The Great Indian Train Robbery

Some days, India is just bloody hard work. Here is a snapshot of just 16 hours….

When we arrive at New Delhi Station, with just under an hour before our overnight train to Varanasi is scheduled to depart, we are stopped just prior to putting our bags through the scanner.

“Show ticket please Madam” the man says officiously. I remember this happening last time at this station, so I oblige. “Where did you get this?” he asks looking at it dubiously. James informs him we bought it in Bikaner at the station. “Hmmm….belly bad news, Madam. Your train is delayed. Eight hours at minimum.”

There is a brief standoff at this point. We don’t want to believe him, and he wants us to follow him back out to look at a board- just out of sight- that will validate his story. I shake my head no, retrieve our ticket and throw my pack on the conveyor.

On the other side, we stand in front of the vast electronic board trying to find our train number in the brief flashes of English it throws up between the Hindi. Our stalker reappears, chuckling in a creepy parody of kindly exasperation. “Madam, I am telling you, the train is belly delayed. If you just come this way, I can help you. I can help you!” We eye him suspiciously. He is not wearing an Indian railways uniform. He has a slightly grimy look, albeit one necessarily shared by millions of Indians. He has some sort of lipomatous-looking growth on his forehead, pushing down one eyebrow to give him a slight “Dr Evil” air…It’s- by definition- judgemental to judge a book by its cover, but we’ve long since learnt that foreign tourists travelling in India embrace the mantra “TRUST NO-ONE” for very good reason. We ignore him again and make our way to the stairs.

As we walk across the footbridge, James stops an elderly man in a turban, who suggests platform five. He’s within striking range; when we get down there, there’s a big neon sign expecting our train, “expected as scheduled”, over platform four. We settle in on the ground in a sea of a thousand other Indians huddled atop their continents of luggage.

Dr Evil was right, the train is late. By twenty minutes. We scramble aboard amid the mass scuffle and find our first class cabin. We have a tiny cubicle to ourselves- the luxury!- with one fold-away bunk, a little table, a coat cupboard and- wonder of wonders- a sliding door! Of course, the door has no latch, so keeps silently working its way open with the motion of the train, but this is India, so privacy is an unknown commodity anyway, and chai-wallahs and curious passengers keep sticking their heads through for a look at the crazy gorahs and their wild-looking blonde babu.

When the man appears at our door offering dinner, we presume it’s included in our ticket (thereby violating the second rule of foreign travellers in India- ASSUME NOTHING) and James piles up two meals and a tub of icecream with glee. “That will be 600 rupees please sir!” James blanches and returns the food.

Half an hour later, a friendly chap wearing the ‘Meals on Wheels’ train service logo appears with a notepad to “take dinner order Madam”. This is more like it! We order a veg meal, with water and he disappears. When he returns, he also collects our breakfast order.

Co-sleeping with a two-year-old on a narrow train bunk is great fun. Said no-one, ever. As daylight breaks the horizon outside the window, the chai wallah rushes through the cabin screaming “Chai, garam chai, garam chai!”. Our breakfast arrives. Shortly afterwards, a cleaner in a blue uniform appears and gestures for me to move so that he can clean the floor. Thinking it must be standard, as we’re getting off soon and someone else will take our place, I acquiesce, only to be met with the outstretched hand for payment. Having accepted the service, we can hardly refuse, and hand over a few rupees, which are not accepted graciously; insufficient funds. We take the mature option and studiously ignore him until he stomps off.

Shortly after, the ‘Meals on Wheels’ man reappears with his notebook, which he consults ceremoniously, before announcing we owe 540 rupees (about $10 AU). Clearly meals are not included. What can we do? Nothing, it would seem. As he leaves, I swear I see him wink at the cleaner down the hall. Later, in a flash of inspiration James googles the Indian Rail website and finds the price listing for ‘Meals on Wheels’. 55 rupees for a thali plate and 45 for breakfast. Sigh. India wins again.

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We visit the Gungy Ganges

Our first morning in Varanasi is a bit surreal, even by Indian standards. At 25 past five in the morning, we are waiting in the predawn of our guesthouse foyer for a boatman. In an effort to stay awake, I browse through the India Times. At the front of the sports section is a half page article about the tragic accident befalling Phil Hughes. Thanks to the internet, and the fact that this is yesterday’s paper, we know already that Phil Hughes is dead, but it still seems astonishing that India’s media would devote such column space to a young, foreign sportsman. (Later in the day, we will see that the death has made the front page in India today, and several locals in this cricket-mad nation will share their condolences upon discovering that we’re Aussies. One young waiter at a cafe can even quote his batting statistics verbatim, and seems genuinely moved by the tragic loss.)

Eventually, at 25 to six, a small figure appears from the darkness outside the gate, shrouded gangster-like in a fleecy hoody. “I am boat man” he declares, and we set off obediently after him, through the gloomy cobbled lanes down to Assi Ghat. It turns out he is less “boat man” and more “ferry to boat man” as he delivers us into the care of another wizened brown man rugged up against the cool morning air. We clamber aboard the sparkling white rowboat, the oars are locked in, and we set off downstream.

Varanasi is one of the oldest living cities in the world. It is a holy place for Hindus, set on the banks of the mighty Ganga, and all Indian Hindus have a plan to one day visit, if they haven’t already. There has been a lot of press about the filthy state of the Ganges, and the current Prime Minister, Modi, who seems almost overwhelmingly popular here, has vowed to clean it up during his term of service. We are pleasantly surprised really, having expected a veritable tip: in fact, most of the rubbish seems to be ash from cremations and the remnants of offerings. But there’s enough plastic bags and other detritus, and the knowledge of the local open sewers pouring in to it, that mean you couldn’t pay me to take a holy dip- a sentiment clearly not shared by the millions of pilgrims who pass through here each year.

Even in the predawn, the banks are alive with activity. A handful of people are bathing and praying off the broad concrete steps of each of the endless row of ghats, and people are gathering in places where there are large flat stones to do vast amounts of washing. The water is alive too; big fish make occasional energetic splashes around us in the water, and boat loads of excited tourists float past snapping frenetically.

Further along, we reach the ‘burning ghats’, where bodies are cremated around the clock. Although there is one ‘electric fire’, our guide tells us, most are cremated with wood. The families must buy the timber for the fire from the huge stockpile arranged on the river bank. Estimating just the right amount to burn the body appropriately is apparently somewhat of an art, and the charges are accrued not just on weight, but according to the type of timber; sandalwood is apparently auspicious and therefore expensive. This morning we see a queue of open riverboats piled high with wood, logs of all different sizes being carried piece by piece, pile by pile, on the heads of workmen up the steep banks to the storage area. The embers of a fire glow brightly on the platform, with a few people standing guard, but their stance suggests boredom rather than mourning, seeking warmth from the fire, rather than recalling the warmth of a loved one.

The sun slowly rises and on our way back upstream we can fully appreciate the ancient crumbling architecture of the myriad of temples, palaces and ashrams looming over the ghats. By now, the washing is in full swing, and huge lengths of colourful fabrics- saris? sheets?- are spread out along the stairs in the strengthening daylight. We find our way back to the guesthouse in time for breakfast.

In the evening, we take a long stroll along the riverbank, past the many evening bathers, the vibrant pujas, and the multitude of other tourists. I’ve brought along some flowers- or rather some decomposed, withered remains of flowers- that were blessed and given to Cricket at the temple near Belur Math, in Kolkata. Mrs Debnath, upon discovering that I was still carrying them in my pocket, kindly packaged them up in a plastic bag, with the instruction to find a body of water and release them as an offering, while making a wish for Cricket. What better place than the sacred Ganges to do so?

We purchase a small palm leaf bowl filled with rose petals, marigolds and a single candle from a vendor at one of the ghats, just downstream from where we can see the glow of a cremation fire, and just make out the outlines of figures stooping over- is that a body?- in the shallows. We light the candle, and James pushes it out until the gentle current catches it. We make a wish for the precious little tourist standing between us on the steps, and watch the tiny glow of the candle makes its way out towards the other twinkling offerings already drifting on the glassy waters. It’s a lovely moment.

But this is India, so then of course we spot the used condom, drifting in the current like a flaccid jellyfish a few metres behind, and gaining fast on our sweet little votive……Sanctity of our offering aside, James points out that there is a pleasing symmetry to the situation; birth (or at least its control) and death, just metres apart on the most sacred of Hindu rivers. This is India.

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In Search of Sacrilegious Ratsack…

There is a small baby, about six months, lying on the marble floor and waving her arms and legs as if to make snow angels….only, instead of snow, it’s rat shit and grain. She gurgles happily, and her mother looks on delightedly as hundreds of providers of the aforementioned excrement dart around the floor, noses twitching maniacally. A little boy shrieks with glee as a rat nibbles on his bare toes, and his family are beside themselves with excitement- what a wonderful omen!!

The Karni Mata Temple is an eye-opener and- literally- a toe-curler. Widely known as the “Rat Temple”, it’s in the small and very dusty village of Deshnok, just south of Bikaner. Legend has it that the local deity, Karni Mata, did a bit of a deal with the devil when she returned her drowned son to life, agreeing that from that time on, her descendants would be reincarnated as rats. I’d have to say, if you’re going to come back as a rat, Deshnok is definitely the place. Because most of the local are descendants, rats are treated overwhelmingly with love and respect…and a ridiculous amount of edible offerings.

Outside the temple, a long alley of stalls offer “mousefoodSIR??” as well the usual array of oils, flowers, sweets and the brightly coloured plastic children’s toys that I can never quite understand the significance of. For a few rupees, you can buy a bag of peanuts, or puffed rice, or grain and various other delicacies we don’t recognise. We make our way to the shoe stand, and reluctantly relinquish our footwear, before heading for the metal detector at the gate into the complex; security is tight everywhere in India.

We don’t have to go too far before we spy our first Special Worshippers. The place is literally crawling, swarming, heaving, with rats. Rats of all shapes and sizes, in every state of sickness and health, in every nook and cranny, every corner, on every statue, and all over the courtyard. Human worshippers cluster around large bowls of milk, lined with greedily lapping rats. Some families are sprinkling food on the ground to entice more rats out into the open. The tiled courtyard is gritty and sticky; I tell myself that it’s just grain and rice…but James helpfully points out that the nets overhead- presumably in place to keep marauding pigeons and hawks at bay- are also heavy with tight-rope-walking rats. It’s literally raining rat pooh.

Inside the temple, which may well be as beautiful as any Hindu temple we’ve seen (although it’s difficult to tell under all the rats, rat pooh, and food scraps), people are lined up with more platters of rat offerings to be blessed. The baby and the little boy are just two of the large crowd of worshippers here to see the vermin- I mean, holy rats- and hopefully get touched or nibbled on. To see a white rat amongst the garden variety browns is considered particularly auspicious; alas, we can’t spot one. Not that we waste too much time searching; within a few minutes, James is muttering about ratsack and cats and the plague under his breath, and both of us are seriously considering burning our socks before we leave.

Back in the courtyard, I notice that not all the visitors are enamoured with the furry residents. A girl of about 11 or 12 is being half carried, kicking and waling, into the temple, as her older female relatives berate her sternly. I imagine the Hindi translates roughly as “Stop it- don’t make a scene! It’s for your own good! You need to get the rat blessing!!!” Astonishingly, she doesn’t seem overly reassured.

Outside, our rickshaw driver is waiting patiently to ferry us back to Bikaner. “Good temple?” he asks. “Many rats no??”

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On the Road in Rajastan….

Faced with the 7 plus hour bus trip from Udaipur to Jodhpur, we decided to take a taxi. The first travel agent we visited, ostensibly to book bus tickets, offered us a car and driver for 3000 R (about $60 AU), and after asking a few other tourists we’ve run into around the traps, it seemed to be the cheapest quote around. We further reduced the cost by sharing with English Dan (he of the near-kidnapping experience in Delhi).

The journey started promisingly. Given the reasonable-seeming cost, we were expecting a non-air conditioned, micro-Tata with sagging suspension. Imagine our surprise when greeted with a large, fairly new-looking station wagon with air-con and (clean!) seat covers! Unfortunately, the luxuriating was short-lived. Our driver seemed to have Bond-esque delusions (possibly not that unusual, given that “Octopussy” was famously filmed in Udaipur and is still played on high rotation in every second restaurant) and roared through gears, racing into corners, riding the brake and veering all over the road as though being chased. This was further compounded by the torture of the roads; seeing as though we had a car, we’d elected to do a little sight-seeing on the way, and the winding mountain roads to the Jain temples at Ranakpur could turn even the most stable of iron-guts into a quivering car-sick wreck.

Things didn’t improve from Ranakpur to Jodhpur. When we rejoined the impressively straight, four-lane desert highway, we all sighed a collective tourist sigh of relief. Until I looked up from my WTLPI to see that we were flying down the highway, on the wrong side of the median strip…..into two lanes of oncoming trucks!! The driver seemed a little perplexed when I pointed this out, as though he wasn’t quite sure how it had happened either….Eventually, after a kilometre of oncoming traffic veered, beeped and flashed their lights desperately at us, a gap appeared in the median island and we returned to the correct side….for a little while. It seemed that 007 just couldn’t resist the opportunity to speed up the overtaking. James muttered a mantra under his breath about “definitely no tip, no bloody way!”.

(There is a postscript to this tale, actually. The following day, a Kiwi-Australian that we keep running into turned up at our guesthouse and regaled us with the tale of his 12 hour bus trip from Udaipur… The bus had detoured, apparently due to road works, down countless dusty tracks as the day wore relentlessly on, until eventually at one point, they laboured out of a creek bed and were greeted with a police barricade. Our Kiwi friend, travelling solo, had befriended the local sitting next to him and was treated to a direct translation of the ensuing exchange. The police officer demanded a bribe from the bus driver to pass. Not a ‘fee’, or a ‘fine’: a bribe. The driver refused, saying that he had already bribed the officer’s boss, so he shouldn’t have to pay a second time! The discourse grew heated and fisticuffs briefly ensued, before the driver climbed back into the bus, drove over the barricade and proceeded on his way. The policeman leapt into his vehicle and, lights and sirens flashing, gave chase. The convoy continued on to the nearby village, where the bus driver pulled over at the local police station and both cop and driver raced inside. After a few minutes, the driver returned, having apparently provided sufficient evidence of an adequate previous bribe, and the bus continued to Jodhpur. Another victory for India!)

Jodhpur turned out to be a busy town with yet another impressive fort, a crazy railway station and the usual quota of Holy Cows, beggars and footpath rubbish dumps, as well the seemingly ubiquitous stench of urine we’ve come to expect from Northern India. It was also the source of a sadly dodgy paneer tikka masala that gave James his first brush with Delhi Belly…(or should that be Brown Jodhpurs??). In any case, when James’ gut was done with moving on, we moved on.

Jaisalmer’s fort is truly breath-taking. Rising from the desert just East of the Pakistan border like an impossibly enormous golden sandcastle, it’s still actively inhabited by about five thousand people. And it’s not just the fort; the surrounding Old City is packed with incredibly intricate carved havelis and magnificent architecture. The golden sandstone glows almost with a life of its own, and the surfaces of steps and walls are worn smooth from literally hundreds of generations of hands and feet. Modern conservationists have expressed concerns that the fort and its intricate maze of sandstone laneways and ancient buildings are quickly being destroyed by modern life. The culprit? Water. Obviously, this ancient city in the desert never saw much water; a wet year in this area apparently yields a whopping 50mm (2 inches) of rain. It’s not uncommon for children to get to six or seven years of age without having ever seen rain! (Sounds reminiscent of kids in NSW in the early noughties waiting for an origin victory…..) In any case, modern infrastructure for water storage and the introduction of piped water for the residents has totally overwhelmed the ancient original drainage system, and caused foundations to wear away and walls to shift. There is an ongoing push to evict the residents and discourage tourists from staying within the fort. As totally irresponsible travellers, we totally ignored this and embraced the opportunity of a lifetime to stay in the amazing setting. It was one of my favourite guesthouses of the trip. (As a concession to conservation, I tried to take short showers.)

Once I’d finished living out my Arabian Nights fantasies, we packed up and hopped the train to Bikaner.IMG_0998.JPG

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Thoughts of Forts…and Holy Cows

You sometimes have to wonder about the cultural experience we’re giving our two year-old. Today, while we waited in India Post for our parcel to be hand-sewn into a calico cover and then sealed with wax (a fascinating procedure), Cricket entertained herself with a little role-playing. Draped head to toe in my cotton shawl, with only her eyes peeking out, she wandered around the room with her hand outstretched, palm upwards, beseeching the staff “Money?? Food?? Money??”. It was either hilarious or horrifying, depending on how you look at it.

I’m typing this on the train from Ajmer to Udaipur, as the semi-desert landscape rattles past outside our AC chair carriage. Like thousands of travellers before us, we’ve discovered the allure and romance of India’s rail system. Ever since we worked up the courage to brave New Delhi’s Rail Station in search of the Foreign Tourist Office, we’ve realised how easy it is to get tickets, and how pleasant train journeys can be. (In Delhi, it seems that everyone will do everything in their power to direct you away from the Foreign Tourist Office; hoteliers will tell you it’s “definitely-almost-certainly” too late to book tickets, taxi drivers will say that the trains are uncomfortable and taxis much better value, and touts will maintain that the office is “gone” or “closed”. Interestingly, apart from the former, we had very little problem…..unlike a German bloke we met, who regaled us with the woeful tale of his three thwarted attempts to secure tickets, followed by his eventual exasperation and submission into an expensive car-and-driver deal!)

I’m not even going catalogue everything we’ve seen in the past two weeks; suffice to say, Delhi, Agra and Jaipur were a spectacular blur of palaces, forts, mausoleums and monuments. I could wax lyrical and the page would drip with superlatives, but I wouldn’t come close to doing them justice, so we’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

The fact is, we have become a bit ‘monumentally blasé’ in the past couple of weeks. Each one seems slightly more opulent and impressive than the one before, and yet afterwards, when we peruse the photos, we argue as to what is what. In Delhi, we read the guidebook and studied maps to be sure we didn’t miss any hidden corners of the attractions; now, we wander blithely past entrances and staircases with only mild curiosity. Sometimes the camera even stays quietly in the pack!

Both Delhi and Agra were pleasantly surprising. In Delhi, having heard some horror stories (one young Brit later told us of emerging from the airport foyer and being practically kidnapped by driver who took him directly to a hotel he hadn’t booked and demanded his passport and 300 000 rupees!) we made straight for the pre-paid taxi stand, and secured a comfortable cab to the hotel. Unfortunately, the hotel’s location didn’t match up with Google maps, and we eventually abandoned the car and wandered the streets on foot to find it. This meant relying on the directions of people we met on the street, all of whom I strongly suspected of trying to misdirect us into their own hotels and rickshaws. As it turned out, we were being totally paranoid, and as soon as we got over ourselves and actually listened to the advice, we found our warm bed and warmer hot water in no time!

Delhi was also surprisingly easy to navigate on their metro rail system. For 200 rupees (about $4 AU) a day, you can have unlimited short rail trips, thereby obviating the haggling with auto rickshaw drivers. Granted the trains can be oppressively crowded- at one point in the women’s only carriage (where I had sought refuge on a particularly busy line) I looked down to see no less than six Indian girls huddled under my armpits as I swung from the straps, while Cricket played games on someone’s phone while still in the backpack- but it’s certainly convenient. Nor was Delhi the filthy cesspit we had expected; after Kolkata, it seemed almost sanitary…not that it’s much of an achievement!

From Delhi we went to Agra for three days, which we easily filled with visits to a myriad of impressive sights that the Delhi daytrippers must surely miss. We didn’t even visit the Taj Mahal until the morning of the third day, but I’m pleased to say it wasn’t an anti-climax; it truly is breath-taking up close.
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Alighting from the train at Jaipur at 930 at night, we were greeted by the heady aroma of……urine. In fact the whole city seems to have a pervasive urinal-like odour, poorly masked by the competing smells of rubbish and spices. The touts and rickshaw drivers at the Jaipur station were also the worst we’ve so far encountered, falling on us like vultures the moment our feet hit the platform. James eventually had to resort to telling one, who was attempting repeatedly to wrestle both our bags and baby from us, to “just F**K OFF!”. This was met with incredulous silence, and then, blessedly, a peaceful retreat. Alas, the reprieve was short-lived and we were beseiged anew when we entered the carpark. One rickshaw driver, breathless from trying to keep up with our relentless march to the gate, panted forlornly “Madam- what eees wrong?? Have you had bad experience or sometheeng??”. Disappointingly, I was not quick enough to retort “Well we’re certainly having one now!”. The saying “cutting off one’s nose….” was ringing loudly in our ears as we trudged the kilometre to our hotel…..but at least the streets were quiet, and the only annoyance the piles of rubbish and sneaky footpath poohs.

The old city in Jaipur by day was a bustling riot of colour and activity, with endless bazaars selling jewellry, camel leather shoes, saris, embroidered bedcovers, block-printed fabric and everything else imaginable. The pace was frantic, and the pressure to buy intense and immensely uncomfortable; to even stop and look at something was as good as agreeing to buy it, and subsequently walking off drew howls of anguish and disbelief. Needless to say, despite salivating over the fantastic wares, we bought nothing.

After three nights, we headed south for Pushkar, a Hindu temple town in the desert. We missed the craziness of the annual camel fair by a couple of weeks, so the tempo had returned to quiet and laid-back…by Indian standards at least. We fell in love with the place and its chilled-out hippy vibe, and honestly could have spent a week there, maybe even a month. Plenty of tourists spend longer, and the rooftop cafes are full of tatty-clothed, dreadlocked travellers lounging on cushions around low tables for days on end. Ostensibly, it’s a dry, vegetarian town, but there’s plenty of “special” lassis and “magic” chocolate balls to ensure that no one gets bored. Thanks to WTLP, we also managed to identify a couple of restaurants discreetly selling sly Kingfishers and serving eggs….we’ve probably marred our karma badly, and may pay for it in our next lives….

Pushkar is a small village really, with no motorised traffic (meaning no annoying rickshaw drivers hassling you for business) save the crazy scooters zipping through the narrow dusty laneways. We visited a few of the myriad of temples to tap into the spirituality, but were soon lured by the commercialism of the incredible bazaar; all the same stuff as we’d seen in Jaipur, without the pushiness and hassle! The Main Street is dotted with international freight agents, so even the “I can’t fit it in my pack” excuse was rendered non-viable, and we went a little crazy (necessitating the aforementioned trip to India Post).

In Pushkar, there seems to be almost as many cows as people, lazily wandering through the streets, mournfully munching on rubbish, camping to chew their cud wherever the hell they please, and from time to time tossing their horns at anyone disrespectful enough to get in their way. There are countless pigs snuffling about the alleys, and monkeys drip from every upper story. Elaborately festooned camels pull carts down dusty roads, with camel drivers wearing turbans big enough to hide small washing machines. To say it’s picturesque is an understatement, but the most photogenic things are, as usual, the ones towards which it’s inappropriate to point a lens. Hindus bathing at the ghats. An elderly beggar with her walnut face painted with chalk and tikki. The women we glimpse through an open door on our way home one night, sitting on the floor singing by lamplight. The woman and her children asleep in their courtyard next to a cow quietly chewing her cud and keeping watch. The men playing cards under a street light in the laneway near our guesthouse. The ladies sitting in a darkened alcove threading marigolds on long garlands in the heat of the afternoon.

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So now, as darkness descends outside in the desert, as we wait patiently for the chai wallah to arrive in our carriage, Cricket munches her twenty-fifth Britannia Arrowroot, and we’re rocking and rattling our way to Udaipur. More palaces and forts await.

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Xanax for the Thyroid, ‘Sartan for the Soul.

“Her period is not clear.”

“He is often falling down and losing his senses…..and has a sore foot.”

“She and her husband have a toilet area problem inside for both of them.”

If Rashika, my third year journalism student Bengali intrepeter, is looking a bit at sea, then I am way out of my depth and drowning rapidly. I glance at the doctors flanking me at our plastic tables, hoping for a lifeline. Both of them are furiously scribbling prescriptions on the small slips of paper that bear each patient’s name and age, written in Hindi (or Bengali..or Chinese, as if I’d know). The room, which is really just a cement foundation, with open walls hung with long curtains, and a blue tarp roof, is heaving with people waiting to see a doctor. There are no notes, no couch on which to to examine anyone, no place to wash hands, and no privacy at all, as the next five patients crowd curiously behind the current patient’s plastic chair while the complaint is outlined.

We came to Kolkata primarily to meet Dr Mrinal Debnath, who is an acquaintance of Annie’s. I wanted to meet Dr Debnath in order to come here, to his slum clinic. Dr Debnath is a sixty-four year old dynamo; a psychiatrist and addiction specialist, with a masters in tropical health (where he met our friend Annie), he has worked and studied all over the world, and next year is running in his local elections. He is also an East Pakistan Hindu refugee, born in what we now call Bangladesh, and forced to flee his country after the partition in 1947. He spent most of his teenage years in the slum. He cleaned buses during the day and studied hard during the night, eventually winning himself a scholarship to study medicine, and almost fifty years later he’s giving something back to the community that raised him.

This slum is wedged between a modern-looking service station and a normal looking apartment complex estate, hemmed in by high brick walls, presumably so that no one outside has to think too often of its existence. The long, high-walled laneway from the main road gives no clue as to what lies beyond. I could have passed by a hundred of these slums and never known they were there. I probably already have.

When we arrived this morning, I was given the grand tour. 277 families live here- close to 1000 people. All are Bengali refugees; some are third or fourth generation. There are three latrines, directly adjacent to the only water pump for the community. A group of locals, tailed by a gaggle of giggling urchin children, lead me through the maze of shanties. These “houses” are dirt floor huts, cobbled together from whatever has been found; bits of timber, tarpaulins, cardboard boxes, packing crates and repurposed rubbish. In the hip, western world, the big buzzword is “upcycling”. In the west it means using an old bottle for a vase; here, it is a way of survival.

The train line bisects the community, and the tracks are festooned with today’s laundry drying on the hot rocks- shirts, trousers and vivid saris in every conceivable colour and pattern. Women scramble to retrieve them as a train roars towards us, and a man clutches my arm to prevent me from trying to cross. Once it passes, we climb over, and the washing is back in place before I am swallowed by the next labyrinth of huts. I am shown to the temple, which everyone is clearly immensely proud of; a crowd gathers to watch my reaction to their holy place. It’s just a frame made of sticks, with a hard earth floor, but the shrine is bright and shiny and ornate, glittering with gold and laden with flowers, and a rice bag has been draped at the entrance where the shoes are removed.

I don’t get teary because it’s so sad, but because everyone’s so bloody happy. The children are grubby but grinning, the women are smiling their friendly welcomes, and the work-hardened men look grimly proud of their efforts to make this place a home. My glimpses into their huts as I pass reveal clean-swept dirt floors with everything in its place. There is no rubbish in the muddy laneways. It’s cleaner in here than out there, in The Real World. It’s heart-breaking.

Back at the clinic, the surroundings might be different from what I’m used to, but the presentations are bizarrely similar. At least a third of my patients are complaining of lower back pain. What can I do, here? I try to exclude red flags, and do a rudimentary examination. But there are no physios to refer to, no handout of core strengthening exercises and no way to give my motivational spiel on the management of chronic back pain in a language I don’t speak with literally a hundred patients waiting. Besides, nobody wants any of that. They want a magic pill that will allow them to get on with their heavy labour jobs in order to feed their families.

In fact, the visiting doctor from Australia is really seen as a bit of faith healer. A lot of people wait to see me with problems that are anything but new. There are bizarre reminders that this is India, and just down the road are tertiary hospitals and specialists and modern imaging available….for a price. Several people bring notes with them from these places where they’ve spent money they can’t afford, and they’d like a second opinion. One woman- with back pain- shows me the results of an MRI, and a discharge summary that details her in-hospital epidural and subsequent discharge on pregabalin. The treatment is working well, but she wants to know what I think about her stopping the pregabalin. How do I begin to tell her I would have no idea?

It seems almost everyone leaves with a script. They look most offended if I try to explain that it might not be appropriate. The family of a young boy describe his seizures as though from a textbook, but aren’t happy when I try to send him for an EEG and a CT. Surely there are tablets I can give him now? I blindly treat what might be PID in a young mother, and what sounds like a UTI in an old lady, without any examination save what I can manage with their saris on, and they look blank when I query them about allergies. I prescribe ibuprofen and ACE-inhibitors and albendazole, and then have nightmares for days about renal failure, perforated ulcers and teratogenicity in undetected pregnancies. I am practising humiliatingly bad medicine, and I see about forty patients and don’t wash my hands once.

Finally the clinic is declared finished. As the helpers chase off the last hopeful stragglers, one young man sneaks into the seat in front of me, flanked by his family. He looks unwell to me. Rashika has disappeared, so I call over the Bengali-speaking junior doctor. For a few months, this thirty-four year old carpenter has felt increasingly unwell, losing weight and his appetite, feeling restless and sweaty. He has a fine tremor. We examine him, sort of, and I suggest we do some TFTs and LFTs as an absolute bare bones start. My colleague politely disagrees; TFTs cost about 400 rupees, and he’s quite possibly suffering from anxiety, so we should try some alprazolam (apparently cheap as chips here) and see if that improves his symptoms first. Murtagh is pulling out his hair somewhere and I feel pretty bloody overwhelmed myself.

I can’t begin to kid myself that I’ve helped anyone at all today. It will be a miracle if I haven’t killed anyone. As we’re leaving, I confide my helplessness to the junior doctor. With a wisdom at odds with his 27 years, he tells me that he was once told “you don’t go to medical camp to cure the sick. You go to let those people know that someone remembers that they exist, and that someone cares about them”.

This has been the hardest post for me to write. I’ve turned it over in my mind constantly for the two weeks that have elapsed since I visited the slum. I still don’t know how to do the experience justice, how to explain the multifaceted complexity of what I saw in that clinic, and how to represent those brave and friendly and strong people. Crossing the threshold to that slum is to have the memory burnt onto your brain, and no human could leave there and do nothing. I must do something. I have no idea what I will do, what I can do, but, I think, I hope, Dr Mrinal Debnath does.

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Into the Belly of the Beast: Dodging Poohs in Kolkata.

There is quite a lot of excrement on the streets of central Kolkata- much of it human- and it pays to keep your wits about you when pounding the pavements. When you’re not avoiding the pavement poohs in your sensible footwear, you’re strolling past thoughtfully placed, but incredibly stinky, public urinals on the footpaths. Revolting though the situation can be, I actually find it a bit oddly reassuring; in India, the world is your toilet, and you’ll never be caught short of a loo. You could drop a squat anywhere and no one would blink.

In Kolkata it seems that the rich are rapidly getting richer, and the poor, who one assumes could not actually get any poorer, are not going anywhere. Often quite literally; at any time of the day or night you can see people curled up precariously on ledges or low walls, under shop eaves, beside the metro station, on benches, under stationary rickshaws, in tree root systems or under footpath cafe tables.

To enjoy being wealthy in Kolkata must surely be to harden your heart. Along Park Street are a plethora of trendy cafes, bars and eateries, french, italian and American bistro stylings, frequented by trendy young students in jeans and kurti and herringbone-suited business men. It’s the place, apparently, to be seen. Best not to look out the windows at the more dishevelled population lying in the footpaths, or the wiry, hardened men hand-pulling rickshaws in the motorised traffic. And, obviously, don’t wear open-toed shoes if you’re walking….

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Every time we leave the hotel, Cricket warbles “beep-beep-beep-BEEP”, which is a pretty accurate description of the traffic. Indians truly believe that horns are imperative for operating a vehicle safely, even painting signs on their tail gates entreating other motorists to “Please Sound Horn”. Everyone happily obliges, and bizarrely it seems that every single vehicle’s blower, from musical truck horns to tootling bicycle rickshaw bells, has a slightly different sound, so that the overall effect is deafening cacophonous chaos. The bitumen roads outside of the city centre itself are lined, not with pavements, but with dirt, and there is rubbish everywhere, the lighter bits of which float in the streets in the dusty wind gusts. In a word, it’s crazy, and at the end of the day, all you really want to do is lock yourself in the hotel bathroom, where the incessant beeping is at least a bit muffled, and scrub off some of the grime.

But, like everything in this world, you adjust, and our overall picture is of a city is that’s actually quite likeable. (As James puts it succintly, “Nice place for a visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there!”) Quelling our fears of pushy auto drivers and cunning con-artists, people are overwhelmingly friendly. Each time we climb on a bus, someone asks where we’re headed and gives us directions, sometimes even showing us how to change buses or where the metro is. We have to bargain hard in taxis, but nobody hassles us to “you BUUUY??” or “taxi Madaaaaam???”. It seems that there are just not enough western tourists here to be seen as easy cash- we are an oddity that fascinates the locals, and they couldn’t be more helpful.

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The Queen Victoria Memorial, as our first piece of grand Indian architecture, is quite breath-taking, the South Park Cemetery is an eerie, verdant oasis of monolithic colonial tombs, and the Marble Palace (really an old Raja’s stately home) is mind-bogglingly bulging with what must be priceless art and antiquities from all over the globe, including some pieces by European masters whose signatures and styles even I recognise. (Disappointingly, we are rushed through the palace by the obligatory “free” guide who later demands 500 rupees- outraged, we work him down to 200, which is probably still 100 too many- and are expressly not allowed to take any photographs….even after surreptitiously slipping the spear-wielding gatekeeper 50 rupees.) On the spiritual side of things, we visit Mother Theresa’s Mother House, which has an undeniably powerful aura, and Belur Math, the home of the Hindu Ram Krishna movement, as well as, downriver, the temple where Ram Krishna lived and studied.

There are also oddly sterile corners of the city. The airport is brand new, and built to last; far too large and booming for its current traffic load. The vast, gleaming, mausoleum-like shopping malls dotted incongruously throughout the city are soulless shrines to the gods of Western Consumerism, housing KFCs and Puma outlets next to Fabrindia and Cafe Coffee Day. On recommendation we visit the New Town Eco-Park, which is “not-quite-finished-yet”, but still charging 20 rupees per head for entry. Plenty of people, no doubt dreaming of the green spaces of the less-polluted cities in the world, are lining up to oblige. Walking the wide paths around a man-made lake (which feels strangely bereft without thousands of people bathing and washing in it), the whole experience feels creepy and not a little Brave New World. The view from the lake extends straight back to the airport highway, because the plantings have yet to grow past seedling height. The only shade in the whole 140 hectares of parkland is from the amenities buildings, and a few- slightly alarming- concrete scuptures. At one end, there is a cluster of large, modern buildings that will apparently be restaurants and shops. Near what will apparently be the Mask Garden (the enormous, scary ethnic masks are in place, but no greenery as yet) we catch a glimpse of the metaphorical culture clash of the New India. A young couple who five minutes earlier shot past us riding a rented tandem bicycle are standing on the path bending over their bike. The girl’s silk dupatta (the long scarf draped over a traditional shalwar kameez) is caught in the chain. It looks like it won’t be extricated intact; the perils of dating in modern India.

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Firecrackers and Leeches in the Western Ghats

After (reluctantly) disembarking our houseboat, we made for the bus station to head East, to the Western Ghats. (In India, the Western Ghats are actually central, and West Bengal is actually in the Far East….go figure.)

What followed was complete idiot abroad farce. Our rickshaw driver, upon discovering that we were planning to travel to Munnar, helpfully suggested “Only one bus per day Allepey to Munnar. Better you go Orregulam- catch bus from there. Many bus Orregulam to Munnar.”

Sounded like a clever idea really. WTLPI had itself indicated that buses to Munnar were very infrequent from Alleppey, and took about five and a half hours.

“Which town? Oregano?” queried James. (In his defence, Munnar is known as a prime spice growing area…..although possibly not of the italian variety.)

“Orregulam, Orregulam! Wait over there, bus will come.” He disappeared in spray of dust.

We consulted the map without success. Orregulam was obviously too small to have prominence in WTLPI. Never mind, it was obviously in the right direction; we’d be in Munnar in no time!

“Are you going to Ooreganu??” we queried a few people at the stop. They looked mildly puzzled; obviously the town, despite being a major transport hub to Munnar, was not a popular stop. Or nobody spoke English. Possibly (ie definitely, as it transpired) our pronunciation was slightly amiss.

The bus arrived, and we scrambled on. “Orreganulam” I garbled blithely at the conductor, who (much to my suprise) nodded, collected 140 rupees, and issued us a ticket from his little machine. I studied the ticket; “Ernakulam”. ERNAKULAM???? Ernakulam is where we started our whole Indian adventure, an hour and a half North of Alleppey, not West towards Munnar. We were on the same bus that had taken us to Alleppey in the first place, and losing ground quickly!

Anyway, we made it to Munnar, as it turned out, significantly earlier than we would have, had we waited in Alleppey, so our trust in the friendly rickshaw driver was not misplaced. Even so, it was almost dark when we eventually roared up to the dusty bus depot.

We might have been forgiven for thinking we’d alighted on the Gaza Strip; the place sounded like a war zone. As we settled into our cozy guesthouse, deafening booms and crack-crack-cracks shook the building. Diwali had begun in earnest, and in the streets children not much older than Cricket were lighting the fuses on crackers as thick as their legs. We joined the families, and a gaggle of bewildered western tourists, in our lane for the light show. Standing next to us was an infectiously enthusiastic Israeli whose messenger bag was bulging with huge bungers he’d purchased “from the monks man!!” Overhead, huge starbursts of fireworks- the sort you’d need a license for back in Aus- lit up the sky with bursts of fire. It was quite a show, and when we eventually retired, we drifted off to sleep with our windows rattling in time with the last sporadic booms.
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The following day, discouraged from a dawn hike by our guesthouse proprietor whose eyes bulged as he stared at Cricket and wailed about leeches and slippery ground for carrying a baby, we took a rickshaw for “sight-seeing”. We purred around the district in the misty drizzle to various lakes, tea estates and view points; within five minutes of alighting for a photo, Cricket got a leech on her foot. Most embarrassingly, it was noticed first, not by her doting, attentive parents, but our driver…..She took it well and wasn’t concerned; I, on the other hand, was traumatised. I do not like leeches. My recollection of the rest of the day is blurred by the recurrent memory of checking my ankles every two minutes.

As we wound higher into the hills towards Top Station, the road deteriorated, with regular small landslides causing the tourist traffic to slow. We crossed the border from Kerala to Tamil Nadu, and marked the occasion
with a steamy cup of chai in a smoky canvas shack on the roadside, as the mist thickened into a drizzle. “Belly good view there” lamented our driver
mournfully, pointing over the edge of the precipitous single lane road into a wall of wet fog. We had to take his word for it.

At Top Station, he was so adamant that we must walk to the “belly BELLY good view…..and wait a while”, that when he procured an umbrella from a nearby shopkeeper for us, we could hardly refuse. We set off through the rain, which about 100m in thickened further to a torrential downpour. There was nowhere to shelter, so we soldiered on, past the trackside snack vendors trying desperately to protect their goods under clusters of umbrellas. Thankfully, at the view point there was a huge colour billboard depicting what we should have been able to see. Our driver was right, it probably was a belly good view. We trudged back to the rickshaw.

Munnar’s cool weather, although refreshing, was also highly inconvenient. Nothing dried- even bath towels between (lukewarm) showers- and everything in our packs took on a slight dampness. Stringy mould formed in my toothbrush case, and by the time we left, I was beginning to worry about trench foot….

For some inexplicable reason, the trip back to Ernakulam lasted five and a half hours, instead of the four and a half taken by the ascent. Cricket was ragged by the end, not even mollified by Wiggles-worthy renditions of “Wheels on the Bus”. (She knows all the actions, but only three words, tying off every verse with a resounding “ORL DAAAY LOOORNG!!” ) By the time we reached Ernakulam, she was rapidly alienating even her most fervently admiring fellow passengers, and as she sank her teeth demonically into my shoulder during the “grannies on the bus” verse, the serene lady behind me smilingly handed me a Christian brochure aptly entitled “Will my suffering ever end?” At that point, I felt it was difficult to say.

We’ve frequently been asked about our religious beliefs while travelling. We always end up saying that we’re Christians, because we’ve realised that being an atheist- or even agnostic- is a first-world luxury that the people in the developing world can ill-afford, much less understand. When you’ve got real, pressing problems in your life, like whether your children will have access to education, whether you’ll ever own a home, whether you’ll find enough work or where your next meal is coming from, you need a proper regimented belief system. You need well-documented guidelines as to what to do to improve your lot, if not in this life, then in the next one. My optimistically nebulous view of trying to be kind, doing no harm and living a “good” life just doesn’t wash.

Back in Fort Cochin, we wandered about letting our clothes and feet dry out, and eating our way through mountains of South Indian curry. On Monday, we hopped a plane to Kolkata.

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Backwash of India…a watery journey

We expected the backwaters of Kerala to be a bit like the backwash of India’s filthy digestive system. We were pleasantly surprised; despite the rubbish piled up along the canals, and the occasional floating plastic (including a faded orange life jacket drifting past- I looked hard for a rotting tourist carcass still strapped inside but thankfully couldn’t see one), the water seems remarkable clear, and dotted with patches of luridly green water weeds.

We left the sleepy, crumbling Fort Cochin on the local bus on Sunday and headed South to Alleppey. Whoever came up with the moniker “Venice of the East” had possibly smoked too many charras. A few murky canals lined with mossy mildewed cement walls and what seems like a million dilapidated boats intersect the bustling little town, eventually leading to either the sea or the extensive network of so-called backwaters.

Hiring a houseboat to cruise these waters is an Indian holiday institution, and with Diwali (India’s great Festival of Light) fast approaching on the 22nd, word on the street suggested that our choices might dwindle quickly if we missed the pre-holiday dates. There is apparently over a thousand houseboats in the area, but there is reportedly 1.2 billion Indians, and quite a few international tourists getting around, so price hikes during a national holiday seemed plausible! After a belly-stretching Thali plate of curry-and-condiments, we hotfooted it down to the houseboat jetty, locally known as The Finishing Point…..which is decidedly odd, given that it is first, if not foremost, the starting point….

We were greeted with a solid wall of houseboats, jam-packed two or three deep along the waterfront as far as the eye could see. In front of them, and us, was a solid wall of houseboat staff, fishing for customers. “You want houseboat? Come look, come look!”. So we did. Within minutes, the sagely advice gleaned from WTLPI* faded into oblivion in our excited minds. Who would remember to ask for eco certificates and haggle furiously over allocated air-conditioning power times when the boats are just so cool??

The original houseboats of the region were converted rice barges made almost entirely of knotted and woven coir. These days they’re built primarily as houseboats, but still have the rustic appearance of their origins. The first one we boarded was lovely, old and full of character, containing a double bedroom with ensuite, an open lounge/dining area at the front and upstairs covered deck. The staff wanted 6500 rupees for one night (all inclusive) and 12000 for two nights. The second boat was a palace, only months old, with three double ensuited rooms, a big lounge area and all the luxuries, including air-con (between 9pm and 6am) and a flat screen tv in the common area. Best of all, it was totally encased with solid, well-spaced railings to deter our water-loving Cricket from taking an Indian baptism. 10 000 rupees for two nights. We continued down the line, collecting cards and details, and marvelling at the array of boats and options.

Bizarrely, the big floating palace turned out to be one of the cheapest on offer, and definitely the most Cricket-proof, so in the evening we found ourselves back at its mooring, on the phone to the owner. It seemed (reassuringly to my suspicious mind) that we had been somewhat underquoted and the owner was a bit reluctant (not to mention a bit cross at his staff)….but given the local supply and demand curve, we were in luck! Somehow, despite our complete lack of bargaining, and an inability to keep poker faces, we had managed to snag a bargain.

In the morning, when we returned with all our worldly goods (and a magnetic fishing set for Cricket, hastily purchased at a roadside stall), there were more houseboats than ever vying for space. We sidled through the crowds of “You want houseboat” touts, tossed our packs aboard and sank into the armchairs, grinning like loons, while the crew scuttled back and forth loading provisions.

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We were introduced to our crew of three. Morgan, our whiskery cook, with his slightly bandy legs emerging from his dhoti, Seiji, the quietly spoken and rotund captain, and Shem, the youngest and shyest, but with the best English of the trio, his Adidas track pants trailing along the deck behind him. As we set off into the vibrant green waterways, Morgan and Shem appeared with steaming bowls of rice, curries, chutneys and pappadums. “Sir, you like beer?” Shem quietly queried. Would we like a beer? Would we WHAT????

Unbeknownst to us prior to arrival, the state of Kerala has very strict grog laws. Only certain tourist restaurants (those with an appropriate star rating and the requisite permit) can serve alcohol at all. It can only otherwise be bought for personal consumption from heavily fortified (no pun intended) grog shops. No alcohol can be bought or consumed on Sunday…or on the first day of every month. (In India, most workers are paid at the end of the month and the government felt that prohibition immediately after payday would encourage siphoning of the money towards more immediate family needs.) The laws are equally aimed at preventing bad tourist behaviour, presumably after decades of stories of drunk westerners falling of houseboats. The laws were apparently tightened only earlier this year, and we had already been regularly taunted by Kingfisher merchandise (napkin dispensers, tablecloths and so on) in now-dry restaurants.

In any case, our first Kingfisher Premium Lager, crisp and cold, was well worth the wait. It wasn’t, however, cheap by Asian standards; 200 rupees (a little under $4) a tallie. The boys had managed to buy us eight for the trip, and dribbled them out slowly with our meals.

And what meals they are! Shem appears, blushing red beneath his brown skin, and announces quietly “Your food ready, Sir”. Three times a day, Morgan subsequently ferries countless plates of steaming food down the hallway to the table. In between gorgings, he arrives unheralded with cups of tea and deep fried bananas in a biohazardly yellow batter, dotted with cumin seeds and specks of cardamom. With a special soft spot for Cricket (yesterday he spent about two hours playing ‘feeshies’ with her) he mixes glasses of powdered milk for her with every meal.

*Weighty Tome Lonely Planet India

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This is India??!

So obsessively focussed were we on the pursuit of Indian visas that we hardly stopped to think of the consequences in the event of success. If our passports had Indian visas, we would have to go to India.

For my whole adult life, whenever I have thought about travelling, India has been the pinnacle. India is the Big Kahuna of destinations. In my mind, only truly experienced tourists- or crazy backpackers with little to lose- take on India. I love hearing the survival stories from the India returned, the travellers chewed up and spat out by the huge nation, love the desperate tales of runny poohs and grinding poverty, of interminable train delays and crazy rickshaw drivers. I’ve gobbled up blogs and books about travelling in the country….but I didn’t really think that we’d take it on with the Cricket in tow.

India makes me nervous. I am afraid of the huge crowds, the sexism, the crime, the scams, the pollution, the poverty. I am fearful of malaria, of dengue, of Delhi Belly and of being ogled and groped by strange Indian men. I am worried about rubbish, tourist touts, con artists, heavy traffic, looking too wealthy, feeling too guilty, giving to beggars, not giving to beggars, getting lost, getting robbed, getting separated.

Life has inumerable ways of making you look like a twit. Kochi international airport is about as full on as a CWA meeting in downtown Boulia. One that clashes with a royal wedding telecast in fact. It’s dead. There is a minor moment of panic when our bags don’t appear on the belt….but someone has simply removed them and they are sitting innocently, intact, beside the conveyor.

Through the sliding doors there is a small gaggle of people, but no one so much as yells “TAAXXIII!!!” and we just stroll right by, into the warm handshake of our airport transfer driver, who’s clutching a piece of paper with our names on it. Is this really India??? I surreptitiously check the signage; after all, the flight was barely 50 minutes, maybe we’re still somewhere in laid-back Sri Lanka….But a giant concrete sign next to an artful display of potted plants confirms that this is, indeed, Kochi International Airport. And there is the barely dry arrival stamp in our passports, thudded officially into place by a moustachioed Indian Immigration employee, keeping vigil next to the blinking eye of his video camera, which is ludicrously disguised as a brocade elephant on a stick.

In the air-conditioned taxi, the newest and most comfortable car we’ve sat in for several months, we watch luxury car emporiums and megamalls slide past in the burgeoning city of Ernakalum. There is a rash of billboards and posters advertising Astor Medcity Hospital, whose simply stated, but possibly genius, slogan is “We’ll treat you well”. The accompanying illustration looks more like a vast five star resort, encircled by swaying tropical palms and fountains. I quiz the driver and he tells us that this will be India’s biggest private hospital, started by a syndicate of (presumably millionaire) Indian doctors, and catering mostly for middle eastern tourists. Kerala is looking to cash in on the booming international market for medical tourism. I make a mental note in case we catch malaria, or have enough cash left over for me to indulge in a little cosmetic enhancement…..

Eventually we drift out of the modern city, into the lush countryside (although not exactly as we know it), across a 2km bridge (India’s longest apparently) and into the relaxed vibe of Fort Cochin. Our guesthouse is a beacon of welcome….although experiencing a blackout when we arrive.

While we enjoy dinner in a Keralan Syrian Creole fusion restaurant (yes, we were confused as well) down the road, it pours with rain, and thunder and lightning thrash down violently. When it finally settles to a light drizzle, we wander the streets back to our guesthouse. It seems we have an uncanny talent for selecting accommodation in flood-prone areas, and the little back lane leading to our digs is completely submerged in about two feet of non-draining water. A group of teenage boys at the lane entrance are taking turns kamikazee-ing a bicycle into the lake, seeing who can create the best bow wave, while their mates fall about laughing and film the events on mobile phones.

We hail a passing rickshaw driver, and offer him 50 rupees (about a dollar) to take us through. “Sir, Madam, you no need a rickshaw! You be needing motor boat no?!”, he waggles his head and laughs broadly. But the fee is too absurdly generous to pass up and we clamber in. He takes a decent run-up and, tongue determinedly clenched between his teeth, charges towards the water. We chug laboriously out the other side, shoes, socks and trousers comfortably dry. Welcome to India..

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