Leaving Lake Kabini (though not on an oxen cart) I boarded another rattly bus destined for Kalpetta, one of the main towns in the northern Keralan district of Wayanad. Not that many tourists make it to hilly Wayanad, on the edge of the Western Ghats.
There are no backwaters and houseboats here, but there are coffee and tea plantations, spices and palm trees in an area that is a bit wild yet has a relaxed rural atmosphere. With the fourth-highest rainfall in the world, it is also greener than Kermit.
It was warm and languid in Wayanad, so I spent a couple of relaxed days eating cuisine featuring lots of coconut and staring at ripening coffee beans. Except I had had a late invitation to spend Christmas in Khujaraho, which is not that far from Delhi but a long way from where I was. Making arrangements to get there was not relaxing at all. Flights were really expensive, train tickets difficult to obtain, and Indian websites are maddening and almost impossible to book anything on unless you are using an Indian credit card. If the country does want tourists it really should make arranging travel a little easier for them. It is exhausting enough doing the travel without getting an ulcer just trying to organize it.
Leaving Kalpetta for Bangalore, the bus was late and it just got later. We were four hours later by the time we reached the capital of Karnataka, and Silicon Valley of India. I didn’t see any computer programmers, but I did see the dust, traffic and evidence of the ongoing saga of trying to construct a metro there.
According to a friend who has moved there, Bangalore has lots of shops. I saw a few from a distance, but I only really had time to eat, sleep and then get myself to the airport for a flight to Delhi. This took most of the next day. The cashews on that SpiceJet flight should have been gold-plated they were so expensive, but it was either eat those or instant noodles (so no prizes for the food). But everything else was just like a normal flight and compared to other forms of travel I’d done recently hygienically relaxing.
On reaching Delhi I stopped off at Haldiram’s for a raj kachori (fried bread ball filled with yoghurt and mysterious crunchy things) then made my way to Hazrat Nizamuddin station for an overnight train. While sitting on a pile of boxes with a sleepy dog, I chatted with a young woman about the brutal gang-rape that subsequently led to the death of the 23-year-old student in the capital.
“There is no respect for women in Delhi,” she told me. I never felt unsafe there, but I am a large, cantankerous foreigner who would kick the crap out of any man who started molesting me, and I guess they can tell. I’ve often been surrounded by groups of curious men, but most of them look too scared to even speak. The only aggressive people I’ve encountered (apart from the usual pushing and shoving) were some kids in Jodhpur who threw things at me. But that made me cross rather than scared and I dispatched them fairly quickly.
The train was meant to reach Khajuraho at 6am, but it was a couple of hours late, which was fine for me though a bit boring for the driver sent to collect me. Khajuraho is a small town in Madhya Pradesh mainly famous for its World Heritage-listed temples.This part of Central India is not that far from the southern part of Uttar Pradesh where I spent a sweaty night in Chitrakut, the town electricity forgot. But there was no chance of sweaty nights on this trip.
They were frisky, the dudes that commissioned these temples. Technically they are “superb examples of Indo-Aryan architecture”, and there are panels featuring depictions of life a millennium ago, which tends to indicate this lot were rather fond of sex. Ganesha the elephant-headed god makes a few appearances but there are lots of women, lots of sex scenes and quite a few “smiling elephants” looking on who I guess were happy to be learning a few things.
I for one saw how (if I were a bloke) how to have sex with a horse, and the kind of help I would require would I wish to perform the act on my head. Also the J.Lo of a thousand years ago was sticking her bottom out, and frankly I think the one carved in stone is a tad more shapely.
There are eight main clusters of temples to see in the Western group, which was a pleasant afternoon of temple-tripping. Then it was time to retire to a cafe – at Raja’s you could get a decent latte, which was probably a good thing to tank up on before the temples. I once had a friend who edited an art magazine and he would have a strong espresso before entering a gallery because then, he maintained, he had at least one alert hour before he began to feel sleepy. There’s something about galleries that makes me want to nap too – must be the lack of fresh air.
Being Christmas, one of the hotels has a display of Christmas trees and snowmen, with a painting of Santa and his reindeer. Jesus and the Wise Men do not make an appearance. But turkey and a very strange cranberry sauce/gravy made an appearance at the Christmas Eve buffet dinner. Along with a various curries, pasta and a chocolate Yuletide log cake, bless them. No brandy butter though. And it is just the weather for brandy butter, ie freezing cold.
When it comes to weather in India it’s always about the heat; wilting English memsahibs who need to be carried to a hill station or bathed daily in mango juice to survive the all-baking sun. I wouldn’t have minded a bit of baking sun actually, because it was bloody cold. And when I returned to Delhi it was even colder. I stayed at my friends’ apartment and we were wearing thermal underwear and huddling over heaters. I was never that cold in the UK in 12 years. Indian construction doesn’t help here – draughty housing with marble floors is designed to deal with scorching summers – I guess they think shivering for four months is fine. The floor was so cold I was wearing slippers and socks and my feet were still chilly.
As it turned out, northern India was having its worst winter for 70 years and everyone was feeling chilly. Worse, a great blanket of fog was sitting over a chunk of the country delaying everything. The train back to Delhi was supposed to take 12 hours, it required a further 9. And when I took a train to Kolkata to fly out of the country, the train was delayed by 11 hours. The good thing about that last train is that they kept bringing us meals (it was a Radhjani Express – politicians use these). On the Khajuraho train I couldn’t even buy a bottle of water.
The unfortunate thing about that train was that I was looking forward to a final day in Kolkata, to reacquaint myself with that strangely compelling city. And feel a bit warmer. I was meeting a friend in the evening and he was worried about what I was going to do with myself in the afternoon. Sitting on the train took care of that. I thought he was picking me up, then he said catch the airport bus, get off at a certain place and he would collect me there. The last airport bus departed at 9pm.
The train was meant to arrive at 7.30pm. Then 8pm. Then 8.30pm. At 8.50pm we were sitting outside Howrah station somewhere. Then finally it started moving. At 8.58pm my friend texted and said it was a pity I’d miss that bus. At 8.59pm I staggered onto the platform and started running. As I said to him later, I am nothing if not determined. I’d seen something that looked like a bus and I was lumbering towards it.
It was a bus. It was even the right bus. I felt very triumphant, though as it went rumbled along MG Rd (and only one door at the front) it became crammed with so many people I thought I might never be able to get off the bus.
But obviously I did. Thank you India – even my last night there had an element of high drama. I could never say it hadn’t been memorable.