In Bajana we headed out at dawn to a barren salt marsh to checkout the temporary home of millions of migrating birds from Europe. First we spot fine flighty waders and pickers shimmering at the water’s edge. Next, white and grey herons always alert and stock still till they pounced on a tiny fish. Flocks of common cranes rather big and ungainly till they reached full flight and the seat belt sign went off.
We pull into the flashiest hotel we’ve stayed at in Bhuj. “Don’t get excited it’s like faulty towers” announces our guide, Jassa. It certainly lives up to its reputation. Rosie informs the receptionist that the shower doesn’t work. The woman turns to her and says “There are no showers in reception.” “That’s true” replies Rosie “but in my room there is and it doesn’t work.”
I arrange for clothes to be washed, it is a task fraught with potential disaster. I hand them my list of items. The receptionist spreads my clothes out along the reception desk nodding at each item but we dispute my listed three pairs of socks. “There are six socks” she announces with a straight face. I’m left to ponder that statement all day. I pick up my laundry on our departure day. “Are you leaving she asks ?” “Yes” I say and by the time I have returned to my room everything has been stripped and my bag sits outside. My medication on the bench has been trashed. Our guide chastises the boys. As we leave one of the room boys follows me to the bus and hands me a small hastily folded envelope. “ Here are your tablets “ he says quietly. They have rummaged through the rubbish and found the two tiny tablets. I shouldn’t swallow them but I do. In fact I should be dead by now. You just have to accept that this is India.
After a long day of bouncing around on Indian roads we arrived late at a hotel near Gir National Park. Straight after dinner everyone raced to their beds as we would be on a safari at dawn. The only warm clothing I had packed was a sleeveless vest, well it is India I thought why would you bother. The following morning in our open-air jeeps we bounced about on dirt roads, the hair on my arms and legs standing bolt upright in the near zero temperatures. I prayed for the sun to peak over the hills, simply to thaw me out.
A small battalion of jeeps raced about hoping to spot an Asiatic lion. After a while we began to enjoy the deer, the peacocks, a pair of hyenas and three mongoose. We were mesmerised by the mongeese standing bolt upright, suddenly they scampered at speed. We turned in the opposite direction to see a very large male lion come into the frame. I had been told that the Asiatic lions would be small, this one was massive and rightly deserved his title of king of the jungle. Everyone raised their cameras as one, like trumpets heralding his arrival. All you could hear were cameras clicking wildly like a plague of cicadas.
But the job I don’t want is the one where you track the lion on foot with nothing more than a stick and your best running shoes on. Two of these local fellows had coaxed a lion from a pride of four, tracked it towards the road for us to see. There are five hundred lions, each has an entourage of two trackers somewhere nearby. Can you imagine the government gazetted job application ?
Wanted : lion observer and tracker.
Protective equipment : one spindly stick.
Skills: The ability to run like the clappers.
My non-negotiable pay-rate would be high, very high and would include a fresh pair of underpants every morning.
Late in the day we venture out again, the hot dry ground now sparse of animals all hiding under a shady tree as I would if left out here. As dusk starts to take the bite out of the day we head towards the exit. We spot two trackers sitting in the grass waiting whilst a female lion and her cub snooze away the afternoon. After a while she wakes, stretches long and lumbers towards us. Her cub is like all young, full of curiosity, excitement and energy. Mum ignores the cub but never lets her get further than a paw swipe away.
The holiest pilgrimage for a Jain devotee is to Shatunjaya Hill. Jain people come from all over India to climb the 3750 steps to the top of the hill supposedly shedding their materialistic beliefs along the way. Which is I guess why the fellow being carried aloft on two sturdy poles by four sherpas is gleefully handing out crisp 10 rupee notes to all and sundry and feeling rather chuffed at the gesture. A life of wheeling and dealing then immediate salvation by throwing a few bucks around when the end is nigh. Footnote: I keep the 10 rupee my first souvenir.
Many pilgrims are carried up some old but just as many getting to the top with the least amount of effort. I’m thinking the guy I spotted in a gold jacket with a mobile phone hard to his ear is going to miss the spiritual moment. They look like people aboard desert camels lurching about, the strain on the sherpas showing. The sherpas balance the large poles on their walking sticks for their rest breaks beads of sweat shining on their brow, it’s a gruelling job.
At the top we visit some of the shrines watching as the devotees prepare offerings, piles of rice, money and precious metals. The walk to the bottom is grinding on your knees and tight on your calves. We all pull up at the bottom walking like we are in desperate need of a loo (which has often been the case….. ) We reflect over a lime soda at a roadside stall avoiding the persistent beggars. For me, seeing a nun who had been near us for much of the way down reach out and take Karen’s hand.The two of them continued rhythmically down the steps. When they stopped and parted the pureness of the gesture needed no words other than an open smile. A treasured observation. Back down at the bottom we reentered the cauldron of over-enthusiastic stall holders, spruiking stick sellers and professional beggars complete with someone else’s baby in their hip.
It was about time to move on and a day later we headed to the airport bid fair well to our guide and driver and flew South to Cochin. The flights were uneventful and I sat back to read the Indian Times, the worlds largest selling paper. My eye caught a snippet on Jet Airlines. Isn’t that the company we are flying with I thought peering out at the wing ? Yep. The article confirmed that two pilots had been banned for five years for fighting in the cockpit mid-flight. In fact at one point actually leaving the cockpit. I struggled to concentrate much after that and far too easily imagined our pilots fighting, ignorant of the mountains ahead. The mountains ahead guys go back and steer…
It was close and sticky in Cochin and we immediately started to see more Western tourists. No longer were we a curious group of six in-demand for selfies. The hotel teased us with a pristine pool. I rose early the next morning to swim before breakfast but first needed to wait as the pool wallah methodically vacuumed the bottom of the whole pool. He wound up his hoses as I slipped into the water. I swam feeling the tension of our city walking, marathon bus bouncing and pilgrim shuffling melt away. The best breakfast followed. We walked the promenade of Cochin fort watching the fishermen twirl their weighted circular nets hopefully and gracefully into the churning sea. The girl’s cameras were in overdrive, fishermen, net fishing and an aroma-free fish market where the produce shone brightly.
Ventured through the Cardommon hills today before stopping in Thekkady. I managed to book a massage after the others had all sung the praises at our last stop. So I was all excited when I was called to follow a doctor to meet a spindly Indian boy. Follow me he gestured without opening his mouth. I followed without replying. Indian conversation has more nods than words. Outside up a staircase and then into a room where he gestured for me to undress. I waited in my underpants and he waved his arm, face the wall. I felt his arms go around my waist and thought, “ Oh, so it’s one of these massages ? A cloth dangled from my waist, he pulled on my briefs and they hit the floor, he reached between my legs and that’s when I fainted. No actually he reefed the cloth up and tied it behind, I felt very local in my version of a dhoti. I climbed onto a wooden bench carved like a reservoir which was just as well as he then proceeded to pour copious quantities of oil all over my body, through my hair and into every nook and cranny he could find. He rubbed everything, well almost everything, then he rolled me over like a half-cooked chicken and did it all again.
I felt the waist string release and warm oil drip onto my buttocks, I closed my eyes tight thinking of what to tell the authorities. It was about then I thought I should pretend to be asleep. I was jolted from my dozing when he reached my feet. With a towel for traction he reefed on my toes like me wanted them for himself. He got no cracking from my toes but almost a perfect score on my fingers. It was then I opened my eyes, he was gesturing for me to slide like a slippery eel off the bench. The loin cloth now looked like a mechanics rag just before it would be tossed in the bin.
Our bus wound it’s way back to the coast where we boarded a kettuvallam, a converted rice barge to meander around the backwaters of Kerala. It’s pure bliss after jiggling around on the bus. We slice through the dark water watching local life unfold around us being fed every ten minutes and slowly becoming drowsy. Only strategically positioned stops at souvenir huts keeps us all awake.
I am a local now, simply wobbling my head instead of saying no, it must be time to leave. A final dinner of tiger prawns bigger than my hands are a fitting farewell. At 5am the following morning the houseboat splutters to life drops me on the opposite bank where a pair of car lights wait to drive me two hours away to Cochin airport and a few hours of farcical Indian bureaucracy.
Oh India, I love you I hate you but I’ll be back.