Sri Lanka to India

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His presence was difficult to ignore. He was close enough that I could see a bead of sweat of his moustache. His head wobbled and he smiled a smile that i found faintly disturbing. He added a new roll of toilet paper to the hanger, pulled of half a dozen sheets and began to polish the toilet seat. It was all rather disturbing and I told him so. I said, “please be gone, leave me in peace now, I find it unsettling that you, a man with a big bushy moustache have followed me into the toilet cubical”. He did the smily head wobbly thing again, and left. I locked the door fearful that he may have a key and welcomed myself to The Sub Continent, the land of sweaty men looking for tips.

I was at Colombo International Airport and I have to say that the experience, sweaty men joining me in the toilet cubical excepted of course, an agreeable one.

Fearful of any flight from Bangkok to Trivandrum that included an Indian stopover I took a deep breath and booked onto a flight with Sri Lankan Airlines. This was because (1) it was the cheapest and so would, I thought, put me in good favour with the Redspokes CEO, and (2) according to their website Sri Lankan Airlines offer a free room for stopovers of between eight and 24 hours. Of course I didn’t really expect this to materialise, and it was not offered on the ‘plane or on arrival at the airport but all that was needed was a quick query at the airline desk and in no time I was through immigrations (no queue) and in a mini-bus with a fellow tourist from Madras on the way to a slightly tatty but non-the-less welcome hotel room. Stepping out of the airport in the warm night air I felt an exhilaration that travel has not afforded me for some time. The air seemed dryer that Bangkok, the atmosphere was immediately and strikingly different to that of South East Asia, fragrantly it was a world apart. I sat in the mini-bus with my head hanging out of the open window lapping up the scent and the scene like an excited labrador puppy. “Walks”, I said to myself as the wind wiped where in my younger days hair had been, “I think that a week or two’s cycling is in order here”. And so, if all things remain even, there may well be some pics and ramblings from this island as soon as my India tour is finished.

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As it happens my arrival in India was all rather more tame than expected. Off of the plane and into the brand new terminal building via a little ride on an airport bus and I was third in the queue for immigrations. It was a disappointment to discover that the traditional huge brown dusty immigrations ledger had been replaced by a sleek computer.

I recalled as I stood waiting in the queue the last time I flew into India. It was many years ago and Indian imigrations had just become computerised. The man looked at me and wobbled his head and looked at the key board and screen with the pride of a father showing off his new born son. His look said what he desired to say, “look sir, very modern system’. He then began thrashing away at the keyboard with all the enthusiasm he could muster, rather as one would approach an old mechanical Remington typewriter. Being new the digital immigrations system took considerable longer I thought that the old ledger system, but heigh-ho, Rome wasn’t built in a day. At last with a flourish of hands on keyboard and a triumphant smile he was done. He turned from his computer and took out, the ledger!

Now, 15 years later the system has been perfected and the ledger, or if not the ledger then a sibling, has, as I was soon to find out, taken up residency on the counter of the guest house that was to become my home fore the coming two nights.

The last time I was in this part of India was 11 years ago. Fascinatingly given all the talk of the emerging Indian economy little to my observation has changed, excepted of course for computerised immigration. Taxis and motorbikes are, alas, predominantly Japanese now. For the driver and rider looking for economy and reliability this is, I am sure, is a huge step forward. But for the casual and occasional observer it is something of a shame. There was a nostalgic romance to the streets being awash with British cars from the 50s. And the sound of the old 500 Enfield Bullet passing by was as Indian as the blaring horns of the trucks. One cannot expect a nation to hold back its development in order to keep its own identity, which in itself is an interesting thought.

The congestion is the same, the cows and littler and beggars are the same. The deformities of Indian beggars at times defies the imagination, that is of course given that your imagination is not too warped.

I rode from the airport to the beach in a Japanese taxi so small that each time the driver changed gear he involuntarily rubbed my knee. I was pleased that the road was smoother than I recalled as my bicycle was lashed rather precariously to the roof. I had visited this beach at the beginning of this century on an indian bicycle with a back-pack lashed to the back. I was then on a journey to Kanyakamari right at the southern most tip of India. As we bounced along the road passing through impossibly small gaps in the on coming traffic I wondered what the foreign contingent would now be like. I had heard tales of huge jets airliners disgorging hundreds of flabby white tourists on a daily basis, and then refiling with flabby lobster pink tourists wearing what they consider to be cool and ethnic hats and sarongs and then turning round for a long and cramped charter flight back to the gloom of a European winter. I was pleased then to find a hardcore of lost and emaciated ageing hippies adorned with beads amulets and contented smiles sitting around drinking tea with wise looking Indian sages all white hair and beards. This though now takes place in the palm groves behind the beach.

Beachside now boasts a paved promenade. Gone is the crumbling dirt track winding past small restaurants and hole-in-the-wall stores looking out to see. Here are the package tourists, the sort of respectable middle aged couples that 15 years ago would have been on a beach in Spain or Greece, frying themselves beneath a thin layer of coconut oil on the Malabar Coast.

The Indians are still the same, which in many ways is refreshing. Still catching your attention at every opportunity with the desire to sell, invariably jewellery, or tailoring services, but always with a friendliness that, while not always genuine, is at least always courteous. and then there is the third genre of tourists, one that was if not unseen last time I was here was at least very rare; the Indian tourist. With the growth in economy comes leisure time, and Indians now make up at least fifty percent of the tourists. Young couples from the big cities on romantic weekends, young lads come for a ride out on their motorbikes, older couples to enjoy the fresh see air, and the odd and uniquely Indian tourist, the men who come to stand on the beach and unashamedly stare at the semi naked white, or lobster pink, flesh.

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Kerala has, so far as I know, the worlds only freely elected communist government

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fishing boats on the shore

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a bungalow in the palm groves

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kerala grafiti

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ladies at sunset

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3 thoughts on “Sri Lanka to India

  1. Hi David

    Your writings above all remind me of my time in Beirut and Amman and Cairo! Those ‘intimate’ service taxis where you just pay for your seat and share the rest of the care with all random.

    Being a child of both first, second and third-world regimes, I don’t always know what I prefer, living in a world full of irregularity and where order can’t be taken for granted, but people seem to be more inter-dependent and somehow more caring. Or, living in a highly organised society where people hide behind systems and relative wealthy lifestyles and are controlled by consumerism, seemingly everybody for themselves and the devil with the rest!

    Well, I suppose people are the same in essence everywhere and in need of basic provisions on all levels – body, soul and spirit. Those who have little, strive for more and those who have a lot, never have enough – all driven by the same desire. All fragile human beings living in a ‘broken world’ (Romans 8)

    Then I pick up my children and receive the wonderful support and love of my wife. Then a friend makes it apparent that he has been thinking of me or I am part of a motor-bike ride-out on a ‘almost’ English spring day…and I realise it is not all that blue or grey! – almost like the beauty you find with the eye of your camera in what seems such a broken world. Not all hopeless.

    Enjoy your time in India – the people I grew up amongst in South Africa!

    Take care!
    Etienne 🙂

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