14 November 2011

Kerala Thoughts

As my first visit to India enters it's final few days, I am reflecting on how it has been.

First, and it's easy to forget the importance of this, I have remained vigorously healthy. The food and the climate seem to agree well with me. This vital element has allowed me to enjoy my adventure.

I have seen and appreciated the breathtaking natural beauty here in Kerala. An even greater source of joy has been the population.

Contrary to predictions, engaging with these wonderful people has filled my heart with joy. When I close my eyes, I can see the bright eyes and wide smiles that greet me everywhere I go.

I am under no illusions about the stark realities these people face, I do not seek to glamourise the grinding poverty and terrible living conditions. But, even under these circumstances, there is a strong family ethic, a society which has pride and high moral standards.

The strong base for this appears to be a matriarchal system where, in every family, the mother holds absolute sway. There is a saying which goes something like:

First my mother
Then my father
Then my teacher
Then God

This is a system of priorities that appears to work.

Women here are always immaculately dressed in bright saris and gold jewellery, even when they wade into the river and begin to slap washing on rocks.

I saw a Western female tourist walking on the beach yesterday. I have become so used to only seeing modestly dressed Indian women that I felt a little shocked.

Travelling alone has brought me face to face with some of my more laughable traits. The admonishing voice in my head has become something to laugh at rather than jumping to attention for. I am letting go of many habits on this trip. Whether they get picked up again when I am home is another matter.

My driver is a poor man with little formal education who has learned Hindi, English and Arabic to add to his native Malayam merely by talking to his passengers.

I asked him about religion. He said that it was fifty-fifty in Kerala. Fifty per cent Christian, fifty per cent Hindu and fifty percent Muslim.

I asked him what the differences were.

He said "No differences, we are all human beings."

It's a simple expression of truth that has stayed with me.

6 November 2011


Before I left England, I was warned to expect alot of very poor people living in squalor, children begging on the streets, hunger and poverty everywhere.

I have a history of being unable to deal with things like this. I feel very uncomfortable, I am ashamed of being so well off. I have no right to feel good, to be so comfortable and well fed when others are not so fortunate.

I prepared myself for a shock and expected to feel terrible.

My hotel room overlooked a slum, makeshift shacks crowded together covered with corrugated iron and plastic sheets. I awoke to what I first thought was gunfire. It was just after 7 am, I used my football binoculars to see what was going on. A handful of barefooted children were setting off firecrackers. They lit them then ran away, hiding behind bushes. Unsuspecting adults were walking past and occasionally jumped in alarm as the crackers banged and spat around their feet. I could feel the huge gust of merriment from the kids even at distance.

The adults were emerging from the slums, not filthy and ashamed but upright and proud. Women, stunning in bright saris, men well groomed and clean shaven apart from the seeming obligatory hairy caterpillar on their upper lips.

My friend Prakash took me over to Navi Mumbai to visit his steel fabrication factory. As we left, the neighbouring factories were finishing for the day. Almost all the workers were walking as no public transport serves the industrial area. As we drove slowly through the throng, I saw smiles and laughter, people walking with grace.

Don't get me wrong, it's a terrible thing that people are living like that. What I find uplifting is the beautiful dignity and resilience of the human spirit that they display.

For my own part, I realise that my anticipated discomfort was born out of my need to control and fix everything I encounter. Now, I accept that even I can't expect myself to alleviate the poverty of half a billion people. Things are as they are.

Most of the people I meet here are poor, very poor. All of them have shown genuine kindness to me. I am humbled by their generosity of spirit.

And inspired.

4 November 2011

I don't believe it!

Those of you who know me will recognise the circumstances that I find difficult to cope with. Situations that send me out of control, things that I try to avoid at all costs.

I could give you a list, but that would take too much blog space. Let's concentrate on two of my worst phobias.

The first one, I'll skip over. Let's just say that I don't like using public toilets. Couple that with a lot of travelling around Mumbai which has 300 public toilets against a requirement of 50,000 and the almost inevitable looseness associated with a visit to the sub-continent, you might appreciate my trepidation when planning this trip.

The second involves the anxiety that catching a plane puts me through. I normally arrive several hours before the recommended check-in time. The night before would actually suit me better.

Today, I had to catch a flight from Mumbai to Kerala. The flight was due to depart at 10:30 am, I had already checked in on-line so an hour to drop my bag and get through security seemed reasonable. The Mumbai traffic is pretty bad, especially at that time of day, so I allowed an hour for what should be a half hour journey.

My friend booked a taxi to pick me up at 8:00 am and take me to the domestic airport. I looked at my tickets when I got back to my hotel and they said that I departed from the international airport. These two airports are on the opposite sides of Mumbai. They are not close together at all. The importance of this information will become clear in a moment.

I rang Kingfisher and asked them which airport I should fly from. The nice man confirmed it was the international one. I worried that I might get a driver who didn't speak English and would insist on taking me to the wrong airport so I rang the taxi company and changed the booking, just to be on the safe side.

Bear with me, this is actually leading to some interesting personal issues.

I woke early, packed quickly, went for breakfast and was standing with the concierge waiting for the cab at 7:45.

At 8:00, the concierge rang the cab firm who assured him that their cab was at the entrance waiting to pass through security. This normally takes about five minutes, they search the car for bombs, take swabs, analyse these for explosive residues and poke around under the car with a mirror. On the way in, there had been two cars in front of my taxi so it took ten or fifteen minutes to get through.

At 8:30 I was still waiting, I was informed that there was a big convention on and a queue for security. I watched myself tensing up, smiled at the all to familiar feeling and let it go.

Just before 9, the cab arrived. Ah well, half an hour to get there, should still be there in plenty of time. The traffic was merciless. I remained mildly amused at the state I was trying to revert to. There was none of that stomach sinking panic that I always get on the way to catch a plane.

My equanimity was rewarded by the traffic clearing enough for us to get to the international airport with just over an hour to go before the plane took off. Deep joy.

I paid the cab driver and showed an old soldier my passport so that he let me into the terminal. I asked a Kingfisher rep where to drop my suitcase and she looked at my ticket.
"Look" she pointed "it says Terminal 1A. That's at the domestic airport. You need to go there."
"But" I started to complain that a man at Kingfisher had told me the wrong airport and that I had ignored the advice of my friend, who after all should know as he has a home in Kerala. Instead I thanked her politely and went back to the old soldier on the door.
"I need to go to the domestic airport" I'm not sure what I expected him to do about it, but he seemed helpful enough.
"OK, show me you passport."
I gave him my passport and he spent valuable minutes examining it closely.
"You can go." He passed it back to me and went about his business.

After several abortive tries, I located a taxi and asked him to take me to the domestic airport. These were the only two words of English he understood, unless you include his reply of "200 rupees" which I don't.

"Please hurry" I said.

He shrugged at each exhortation then began to weave his way slowly through the traffic jams until he join the longest queue I have seen at a petrol station since the tanker drivers went on strike. The amazing thing about this all was that I felt great. No gnashing or snarling or Fawlty-like histrionics. It wasn't the taxi driver's problem, it was entirely of my own making.

What a wonderfully liberating experience!

Anyway, that's what this trip is all about, I guess.

Next time I'll describe the Mumbai slums and my reaction to them. That was another big worry for me.

3 November 2011

First Impressions

One of my ambitions has been to be met at an airport by someone holding a piece of cardboard with my name on it. This may seem a strange thing but it has me scanning the throng at every arrivals area. Yesterday, I walked out of Mumbai airport and luxuriated in a slow walk down a long line of anxious faces above variegated placards. There was one with my name on it, held by an ernest young man with a neat black moustache and a crisp blue shirt. He took me to receive the warmest welcome I have ever received. Two magnificent ladies thrust flowers into my hands and told me they recognised me because I looked like my son who they spoke of in glowing terms.

It was wonderful to be greeted in this way, a perfect beginning to my Indian adventure.

The Mumbai traffic is interesting. Five or six ragged lanes of vehicles ranging from motorcycles and motorised rickshaws to heavy goods vehicles and JCB's fight for progress. None of these appears to possess working indicators that might reduce the surprise of their sudden and haphazard changes in direction. There is no system of priorities, if a gap appears in the general direction they are heading, every vehicle competes for it even if it is too small to accommodate them. Anything turning across the flow of traffic appears to have equal rights. Sprinkle in a good measure of foolhardy pedestrians and you have the perfect mix for chaos.

What strikes me is the equanimity with which the lurching lack of progress is endured. Although everyone is constantly leaning on their horns there is a complete absence of negative reaction. They all seem grateful just to remain unscathed after their latest suicidal manoeuvre. Tempers are conspicuous by their absence. Where there are no rules, none get broken and there is nothing to get shirty about.

One thing I love is the way that everyone addresses me as Mr. David. It has a remarkable quality that combines respect with friendliness. I may encourage this form of address when I get home.

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