Saturday 10 February 2007

End of 36-hour nightmare

After my first night at Ooty, I bought a thicker fleece for 350 rupees (less than five quid) and slept in all my clothes including fleece. "Slept" is the wrong word, as I suddenly felt ill in the evening and hardly slept all night. I had clearly caught a kidney chill, as I was up to the loo every hour throughout the night and in the morning I felt really rotten, with a splitting headache.

Before I could deal with feeling ill, I had to go to the post office to post home some of my baggage, to make the rucksack a bearable weight. I have worn everything I brought, except a sun hat, but I reckon now all I need is one change of clothes. Even so, I still have quite a lot; it is amazing how much space is taken up by things like mosquito nets, travel towel, washing things and medicines.

As I expected, posting took almost all the morning. I was directed from the local postoffice to a larger one by the market - who redirected me to the head post office. But first I had to find a tailor to sew up my parcel. While the tailor performed what I still regard as a wonderful miracle parcel, the cloth shop owner entertained me. It turned out he was a born again Christian, having found God after two decades of cigarette and alcohol abuse. Now he has converted his Hindu family and all the staff in his shop (who all came from Hindu or Moslem families) - while I was there they had their regular morning prayer session, with one man reading from the Bible in Tamil, and then the owner praying in English - for my benefit, I reckon, since he was praying for me to find the Way. He was incredibly well-meaning and I think genuinely happy with his new life, but feeling as rotten as I did I just wanted to escape.

The head post office turned out to be in a cluster of nineteenth century colonial offices, with a stone church next to it. A pity about my headache and feeling nauseous, as this had been an area I had intended to explore. As it was, I decided that my next stop must be the doctor, so I took a rickshaw to Dr Sanjay's hospital (the YWCA recommendation).

I suppose you could say that the best part of three hours waiting in a tiny Indian hospital is all part of the rich tapestry of learning how India works. The rickshaw drive was up a precipitous steep road which had long lost any tarmac and had some stupendous potholes (indeed, the whole of Ooty has the most potholed roads I have seen in a town). At first sight the hospital appeared to be little more than a doctor's surgery, with a looong queue of patients, and a little pharmacy in front. I reckon its main business is maternity (there were notices saying in comformity with various laws the hospital neither performed terminations nor gave information on the sex of a future child). I realised after some time that there was a tiny lab, an xray machine of some sort and an emergency department (a man was carried in by five friends and directed to go to xray in an ancient lift.

The queuing system was a little like that at the bus stations and I was beginning to wonder if I would reach the head of the queue before my bus left, until a nice nurse (it took me a while to realise that the women with green cardigans over their saris were nurses, took me under her wing. But still, I had to wait for an elderly Moslem, who was clearly of some importance as well as infirmity, to jump the entire queue. He and his wife were in for ages, with their driver going to and from their car (parked right at the entrance, almost IN the hospital) for various things.

The doctor was understandably extremely rapid, saying that the urine sample didn't show any infection but that my blood pressure was extremely high, which would explain the migraine and nausea. I was then prescribed some paracetamol and some anti-emetic pills and given a pain-killer injection. All this came to 180 rupees (two quid))!

Back on the narrow-gauge railway for the start of my trip back to Coimbatore. It was as beautiful as on the way up, but I was beginning to wilt as we reached Mettupalayam, where I had to wait for an hour before getting the express train to Coimbatore.

At Coimbatore I spent a couple of hours on a tightly packed platform before the Bangalore train arrived. I was 18th on the waiting list for 3AC and had been optimistic, but nightmare, the ticket inspector said absolutely no chance, and that if I really wanted to take this train, I should go to second class (non-AC, the cattle trucks). In despair but desparate I started off for the long trek back to second (India trains are incredibly long, and invariably the AC classes are at the extreme end of the train, the furthest end from any entrance/exit.

To my horror the train started to move out, but a man called to me to hand over my bag and jump - which I did! Luckily he hauled me and my bag in, and that started the beginning of a heart-warming experience in a nightmare journey. There I was, with the prospect of standing outside the (smelly) loos for nine hours, in the company of three young men, including the one who had hauled me up. They turned out to be part of a family group of six and they too were on the waiting list, higher up than me. One of them said that should they get a place, they would insist that I took it.

After an hour or so sitting on my rucksack, the young men got the attendant to bring some sheets and we all sat on the ground, trying to get some sleep. The man next to me had a Nano ipod and kept on putting on numbers for me to listen to. His taste was touchingly old-fashioned and sentimental: I was entertained with the Everly brothers, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and Bob Dylan. I reciprocated by showing the photos of the family and our house on my iPod, (but discovered to my concern that I couldnt hear any of the music).

Later I was dozing fitfully when the same young man woke me and said he had got me somewhere to sleep - of sorts. He dragged all my luggage, through the compartment, with bodies sleeping everywhere on the floor as well as berths, to the other end of the compartment, where the sheets attendant usually slept, in a cubbyhole in the wall. This had been made up with clean sheets (but no mattress!) for me, and after I was installed (uncomfortably as he insisted I should keep my rucksack at the foot end for security), I saw the young man pay the attendant some money, which made me feel very bad. Sadly I did not see him in the morning to repay and thank him, but I did appreciate their concern and friendliness.

Hurrah for my mobile. Once I had decided, regretfully, that it would be foolish to take the morning train for an overnight stay in Mysore, I had rung ahead and found a room - not easy in Bangalore, given its status as India's number one technical centre. So at 7am I joined the packed throng (12 abreast) up the steps over the usual bridge (as usual we were NOT on platform 1), and took a rickshaw to my hotel. As usual the rickshaw driver said my hotel was full - and then had to stop three times in order to ask for directions to it.

Hotel Vellera turns out to be another one catering primarily for Indians (I have no idea whether the top end places have Indians as well as well-off Europeans, but the budget places are dominated by Western backpackers). I asked for a quiet room and it actually seems to be quiet, and to possess the best plumbing I have seen for some time. Hot water and a shower that worked! I celebrated by having a long shower and then sleeping.

Now it is midday, I am back on my feet and feeling better, though still distinctly weak. I have made it the half-mile from my hotel to an internet place. So far the shops, noise, dust and traffic are just like any other city I have seen, but the young are definitely different: the streets are filled with people wearing trendy western clothes. There also seems to be a far higher proportion of English speakers.

On my way I passed a camera shop which looks pretty modern. I think they have my size filter in stock, so I'm about to go back to the hotel and collect my camera. That will be a relief, as I have been travelling for a month with an unprotected lens, since my filter broke in Mamallapuram.

And then, I propose to hole up in front of the telly in my room. I have already watched part of a very good documentary on the environmental damage being done by companies quarrying for marble in Rajasthan.

A litle later

Ater the morning session on the internet, I popped next door to an icecream parlour, to indulge myself (had a tasty mango shake - and yes, an icecream). Fascinating, it was not a smart place, yet it is clearly a cool location for Bangalore's young middle class. I sat opposite a pretty young woman in her 20s, dressed in jeans and carrying a laptop bag. She spoke impeccable English, even using phrases like "what a pain". She has an MBA and works for Intel, in human resources. We talked a bit about India's problems; I suggested that overpopulation was a key problem. She said she thought that resolving the problems of the rural areas was even greater. Three quarters of India's 1.2billion people live in the country (hard to believe when as a tourist one goes from one congested city to another) and she said they had poor infrastructure, poor access to services such as education (in contrast to the cities, where she said, India has "fabulous education"), and were locked into debt with loan repayments. Result: a widening gulf between the majority of the population and those who, like her, were educated and were experiencing an astronomic rise in standard of living.

Tomorrow afternoon I fly to Mumbai. I'm back in the internet place because the hotel I had targetted in Mumbai is not answering the phone and I'm having to look for alternatives. Not easy, it is supposed to be even more expensive than Delhi.

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