and consolations, and when I gave her namaste she replied with the warmest and open hug. She is still waiting for justice, more than 20 years after the crime was committed.

So many other events filled my week that I can only skim over them. Sunday was spent photographing my saris and putting them online – see my new shop page, or go to ebay – and Monday evening in giving my deposit over to Rita, the girl whom I shall be replacing at the new flat. Again, I got side-tracked eating too many biscuits and discussing plans for Holi with Rita and my new roommate, Priya, before I realised it was dark and should be getting back.

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Back at the office, I spent a filthy two days buried in dirt and posters in a dark forgotten corner, in my attempts to catalogue all of SICHREM’s existing stock. The more I discovered, the more there seemed to be. After turning the shamble of scrap paper and old, bent posters hidden on a top shelf into some semblance of order, I turned to the wall of t-shirts hidden in the cupboard next door. Rose and I spent the entire afternoon sorting by slogan and size. I think I might have actually dreamt that night of folding and unfolding clothes, and putting stickers onto different items. I was so proud of myself when the whole area was finished, until Rose pointed me toward a second, larger cupboard that vomited twice as many t-shirts onto my head. Save that for next week.

The most exciting Thursday in India yet then followed, as myself, Chithra, pattyamma, Rose and Mathews drove to Mysore for our colleague Prakash’s house-warming. Getting lost en route, Mathews was looking for directions. Midway along the three-lane highway, he rolled down his window and shouted at two men riding a moped, who brought their vehicle alongside ours and gave directions, both travelling along at 60 mph.

At Prakash’s, I expected a party, but the spectacle when we arrived got my Hinduism-tastebuds watering. Prakash and his wife were suffocating inside their new home, next to a heavily-smoking fire that had been built inside a temporary pit. A tent had been erected outside, and the poles framing the entrance to their house had been dressed in woven banana leaves and garlands. What followed was an extremely complex string of rituals: making puja with bananas and red ochre at each corner; throwing rice three times, at the house, at the cow brought in especially as the representation of Lakshmi (goddess of wealth and luck); pouring rice over the doorway and exchanging garlands as a couple.

I still can’t decide my favourite part – when Prakash, required to smash a pumpkin filled with red ochre against a stone, grimaced and rolled up his dhoti, or when he then had to smear his hands with the stuff and decorate each wall with his handprints.

Another hour of puja followed, all in Kannada. Interesting as it was I was soon drifting off as we sat cramped together in his smoky living room. When the last prayers were finally done, and goody bags with more coconuts handed out (my favourite part!), we enjoyed the south Indian thalli laid out for lunch, before heading back for Bangalore in the air-conditioned car.

Again another talk at the weekend, this time by Brinda Grover. She is an advocate who facilitated involvement of various NGOs and spokespersons for women’s rights in the writing of the Verma Committee report on violence against women. The Verma report has been ground-breaking in India, laying out the beginnings of better equality and respect for women, in society and the law. The ordinance proposed by the Indian government in response however was nothing short of regressive, and strongly ridiculed across society for idiocies like ignoring the possibility of marital rape, and giving sanction to the death penalty. Her talk focused around these issues, and I was so intent on what she was saying I couldn’t note things down fast enough. A really enlightening session, and I walked away that evening wanting to learn more.

Finally, Manohar and I at last managed our first meeting with the Karnataka State Human Rights Commission, as an initial point of contact before I start doing the research for my report. This is following weeks of phone calls and ‘mislaid’ faxes, or apathetic staff informing us that the Members were out from their offices. To my surprise we received such a positive response from each person we spoke to, including the chief Member, and his Registrar, that I didn’t dare breathe for fear of jinxing it. Maybe this will be an easy research process after all! *Crosses fingers*

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

Mehndi

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I’m sat here looking at today’s date not believing that it hasn’t even been two weeks since I landed in Delhi airport. SICHREM have been working me so hard that I’ve not had much time to think.

To begin where I left off, the homesickness (thankfully) abated quite quickly, largely after I was taken on a sight-seeing tour of Bangalore’s answer to Kew by my Ardash. The place was called Lalbagh Botanical Gardens, and I managed to sneak in at the local price of just 10 Rs, thanks to his cunning. Though the gardens themselves were a little dry and tired, it was a hilarious outing because of Ardash’s friend, Ardash (helpfully-named, I know). Visiting for a few days from his home in Kerala, Ardash 2nd made me laugh so much, despite not speaking English, that my stomach was hurting by the end of the day. We ate Thali in a little canteen for about 80 Rs, and he must have finished his plate in about three minutes flat.

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He went back home on Tuesday however, and the rest of my week has consisted of time spent in the SICHREM office, and days at a time attempting to register my visa. Indian bureaucracy could safely win the title for most inefficient service in the world, and I knew it would take more than one day to get everything sorted. The amount of time I spent in the FRRO (Foreigners Regional Registration Office) however was unbelievable. On the first day I spent 7 hours attempting to register, and the second day came to six hours just waiting in the office. I got the strong feeling that had I had some cash in my hand, the staff might not have invented so many extra documents that were apparently vital to registering.

Day three’s attempt was the final, and successful one. It was almost effortless by comparison, and I walked out with my little piece of paper with a stamp on it so elated, purely because I had put so much effort into earning it. I hope I never have to go back there again.

At SICHREM, I began work on the tasks specified for me before arrival. Several staff including myself were however called into a meeting with Mr Mathews, the coordinator, to prepare a joint document to be published as a chapter in a human rights defender’s upcoming book. Having spent what days that I wasn’t at the FRRO frantically trying to dredge statistics and case studies from the various resources available, I have finished my short contribution within the 10 days we were given! Now back to the other stuff!

I’ve also been hanging out with another international volunteer from Germany, called Julika. We spent Sunday evening with her hosts – a young couple living in a small flat in Indiranagar – going round Bangalore’s National Art Gallery, and tasting all the different foods on ‘food street’. The highlight of my day was definitely learning the word for testicles in ‘Hindi’ though.

After being invited back to their apartment for dinner, I spent the night on Julika’s mattress, and was doted on by Ahmad and Suvrata the whole time. They have the two cutest cats, and are refreshingly modern in their outlook. I ended up having a very deep discussion with Ahmad about art, Radiohead and religion within hours of having met them. What wonderful people! Next weekend will probably see me travelling to Mysore with them during the Saturday holiday – can’t wait!