Entry 55 -India II: pickled babies, ministry of silly walks, fungi

junior in a jar

The switchback ghat road up to Kodaikanal is, reputedly one of the most beautiful drives in India. Not that we had much occasion to enjoy it. Indian drivers are normally nuts, but our minibus man was in a league of his own. Comparing him to an workaday dangerous driver would be like comparing Fred West to a bloke who once beat someone up outside a pub. Every other bend had a sign saying 'It is dangerous to overtake on curves.' Our chap interpreted theses as a challenge, not a warning. 'Why yes it is - now watch me do while a petrol tanker is coming the other way.'

After innumerable stops (50% of any Indian bus journey is stops - tea, toilet, tiffin, elevenses, lunch, coffee, etc.) the air cooled and the forest closed in. Then we stopped again, this time at a waterfall, where I upset several businessmen by not having any business cards to hand. Like the Japanese, the Indians have ritualised business card exchange to point where these little scraps of paper are something totemic.

Still, my apologies must have been heartfelt as one of them, the director for tourism in Gurjurat extended an extremely warm and hospitable invitation, should I ever find myself in Gurjurat. I agreed that I would visit his earthquake and ethnic strife ravaged state as soon as time permitted. We then posed in everyone's photos and got back in the bus.
Our last stop was at the Kodaikanal municipal museum, one of those dusty little places that tries to collect something of everything. Actually this one excelled itself: its more outré exhibits included a 14 foot python's spinal column (squeals from Jane) and a pickled baby (squeals from both of us). I also made the mistake of walking around the museum counter clockwise and earned a stern rebuke from the curator.

Having marvelled at junior in a jam jar we arrived in 'Kodai' and checked into our hotel which, with its rather charming gardens felt like the offspring of a Raj plantation and a 1950s American motel. Later, we went for a walk and felt as if we'd come to the Lake District. At 2100 m, Kodai is a cool, place of mellow mists whose month is ever October. Many of the houses (built by Brits) are in the English vernacular and the buildings include ersatz Saxon churches and Victorian gingerbread architecture. In fact, Kodai was founded by the Americans (high enough to stop their missionaries dying of malaria) but the Brits couldn't have someone else building a hill station so pretty soon they muscled in on the act.

By the first afternoon though, our hilly idyll was resembling England in another more meaningful way: it was pissing with rain. So, for supper, we went to the best hotel in town which resembles a 70s ski lodge and ate remarkably crap food in remarkably stylish surroundings, reproving my theory that Indian food is something that decreases in quality as it goes up in price.

As Kodai nestles in the highest hills (twice the height of Ben Nevis) in peninsula India, we decided to go walking. This is when we realized that Kodai is a place that, like other hills stations, caters largely for Indian tourists. And they like to be driven everywhere in large groups to well marked attractions, preferably with a nice concrete platform and a big sign saying "THE VIEW IS HERE". Then they take plenty of pictures (usually with you in them) and drop as much rubbish as possible. Of course it is their country and they should feel free to cover it with garbage, but saying that India has a bit of a litter problem is like saying the Rev James Jones was kind of weird. If you want to find an Indian beauty spot, you need only look for a pile of trash.

On the way back, we fell into conversation with a man in his 60s. His command of English was impressive and his knowledge of the UK impressive. We bantered long enough for us to suspect he was just being friendly, then, suddenly he asked: 'So, do you want to buy magic mushrooms.' Well, not really but it was nice to be asked. Actually, if you were keen on 'shroomin' Kodai would be your idea of heaven as the year room dampness ensures a plentiful supply of hallucinogenic fungi.

silly walks and fungi

The following day dawned bright and clear so we tried again, this time to get a walking permit. Trying explain our desire to go walking to the taxi driver who was driving us to get the permit was an interesting clash of cultures. 'I can drive you to dolphin's nose. You make one kilometer trekking. Very nice.' There really is no intelligible way in India to explain that you want to walk more than 1km; people just think you're a freak

Nor was the local chief of forestry particularly understanding. It was not possible to walk to the lake, he explained, because a government minister was somewhere within a 100km radius. Besides, it was dangerous to walk in the woods. Presumably you risked building up leg muscles and what would that do for the local rickshaw industry? But maybe we could get a permit tomorrow. The next day we arrived bright and early at 7am to be told we could get a special permit to take a taxi to the lake, but on no account could we walk. Our taxi driver gave us a 'what did you expect?' shrug. As he was probably in cahoots with the forestry guy, we declined his offer.

Eventually we just went for a walk by ourselves and very nice it was too. All in all we hiked about 25km; the views were stunning, the air fragrant and there were no people, there was little litter and some stylish wildlife. I have no idea whether we need a permit or not. We hitched back with a jeep full of locals who, when we told them we'd walked that far just shook their heads and started asking us about what we did. Then they too asked us if we wanted magic mushrooms.

After a couple of very pleasant days walking whenever we felt like it - and often in public - we headed back down to Madhurai. Having learnt our lesson, we decided to stay just outside town at the Taj Retreat, the Taj being India's swishest chain of hotels. This sits on its own mini-gaht about 300 m about Madhurai, just enough to lift it above the brown fug of mosquitoes and exhaust fumes that passes for air locally.

The grounds were impressively manicured and the pool limpidly lovely. There were very few guests - just us, an Austrian couple, an Australian woman and a pair of Indian businessmen. The Austrian bloke - in his sixties, I'd guess - had mad professor hair, and was in astonishing shape for a sexagenarian He could do back flips into the pool and swim lengths underwater; she was a little younger and while pleasant exuded a slight sluttiness. You have expected her to ask if you were into swinging. But neither of them would give any clue whatsoever as to what they did for a living. None: every question was deftly batted away.

The Australian woman was more straightforward: in her fifties, she was very personable, and but she'd come via a package tour of Afghanistan. She kept telling us that 'It's lovely - not at all like you see in the media.' I resisted the urge to tell her that the bits that her extreme tourmeisters had taken her too were probably not entirely representative of the country either.

The Indian guys found it very strange that the Austrian and I should want to swim lengths underwater. Or indeed swim at all. But after a while they tried to join in. It is a terrible thing to say, but middle class India lags behind Britain (and I might guess, even the US) when it comes to fitness.

That evening Jane and I watched the Deepwali fireworks over Madurai, which went on until the city was wreathed in smoke and even our rarified eyrie had a whiff of gunpowder about it. The next day we left, having thoroughly enjoyed our second stay in Madhurai: compared to our first it was a dream. The lesson, clearly, is that to really enjoy an Indian city, all you have to do is find the most expensive hotel in town and then never leave it.

November 6, 2003