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”

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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

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!”

Times, they are a changin!

Travelling through India it is common to see saffron-robed men by the side of the road. Hindu renunciates known as Sadhus these men wander from pilgrimage place to pilgrimage place, usually on foot, carrying minimal possessions and sleeping wherever they get shelter, relying on the generosity of the public for their food.
Returning to Bangalore from Mumbai last week in the car, my niece piped up from the back seat, “How do these Sadhus manage walking from town to town? Don’t they get tired?”

I was unable to reply, busy as I was avoiding crashing into a water buffalo who had taken up residence in my lane, so the Boss replied “they walk until they are tired and then they stop for the night”
“But how do they manage?” persisted my niece. “They don’t have computers”
“Why do they need computers”? The Boss asked, my niece’s question intriguing enough to drag even my attention away from wildlife avoidance.
“If they don’t have computers then they can’t book their rooms”

The Great Toll Booth Toffee Scam!

The Great Toll Booth Toffee Scam!zaOn my recent drive back to Bangalore from Mumbai, one thing was noticeable by it’s absence.

The Toll Booth Toffee Scam.

Once prevalent in the Tollbooths around the Karnataka/Maharashtra Border, it seems to have disappeared, the original perpetrators no doubt having retired to their Chalets in Switzerland.
It was a simple scam but undoubtedly extremely profitable.
What used to happen is that when you paid your toll, always an odd amount, never a round number, the Toll Booth attendant would apologize for the lack of change and give you toffees instead. 1 toffee for every two Rupees.

At first I was quite amused and a little grateful, Tommy needing regular doses of sugar throughout the day. However there is only so much toffee a man can eat, even if he does have a tapeworm as long as your arm.

By the time I reached the 4th Toll Booth I was feeling the onset of Hyperglycemia and tried to pay the next Toll with the uneaten toffees. 22 Rupees therefore 11 toffees. He refused to accept them and asked for cash instead. I gave him 30 Rupees and he gave me 4 toffees change!
Now bear in mind the retail price for these toffees is Rs 1 each , so they are making 100% profit. Assume 20,000 vehicles a day through the Toll Booth and that is at least Rs 20,000 profit per day per Toll Booth! The bulk wholesale price is probably only around 25 paise per piece so the actual profit will be much much more. A nice little earner.
At the 5th Toll Booth, I decided to make a stand which was difficult as by now my teeth had all fallen out, saliva running unchecked over my gums and down my chin. I explained to the booth Attendant that everyone in the car had diabetes and couldn’t accept the toffees he was proffering as change.
He nodded sympathetically and swapped them immediately for cold hard cash.

The Hubli Hustle – in which the long arm of the Law reaches out and picks my pocket again!

Visiting the small rural town of Hubli in Northern Karnataka is proving expensive for me.

The last time I came through here 3 months ago I was fined Rs300 by an over-zealous cop for driving my vehicle without a document I had no idea I needed (see here)
Hubli despite it’s comparatively diminutive size, seems to have more traffic cops than the whole of Bangalore. They are on every corner and seem to have a vendetta for anyone driving in from other areas. Meanwhile the locals blatantly flout every traffic law and regulation with impunity.
So 3 months later I have returned, stopping for lunch on my way up to Mumbai. I pulled off the highway and spent the next 5 minutes crawling along behind a tractor in 1st gear as it swerved from side to side trying to avoid potholes and doing its best to dislodge the population of a small village perched all over it.
Frustration at this extremely slow progress getting the better of me I spotted a gap in traffic, pulled out and accelerated at warp speed finally getting out of 1st gear and changing up into 2nd.
Suddenly a traffic cop ran out from behind a tree and stood in the middle of the road pointing at me. Bearing in mind the last time the cops shook me down in this town, I contemplated ignoring him and continuing on my journey. But not wishing to sully the glistening paintwork of my beautiful car with the blood and bodily fluids of a policeman I decided it might be better for all concerned if I stopped.
“Why have you stopped me” I asked
“Overspeeding” he replied using a term peculiar to India.
To me one is either speeding or not speeding, so I am not sure where overspeeding fits in.
“What is the speed limit?” I asked
“40”
“Where is the sign?”
“No sign”
What speed was I doing? I asked
“Over 40” came the reply. “Come with me”
Reluctantly I got out and followed the cop to where 3 of his colleagues had set up camp in the shade of a tree with a radar gun on a tripod.
The senior-most police officer announced in a haughty manner befitting of a Maharajah of old, “You were driving very fast”
“Really? How fast?” I asked
“74” he replied
In second gear! On a severely potholed road! Wow. I was amazed for a second or two but suspecting that my diesel SUV had not miraculously transformed into a Ferrari overnight, I questioned his findings.
Telling me to look at the radar gun to see my speed, I wandered over and read the display.
“It says 30” I told him.
“That’s someone else’s speed.”
“Where is mine”
“It’s deleted. But you were driving so far above the limit we are booking you for reckless and dangerous driving” he told me, thereby increasing the fine amount by 30% in one fell swoop.
Well I had a good run, I thought to myself. Seven years of being the only safe and sensible driver left in India was a pretty good effort, but I have finally succumbed. I think it’s called assimilation by osmosis.
I argued a bit more trying in vain to retain my unblemished status but when you argue with a donkey it is never likely to see your point of view.
I paid up, retrieved my license and returned to my “Ferrari”, head hanging in shame and with a noticeably lighter wallet.
An hour later lunch completed I headed out of town. Rounding a corner another policeman sprang out in front of me. A barrage of expletives echoed around inside the car, not just from me but also from the usually dulcet toned Boss sitting beside me. Barely restraining myself from running him down I pulled over and dispensing with all niceties demanded an explanation as to why he had the temerity to pull me over.
“Do you have a license?” he asked, with one eye on the traffic.
“Yes”
“Insurance”
“Yes”
He jumped out in front of another car with outstation number plates and waved it over in front of me, ignoring all the local vehicles driving past.
Returning to my window he asked:
“Emissions Certificate?”
“I have everything! A marriage certificate also! Do you want to see that? Why the hell do you keep stopping me? I was stopped an hour ago!”
“Where?” he asked
“On the Bangalore Rd” I told him
“Where are you going now?”
“Bombay”
“OK, happy journey” he wished me, shaking my hand and waving me on, anxious to attend to his next, hopefully less argumentative victim.

Crime and Punishment – In which the Long Arm of the Law relieves me of some hard earned cash!

The drive up from Bangalore to Mumbai was pretty uneventful. The weather was good and the countryside lush and green from the Monsoon rains.
We did come across 3 accidents that had happened minutes before we arrived, enough time for a huge crowd of villagers to surround the upturned vehicle, blocking two of the 3 lanes, but not late enough for the ambulance and police to arrive. In all 3 instances it must have been driver fatigue as the roads were straight and the vehicles had just seemed to veer off the road into the barrier or into the ditch. Because of India’s population, whatever happens to you, there will always be a crowd within minutes!
We drove into the town of Hubli about 400kms from Bangalore to find a place for lunch. Rounding one corner, a traffic policeman stepped out in front of me, pointed at me, and then pointed at the side of the road, making his intentions clear.
Irritated because I had done nothing wrong I half-heartedly pulled over making sure I still blocked traffic in the hope that the cacophony of horns to follow would persuade him to wave me on. It didn’t.
I wound down the window, and he asked “Driver’s License”
“Why?” I asked, “What have I done wrong?”
“Vehicle checking” came the reply.
“Why aren’t you stopping others?” as vehicle after vehicle drove past. “You only stopped us because we have an outstation number plate”
“Stopping everyone” he said and pointed to 3 other cars pulled over in front of us, all with out-station number plates.
Frustrated but realizing arguing would get me nowhere, I handed over my license.

To our left, a senior cop lent on his parked motorcycle, eyes shielded with mirrored Ray-Bans, arms folded, too senior to get his hands dirty shaking down the public, but no doubt busy mentally calculating how many plots of land he could buy back in his village with this month’s takings.
Handing back my license, the cop asked for my insurance. I handed it over; he gave it a cursory glance, and then asked for my registration documents, which I duly presented. “Anything else?” I asked as he handed back the docs.
“Emission certificate”
Damn! The one thing I didn’t have and was not even sure I needed as my car is not that old.
“This car is only 3 years old and doesn’t need one” I replied, as an ancient bus rumbled past, spewing out clouds of thick black smoke.
“Emission Certificate” He demanded again.
Realizing that this was not an argument I would win I admitted to not having one.
“Rs600 fine” he replied and then waited, hoping that I would try and bargain him down to a lesser “un-official” fine. Not wishing to contribute to his retirement fund, I told him ok and insisted on a ticket. He started typing into his Blackberry, pressed a button on the wireless printer attached to his belt and printed out a ticket. I examined it carefully, checking the details were correct and handed over the money.
Pulling out into the flow of traffic I drove off behind a two wheeler almost hidden by the clouds of blue smoke coming out of it’s exhaust.
Half a kilometer later another policeman stepped out in front of me, this time I pretended not to see him, although not convincingly as I had to swerve to avoid hitting him, and carried on.
Speaking to a Rickshaw Driver later, he told me that it was the end of the month and the cops had to make up their quotas, official and unofficial.
I now have an Emission certificate, at the cost of Rs100. Apparently one is needed after a vehicle is two years old and it needs to be renewed every 6 months. Judging by the air-quality in the city though, I must be one of the few who actually has one!

Welcome back, Your Highness!

I am planning a drive up to Mumbai at the end of the month. It is over a 1000 kms so I plan to break journey half way. My regular readers will remember that the last time I did the trip I had a less than pleasant experience with the Hotel in which I stayed (posted here). Not wishing to repeat the experience I have decided to loosen the purse strings and go a bit more upmarket.
Discovering that the Taj Hotels Group have opened a new hotel in Belgaum, I have decided that this will be a good place to lay my weary head after 500 kms of dodging slow moving goods vehicles, wandering livestock, and the inevitable motorcyclists heading the wrong way down the highway.
Taj are renowned for their excellent hotels so I decided to join their loyalty program as I am always keen to pick up some loyalty points for later use. While filling in the online application form I was delighted to learn that there were a few more interesting options under Salutation other than the usual Mr., Mrs. or Miss. I scrolled through the options which included such titles as Wing Commander, Admiral, and Professor
I couldn’t help myself and within 10 minutes I received a welcome email from the Taj Inner Circle Loyalty program addressed to “Your Royal Highness Prince_____”
(I had thought about Maharaja, but as I am not Indian I didn’t think I would be able to carry it off)
The Boss was hugely unimpressed and urged me to change it as she said she will be so embarrassed when I check in.
I should think that would be the least of her worries. I am sure she will be much more embarrassed when she checks in and they greet her with “Welcome to our Hotel, Your Holiness!”

 

Road Trip Days 6-7 Ratnagiri

_MG_8391We are in our third state in a week, having travelled from the coconut belt, through the Cashew Nut belt and now into an area famous for growing Mangos. In particular the variety known as the “King of Mangos” the Alphonso. Not one of my favourites as I find it too sweet, my preference being for the sweet and sour taste of Chausa; however I am in the minority.
Wanting a change from the frenetic activity in Goa we found a beautiful Farm Stay near the coast between Ratnagiri and Ganpatipule, in the heart of mango country. Set in 4 acres of tropical fruit trees Atithi Parinay is run by Medha Sahasrabudhe, who has converted the ancestral farm into an organic farm stay. Medha is an impressive young lady with a lot of great ideas not just on how to improve her farm but also on how to improve the lives of the people in the surrounding village.
Filled with abundant flowering and fruiting trees the farm is a haven for myriad forms of bird life, filling the air with their song and delighting the eyes with their colours. Sapphire blue Kingfishers, bright yellow Orioles and the emerald-green of Parrots. The cooing of Wood Pigeons, wings fluttering as they court each other in the trees, the rhythmic chanting of Barbets, and the strident call of the Koyal all provide an orchestral soundtrack, much appreciated after the honking of horns and screeching of brakes in the city.

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The first evening wanting to buy some of the famous mangos, Medha took us for a walk down the narrow village lanes in search of the only man to grow organic mangos in the village.

He was nowhere to be found and Medha instead took us to the sole surviving mud-walled village house. Immaculately kept by it’s very proud owner, a sprightly lady whose manner and bearing was much younger than her actual years, this house unfortunately under threat from the next generation. Her sons, seeing all the other traditional houses replaced by new concrete and brick constructions, want to knock it down and replace it with one of the same. “All the neighbours have done it so why shouldn’t we?” They said.

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Admiring the beautifully swept courtyard, plastered with a cow dung plaster, soft and cool underfoot and spreading out like a sandy coloured carpet, we were saddened by the thought of the disappearance of the traditional ways.
Medha took a lot of time to explain to them how unique their house was, how the traditional houses are much better suited to the climate than the new houses, and how tourists would love to stay in the house for a unique experience. She even offered to send guests to them first before filling her rooms if it meant saving the building. To find such selflessness in someone running a business is rare to these days and demonstrates how conscientious Medha is in her desire for a better life for the villagers.
I fear however that the call of “progress” was louder than Medha’s impassioned arguments, but hope that somewhere the seed of thought has been sown and the sons will reconsider.
Later Medha discussed her attempts at encouraging organic farming and discouraging some of the more destructive and harmful farming practices in the area but explained that old habits die hard and all she can do is lead by example. Once the farmers see the results that she is getting with more ecological and sustainable methods they may switch over by themselves.
The next morning after a lovely breakfast in the shade of a jackfruit tree, we headed out to explore some of the beaches and also to visit the famous Ganesha temple at Ganpatipule.

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The beaches here are some of the most stunning I have seen and the area is still relatively untouched by tourism. Miles and miles of beautiful golden sand beaches, cool sea breezes blowing onto the shore and over the lush green of the mango orchards, and hardly a person to be seen. Anywhere else in the world these beaches would be lined with Hotels and covered in deck chairs. Hotels and guesthouses are slowly creeping in but I really hope the pace of change is slow and this little piece of heaven remains.

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The next day we headed north for the 8 hour drive to Mumbai. Mumbai is a fast paced exciting city, the financial capital of India, a city I have lived in and a city I love to revisit. However as we left the lush green hills of the Konkan coast behind and approached the overwhelming greyness that is New Mumbai, the clear blue skies being replaced with a thick haze, I asked myself “Am I heading in the right direction?”

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