Before dinner at the Top Trees Resort in Munnar, we take a walk around the tea plantation. The hills are carpeted in an emerald blanket of tea plants, each so plucked and sculptured so that the landscape looks like a series of green rocks.
This is South India’s largest tea growing area, and the commercial centre of some of the world’s highest tea growing plantations. We walk with a retired couple from Boston and discuss the “banana smoothie” issue. Wilma tells me that I’m going to be disappointed on two counts; first, it is a dry day in Kerala, and second, the hotel doesn’t have a liquor license anyway. She’s disappointed too!
This is a spectacularly beautiful place to stay, surrounded by trees that seem to reach up to the sky. We dine with our new American friends and learn they’re both retired engineers, he has worked on aircraft engines at GE most of his life. He tells us that in his day, GE employed 10,000 engineers in India and with the time difference, he could go home leaving the issue, (whatever it was), to the Indians and he’d generally have a resolution by morning. We chat about aircraft types, aircraft manufacturers’ philosophies and he reveals he’s never seen an A380 super jumbo. He’s astounded when I tell him that if you stand on our balcony any day between 7.00am and 8.00am you’ll see six or eight pass by.
Next day we drive back to the coast and install ourselves at Fort Cochin, which is dripping in history. This little town has been trading with the world since the Babylonians and everyone; Romans, Greeks, Portuguese, Chinese, Dutch and British have left their mark here. The small hotel in which we’re staying was formerly the governor’s residence and has been beautifully restored.
Along the beachfront are the iconic Chinese fishing nets, which are the legacy of traders from the AD1400 court of Kublai Khan. The nets are raised using giant counterweights every five or ten minutes to empty the catch. The fish is then for sale at adjacent stalls – so fresh it’s barely stopped wriggling. We pick up a half-day guide and unusually, she is Christian, which gives us a different take. She walks us to St Francis church, built by Portuguese Franciscan Friars in 1503 where the original punkah are still on show. These have ropes leading outside, where the punkahwaller operated the punkah providing a breeze to the congregation. Next stop was the very un-pc named Jew Town where we visited the synagogue. This is believed to be the oldest synagogue in the British Empire, built in 1568, destroyed by the Portuguese in 1662 and rebuilt two years later when the Dutch took Cochin. The Jewish population of Cochin has dropped from 30,000 at its highest to just one remaining family. Now completely isolated, that family is on the verge of emigrating leaving only one person behind to collect the entrance fee to the synagogue. We stop at a commercial laundry and witness the manual processes and the washing drying in the sun. The vigour with which the clothes are pummeled explains why some of our items come back from the hotel laundry looking worse for wear.
Late afternoon we catch the local ferry to Ernaluam. Unusually, we queue in separate lines to buy our tickets, one for men and one for women. The man behind me bumps me slightly. I move forward a a few inches. He bumps again. I’m now pressed up against the guy in front and the guy behind has his shoulder touching the middle of my back. I turn. He is oblivious to the fact that he is really invading my personal space but I guess that with nearly 1.3 billion citizens, all those Indians have to stand somewhere. The ferry tariff, at 4rp,or 8 cents for the 20 minute journey seems more than fair, although the state of the ferry (held together as it was by bent coat hangers and baling twine), again has the Indian Ferry Tragedy headline flashing in my mind’s eye. An English woman we met along the way told us that four years ago the ferry itself was also segregated, men on one side and women on the other, but this policy seems to have been relaxed. In Ernaluam we wander the fruit and veg market, hoping to buy jaggery. But the only places that sell it offer in bulk, and there’s obviously no way we’re going to get half a kilo of unpackaged jaggery past the little dog at Sydney airport. We catch the return ferry, (another 8 cents each) and dine in a simple place behind the Santa Cruz Basilica. The previous night we’d gone upscale, eating at The Asian Kitchen at Tokyo Bay inside the prestigious Cochin Club. The food was sensational. But upscale or downscale, these restaurants are all dry. It’s now four days since I’ve had a banana smoothie. Maybe tomorrow in Mumbai…
Of course it goes without saying that we have been avidly watching the first 14 days of Trump on the nightly news – either BBC or CNN. But Trump really has gone too far this time, hanging up on our Prime Minister. Trump’s dummy-spit was widely reported with Malcolm looking statesman-like and Trump looking like a right-wing nut job the Americans have installed in the White House. The Week, a local current affairs mag, had a frothing, pointing Trump on the cover with the caption, Making America Hate Again. But it’s probably the only time our Malcolm will make the front cover of the The Times of India – and above the fold too!
Our flight to Mumbai went smoothly and I was only slightly unsettled when I picked up the daily newspaper at the airport and the headline read, Is Your Flight Safe? reporting that airline safety violations in 2016 had doubled from 2015. Most of the issues are “banana smoothie” related, but we descend safely after 90 minutes into the smog of Mumbai. It’s a big 20+ million city, that feels a bit like Bangkok or Phnom Pehn although the skyline and the architecture are much prettier. The young people, and there are plenty of them, largely wear western dress, although it’s not unusual to see a young Muslim women in full niqab, straddling the rear seat of a motorbike, rather that sitting side-saddle as women outside of Mumbai do.We walked the length of Dr Dadabhal Nairobi Road from our hotel to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus admiring the glorious Gothic Revival buildings. The terminus is Mumbai’s principal railway station and was known for most of its life as Victoria Terminus, (or VT). I do find this continual renaming a little obstructive. While I’m OK with Bombay being called Mumbai, and Madras now Chennai, The Prince of Wales Museum, for example, is now known as the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaja Vastu Sangrahalaya. Anyhow, that grumble aside, the VT is a remarkable piece of Gothic architecture, completed in 1887, 34 years after the first trains ran from this spot. It’s an eclectic mix of Victorian, Hindu and Islamic styles, with buttresses, turrets, domes, stained glass and dog-faced gargoyles. We stood in the main suburban arrival hall watching the trains arrive, disgorge their thousands of passengers, and leave again within minutes. The platforms are constructed so that the doors open on both sides of the trains, making for speedy detraining. Take a deep breath, five million people pass through this station each day, and these platforms were used in the final scenes of Slum Dog Millionaire.
The Mumbai University is almost the spitting image of Oxford Uni and back at the turn of the 19th century, Dr Dadabhal Nairobi Road must have been a remarkable sight with its wonderful buildings, but now two or three are signposted as unsafe, while many others are in various stages of disrepair. The Indian Tourist Authority has a tag-line, “Incredible India” but we’d replace it with “Crumbling India”.
Next morning, with new local guide Rupa (a former Air India trolley-dolly) in tow, we take an hour-long ferry ride to the island of Elephanta. There are no elephants on Elephanta, but there are series of caves that date back to AD 450-750. The main Shiva-dedicated cave is very powerful, although many of the statues have suffered from centuries of neglect. The biggie is a 6 metre tall statue of Sadhashiva, depicting a three faced Shiva as the destroyer, creator and preserver of the universe. It was hard to get close to this statue for the number of (mainly domestic) tourists seeking to have their photos taken , or taking selfies, with the deity. “Oh look, here I am with Shiva”. “And here I am with Krishna”. “And this is me with Vishnu…” (Sigh!)
Our excellent hotel was a stone’s throw from the Gateway of India, built to commemorate the 1911 royal visit of King George V. It’s an imposing basalt faced structure which ironically, just 24 years after it was completed, witnessed the parade of the last British regiment as India marched toward independence. In the Kitab Khana bookshop, Maggie browsed the theosophy section while I drank coffee in their cafe. She purchased four books that interested her, including one, that from the pencilled notation inside the front cover, had been taken into stock in August 2001. “Look”, she said, “This book’s been sitting here for 16 years waiting for me to buy it”.
On our final day in India, we slummed it with a local NGO, and walked the Dharavi slum with a guide. To get there, we braved the local rail system, (7.5 million passengers each day), but outside of rush hour it was quite manageable. Seven to eight people are killed each day on the Mumbai train system, which begs the question; why don’t they close the doors? The train stopped half a dozen times before we reached the kicking off point for our slum walk, and I timed the stops on my phone. The longest was 11.3 seconds, with 10 seconds being the norm. So that’s why they don’t close the doors. As the train slows, the passengers are already out of the car and legging it down the platform before it’s come to a halt. (If Gladys could do the same for the Sydney network, we could be home from Circular Quay in half the time!)
Of Mumbai’s 20+ million inhabitants, over half live in the slums. Which sounds horrendous, and probably is. Indeed, either end of Mumbai airport is surrounded by the the flimsy structures in which millions of people live. The driver who took us from the airport to the city, said he was a happy slum dweller, as it was more affordable and had a greater sense of community that living “in town”. Indeed as we walked Dharavi, it was apparent just what a close-knit community it was. Of the million people who occupy the 2.2 sq km that is Dharavi, many derive their income in the community. They are the recyclers of Mumbai’s waste and we watch as plastic was sorted by colour, chipped into granules and then extruded to form plastic twine. Pain cans are cleaned and recycled and although the tannery is long-closed, the community colours and patterns hides which are on-sold to producers of handbags and other leather goods. It’s estimated that the annual turnover of all the businesses in the slum tops $700US per annum. But it is a slum, there’s an omnipresent crush of people, and some of the sights and smells are confronting. We squeezed through narrow passageways barely high enough to stand upright, and peeked into the tiny rooms that accommodate whole families. There is electricity, but water only runs 3 hours per day so each family has a 200 L plastic tank for water. The “houses” have no running water and there is one toilet for every 150 people. On a corner we find a man pulling chaat from his bubbling wok. In our view, anything in India that comes straight out of the wok is good for you – and these were sensational, served on a square of newspaper with a pitch of red chilli. Our overall view of Dharavi was of a community full of industry and full of hope and optimism. The NGO has a strict no-photo policy, however they have posted some here for us to share.
After a day like that we ended our trip to India with a sensational thali at Samrat. This recommendation from Libby was fifteen minutes walk from the hotel and was, for us, rather upmarket. The danger with thali is that waiter keeps returning with fabulous food, and your stomach hasn’t yet told your mouth that its full. Completely full. We stagger out, vowing not to eat for a week, and we’re reassured only slightly that we’ve walked over 20,000 steps this day and over 60 kms in the past week.
We have again been delighted by India. Sometimes it’s confronting, sometimes it hilarious, but it’s always tasty, always welcoming and always slightly off-center. Maggie says she loves India because it’s authentic, stretching, and has a great depth of culture. “It’s also”, she adds, “Veggie Heaven”.
I’ve posted some pictures for my dear uncle and anyone else who would like to peek. They’re captioned, maybe not in a terribly logical sequence, but they’re here.
Until next time अलविदा, or sayonara babes!