Saturday, 23 January 2010

My first sleeper train in India

I’d not been looking forward to my first sleeper train ride having heard many horror stories but it was actually perfectly civilized.
I was in Tier 2A A/C which was as close to first class I could get given the fact that I’d booked only the day before. I’d asked for a lower berth but there hadn’t been any left so I was on the top of three bunks…pretty high for someone who doesn’t like heights! Unlike sleeper trains in Europe, you aren’t locked away in individual compartments; instead, the beds are in blocks that run straight from the main corridor. This means that people are always walking by, making it feel much safer. From where I sat I could hear the familiar drone of two American accents so I knew all would be well!

I got chatting to a couple of older gentlemen who were in my block. Again, it was perfectly civilised and they helped to check my ticket to make sure I was in the section. We exchanged the usual pleasantries, I sat and read for a while and it was soon time to climb unglamorously up to my top bunk. Here I got comfy in the sheets and blankets provided and nodded off for a few hours.

following morning at 6am I arrived at Ernakulum – the bustling city centre of Kochi. Kochi is made up of a number of islands, one of which was Fort Kochi where I was headed. After cramming my oversized rucksack into an under-sized rickshaw we weresoon off at full pelt to Fort Kochi. At 6am the city was quiet, bar the odd elephant that we passed along the way. It wasn’t long before I saw caught sight of the Indian ocean and the fishy scents that hung in the air. Crossing a couple of bridges, we soon arrived at Prem’s homestay – the equivalent of a bed and breakfast except the breakfast is usually an extra cost.

Prem and his wife Cynthia were both adorable and couldn’t do enough to help me out. Despite arriving earlier than planned (I was going to get a boat to the island instead) I was shown to my room and offered breakfast. The room was spotless and a real pleasure after my stay at the grimy, dismal Guru Hotel in Trichy.Prem offered to arrange tours for me so I booked the 7-hour backwater cruise on a houseboat and canoe and pondered on the possibility of a Ayurvedic massage.

early morning wander into town and, even after only a couple of days, it was a relief to find a few little luxuries dotted about the place. There was a beautiful little cafĂ© called Teapot that served simple food, loads of different teas and great banana lassis. It also had the added bonus of a spotless toilet. The streets were quiet and chilled, and the whole area felt clean and cared for. There were also heaps of other backpackers, which in itself isn’t great, but sometimes, especially on your own, is called for.

My wander took me to the small fish market and the traditional Chinese fishing nets – large fishing nets that stand up on poles and take 4 people to manoeuvre. The stalls here were full of fish, crayfish, giant prawns and one of the biggest sea basses I’ve ever seen. A handful of hopeful looking cats wandered about waiting longingly with big eyes for scraps and locals sat around chatting and bartering. Overall I felt very at home and very relaxed in Fort Kochi and it was a million miles from what i'd expected of India.

The Indian head shake

The Indian head shake was something I noticed during my first conversation with a local. For some reason I had always thought that the gentle side-to-side head movement during conversation only happened in Bollywood and not as part of everyday life over here. And yet everyone does it to varying degrees over here. It can take a little getting used to when you ask a question expecting a ‘yes’ answer but the answer comes with a head shake. It’s caught me out a few times!

Two days in Trichy

Trichy is very typically Indian…well Southern Indian to be precise. It is a huge centre for pilgrims who come from all over India to head to the various temples dotted around the outskirts of the town but very few Westerners make it here. It’s not a particularly attractive city and, other than the Rock Fort, there is very little to do. It is not kitted out for westerners at all: there are no little cafes or travel operators, no hostels or swanky hotels, not even many sit down restaurants. So when you arrive in Trichy, you get a real taste of India.

I was fortunate to have met an Australian yoga teacher who sat next to me on the plan and was on his way to a yoga retreat in Goa. We got chatting and it turned out he’d been to India before so he was full to the brim with helpful advice. He had an eight hour stopover in Trichy before he had to catch his next flight so he decided to come into town with me for a few hours. It was great to have someone there to show me the ropes that evening. We had a wander around the street stalls and he introduced me to chai (sweet milky tea), poori (an inflated crispy bread) and lassi (a yoghurt drink). We ate at one of the few sit down restaurants in town called Banana Leaf and spent a whopping £2 each on dinner (and that included drinks!).

I was soon left to my own devices and headed back to my rather miserable single hotel room for a decent night’s kip before a busy next day. My room looked out on to the back of a restaurant so, whilst there wasn’t any street noise, the room was constantly filled with the scent of pungent spices.Nice!

The following morning, my first stop was Trichy train station to book my train down to Fort Cochin in Kerala. I made my way through town fully expecting to be harassed and yet I was barely even noticed. Arriving at the train station I found the counter I needed to head to; however, instead of a queue there were just a few rows of chairs. I stood watching for a while and realized that, rather like a game of musical chairs, when the person sat on the seat in the furthest corner stood up to go to the counter, everyone on all the seats along from him would stand up and move one seat to their left. This continued every time someone was called to the counter and you'd get tutted if you didn't stand up and shuffle along one quick enough. Very funny!.

I joined the queue and sat there for a while before I realized that everyone had a form in their hands. I turned to the guy next to me and asked if I needed one to buy a ticket and he said yes. This was my first real encounter with locals in India and I was pleasantly surprised. The guy offered to keep my seat for me, helped to fill out the form with me and then joined me when I was struggling to make myself understood at the counter and helped to translate for me. He was a genuinely nice guy who merely wished to help.

Again, at lunch time as I sat down in a menu-less restaurant and was presented with a banana leaf, a metal cup of water and the look of expectation, I was helped out by the man sat opposite me at my table (all seating is communal here). I’d read about dhosas so I asked for one. The waiter muttered something and the guy at the table ran through the different types available. When the food arrived he explained in great detail what I had to do. He was extremely courteous and wasn’t after anything in return for his help.

After lunch I visited the Rock Fort temple. The bazaar area outside was a riot of colour with flower garlands, gold statues of gods, Hindu artifacts and souvenirs filling the stalls. Drawn in brightly coloured chalk across the Tarmac roads were vivid murals of flowers and Hindu icons, and heading to the temple were women in stunning saris; flashes of gold, yellow, royal blue, bright green or ruby red dotted in among the men. The whole area had a lively festival feel about it.

In the courtyard of the Rock Fort temple an elephant was chained. If you gave a rupee or two you’d be given a nut in return to feed the elephant, which would dutifully tap you on the head with its trunk after being fed.(The Rock Fort Temple is dedicated to Ganesh - the Hindu elephant God - which explains the presence of a live elephant)

Heading into the fort, I took my shoes off - as is the practice in Hindu temples - and made my way up the hundreds of steps to the temple perched high up on top of the fort. The temple itself was not that amazing but the view across the hazy streets of the town below was lovely.

Back down on the street and the lunch time heat was taking its toll, as was the jetlag. I made a beeline for a church I'd seen from the temple above in hope of a little cool respite. I wasn’t disappointed. The church resembled a British church other than the complete lack of pews. Instead, you knelt or sat cross-legged on stone floors, which was exactly what I needed. A few people were sat about the church praying and soaking up the peace and tranquility away from the heat and chaos of the day. I found a corner against the wall, adopted a suitable praying-esque position to satisfy the church warden who patrolled inside and out, and promptly had a little afternoon siesta.

Feeling adequately church and templed out I made my way back to the naff Guru Hotel to try and figure out what the hell I was going to do for a whole day in Trichy before the sleeper train the following evening.

You know when you’re in India when…

- You are less than a metre away from someone spitting, clearing their throats or hocking at all times

- You hand your dirty laundry in to be cleaned at a hotel and despite the carefully written list it takes three men to count through each pair of knickers three times in the middle of reception to establish how many items of clothing are in the bag and thus what to charge

- You get a hose rather than loo roll

- Your right hand is your one and only eating utensil

- Your car has only two peddles (to avoid an obstacle you merely swerve and honk your horn)

- You have curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner

- You risk your gastrointestinal health with every meal

- You spend more time looking at the ground and where you are putting your feet than at the sights

- You spend an inordinate amount of time barefoot

- You develop the uncanny ability of having eyes in the back of your head so as to be able to step aside for speeding buses, autorickshaws and bikes

- You keep your mouth firmly shut when having a shower

- You spend less than £4 on food each day

- You can fit an infinite number of people on a bus

- You meet people who have ‘servants’ even in this day and age

Touch down in Trichy, Tamil Nadu

Step out of the airport and into a taxi and you drive smack bang into India. The noise is deafening; horns blare continuously as drivers fight for a piece of the road, stopping for no one. The heat is sticky trapping fumes and dust and the aroma of sewage, and it clings to you like a shawl. Taxis dart among people unflinchingly, narrowly avoiding goats and rubbish and potholes; rickshaws jolt off the road to avoid buses, brush past cyclists and then give up on the left side of the road altogether. People are everywhere: brightly coloured saris emerge from the clouds of dust and the backcloth of ramshackle concrete buildings; men rearrange their sarongs, do business, fix motorbikes and spit out streams of phlegm as they do. Stalls draped in brightly coloured flower garlands (offerings for the Gods) are conspicuous among the chai stalls where chai wallahs pour sugary milky tea into small glasses from great heights and chat enigmatically to a crowd of punters. The smell of exotic spices and breads and smoke and sweat choke the air. Music erupts violently from passing buses followed by angry blasts on the horn. Rubbish fills every nook and cranny: it clogs up drains, swirls about in filthy puddles, builds up in corners or sits smouldering in little piles. People cling onto the buses, entire families cram onto a single motorcycle. People eat and talk and work and clean and wash and sleep oblivious to the noise or dirt around them. Mangy dogs sniff hopefully through rubbish, goat herders negotiate their herds through gridlocked traffic and cows, at one with their surroundings, meander at their own pace amongst the chaos. Every now and then the sparkle of gold catches your eye and you notice a vibrant Hindu temple protruding from the shacks and concrete office blocks – a little haven of peace where life slows down to a near halt and you can stop long enough to catch your breath.

India is filthy, frenetic and on some levels just utterly crazy and yet there is something deeply charming and truly mesmerizing by such a diverse and infinitely fascinating country. I'm looking forward to experiencing it!