The Toilet Angel – Part two

Read Part 1 first

The next day having reached Pondicherry we were sitting in one of our favorite restaurants waiting to place our order.

We spotted our regular waiter crossing the restaurant on crutches.

“What happened to you?” we asked.

“On the way home from Pondicherry on my motorbike one evening I was hit by a drunk driver.

I spent 2 months in hospital but the doctors couldn’t save my foot”

The Toilet Angel

 

Toilet Just Do It

I pull off the highway into a large motorway services complex similar to what you would see alongside motorways in the west and now increasingly common in India.

This one has a large petrol station, coffee shop, a South Indian vegetarian restaurant and quite probably the worst McDonalds in the world.

It’s 8 am and we are heading from Bangalore to Pondicherry for a few days break.

The South Indian restaurant serves lovely Masala Dosas for breakfast but one of the main reasons we stop here is because it has possibly the cleanest public toilets in the country, a rarity in a nation where entering a public toilet usually requires the wearing of a hazmat suit and gas mask.

Having broken our journey here many times over the years we have always been impressed at how well the toilets are maintained by a young Tamilian lady. Meticulously scrubbing and mopping both the men’s and ladies toilets she ensures that whatever time of day you visit they are always clean and smelling fresh. She lights up our day with a beautiful smile and over time we have become nodding and greeting acquaintances despite not sharing a common language.

It’s been 9 months since we last came through this way and we were shocked to see her limping as she worked. A piece of leather encasing the stump where her foot should be.

With hand signals and the few English words that creep into every language she explained that she had been heading home from work one night and while crossing the highway to reach her village was hit by a speeding lorry. Badly injured she spent 2 months in hospital but in the end the doctors were unable to save her foot.

Life in India for the working masses is tough, seldom affording the luxury of a long convalescence.
She is back at work, scrubbing, mopping, ensuring the toilets continue to be spotless.

And despite the missing foot…………….. still smiling like an angel.

 

Read Part two here

Running the beautiful Kaveri Trail Marathon

KTM1

A peacock’s call shatters the silence of the early morning.

It’s 6am and I am standing in that half-light that comes just before the sun raises its head above the horizon.
A river flows gently past to my left and there is a nervous shuffling as 700 people gather for the start of the 8th running of the Kaveri Trail Marathon (KTM).

The race director’s last minute announcements are interrupted by a spontaneous singing of “Happy Birthday” somewhere in the crowd prompting a proud mother to climb up onto the podium and grab the microphone. “It’s my daughter’s birthday today too” she cries out, “please sing for her as well”. The crowd breaks out into another “Happy Birthday” for the daughter who hides in the crowd and doesn’t raise her hand when the race director asks her to identify herself.

As the large digital clock ticks over to 6.30, we set off up the dirt path, red bibs pinned to the chests of those running the half marathon, blue denoting those running the full. All shapes and sizes are here today, lean fit looking runners accompanied by less athletic looking entrants tackling this distance for the first time.

Many have made the 3-4 hour journey from Bangalore to run a race that has become known for the beauty of the course, following as it does the meandering path of a tributary of the River Kaveri, a major water source for the state of Karnataka.

KTM5

 

Starting as we do, near the entrance to the Ranganthittu Bird Sanctuary, the route teems with birdlife. To the right of the trail are lush sugar cane fields and even at this early hour, farmers get to work tending their crops before the heat of the day makes the task unbearable.

The field spreads out, stray dogs standing on the edge of the path in bewilderment as scores of runners trudge past. Farmers in their white lungis and vests taking a break from their work to watch and wonder as people from all over India and the occasional westerner, run by.

KTM3

 

KTM6

 

A sea of green t-shirts surrounds me, emblazoned with the logo of Amazon India, a company which either encourages running amongst their employees, or has thought of a novel way of marketing themselves.

Finding my rhythm, I feel a little smug and self-satisfied, running as I am in minimalist shoes as others tread on in their heavily cushioned “traditional” running shoes. That is, until a young man rapidly passes me, his bare feet padding rhythmically on the sun-baked earth below.
Catching up with him, we chat for a couple of kms about our experiences of transitioning from shod running to barefoot running. I congratulate him on going the whole hog but we eventually part ways when he pauses to remove some large thorns from the sole of his foot.

The sun slowly rises above the horizon bringing with it a heat, the intensity of which increases by the minute despite the still early hour. I sip a few mouthfuls of water at the well-stocked aid stations but ignore the trays of bananas and fruit, knowing that if I stop for too long, the voices in my head telling me to give up might become too powerful.

Bullock carts laden with harvested sugar cane occasionally block the way on their way to the market forcing me to either stop for a moment or detour into the long grass.

KTM4

Ahead some small village boys, already dusty from playing in the fields, offer runners sweets with outstretched hands, grinning with excitement while the stray dogs, earlier standing sentinel beside the path, have retreated, still puzzled, to the shade of the banyan trees.

The last few kms pass in a blur, the beautiful scenery which had enthralled me on the outward leg, no longer grabbing my attention, as I look only for the next distance marker and the next patch of shade.

2 hours after starting in the cool light of dawn, I cross the now sun-baked finish line, a proud sense of achievement dispelling all feelings of exhaustion.

Someone hangs a finisher’s medal around my neck, and I turn to shake the hands of those who finished with me. Spying a “nariyal pani wallah”, his bicycle laden with coconuts, I head towards him and down in quick succession the water of two young coconuts, nature’s best electrolyte replacement drink.

This was my first ½ marathon in over 20 years and I am happy that I chose the KTM to run this distance again. The running community worldwide is a friendly one but the relatively small number of runners at the KTM lends a camaraderie to the event I haven’t felt on larger runs. That coupled with the beauty of the course, the peacocks, the bullock carts, and the locals lining the course make this event unique and I know that this race will always hold a special place in my thoughts. I will be back next year.

A while later as I limp through the hotel lobby, my race bib still pinned to my chest, my medal in my hand, the hotel manager greets me and asks “for what purpose is everyone running?”

I grin but can’t think of a suitable answer.

Only another runner would understand.

The Toddy Shop

The Toddy Shop

We are in Sri Lanka traveling from Colombo, north, to the ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya. We had hired a car with a driver, an affable young Muslim man who entertained us with stories of some of his less than agreeable clients.

Being well versed with the route he detoured off the main road and took a shortcut through beautiful lush green landscapes, mile after mile of jungle interspersed with emerald green rice paddies.

Spying a hand painted sign beside a track leading into the jungle he pulled over and asked us if we would like to try Toddy. Toddy is an alcoholic drink made from the fermented sap of the Coconut palm. I have seen many of these local Toddy “Bars” in India but never tried it and leaning more towards the adventurous side when on holiday I said, sure why not.

We set off on foot up the dirt track, into the jungle, the driver leading the way. After a few minutes we spotted a local man on the track ahead, walking in our direction.

In fact, walking would be an exaggeration. A more accurate description would be some form of tribal dance as he bobbed and stumbled from side to side. One step forward, two steps sideways, one step back, pause, wave arms in the air, shout into the undergrowth, two steps forward, one step to the other side, one step back. It took him almost 5 minutes to cover the short distance between us.

Our driver, Rahim, approached him and asked him if he knew where the Toddy Shop was. The local stopped his dance and stood swaying like a tree in the wind, considering the questions, spittle forming bubbles on his lower lip.

Rattling off a long explanation in Sinhalese, he gesticulated with both hands while, peculiarly, each eye rotated independently of each other.

Translating for us, Rahim explained that the toddy shop was a long way off and it had taken the local man most of the day to reach us from the shop. He was in fact exhausted by the long walk.

The local started babbling again, the spittle on his lips now morphing into long strings of drool, one eye looking left while the other looked up. The only word I could catch was “dhura, dhura” which I assumed meant the same as “dur” in Hindi, far. We thanked him and he continued haltingly on his way, one step forward, two steps back, 3 steps sideways, two long strings of saliva now reaching the ground.

“Are you sure you want to keep going?” Rahim asked, “It sounds like it is quite far away. He did say it has taken him a few hours to reach us”

To the right of us another local was standing by the side of the track leaning against a coconut palm, watching the proceedings, a big grin on his face.

Wondering whether to continue further into the jungle I thought it wise to get a second opinion.

“Excuse me, How far is the Toddy Shop’ I asked him.

“It’s just around the corner about 50 meters away”

Footnote:

In the end we didn’t partake of any Toddy. The kindly local warned us that it wasn’t pure and in fact had all sorts of nefarious items mixed in with it such as formaldehyde and battery acid, which goes a long way towards explaining the independently rotating eyeballs of the “tribal dancer”

Road Rage

Indian Traffic

Driving in India can be a pretty nerve-wracking experience at the best of times. The complete disregard for road rules and personal safety never ceases to amaze me.

Over the years I have had a number of “near-death” experiences and although over time, I have become immune to all but the most idiotic maneuvers there are still times when I need to go home for a change of underpants.

Most people, and in particular ex-pats, in an effort to keep blood pressure at manageable levels, will have a driver. They then cower in the back seat, praying fervently or texting their last will and testament to loved ones, anything to take their mind off what is happening outside the vehicle. I have toyed with the idea myself on a few occasions but each time the driver has scared me witless as they sought to prove their driving skills are worthy of a seat on a Formula 1 Team while simultaneously demonstrating that rear-view mirrors and indicators are superfluous items on an Indian motor vehicle. After all, mirrors are only for checking one’s hair- style or for picking at ones teeth while talking on the phone. I can’t read or look at my phone in the back seat without being overcome by nausea while the driver insists on testing the body’s capacity to withstand lateral g forces in excess of those experienced by fighter pilots.

In the end I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to adapt to the conditions, drive myself, and lower my expectations for sane behavior in a motor vehicle. I must confess I have become quite good and suspend judgment on most things that I see or experience. It has been helped also by the fact that I now drive an SUV and in India “might is right” on the roads so most other road-users afford my vehicle a little respect. The exceptions of course are the Government buses, which despite being the largest vehicles on the road have mirrors the same size as the one the dentist sticks in your mouth while he asks you what you did for your holidays. Motorcyclists also drive me to distraction as they seem to live in some other dimension when it comes to road behavior (see another one of my rants on motorcyclists here).

Occasionally though, I must confess that my saintliness does wear off and years of suppressed road rage comes boiling to the surface like lava during the eruption of Vesuvius.

Recently I was waiting for traffic to clear at a junction so I could turn right. Finally spotting a gap I started to turn, when my 6th sense for self-preservation, honed over years of flirting with death while commuting across Indian cities, made me glance in my right-hand mirror. The driver behind me, deciding that 20 seconds was too long to wait at a junction, pulled out to pass me. Slamming on the brakes to avoid being speared in the side by the errant Toyota, I snapped.

Drawing on my extensive knowledge of contemporary rap lyrics, I spewed forth a virulent torrent of abuse. I summoned up every curse, defamatory phrase, and vituperative epithet I could think of. Every sentence I screamed at him contained new and innovative uses of a word that rhymed with “trucker” and “trucking”. I used it as an adjective, a noun, a verb, an adverb, and often in inventive ways not normally found in classical sentence structure. My college English teacher would have been proud of my eloquence.

Finally pausing for breath I noticed The Boss in the passenger seat beside me, mouth agape, staring at me in shock, having never imagined that the calm, beautifully mannered and well-spoken husband of hers could articulate himself in such a vernacular fashion.

Sensing his chance, the deviant driver pounced on the opportunity to respond to my tirade.

“Get lost you bloody rascal!”