Travels With Oso con Migo

Around The World In Sixty Days

OAE On The Road Again, Somewhere Summertime 95-96

December 12, 1995, last letter December 5, 1995

Thursday, December 7, 1995, The day that shall live in Infamy.

My Dear Infamates:

I have a few relatives that live near there; the rents are low enough I might think of moving there myself. But just now I am taking leave of Ben and Cathy at Sheffield, Yorkshire. Yorks has been having a spot of water shortage these past few months, long hot summer and all that, nothing a good rainy winter and spring and next summer won't fix up right. To hear it on the news it would also help if the water company would spend as much time fixing the pipes as they do making a profit. Sheffield was a steel making town, John Henry got his start here, Vulcan is the patron saint. At the top of the spire on the town hall there is an heroic statue of a nude Vulcan wielding a hammer. Pretty dangerous for a man working a forge. Sheffield steel use to be the main ingredient in most high quality knives.

When I last visited Ben and me went hiking along the Stannage Edge; this time the weather was bearly suitable for walking downtown. On many of the highways motorcars and lorries were askew and abandoned due to a surprise attack of winter, a season that seems to catch folks unawares after such a long hot summer as has been the case here. So downtown we went, in search of round tea bags ... "no matter what flavour, so long as they're round" wrote my friend in Acton, and also in search of a zip. On my last visit to Sheffield all the pounds I was shedding then caused the zipper on my wallet to lose some teeth and I replaced it here; this time the same thing was again taking place so it was necessary to quest after a proper zip. 

Along the way we discovered another Internet Coffee Shop (Its all the rage now you know for coffee shops to move into bookstores and internet to move into coffee shops.) and needless to say I had been without a proper netfix since visiting with Dave and Pauline last week so in we went to see what my latest letter looked like in colour on the big screen. This shop, on Westfield Terrace, had a 300dpi colour printer connected so I was able to print a copy of my letter with all the images. And I left a bookmark to my letters page. It certainly is magic. At a copy shop nearby we were able to have the letter reproduced so Ben could keep a copy. That part was pretty dear, ten pounds sterling for eight pages. I hope Ben sees it like I do as eight pages worth framing. 

Next on the list of Essential Insanities was a chip shop for some proper fish and chips served up in a paper pocket of newsprint with salt and vinegar. Followed up with a pint (I had only a half since I was about to go into training) at the Frog & Parrot on Devonshire Street, within a two minute stagger of Vulcan. It is not clear to me if Roger has been the manager for all of the 25 years this place is reputed to have been here, it looks a lot older than that, but he has retired after leaving his name of several of the brews. The barkeeps there now don't know much of the history of their establishment, more's the pity since it would seem, judging by the look of the place, to have lots of stories to tell. The Frog & Parrot's famous ales are brewed on the premises ("Look through the floor!!!") and include Roger's Reckless, a rather pleasant ale after fish and chips, and Roger & Out; at 12% you won't get too far on a couple of pints of that stuff. 

Saturday, December 9, 1995, 33,000 feet over Ankara, 581 mph.

My vegetarian lunch of Panir Makhani was served between Bucharest and Istambul. I recognised the rice but the cottage cheese looked and tasted more like tofu; it was good in either case. The menu lists Yoghurt, Paratha, Papad, Pickle as well. Then desert was Rabadi. That was the best part by far and I almost turned it down. I did turn it down and the lovely cabin attendant talked me into trying a little over Ankara. Well, there was only a little anyhow so I ate it all. Yum! Ankara was at one time called Angora, that is were the famous Angora goat gave up its hair to Mrs. Inman a hundred years ago who made me a very fine blue jumper. 

This day started out bright and sunny, just like yesterday, except a lot colder. There is considerable frost on the car as Dave and Pauline take me to Heathrow to find Air India flight 112 bound for Delhi, Bombay, and Madras. This is going to be a long day if Dave continues to pick the roads with the speed bumps. But finally we arrive with a few minutes to spare and I am able to commence the check-in process.

So now I am in Asia. The Gobi Desert is in here some place according to a crossword puzzle I am working through, way at the far end from where we are flying over the south shore of the Black Sea. This is a new continent for me, another place to fly my kite and watch and learn about how the local folks live. I have joined my friend Richard Cook from back in the old days on this flight. He is on his way to the CSI Children's School in Erode to work on several projects and visit the kids he supports. We will be there for most of three weeks. One is not supposed to bring Rupees *into* India; I smell a trap here. I just know ten Pounds of sterling is going to translate into a ton of Rupees and they will make it very difficult to sell them back on the way out.

Sunday, December 9, 1995, Hmmmm...

Its Sunday morning in Bombay but still Saturday night in Greenwich Nice Time. All of India is on the same timezone: GMT-5.5 hours. I slept through the stop at Delhi; lack of sleep and maybe lack of water had caused some upset, mostly in the form of a headache. Hell of a way to start a new adventure but after Delhi the 747-400 was nearly empty and it was possible to find three seats in a row to lay down and sleep. Bombay looks a lot like London from the air at this hour, the green and orange of the ubiquitous sodium vapour and mercury vapour lights shows up through the winter haze. The temperature here feels about 65f. Now we must sit around in a transit lounge for three hours waiting on the flight from here to Madras.

December 10, 1995, that's better...

Sampoornam and Issac met us at Madras airport along with Selva and Bala. We took a taxi in, seven including the driver and all our luggage, in something about the size of a Nash Rambler. Before leaving the airport I went to the money changer. Pounds convert to tonnes. 140 pounds sterling = 7,371 rupees. 

New Woodlands Hotel on Radhakrishnan Road, Mylapore is the place for tonight. Several naps and snacks later Issac and me walked to the Mirana Beach and looked around for a place to fly pattams in the morning. A sign painted on a wall along the road, where there is another sign "Stick No Bills" proclaims 24% interest on constant amount savings accounts. Imagine what the inflation rate must be. Madras is one of the four principle cities in India, the capitol of Tamil Nadu, with a population of over 10 lakhs. One lakh equals 100,000. This part of the city is a little ways south of the port of Madras and runs the gamut from rich, guarded and gated estates with inside toilets to thatched hovels and children shitting in the street.

New Tamil words for today: Mahdu, Aahdu, Vanakkam, Nanri, Pattam, Poondu, Rabadi. In order of appearance: Cow (Holy), Goat (domestic but free ranging in the city), Welcome (similar to Namasti (in Hindi)), Thank you, Kite, garlic (akin to ajo), and lastly, rabadi is a thick milk desert, almost tart like yoghurt but sweet and with a pistachio garnish. Yum!

Monday night, December 11, 1995, en train Madras to Erode.

Amtrak this is not. The engine is electric over this leg and the gauge is wide. I did not measure it but it looks to be perhaps eight inches greater between the rails than the standard gauge. The car is long and dark, Mr. Cook and I are in first class compartment F along with another journalist and a member of parliament. Like the overnight train to Zuerich this has the same sort of layout except that it sleeps only four on yucky green pallets; the kind of yucky that sweaty flesh sticks to and there is no bedding; the journalist has brought his own inflatable pillow, I can see he has been here before.

Overhead four fans make enough noise to obscure the clickety clack of wheel on rail and once the cabin lights are extinguished one of them spits angry blue along with its share of buzzing and snapping. Eventually I am able to finger out which of the half dozen pull-cords and switches call the train conductor and which turn off the fans except that the most angry of the fans only slows a little and continues to sputter. It is evident that others before me have had this problem and the solution is made obvious by the black electricians tape I find wrapped around one of the wires. 

They're are two toilets at each end of our sleeper car with one of the four doors labeled "Western Toilet" (the others are labeled with "@@!%?" which is as near as this American English keyboard will let me approximate the Hindi sign. At least I think its Hindi.) It seems to translate to something like squat-hole. Mr. Cook says its actually more sanitary than the western style. One of these days I will give it a try but not whilst I am on a moving train, the hole is too big and there is no safety net.

Yesterday and today have been wonderful adventures of learning the proper etiquette of eating with one's fingers (not hands), of flying pattams, dealing with beggars and vendors of everything.

Issac is a quiet, unassuming, flying wedge when it comes to wading through the sea of humanity that presses around anyone who exudes the faintest whiff of tourist. He works as a clerk-typist at the Secretariat, the ten story headquarters of the Tamil Nadu government in Madras, and makes 3000 Rs (at this writing 1 US$ buys 35 Rs). We went to eat at several different restaurants and he would talk me through the ordering of meals. For breky this morning we had iddly and sambar, mutter paneer, tea and coffee; coffee is coffee Issac said but the Indian way is to serve it with milk and sugar. The sugar is at the bottom of the cup and you stir up only as much as you want. 

He is trying to teach me to write my Oxton name in Tamil script; @@85uL@@. However if we translate Oxton first to Tamil and then write the result in English letters it comes out kottakai or tholinam. Our breky, without translation, consisted of steamed rice cakes and several spicy sauces. One breaks off a morsel of rice cake, carefully scalding the fingers on the hot interior, and dips it in the sauce. Or you can pour some of the sauce over your cakes and then pick up the resulting porridge. Instead of rice cakes you might have paan, a kind of flat, thin, baked wheat bread. Butter-paan is when this bread is fried and served hot. Tearing off a proper portion of this hot, slippery concoction to use as a vehicle to transport vegetarian curry into the oral cavity is a learn'ed task requiring more dexterity than the use of chopsticks. We traded lessons. It is a matter of holding down the paan with your thumb whilst tearing away a portion with your fingers or holding it down with fore and middle fingers and tearing with thumb against ring finger. Or any combination that works; except that you are not permitted to use your left hand at all but for maybe to steady your plate and keep it from skittering across the table into that of your neighbor.

After the morning lessons in etiquette we rented a car and driver for the day (for 750 Rs) and headed off to Mahabalipuram (emphasis is on the second syllable) and the Golden Sands beach.

Issac and I had walked the fifteen minutes from our hotel to Marina Beach, straight down the road from the New Woodlands Hotel to the Bay of Bengal, yesterday afternoon. I needed to get the kinks out after all that time sitting in a plane. Now I am sitting in a car with my head out the window as the driver races and dodges through crowded streets. I am reminded of Quito--cars, buses, auto-rickshaws, trucks, all drive with one foot on the gas, the other on the horn. But here they are far more polite. The horn seems to say something more like here-I-come rather than get-out-of-my-way.

What most westerners take as squalor these folks take for granted. It is not so much that they are not interested in getting ahead but that they are resigned to their fate for this time around. They will get another chance later. There were 7577 castes indicated on the 1930 census and despite the caste system being outlawed it still controls the lives of much of the population. Getting ahead from one day to the next is enough challenge. Construction workers live on the job with their families; sons work along side fathers, women cook meals and keep house in a corner of the foundation as the walls go up around them and young girls carry half a dozen bricks or a hod of cement on their heads up scaffolding of spars lashed together like a Boy Scout pioneering project. When the building is complete the families of the construction caste will move on to the next job site. 

I find I am at a loss for words to describe much of what I see. I absorb sights and sounds and smells but find my vocabulary inadequate to paint a picture. Crowded implies uncomfortably close together; this place is teeming, the people swarm, but it is not crowded. It use to be that a certain separation had to be maintained between persons of different castes but public mass transportation has ameliorated much of that need. Women are beginning to take to the streets, an article in the daily paper talks about how using motorscooters empowers women but that they are at greater risk, but not all the kids go to school. Everywhere I look along the way there are shops for selling and fixing and eating, little more than stalls opening out right on the littered sidewalk, cows and goats competing with children in the piles of refuse, thatched huts built against the walls of guarded villas, women getting water at community spigots kept full by huge horn blowing tank trucks, then we round a corner, pass an intersection, and the whole character of the place changes, the edge of urban sprawl gives way to pasture, rice paddy, rock quarry, and then a smaller village. 

Mahabalipuram is a small village about 60 km south of Madras which contains several examples of ancient masonry construction where the entire structure or piece is sculpted out of the living rock. Isvara Temple is one such structure. Also named Olakkannesvara Temple, it is in the Rajasimka style for the god Siva (Shiva) and dates from AD 674-800. Everywhere we stopped the car was immediately surrounded by vendors of all ages pedaling carved elephants, carved gods, painted silks, postcards... Dealing is permitted and the elephant sellers will press their wares upon you from all sides shouting lower and lower prices, two for one, I carved this myself... It is like an auction in reverse. They go to school to learn the techniques of carving and the pitch to sell it. And they earn five to ten rupees on each 100 to 200 Rs sold; the rest going to overhead, supplies, instructor. It almost seems not to matter how low the prices go but at some point you have to feel some compassion for these guys and either buy something or walk away before you insult them. A typical hard stone piece, about the size of a can of soda (but undeniably more complex and better for you), representing one of the myriad Hindu gods, takes from four to ten days to complete depending upon the complexity of the piece and the skill of the artisan. 

I find my Self attracted to the one who converses beyond the rudiments of his sales pitch. He listens to my questions and has ready answers, he begins to point out the relationship between what he sells and the surrounding monuments. Gradually the crowd thins, he has said something to the others that seems to send them away and he shifts into tour guide mode. Eventually I purchase a carving from this student artist huckster guide and we both are satisfied.

At another part of the monument a young girl has a different approach. Instead of carrying her selections in a bag to follow us around in the hot sun Nirmala has set up shop in the cool shade of a narrow part of the trail. She smiled but was silent as we stepped around her on our way in, she knows there is only one way out. But even then her beguiling smile works better than the raucous voice of the others and she wins a sale and a picture. 

In one of the stalls back in the village where the carving takes place a teacher is with three students. There are also some cold drinks to be had so we purchase Cokes and listen as the student presents his wares.

But what I really came here for is the beach. The sun and the wind are dragging at my kite string even though the pattam is still in its bag. I have several other kites to check out before bringing them to the school in Erode (and Issac says there may not be all that much wind there--he has not flown a kite since he was a little kid and I sense his anticipation) so we shake off the train of vendors and find a more or less unpopulated stretch of sand along the surf where the wind is right. First one small stable orange parafoil I have been carrying all the way from the kite shop in Christchurch and then a blue one are sent to the sky. Sampoornam holds one of these, Mr. Cook the other. A few kids begin to gather and it crosses my mind that one  could set up shop right here... Next I launch a small traditional cross-stick diamond with a long tail. This is a sprightly pattam and Issac takes it away from the others while I get out its mate. This last is even more sprightly and requires some nursing along to keep it airborne. When it crashed the second time a small boy ran from the pack surrounding me with their buy me din and lifted it from the sand. He knew which end was up and held it ready so I gave a thumbs up and he let it take to the air. When he walked back I gave him the string and asked his name; Peter, he said, what is your name.

My big parafoil likes this kind of wind and flew nearly straight up above the other kites. Too bad I didn't bring the big two string aerobatic wing but then just as well as the place is getting too crowded. When we pulled them all in an hour later I gave Peter the one he'd been flying and he ran off up the beach yelling his thanks. As we got in our car to return to the city I could still see it flying above the palms beyond the temple Olakkannesvara.

Issac has instructed me to be introduced to the children at the CSI school at Erode as Poondu to see how long it takes them to make the connexion to garlic. Mr. Cook says it rhymes with Doodu...

Tuesday, December 12, 1995, Erode, Tamil Nadu, India, Asia, Earth.

We are going to sit still, relatively still, for two weeks and have unpacked at the Siva Ranjemi hotel. Manjula and Kanagaraj and several children met us with rose garlands when the train arrived at seven on this sunny morning. It is winter here and the inhabitants are dressed for it; many men and boys have on long sleeved shirts with their dhotis or shorts. The temperature is at least 70f. The women and girls wear saris of colourful silk; school children are in uniforms of jumpers and skirts or shorts. Bicycles (mostly old Raleigh style with a fully enclosed drive chain and dysfunctional front only brakes) and a variety motor-driven two wheeled vehicles (small scooters to middling motorcycles--there is a couple of old Enfields parked in front of the Siva Ranjemi) outnumber cars. The first special function at the school will be this evening. 

Chocolate stores in jeopardy! The Lindt Cappuccino, open'd in London has begun to melt. It must be the humidity since the other bars which are still seal'd are properly firm, even the Milch-Chocolade et amandes grillees. The only way to save the cappuccino from running all over my pack is to spoon it from the wrapper. Hell of a way to eat a chocolate bar...

My first encounter with the phone system here is not indicative of fast reliable digital communications. The phone in my room is for local calls only. The phone in the lobby kiosk has a keypad but is rotary dial and there is some sort of metering device wired in which will make attaching a modem risky at best. I am going to close this letter and see about posting it from the school later.

Cheerio, ajo

 A.J.Oxton, OA, OO, OAE,  k1oIq

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