A Bridge Over Troubled Water.

The boys arrived in Sangkhom, a small town further along the Mekong, with just a little trepidation. They had visited the friendly workaday settlement four years previously, and had loved it for it’s exquisite ordinariness.

Paul rarely liked to journey backwards, much preferring the surprise and adventure of the soi less travelled. Quite often somewhere revisited had lost the very essence of why one returned, tarnishing both the return trip and the original stay. It was always a risk.

Fortunately very little had changed in Sangkhom.

On pulling in to the two-horse town they’d noticed a new ATM outside the local supermarket but that seemed about it. Fortune still seemed to smile down sunnily on this little stretch of the great river.

At first sight at least.

They were, however, to discover that was certainly not the case. The real riverine tale being a steady stream of sadness and survival.

As they entered the little ‘Buoy’s Guest House’ and crossed the precarious rickety bridge to the small island to which their dilapidated hut creakily clung, the familiarity of their surroundings were at once entrancing. Paul recognised the even tinier shack across from what was to be theirs on this occasion, and was immediately reminded of an evening they’d shared on it’s verandah with a gregarious Gallic couple. They’d inhaled some herbal tobacco together and laughed into the star-studded night as Paul hazily revisited his schoolboy French.

The fat yellow dog was also still padding around amicably, although her hips now appeared to have seen better days. Paul knew the feeling!

And Buoy, the smiling, ebullient proprietress, was still there to welcome them effusively into her home. No need to show passports on checking in. And beers and such were to be taken from the open fridge and written down into book number ten. The number of their shack.

Probably far too frequently!

Paul and Andrew adored an honesty bar. It was so refreshing in every way.

But something at ‘The Buoy Guest House’ was not the same!

The Boys had arrived on a rather special day. It happened to be the very day on which they’d fallen for each others dubious charms, twenty-six long years ago.

Paul thought of it as a milestone, though he was well aware his partner sometimes considered it more of a millstone!

They celebrated in the afternoon with bottles of honest beer and some honest downtime.

The earth didn’t move, but their shaky accommodation certainly did!

 

Later that day, as the boys bravely crossed the bridge of sticks back to the main house, they twigged! It was a different bridge. It was longer and lower than before.

It also leant a little to the left, much like Paul!

 

They then spotted the crooked concrete pylons which had once held up the restaurant. Unevenly sprouting from the river bank like a contemporary Stonehenge.

And the main house, they now realised, was half the size it had been on their previous visit. They knew at once, the earth had certainly moved for Buoy.

They discovered this joyous and spirited lady was also marking an anniversary, yet not the kind most people were eager  to reach. She explained that three years before she had lost her husband to a massive stroke, and shortly afterwards, half of her home to the mighty river in a single stroke.

The wet season had brought with it tragedy,  her husband and livelihood went violently downstream to join that great spiritual estruary.

It was heartbreaking, as the boys learnt how the Mekong had changed it’s mood during the last few years, growing angrier and more ferocious than ever before. Buoy, having lived on the river all her life, had never witnessed the ‘Mae Nam Khong’, as it is known in Thai, behave in such a torrid way. She was certain the current situation was due to global warming. But there were darker forces at work too.

As the Mekong snaked it’s way down from the Tibetan plateau, through China, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, before escaping into the sea via the majestic delta in Vietnam, it’s ancient course was being irrevocably altered.

There was now a veritable deluge of huge hydro-electric damns. Great ‘green’ projects that did very little to help the farmers on the verdant plains downstream.

As the Chinese government intermittently flushed these monstrous constructions in their own national interest, little interest was being shown to the thousands of villages who saw their once fertile fields inundated with mud and thereby rendered useless.

Masses of farmers had flooded to join the urban mass in the growing cities of Bangkok and Phnom Pen to work as building labourers.

Growing condos instead of cabbages!

It seemed the vegetables making the big decisions upstream didn’t give a damn.

They could only build them!

Paul also discovered that there was an ambitious plan afoot, headed by none other than China, to blast a vast channel through the Mekong all the way from Yunnan, a province in it’s south west, right down to Luang Prabang in Laos. Thus creating an artificial,  all season waterway capable of carrying 500 ton cargo vessels.

He thought of the incongruity of these giant ships which were to set a course and dwarf the beautiful Buddhist temples, he and Andrew had previously delighted in, situated along the shoreline.  Gigantic steel river monsters washing away thousands of years of antediluvian  beauty in an instant with their giant wake.

A tsunami of slime and greed!

He wished the world would awaken to the disaster that was already taking place. Mankind was getting itself into very deep water.  He’d read of the growing consensus which predicted that in just ten years time the natural habitat of the mighty Mekong would be entirely washed away. Completely destroyed. And there would be no way to turn back the tide once this precious waterway had been dynamited to damnation!

A turbulent point that has got much of the Thai population,who will be affected by this blasted idea, close to boiling point.

Things had certainly changed beneath the surface in Sangkhom, and right along the Mekong’s exotic serpentine journey. And now it was beginning to bite back.

Paul knew one only had to listen to Buoy to realise the evidence didn’t need any buoying up. The rising waters and their now frequent tempestuousness were proof in themselves that the plimsol line had been crossed.

He was, for once, very glad he had trekked backwards, as it had enabled him look forwards. But the future was not bright. It was not orange. It was sludge grey and stultifying.

He silently cursed the Chinese and the equally ignorant President ‘Chump’ for their reckless and shortsighted view on the level of the disaster. They were ignorantly allowing this watershed moment to drift on by  He was sure they would rue the day when they had tampered with the globe’s natural plumbing. They, after all, would also be submerged when the waters rose.

And Paul knew for certain that he would not be drowning in pity on their behalf.

Neither would the beautiful buoyant Buoy.

Damn fools.

Miss Loei.

Loei is a small town in Isaan the region that butts up against the serpentine Mekong in the northeast of Thailand. It is the poorest part of the country and the least visited. Less than one percent of overseas visitors make it here.

It is mostly flat and dry by nature, yet it’s people are most certainly not. It is probably our favourite place in Thailand. It remains untouched by the outside world.

It is real! At first sight some of the province can seem rather dull and ordinary. Were Isaan a beauty queen she may not be crowned Miss World, but she’d be a scream on a night out!

We arrived at our small guest house on the outskirts of the slightly scruffy city of Loei having taken four and a half hours on the bus learning to pronounce it properly. Far too many vowels strewn together for an ignorant westerner.  Eventually I worked it out. Think lurgie without the ‘g’ I told Andrew.  He still hasn’t got it! The place itself, however, has proven to be far less virulent. Yet very contagious. We were almost immediately charmed. In no small part due to Pat, the owner of  ‘Sugar Guesthouse’ our meagre lodgings, who welcomed us like old friends. She was appropriately incredibly sweet.

She showed us to our tiny, yet perfectly formed bedroom, with a smile as wide as Alice’s Cheshire Cat, yet unlike that most fickle of felines, she did not disappear. Instead she hung around to give us all the gen we required on the ‘village’, as she purred on about her home town. She was most obliging, and in contrast to the majority of the proprietors of the smaller establishments in Thailand, her English was exemplary.

She informed us we had arrived on a rather special night, as the inhabitants of Loei were to celebrate the opening of one of their biggest annual events the following day, The famous ‘Cotton Blossom Festival’.

I must have looked blank!

“Or Dok Fai Ban ? ” she added in vain, as if I might somehow cotton on. Sadly I didn’t. I wasn’t even aware Cotton even blossomed, let alone that there was a festival somewhere in the world to celebrate it doing so.

What I do know is that Andrew and I seem to possess  a marvellous ability to roll up to a strange and unknown city when there’s a party going on. It has happened to us on a many an occasion.

In Vientiane, the capital of Laos, we just happened to turn up when the annual food fair was cooking with gas.

In Saigon we once hit the city just in time for ‘Tet’,  the riotous Vietnamese New Year celebration.

And there was one time when we stayed in Vienna when there was a hell of a bash in a gay sauna already in full swing, or should I say full sling. But we shan’t go into that.

Suffice to say, we swung.

We know how to party!

So, of course, we were thrilled that we’d arrived in Loei just in time for the start of proceedings.

We thanked Pat for all her helpful information and headed off to buy a couple of beers from the local ‘Tesco Lotus’ we had spotted on the ‘main road’.

‘You want beer?’ Pat had read our minds. Or noticed our bellies. “Don’t go to ‘Tesco’.  Beer is cheaper in shop on the corner.’

So we strolled down the narrow lane, passing snarling yellow dogs with false confidence to fool them into submission, and came to a wooden shack stocked with essential supplies. We piled a few things we didn’t need, along with our booze onto the counter and, like ‘Mr Benn’ waited for the shopkeeper to appear. Suddenly she popped up from behind the counter to serve us – to our surprise it was Pat.

‘No wonder she told us it was cheaper than Tesco’ I said to Andrew, rather cynically,  on the short walk home.

‘They’re exactly the same price’ said Andrew, equally as ungenerous.

I wouldn’t have known, but Andrew has the unhelpful knack of remembering the price of absolutely everything. It’s a shame he never went on that dreadful show ‘Supermarket Sweep’. The lovely Dale Winton would have been amazed at his ability to price up the total bill for three tins of baked beans, a Stanley knife and a packet of liquorice condoms in under three seconds.

Supping our ale under a small pergola tangled with exotic blossom, we both laughed at the friendly Pat’s double life. Why not recommend your own shop when in hotelier guise ?  The Thais are nothing if not entrepreneurial. Lord Sugar would certainly approve of our Lady Sugar.

Oriental music plucked and twanged from the small compound adjacent to ours, and when we glanced over we saw a giggle of twenty or so middle-aged woman performing a traditional dance. Each one stopping now and then in a fit of laughter when she had become unsynchronised with the rest of the troupe.

Every now and then we could hear a sharp instruction from the teacher at the front, correcting each member for an errant toe or a misplaced finger. It was an unforgiving routine, and some of the girls were quite obviously not up to scratch.

Having had many an impatient choreographer ourselves in the past, we were both eager to see the strict dance mistress who was taking the class.

Moving over to peer across the lattice fence we were fascinated to get a glimpse of her. Lo and behold – it was none other than Pat!

Yet another string to her bow.

It seemed as though our landlady did everything in this town. No doubt were there a fire she’d whack her helmet on and whip her hose out. She was a remarkably adept woman.

There was room for only two other guests in the tiny ‘hotel’. Bob, a rather taciturn elderly Glaswegian, who wore thick spectacles which made his blue eyes look like Wedgewood dinner plates. And Heinz, a more talkative German from Munich, who quite frankly didn’t let anyone else get a word in edgeways! Andrew went for a ‘quick shower’ and left me with the latter in the garden for far too long.

Before Andrew returned, cleaner than he’d ever bloody been, Heinz had managed to give me a dissertation on 57 varieties of motorbike he had ridden.

Including the top speed, cylinder capacity, colour make and model of each one.

‘On your bike Heinz’ sprang to mind, or ‘can it Heinz!’ but I was far to English too say it, and he was far too revved up to have heard.

His uncondensed  tales of engines and exhausts had me quite exhausted. I made it a point to keep out of his bike lane for the rest of our stay.

The next day Andrew and I headed down to join in the festivities amongst the cotton blossom. We had no idea what to expect. Pat had told us, now in tour guide mode, that there would be seven thousand dancers from all across the province dancing a traditional form. I had no idea what cotton workers danced, I knew the inimitable Tina Turner had once picked cotton as Annie Mae Bullock, but I had a good hunch the girls wouldn’t be bopping to ‘Proud Mary’!

We came to the banks of the Loei river, a tributary to the mighty Mekong, and were suddenly drowned in a sea of blue, or rather an ocean.

We had assumed Pat had confused her zeros, even with her admirable linguistic skills, and that the real number of performers would be nearer to seven hundred rather than the thousands she had promised. But we were wrong to doubt her, as the streets and sois, were awash with a turquoise stream of glammed up ladies as far as the eye could see.

And as far as my eyes could see not all of them were ladies!

In fact, a sizeable proportion of the cast of this carnival were, shall we say, rather sizeable.

And not what one would call conventionally feminine. In fact some of them looked like they’d just jumped out of the wrestling ring.

The more masculine they were the more slap they’d caked on. It was a dead giveaway. Heavy rouge on a heavy jaw is always a no no. I should know – I too am guilty of it occasionally.

Only for cash I might add.

This was a certainly a pageant like no other and it was no drag. It was brilliant.

Every shape, size, age and gender under the timid sun shone out with pride. All dressed in identical costumes. A fetching ensemble consisting of a white blouse, long dark skirt and a fetching sash sky blue. Each one dancing to the same beat, with an audience of excited spectators cheering them on.

Mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, daughters, sons and lovers. Not an ounce of judgment, only pure joy and pride.

It was most moving.

Absolute acceptance without the need to accept, because it just came naturally to these people.

I know, or try not to,  some blinkered folk back home who wouldn’t have approved – but the crowd who celebrated in the streets that day wouldn’t have given those ignorami  a goddamn cottonpicin minute of their time. In fact, I’m sure they would have been bemused by such a Neanderthal attitude. It doesn’t seem to exist here.

Thailand certainly has it’s fare share of doctrine and regulation, but not in Loei; not when it comes to expressing one’s true self.

What a town! Friendly, unspoilt and with a sense of humour that would put Bette Midler to shame. Perhaps the distinct lack of foreigners is one of the reasons for this.

It appears that Andrew, Bob, Heinz and myself are the only westerners in town.

Although we have been welcomed everywhere with prayer shaped palms and authentic smiles.

Actually,  I haven’t spotted our fellow ‘Sugar House’ guests since the end of the opening ceremony. Although I did hear Heinz through the sugar paper walls of our guesthouse in the early hours of our final morning. He seemed to be watching a film involving a pig and a fraulein. I can only guess it was an instructional video on animal husbandry. But taking a leaf out of the book of the delightful residents of Loei, I make no judgment.

And the pig seemed to be enjoying it!

On our final morning I sit, sweater-clad and shivering in the almost frosty garden, in the coldest, yet surely one of the warmest towns in Thailand. Pat exits quietly from the front door of sweet home,

“It’s so cold” she says, “on days like these I wish I could go back to my warm bed for another hour”.

“Why don’t you” I suggest.

It is only 7am.

“No, no”, she laughs, “I must go now and do the banking for the village. I am the only one who can do it here. Not all of the people can use a real bank so we have a savings scheme which I run.”

We both laugh at her ability to wear so many hats. She tells me she has to go and direct a piece for the festival later in the day.

“Wow!” I exclaim, “You’re amazing Pat. They’re lucky to have you here. You’re so confident”.

“Or just crazy” she quips.

We guffaw again. And off she goes to be the banker. ‘Miss Loei’ herself.

Pat. Hotelier,grocer,guide,choreographer,director & banker

What a wonderful world.

We leave the city with a slightly sweetened nature but with heavy hearts, as the crowning of the real ‘Miss Loei’ is due to take place at the end of the festival in nine days time and we shall miss the ceremony.

Some may think it sexist, but with so many of the contestants being of the opposite sex, and some slightly in between, I don’t really think that’s a fair critique.

It seems as though ‘Miss Loei’ is open to all.

And why not?

Miss Loei?

We already do!

What A Pallava!

Your name sir?’

‘Paul’

‘I am Kumar. Your hair very good – very nice.’

‘Thank you Kumar’.

‘Very handsome man’.

‘How kind’.

‘I am stone carver. I carve stone for famous Buddha temple in Exeter.’

‘I had no idea there was a Buddhist temple in Exeter.’

‘It new one! You want see my stones? First we go temple – you don’t pay – I don’t do for money, but I see you are nice guy. I know special way. Come. Come….’

And so it began.

My ego up, my guard down, and I’d enlisted Andrew and I on another south Asian magical mystery tour. This time, chasing the young stonemason, at rocking speed, around the seventh century rock temples of Mamallupuram.

We staggered precariously along ancient steps, ingeniously cut from a titanic piece of granite, recklessly attempting to keep up with the young Kumar, who was practically Simian. We learnt later that this acrobatic detour was in order to circumvent the normal gated entrance, thus avoiding the need to purchase a ticket.

An artful piece of dodgery from our new found mate – though we both suspected the relationship may get rockier as the daytime heat began to rocket.

‘How the fuck do we get rid of him now?’ Andrew asked me far too loudly.

‘Oh just chill out a bit – we’re getting a free tour, and free entry’ I countered.  Knowing deep down that we’d be paying for both of those benefits at some point.

I knew Andrew thought the same. But Kumar was roguishly charming, if alarmingly pungent, and he certainly knew his way around the ancient temples of the ‘Pallava’ kingdom.

It was easy to see why UNESCO had labelled the place a ‘World Heritage Site’. The stone carvings absolutely rocked.

Along with the mad dogs it was, of course, just The Englishmen that struggled unnecessarily through the blistering midday heat. Our whistle stop tour may have been unplanned, but the location was so atmospheric, a veritable concert of rock, that we both continued on, allowing Kumar to lead the way.

The mischievous Gods and Goddesses danced out of the rock face, revealing the face of a society which had partied hard for over six hundred years.
And neither of us had ever heard of them.

The Pallavas!?!

Of course, the real Pallava occurred when we finished with the final meditation temple, and were lead conveniently through a gate directly into a small shack, in order to meditate on Kumar’s wares. His stonewares to be precise!

Suddenly the tour guide became the salesman, and we were both made to sit through an uneasy psychic energy session, as Kumar theatrically discovered our healing stones.

And then introduced them to us!

Each at a starting price more worthy of ‘The Star Of India’!

Immediately, we were transported back to the dodgy jewellery dealer we’d met in the suburbs of Jaipur, where we’d come across another absolute gem of a scam! These invariably Kashmiri Shopkeepers are sly, smart and deftly apt at the art of deceit. But they always possess a ‘tell’ – a giveaway – and Kumar’s came with his dreadful impression of an Indian mystic. He threw himself onto his own bed of nails as he launched into a dreadful mix of Derren Brown and Noel Coward’s ‘Madame Arcati’!

Hanging himself  with his own ropey trick!

The drama in his performance was nearly as exaggerated as his prices. Perhaps these blyth spirits think all Westerners completely off their rockers. We may give that impression!

But Kumar soon realised Andrew and I were not quite stoned enough to invest in his.

Then, as Andrew, playing bad cop, audibly hissed that we couldn’t afford the stoneware, and that I wouldn’t be able to eat for the remainder of our stay if we purchased the five items that had inexplicably found their way into our basket, Kumar tried to carve out one last deal.

‘This Ganesh. Good for good friend who is now without husband’.

We knew the trick. Kumar had obviously picked up on something we’d said earlier. The ploy was cheap but still impressive. Unlike the Ganesh we were practically sledgehammered into buying.

As Kumar realised ‘The Lola Boys’ were not the diamond mine he’d hoped for, his mood darkened. The glittering smile became a leering snarl and he barked in throaty Tamil to a colleague who was bashing away in the workshop next door. The workman, who looked straight out of the Stone Age, burst through the shop doorway, with a Neanderthal grunt and a wave of his heavy tool.

The one that cut the rock!

‘He not happy’ Kumar said firmly. The treacle having now dripped away from his voice.

‘Why he not happy?’ Asked Andrew, equally as authoritative, yet in an Indian accent.

‘Because he make this. Not happy with price’.

There was something mildly threatening in Kumar’s tone. Not least because we were surrounded by a weighty array of potential stone weaponry. Fred and Barney had disappeared and the whole drama had grown much darker – more ‘Game Of Stones’!

We’d definitely left ‘Bedrock’!

We stood in the dark for what seemed an age!

I was having visions of the billiard room in Cluedo. Professor Kumar had clubbed Andrew to death with the lead carving. It was time to stop this little game!

I stood. Sighed dramatically, and piped up that I was in need of air and beer. Not necessarily in that order!  That I had grown weary of the unexpected auction this jaunt had now become. And perhaps we would be forced to leave the rockery empty handed after all.

Kumar wasn’t the only actor in the room!

I then tried to appear as nonchalant as possible as I trembled past the giant with the ferocious chisel.

‘Ok’ said Kumar. ‘Ok’. He then instructed Boris Karloff to pack the elephant we’d agreed on earlier.

‘Thank you’, I said, as icily as a good pint of lager, ‘we’d love to buy more. But as you heard Andrew say, we shan’t be able to eat if we do’!

Kumar stared at me stonily.

I was caught for an agonising moment between a rock and a hard face.

Andrew grabbed the packet from Boris and we legged it.

Before we knew it he had led us into an entirely unfamiliar part of town and we stood sweating, legs leaden, attempting to get our bearings.

‘I knew this wasn’t the bloody way’ I gasped.

‘I just wanted to get away from him. That selling! Jesus!’, Andrew complained. ‘I was losing it!’

I had to agree. The hard sell was akin to being whacked across the head several times with a large lump of marble. These salesmen sculpt such a convoluted life story, that before one realises, one is lost in their retail maze, as they attempt to chisel away at one’s sanity. Mining skilfully  until they strike a precious seam in one’s wallet!

It was both wondrous and enlightening to clamber amongst the boulders into an entirely different strata of history – one we were both entirely igneous of !!!

But sadly our relationship with the pushy Kashmiri Kumar ended somewhat, on the rocks.

Sting! Stoned! Stung!

What a pallava!

*********************************************************************

That evening we were both laid out motionless on our beds, after too many hours spent negotiating the debilitating heat.

It was our last night in India, and we had mixed emotions.

Feeling burnt in every way possible, her beauty and her beasts managing  to sear themselves onto our collective consciousness.

The sweet stuff here clings to the imagination like the gooey Indian confectionary, found on every street corner, sticks to the teeth. One cannot simply brush it away. India’s beauty is both ephemeral and eternal.

And the indisputable ugliness? Well that just seems to disappear after a while. Down the pan quicker than a dodgy biryani!

I’m almost certain we shall be back to sample her wares once again. She is too much of a good saleswoman to give up on us completely, and her shelves too well stacked to resist.

Her people are infuriatingly charming. The geography sometimes unfortunately alarming, and the holy spirit, which undoubtedly resides here, utterly disarming.

Love ‘Mother India’ or loathe her, she won’t be ignored.

She certainly won’t go quietly!

As we pack our rucksacks ready for the long hike back to reality, I can hear her already whispering to me on the tropical breeze. Her hot breath invading my senses.

‘Namaste’ she purrs into the black panther night.

‘Namaste’ x

Escape From Horrorville!

As I attempted to clamber into the tiny rickshaw I winced in agony. My spine complained painfully at what I was asking of it, each vertebrae sulking from carrying the burden of two weighty rucksacks down an uneven colonial staircase. As I struggled into the diminutive cab, Andrew looked on unsympathetically. A damn cheek I thought, seeing as it was him that had dragged me into the massage parlour that had caused the said lumbar damage.

The previous day, on one of our sweaty promenades through Pondicherry, the fierce temperature had proved to much to bare for my husband, who, like the sun, was also fighting with a hot temper. The remainder of his nicotine habit leaching from his body in poisonous rivulets. We dived into the welcome air conditioning of a very ‘local’ establishment in order to partake of a foot massage. However, once Andrew’s balls were being tickled, I was informed that there was no-one available to play with mine, and therefore would I like to plump for an Indian Head Massage instead? I agreed, and joined Mr Kennedy in a small room, where I was prepared for my therapy, as he groaned in satisfaction whilst already undergoing his.

A friendly young Tamil chap proceeded to rub thick scented oil into my scalp, whilst pulling roughly at my curls. When he came to a knot, he yanked a little harder until the hair came apart, and then parted company with my scalp. After ten minutes he’d pulled at least three handfuls out, and deposited each clump on the small plastic table beside me.

Alarmed, I gave a slight yelp. Andrew chuckled beside me.

I’ve never enjoyed the hairdressers, but this was akin to a cat fight in Holloway Prison, and certainly not the calming experience for which I’d been hoping.

After relieving me of at least a third of my follicular activity, the little git punched me all over the head, taking in my temples, ears, and jawline. I thought I might cry.

He then slapped me repeatedly, a la ‘The Benny Hill Show’, so hard upon my crown that I felt my spine contract under the pressure.

It was one of the most hair-raising experiences of my life.

To cap it all, little Vidal then shampooed  me five times with an acidic herbal concoction, and applied intense heat whilst he dragged a plastic comb through my unconditioned barnet.

When we hit the pavement again I looked like Phylis Diller!


‘Never again’ I said ashen faced to Andrew.
‘Mine was great’ he said, with smug satisfaction.

.
Oh just have a cigarette I thought, but didn’t say it.

He is,after all, doing so well.

And so, with my aching back, and Andrew squashed beneath a pile of already far too heavy hand-luggage, we rattled away from the sophistication of ‘Pondy’ towards the hippy utopia known as ‘Auroville’.

We bumped painfully over speed humps and swerved to miss the wildlife, as we left the town and skidded across red dirt roads into the forest of the 1960s township.

‘Auroville’!

An ideal pioneered by a Frenchwoman known as ‘The Mother’ during the age of flower power.

A city where all citizens of the world, despite their creed or nationality could come and live and work together, searching for the universal truth. No religion, no politics and no cash.

‘Eight hundred rupees’ our driver informed us, when we eventually found our guest house.

‘We were told three to four hundred’ I objected.

‘It’s far in Auroville’ he countered, ‘very far!’

‘We’re not paying you that’, Andrew said, his patience light without a Marlboro Light, and knowing the journey was well overpriced. ‘I’ll give you five hundred.’

The driver accepted the amount readily, and drove off rapidly, leaving us to squeeze around the locked gates of the ‘Joy Community Guest House’, throwing our luggage before us onto the rusty dusty ground.

There was not a soul to meet us.

As we headed further into the steamy compound, several scruffy dogs suddenly came at us howling in a most unfriendly fashion. Andrew and I, having a moody mutt of of own, and being quite aware of these canine tricks took no notice. The hounds realised they were barking up the wrong rucksacks and backed off.  We eventually came to a seating area and dropped our heavy baggage on the floor both perspiring heavily, with my spine still complaining. A glum faced Indian asked us if we had a booking and I answered in the affirmative.

‘Someone comes soon’ he snarled.

‘Thanks’ I smiled. He glared back.

So far this place had a distinct lack of joy, and there was certainly no community. At least, not one in which I wanted to commune!

After a sweaty quarter of an hour, a young, attractive Tamil woman arrived and asked us to follow her. We struggled across the gravel behind her, laden with bags, and came to a small shack like affair, which she then informed us was named ‘Progress’! Perhaps this was because it didn’t look as though it had finished being built, but I said nothing, and asked Andrew to do the same. When the lady eventually found the correct key she let us in to our home for the next few nights, and then immediately asked one of us to accompany her to the office with our passports.

‘Oh. You go babe’, whined Mr Kennedy, ‘I’m not having a good day!’

I followed our hostess into a small room which contained nothing more than a desk, two seats on either side, and some books stacked in an untidy pile near an archaic looking router.

‘Passport’, she said, without a smile.

I gave the passports and then had to complete the most inordinate amount of paperwork. When I’d finished, she asked me to fetch Andrew to come and do the same. I duly did this, he was not best pleased.

After the formalities were over I asked if we could meet ‘Sara’ the girl with whom I had made the booking.

‘No. Sara only here in morning’ she replied. ‘But you pay me now. In full.’

I did as I’d been told and then asked if there happened to be a shop nearby at which to grab some essentials. Our landlady replied in the affirmative and gave Andrew and I directions to the ‘Ganesh Bakery’,  a ‘ten minute walk’ away.

After three quarters of an hour trudging through scorching red earth, in and out of the sticky forest canopy, there was still no sign of any retail business. Only thick woods, unpleasant geriatric hippies on motorbikes and signs directing us to places called, ‘Certitude’, ‘Aspiration’, ‘Sincerity’ and ”Fulfilment’. Overheating and beginning to dehydrate, I was sincerely losing all aspiration and sure that if we didn’t get any liquid fulfilment soon, one of us would certainly be certified!

Finally we arrived at the the ‘Plaza’, a scruffy corner consisting of a bakery and a grocers. After imbibing two flat lime sodas and a couple of vegan samosas at the former, we made our way into the ‘minimart’ to get supplies.

No-one was very friendly. The other ‘Aurovillians’ went about their business in the most uptight of manners. Disconnected and disgusted that any visitor should have the affront to be sharing their sacred space. I threw some manky organic veg into the basket , a bag of rice, and a little sack of spice, Andrew added a packet of Nescafé and a lump of cheese. The most bad tempered Indian we’d yet come across, weighed every pepper, potato and pea-pod individually and then gave us a bill that would have raised eyebrows in the food hall at ‘Harrods’. We were both shocked. So far the only thing spiritual about this place was the fact we were both getting crucified!

That night I made us a strange curry in the communal kitchen which we shared with a charming set of Brazilian twins, definitely the friendliest guys we had come across yet in this most closed of ungated communities. They possessed much more of the spirit of peace, love, harmony and understanding we were expecting of the place.

‘Auroville’, was to have been an inspirational city where those who wanted to live outside the bounds of ego, status and greed could come and join together in an egalitarian unity.

A large piece of barren earth was purchased on the scorched south-east Indian plain and idealistic volunteers from across the world proceeded to create a green and pleasant land on what was once an eroded and infertile desert. Millions of trees were planted, innovative architecture built and the people began to come. There was to be free schooling and free healthcare for all. But not quite as many residents as expected made the move to ‘Auroville’. In a city that was designed for a population of fifty thousand people, only two and a half thousand residents now reside in the town.

The next morning, Andrew and I rose early. Mainly due to the fact that we had spent the night in a tandoori oven. Our tiny room, for which we were paying three times as much as anywhere else in India,( a significant contribution going to the ‘Auroville’ community), had been built out of brick,  in a manner of which ‘The Three Little Pigs’ would have highly approved. The temperature must have hit ‘cremate’ at one point and I awoke to find Andrew almost ‘Tikka’d’!

We fled into the cooler forty odd degrees of the wooded grounds outside in an attempt to look for the elusive ‘Sara’. She was still non-existent. A Holy Ghost, as it were! I managed to get what information I could muster from the Indian help, and was advised that we should head to The Visitors’Centre if we wanted to explore the new age town. This we did, as we were keen to get into the vibe of the place.

Feel the energy man. We were both especially excited about visiting ‘The Matrimandir’, a gigantic golden globe at the centre of the sprawling community, which purported to be the spiritual heart of the conurbation.

On reaching The Visitors’ Centre we were both dripping, the forest was more than hot, and the lack of air conditioning and cold water in our shack of a room had taken it’s toll.

I approached a terribly genteel sareed westerner to purchase tickets to enter the spiritual dome.

‘I can give you a pass to the viewing site’ she intoned softly, ‘but if you want to go inside ‘The Matrimandir’ you will need to go upstairs and speak to someone else’.
I thanked her, pocketed our entry passes for the viewing site, and made my way up to another incredibly modern building in order to gain entry to the giant meditation capsule, which was now becoming more intriguing than ever.

I was beckoned forward and asked to complete a yellow card in order that I may enter the special sphere. I was told that if Andrew wanted to do the same he would have to come and apply in person himself, it was the same rule for everyone. A kind of vetting process. I suppose, if they didn’t like the look of you, they could bar you from the ball. Luckily we fooled them, and were both granted entry. Just like the ugly sisters!

However, we were told we could only view ‘The Matrimandir’ first and then return the following day at 8.45am so that we may be escorted into it’s inner chamber.

That afternoon we made our way through the immaculately manicured grounds towards ‘The Matrimandir’.  A place where all people can go to raise their consciousness and get in touch with their higher selves – apparently. This used to be a club in South London, but since ‘The Mother’ had her vision, the place for such communion was now here in southern India.

We learnt that, late in her life, she had dreamt of a round building which contained a twelve sided meditation chamber. She had described it as having a white interior and being surrounded by twelve rooms, each a different colour pertaining to a unique quality on which to meditate. ‘Creativity’, ‘Peace’ etc.

As ‘The Mother’ wished, so the meditation centre was built, with the help of thousands of people and millions of pounds. Began in the early seventies the building was only completed in 2008.

And there is still more to do.

On first sighting the glowing orb, I was reminded of a huge metal ball that had fallen from the sky after a galactic round of golf. It looked unnatural, unappealing and most unwanted.

Groups of Indian day trippers were having their pictures taken in front of the spherical monstrosity as if it were ‘Stonehenge’ or ‘The Pyramids Of Giza’. I felt perplexed. Confused. It appeared nothing more to me than something one might find at ‘Disney World’ or ‘The Epcot Centre’. But I reserved judgment – I hadn’t been inside yet!

That was to come!

After ‘viewing’ ‘The Matrimandir’, Andrew and I managed to fumble our way through steaming fields and land at an organic farm, where we were served a wonderfully fresh vegan thali, consisting of mysteriously coloured vegetables.

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‘Get Us Outta Here!’

As Paul ambled purposefully beneath a torrid ‘Noel Coward Sun’, he wondered how it always transpired, that at the hottest time of day, in the hottest of climates, he was always the Englishman! He’d left the ‘Mad Dog’ behind, at the cool guest house. Andrew was terribly busy ordering new flavours for his Vapouriser! So Paul set off through the smouldering back streets of Panjim.

As he made his way down narrow lanes, simmering with colourful heat, he dabbed at his brow with an old hankie he’d kept for that very purpose. The vivid pigments which reflected from the Portuguese houses both blinded and enthralled. It was difficult to avoid the open drains and meandering traffic as Paul made his way to the railway agent to collect the tickets for the next leg of his and Andrew’s Indian adventure.

They were soon to be on their way to Karnataka, in the deepest south west of India.  Their new pal Santosh had become a father to a beautiful daughter and it was time to hold the ancient baby naming ceremony. Andrew and Paul had been thrilled to be invited along.

Before that, somebody needed to pay for the journey. Having experienced one too many railway booking counters belonging to ‘The Indian State Railways’, the boys thought it wise to avoid the bureaucratic  hideousness that is inevitably involved, and let an agent take the strain.

Which one did, for a cool fiver! Quite a lot considering the price of the journey was only a tenner. Still….

Sweating alone in the tiny booking office, Paul felt a thump on his left shoulder, and turned immediately, half-suspecting to see Andrew grinning, having caught up, post Vape order. Instead, he was greeted with a gappy smile and a thick set bloke in a sari.  Admittedly, a very pretty piece of clothing, but it was doubtless, a fella.

Jewellery laden, make-up free and a jaw like a like Joe Bugner!

Paul learnt later, that this lady was a member of an Indian caste of transvestites. Some of them gay, some hermaphrodite and some, poor sods who’ve been kidnapped and castrated!

Known as the Hijras, they often performed, uninvited, at functions and sometimes worked as prostitutes!

Paul couldn’t help but see the similarity to his own line of work. The Lola Boys’ were little more. Only better paid!

At times!

‘Oh, hello’, he said.

Open as ever, yet a little perturbed. This was no ‘Ladyboy’!

He smiled as the guy done up like a gal clapped his hands fiercely and then made a furious begging action. It was quite obvious what she wanted.

And it weren’t make-up tips!

Paul shrugged and showed his empty trouser pockets, attempting to appear as nonchalant as possible, yet failing dreadfully. The fact that it was an honest action, that he’d parted with all his cash moments previously, the ticket agent having no change, made no difference. This was a frighteningly heavy-set woman, with the charisma of Vin Diesel, and she made Paul very nervous.

‘I’ve no money’, he mouthed largely, in the way an ignoramus talks to foreigners.

Ma Diesel  gave several nods of the head, and thrust her hand forward in the manner of a Right Jab! Paul ducked, but she was too quick and her palm slapped on to the top of his scalp. She muttered a few words and then again made the same begging gesture.

Paul knew at once, that he’d just been blessed. And Ma wanted something for the collection box!

‘I still have nothing. No Rupee!’ he said.  Too slowly, and far too loudly.

Ma stared for an endless moment, and then made a furious action with the saintly hand she’d just used to bestow her blessings. She whirled it around and made a couple of tapping motions as if trying to reverse the spell.

‘No good now love,’ Paul said calmly, ‘you’ve given it so you can’t take it back!’

He laughed to himself, in a slightly condescending way, and would have felt guilty, were it not for the fact Ms Diesel had followed him into the travel agents and had then been terribly bullish. And bullying was something Paul always stood up to, after having had a very good training at naval school in Waterloo.

This bully was gonna meet Waterloo if she didn’t bugger off.

Feeling the resistance and perhaps, believing the lack of cash line, the Hijra took her leave, without so much as a smirk.

Paul put his head though the small brick doorway and lent into the brilliant sunshine. He watched as the brash and bejewelled beggar-women made their way down the narrow lane. Criss crossing the street and putting their hands together with a violent clap, to let people know they were around. Some gave willingly, and some were more than cajoled.

The ‘girls’ hit the butcher, the baker, and the joss-stick maker before they finally turned the corner and their riotous energy dissipated. Paul felt a collective sigh, much as if a hardened girl-gang had just left one’s subway carriage.

‘They may have swiped some jewellery – but we’re all breathing’ he thought.

He was sure he wasn’t the only one.

He then made his way back to the very pleasant guest house he and Andrew were sharing. He looked at the third class railway ticket for which he’d just overpaid enormously, and wondered if he would still be breathing when Andrew found out.

The following day, following far too many hours on a hot train, Andrew followed Paul into an equally hot hotel and they both wondered what the hell they were doing there. Mangalore, a coastal city in south west India, at first sight seemed ordinary, shabby and most unchic.  After venturing out, and having time to explore, it seemed ordinary, shabby and even more unchic.

After stumbling through the early morning  fumes, along a crumbling dual carriageway, and finding nowhere for miles which served anything resembling coffee, Andrew said, with some tongue in cheek,

‘Get us outta here!’

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An hour later we were in a taxi heading deeper into Karnataka. A state which has yet to convince us of her charms, of which there are doubtless many. But perhaps, more hidden.

Much like those of the bolshy Hijras I had met in Panjim.

But as I’ve learnt, it is not always the most obvious that has the greatest appeal.

And so we wait, with baited breath, for this part of ancient India to reveal herself to us.

She’s already been quite a tease.

But if she slips her sari off her shoulder and gives us a wink, we shall no doubt fall for her dubious charms.

Just as we’ve done with the rest of this intriguing country.

Hopefully!

Delhi Belly!!!

New Delhi! India’s frenetic capital, can sometimes be hard to stomach. Especially when the jaded visitor is suffering from that most infamous of south asian complaints – ‘Delhi Belly’!

If the forty degree smog and exhaust fumes fail to exhaust, the constant concern that a lavatory may be needed at the drop of, shall we say, a hat, certainly takes it’s toll.

Despite sensibly taking plenty of liquid and dosing up with Imodium, I still have no respite. I long for my faeces to be in pieces! A little too much information I realise, but the usual niceties one applies to such ablutions don’t seem relevant here, especially as it is quite usual to see a good number of folk squatting by the side of the road, and not to take the weight off their feet! Still, there is an urban, if not urbane, charm to the place which is undeniable. One cannot help but get swept up in the street-life which hits the traveller like a chapati in the face on every corner.

As well as visiting the less salubrious side of the city, Delhi’s underbelly, Andrew and I also managed to make our way to Connaught Place. A Victorian parade encircling a vivid green park, peopled with many pairs of young lovers. Most doing something shady in the welcome shade. The wide avenues, complete with colonnades, reminded me of a tropical Regent’s Street.

A faded colonial hangover, with old fashioned shops stocked with archaic items such as ‘Fountain Pens’ and bottles of ink. Juxtaposed with such quaintness, there also exists, of course, the very modern. A branch of ‘Burger Singh’ amused us as it sang out garishly next to a religious ‘Jain Bookshop’. Fasting and fast-food co-existing beneath the ‘Lutyens’ designed canopy. Such opposition can’t help but attract. One is constantly knocked off balance by the exotic eclecticism here, as well as the careering tuk-tuks and rickshaws. It is always necessary to look in every direction at least sixteen times before attempting to walk anywhere, unless of course, you are a cow. Bovine crossings exist everywhere and on many an occasion we have used a weighty heifer to negotiate the heavy traffic.

The other negotiating which can become quite wearisome, is the one that concerns pricing. Having travelled extensively in Asia, Andrew and I have become fairly adept at bartering. However, here in Delhi, this practice is taken to a whole new level. There seems to be a myriad of price tags depending on how you look, act and from where you might hail. Andrew seems to do a little better than me, with his smoky looks and the slightly angry demeanour of a man who has just given up the fags!

Myself, being untanned, uncool and understanding, am presented with the same deal one would get if shopping on Bond Street!

I have been marched into numerous pharmacies in order to purchase powdered milk for insistent ‘glummy-mummies’ more times than they’ve had hot dinners! Andrew has been deserted on the roadside on several occasions, as I’ve queued at a variety of chemists for ‘Complan’, which he then assures me the woman is gonna swap for smack the minute my back is turned. On occasion I’ve wanted to smack him – but in truth, he has a point. Too much charity can become egocentric when faced with so much poverty. I’ve had to learn that my small contribution is a drop of milk in a vast churn of need. My guilt is alleviated far more than their pangs of hunger. Who am I really helping? It’s not just the oppressive heat that makes it hard to sleep here. The oppression brings insomnia too.

Sleep, however, has come very readily over the last few days, as Mr Kennedy and I, forgetting we are no longer twenty-one, have completely knackered ourselves out. The sleeper-class trains (a dreadfully dishonest description if there ever was one!) The two days on camelback and the month long traipse around Rajasthan, rucksacked and backsides unpacked, has taken it’s toll. We nearly finished ourselves off completely yesterday by making a manic whistle-stop  visit to that most famous of monuments to love, the exquisite Taj Mahal.

‘It better be worth it”, Andrew intoned, after nearly four hours spent wedged inside the tiniest car imaginable. As we sat entangled together in the back, like a game of tropical ‘Twister’, our driver went like a highwayman along a highway that had yet to be surfaced. Lacking suspension of any kind, and with an A.C. unit that insistently blew hot air into our parched eeks, we rattled and sweated our way to Agra. Mercifully, on sighting the marble masterpiece, Andrew’s fears were abated.

It was most definitely worth it.

The initial glimpse of the mighty mausoleum, framed through the dramatic arch gateway through which one enters, was certainly enough to bring a tear to the eye. I was unsure if it was the sheer beauty of the wonder before me, or the grit that had constantly blown out of the old jalopy’s air conditioning unit that caused this lachrymose  state of affairs.

Whatever, any love that can inspire such a magnificent erection has to be respected.

Unlike our guide, Lucky, for whom there was no love lost! As he whisked us around the grounds at such speed, I half expected Mo Farrer to overtake us as we came to the finish line!

When it came to the obligatory tipping point, suffice to say, he was not so lucky.

Nor did we play ball when the pace eventually slowed as he took us to his uncle’s gem shop.

‘What would you like? To see some Onyx, some Jasper, some Amber?’

‘Some Amber Nectar’ I replied.

‘What?’ He looked blank.

‘Some Beer!’ I snapped.

One’s patience can crack after weeks of hard sell!

We returned to the capital in the squeaking heap of junk that passed as a car. As we were dropped half a mile down the dusty road from our hotel, we were once again, harassed for a tip, this time from our driver, Ahmed. I sighed and gave him much more than was necessary.

‘Why so little? Are you not pleased with me today?’

‘Yes’, you were alright’ I said. Leaving out the fact that I could now barely walk or breath after the car ride from hell.

He looked at me with pleading eyes until I took another note from my pocket and thrust it into his hand.

Overpaying yet again.

I think I need to toughen up.

I am not sure I have enough fire in my belly to exist in Dehli.
I’d be begging for milk powder before you know it!

Even though this great city can leave one with a little indigestion, Andrew and I both left with a great appetite for the place.

We’d certainly book a table again.

And no doubt we’d pay the service charge!