Indian Media is strangely familiar looking stuff. In terms of the
English language press, there are a lot of papers which look exactly
like The Times, one that bears a strong resemblance to the Guardian and
another that looks like the bastard offspring of The Telegraph and the
Independent. Still no amount of typographical plagiarism can disguise
the content. All the news is about the effect of the recent budget on
coir production; and the international pages concern themselves largely
with arguments with Pakistan 善ak・and Bangladesh 船esh・
Still what do you expect for five pence?
Nonetheless, I壇 managed to find the best of a bad bunch and, on
the day we left Kovalam, stopped at a kiosk outside the station to pick
up my usual copy of 禅he Hindu・and a trashy mag for Jane.
As they were fresh out of Indian Cosmo, I asked the vendor for 疎
magazine for women, like Cosmopolitan・ He smiled broadly and
handed me a surprisingly pricey magazine called 船ebonair.・When
I gave it to its intended audience, she was surprised to find it taped
shut and when she removed the tape, equally surprised to discover that I
had bought her a porn mag, full of busty Asian lovelies with their jugs
out. Never mind - once we壇 got over the shock, I enjoyed
Debonair, even if it was rather less robust than the Dutch publications
I normally favour.
Happy Happy Hippies.
Having spent an entirely pleasant week in Kovalam, we decided to head
north to Varkala, a resort which, our guidebooks assured us, was like
Kovalam used to be before it became the Malaga of the East. And Varkala
is truly a world away from its brasher sibling. Sprawling along a
cliff-top it is built largely of bits of palm trees which results in
cute eco-friendly look. Every other hut houses a yoga class or a
transcedental meditator or some such. Marijuana smoke wafts lazily
through the palm trees and waiters solicitously offer you hash after
your meal. Unsurprisingly, is also absolutely chocka with hippies and
travelers. Many, many white people with dreadlocks. Despite their
popularity, dreads on the unblack are not a good look. Bob Marley yes.
James from Guildford no.
When it came to stereotypes our fellow travelers obliged us fulsomely.
Walking along the cliffs late one afternoon, I espied a hippie type
earnestly playing his bongos and chanting at the setting sun. Jogging on
the beach that evening, I almost ran into another longhair. We got
talking and I explained that I was not a natural jogger but was running
for the first time since I broke my leg, adding that it was very
pleasant to do so on a beach. 糎ow・he replied, 惣ou
must feel, like, very connected.・I replied that I did, both
literally and metaphysically, an answer which seemed to satisfy and
confuse him in equal measure. Then he turned towards the sea and went
back to his meditation; for some people the 60s never ended, even if
they were born in 1975.
Where Varkala really shone though was the food: huge marlin, warm water
crabs, tuna so fat their skins looked ready to burst and ghostly,
ethereal looking squid. So, by the end of day one, I was feeling that if
Valkala was the 疎lternative・it was a pretty good one.
Here, I mused, is somewhere we can keep it as real as we like. I can
change my name to Waterfall, Jane can call herself Moon unit and we can
run an Ashram from our bamboo hut; maybe I値l even score some
drums off the bongo seller.
Cocks with Dreadlocks
By the end of the following day, I felt rather differently. For starters
Varkala is a complete washout as a 礎each resort・・the
sea is far too dangerous to swim in. Also, if you were running a resort
what would you do with your rubbish? Take it to the dump? Recycle it?
Burn it? Or how about just chucking it all down the cliffs onto the
beach? To say India has a litter problem is a like saying the Americans
are fond of guns. But these are small beefs compared to the people.
Varkala is the most unfriendly place I have ever been. The guy who spoke
to me on the beach represented a high point: thereafter (waiters aside)
we could count the number of people who talked to us on one hand.
The typical Varkalan visitor has Rasta dreads, wears an Indian sort of
skirt, Thai beads and sports a couple of Celtic tattoos. I知 all
for cultural fusion ・after all where would we be without the
chicken tikka lasagna - but the sort of ethic dogs dinner this lot garb
themselves in proves that good taste involves knowing what to leave out.
And if you think I知 being a little harsh, try putting the beaded
sandal on the other foot. Imagine an Indian coming to Europe and
prancing around dressed in clogs, a kilt and an embroidered Spanish
shirt, all nicely topped off with a beret. Say hello to them and they
blank you with ill placed superiority. The cheapo tourists (for, much as
they would hate the sobriquet, that is all travelers are) in Varkala are
completely up themselves and self-absorbed. In much the same way that
It is interesting to not though, that keen as this lot are to wrap
themselves in 粗thnic・tat and pick like magpies over the
local religions and philosophies, they can稚 bring seem to bring
themselves to touch the local cuisine. Indeed, as we tucked into coconut
fish curry, drank cardamom tea and ordered dishes just because they had
interesting names, the 叢izza ethics,・if they were feeling
adventurous might, just might try a shrimp. Washed down with coke,
Varkala was also as hot as Kovolam: 80% humidity and 40 degrees in the
shade. We found ourselves on the beach from 9-10 and then unable to do
anything until 4pm. When the high point of your day is winning a
sweating competition with your girlfriend, it really is time to go. So,
snubbed by the 喪eal travelers・and dripping with
perspiration, we took a leaf out of our imperialistic ancestors・book
and headed up to the Hills. Or rather the Nilgiri Hill Stations, where a
hundred and fifty years ago, the British built a several towns 7,000
feet up in the middle of nowhere because the view kind of reminded them
Ghats and Brats
So back on the train, through rice paddies and palm covered hummocks,
into scrubby bush and finally alongside the Western Ghats, which in
Tamil Nadu, look remarkably like the Pyrenees. Trains give you an
excellent opportunity to observe Indian families at close range. In this
case ・a fairly typical family - Mum appeared to have abdicated
responsibility once childbirth was over. She did very little, sprawling
a sleeper berth for the duration. Dad, conversely, was in charge of
everything, from feeding to entertaining to toilet duty. And nobody was
responsible for discipline. The kids had the high pitched voices of
those who are used to whining until they get what they want. Please, you
wanted to say, I don稚 mind your offspring swinging from the
overhead berths most of the time, but could they please not do it when I知
trying to eat a scalding liquid curry. And when a hawker came through
the carriage selling squeaky bird toys (one of those playthings designed
only to irritate) dad bought his brood a bird apiece ・and one for
himself. India is a traditional country and you might reasonably expect
a Victorian dad and a stern mother ruling impossibly well behaved
children with an iron rod. But when it comes to producing overindulged
bratty kids, the Indian middle classes are streets ahead of their
And what happens to these kids when they grow up? Well, the girls seem
to turn out OK・he boys on the other hand・a group of six
will spot you, descend like a pack of hyenas and bombard you with rapid
fire questions. While I知 all up for a polite conversation, this
is an interrogation not a conversation. What is your name? Where are you
from? Are you married? Why no children? How much do you earn? Your
culture is very bad why the divorce rate? All interspersed with rather
suggestive comments about how beautiful my 層ife・is. You
develop a ficticious alter-ego designed to minimise these tiresome
粗xchanges.・I was an accountant from London, married and a
pious Christian. I was planning to have kids next year and would never,
ever, swear to the God I so devoutly worshiped, divorce my wife.
Indian Tourists in India
Our destination, the rather charmingly named town of Ooty, is a major
tourist magnet, but for Indian tourists, who like us, wanted to escape
the heat of the coast. It sprawls across a valley high in the
picturesque hills and, as it was built by the British boasts a botanical
garden, a race track and an ornamental lake.
Feeling the need for exercise, we decided to hike up the top of the
region痴 tallest hill. When we asked for directions, we caused
great concern. 選t is 8km ・you cannot walk! Get a taxi!・The
owner of our guesthouse later explained that middle class Indians
consider walking degrading, which would explain the plumpness prevalent
amongst the wealthy. In fact, those who counseled against walking were
right: there were so many Indians driving up the hill (and playing
Hindipop and honking their horns as loudly as possible) it was a
perfectly horrible walk.
And there is nothing the average Indian tourist likes more than a snap
of the family with a couple of pale-skinned folk: 善lease, a
photo..・is the commonest greeting we heard and in the months to
come our gormlessly grinning likenesses will be gracing family albums
all over southern India. Most impressive of all was when a minibus
screeched to a halt where we were having tea, just to take our photo.
But we were talking to a family of Icelandic-Canadians. Our putative
snappers looked from us to them and decided that compared to an
all-blonde family we were nothing. That kind of rejection hurts.
Despite this stinging rebuff Ooty was as friendly as Varkala was frosty.
Not a dreadlock in sight and we hung around with Brits, Belgians, a
French bloke, and a Dutch pair who, two days earlier, had stayed in a
hotel where a three day old body had been discovered in the room next to
theirs. We went up to the local flash hotel where we dined in a
restaurant reminiscent of a Cambridge College, with Liz and Lynn, a pair
of Mancunian fabric buyers. We wandered round the botanical gardens with
a British family who had chosen Ooty as an unlikely destination for a
two week vacation. And, best of all we joined a joined an American eye
surgeon and a British conservation worker on an organized trek through a
joyously roadless area. Our guide, despite suffering from flu (doubtless
exacerbated by the pot he smoked at lunchtime) was an impressively
knowledgeable fellow. He took us through a charming landscape which
recalled the Massif Central in Southern France. He found us a decent cup
of coffee and even had a stab at explaining the caste system to us. When
he got to the subtle status gradations conferred by different coloured
lunghis (the sort of nappy-cum-skirt) worn by men here he lost me
completely. But what really made it a day to remember was that he found
us that greatest of all luxuries in India. A place with no people.