Rhymer´s Travel Diary: Entry 7, April 2, 2002
Fruit Wars, Commies, Why Taxis are better...



Train Again

I had always fancied it would be rather a stylish thing to take the Trans-Siberian Express from Moscow to Vladivostok or Bejing or wherever it goes. But 36 hours into my 72 hour train journey I had changed my mind entirely. I now know that, while a three hours on a train is a nice chunk of dead time, a three day is not. Ultra training (3826km according to our tickets) may be keeping it real in terms of Indian culture, but next time, I am going to stay true to my own cultural context and fly.

Still, there were some plus points. The trains here are considerably better than their English counterparts. For starters, they actually have people cooking real food in the pantry car instead of flogging rubber sandwiches; moreover the people who serve you meals actually seem to want to do so. And while the trains have a top speed of only 120km/h (75m/h) they seem to travel at this speed most of the time. Plus of course, our air con sleeper ticket for the equivalent of eight London-Edinburgh trips cost about 35 pounds. Indeed the only gripe I have is with the tea and coffee. In a country which grows the world痴 finest tea, the preferred mode of consumption is to mix it 50/50 with milk and then add eight spoons of sugar. To get unsweetened tea or coffee you have to trek back seven cars to the pantry where you get something that is just 50% milk.

Yanks for the Memories

Our journey broke for seven hours in Delhi. And as we壇 arrived at 4am we spent some of the time in the upper class waiting room, which, despite its swish-sounding name, is nothing of the sort. I assume I speak for most people when I say, at four in the morning in a waiting room, my only wish is to wait as quietly as possible. But the fleshy American fellow opposite us clearly had other ideas. Dressed in the uniform of older traveling Americans the world over (leisure slacks, bad, bad trainers, corporate polo shirt, buff baseball cap bearing the legend 践anks of Hartford, Home of the handjob・or some such) he was positively itching to use his digital camera. Then this auteur manque spotted his subject, something the folks back home would just love! A funny little man! With three suitcases on his head! (i.e. a porter doing his job). Our would-be Altman toddled unsteadily to his feet and proceeded to follow the porter around the room, at a distance of about six inches. For his part, the porter bore this ridiculous fellow with commendable dignity and stoicism. I wondered if, back on home turf, this chap would object to someone tailing him in the local mall as he bought badly made products and stuffed his face with cheeseburgers. Given the American predilection for confessional TV, probably not.

Kerela Commies

After a total of five days・travel, we pitched up in Trivandrum, a verdant and restful little place by Indian City Standards. The most notable thing about Trivandrum was that the CPI (Communist Party of India) was holding its 18th annual conference there. The commies are a big force in Kerela and boy do they know a thing or two about marketing: every available surface bore Lenin痴 likeness or Marx痴 mug; hammer and sickle bunting was strug between lamp-posts and thousands of red flags flapped languidly in the muggy breeze. For those of us of a certain age, the whole thing evoked a weird kind of cold war nostalgia. Remember when everyone knew that the USSR was the evil empire, rather than having to 素ind・enemies in silly little countries like Sudan and Somalia and invent cretinous phrases like 疎xis of evil・ Still, I felt the Kerela commies weren稚 real the real deal - they were sort of commie-lite. For one thing, their flags weren稚 the somber menacing red of the Soviet flag; rather they were a jaunty pinky red; and for another, I haven稚 seen a single gulag or collective farm in the whole state.

From Trivandrum, to Kovolam, Kerela痴 premier beach resort, a place dismissed snootily in the Lonely Planet as the 舛osta del Kerela.・The LP goes on talk in tones of lofty disgust about Kovolam痴 multimillion-dollar tourist industry. From what I can see it might be a multimillion Rupee tourist industry and the authors・inability to distinguish between the dollars and rupees would certainly explain their niggardly carping about prices. Why some hotel owners are charging as much as a fiver for a double room and three quid for dinner! I mean, can you imagine - charging about a tenth of what a UK hotel would charge? Next thing you know they値l be wanting to raise their standard of living, too. Of course the other point the LP痴 authors (most of whom, I imagine, enjoy a pretty nice standard of living)choose to miss is that they themselves play a pivotal role in creating the very places they affect to despise. For what drives these hordes of tourists to unspoilt beaches which they then spoil? Indeed, if you look around spoiled Kovolam, every other dickhead (myself included) is clutching a copy of this pious, hypocritical book.

The Fruit Wars

In this hell of unrestrained development - actually a sleepy little resort clustered round two beaches - we met Dom and Emma, who in fact were paying far too much even for their fairly flash hotel because they had booked it from the UK. In terms of tourists Kovolam is an odd mix: traveler types; a few package holidaymakers (some of whom seem disappointed that it痴 not Aya Nappa and some of whom are massively relieved); a large French contingent (reassuring, I like the French); some thoroughly disgusting aging booze raddled Germans and Brits who seemed to be trying their best to pick up local girls a third of their age and so on... Entirely unintentionally we kept bumping into a peculiar trio: Simon a ex-army Brit who had been here and pissed for six months solid; and Rick and his girlfriend. Rick was an American who had the odd habit of referring to himself in the third person: 然ick痴 just been surfin・with his goddamn ass out!・Rick痴 girlfriend had the glassy stare and monosyllabic speech of the recently lobotomised which would certainly explain why she was with Rick.

Along with tourists the beach is also full of those who prey off them. Hawkers who like so many foreign touts have learned their English from 前nly fools and horses・ though one had bought his telly English up to date and told Dom: 塑ou are the weakest link, Goodbye.・Then there are the women who sell fruit, whose persistence would put the most unscrupulous timeshare salesman to shame. Just before we arrived Dom and Emma had started a turf war between two rival sellers; you wouldn稚 want to get caught in the middle ・those ladies have big knives. Eventually we gave all our fruit custom to 鮮orma・on the grounds that, if we allowed her to stiff us, we壇 be free-ish of the others. There are also a fair number of beggars of differing authenticity. Generally we gave to those who were physically disabled (on the grounds that amputations are hard to feign) and were less generous to the beggars who pretended to have mental disorders. Especially after one we thought was spastic miraculously recovered and spat in disgust when Jane gave him two rupees.

Nor should it be imagined that these are the only pitfalls for the unwary: the sea here is so rough Dom lost his #400 watch; four days later, I lost my rather cheaper timepiece. Though he was sympathetic he must have secretly enjoyed this as there are few things more satisfying than people who don稚 learn from your mistakes. But the perils of the sea are as nothing compared to the dangers of the trees. I had a genuine near death experience when a coconut fell six inches from me with a skull cracking smack. I have since learned that falling coconuts kill some twenty people a year and the coconut palm has replaced the yak as the likeliest agent of my demise.

The other obstacle in the way of the costafication of Kovolam is that it is, nominally a dry state. And, it's worth remembering thatAya Napa would lose much of its charm if it
didn't have people puking puking in the streets. But the cunning korolans get around this by hiding bottles under the tables, serving liquor, wino-syle in paper bags, or, most charmingly serving beer in tea-pots. I have yet to see a pissed-up yob slash anyone with a broken teapot, but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen.

Why I love Taxis

Feeling we ought to be a little more proactive, we lurched out of our usual somnolent regime and went into Trivandrum where we enjoyed an excellent meal at a restaurant built into a spiral. It痴 curious architecture reminded me a little of a Conran restaurant. Then the food arrived and the similarity ended. Somewhere that serves delicious, inexpensive food could never be confused with a Conran restaurant. Emboldened by our experience we decided to explore that backwaters of Kerela a few days later; both the Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide agree these are the region痴 finest attraction, though they do warn that people might expect money for their services.

Following our ungodly early start we took a taxi to Trivandrum where we bought train tickets to Kollam. This process was a prime example of Indian bureaucracy. There were six ticket windows, five of which said with wonderful directness 銑ower Class Tickets only.・The sixth - for all other tickets - was unstaffed and although we were the only customers a lower class ticket seller couldn稚 sell us a higher-class ticket. So, keeping it far realer than Emma might have liked, we went lower class. Lower class has bars on the window and bears more than a passing resemblance to a prison. Still, there were cute kids in our carriage and she got over this reality shock. In Kollam we took an endless series of rickshaws to the jetty, to a place for breakfast, to another place for breakfast and then to another place where we actually had breakfast. It may have been the heat or it may have been the realness but Emma went briefly mad; we fed her water and talked about five star hotels until she recovered.

So we boarded our boat and started our not to be missed trip. And, to be fair, it痴 very restful and serene. For the first two hours we sat on the boat and watched palm trees and water and relaxed. Then we did this for another two hours. Sometimes there was more water and sometimes there were more palm trees・n hour later we knew that no-one who grows up with MTV can look at peaceful lagoons for more than three hours. What was more, our destination was so far away that we壇 have to stay overnight and maybe even spend another day enjoying this serene and verdant tedium. So we managed to get ourselves transferred to a boat going in the opposite direction, which was a good thing in one way, but a bad ting because it was ten times more crowded than our boat. Tensions rose: I displeased Jane by using the phrase 壮tupid hippie・when talking about reality TV. How was I to know there were several stupid hippies sitting six feet away? Stuck on the broiling boat Emma and I were finding the realness unbearable; we dreamed of air-con Range Rovers. Curiously, Dom who is normally a keen connoisseur of five star facilities didn稚 mind the boat; still with only 鮮ice・biscuits and water to sustain us, it didn稚 look good.

When we stopped at a backwater cafe you can imagine our joy when we saw a gleaming cream Hillman ambassador, the Indian taxi-driver痴 car of choice. What was more, it had a custom upholstered interior, patterned after a 1970s lounge suite. We decided it was time to enjoy an experience more in keeping with our own cultural mores and paid the driver around twenty five quid to drive us 140km back to the Costa del Kerela. In fact, the girls didn稚 realise it, but they were going to get another dose of reality. Stuck in traffic because of a Hindu festival, they both had to relieve themselves in a field, watched by a sacred cow.