A rail journey around India, beginning & ending in Mumbai...

A rail journey around India, beginning & ending in Mumbai...

Thursday, 18 December 2014

India----- a post script.

                  I have now reached the final entry of this blog. Nothing profound. Back in Canada and preparing for a family Christmas, I cast my mind back to India, half a world away, to the noise, chaos and passion of people lives as they compete to survive in the world’s largest and very crowded democracy. At the beginning of this blog  I used the phrase ‘India—not for the faint hearted’ and that phrase sticks with me, even more so after having experienced the sub-continent close-up and personal for the past 3 months. I come away with the feeling that the country’s greatest asset is its people, quick to smile and insatiably curious---the cry of “what country you come from?” still ringing in my ears from being asked the question a thousand times.
                My observation is that India is chronically conservative in its social and religious structures. I witnessed first-hand, protests by women against harassment and for a stronger role in society, of chaos on the roads, the acceptance of dumping foul refuse any and everywhere and a bureaucracy that seems to be out of control. With massive unemployment and under-employment, there is certainly an available labour force to clean- up the nation –all that is required is a national consensus to undertake the task. New prime-minister Modi seems to be attempting to push his people in the right direction. To paraphrase, India is a country that should not function---but it does!
                Independent tourist type travel to India, except for the young persons back-packer variety, should not be undertaken lightly. Logistically, my trip was successful, as I did undertake extensive pre-planning, although this did result in some lack of the spontaneity of unstructured travel. I know that I did miss some interesting sights en route and was unable to deviate from rigid advance hotel and railway reservations. On the positive side, I did avoid countless hours waiting in long queues at rail station ticket booths, supplying reams of useless details of my life to make ‘on the spot’ rail reservations. Never did I have to trudge the streets of  (very) strange cities, late at night trying to secure a hotel room. I always felt, as a ‘foreigner,’ that I was welcome in India—people were quick to offer me a friendly smile and point out the routing, ---even if sometimes I could barely understand their version of the English language. My thanks to all who agreed to let me take their photographs as they went about their busy work schedules.
              As an Englishman, I was disappointed at what I perceived to be as a lack of an Indian sense of connection to Britain. The younger Indians that I met seemed to regard the UK indifferently, as just another condescending European country, whereas the older people seemed to have quite negative feelings about the humiliations that they felt that they were subjected to, during the colonial/Raj era.
          Thanks to Indian Railways for the generally on time and comfortable service they provided. I shall never forget the countless hours that I stood at the open doorways of moving trains as the villages and fields rolled by.
               Lastly and most importantly, I want to thank my wife Jian for her total support of this project and who so unselfishly permitted me to go foot-loose for three months, so far away from home; who so uncomplainingly picked up domestic duties like grass cutting and snow clearing in my absence, who brightened my everyday with a bright and cheery e-mail. Thanks always Jian.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

And safely back to the starting point.....

        The circle closes—arrived back in Mumbai. The 11 hour train trip, 650 kms northward from Mangeon, Goa, only about one hour late arriving. Of course, my thanks go out to SD Enterprises, Wembley, UK from whom I purchased my 90 day Indian rail pass and who made all the required seat reservations for me---even ensuring that on every sector my bunk was lower level. Not an unimportant detail, should one have a call from nature at 3.00am and be required to make ones way along a rockin’ and rollin’ narrow passage, to the ‘facilities. 
A local Mumbai beach wedding party warms up.
                As I cruised this final leg, I reflected how I had become over these past 12 weeks, rather blaise---the joys of experience. Mysteries like how to locate one's carriage and specific seat in a train that seems like a mile long. I spent  scores of pleasant hours and miles hanging out of the open door of the rail carriage as we charged along. Sometimes I felt that it was like watching a National Geographic movie unfold before my eyes. Thankfully hanging out of rail carriages is permitted in India, but just watch out for the passing pylons that support the overhead electric rail power lines, or you may end up with a nasty head ache and a dented camera! With the advent of electric powered trains, India Railways banned the famous ‘riding on the roof’ routine. Still, would be interesting to know how many passengers they lose overboard each year from open carriage doors! Yesterday, as chance would have it, we passed the site of a major train wreck—the whole train—or perhaps 20 carriages, had flown off the track and piled up in a massive heap at the bottom of a high embankment. How long ago this happened, I do not know—but I expect, based on my knowledge of how things seem to operate in this country, that the wreck will stay in in situ for decades to come. Too bad  that I did not have my trusty Lumix in hand ready to record the dramatic scene.
Reluctant to go for a swim.....
Sand art (of a god?) on Juhu Beach, Mumbai.
               My final hotel accommodation in Mumbai,  is located generally near the airport sector & not far from Juhu beach. By pure chance, it is perhaps the best one of my whole India trip. Very professional. Super soft beds and attentive service. After complimentary cornflakes, I made my way via auto rickshaw down to Juhu. The hotel tourist map gushed that if I was really lucky, I might even see top Bollywood actors out for a jog on the sands, surrounded by their private retinue of body guards. Sadly, I missed the spectacle! Anyway, a most pleasant walk of perhaps 4-5 kms, up and down the hard sands in perfect 30C sunny weather that included the picturesque spectacle of boys running a beautiful white stallion through the surf. Unfortunately, my humble Lumix point & shoot was hardly up to the job. Due to the intense light levels, the LCD display, totally useless, as in point & guess!

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Life on the southern beaches.....

         Emerged from my Panaji hotel at the rather aggressive checkout time of 9.00am sharp. Not too
displeased to see the back of Blessings hotel and their super hard and thin mattresses. Service was poor—room was never serviced in 6 days, despite requests. Should not bore all with complaints, as it was reasonably quiet, hot water almost on demand and never required to squash a single cockroach.
Beach beer shack....
               Last night, was too tired to care anyway, having done a days tour via  bus, auto rickshaw and on foot of the resorts about 15kms north of Panaji. Crowds and boiling sun not entirely conducive to that relaxed feeling. The beach corridor is certainly very beautiful, golden sands, overhanging coconut palms and beach front bars/restaurants pouring forth their diverse music styles. Notice that apart from the various hawkers, there were very few Indians, domestic or overseas varieties, present. Perhaps it was the skimpy swim-ware favoured by the Russians that frightened them away--- these large size middle aged matrons just should spare us their bikinis—it’s loose lip comments like this that could precipitate WW3! Sorry Mr. Putin.
Bull on the beach just before a pack of dogs attacked--the bull won.
            The area just to the east of the beaches has grown into a virtual shanty city of tourist gift vendors. I have never seen such a massive area, totally devoted to relieving foreigners of there rubles, euros etc. Must be kilometres of walkways winding up and down in the shade of the coconut palm groves. This is capitalism at its crudest—no fixed prices—haggle, haggle, haggle. Ivan, did you really need that one foot wooden carving of the AFRICAN elephant (with the big ears) and by the way---- where was it made? Kenya perhaps!
       Chatted to John, 250 lbs, shaven headed and 63, hospital orderly from Glasgow. His 30 th  trip to India. John’s southern brogue was so thick, I could barely understand what he was saying much of the time—but anyway, as the first Scot that I had encountered since the independence referendum; I passed along my great pleasure that we remain UK ‘cousins’ forever.
Chocolate and vanilla body!
Such a hot day, and when one could barely stagger from one beach watering hole to the next.
           Another day and another hotel. I am now positioned at Colva Beach, 40 kms south of Panaji, and just 3-4 kms from the main railway station at Mangeon, ready for Saturdays 6.00am departure on a 10 hour haul up to Mumbai--- back to my starting point for this India circular tour. My hotel at Colva rejoices in the name ‘Incredible English Hotel” and with a name like that, what Englishman could pass up the offer at $35/nt.? 
Holy cow!!  There is a cow in the church!

About 1km back from the beach, very quiet, secluded and with its own swimming pool—may be today I will give the salty sea a miss. Large, clean room, efficient internet AND a 5 inch thick super soft mattress to rest my bruised hips from the sleeping boards at Blessings.

Monday, 8 December 2014

The food bug got me at last.....

Almost at the finish line— and already my chest was puffed out to proclaim that I had survived India’s dodgy food sanitation standards, when it hit me as I was standing on Colva Beach along with 50,784 others. Legs buckled and up it came. Now some 18 hours later, still a little queasy, but at least functioning. Feel myself
End of service--all the nuns heading for the beach!!

lucky that it does not appear to be the 4 day variety that so many tourists to India experience.
            Yesterday was my day to take a tourist bus on a circular tour of the southern part of Goa. This western coastal state is effectively split into three touristic regions North, South with the central region, being the capital, Panaji, the beach resorts located at the two extremes of this very small state. My tour yesterday ---- I was the only westerner in a full bus load, encompassed a circle of the southern region and included ‘voluminous padding’ to include visits to a wax museum, a chamber of horrors, an aquarium and a children’s science museum. Anyway, a chance to see a little scenery away from my base in Panaji. Sunday and the narrow roads were clogged with families taking their new motor scooters out for a spin (four, or even five passengers loaded onto a single motorcycle).
Don't think these guys plan on swimming.....
              My tourist guide, a bright and knowledgeable young man, explained that this year, it appears as though foreign tourist arrivals are collapsing---foreign, as in Russian, are by far the major national group, with tour cancellations hitting the 70% mark. At Colva Beach, one had to wonder if it was not in fact a Black Sea resort---the advertising hoardings and store front come-ons, all in Russian script. Just the other day, President Putin was warning his fellow citizens of tough times (sanctions, oil price collapse) to come and it would seem in the exotic holiday category, it may have already arrived.
               I am staying in Colva Beach from where I am scheduled to move northwards up the coast in a couple of days,  reason being that it is near the railway station at Mangeon from where my 6am train departs for Mumbai. For some planning reason, the main rail station is an inconvenient 42 kms from the capital city, Panaji, the challenge of finding a taxi at 3.30am to be avoided. Colva Beach is like everything negative you have ever heard about Yarmouth, Morecombe and Blackpool, UK., rolled into one. Words like tacky, ugly & derelict jump to mind, but then add masses of people, all fully clothed, milling about on the fine white sand, loud rap music blasting from the beach beer shacks and I think that you have the picture. To be fair, suffering food poisoning on the sands, did not exactly help my perceptions.
Ladies outside the Hindu temple.
            Lying low today is on the agenda--- hungry, but with little appetite for yet another spicy meal—probably going purchase a kilo of very tasty local tangerine oranges and gorge! 

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Ambling around Panaji, Goa...

                 Anyone who has been even an occasional reader of my ‘India’ blog, will know that for me,
Neo-colonial style goverment building...
finding food (anything non-spicy) in this country has been my biggest challenge—sometimes missing proper meals for a couple of days. When one is hungry one gets a little ratty— & in my conversations with myself, I have come to the opinion that Indian food has NO taste!!!!! What---has he has completely lost it? Maybe too much sun! My stance is that one cannot taste the actual food in India---only the chillies, spices and pepper that have been heaped into the recipe.
Exceed your time parking for 5 minutes and the jungle takes over!

             Well to try and tie this into my  topic of the former Portugese colony (until 1958) of Goa, it had been my expectation that as Goa is supposed to be the mecca in India for the beach crowd from Europe, that there would have been versions of western style food on offer. Not the case, I am hungry & disappointed to report. Foods in abundance from all the regions of India, but not possible during a 4 hour ramble, to find even  a crumb that is unspiced in Panaji, capital city (pop: 98,500) of Goa. Have to admit feeling some guilt on this issue, as I have spoken to a fair number of non-Indian visitors who claim that they just love and thrive on the local hot & spicy cuisine ----Do the really believe this, or could it be that some folks just like to posture as cosmopolitans?
Looks like 'Ole Miss'  gambling eastern version...!
               Enough on food. Sallied forth from Blessings Hotel, after an e-mail checking session at the lobby ‘hot-spot’. Perhaps it was because of my stomach empty, devoid of its cornflakes & toast fix, but quaint Portuguese colonial, Panaji did not appear for me! Hectic, noisy and the usual Indian street chaos prevails….at least that was until 1.00pm (this being a Saturday) most shops dropped their steel shutters and the street emptied. Apparently on weekdays most businesses close down from 12-3pm for siesta---at least some worthwhile traditions have survived from the Portuguese period. Have to admit some prejudice here, as I have been a life long devotee of the short mid-afternoon slumber. (Winston Churchill took them at the height of the Battle of Britain, 1940).
              According to my ‘sources’ in the Indian tourism industry, the western tourists are supposed to be pouring into Goa, as of December 1st---during my 4 hour saunter around the city this morning, I saw perhaps half a dozen souls with maps in hand, just as lost as me! Perhaps the tourist throngs headed straight for the beaches.

              A major draw for Goa is that it permits casino style gambling. The casinos are operated in large vessels moored out in the wide River Mandovi, alongside which Panaji has grown. From my own observations, when I sauntered down to the ferry ramp last night, there appears to be no shortage of punters ready to hand over their cash.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Spontaneous day in Mangalore....

Today was my third and last day in Mangalore and one for which I had not planned any “must see” places to visit.  So with camera batteries fully charged, and a large bottle of water in my ruck-sac, I set off, trying to keep to the shady side of the streets on a cloudless and shimmering day. The plan for my walk was ‘no plan’. Just to follow the rule of going up and down any street that looked interesting and attempting to engage as many local people as possible in conversations----not difficult, as Mangalore is 100% unadulterated by tourists and folks here are really happy to chat to a foreigner, someone different—it is almost as if I had dropped in from another planet!
The guys in the cement bagging department....
                  After about an hour and a stop for my coffee, I found myself down in the city docks on the river. A peculiar type of docks, as fishermen and brick/cement shippers were all intermingled. The crates of fish being coated in generous clouds of white dust from the cement packaging operation. The colours of the place were tremendous under a powerful sun. The gangs of manual workers exuberantly demanded that I take their pictures as soon as they spied my camera—more than of several of them most happy to ham it up with arm waving and whoops of delight at being ‘recorded’.
               Drawing myself away from the friendly folks at the docks and in need of my morning drink of coconut milk, I headed up the hill, back towards the central city area, on the way noting things like stacks of colourful oranges on a vendors wagon, or a particularly interesting derelict building—I am learning that
Blocking the traffic to protest sexual harassment....
photography forces one to look at things not just see things. Hearing music and loud speaker amplified chanting voices, my foot steps rapidly getting faster, I arrive at a coordinated demonstration by several hundred sari clad women, who had just moments before, had effectively seized a major traffic intersection and blocked traffic from all directions. The police must have been pre-warned as most of the police who arrived were female officers. Apparently this protest is just one of many being conducted across India in
The police move in....
protest at violence and sexual harassment being waged against females. There was a fair amount of all female pushing & shoving as the demonstrators were loaded into a fleet of buses that had been quickly drawn up. Male passers by looked on bemused, but seemingly supportive of the female protests. I was able to chat to several male senior police officers standing on the periphery and able to congratulate them on the gentle and civilised manner in which this social protest was handled—a victory for Indian democracy! In this city with a large Muslim population, I noted that the female protesters were almost all Christian & Buddhists.
                     An interesting walk in Mangalore on a day for which I had no agenda planned. Tomorrow at 8.15am on the train for the 7 hour hitch up to Goa.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

From Mangalore to the coast....

          Arrived in Mangalore, or rather, survived the 12 hour 300 kms ride north from Kochi to Mangalore.
A lonely beach needing more than one tourist.....
Seems like it was 300kms and 300 stops—exaggerating of course. Should not grumble, just pity the crowd at the back, riding ‘cattle’ class, open windows and no A/c in the blazing heat.
            Mangalore does not really qualify to be included on the tourist list of ‘must visit’ Indian cities. Small by Indian standards with a population at 586,000, it is hilly and the nondescript roads twisty. Just the right size to go out walking and get lost and never be more than $1 rickshaw ride back to the hotel, mine being located just out side the railway station. That reminds me to record that when one asks the man on the street for directions to ‘the railway station’, one is met with blank stares and total bafflement. The louder I shout the greater the bafflement. At last, the proverbial penny has dropped—ask for ‘train station’---miraculously everyone knows the place—no problem, all smiles and sunshine. Just another of the little things that I should have known when I set out on this pan India trip, 2 ½ months ago.
Fellow passengers on bus #44B to Ullala.
                 With time to spare in Mangalore, not to be confused with Bangalore, aka Bengaloru, I decided this morning, to take bus 44B to Ullala, about 40 kms north of the city. Some hardy individuals that I have encountered, have done all their travel around India on local buses and their long distance (and more comfortable) cousins known as ‘Volvos’. Buses in India are kings of the road, with a breed of men known as pilots, at wheel—these men, who could be compared to matadors— seem they were born with out the ‘fear of death' gene. Left side, right side, any side, is my side of the road, is their mantra. Who, on a motor-cycle or on a farm cart, is going to pick a fight with a charging bus, no one except the pilot of another bus. First one to yield is  ‘chicken’!
               Anyway, the ride out to Ullala was completed without disaster and the beach there was as good as described in Lonely Planet. Absolutely deserted. Pounding surf coming in from the Arabian Sea. Hard to understand how in a country of 1 billion plus, that I was the only human to be on a couple of miles of golden
Preparing my coconut drink.....
sand, fringed with coconut palms. At the far end, just before a rocky out-crop, I took refuge from the blazing sun in the Summer Sands Beach Resort for my customary cold lime, (no ice) soda. As so often in India and at most of the hotels where I have stayed, it was totally devoid of tourists—so I enjoyed my cold drink in total privacy. Not a good sign, as the snow and cold takes over western countries, the tourists should be flocking in. Where are they?

Monday, 1 December 2014

Goodbye Kochi.......

Interesting street art in communist Kerala.....
 The calendar has clicked over into December & the final month of my journey around India. I sense a slowing down in the pace of the travel as I commence the final northward leg back to the starting point, in Mumbai.
              For the last four days, I have been in the old town of Kochi. The tourists are beginning to flow in as the temperatures in northern climes begin to drop and I can sense the relief amongst the hotel-keepers, rickshaw drivers and restaurateurs that cash will soon begin to flow once more. I can now better understand why the loans against gold jewellery industry is such a thriving sector, if one is to believe all the advertising hoardings. The problem in Kerala, (Kerala translates into ‘Land of Coconuts’ in the Malayam language) is that it is in a race with one horse, virtually all economic activity being dependent on tourism. There is very 
I am definitely going to ignore stupid tourists with cameras!
little real industry, although the military makes a strong effort to create employment with numerous barbed wire and walled off installations along the coast. Not an economist, but it does seem to me that India urgently needs an industrial strategy to expand basic export oriented manufacturing (textiles, electronic assembly would be examples) to sop up the massive over-supply of labour and generate consumer purchasing power.
             From Kochi, I took a second boat tour of the ‘backwaters’, this time in a man powered, pole propelled boat with 16 others from places as varied Australia to Croatia. One lady that I chatted to explained that she had been abandoned on the streets of Delhi as a one year old baby, rescued and adopted by a family in Belgium. This was her first visit back to India and it was interesting to listen to her, as she tried to explain the mixed emotions she was feeling. As our boat was small, we were able to penetrate some very narrow waterways, so low in places that we had to flatten ourselves to pass under the vines and creepers that in places formed tunnels. I was struck by the fact that compared to other jungles I have visited, that tended to be noisy & raucous places with the sounds of monkeys calling, insects buzzing and birds screeching, that this Kerala jungle was silent, totally silent, except for the splash & gurgle of the pole at work. It was a beautiful experience to ‘hear’ 100% silence around one, something that us city dwellers experience so infrequently. The silence does beg the question of what happened to, or indeed was there ever any wild life in the forests of the backwaters?
              Apparently of the western tourists that come to India, many come to learn yoga and the secrets of therapeutic massage. All those with whom I have spoken on the subject, express how worthwhile and spiritually uplifting has been there journey into these subjects---perhaps this old, boots on the ground, geezer is missing something.
              The tourist sector of Kochi is approx. 14 kms from the main city and port area known as Ernakulam. In anticipation of very crowded early Monday morning  commuter roads over a route that includes two traffic clogged bridges, I have relocated  for just a single night to Ernakulam city, to be near the central railway station, from where my train departs at 8.00am tomorrow for the 10 hour trip to Mangalore. 

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Absorbing the spicy streets of Kochi....

'Chinese' fishing nets...
These legs were made for walking and that’s just what they did today around the narrow winding streets of Kochi (aka Cochin) pop. 1.36 million on the historic Malabar spice coast of southern India. Kochi was fortified by the Portuguese in 1530 in return for supporting the local maharajah against a rival kingdom. Subsequently the Dutch arrived and burned down much that had been built by the Portuguese. The last European settlement was under the British East India Company. Today, Kochi is  touristy, gift shops by the hundred and  seems to be resting excessively for its appeal on yesterdays colonial nostalgia. The historic old buildings are literally falling down, with no apparent collective will to renovate and improve the infrastructure, either from government or private investor groups. The western tourists groups that I saw were heavily weighted towards the senior set with the occasional young marrieds staggering about in the heat and humidity. Of interest, is the area known officially and sign posted as Jew Town. This area was settled from the 1500’s by Jewish travellers, arriving on vessels of the various colonial powers. Although now substantially diminished, Jew Town does have a few remaining Jewish families in residence. The synagogue, built in 1830 is being renovated and hopes to become again an active place of worship.
           Kochi is built on a peninsula that juts out into a large bay—hence the reason for having fortified the city. Today there is a constant procession of large ships, including Indian navy war ships that pass the tourist park at the northern tip, making for berth in the nearby port city of Ernakulam. At the north end tourist park, is a series of giant catapult fishing nets, operated so that the net is rapidly raised, hopefully loaded with sea-food treasures—personally I only sat very small fry being caught. Originally introduced by fishermen from China many years ago, this enterprise is still referred to as the Chinese fishing area. Your humble scribe is not very often bamboozled by con artists, but the fishermen almost succeeded! Come on, they said, help us haul in the net, let us take your photo, they said! Pictures duly taken and smiles all round, and by the way, that’s a 1000 rupees! ($20) you owe us. A pleasant memory dashed to the ground as I handed over my 100 rupees and beat a retreat. Lesson learnt. It seems to happen all the time in India---whenever anyone is friendly and helpfully smiling at you, there will eventually be a request for money compensation. It happens all over the world, but it seems so much more blatant in India. The other day, I was in a jewellery shop buying trinkets for my wife and daughters and got chatting to four young ladies who said they were university students. Lovely conversation with lots of laughter, when two of them suggested that I should pay for their purchases. No suggestion of misconduct here, but an example of an unhealthy tendency to beg/scam the “wealthy” foreigner. Another pleasant memory dashed. Talking with other tourists, my experiences are far from unique. Not good for the “India” tourist brand.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Up a lazy river.....

    Visited the famed Kerala ‘backwaters’ yesterday. The ‘boatman’ duly appeared at my guest house
Skimming the surface like a mosquito......
doorstep at 8.00am sharp, to escort me to the boat for my trip through the “backwaters”. I suspect that the real reason to pick me up personally was to avoid the possibility that I could be waylaid & grabbed away by the competition en route to his boat jetty location. Felt rather sorry for him, as I was the only passenger for the trip on a boat built with seven passenger seats. But with the knowledge that he could not be losing money (for me) and that with full loads during the fast approaching tourist season, he would be earning a handsome living. Of course, boat rides are likely only a 3-4 month occupation.
              Apparently, the 'backwater’ business is made up in two parts. One for resident Indian tourists, who rent mostly the large, over-nighting house-boats designed for wedding parties, corporate & youth groups etc., where meals are provided, drinking and loud music permitted. The other group, tend to be overseas foreigners who, like me, opt for the sedate 4 hour circuit through the nearby river system. The health the backwaters are currently in some threat from the more than 1000 large house boats that tour the area in terms of the diesel oil pollution leaking into the water plus from passengers who throw their plastic bags over board. My boatman had to stop a couple of times to unwrap plastic bags from the screw,         
Houseboat on the port quarter...
  The highly scenic freshwater rivers, bordered by coconut palms are an engineering marvel, as they are several feet higher than the surrounding rice paddies, especially so during and just after, the monsoon run-off season. The rather dense housing and narrow pedestrian track for fishermen and rice paddy farmers, is strung out along the man made ridges that separates the river and the paddies. I observed that a number of local residents of the small houses had erected plastic fences for some protection from the prying telephoto lenses of passing tourist boats. Local residents use the river for laundry, cooking, drinking water and bathing purposes and are clearly at risk if the river network gets polluted.
               Interesting to see the large and immaculate hospital boat doing its rounds of bank side villages. As I have previously noted, life expectancy in Kerala is fully 8 years greater than India as a whole.      
             I understand that the network of rivers comprises several hundred kilometres of water-way—of
Note that the river is higher than the rice paddies....
which I probably saw about twelve (4 hours x 3km). I was somewhat disappointed that my ‘cruise’ could not have been routed through narrower rivers of the system, despite my requests to leave the main routes. Anyway, opportunities may occur for another trip at towns further north.
          On a photographic note, I had much fun extending my point and shoot Lumix out from the boat and as low to the water as possible at the end of an extension pole. I am becoming a real fan of low-level picture taking. Great to capture a mosquitoe’s eyeview of the water. Perhaps I shall make low-riding my personal photo trade mark. 
                Throughout the backwater trip, Roy Orbison’s “Blue By You” kept going around in my head. For more than 30 years, I always thought the name of the song was “Blue Bayou”—bayou being the narrow inlets in the Mississippi Delta region. Yes, there are great similarities in these two worlds apart wonders---temperature, mosquitoes and humidity. Amazing how the sub-conscious mind makes links.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Backwater life in Alleppey....

Lined up and ready for the tourists...
                A relaxing and complete breakfast served in the comfortable confines of the Venice Home Stay A large family home, tucked away along a couple of alleys off the main street---totally impossible for the tourist to ‘chance upon’, but through the miracles of the internet, here I am. The name Venice seems to appear quite often in Alleppey aka, Allapuzha, as the town, pop. 282,700, is a central entry point to the Kerala tourism area known as the ‘backwaters’. The region reminds me rather more of Mississipi and its bayous than Venice, Italy and comprises a network of small rivers extending inland, running north south and parallel to the coastline. The supply of tourist boat services around and through the ‘back waters’ has grown into a major regional business, with river boats of all sizes offered at various levels of luxury. This morning, during my reconnoitring, I observed a larger boat garlanded in tropical flowers, being prepared, I believe, for inclusion as part of a wedding ceremony. Through the large windows one could see
Trade mark theft?
the bridal bed ornately decorated for the lucky couple.
(bed and breakfast).
              Interesting to note that the largest (by far) hotel in Alleppey town, with its own private mooring area for its houseboats, is the Ramada. Previously in my blog, I have reported the almost total absence of American hotel brands in India, at least along my 8000km routing.  It is clear to me that the Americans seem to be able to raise the art of inn keeping to a much higher level of sophistication than local, non chain Indian hotel operations that I have seen.. To date,  (mid/late November) the tourist masses  have not yet arrived and most boats are unused and vacant. Walk down through the boat jetty area and one is assailed on all sides, by pesky & aggressive sales touts calling their wares. Duly seduced, I have booked a four hour circular excursion tomorrow at 8.00am. The morning option chosen, as it does seem that the temperature and humidity rise to a crescendo before 1.00pm, culminating in heavy down-pour for a couple of hours, mid afternoon.
The Venice Guest House, Alleppey.
              Alleppey, is a small town by Indian standards, being basically two major roads that converge in the town centre. Today is Sunday and with this town having a large Christian population, many of the stores are closed. Along the main street, near my accommodation, there is a multi-level gold shop that would not look out of place in Las Vegas or Shanghai, and of course, dozens of smaller jewellery and gold shops. I cannot believe that the backpackers that I have seen, spend all their money on gold trinkets. Understand that the winter wedding season in India has a direct relationship on gold bullion prices world-wide.              .              
Interesting fact: (World Bank 2013).
Population density India per sq. km 421, China 145, Netherlands 498, Canada 4.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Life is a beach resort.....

                Still revelling at the tranquillity and silence of the Akhil Resort, Varkala, ($30/night) secreted away
No comment required!
at the top of an ocean front cliff amongst the swaying & graceful coconut palms---albeit in pouring rain and temperatures that have plummeted this morning to a mere 23C. Did I say coconuts? I have been threading my way, eyes  ever cast skywards and with increasing trepidation along the resorts winding footpaths. Each morning it is hard not to notice the smashed coconuts lying on the ground. Yesterday---sweet relief, the coconut harvesting crew was on the job. Fun to watch the ‘wallahs’ shinny up these massive trees and hack loose the ripe nuts. When it is my time to leave this world, rather it not be by having a coconut brain me from 40 foot! Interesting aside here---one sees massive and rampant disregard in India for safety: personal and industrial. People ducking under trains to cross tracks, hydro substations & transformers lacking any protective restraining barriers, chaotic and dangerous roads and the list is endless. Clearly, a major opportunity for the legal profession to step up and litigate. I am told however, that the average time to initial hearing in India is three years, and to trial 10 years. Often one of the parties has died before the formal court process can commence!!
I sense at this resort, currently about 20% occupancy, and along ‘gift shop alley’ that runs atop the nearby north cliff, that their hearts are in their mouths, ready for the crack of the starter’s pistol about 15 December, signal to let loose the tourist hordes and to start making some serious moollah. As previously mentioned, Russian tourists are a major group here and I am not at all sure that they will be arriving in the numbers of recent years--- the Russian rouble is down 50% due to western sanctions (Ukraine). Combine that, with the fact that the EU is still in the economic doldrums and it may be a very quiet tourist season for this stretch of Indian beach resort paradise. Although that I have noted several ‘German style’ restaurants and bakeries, usually a harbinger of crowds from Hamburg and Stuttgart, I have only heard German spoken a couple of times. Personally, I much prefer to be here during ‘shoulder’ season when prices are moderate and service is better.
              Occurs to me when I see the folks around the pool, that some, might not even realise that they are in India! There are no local or expat Indians staying here—only Europeans, and most of the staff are seasonal workers that come in from Nepal. Easy to wake up in the morning and feel that one might just as well be half a hemisphere away in the Dominican Republic or Majorca.. This touristic enclave and likely the whole stretch of coast north from here, is so 100% removed, economically & culturally from the ‘real’ India that I have come to love & hate these past 8 weeks travelling the rails. Even the food is great at this resort! These hedonists earn themselves nice suntans & tacky souvenirs, but what  real life experiences did they gain for their self- induced jet lags?

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Talking of Kerala....

    My sharp turn to the right or northwards, once I reached the southern tip of India, brings me to the home
Line up for the temple--religious high festival.
stretch of my journey--- to my  Mumbai starting point. Before I reach there, I believe that I am going to see a ‘different’ India, in terms of the country from a touristic, & hopefully dispassionate point of view. Already the communist state of Kerala is revealing itself to be different, more prosperous, cleaner and for an old guy, that has been gastronomically challenged these past 8 weeks, offering a cornucopia of food delights. Just today, upon arrival in Varkala (pop. 49,000), I have enjoyed three good meals---pure bliss. The reason of course, is that India’s Arabian Sea coast line is a tourist region---mostly European and a lot of Russians. My seat companion on the 2 hour bus ride from Trivandrum, explained that the activities of the Russian mafia are creating problems for the Kerala and Goa state governments with the reasons cited as being familiar to Western governments that also experience the same issues with this group of gypsy businessmen. Is there an irony here: Russians coming to settle in an area where there is a communist administration in power?
Before I go further, I should report that yesterday in Trivandrum I broke a general rule of mine that of not purchasing city tours. In fact, this half-day tour was my first since arriving in India. I saw areas of the fair city of Trivandrum that I would have otherwise missed through ignorance or logistical problems. My very pleasant young seat companion, Keith, an Indo-Australian, was a mine of interesting information--- and to be congratulated on just completing his five year medical degree. The highlight for was to be on the ocean beach
Boiling orange waves.....
of bright red sand, so red indeed, as to make the foam from the crashing rollers, a yellow /orange colour---combine all this with pink skies, as the sun dipped and it created great photographic opportunities.
              Kerala, after just three days, is also registering itself noteworthy for me as being the first Indian state that I have visited, to be clear of wandering bovines and packs of dogs—it just makes sense that with so much chaotic traffic filling narrow roads, that the two only mix with difficulty---besides it is pleasant to walk with less fear of placing ones sandled feet into a pile of poo!
          Much of the Kerala inter-city bus system is government owned and operated—natural in a communist administration, I suppose. I mention this, as my bus ride today originated at Trivandrum central bus station. Viewed from the front aspect, it is a massive
white, marble embellished monument to public transportation progress. Possibly 10-15 storeys high and likely to have been designed to contain a composite of offices, shops and restaurants etc. Upon entering  to access my departure platform, I was shocked to see the interior empty, gutted and derelict. My enquiries, to other passengers, pointed to a mixture of government incompetence and contactor corruption. Sad, but could one say, inevitable where central planning is involved?

Monday, 17 November 2014

Tasting Trivandrum....

             Dutifully doing my tourist thing here in Trivandrum. Although the Arabian Gulf is nearby, the city does not seem to have any connection to it. Unique in the world, it has democratically elected a communist government into power continuously for the past 45 years. The hammer and sickle flies proudly on all public buildings and I have to say been very successful in cleaning up the city—not perfect, but no piles of refuse on the road sides here, no cows wandering about, or packs of dogs on the roam.                                      
                With a respectable and widely available health care system, life expectancy in Kerala is 75 compared 63 in the rest of India. As mentioned, they have had some success in building tourism along the coast, however in this major city of Trivandrum, the only tourists I have encountered on the streets were three rather scruffy British back-packers looking for cheap digs. Nothing really notable in the traditional tourist sense in Trivandrum---a main drag opposite the railway station and a maze of small commercial streets extending to the north. As a result of the sparseness of tourists, one almost never sees in India, the major US & international hotel brands—the independent local operators are left for the indigenous trade, with low service standards the norm-----high staffing levels of questionable competence, operational and cleanliness issues. My own hotel here, the Aroma Classic Days is an excellent example of  an outfit that is fat & complacent—clients are just too much trouble—who needs them!
               Kerala has high educational attainment levels, with private colleges offering MBAs and PhDs a major industry however with the absence of an industrial base, the ability to offer its young people a realistic future is missing. Hotel work or emigration are the only options for the ambitious. Sadly it is the suicide capital of India for the under 30 group.
Cricket. The passion of India. Round the clock games broadcast on TV. Personally, I always found cricket it in my UK youth to be too slow and totally lacking the glamour and speed of football. How things have changed!. The Indian TV cricket package is offered up in fast paced, full colour & with instant replays from every angle. The bowling rate is fast and furious and balls are hit for 6 with great frequency. As I write this, I can still hear back in 1960, the voice of John Arlott calling the BBC radio test match games while he smoked his pipe!

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Chatting with folks on the streets of Madurai....

Completed my meanderings of the central city area of Madurai, fascinating, as they encompass the fourteen temple complex. Heavily domestic tourism dependent, with in Indians (Hindus) visiting on pilgrimage, but very few tourists evident from outside India.
Best shoe repair in Madurai--uses truck tyres for soles....
         Feeling that I had captured enough temple shots, or at least these temples, I concentrated my picture taking today on people in the work place, engaged in the business of making enough money to buy food for families. As such I tried, not always successfully, to avoid use of the built in  point & shoot telephoto that I feel is a ‘cop out’ and mostly misses the unique character of the subject. I tried to engage in simple, friendly conversations that would lower inhibitions (white folks are a REAL rarity to 99% of people on the streets of India. Who knows, but I might have been the first white person they had ever spoken to. Strange you say, but ask yourself, how many folks from Tamil Nadu have you ever spent time with discussing your work. But isn’t tourism all about people meeting people, so that barriers come down and prejudices disappear?.
The Honda water pump mechanic....
Glad that I have taken up the challenge of people photography as suggested in my educational reading, finding that I got a lot more out of my solo wanderings through the alley ways and lanes of Madurai and spent pleasant time sharing a laugh with strangers.
               Tomorrow, I head off to the ‘deep south’—that is to the southern tip of India at  Trivandrum---after Trivandrum, the next land is Antarctica!! Train leaves at 5.00am sharp and should arrive 7 hours later. Plagued with a pesky head cold, hopefully I can catch a spot of ‘shut eye’ in my AC2 sleeper berth en route.

              Most cities and countries seem to have there own natural noise levels. Some have commented that Jamaica is an example of a noisy country with loud electronic music, shouting and laughter widely accepted by people as friendly & sociable behaviour.
First you dye me--then you eat me!!
             India from my own observations is a country of extreme noise pollution. Cars are judged by the size of their klaxons---large trucks and busses, having the loudest and most intimidating. Drivers drive with their thumbs on the horn button---- in total, the streets are a cacophony of sound. Initially, I found this all to be very wearying, but have to say that after 8 weeks ‘on the road’ that it disturbs me less--- maybe I am now slightly hearing impaired! Not only that, Indians are much more likely to speak with loud voices early or late in hotel corridors and in restaurants. No offence is intended or taken—that’s just the way it is and if you come to India, just get used to it!

Friday, 14 November 2014

Visiting the Shrines of Madurai....

               The objective today was to cover of the central part of the 2500 year old city of Madurai, population 1.8 million, the home of the largest of several Hindu temples in the city area. Only knowing the general direction and working off the cardinal points of my trusty boy-scout magnetic compass I located the Meenakshi Amman Temple complex, through a series of narrow streets, realising that I must be approaching, as the number of gift shops increased.  Meenakshi Amman temple complex consists of 14 separate towers constructed between 1200 and 1600AD ranging from 45 to 50 metres high, truly magnificent structures, whatever ones beliefs. The Meenakshi is adorned with more than 25000 (trust me) brightly painted statues of gods, animals and demons on 14 different levels. If interested, for a lot more information on this shrine and the symbolisms attached to it, try Wikipedia.
Courtesy Wikipedia.               An areial view of the temple complex.
                 I had been pre-warned about the necessity of long trousers for modesty and as usual the complex has to be viewed (uncomfortably) barefoot per Hindu religious customs. Once inside, some temple shrine halls were off limits to non-Hindus. Always one to get hot and bothered at perceived unfairness, my camera was impounded at the entry. OK, no problemo. Inside however, Indian visitors had carte blanche and no complaints from all the security guards on patrol, on their flagrant cell phones use for photographs. Pity, as
And the winner of the best fruit stand display is.........
the temple was highly photogenic and had some very interesting natural lighting possibilities. I saw many newborn babies ranged on the floors in the shrines for blessing by the gods. Obviously a very intense experience for some visitors as several female pilgrims indulged in screaming and violently gyrating. Apparently 15000 visitors visit the complex each day up to 25000 on Fridays. Unfortunately, the many signs of explanation and interpretation on the Temple property walls were in Tamil & Hindi only—one more example of India not yet being ready for a large international tourist influx.
                 Emerged from the Temples with the urge to feed the inner man, but unable to stomach a meal of hot spices, settled for an ice-cream (butterscotch?) and a bottle of Fanta. Back to the Moskva Hotel, to nurse the onset of another head cold.

          Prior to visiting India it was my  conception that this would be a country of abundant flowers, big tropical flowers as in the Caribbean. Not so: very few blossoms around to appreciate, even in park settings, although the Indians do seem to enjoy flowers for female hair, especially of young women and garlanded for religious purposes. In the country- side as observed from my railway carriage seat and in smaller towns like Pondicherry, I was struck by the almost total lack of flowers.       
          My second observation could be tied into to the lack of flowers and that is the few insects evident, including bees, wasps, dragon flies, butterflies and yes, thank goodness, to this point on my travels any way, mosquitoes. Again, it was my pre-travel judgement that there would be clouds of flies, especially with the open sewer system operated here, animal excrement and the wilful scattering of refuse in the streets.
     Of course, the two go along inter-dependently, especially flowers that rely on insect cross-pollination.
             Not sure of the reasons for the above, but could be a result of massive pollution, pesticides and chemicals that likely prevail.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Going down the highway...to Madurai.

           Down to Madurai today, train leaving Tiruchy at 5.00am but who wants to set a 4.15am alarm?
Blind man in dangerous bus yard seeking alms.
Decide to ride the Government bus later in the morning for the 3 hour, $1.75 fare, 150 km stage. With departures from the central bus station, just 200m from my hotel, every15 minutes, I was not surprised to find my bus, less than fully packed.
         The suspension, or lack thereof, under the bus rear wheels, either means that I will need the chiropractor, or have been cured forever of any back problems. India employs a lot of ‘sleeping policemen’--- bumps in the road aimed to moderate speeding and each time we hit one, going in and out of towns en route, half the passenger complement almost hit the ceiling of the bus!
              We made excellent time along the 2 lane dual carriage, neither passengers or driver seeming overly concerned when the occasional car came to us on the wrong side of the separated carriage way. On balance, I think that the train, especially if it is 2AC class, is a much more relaxing way to cover large distances. To complete a 20 hour bus stage must be gruelling, although the private Volvo buses, with reclining seats and toilets would be more comfortable.
          The bus ride during the morning was made in light rain and (pleasantly) much cooler weather than when the sun shines. I am told that when I ‘turn the corner’ of India, and commence my route northwards up the west coast, that the weather will again improve.
Beautiful saris in the market....
Locate the anticipated Moskva Hotel and despite its rather grim name, one of the best in which I have stayed---a cool fruit juice and fresh flowers delivered to my room no less. The manager, with whom I chatted upon arrival, explained that the owner, an Indian, had studied in Moscow during the 70’s and obviously harboured sentimental memories—perhaps of Natasha at Midnight!

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

High point of Tiruchy....

Paid my respects to Tiruchy, (pop: 866,000) aka Trichy, aka Tiruchirapalli! Not unusual for Indian cities & towns to have several names for the same place. Ditto street names which could be marked on maps with their post independence Hindi name, but known popularly by locals/taxi drivers by the former colonial name. All adds to the excitement and confusion of the travel experience, n’est ce pas.
              Located just about in the centre of the state of Tamil Nadu, Trichy is not a large city comparatively, but is well able to compete in the noise and bedlam league- table with some of the most ear splitting klaxons yet encountered. My plan today has been to visit Rock Fort Temple, perched high on top of a huge rock, 3-4 kms away at the north end of the city. Last night some heavy rain and everywhere is a sea of mud. With open sewers, not too pleasant to imagine what is mixed into the cocktail of brown sludge.
           The ride out to Rock Fort Temple was well worth the effort. The entrance is guarded by a patient and friendly jumbo-sized real live elephant. The pachyderm apparently has special significance in Hindu mythology and is featured as part woman in the motifs adorning temples. Should know, but don’t, the significance of the fair sex as elephants. Like all good tourist sights, Rock Fort Temple did not disappoint in requiring special effort to attain it’s rewards. In this case, it was 486 stone steps that had to be climbed bare foot---this is a Hindu holy sight and to wear shoes in a temple is disrespectful---shoes are made of leather, leather comes from cattle and cows are viewed as the mother source of humanity! Anyway, that’s what the man told me. On my climb, not exactly comfortable for one with particularly sensitive feet, I passed several dark (and rather forbidding) Hindus only, candle lit prayer shrines carved into the rock. The summit of the climb provided great views of the city and one could see the grandfather of Hindu temples, to which people from all over India come on pilgrimage, in the distance. Personally, my ration is one temple a day only.
A group of pretty Tamil ladies almost at the summit...

               Carefully descended the 486 steps, back down into the narrow streets that compose the main bazaar district of Trichy. Light rain falling, I retired to a small restaurant for a glass of hot almond flavoured milk—delicious. Firmly support the concept of trying all the fruit & drink varieties on offer, but just cannot adapt to the heavy doses of spice on local food. 
               As locals have explained, Tamil Nadu (TN), a large and prosperous state in the Indian Union, has significant negative feelings about its role in the Indian Union. Firstly, the language spoken by the vast majority in TN is Tamil, as unlike the national language Hindi, as Russian is to English. There is significant resistance in TN to learning Hindi, which is seen by many as the language of the imperial ‘oppressors’ from Northern India. Secondly TN’s resistance is also centred on the issue of caste, central to the Hindu religion. The Brahmin are the top caste, ideally very light skinned and European looking---a la the Bollywood movie stars. Most people in Tamil Nadu have much darker complexions, to the point of being black skinned. There also appears to the outsider somewhat different facial features in TN compared to northern regions. In the north, there is wide spread feeling that Tamils are darker skinned and therefore lower in the caste system---a fact resented in TN.Interestingly, some contend that Tamils may be associated racially with the austro group of which Aboriginals in Australia belong.
          Doesn’t this all seem similar to racism issues in the Western world.
Rock Fort Temple

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Easy life on the rails.....

             Reversed my 50km trip via bus back from Pondicherry to Villupurum railway junction. Rather quaintly named and lends on to think this might be miles off in the boonies, with just a single train passing through per day. Not true, and in keeping with all things ‘Indian Railways’ is on a massive scale. On this day, the Gurgaon Express chose to be an hour and 10 minutes late. Indian trains do not exactly screech into stations, but very slowly enter. Just as well today, as a herd of goats decided to amble down the track.
             It is always difficult to decipher muffled railway station tannoys--this one especially so, with the on-going screech in female Tamil---was I on the wrong platform, is the train cancelled, does it run on Tuesdays, were my tickets in error?? Despite being everywhere in street signage, actual knowledge of English is particularly thin in the south---a simple question, like, ‘when is the train coming’ unleashes a torrent of explanation from very friendly passengers, but unfortunately I can scarcely understand a word spoken and just have to nod politely.
               With several hours to idle, three to be exact, on the way to Tiruchy, drowsiness overtook me. Being one who can never really sleep on planes, I have however taken to sleeping on Indian trains like a duck to water. May be it is the fact that 2AC category passengers receive the convenience of a full length bed, clean white sheets and a pillow, has something to do with it!
               Arrived in Tiruchy (aka Trichy—many Indian place names have two, even three names—confusing to say the least for the tourist) at 3.00pm, and registered my self into my swanky (most up-market property in which I have stayed so far, in India) hotel---pre-booked thru Booking .com at what they call “Genius” rates. Perhaps they had a convention cancel on them. Attached to the Femina hotel is a food court, a small department store and only the second largish supermarket I have seen in the country---all 16 cities visited so far. How blessed can one be, not to have wander the dark & crowded streets seeking something to eat that does not have a spice level to lift ones head off! The name of my hotel in my next city (Madurai) rejoices in the name 'Moscow' Hotel---wonder what awaits me there!
         The meaning of Indian gestures can sometimes be difficult for a Westerner to decipher. In the western world, a shake of the head north & south usually means “yes, OK, I am in agreement & permit”. The Indian equivalent as observed, is best described as a head wobble. The top of the skull moves to the left, the jaw moves to the right, alternating in rapid succession. This does require a certain looseness & flexibility of the spinal discs in the neck that I do not possess. The head ‘wobble’ gesture is frequently used by Indians for agreeing to that which is proposed.
            The second body gesture I have encountered that varies from European norms, is the clear and definite finger point to indicate a specific direction. The westerner typically makes a strong gesture, usually with the forefinger used like an arrow. The Indian will indicate a recommended direction with a broad sweep of the arm, across a 150 degree arc. This can be confusing for a lost soul --- I frequently find myself hammering away to obtain the navigational clarity that I seek.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

A walk around and suggestions for Pondicherry.....

            After enjoying a long Skype session with the ‘folks back home’, I headed out into the heat and humidity that is Pondicherry this mid-November Sunday morning. Noticed yesterday that November is wettest month of the year in these southern parts, with 11 inches of rain (equals a 3 ½ metre snow fall!!) as the ‘northwest monsoon passes through. Having said that, the day was cloudless the with a high level haze. Just in case, I took the opportunity to invest in a collapsible umbrella.  Since arriving nearly two months ago, I have only seen an hours precipitation total, in a couple of locations—both times it was extremely heavy rain with the positive of providing a much needed slooshing (my spelling!) to sidewalks and outside surfaces where it was much needed.
Attractive verandah at French Chambre de Commerce....
             The central tourist area of cobbled streets and yellow stucco French colonial style buildings is only a small portion of metro Pondicherry. The original old town has burst at the seams and spread extensively, following the seemingly universal style of Indian cities, extremely raucous and chaotic. The city fathers seem to be without a plan to capitalise on the history of the town & have mostly failed to preserve the old town core and all that was there under the French, is rapidly sadly fast decaying in the tropical humidity. I happened to glance down a narrow alley off one of the main streets and could just about see, behind the tacky storefront facades, some interesting 18th century French ornate stone work on buildings hidden from view. What a pity to lose this valuable heritage—but also lost, is the chance to wrap the Pondicherry brand destination in lucrative tourist appeal. My strong suggestion to the city fathers is to make it a priority to bury the open sewer ditches that line the streets in the tourist district and which create rather all pervading ‘rich’ odours in the high temperatures.
Those waves were bigger than they look here....
             Thanks to the former Gallic colonial power, the streets of the old town are laid out in grid fashion, making it is easy even for those with less navigational aptitude. With the knowledge that the ocean is to the east, I was able to carve out an interesting circular amble northward along the sea front and back down through the town. The sea front, and I believe the entire local coastline, is protected by massive man placed rocks that have been positioned to limit shore damage. Today the sea was calm, with little wind, even so, the rollers crashing in on the rocks would have meant instant death to anyone stupid enough to swim.