Oliver is…

He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man

…done with India

After around two weeks in India (it feels longer actually, although not necessarily in a bad way), I’m done. I have to admit that this isn’t my favourite ever country, and there were moments when I just didn’t want to be here, but as time went on I began to enjoy it more. I’m afraid that two weeks in a country without any real blog updates means this post is rather long and ranty. Still, it gives you something to do if you’re bored in an office somewhere.

Chennai at night

One thing I’m actually going to miss about India is the cute way they wiggle their heads to me ‘Thank you’, ‘Okay’, ‘Hello’ or just about anything else. I guess it’s similar to the way we nod to mean pretty much everything, except their head movement is cuter. Is that enough to stay in a country? Probably not, no. Also, the cricket was pretty amazing.

Cricket!

My biggest disappointment with India was probably that the curries weren’t mind blowing. I guess that’s because most curry houses in the UK and Australia are run by Indian/Bangladeshi restaurateurs who are/were some of the best over here. It’s fair to say I haven’t been eating at the best restaurants over here, especially when I’ve been paying about 80p for a main meal at times. My biggest accomplishment in India was probably that I totally avoided Delhi belly. Another great landmark was sculpting a rap industry standard beard.

Leaving India also means I can give up smoking. Actually, my fags mysteriously going missing when my room was cleaned the other day put paid to that. Oh yeah, I decided I was going to smoke in India. I’ve never really had any great urge to do this before, although a couple of times when I’ve been drunk over the past year I decided I’d steal someone’s cigarette. I don’t know why. With a packet costing less than 50p, it seemed more sensible to take it up here than anywhere else and giving myself a fortnight to try it out and drop the habit (I’m not a complete moron after all) seemed as sensible as I could get regarding this issue. I still don’t see the point in it, although learning to French inhale and blow smoke rings is quite fun. It’s simple to give up as well. I don’t know what people complain about. As for stress, I found ripping up pieces of card far more relaxing and addictive. (By ‘stress’, I mean watching your nation briefly struggle in a sporting event. I don’t have any actual stress in my life.) As well as giving up smoking, I made some major cuts to my life etc etc.

It’s strange being in a visible minority. Back in October, When I changed planes in Shanghai, I was one of very few white people going to Melbourne. On my flight to Chennai, I was the sole white occupant. Things didn’t change much when I landed in India. Even though I was generally staying in touristy areas, in the first ten days or so I only saw about half a dozen other whites. This is excluding the cricket where there were a few more, but still not that many. I thought because of the world cup there would be loads milling around, but there really wasn’t.

What this led to was a lot of staring from the men* on the street. It’s hard to judge people’s intentions, especially when they speak broken English, but of the Indians I saw/spoke to they generally fell into the following categories:

– “he’s white, he has some money for me”
– “he’s white, how exotic, I want to know what country he comes from and exactly nothing else about him”
– “he’s white, despite managing to travel to my country alone and, by the looks of things, get dressed all by himself, he has no idea how to do anything at all and I’ll have to mollycoddle him through even the simplest of tasks”

*I would say people on the street, except around 90% of them were men. It seems that most eligible women are kept at home by their parents until they find a suitable husband. That suitable husband will then continue the trend of keeping the woman at home — what possible reason could there be for her wanting to go outside? One of the letters pages in one of the big papers over here even had correspondence from someone encouraging women to stay at home unless completely necessary. What a world! (This same newspaper showed me that, in the same way Western advertisers will put a pair of glasses on someone to make them seem more intelligent, over here the mark of intelligence is a moustache, normally the coptash standard.)

Of all of those listed above, the one that annoyed me most was number three, especially in restaurants. This came to a head when I returned to Chennai and stayed in a slightly more upmarket hotel than the first time. (For anyone searching for reviews of the Raj Residency in Chennai, here’s one: it’s a complete dump. Maybe I’m just spoilt, but generally I expect a bed to have a mattress that’s softer than the planks of wood underneath it, to have linen that looks like it’s been cleaned at some point in the last month and for the windows to actually let light into the room. It was also a nice touch that after booking and paying for it all online, when I arrived they had absolutely no idea who I was, if I’d paid, what sort of room I’d booked or how long I was staying. Good work, hotels.com!) In these fancier restaurants, after ordering food (sometimes accompanied with a redundant comment such as “That’s a curry”) they would not only deliver the food to my table, but also start to serve it on to my plate. Then, when the waiter saw that I was coming to the end of what they’d plopped onto my dish, they’d come over and put my next helping of curry on my place. I’m not sure what it is about me that makes people think I’m incapable of using a spoon to transfer food from one dish to another. Here’s a picture of a statue of Gandhi to break up the text a bit.

Gandhi

Actually, everyone wanting my money was also a bit annoying. I don’t mind the people who genuinely need it trying their luck (although it is disheartening to give to someone and then have others see this and then start to flood you looking for hand outs), but the tuk-tuk drivers are incredible. Not only do they blatantly overcharge you for everything (even after haggling), their refusal to use their meters is bordering on illegal. Only one person ever used his with me and it took me by such complete shock I had no idea what he was saying when he suggested it. After this I tried to ask for it with a few more drivers and got responses such as hearty laughter and “No one else uses it so why should I?”. Worse than this overcharging, is their insistence on visiting shops. My first experience was when I was given a tour of Chennai and my driver, Kumal, suggested I go shopping. I was happy to have him lead the tour so agreed. He took me to three places and always seemed strangely upset to hear that I’d bought nothing or only spent a pittance in a shop, always encouraging me to spend more in the next place. It was also strange that each shop seemed to have a queue of tuk-tuks outside and that I kept bumping into the same tourists in each shop. What a bizarre coincidence! No one in Bangalore wanted to take me to shops, another reason it’s a better city, but Chennai drivers loved it. The main problem is that all these shops are pretty much identical — all selling shawls, carpets, statues of their Gods and other tat that I really don’t need to be buying. It’s worse when you get kidnapped and taken to these places, though.

After going to pick up my ticket for the England – West Indies game, my driver waited for me so he could take me back to my hotel. Just after setting off, my tuk-tuk driver stopped and took-took out a business card. He tried to explain to me that it was a shop just opposite my hotel and then said something that made me think he wanted to stop there briefly to get a new shirt. I wondered why he couldn’t do that on his own time, but agreed. When we got to the shop it was made clear that it was me who was going to the shop. After all, why would he want to go there? Unfortunately for him, it was a shop Kumal had already taken me to. I tried to explain but he wasn’t having it. I went inside, awkwardly walked around as many of the attendants recognised me, and then went out. My driver now seemed to understand that I’d already been there. I told him to take me back to my hotel. He drove round the corner and pointed to my hotel and said something to prove that the shop was just opposite and that he hadn’t lied about it. Then he said he’d take me to another shop. I told him not to do that and to just take me back to the hotel. He got angry and told me he was taking me to another shop. We pulled up outside the shop, with my hotel visible, and I told him just to take me back. He got angry again and pulled up in the driveway and told me to go to the shop and then he’d take me back. I bought nothing to spite him (and because it was all the same tat as every other shop). I don’t know if he ever got another shirt.

The next day my driver to the cricket took me to some shops (again to the one I’d now been in twice and then to a different one, all the time with me saying I just wanted to go to the stadium). When we finally got to the ground he decided that, actually, I should pay more than we’d agreed so he could get a ticket as well. He actually seemed disappointed and shocked when I produced the fare we’d agreed upon and hadn’t taken up his kind offer to double that so he could have a jolly afternoon. After the cricket, and another glorious victory, as all the bars close ridiculously early, I headed back to my hotel. My driver asked me if I liked shopping (surely they weren’t still open?) and I told him I hated it. I got him to explain the commission system (they get money just for taking you to a shop and also around 10% of any sale). When he dropped me off I gave him a tip to thank him for not taking me to any shops. (To any tuk-tuk drivers reading this: you get a 25% tip for avoiding shops and a 67% tip for using your meter. Hardly makes your scams and kidnappings worth it, does it?) Again, not linked to the text but here’s a photo of a standard Indian temple for you to look at.

They have temples like this all over the place

The roads they drive on are a bit mental. At first I was completely afraid of them and worried about how to cross the road. As time went on I got more accustomed and comfortable with them. On roads with three marked lanes, you’ll generally find traffic divided into five or six. These won’t be clear cut, with people weaving in and out of any tiny space that opens up. To begin with it looked like a jumbled mess, but the more I experienced it, the more I began to appreciate it. Somehow, Indian drivers have decided that a bee hive is the best system to imitate for their roads, and the seemingly random meanderings are actually well orchestrated. I saw no accidents, everyone seemed to know what they were doing and when to react to a horn toot (they love their horns here). I’m sure they all have huge hordes of pollen somewhere as well.

No matter how many smart, moustachioed people are in charge over here, there are a few suggestions I’d like to put forward to make things a bit more pleasant over here.

– introduce bins into the country.
– cows generally look happier when they live in fields rather than on roads/in big piles of rubbish.

If ever there was a photo to sum up Bangalore it would be this: a man walking onto the road to avoid a massive pile of rubbish on the path, a cow happily sitting in the trash (probably snacking on a plastic bag), a traffic jam with a load of tuk-tuks and a massive pile of tyres. In Bangalore they adore tyres. One day I started counting how many tyre shops there were. In a stretch of 29 shops, 28 of them were selling nothing but tyres. In this period there were also three alleyways that looked completely full of tyre stores. And the best bit? The other side of the road looked pretty much identical. I cannot fathom how they could possibly need all these tyres, or even where they all come from.

This photo sums up Bangalore perfectly

– bring in some sort of queueing system. Maybe that’s just my Englishness shining through, but it’s just chaos at times.

One place this was most evident was at the cricket. During the innings break, when there is plenty of time for people to get a drink, the locals were all pushing and shoving to get to the counter. It was funny watching, they were all so desperate to get to the front but there really was no hurry at all. Indians really don’t seem to be able to take their time with anything — I found it almost impossible to have a relaxing cup of tea anywhere I went, as people wanted to hurry me to pay/finish/clear my table. Also, on the roads again, the amount of tooting if someone momentarily pauses is ridiculous — at lights people have even taken to tooting before they turn green. This is especially true of tuk-tuk drivers who about a hundred yards down the road will slow down or stop so they can speak to someone on the side of the road.

(Actually, the best example of non-queueing is at the airports. Luggage check in are ridiculous, even with the snaking queue zone some people decide they can just wander up the side of this with their trolley. It gets worse at the security check. People start to make queues, but then decide that once they’ve put their hand luggage on to the conveyor they can just skip the queue to go through the metal detector, despire the large number of people lining up behind it.)

The cricket was my favourite place to be. As well as the actual event, it showed Indians in a more natural light. No one there saw me as a wallet for them to help themselves to, they instead saw me as an oddity, but a nice one. Many would speak to me, or try to, about the cricket. At my third match I had a guy sit next to me for quite a while speaking to me about the game. After both the England games, as I was wearing an England top, people wanted to shake my hand and congratulate me. After the first match one of the guys I’d been speaking to asked if he could get his photo taken with me — a nice memento, I guess. Then about half a dozen other people, people I’d never spoken to, wanted their photo taken with me too. This was repeated after the second England game as well. The number of Indians who have a photo of me on their phone for no other reason than I’m white/English is quite frightening. One guy, who I didn’t recognise, asked me for my e-mail address as well.

And, much to the predicted dismay of some, I turned into a proper English sports fan after the South Africa game. With a few others like me, we went to a bar, got drunk and sang loud sports songs in the corner. You would’ve hated us.

And with that announcement, I’m going to pack up my laptop and look forward to meeting you very soon (presuming I find an internet connection before we both arrive in our hostel).

(Update, because this clearly wasn’t long enough already: I didn’t get online before meeting Dave and instead of just editing my ending, I thought I’d include a photo that probably could’ve done with a flash.)

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4 Responses

  1. Jemma says:

    HAHA I loved this blog post! It made me laugh out loud! I prefer you far more when you hate the place you live and are being all snobby about it than when you’re somewhere nice and acting all sanctimonious about it. MY FAVOURITE PART was the bit about the cow snacking on a plastic bag, lmao, oh and the tyre shops too! xx

    • Oliver says:

      I’m sorry to report that I’m very much enjoying Thailand; I’ll try to pick somewhere rubbish to go after this. I’m considering Myanmar which has a terrible human rights record and three hours of electricity a day.

      • Jemma says:

        I like it when you’re complaining about poor people, because normally you’re like “let’s help everyone and live in a commune!”

  2. […] in Leith.  We were in the park stoking up a disposable barbeque and lounging in the grass, when Oliver mentioned that he lived near a restaurant that claimed to be the home of  the hottest curry in […]

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