The next day Fox and Blessy had to spend meeting yet more family and friends; these were the ones who were unable to make it to the wedding the previous night. It made me feel glad that I came from such a small family. If ever I got married I think I would have to hire well-wishers. Apart from friends the only people I’d have in my corner would be my mum and stepdad, my nan, and my uncle Paul and his wife and my two cousins. So me and Adrian were left at the mercy of Karla and Joseph. Luckily, they had arranged a day trip for the four of us plus Lakshmi, Anthony, and a couple of others from the wedding. Mahabalipuram, – (which even the locals sometimes had trouble pronouncing and referred to it as ‘mamallapuram’), was a coastal town about two hour’s drive away from Madras. I had left my rough guide to India in my room so I had to just go with the flow with no briefings. However I knew that Mahabalipuram was a tourist spot, so hopefully there’d be somewhere I could finally get a beer.
This had been the longest I’d gone without alcohol since I started drinking it. That pint of Theakstons at Heathrow just four days earlier seemed a million miles away now and although I had a little bit of vodka left in my bag back at the hotel I was hoping to save that for the airport on the way home in case we got delayed. There was also a bottle of Southern Comfort which had not yet been opened, but technically that was Adrian’s. Before coming on this trip I had accepted that booze would be in short supply in India (The rough guide to India listed only 6 bars in the whole of Madras, and I had hoped to visit one with Adrian at some point.) I knew that some hotels also had bars in them, but as yet we had not been given the freedom to seek out any such places. However, going into a tourist spot I was hoping for some better luck.
We split into two parties; Karla, Joseph, two German girls (who had apparently also been at the wedding but I had not seen them), another couple and Pastor Benjamin got into the space cruiser, and me, Adrian, Anthony and Lakshmi got into an ambassador driven by Edwin. The initial stages of the trip yielded more views of Tamil graffiti by the roadside which stretched for miles; it seemed to have a recurring colour theme of black and red with a yellow border. Someone told me it was pro-Tamil independence graffiti. We stopped off for about ten minutes in one of the poorest areas of Chennai, as the driver of the Space Cruiser had some business to take care of. He disappeared into a building and left the space cruiser in the middle of the street with us parked behind in the ambassador. Hordes of women clad in clothes of black piled by. I saw two caucasian nuns also walk past, possibly of German descent. I wondered what the connection was with Germany. Lufthansa was the only major airline that flew here; Germans had infiltrated the churches and the convents, and other than the surviving Austin Ambassadors from the days of the British Raj and a few native brands such as Tata and Mohindra, the only cars were German cars, in particular Mercedes and Volkswagens.
Eventually we headed off, and within twenty minutes we were outside of the city limits and driving through the Indian countryside. The road was a bumpy dirt track surrounded by farms and fields. It was hot inside the car even with the air conditioning on, and I was glad that I’d remembered my sun block. Our first stop was an alligator sanctuary and wildlife park, which was quite exciting. There were several enclosures, each containing about a hundred crocodiles, alligators and gavials, and the only thing separating us from them was a huge moat! When they weren’t swimming, the animals lay completely still in the sun, covered in mud which had dried to the extent that for a while I actually thought they were statues. That was until an attendant came by with a bucket of meat and the whole enclosure came to life, crowding round the section of the wall at the edge of the moat with their jaws gaping wide open in expectation of the impending feed. For a few rupees, you could take a handful of meat and throw it to them yourself, however myself and Adrian chose not to although one of the German girls did. Afterwards I had my photograph taken holding a baby alligator. It was actually quite cute, only a few weeks old but about half a metre long from it’s head to the tip of it’s tail. The little fucker pissed on me so I handed it back.
We spent about an hour there in total. As well as alligators they also had a reptile house. We walked through but did not see any reptiles. As we piled back into the cars Pastor Benjamin handed out some small bananas which we ate. As we drove on towards Mahabalipuram, we came to the coast and passed a beautiful lagoon. It was a stunning site and the first time I’d ever seen a coastal lagoon, where over many years a spit had formed to isolate a small section of water from the rest of the ocean. To take the shine off of the moment, Edwin spoke up from the front in his broken English.
“This area, Tsunami.”
Just further down the road there was a huge blue tent-type structure on the beach. Edwin again indicated that this area had been badly hit by the tsunami.
“This place, Tsunami” he said. But what happened next sickened me. The car pulled to a halt and Edwin got out. Maybe he needed a toilet stop or just a breather, I thought. But when everyone else got out of the car too, Edwin gestured toward the tent on the beach, which turned out to be an aid camp for the tsunami victims, and then turned and gestured to us, encouraging us to take photographs of it. I had to restrain myself from losing my temper but I did explain to him in terms that I hoped would be clear enough for him to understand, that this was not a tourist attraction.
We eventually reached Mahabalipuram. No sooner had we got out of the cars than we found ourselves surrounded by merchants offering souvenirs. Man, those guys were persistent. They followed us from the car to the stone carvings which drew many tourists to the area and finally we were free of them as we paid to get in to the attraction. The stone carvings were amazing; each of them had been carved by hand from huge singular boulders centuries ago with primitive tools and the main themes were temples and elephants. We had a group photo taken and then Adrian and I clambered atop one of the temple carvings and had another photoshoot courtesy of Lakshmi. We were inside for a good twenty minutes or so, but when we came out of the exit we found that the merchants had been waiting for us outside! I decided to buy a couple of items so that they might leave us alone, and bought an Indian drum and a spherical stone carving I guess would be best used as a paperweight, which I later gave to my nan. Rather than act as a deterrent, this seemed to send out a subliminal message to other merchants in the area that “The Englishmen are spending money!” and suddenly they multiplied like gremlins in a shower room. We managed to escape them though, and headed towards the beach.
At the beach I met another German girl, Kristina. Along with her friend Helene, who was French but lived in Budapest, they had travelled out here as soon as they’d heard that the tsunami had hit and had devoted the last month of their lives to providing voluntary aid work for the tsunami victims. Helene was busy fixing a roof somewhere nearby. I complemented them on their noble act and said that I wished that I had the time to help out myself. I asked her if I could get a beer anywhere around here and she pointed out a nearby restaurant. I told her she deserved one on me for the good work she was doing and she laughed but replied that she did not drink. She gave me her e-mail address which I later lost; I think I must have accidentally thrown it away as I was packing. The rest of the party were down at the beach but right now I just wanted to get away from them and grab a beer.
It was hot outside so while Adrian and the rest of the party paid to get into another attraction, I waited outside in the shade and was approached by more merchants and a man who walked on his hands and feet as if he had been raised by wild dogs, which was quite random. (I later saw a documentary back home about the same guy. It turns out that he had indeed been raised by wild dogs.) I gave them a few coins and then Pastor Benjamin approached. We walked down to the beach and as the road turned into sand I slipped off my sandals so I could feel the sand between my toes.
Pastor Benjamin quickly turned a discussion about the weather into one about god. I bit my tongue rather than tell him straight up that I was a non-believer and decided just to play along and keep my answers minimal.
“Jesus died for your sins, you know.”
“Yeah, I know.”
We reached the edge of the water. The tide was coming in and I went in up to my ankles. It was like stepping into a warm bath and felt lovely. However I bent down to touch the water with my fingers and remembered how just over a month ago the same water had taken so many lives and caused so much destruction. I felt a shudder go through me. As I looked up a few metres down the beach, a piece of wood had washed up on the shore. Even a month later, bits of people’s houses were still washing up, which felt eerie. Pastor Benjamin must have sensed this, because he then said the only words to me that did not have a religious connection:
“Now when you go home you can say you have touched the tsunami water”.
I started to feel like I had misjudged him. Okay, he was a bit annoying, but he had a good heart. He told me that he had been praying virtually non-stop for the victims of the tsunami which I thought was a noble thing; however I didn’t mention that I personally would have spent that time doing what Kristina and Helene were doing right now, delivering help where it really mattered.
As we walked back to join the rest of the group, I saw a craft stall which was selling painted seashells. I bought one for Dani and had it painted with the words “DANI + RAVEN”. The lady added the word “INDIA” so it read “DANI RAVEN INDIA”. This was random but still nice. We reconvened in front of the restaurant which Kristina had told me served beer. We chose a table upstairs with an open balcony overlooking the beach. Lakshmi warned us against eating any fish as it was caught locally and therefore there was a good chance that the fish could have been dining on the flesh of dead tsunami victims just hours before. This was a shame as I had been told that the fish dishes in this area were something pretty special. I opted for a lamb curry which was fiery and delicious. But the real highlight of the meal was a bottle of ice cold Kingfisher beer, the big ones that you normally get at Indian restaurants back home. It cost the equivalent of about 80p here. (Somerfield sells them for £2.99 each). Myself, Adrian and Anthony toasted glasses, being the only drinkers in the group, and I said that I had never been happier to drink a beer in my whole life. I still haven’t. Me and Adrian had a couple more each but had to resist the temptation to get slaughtered, not only because of the company we were in but also because of the hot weather and impending long car ride back. But that was the end of a great day out.
When we arrived back at the hotel we went back to our room to get changed and have a shower each and then went and sat with Anthony, Lakshmi and Joseph in the dining room. There was an English couple and their daughter in there who we got talking to; they had checked in that morning and seemed really nice. They were called Sarah and Gerry and they were from Portslade, near Brighton. Sarah told me that their daughter (whose name I cannot remember) had donated all the money she had got for Christmas to the Tsunami relief fund which I thought was a really touching gesture.
Fox and Blessy were up on the landing along with Blessy’s parents, who invited us to their home that evening for dinner. I felt honoured and warmed by their hospitality, especially as I had only seen them briefly at the wedding. One of the rented cars had to be returned and so we travelled for the first time on a tuk-tuk, which for those of you who don’t know is a hybrid of a motorcycle and a rickshaw that is indigenous to Indian cities as well as most of South East Asia. In Madras they are painted yellow and black and can be found everywhere, weaving in and out of the traffic. Blessy and her family travelled in the remaining rental cars driven by Edwin. On the way there we passed the checkpoint-type thing with the tank that I’d seen on the first day as we’d drove to St. Thomas’ Mount. Now that the light was clearer I could see that it wasn’t an operational tank, rather a disused but highly decorated one which served as a roadside war memorial. The checkpoint itself was still very much operational however, but I later learned that it was because St. Thomas’ Mount is private property which is protected by the Indian government. We arrived in Blessy’s neighbourhood which was a stark contrast to the other neighbourhoods we’d driven through in that the houses were in cul-de-sacs with driveways and it seemed like the posh part of town. If they made an Indian version of Brookside, this area could have been used for the filming of the title sequence, I thought. As we parked up, a driving school car complete with headboard was manoeuvring about the other end of the street.
Blessy’s home was a very humble home, and her parents didn’t speak much English but the welcome that we received was a very warm one indeed and the language of hospitality that was conveyed again proved itself to be a universal one. Before we sat down to eat a prayer was said, led by Lakshmi who was very passionate about it and spoke straight from the heart. This actually lasted about ten minutes. The meal itself was fabulous, as home cooked meals usually always are. Blessy’s mother had prepared a chicken curry with rice which was moderately spiced, however I got the impression that she had toned it down through fear that it might be too hot for our English taste buds. Blessy’s brother Robbie smiled constantly throughout the meal but didn’t say much. Blessy was much more eloquent; she spoke about her time at university and for the first time I got a chance to get to know her. This Blessy seemed a world apart from the sad-looking bride I’d seen the previous day. In her own home she seemed much more, well, at home. She was wearing comfortable-looking Western style clothes and generally just being herself, laughing and joking with Fox and the rest of us. From the way they seemed to be getting on I could tell that they would be happy together. She said she was looking forward to coming to live in England and we said we were looking forward to seeing her again in London when her visa would eventually come through.
For dessert we had some homemade halva, which is a sweet, slightly viscous block of sugar-based pudding. I’d seen many kinds of halva before in a Turkish shop in London but had never tasted it. This type seemed to be darker than any I’d seen. It had a texture similar to fudge but was translucent rather than opaque. The taste was interesting, extremely sweet and maybe a little too rich for me, but I ate enough so as not to offend my hosts. Afterwards, we sat down to watch the video of the wedding. Adrian had done a decent job of capturing the most important parts; the couple entering the chapel and all the best bits of the speeches. I appeared in a couple of shots holding Karla’s camcorder and generally getting in Adrian’s way. Afterwards there were more prayers, and then we thanked our hosts for their hospitality and Adrian, Fox and myself got back into the rented car where Edwin drove us back to the YWCA.
The Deal Of The Century
Back at the hotel there were even more friends of the family that had not been at the wedding. I went with Fox as he tried to locate his folks who had arrived back to the hotel before we had as for some reason Edwin had taken us the long way back. We found Joseph in the dining room. Apparently, a situation had arisen. Fox and Blessy would be leaving the next day on their honeymoon, in the region of Kodaikanal in the Western Ghats, which Fox had told me had a much milder climate due to it being situated on a plateau. Karla and Joseph would also be travelling up there with them but staying in a different resort in the region so that they could have a well-deserved break of their own, and Anthony and Lakshmi were flying to the Maldives the next day to spend a week on holiday there before returning to South Africa. We were due to check out of the YWCA the following day, and Adrian and myself were faced with the prospect of two days and nights alone in Chennai. Karla was worried as she had not thought about this, although you couldn’t blame her with all the stress and planning she had been through with the wedding. Obviously it was the first time she had met me, but she had known Adrian since he was very young so she felt compelled to make sure that we were both looked after while we were in India.
So, in Karla and Joseph’s room we weighed up our options. On the plus side, we had hardly made a dent in our rupees – so far I had only bought a couple of presents and paid to see the stone carvings. I had about £200 worth of rupees left and Adrian had about the same as he had only bought a couple of souvenirs also. So we would be able to pay for our accommodation for the next two nights in Chennai and maybe track down a couple of the city’s 6 bars that were listed in the Rough Guide to India. Antony and Lakshmi said that we were welcome to join them in the Maldives as they had rented a villa which was a tempting offer although not a realistic one as our flight home was due to leave Chennai two days later. I’m not sure Anthony thought that one through but it was a nice offer. So it looked like we would have a couple of free days in Chennai but would be on a bit of a budget after paying for our accommodation. That was until another option arose.
A distant family relative who had been at the wedding the day before had overheard about our predicament. I cannot remember his name, so we’ll call him “Mr. Wolf”. He was down in the dining room and had asked to see us. We went down there accompanied by Joseph and found him sitting in a dark corner drinking tea. Joseph introduced us. He was in his fifties, and wore glasses and a grey suit. Although his face showed no emotion it was easy to tell that his motivations were good. It turned out he was a travel agent, and as a late wedding present to Fox and family he had volunteered to help us out. He’d been on the phone all evening to some of his contacts in the travel business and was prepared to offer us an extremely cut-price deal as a gesture of his family’s hospitality. It involved travelling over 500 miles across Southern India and would give us a chance to see a bit more of this vast country while we were here. At the price he offered us, it would have been absurd to refuse.
First, let me tell you the itinerary and everything that was included in the package. The next evening (Friday) we would take an overnight coach from Chennai to Bangalore. It was a 9 hour drive but Mr. Wolf assured us that the coach would have beds and air conditioning so we could pretty much sleep through the journey in total comfort. We would arrive in Bangalore the next day and be met by our driver who would also act as our tour guide. He would first take us to Mysore (Another two hour drive from Bangalore) and drop us off at our hotel (The 4-Star Presidential Hotel) where we would spend Saturday night. As we’d arrive in Mysore before midday, we would have the opportunity to drive around and see a lot of the sights there. The next day we would have time for a little more sightseeing before driving back to Bangalore where we would catch a flight back to Chennai in time to board our connecting flight home to London.
So that was it: Overnight coach, personal car and driver/tour guide, one night’s accommodation in a 4-star hotel plus a flight from Bangalore to Madras (about 2 hours) on Indian Airways. The price he offered us was six thousand rupees, just over eighty pounds sterling. So you can see why it was an offer too good to miss. Not only that, but Mr. Wolf had had to pull a lot of strings to get it at such a great rate; I imagined that in order to help out the family he must have been on the phone to everyone he could think of that owed him a favour. It was about 10pm at this time and his phone was still ringing. So we decided to take him up on his offer.
The next morning we had to go to Mr. Wolf’s office in town to finalise the deal and get our tickets. We took our passports along with all our other documentation and headed up to the office accompanied by Karla. The office itself was on the 4th floor and was spotlessly clean and actually a bit cold as the air conditioning was on full blast. Mr. Wolf was not there, which I found unsettling, but I was surprised at how much the place looked like any travel agent’s back home and it seemed to be a very professional operation. It took quite a while for the documentation to be finalised; our passports were photocopied and faxed over to the Bangalore office and eventually when the confirmation came back the deal was done. I was given all of the tickets and documentation for safekeeping, and I put them in the front pocket of my bag. We headed back to the hotel and had a few hours to sit around before we would all leave together that evening. Luckily the train station that Fox, his parents, and Blessy would be leaving from was right opposite the coach station Adrian and I needed to go from and they would be able to make sure we got there before setting off themselves. I went into the main hall / reception area of the YWCA taking my pencils with me, and pulled up a table where I copied the Tamil word for “Nevermore” that the nuns had provided me with, and started to work on a design for my tattoo. Joseph was sitting around reading a local newspaper and I remember one headline was about the racing driver Narain Karthikeyan who was from Tamil Nadu. He had just signed a deal to compete in Formula-One the following season. So depending on Mr. Karthikeyan’s success, Sachin Tendulkar could soon well have a contender for his title as Chennai’s most loved sportsman. It made front page news in Chennai, although eventually he went on to accrue only 5 career points in Formula-One.
Back in the room we packed up all of our stuff which wasn’t difficult as we had hardly unpacked anything up to that point. Afterwards we had a bite to eat in the dining room before going back up to the veranda where Karla gave us a briefing about what to expect; to keep our wits about us and not to get too drunk. I couldn’t make any promises on the second one. Then finally, we were all packed and ready to go and said goodbye to Anthony and Lakshmi and the nuns.
The Road To Bangalore
We drove to the bus terminal and located the coach we were due to board. It didn’t leave for another hour so I guess we would be waiting around for a while. We said goodbye to Fox and his parents and Blessy and wished them well on their honeymoon / holiday. Then we were on our own.
The bus terminal was a run-down affair; it hadn’t rained in Chennai the whole time we’d been there and from the look of some places we had seen it couldn’t have rained in years, however the floor was muddy here. There wasn’t much signage about; just a controller’s office and a small tea kiosk. A few other coaches and buses were parked around with numbers on the front, and although there were a few other people about none of them looked like they were travelling anywhere. There were a couple of beggars and a few guys in uniform who must have been the coach drivers. Our coach had the travel company’s name printed on the side, “Parveen Travel”, which matched the logo on our invoices, but it seemed to be the only coach without a driver although the door was open. Eventually a guy did get on so we went over and asked him if we could sit on the coach. He agreed, but warned us that we would not be leaving for another 30 minutes.
For the next half an hour we sat on the coach expecting it to fill up with other passengers bound for Bangalore, but it did not. By the time we left there was only one other guy on the coach besides us and the driver, and even he got off after just 20 minutes when I guess we must have been near the outskirts of Chennai. Adrian had drawn all of the curtains towards the rear of the bus and was already asleep; I however could not sleep and so I finished the last of the vodka and read a bit more of “Stairway to Heaven”, the story of the rise and fall of Led Zeppelin told through the eyes of their long-serving road manager Richard Cole. I had the curtain open just a little, and pretty soon we were driving across the Indian countryside in the late evening. As we crossed the state border from Tamil Nadu to Karnataka, the light of the moon illuminated only feint shapes on the horizon indicating that there was little or no vegetation and not many buildings. It was almost like driving through the desert. It felt very peaceful and I eventually reclined my seat all the way back so that it became a bed, and managed to get a few hours sleep despite Adrian’s snoring.
We arrived in Bangalore early the next morning. The city was already abuzz with traffic and was just as polluted as Chennai if not more. Upon stepping off of the coach we realised that we had no idea where to go, so we flagged down a tuk-tuk and produced our documentation to the driver, who sped off. Assuming he knew where he was going, we sat back and enjoyed as much of the journey as we could while at the same time trying to ensure that our luggage stayed on our laps as the driver weaved in and out of traffic. After about ten minutes, we passed a huge stadium and stopped at what looked like another bus garage. The driver told us to wait in the tuk-tuk and went off, we assumed to ask for directions. Ten minutes later he still had not returned so I went to look for him, asking Adrian to wait there. I went over to the terminal-like structure and looked around but could not see the driver. I showed the invoice to a guy at a ticketing office who indicated to us that it was not in this area. In fact he pointed in the direction we’d just come from.
Just then the driver appeared holding a cup of coffee.
“Come, come!” he said.
Realising that he was taking us for a couple of mugs I ran back to the tuk-tuk to get Adrian, and found him being hassled by some sore of bearded holy man who carried a bundle of burning incense. He blew a cloud of smoke into the tuk-tuk as some kind of blessing, despite Adrian’s protests. Realising that the driver was coming back I quickly told Adrian the situation and we collected our belongings and managed to hail down another tuk-tuk before the first driver reached us. I showed him the invoice with the address on it and he also seemed to know where it was. I just had to hope that he would not try and rip us off as well. The first driver shouted something at us as we sped off.
Fortunately the second driver was more honest, and although he didn’t speak much English he seemed to understand the situation. He drove us back the way we came until we reached the area where the coach had stopped then turned left and drove for another hundred yards until we stopped outside a row of shops, one of which bore the travel company’s logo. Basically the first driver had known that the travel agents was just around the corner from the coach stop, and had craftily tried to take us round in a big circle and also stop for a coffee halfway around, and would probably have charged us ten times the normal rate for the privilege. This had now delayed us by at least half an hour. We paid the second driver and gave him a generous tip, then we went inside the office.
The staff at the office had been expecting us, and had started to worry that we might have been abducted. Our driver was waiting outside. His name was Binoy and he looked about 25 years old. Dressed in a smart-casual blue shirt and trousers, he spoke quite good English albeit very quietly and with a heavy accent. We apologised to him for the delay and explained what had happened. He said that it was quite normal for tuk-tuk drivers to take liberties with foreign passengers when they thought they could get more money out of them. We hit the road, not wanting to waste more time, and headed for the Royal City of Mysore.
The drive was just over 2 hours long but was one of the best car journeys I’d been on. The route took us past rice fields, rural villages and for some parts ran parallel to a small river. The road surface alternated between tarmac and dirt tracks, and got less and less busy the further away from Bangalore we got. When we arrived at our hotel in Mysore, Binoy told us that he would meet us outside in half an hour so that we could begin our sightseeing tour. That gave us just enough time to check in, dump our stuff and maybe freshen up and get changed.
Mysore – The Royal City
After checking in, we walked towards the elevator to go up to our room which was on the third floor. When the elevator came, a Buddhist monk got out wearing the traditional bright orange robes and a deep red coloured sash. He must have been important because he was accompanied by two uniformed guards armed with Kalashnikovs. Being that Buddhism is a peaceful religion I chuckled to myself at this contradiction. We stepped aside as they made their way towards the exit. As the monk passed us he nodded and smiled. We did the same back in case he took offense and we wound up full of bullets.
The room was very nice and had everything we needed, particularly air conditioning which is a godsend in any place with a heat as dry as South India. A quick shower and change of clothes was just what the doctor ordered, and then we hit the road again. Binoy was waiting outside for us and we took off across Mysore to our first stop, the Mysore Palace.
Mysore had many palaces but this one in particular was grand and spectacular enough to have become known simply as “Mysore Palace”, and was the city’s main tourist attraction. Outside the palace was a soft drinks vendor. I bought two bottles of a fizzy orange soft drink called “Mirinda”, similar to Fanta but sweeter. I became a big fan and for the remainder of our trip I drank quite a lot of it. About a year later it would start appearing on shelves in Britain which I was delighted about. The sun glinted off of the golden spire of the palace which was quite breathtaking. Me and Adrian went inside and found ourselves on a guided tour of the palace and grounds. The palace itself is a magnificent building, a combination of Gothic and Islamic architecture with undertones of the British Raj. In front of the main facade we were accosted by a group of Nepalese students on a college trip, who despite speaking any English seemed very friendly and were reluctant to let us leave without first having their photos taken with us.
Inside the palace there were many interesting rooms. There was one called the Dolls Pavilion which, as the name implied, was full of dolls and was a little creepy. The armoury was interesting also, with examples of weaponry used from the 1600s right up until World War 2. Then there was a huge octagonal shaped room which was full of artefacts brought from all around the world; Spanish swords, French oil paintings, Chinese lanterns… in fact nothing seemed to come from India. Even the room itself was built from wrought iron which according to a sign had been made in Scotland, the pillars supporting it had come from Belgium, and the floor was decorated with an impressive mosaic with a peacock motif whose tiles had come from England. The only Indian thing at all was an elephant saddle (which is called a howdah), and it must have been worth a few bob as it was made almost entirely of gold.
There was also a temple on the palace grounds, which was at the back of the palace and we had to make our way across a small courtyard to get to it. Along the way we were told how the palace was built on top of the old Mysore Palace which was destroyed by the British, and heard the story of a man named Tippu Sultan, who I’ll mention in more detail a bit later on.
Outside the entrance to the temple was an elephant with it’s handler who was offering elephant rides and photo opportunities for a small price. There was also another refreshment stand where I bought another bottle of Mirinda. Behind this was a small stable with the saddest looking horse I’ve ever seen standing outside in the heat. This poor animal was so thin you could see its ribs where it’s skin was sagging. I looked at the horse and there was a moment between us where it looked back at me with a knowing about it, as if it knew and had accepted that it was only hours away from death. I’ve already mentioned that I am not religious in the slightest but I am still spiritual, because it is possible to be spiritual without following a religion and in that moment I said a silent prayer for the horse, hoping that if horses had an afterlife then it would go on to a better place. Sounds quite silly I know, but it made me quite sad and kind of put things into perspective.
I reluctantly caught up with the group and entered the temple which was an amazing sight, the seven storey structure reaching up to the heavens. I laughed at the paradox of myself, a non-believer, standing in a temple in a country surrounded and dominated by religion in its many forms. There was no way of avoiding it no matter where you turned, whether it was a Hindu temple such as this one, or the Christian churches we’d seen in Chennai, or the random Buddhist monk disembarking the lift earlier in our hotel. Whilst I have never agreed with the idea of religion, I have always respected other people’s faiths. So upon entering a Hindu temple I removed my shoes, placing them with the others at the side of the doorway and bought a small offering from a vendor outside, in this case a small statue and a garland of flowers which I placed at the feet of the larger statue in the centre. I even allowed a Hindu priest to decorate my forehead with the customary orange powder. The rough guide to India said that it is considered offensive to take photos inside a temple, so Adrian and I waited until we were back outside to have a photo taken of us with our orange foreheads.
We exited the Mysore Palace and reconvened with Binoy. He seemed to be enjoying himself, reading a newspaper with his car parked in the shade of some trees. He drove us to our next stop, Mysore Zoo. On the way we passed a cow which had been painted yellow from head to toe and decorated with children’s handprints. It was calmly walking along the side of the road as drivers swerved to give it a wide berth. Outside Mysore Zoo there was a sugar cane juice vendor. I wanted to try some but I’d just drunk two bottles of Mirinda and needed a visit to the gents. We went inside and spent an hour or so walking around the zoo. It reminded me a lot of the crocodile sanctuary a few days before in the sense that the enclosures were not separated from the zoo patrons by cages or glass screens but rather by huge moats. It actually made a lot of sense as you could get closer to the animals although we must have come on a bad day because we didn’t see too many animals, apparently at Mysore Zoo there are daily shows and we’d missed most of them that day. I remember finding a dead butterfly with the most amazing black and green design on it’s wings, which I put into my oyster card holder and kept in my wallet for some time afterwards, although I later lost that wallet after being mugged on Oxford Street.
Next, Binoy took us to a craft centre where I bought a tie as a present for my stepdad. Speaking as someone who doesn’t really wear suits if I can avoid it, I thought it was a very nice tie. It was navy blue decorated with a repeating elephant and howdah pattern, and made from the finest quality Mysore silk. I don’t think he ever wore it. We then drove to the outskirts of town and visited a Christian church which looked very out of place; in fact it resembled Stephansdom in the centre of Vienna which I’d visited a few years previously. It was also quite interesting in it’s layout; you had to go down some steps and through a tunnel decorated with human skulls like in the Notre Dame level of Onimusha 3: Demon Siege. At the other end was a small chamber with a tomb and some steps leading down into the catacombs which were off limits to tourists, and leading up to the church itself. We didn’t stay long, as other than the interesting entrance and tomb it was still just a church.
We had now grown quite hungry and as the sun was going down, we drove back to the hotel to have another shower and get changed again before going downstairs to dinner. The restaurant was quite elegant and offered Chinese food as well as Indian; which we sampled a little of. The meal wasn’t included in the price of our stay but wasn’t too expensive. Binoy had told us that there was one more place he intended to show us and he had saved it till last purposely as it was better seen at night. We had no idea what to expect. He drove us outside Mysore onto a road system which was unlit and a bit eerie. The drive lasted about 20 minutes before we arrived at Brindavan Gardens, which is my favourite among all the places we visited in Mysore. Initially it didn’t look like much, just a huge car park and a few brightly lit craft stalls, but then you went across a thin bridge over a body of water beside a huge dam (itself about a quarter-mile in length), and found yourself in the gardens proper. We asked Binoy to join us but he was worried about the car so he stayed in the car park, and me and Adrian crossed the bridge. There was a power cut halfway across during which everyone stopped as the area was descended into pitch black darkness. Luckily the backup generator kicked in and we made it across.
We spent a couple of hours here as the atmosphere was really nice. There were lots of families there and more little stands serving soft drinks and snacks. I bought yet another Mirinda and some donuts which I shared with Adrian. We watched some fire dancers and a musical water show where the central fountains exploded in time with the music, and on the whole it was the most fun I’d had in India thus far. Coming back across the bridge we ran into India’s tallest man, Santhosh Kumar, who worked at Brindavan Gardens as a security guard. He was the tallest guy I’d ever seen at about 7’7, and lots of people were standing around him for a photo opportunity. He bore more than a striking resemblance to the Indian wrestler Great Khali.
But it was Saturday night and we were sober. Not only that, it was now our last full night in India so we decided to go out with a bang.
“Binoy, take us to a bar!” I said as we clambered back into the car. We ended up at a bar in the back of a hotel on the edge of town where we looked upon a huge selection of Indian whiskeys. I chose one called “Black Dog” in reference to the Led Zeppelin song, and Adrian had a beer. We spoke with the bartender and bought him drinks with every round we purchased as it was so cheap. Then we realised that the restaurant was still open, so we thought we’d have another bite to eat. The menu catered to English tastes and was more akin to that of an Indian restaurant back home. The food was so-so, but the highlight of the meal was the beer. The two of us got through their entire supply of Kingfisher and were then offered a beer called Jaguar, which was marketed as “Winey Beer”. It was very nice and I have yet to come across anything similar. Me and Adrian toasted glasses and decided we were so far glad to have taken up Mr. Wolf’s offer.
The Final Day
The next morning I woke up with a sore head and a dry mouth. This would be our last day in India, although our flight wasn’t due to leave until around 11pm. So we still had time for a bit more sightseeing. Binoy had slept in his car in the car park and was waiting for us out the front. We packed up all of our stuff and checked out of the hotel before Binoy drove us to Chamundi hills just outside of Mysore, where we visited the Chamundeshwari Temple and a couple of other smaller temples. Again, we removed our shoes and took a small offering in as a mark of respect. As soon as we got inside, a guy started to show us around delivering a barely comprehensible monologue of the meanings of various sculptures and design features in the temple, most of which we’d already learned the previous day. The temple was peaceful enough but the guy just wouldn’t leave us alone and let us enjoy it. Hastily we hurried around the rest of the attraction to escape from him, only for him to follow us onto the streets and demand money from us. I explained to him that not only had we failed to ask him for his services, but we had also failed to enjoy them. Eventually I gave him a few rupees so that he would leave us alone and then we went back towards the car.
On the way, we were followed by a young local boy, he must have been about seven or eight. He started speaking to us in very good English, even better than that of the ‘temple-tout’ we’d just been harassed by, although this lad was 100% more polite. He told me that he went to school nearby and then impressed us with his party trick, naming all the capital cities of Europe! The boy reminded me of myself at that age, and although it came as no surprise to me when he asked for some money to help towards his schooling, I didn’t begrudge giving him a couple of hundred rupees. This was a mistake, however, as no sooner had I handed over the notes than three or four other kids the same age came and started to follow us through the marketplace and hassled us for more money. Luckily Binoy was parked close by, so we made a quick escape. Binoy was standing next to the car talking on his cellphone when we got there. We got in and waited for him to finish his call. When he did, we expected him to drive off. However he suggested we visit one more place before we did. It was a prayer hall a literally just a few metres from the car. I was beginning to get a little tired of sightseeing to be honest, but we thought we would see this one more place so as not to upset our guide.
The prayer hall was two rooms side by side, the walls of which were adorned with murals. It was, as it had looked from the outside, nothing overly special. However we were again approached by somebody inside, in this case a holy woman who was very polite. She showed us around the walls and explained each mural to us. It was a kind of fusion between Hindu and Christian spiritual themes, sort of a place where anybody could come and pray regardless of their individual faith. It was a nice concept, and I trusted that this woman would not bother us for money as she worked here, rather than the last cheeky sod who just hung around in temples all day bothering foreigners. However if I am honest, I just wanted to get back on the road to Bangalore so I tried to skip through most of the lecture we were receiving on spirituality, but it dragged on and on.
Suddenly, Adrian collapsed. One minute he was standing there, the next minute he was lying on a heap on the ground. I heard a loud metallic thud as he hit his head on a guard rail. I hurriedly picked him up and ushered him outside. The children were waiting for us at the exit in the hope of getting some money out of us, but this time they were going to be disappointed. I got Adrian into the car as fast as I could and told Binoy to get us out of here. Fortunately Adrian was okay, just a bit shaken. There was no water in the car so we stopped to get Adrian a drink. I’m not sure whether it was the heat that got to him or the boredom from the lecture we were enduring at the time! But after a few minutes he seemed back to his usual self again.
“How long was I out for?” he asked?
“About three seconds, I replied.”
Binoy said there was one more attraction in the area that we should see, however this time I decided just to be honest with him and ask him to take us back to Bangalore. At this stage I actually longed for the airport, even if we had to wait there several hours for our flight. I just wanted to go and sit in a departure lounge and chill out until it was time for our long flight home. So we drove past the Nandi Bull which was the attraction Binoy had had in mind but this time we stayed in the car. The Nandi Bull was pretty impressive; however you didn’t need to get out of the car to really appreciate it. A black statue of a sitting bull, at least 30 feet high, by the roadside en route to the summit of the Chamundi hills. At least we could say we’d seen it.
As Binoy drove us out of Mysore and back toward Bangalore, He again tried to convince us to see a few more sights. It was still only around 1pm and our flight didn’t leave for another nine hours. He was right, we didn’t need to be in such a rush to get back to Bangalore, but I just wanted to be off of the hill. So we let Binoy drive us to the Tomb of Tippu Sultan. We’d heard the name of Tippu Sultan the day before when we were visiting Mysore Palace and he was also mentioned in the Rough Guide. Nicknamed “The Tiger of Mysore”, He was a ruler of the former Kingdom of Mysore and surprisingly, a Muslim, although the vast majority of his soldiers were Hindus. He sided with the French in their struggle against the British and had built the church we’d visited the day before. His campaigns against the British yielded a few surprising victories and eventually culminated in a great battle on the grounds of the original Mysore Palace. Tippu Sultan stood looking out over his lands and the approaching British forces, and knowing that he was vastly outnumbered and his palace would soon fall, he quickly changed out of his royal garb and into a military uniform, and went down to fight as a common soldier. He was found shot dead with his sabre clenched tightly in his fist, an extremely noble death.
Tippu Sultan’s resting place was a short drive off of the main motorway. Outside the entrance we bumped into a couple of Englishmen, from Birmingham. One of them was called Paul and was the shorter and more talkative of the two. I can’t for the life of me remember the other guy’s name. But he looked like a Dave so let’s call him Dave. Anyway, they had been here a couple of weeks touring Southern India and had just come from Madurai, which they urged us to avoid as it was apparently very dirty. They were really nice guys. They were just coming out of the tomb as we were going in, and we said goodbye to them and wished them the best for the remainder of their holiday.
The tomb itself had a resonating silence about it. There were about five buildings and a small mosque on the grounds as the place had a lot of Muslim visitors. The buildings were set out like the dots on the number 5 side of a dice, with the entrance gate and mosque building followed by the tomb itself in the very centre, the tomb of Tippu Sultan’s father Hyder Ali behind that, and two smaller tombs on either side. There were a few other people about but they all walked around in complete silence giving the place an atmosphere that could easily have been interpreted as being quite eerie. I found that it was actually very peaceful.
Back on the road, Binoy drove us down to the banks of a river. A few people were swimming in the cloudy brown water and one guy was fishing right off of the bank. There was the option of a boat ride in one of several round tubs that looked as if they were woven from tree fibres, however we declined this, as it was nice just standing around for a while in the shade. That was until the merchants spotted us.
‘Not this again’, I thought. Before I came to India I knew I would experience this at some point on the trip, but I didn’t expect it to be this intense, in your face everywhere you went. It had been okay in Chennai, but we had had it in Mahabalipuram, Bangalore and now Mysore. The thing that annoyed me most about it was not only their persistence but the fact that they seemed to understand perfect English when it came to money and haggling over goods but the word ‘no’ didn’t seem to exist in their vocabularies.
I had an idea. I quickly turned to Adrian and told him how to say “I don’t understand” in Swedish – Jag förstår inte. I told him to let me do most of the talking and if any of them approached him to just repeat those three words. When the first guy came over he spoke to me in English offering me the exact same goods we’d been offered in Mahabalipuram a few days earlier.
“Jag förstår inte”, I replied. Of course, I could have been saying anything for all the guy knew. But I could speak Swedish quite efficiently and convincingly at that point. (Of course, if I’d have been speaking to a Swedish person it would have sounded like a load of nonsense, at one point I think I even started quoting lines from a Lars Winnerback song, but it worked!) More and more merchants approached us and followed us back to the car. One of them even pulled out various coins from Europe and showed them to us one by one, hoping to deduce where we were from based on our reactions. Adrian used his line well enough and eventually through a combination of instant Swedish and a repeated slicing-of-the-air hand gesture, they got the message and left us alone.
I had nothing against people trying to make money by selling me things, but the manner in which they went about it was enough to drive even the most patient of people insane. However at the same time, you don’t want to offend them. In a strange culture with strange customs, a move like that could be your last. It did feel as if everywhere we went, we were viewed as walking banknotes. Everything seemed to be designed to get the foreigners’ money faster. The next attraction we stopped at was a prime example – a sign outside read: “INDIANS 5 RUPEES, FOREIGNERS 100 RUPEES.” That was the icing on the cake. 100 rupees to an Englishman is not much, but needless to say we passed up that offer on principle. I imagined the outrage that would be caused should a similar sign appear outside the Tower of London.
We hit the road again, and by now I really did wish I was back in London, sipping a pint with Dani and Katy in the Blue Posts and eating Subway sandwiches. Just then, Adrian suggested stopping for a bite to eat. This sounded like just the thing I needed. We stopped at a roadside restaurant that looked particularly inviting and was all situated under a white marquee-type structure. As we waited for a table we again bumped into Paul and ‘Dave’, who were just leaving. We again wished them a safe trip and were shown to our table by an immaculately dressed waiter. As we neared the end of our trip, we felt a little bad that we had not had the opportunity to get to know Binoy that well. So we invited him to join us for lunch on us, as a way of saying thanks for putting up with us for the last two days.
Being in a largely Hindu-populated state, the menu was strictly vegetarian. Binoy and Adrian went for the vegetable curries but I fancied a bit of a change so I ordered the “American Chop Suey” as it sounded interesting. We also ordered some vegetable pakoras as a side dish, bread and drinks. (I had a lime juice blended with salt rather than sugar which is the way it is done in many Indian towns) and the meal was very nice. On the same site as the restaurant was a place that seemed like an Indian version of Starbucks. We bought some extremely sweet cakes from there which we ate before we got back into the car, but discovered they were filled with cream and remembering Karla’s warning about dairy products we went easy on them. Our only other stop en route to Bangalore was at a small shop where I bought two packs of high quality Mysore-style incense, one as a present for Katy and one for myself to use in my room.
The drive back to Bangalore was every bit as enjoyable as the outbound trip had been. We opened the sunroof and at one point I stood up with the top half of my body sticking out of it so I could enjoy the open air. The horns and radios from the other drivers created a non-stop chorus of fast-moving ambience around us, and people waved to us from the roadsides. At one point I even saw a guy wearing a Charlton Athletic shirt which was the last thing I’d expected to see here. I’d already seen at various stages a few youths wearing Manchester United shirts and even one with a Real Madrid shirt, but I never expected the Addicks to have a fan base in Karnataka. We finally reached Bangalore with a couple of hours to spare, so Binoy took us to Lal Bagh botanical gardens where we had a walk through the park.
Binoy told us that he’d just got married himself a few months ago and showed us a picture of his wife. We then talked about his home, the university course he was applying for, and the high points of our trip. We walked across a bridge, at one end of which a lot of people had gathered to watch a group of large fish that looked like carp repeatedly swim to the surface with their mouths open, hoping to catch some of the bread the people were throwing. They would then fight amongst themselves for the bread, which was quite funny to watch. We walked a bit more and I bought a round of Mirinda which we sipped as we walked back to the car.
Our last stop before the airport was a temple on one of Bangalore’s main roads. There was some kind of festival going on and everyone was in high spirits. No sooner had me and Adrian walked in than we found ourselves being given small statues and flowers by a group of women in very colourful clothes. We didn’t spend too long here as we were worried about missing our flight, but if it had been a day earlier I would have stayed there all night. Driving through Bangalore’s city centre, I was surprised at how much it looked like any other city. There was Pizza Hut, McDonalds and lots of bright flashing signs like the ones in Piccadilly Circus. We drove past Bangalore’s best hotel which Binoy told us was the only 7-star hotel in India. It would not have surprised me, for it was about a quarter of a mile long and looked very grand. When we finally got to the airport, we said goodbye to Binoy and exchanged email addresses, and then headed through the check-in to catch the first of three flights we’d catch in the next 24 hours.
Indian Airways operated many internal flights between Indian cities at fairly cheap prices, a bit like the Ryanair of the sub-continent. The flight was just over an hour long and we were well looked after on board by the stewardesses who were quite attractive and spoke immaculate English. We arrived in Madras and had a couple of hours to wait for our flight to Frankfurt as there had been a slight delay. We didn’t have many rupees left between us. I had a bit of English money but wanted to save it for when we arrived back in the UK. There was a lounge exclusively for people who had a credit card, which you were required to show upon entry, which I thought was weird. Neither of us had a credit card but we went and sat in there anyway for a while until we got bored and went back to the main departure lounge where we sat and played cards while watching the WWE Royal Rumble on Sky Sports which was being shown at the time.
The long-haul section of our flight went smoothly. We slept through most of it but I did watch a little bit of a Bollywood film that was showing as the in-flight movie. It was also a good opportunity to have a few vodka and orange juices. Since it was free I made sure I asked for a double each time. We landed in Frankfurt and had about another hour to wait before the final leg of our journey. I tried to find a bar that was open but had no luck, so me and Adrian sat in a cafe which seemed to be the only thing that was open around here, although it was completely empty. They did serve non-alcoholic lager, which in my opinion is one of the most pointless inventions ever. Pretty soon we were boarding the plane, and a couple of hours later we were back on our home soil and waiting for the underground from Heathrow to take us back home. We boarded the tube with all of our luggage in tow. Luckily for us it was an empty tube. As the train neared the centre of London, me and Adrian arranged to meet in the Blue Posts later that evening to see Dani and Katy, give them the presents we had bought them and share experiences from our trip over a few pints. Adrian got off at Green Park to catch the Victoria Line back to Brixton, and I changed at Holborn for the Central Line but rather than go all the way to Bethnal Green I got off at Liverpool Street to catch the bus from outside the station that would take me close to my house. My mum was doing the washing as I got home. I gave her a hug and threw my suitcase into my room before throwing myself onto my bed. It was great to be back.
The past week had felt more like a month. As I stared at my ceiling I thought about all the places I’d seen in India, all the new experiences I’d had. I thought about Anthony, Lakshmi, Edwin, Blessy’s family, Pastor Benjamin, Mr. Wolf and Binoy. I’d seen my best friend get married. I’d experienced a whole range of emotions and felt that little bit wiser. I’d only just scraped the surface of a vast country rich in culture and history. Maybe some day I’ll return to India, perhaps to the northern part of the country. But this had been my first time outside of Europe and my first taste of a culture that was worlds apart from my own. Some people like the comforts of home, and others are not afraid of anything. I’d say that I fall somewhere between those two categories. I love seeing new places, trying new foods, new experiences. But lying on my bed at that particular moment felt like the best place in the world. I knew that one day I will travel and see many more strange and exotic places, but right now I needed to take a much shorter journey, down to Oxford Street and the Blue Posts for a few pints and something much more familiar. After all, what is travelling worth if you don’t have something you know and love to come home to?