Indian Journeys: The Bus to Chennai…..

This was not my bus. It’s a school bus, and a smarter version. Sadly, I forgot to take a picture of the one I travelled in.

…. was the sort you see in all the pictures. Unglazed windows with bars across, and an engine that had probably been put together c.1953.  If this coach had been a human body, you’d probably have called it ‘lived in’.  As it was in fact a bus, I’d say it had had a long history of ‘near misses’.  Oh, and it may not have been cleaned since 1953 either.

But the big excitement was a motorway.  Well, perhaps not a motorway, but a toll road anyway, with dual carriageway, a hard shoulder and a central reservation.  The road surface was indifferent, but so superior to anything I had met previously  that I could understand why everyone described it as ‘the fast road to Chennai’.  Here’s what I found out:

Goats eat breakfast in Thanjavur. They’d have done better on the fast lane of the motorway.
  • 2 lanes doesn’t mean slow and fast. Everyone uses both lanes indiscriminately and over or undertakes at will.
  • Goats use the ‘fast’ lane.
  • Cows use the central reservation.
  • Bicycles going the opposite way to the prevailing traffic use the hard shoulder. As do pedestrians.
  • Men pushing handcarts use the main highway.
  • The hard shoulder is also for bus stops.
  • There are zebra crossings. God knows why, nobody ever uses them.
  • Pedestrians cross whenever they want to. Not at the zebra crossings, obviously.

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The Great Indian Train Journey: Mysore to Thanjavur.

Mysore to Thanjavur: 415 km by road, more than 600 km. by rail, and a 12 hour overnight journey: £6.00.

Bike park outside Mysore Station.

I’d booked my ticket the day before, and arrived at the station as directed, about an hour ahead of its scheduled departure.  It was just as well.  A station official took pity (for a small fee…) on the clueless European , who had no idea that she had to check in, in the manner of an airline passenger, or that she would find her seat by looking for her name on the passenger lists posted at each carriage door.

On the station platform, everyone was getting on with life.  A large family spread themselves on the ground, got out metal plates and canisters of food and got stuck in.  Rather than sit in a hot train, I headed for the calm of the Ladies’ Waiting Room until it was nearly time to go.

The train itself, once it got started got into the habit of making long stops nowhere in particular.  Chai and coffee boys went up and down the train.

As darkness fell, I was struck by the low level of lighting in the towns we passed through, and more particularly the stations.  Even at Bangalore, where we stopped for ages.  More chai, coffee and water sellers got on, then  vendors selling hot meals: I chose a vegetarian meal with rice and several different vegetable dishes – hot and very good value.  A young woman got on, having had her hands and wrists recently henna-ed on both sides.  Managing her life, which seemed to consist of calling people on her mobile, without using her not-yet-dry hands was quite a challenge. One family produced a three course supper with several dishes, on metal plates, then mum disappeared to wash up at the sink in the corridor.  I had different conversations with various passengers, limited by our inabilities in each other’s languages.

At about 9.00, we all got ready for bed. Our compartment got separated out into two sets of beds at three levels and smartly uniformed staff handed out crisply laundered sheets, pillows and a double blanket each for us to make up our beds in our own way.  For once, I slept … until 4.00, when so many passengers got out at Trichy.  I had only an hour to go before arriving at Thanjavur.

I was dreading having to wait on a dark deserted station for two hours (Waiting for whom? Another tale for another time). But it wasn’t deserted.  Not at all.  The booking hall was thronged with men – young men, old men, all sitting in convivial groups on the ground sorting and collating that day’s newspapers.  It took them almost the whole two hours that I had to wait until the next chapter of my story began….

Click on any image to view full size and to read the captions.

This was part of my Indian Adventure, November 2007.  I have used the place names that were then widely used, rather than the official names, which now seem more widely adopted.

Indian Journeys: The Auto-rickshaw

I arrived at Bangalore airport at about 6.00 in the morning. There were several hours of baggage handling, airport confusion and a taxi-ride through town, with auto-rickshaw drivers weaving and buzzing round us like angry wasps, before I reached my small family run hotel in a quiet residential quarter of town.

The garden at Terrace Gardens Guest House, Bangalore.

I stepped out of the car to the calls of loud birds yelling and whooping, and shortly after, found myself escorted to a roof terrace, where I gazed at distant huge birds with enormous wingspans (eagles?  vultures?) coasting lazily on the thermals. Attentive staff served me with unending supplies of small soft spongy pancakes – idli – with thin aromatic and spicy dipping sauces and much-needed coffee.  It was 9.00, but my body knew that back in England it was 3.30 a.m.

Unable to rest, I set off to explore the quiet back streets near the hotel.  Dozens of women were out in the back streets, crouching over their handle-less brooms, sweeping and re-sweeping the pavements.  Stallholders on street corners sold bananas, brown and well past their sell-by dates, or coconut juice straight from the shell.  A few bored monkeys sat about on air-conditioning extractor pipes.  At a building site, a bullock stood patiently while two men shovelled rubble into the cart it drew.

Delivery from the Builder’s Yard. This picture was actually taken in Pondicherry a couple of weeks later. But it’s a scene I often saw.

Then I reached the main hub of Bangalore, MG Road (Mahatma Gandhi Road) with the pavements, such as there were, thronged with pedestrians.   In the road itself, cars, vans, trucks, auto-rickshaws, all constantly blaring their horns raced along, over-taking, under-taking.  However would I find the courage to cross? Answer.  By finding a group of others also wanting to get to the other side and introducing myself into their midst.  There’s safety in numbers.

I hadn’t wandered too far when I was picked up by an auto-rickshaw driver.  He could probably see ‘Arrived from Europe this morning’ tattooed across my forehead.  He offered to show me round for 10 rupees.  I wasn’t green enough to believe that, but I was exhausted, and it wasn’t an unattractive proposition.  It was memorable – and fun.

My first friend in Bangalore: the rickshaw driver who took me on a tour of the city.

He proved an amiable guide whose English, while obviously hugely better than my Kannada, often led to mutual incomprehension.  Still, he hared round a variety of sites introducing me to the city he loved. ‘This is my Parliament building.  This is my national bird.  This is my Rajah’s Palace.’  And he waited while I ‘did’ Bengalaru Palace, one of the homes of the Raja Wodeyar.  As the Lonely Planet says, you are personally shown round by an aged retainer, who is rather keener to show you fly-blown pictures of the Royal Family than the quirky furniture and fittings.  Seedy but fun.  It’s not often you see cattle grazing in royal gardens.

In front of Bangalore’s Parlaiament building. My friendly driver took this shot.

He was in the pay of various shops.  Of course he was.  And he took me to some.  I was quite clear that I was not going to buy anything.  Not on my first day.  This proved to be an effective bargaining tool to bring prices tumbling to the level the shopkeeper planned to sell at in the first place.  Reader, I bought a couple of things, and nor did I regret it.

My new friend urged me to ring him whenever I needed transport in his fifteen year old rickshaw.  I didn’t.  But later that day I wished I had.  A different driver saw me puzzling over my map, and offered to help.  But his help turned out to mean trying to persuade me into shop after shop to buy. When he realised I really wasn’t going to buy anything, he dumped me.

I was in a poor part of town (where? where?) and with a 500 rupee note as my lowest form of currency.  When the average meal costs seven, I knew that offering this note in shops simply wasn’t an option.  I trailed round back streets busy with rickshaw drivers repairing their trucks, vendors splicing huge melons and squash to sell, garland makers fashioning powerfully scented jasmine garlands for Diwali, sheep drinking at doorways, solitary cows chewing at a pile of rubbish, tent villages…. until I finally found a travel agent, where they changed down my note.

And then I took a third rickshaw, asking for an address near ‘home’.  He took me directly there.  Food, an internet cafe, and home to bed, long after dark.  Night falls in a matter of minutes, at 6 o’clock.  My exhausted body knew quite well that the day was over.

 

This is my contribution to today’s Ragtag Challenge: Taxi

Indian Journeys

I began this blog almost ten years ago (What?  Really?).  But it wasn’t my first.  I’d started blogging two years before that, on a different platform, to record my memories of a very special holiday in India. It wasn’t the best of platforms and in fact it no longer exists.  Eventually I took a deep breath and moved to WordPress, so you can’t flick back and read about my Indian adventures here.

These days, I’m in a writing group.  Last week, we fell to talking about travelling, and about how we often overlook the pleasure of the journey in favour of impatiently anticipating our arrival at our destination.  It sent my memory scurrying back to India, and I can feel a series of posts coming on about Journeys in India.

Are you sitting comfortably?  Then I’ll begin.  Now that dates me……

I’d wanted to go to India for more years than I could remember.  As a London child and then as a student in Manchester, Indian culture had always been at the periphery of my life:  its foods, its smells, its clothing.

When we lived in Sheffield during my thirties there had been ‘The Arts of India’ at the Mappin Art Gallery, when craftsman from all over India came, and every day for about three weeks, made pots, wove, carved, and worked with inks and cloth in the art gallery. By night, since my then husband was the gallery curator, we’d eat together, joined by Indian heritage Sheffield residents who became our friends too. They would cook for us and we for them, and we’d talk into the night.

Some years later my son, by then eighteen and just finished with school, worked as a teacher in a village school in Uttar Pradesh, then travelled for some months following his nose all round India.  His letters – no emails then – tantalised me.

Family and work all pushed the dream of distant travel away. Until my 60th birthday and my retirement,  when my daughter and her husband gave me a very special gift to be spent on travel. India. That was it. I’d go there –  with no Malcolm, no friend, no companion found on Thelma and Louise – though I considered all of these options. This trip was for me.

And I went, choosing south India instead of the more visited north.  I have memories of markets, of quiet temples, in one of which I was blessed by an elephant, of cows and goats in busy city streets, of eagles soaring over rooftops, of eating at workmen’s cafes from banana leaf ‘plates’, of the Imam’s call to prayer every morning at 5.30 and every evening at 5.30.  I had a week in a small group too, in rural locations, discovering the parts of India that work the land.

A temple elephant raises her trunk before lowering it to bless me.

Above all though I remember journeys. It was on these journeys that I often felt closest to being an ordinary citizen doing ordinary things in an extraordinary  country.

  • My first rickshaw ride, on my very first day in India,  which turned into an extempore, personal tour of Bangalore from my driver, who loved his city.
  • The overnight train ride, travelling across India in the company of tea boys, soldier-smart railway officials, giggling girls, serious lecturers, a family groups sharing their carefully prepared three course meal before washing up, then arriving very early in the morning to a busy station community.
  • Or the intercity bus journey along a motorway, where goats carelessly wandered onto the carriageway from the central reservation where they grazed..
  • Or my final journey on a local train which I truly didn’t expect to survive so tightly were we all packed. But that, like all the others, is a story in itself.

Click on any image to see it full size.

Peace in the Garden

We’ve had Team London here this week: an engagingly exhausting three year old and his baby sister make great company, but we’ve had a tendency to disappear to our beds not long after they do, and be snoring sweetly by 10.00 o’clock at the latest.  However, in among exploring York, farmyard life, a canal, and the Wild Woods at the bottom of the garden, we had a day at Harlow Carr, the RHS gardens in Harrogate.

It provided William with plenty of Things to Do Before he’s 11 3/4:  roll down a hill; go barefoot; watch a bird and have fun with sticks for instance.  He and Zoë were very happy.

But for us, despite their bright enthusiasm for all there was to see and do, it was a green oasis, a haven of peace.  We were content, strolling along the quiet paths, or beside a stream, sharing our space with bees, butterfies and birds.

Click on any image to view full size.

My entry for today’s Ragtag Challenge: Peace

A bonus post for the Summer Solstice

Generally, we don’t make much of a thing of the Summer Solstice: we simply mourn that the day after, the days start getting shorter again.

But when I was looking for a post-from-the-past to reblog for June, I came across this one, and was reminded of a Special Summer Solstice.  Montségur, for the uninitiated, is a startling tump of a mountain celebrated as one of the last strongholds of the Cathars, a mediaeval Christian sect.  It’s a potent landmark in the Ariège.

June 21st, 2011

Summer solstice, Montségur

All this time we’ve been here, we’ve not seen the sunrise over Montségur.  Today, midsummer day, I decided to change all that.  Me and 99 others……

I arrived at the car park just after 5 o’clock,  at the same moment as a hare which had for at least two frantic minutes been trying to out-run me.  And I realised I was not alone.  It was still dark, and quite a difficult business to trek up a steep, slippery rocky path.  Other more provident people had torches, and everybody helped one another.

The route to the top. Still pretty dark.

Towards the top, the night sky was slowly washed from inky blue to delicate blues, pinks and greens by the sun which was still well below the horizon.

I found a couple of friends there, and a vantage point relatively distant from the crowd crammed into the castle ruins.  They had come to see something special – the rays of the sun as they poured through the ruined windows.  I decided it was too packed with people to feel special in there.  I’ll come back another day soon, to see for myself.

What I saw was quite wonderful enough: a rich copper disk slowly mounted above the line of mountains in the distance,  tinting the sky ochre, rusty-red, sugar-pink, finally emerging so fiery bright I could no longer look at it.  Some locals burst – quite beautifully – into song.   Occitan/Ariègeois stalwarts, ‘Quand lo Boièr ven de laurar…’ and, inevitably, ‘Se Canto’.

Gradually the whole sky lightened and brightened, turning the entire landscape crisply clear.  I strolled round the summit – it was surprisingly easy to get-away-from-it-all, before skidding and climbing my way down to the car park again….

Montségur casts a shadow on the hillsides beyond. The car park’s still full.

….and there were my companions who’d provided torchlight.  They were hitching, because their car had failed to start.  We journeyed back to civilisation together, ready to resume normal service.  It was 7.30 a.m.

Almost deserted again, Montségur in the early morning light

Revisiting our Lizards

It’s that time of the month: the time when I reblog a post from our years in France.  This time, I’m celebrating our much-missed garden friends the lizards. I do wish they’d consider a move to North Yorkshire, if only because back in 2012, I had nowhere near mastered the art of getting a decent photo of them.

June 27th 2012

‘I am the lizard king. I can do anything.’ *

Summer’s arrived: well, this week anyway.  So from before breakfast until long after the evening meal we’re spending as much time as we can out in the garden.  And we have plenty of company.  Lizards.  Common wall lizards, podarcis muralis.  They are indeed spectacularly common here.  We have no idea exactly where they live, but there are plenty who call our garden ‘home’.  We’re beginning to get to know a few.

Easily the most identifiable is Ms. Forktail, she of the two tails.  She’s the only one we’ve been able to sex conclusively as well, because we caught her ‘in flagrante’ with Mr. Big behind the gas bottles recently.  And then the next day she was making eyes at a younger, lither specimen, and the day after that it was someone else.  She’s lowering the moral tone of our back yard.

Then there’s Longstump, who’s lost a tiny portion of tail, and Mr. Stumpy, who hasn’t got one at all, though it seems not to bother him.  Redthroat has a patch of crimson under her chin.  There are several youngsters who zip around with enthusiasm and incredible speed.

Longstump

In fact they all divide their time between sitting motionless for many minutes on end, and suddenly accelerating, at top speed and usually for no apparent reason, from one end of the garden to the other, or vertically up the wall that supports our young wisteria. On hot days like this  (36 degrees and counting) they’ll seem to be waving at us.  Really they’re just cooling a foot, sizzled on the hot wood or concrete.  Sometimes you’ll see them chomping their way through some insect they’ve hunted, but often they’ll step carelessly and without interest over an ant or other miniature creepy-crawly in their path.

Mainly they ignore one another, but sometimes there are tussles.  These may end with an uneasy standoff, or with the two concerned knotted briefly together in what could scarcely be described as an act of love.

Happy hour for Longstump

We could spend hours watching them, and sometimes we do.  But there is still a bathroom to build, a workroom to fit out, and a pergola to design.  The kings and queens of the yard have no such worries.  They can do anything: they choose not to.

‘Our’ lizards on their personal sunloungers.

*Jim Morrison, 2008