Entry 53 -India II: washing away sins, crows, sewers, sexual harassment

staying in style

By the time we finally sighted Rameswaram, I was a little high - we had been in a small, hot, clackety train, running on wonky narrow gauge lines which was now four hours behind schedule. The guard who had, for the first twelve hours of the journey been pleased to speak to me, had got sick of my asking the same, childish 'are we there yet' every half hour or so and the stations we stopped in were too small and decrepit to have people selling food. Nor was the landscape much diversion: it was flat and scrubby with rubbishy looking little towns. Then, suddenly I looked out of the window: we were on an embankment in the sea. Then we were on a bridge. The guard, his good humour regained, poked his head into our compartment: 'Come and look.'

We went to the door on the other side and there was a fabulous sunset over the Bay of Bengal, we were high on a bridge over the ocean next to an even more massive road bridge and, to the east, we could see the palm trees and white sands of Rameswaram. I'd assumed that the island was a peninsula as it appears on maps and was pretty small. But no: the train took another 25 minutes to cross it, moving sluggishly through dunes which looked almost Moroccan before reaching the end of the line.

Rameswaram is a justly famous temple town. That is, it has a very nice temple, although, in fairness, this is something dozens of Indian towns can claim. But it also has a unique location and sits on an island which is essentially a gigantic sand dune, at the South East extremity of India.

Despite these sterling credentials, it is not in any way a tourist destination. It is a big Hindu pilgrimage centre, but it doesn't really cater for western tourists of any kind. You know this because there is not a single internet café in town, nobody serves a crappy western breakfast and the rickshaw drivers seem a little confused as to how they should rip you off.

We chose the smartest hotel in town - it cost about £12 per night and was set in its own grounds. It was build in a sweeping curve out of painted concrete and had that mildewed, stained look one associates with communist accommodation the tropics. As it turned out, it was state run and the state of Tamil Nadu has, from time to time, flirted with some pretty heavy socialism.

The manager, in contrast to the charming and diffident chap in Pondy was crackers, all wild hair and sellotaped glasses - a sort of Indian Basil Fawlty. When Jane told him that our phone had rung at 4am, he just replied: 'well, I didn't call you' and went back to chatting to his mate. The restaurant manager was also nuts, but in a slightly more endearing way. He presided over an establishment which looked like it belonged on a 60s university campus and half the menu was permanently unavailable. The four or five dishes that were available, though, were very good.

Then there was the bar. This was a concrete room with a couple of tables and a counter. We went for a drink there and were served beer that tasted like vinegar. Indian beer has the worst quality control problem in the beer world. Kingfisher, which we were drinking, can be very good. But it can also taste like soap and piss. No two bottles are the same. I think we upset the barman by not drinking his beer, though he cheered up when we ordered a couple of GnTs that tasted like nailpolish.

Having given up drinking as a bad deal, we retired. Travel books warn that there is little nightlife in India and this is a masterful understatement: apart from a few isolated places, there is almost nothing. And getting drunk is so little fun when the booze is so bad. Before getting into bed, we carefully closed the windows - there are signs everywhere saying 'Beware of crows' and, apparently, these vicious looking birds of which there are thousands really do attack people.

wet t-shirts

The next day we went to the temple which really is very impressive and rises above the town like a big cream wedding cake. It is absolutely huge and its stylishly pillared corridors stretch over a kilometre. It's also rather better than regular temples in that it's an interactive experience. We were a bit clueless at first, but we soon got the hang of things. Basically there are 22 wells; you hire a man with a bucket and a piece of rope who takes you around and dumps a bucket of water from each (for variety some are saltwater, some fresh) over your head. Each well washes away a different sin.

Once we'd sussed this out, we tagged along with a very nice Indian family for the last seven of their sluicings. We could have done all 22 but really, having seven buckets of water tipped over your head is quite enough, especially if you're not a Hindu. The last well claimed to hold water "equivalent to that of the Ganges." Having been to the Ganges and checked out the water quality, I hoped it was equivalent in terms of spirituality, not coliform counts. The man there doused Jane four or five times and me only once. I'd like to think that this is because she is a heavy sinner, but I suspect it's because his mate was videoing proceedings and she looks better in a wet T-shirt than I do.

What no guidebook tells you and I take this to be a serious failing is that you should take a change of clothes with you. All the Indians had. But so soaked and at risk of chafing was I that I had to buy myself a local skirt to walk home in. To be fair, it was pretty comfy, but the looks I got back at the hotel suggested that I chosen a very low class skirt; also my wet shirt made the dye in the skirt run, turning my butt bright red, a sort of baboon in heat effect.

holy shit

On the way back to the hotel, we checked out the waterfront where around fifty pilgrims were immersing themselves in the sea, some fifty feet from the town's sewage outlet.

Not wishing to dunk ourselves in a sewer, no matter how holy, we took a tuk-tuk 18 kilomters out of town, down the enormous sand-spit that forms the bulk of the island. Soon the buildings give way to pine forests and dunes, a mostly enclosed area of water on one side and a rough ocean beach on the other; everything has that salt sprayed look, a sort of tropical cape cod. Further on the forests end and the spit narrows to about a hundred metres, then, at a little village with a blasted end of the world feel the road ends.

Jane elected to lie on the beach while I decided to walk down the spit to the end. And I walked and walked and walked...every now and then, I stopped to help a woman heft a 25kg bag of shells on to her head...usually in India, when someone tells you something is 4km, its about two, this was eight or maybe even ten. After an hour's walking on soft sand, I saw a passing truck of pilgrims driving over the exposed tidal flats and hitched a lift. We passed a bump in the spit with a few ruined colonial buildings, another village and still the spit went on. Everything now was sea and sky, one of those rather freaky landscapes like salt-pans, all very JG Ballard. Eventually we saw another truck and, presently we stopped next to it.

The pilgrims went to build devotional sandcastles on the beach before immersing themselves fully clothed. I was told that swimming was not only inoffensive, but that they'd actually like to see me to do it and so went for a dip in a choppy sea with a vicious current. Beyond me was the surreal landscape of Adam's bridge, the series of reefs, sandbars and water that stretches all the way to Sri Lanka.

Feeling a right tit

When I got back, Jane was in a state of some anxiety. I had been twice as long as I'd said I would be and once alone, she'd been endlessly pestered and, finally, molested: she'd fallen asleep for five minutes on the beach and woken up to find a five year old grabbing her left breast.

October 26, 2003