Saturday, January 26, 2008

A tale of two Vickies

Christopher Hampton, Pants (obviously) and Ian McEwan. Photo by Vicky 2
# tigers met = 0
# literary giants met = 2

Ain't it just the way. I spend hours being bumped around in a freezing jeep on no less than four 'tiger' safaris only to be shown a 'jungle cat' that I'm reasonably certain was wearing a flea collar and a dozen rabid monkeys. Good thing I had the sense to visit Howlett's Wildlife Park last year where tigers are in abundance. It didn't help that the only vague chance we had of getting up close and personal with a Bengal was scuppered by the family who had the foresight to bring their squealing toddler along. She proved a whizz at responding to the guide's entreaties to 'be quiet' with a symphony of jungle penetrating shrieks.

What India lacks in wildlife, it makes up for in literati. I found myself in Jaipur in the middle of a free literary festival. That such a thing exists is alarming enough. How on earth do they exploit the book buying public in India? It's a mystery. I'd previously mentioned that Gore Vidal would be present, but it wasn't until the next morning at breakfast that I discovered a free screening of Atonement was to be shown, followed by a Q&A with Ian McEwan and Christopher Hampton (who'd just been nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay). Regular readers may recall that I thought enough of the movie to write a favourable review back when it first opened.

I looked down the programme to see 'invitation only' in brackets after the entry. At that very moment, one of the organisers sauntered by and I called him over and asked for an invitation. You actually do have more chance of seeing a tiger in Britain than getting yourself invited to a shindig with a Booker prize winner. The rest of my tour group were going off to a Bollywood film (three and a half hours, no music, no subtitles - torture by all accounts). I packed myself onto a bus to be transported to a soulless cinema complex in new Jaipur where I watched a great film all over again for free.

It was on this bus that I met the first of two Vickies. V1 has a farm in Kota. She is very personable and we chatted away on the bus like old pals. IM and CH were frank and amusing in the Q&A afterwards. I can't remember what they said exactly. CH revealed that Atonement director Joe Wright is dsylexic which explains all that typewriter clattering throughout the film and IM talked about 'living on the inside of people's faces' which struck me as a Booker worthy turn of phrase if ever there was one. He also made what sounded like a witty but derogatory comment about the most recent Booker winner, Anne Enright which I don't trust myself to repeat because I didn't in fact hear it - just the tittering of the earnest young scribes to whom it was addressed. (This is why I never made it as a journalist).

Back at the Diggi Palace Hotel, V1 and I discovered the drinks were free. We further discovered that IM and CH were standing right next to us. This is where V1 came into her own. I turned to mush and had no idea what to say but V1 started discussing the book and the film like a normal person as opposed to a star-struck imbecile and I nodded knowingly (go girl!). It was then that V2 joined us. An adventurous lone traveller from Manchester, she initiated discourse with IM about Saturday. Great, I thought, I loved that book. Then I started wondering why I hadn't thought to go and buy a copy of Chesil Beach from the book stall and get IM to sign it. By the time I'd returned to the present moment, the conversation had moved on. Why can't I keep my mind on the job?

It was V2 who got the picture above. It was after our fourth or fifth beer and I didn't even care that I'd been in the same clothes for four days. We had a few more after that too. IM did say something I remember - there may be hope for me yet. He said he thought we all carried a sense of incompletion, a fear that we've committed some act of malpractice for which we feel we need to atone. In wondering why I couldn't think of a single question to ask one of the best writers in the world as he stood right in front of me, it occurred to me that I might have been overwhelmed by my own incompleteness. I imagine success gives you the confidence to feel you can talk to anyone about anything. Lack of it has the exactly the opposite effect. Thanks to the Vickies though, I have the photo to prove I'm in my life somewhere...

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


The good news - a store with my name. The bad news - I can't find a shop with anything I want to buy in it. If anyone took a notion to open a 'provisions store' anywhere in India (except Pondicherry where there is one), they'd make a killing. Just a guess, but if they stocked say toothpaste, postcards and toilet paper, I would go there. In fact, I'd probably travel across the country to get to it.

It took a three plane hop and the whole day to travel from the south to the north. Each time I saw the the same two and a half hours of Namaste London, featuring Akshay Kumar looking very sad in lots of different outfits all over London. You never find out if he gets the girl. How frustrating is that? I loved Delhi and am looking forward to going back there for a day. There are things to buy there. I checked that out already. Christmas is still to happen in Pantland.

Right now I'm in the lovely pink city of Jaipur, notable for its lack of ATMs and bad tempered vendors. Even if you were to find postcards or toothpaste or toilet paper, I doubt very much you could convince anyone to sell you any of them. Our hotel is hosting a literary festival at the moment. Last year they had Salman Rushdie and Kirin Desai. I would have loved to tell Kirin Desai that I don't think much of The Inheritance of Loss. Instead they've got Gore Vidal. I thought he was dead. I considered approaching him but then realised that the only book I liked of his was in fact written by Kurt Vonnegut.

I've got used to dirty clothes and the world's slowest internet and not being able to buy anything I'd vaguely want outside of the biggest cities. I don't think there's much of a chance I'll develop a taste for wooden chess sets and bangles that turn into Grecian urns. Still, I've finally worked out what our yoga teacher has been saying at the end of the lesson all this time...

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The gift horse bolts

I've been sick for nearly a week. Plenty of people told me not to eat the salad so I have only myself to blame. There is only so much masala dosai a person can eat. I know everyone gets sick in India but what I didn't expect is to be put entirely off food. I also didn't expect that I would want to sleep all the time. Since there are at least four hours in the day when the rest of the group is eating and a further four hours when we are travelling, I'm getting a lot of sleep in. We've also managed the odd bit of sightseeing.

Quite a bit of my time is spent in internet cafes wiping viruses of my memory card that it picked up at the last place. At this point, it is difficult to discern who is carrying more maladies, me or my memory card. I could probably snatch a few winks waiting for these ancient machines to load if I put my mind to it.

I went to one lovely internet cafe in Malappuram with air conditioning and clouds painted on the ceiling. A nice young man cleared my memory card of lurgies and while he was doing so, I read this sign on the wall,

Do not try to sniff the network otherwise police action will be taking.

They run a tight ship in there.

I've come across surprisingly few funny signs and believe me, I have been looking hard for them. It would make my job so much easier if someone else was providing the humour.

It's probably not the best time to discover it, but I don't really think I'm all that suited to group travel. I'm staggered at how willing a group of adults can be to join in a game of I Spy. For me the terror of the past two weeks has been Secret Santa - in January, excuse me. Can someone please explain to me why buying a gratuitous piece of tat for someone you don't know and will never see again doesn't smack of a pointlessness to rival the existence of Jade Goody to everyone but me? When the idea was first proposed by our 'group leader' I protested, thinking that would stop the insanity in its tracks. I had severely underestimated the capacity of my fellow travellers for indulging in inane amusement. As luck would have it, I received a very charming heavy woollen shawl that doubles the weight of my backpack. Serves me right for being such a killjoy. I gave my recipient money. Hopefully she will buy something she actually wants and can carry.

The southern part of my trip is over and tomorrow I fly to Delhi. I hope I get over this nausea by then otherwise I suspect I will find myself well and truly plucked...

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Pondering in Pondicherry

The knee of Pants had been playing up something rotten. Instead of opting to climb hills and walk across logs in search of one of forty tigers inhabiting a 600 square kilometre region in the Periyar Tiger Reserve, I chose to take a dawn boat ride around the hundred-year-old artificial lake in the vain hope that some wildlife would suddenly be stricken with thirst. Immediately I sat down by myself, I was befriended by a large family. Is this anyone else's experience? It's either a man with crossed eyes and a little pot belly, or a family. The minute I strike out alone, the world conspires to attach me to others again. This family came from Pushkar and were absolutely delighted when I informed them I'd be visiting their town soon. They proceeded to fill me with roti and Bombay mix.

Nice as they were, this family were also the loudest and most obnoxious on the boat. They played Hindi music on their mobile phones and danced around the deck, persistently earning themselves a telling off from the guides. Wildlife, it seems, are not particularly partial to Hindi music. Approximately every ten minutes, one of the three men would shout 'tiger' and the little boy would run to the side of the boat excitedly. His three tormentors would then collapse in fits of laughter. The little boy never lost his enthusiasm. Perhaps he'd read this message, one of many helpfully dotted around the park,

To take it all in, however transitory your visit, you have to be fully conscious, tuned into the symphony with loving expectancy and carrying yearning.

Despite the raucousness of the passengers, an antelope or two did slope into view. Then a family of otters popped up. They didn't seem best pleased at being followed by a boat full of gaping tourists, but hey, it wasn't their holiday now was it? A snake bird and a few wild boar offered themselves for display but there was no flash of orange to make the little boy's day. One of our guides said he'd seen four in ten years. Then again, the last sighting was from a boat, just two weeks ago. The Indians will tell you it's all down to karma.

In the spirit of be careful what you wish for (see previous post), I was blessed on a brief foray alone on the edge of the park with this sign, attached to a tree of exceptionally unimpressive stature,

Because of the suitable conditions for continuous plant growth, some patches of moist deciduousness and evergreen forests have the giants on earth, trees that they have been growing for centuries and reaching lofty heights. The ability of these plants to modulate the environmental conditions in their immmediate vicinity is such that they would be a fine-tuned microclimatic milieu in that area. We can also feel it as a "pressence" (sic). It is as though everything is stilled in expectancy, waiting for some signal to going to the next crescendo of evolutionary proliferation.

And how's this take on 'intelligent design' spiced up with a stiff helping of Professor Godbole?

We need these trees not for their wood or for some tangible benefits but to ponder about it all, the overall design, our position in it and also to see ourselves. In their prescence it is easy for us to realize with deep humility and also happiness that we are really puny, helpless beings taken care of by the collectivity of all the rest.

Food for thought, no? Although, I'd take issue with the 'being taken care of' bit. I find no evidence, and come to think of it, I'm not all that keen to be labelled 'puny' either. Feeble maybe, but puny? I don't think so.

Back at the cafe, where I was joined by a cross-eyed, pot-bellied bus driver for brunch, a circus of monkeys proceeded to blow 'intelligent design' out of the water. A particularly aggressive individual swooped down and plucked a paratha right off the plate of one startled diner. Then he hissed like a Batman villain and waved his trophy about before fleeing. Remarkably, this paratha bandit had only one hand. His right arm ended in a stump. Perhaps he'd stolen paratha in Saudi Arabia before settling in Thekkady. The cross-eyed, pot-bellied bus driver made a fine fist of keeping him and his less ferocious compatriots at bay until I finished my masala dosai.

Periyar is also famous for its herds of wild elephant but none chose to reveal themselves during my visit. I may have missed out on the wild elephants but there's plenty of the domestic variety to be getting on with. There's one in every Hindu temple, representing the living embodiment of Ganesh, aptly designated 'the remover of obstacles'. I received a blessing from the elephant above in the temple in Pondicherry. For a small consideration in the form of a coin which you drop down her trunk, she will give you a gentle bop on the head. Christian churches might be missing a trick here as the temple was full of people.

I did have a quiet word with the temple elephant and request the next 'crescendo of evolutionary proliferation', doesn't happen anywhere near me. I could do with some peace and quiet...

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The road bites back

A Kochi bus - faith is mandatory

I was expecting to be challenged but not in quite this way. I anticipated profound questions about life and the meaning thereof to come a-knocking. I braced myself for a severe testing of character. Instead I find myself dealing with a series of banal annoyances related to group travel. I'd forgotten how much I dislike prolonged discussion about issues that don't need to be discussed, much less have the same information repeated fourteen times accompanied by a healthy helping of condescension.

Before anyone panics, I'm having a great time. Loving the country and the people. I'd show you some but this is the second internet cafe that has rejected my fabulous new card reader, so I'm drawing from the first cache of images I had the good sense to save on my friend Flickr. Having had experiences on various forms of transport that make Flycoaster look like a trip to the nursery in a Maclaren buggy, I find myself unusually preoccupied with the question of life and death.

Anyone who has experienced Indian traffic will know that the first law of the road is save yourself and, if possible, the pedestrian. It is far less destructive to your vehicle to run into a person than another metal object. There are no protocols for giving way and stopping is not considered until the destination has been arrived at. In lieu of formal provision for merging a complex system of horn blowing, combined with highly skilled defensive driving keeps the traffic flowing. My fellow travellers are convinced that these people know what they're doing and they wouldn't risk their livelihoods recklessly. I, however, believe that risks have consequences and deal with the situation by keeping my head firmly planted in a book.

I'm winging it a bit here but I wonder if this says something about the Indian perspective on life in general. In addition to driving with wilful abandon they also remove the seat belts from cars. That has to be a statement of some kind. We're all a bit paranoid when it comes to road safety and insisting on booster seats for twelve-year-olds is surely asking for a generation of profoundly disturbed people in future. I'd be much happier with a more relaxed attitude to personal risk but I do draw the line at taunting the reaper.

Considering the two extremes raises the question - is the concept of preventable death valid? Clearly the Indians don't think so. They're slightly less relaxed about preventable umpiring decisions though. Tomorrow we're walking through a tiger reserve which will be far less scary than riding along dirt tracks in an auto-rickshaw.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Pants in Kerala

Dirty washing aired for your pleasure, compliments of Pants

The only time I'm ever right about anything is when I predict disaster, then I'm infallible. What is that about do you suppose?

A really awful thing happened. I was staying with my oldest, dearest friend who you will know as Mr T. Now, Mr T and I have never once fallen out, which is why he's my oldest and dearest friend. You can't fall out with Mr T because he never listens to you for long enough to be offended by anything you say. Made in heaven really. And he has the gentlest, most easygoing nature. I say again, something awful, and most unexpected happened.

You will know I was stressed beyond anything even vaguely akin to my past experience. You will also know that I am not the neatest person on the planet, or even the most considerate. However, I am generally speaking a good house guest because I tend to overcompensate for my bad habits when I'm imposing on someone's hospitality. I also cover my lack of ability to whip up a delicious kedgeree from a squishy tomato, half a tin of dried out sardines and four grains of rice with frequent trips to Oddbins.

It is true that I annexed Mr T's living room for the best part of a week for the purpose of moving various daft items from one pile to another like the mad overseer on some demented scheme for full employment. This tended to render the term 'living room' more or less redundant. It was clear to me that this was pissing him off somewhat but it wasn't going to be for very long and I couldn't do anything about it. It was hardly my fault that issues I wound up one day would magically unwind themselves overnight and force me to deal with them all over again, vastly diminishing the time allocated to say, washing up. I did the only thing I know how to do, I bought wine.

The major problem, which had been threatening to turn into a scenario Kafka would have dismissed as implausible all week, finally went the way of Joseph K. The bank foreclosed on my sanity. Admittedly losing the pin numbers for the internet banking and debit card of the account in which I'd installed the proceeds of House of Pants was not particularly clever but can't in itself be considered an endgame in banking terms, surely. It's not like I did a KLF and set fire my cash, after all.

It's an interminable story so I will simply state the bald facts. The Nationwide Bank told me that the only way I could get hold of my money was to withdraw it, personally. I couldn't write to the bank when I was in Australia and ask them to transfer it to another bank. I would literally have to return to England. It seems I'd gone to sleep and woken up in the nineteenth century. I don't know what kind of mental stamina you need to possess to take pronouncements like this in your stride. I do know I don't have it. I got up and walked out without saying anything.

Back at Mr T's I screamed, cried and yelled 'fucking cunts' rather more than was strictly called for, but not very loudly and in no one else's presence. In the course of my rampage, I did find the pin number to the debit card which meant that I could access my money anywhere in the world. That it would take about two and a half years of withdrawing the maximum amount every day didn't even seem like much of a hardship. It would be difficult to buy a house that way though. I'd have to find a seller who enjoyed my popping around every afternoon.

Then I had a moment of inspiration of the type only true desperation can produce. I called the Commonwealth Bank in London and explained my predicament. Could they help me? Yes they could. In short, I rushed over to the Commonwealth, opened a special account for people transferring money to Australia and then went back to the Nationwide and they finally gave me my money. It was solved but not without dissipating the time I'd allocated to putting my refuse in a black bag and washing the dishes.

I was leaving for India in the morning. Mr T was leaving for Havana in the morning. Mr T came back from work and the flat was a mess and I had not quite finalised the 'thank you for having me' arrangements. I tried to tell him I'd spent half the day trying to get my money from the bank and the other half waiting in the queue at the post office to mail all my bank statements by Datapost. Mr T showed little interest in my trials and instead retired to his room where he commenced to bang and clatter quite loudly. I've packed for Havana and I know that's not how it's done so I kind of guessed something was a bit wrong. A friend of his came over and they went for a drink. I panicked.

I didn't have enough left in me to think it through, much less deal with what was occurring so I packed my bag and left for the airport. At the time, it seemed like the perfect solution. If I'd stayed, it would have either meant a heart-to-heart of some sort or a frosty evening. I'd not the emotional strength to endure either. Leaving straight away would solve that and have the added bonus of relieving me of the worry of not getting to the airport in time, something that always bothers me if I have an early flight. But it also meant I wouldn't get to say goodbye and I'd probably make Mr T feel bad. It was the most Hobson of choices.

The night spent sleeping in Terminal 2 at Heathrow on broken chairs was very Viktor Navorski but it was no more or less then I deserved. As penances go, it was tolerable. And now I've arrived in Kerala where I have other things to worry about, like getting run down by auto-rickshaws - who ever thought that was a good idea? Yesterday, I spent the afternoon swimming and sunning myself on Chennai Beach and the horrors of the last couple of weeks dissolved. Mr T will be sipping mojitos. It will all get sorted out. Mr T, if you're reading this, I'm sorry - oh and Barney says hi and he's sorry too. He hadn't realised you had plans for that smoked salmon and did you know that you can use tofu instead? He does however accept that there is no substitute for vodka straight from the freezer. He plans to make a public apology to you on Oprah which will be screened on ITV4 on April 14th.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Pants frayed

Feeling a little negative

I don't know quite when I broke down irretrievably. Perhaps it was the moment I realised I'd lost all the pin numbers to the new bank accounts I'd set up, in particular, the one where I lodged the proceeds from the sale of House of Pants. I used to believe that any bugger could get his slimy little hands on my savings, which is why I've never had internet banking. I've debunked that one now. Since I've opened an internet account, not even I can get my hands on my own money. Now that's what I call secure. It will be some comfort when I'm at the far side of the world unable to buy a house because I can't access my own cash.

It's an inopportune time to admit it but I really don't like change. I am kicking for all I'm worth against every bizarre and unreasonable ritual imposed on the absurd number of service providers that modern living requires. I spat the dummy big time at the 'communications' provider who insists that you inform it 'in writing' of your intention to dispense with its services. 'No, no, no', insisted I in distinctly pants tones, 'you are a phone company and I am phoning you to tell you that I no longer require your phone service. We have never done anything 'in writing' before'. Of course I do intend to write to Quills Direct in my finest copperplate script to aprise them of my departure. It's only fitting.

I have lost and found the following items at least a dozen times this week,

  • Passports
  • Travellers' cheques
  • American dollars (sorry but they do look an awful lot like ads for American Express cards)
  • Memory stick (making them so small is a great idea until you have to put them in the company of a great many much bigger things)
  • Clean under garments (although not so much 'lost' as 'exhausted')

Never before have I been so stressed. I'm more frazzled than poor Miss Quested and I'm two days away from arriving in India. What will I be like when I get there? I can't even open my travel notes now for fear that I've forgotten something crucial. Better I don't find that out until I get there at this juncture. What is wrong with me? I've never been like this before about travelling, or about anything really. And if all that wasn't enough, blow me if Barney didn't wake up from his cryogenic suspension thinking he was Mel flipping Gibson (Mel, will you shut the fuck up!) Now I've got to work out how to get him through India and into Australia. It's going to be tricky as I doubt the Australian authorities will buy our cover story of being on a promotional tour for Forever Young 2.

Mr T is packing for Havana as I type. He's finally dragged himself away from Fantasy Football for long enough for me to get this post down. He's ironing fourteen shirts - for a week! I've got four to last me a month - all proudly unironed. We went to a wonderful New Year's Eve party in a fabulous apartment overlooking the Thames and, for once, I had a good view of the fireworks. Just when you leave, the city finally decides to invite you in to gaze at what you'll be missing.

What will become of me in this state? I can't even have a breakdown because it would invalidate my travel insurance. The best I can hope for is to contract yellow fever and disguise my hysterical outbursts as delirium.

Things can only get worse...