Saigon sleeps, for now

Saigon is asleep. Or rather, it is resting. Unlike most global cities in lockdown, only bars, cafes, restaurants and the big markets and malls have been closed since 1 April. We still move around freely, with people scooting to and from God-knows-where on ancient motorbikes potentially far more dangerous than a dose of Covid-19. For some, at least.

Still, it’s enough to wrench the heart and soul out of the city. A supremely social place, to see Saigon’s streetside cafes – normally open and full until midnight – boarded up and empty is sad. More so the beer hơi joints and outdoor Ốc Ghẹ (snails) eateries that are usually teeming with drunkards, screaming women and feral children (I say this with love).

I have become very familiar with three streets that take me from my house to the main strip of the city: Nguyễn Huệ (main picture, and below). Also known as walking street, it is the only pedestrianised area of the city; a place walkers can amble without fear of being taken out by a motorcyclist mounting the pavement to shave a second off her journey time.

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As such, Nguyễn Huệ is usually teeming with people and street sellers. Not so now, though. On reaching walking street, rather than an eager vendor shoving some sort of flashing object in your face, you are instead faced with a blissfully empty 500m stretch of pavement reaching seamlessly from the city’s beloved statue of Uncle Ho all the way down to the river. It is a JOY to behold.

My daily stroll begins around 5pm, when the heat of the day has receded enough to make walking a pleasurable, rather then prickly, experience. Heading onto Mac Dinh Chi, I usually enjoy poking my head into a an art studio inside a building with an exterior styled like a Disney Princess castle, in which shirtless men labour over renaissance reproductions. This, along with the crystal-ware shop and florist selling glittered faux roses wrapped in ‘Chanel’ ribbons, is a Saigon essential service.

The security guard in front of one of the banks is my next stop, his arrangement of potted multicoloured straws coming along beautifully. This man never fails to nod at me, his smile evident in the creases that collect in the corners of his eyes as his mouth – like mine – is covered in a fabric mask. This has been a regular balm in a time when foreigners have become pariahs, our skin not letting on whether we live here, or are fresh off the boat.

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Around six men, a mixture of guards and staff, are normally playing a game of đá cầu outside of one of the larger offices (this is hacky sack with a shuttlecock for the Yanks and Badminton with just feet for the Brits). A national obsession, this is played every evening in public spaces throughout Vietnam. One day I may get the courage to give it a go, but having seen numerous other người ngoài make twats of themselves trying it, it’s not likely.

A stroll past the US and British consulates – the British being the most conspicuous of the two (everything in Britain is GREAT, says the 35 posters adorning the exterior), I swing a-right past the children’s hospital. Usually teeming with people, it has been almost empty since the shutdown began, which makes me wonder whether less children are sick; they were faking it all along; or if the government has restricted services. I hope one of the former, rather than the latter.

This takes me to the cathedral – Saigon’s mini Notre Dame – which has been closed for renovations since at least early 2017 when I arrived. I suspect its Parisian mother will be rebuilt twice before it opens again. This is not unlike the Saigon Metro, which has equally been at the same level of construction for three years. Not that anyone will get on the damn thing if it does ever open. Saigonese will be wrenched from their motorbikes when their hands are cold and dead.

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Despite the cathedral’s closure, though, worshippers gather outside on the lawn, momentarily dismounting from their motorbikes to stare at the statue of Mary with clasped hands. A friend that works in the cafe opposite says more people than usual attend these days. This has encouraged a few opportunistic coconut jelly vendors who call with particular ferocity at increasingly rare white-folk like me.

Perhaps the most ghostly part of the walk takes me past Vincom Centre and Đồng Khởi, just before hitting Nguyễn Huệ. This is the consumer heart of the city, with destinations from Zara to Louis Vuitton catering to middle-class and luxury shoppers in Vietnam’s burgeoning commercial capital. Today, though, the rats hold dominion over the mega-mall’s grassy lawn, while only the odd security guard drained of the will to live loiters outside the shuttered five star hotels and diamond boutiques.

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This is all the better for me. Normally, this is not a walk any sane person would attempt, with pedestrians (that in itself a bizzare concept here) likely to end up roadkill faster than the rats. Now, though, as I sidle lazily toward walking street I find myself noticing buildings and signs I hadn’t before, particularly faded French colonial lettering etched in stone that has not yet been fully obscured by neon; or peering down verdant alleyways normally obscured by food-carts and smog.

Saigon is, in-fact, a beautiful ghost town, and in some ways I will be sad to see it come to life again. In many others, though, I wont. I look forward to sipping a coffee in my favourite cafe; to scooting across town for an event at Saigon Outcast or Soma; or buying innumerable snacks from vendors on Turtle Roundabout. And even, perhaps, to the interminable neon plastic nightmares whizzing over my head on Nguyễn Huệ.

 

How to do a plastic free food shop in Saigon

Saving money, eating less crap and getting to know my local area better: so far, going plastic free for food is working out alright.

I’ve come to a few eco-realisations over the past couple of weeks. The main one, though, is that if we want to solve the plastic pollution crisis and save even a scrap of clean ocean for future generations, we really do have to stop using plastic.

Even for the harder wearing plastics, re-cycling really isn’t the thing that you thought it was – with only 9% of the world’s plastic having ever been recycled. As for the single use plastics – the type that surrounds so much of our food – we know these can’t be recycled. Yet we use a whole lot of them every single day.

Last week, after finally penning the post that has been haunting me for months, I took a long, hard look around my apartment. In my fridge, almost everything was wrapped in plastic – from the lettuce to eggs to tofu. Similarly in my cupboards – rice, pasta, noodles – all in plastic. And the same in my bathroom – shampoos, face washes, hand soap: plastic, plastic, plastic. And not knowing how to in Ho Chi Minh, I haven’t been recycling any of it (I’m working on this – more on that later). While I’m not sure where my rubbish goes, from the look of the local stretch of the Saigon River, I can guess.

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The Saigon river

And so, no longer able to pretend I don’t know what I know, I’ve set myself the challenge to go plastic free.

I don’t expect this to be easy. It is often excruciatingly hard work not to be given plastic with purchases, from bags to cutlery to straws to all manner of bizarre mini bags and flimsy films. Not known as one to shy away from a challenge, though, I’m game.

The first thing was to switch to buying my veg at the local market. Saigon is great for this – there are all manner of vegetables for sale on almost every street corner as well as eggs, meat, fish and tofu all without packaging. And so, armed with my reusable net bags (get yours from Coconam in Saigon) a sturdy canvas shopper and a plastic tub for tofu, I headed down to the street below my apartment and picked up my weekly shop. I was, without a shadow of a doubt, the strangest thing anybody had seen all day – very few foreigners brave the chaotic local markets for lack of language skills and fear of being overcharged. I can, however, report that all you need is the ability to point, smile and laugh – I think we all got a lot out of it. And if I was overcharged, I didn’t notice.

For dry goods I headed to Auchan, a French supermarket chain that has a few branches here in HCMC. At the Pham Van Dong branch I had heard that they have dispensers of nuts, beans, noodles and rice that you can fill your own containers with. My first purchase was almonds, which i filled a former (cleaned) peanut butter jar with. This prompted much hilarity at the till, as did my net bag full of noodles this weekend. Having seen me last week they were less surprised, however I suspect I am fast making a name for myself as the local crank.

 

Already the difference in my fridge is stark: it looks like a veritable vegetable market in there, which is very pleasing to the eye. My cupboards too are slowly shedding single use plastic thanks to Auchan, while I’m buying oils, vinegars, honey and spreads in glass bottles and jars. As for bread, I’m now heading to the bakery and transporting it home in either a paper bag from them or my own reusable bag.

I suspect there are some things I’m not going to be able to get without plastic packaging. This includes oats, which i eat almost every morning. If so I’ll be learning how to make rice porridge – which is delicious. Similarly, take aways are now out. I’ll be eating my own cooking at home or someone else’s in a restaurant or at a street food stall. Work lunches will no longer be taken from a carton over emails, while at home I’ll be getting to know my local eateries a little better while perhaps even improving my appalling Vietnamese. These are not unwelcome byproducts of going plastic free. (Indeed, one of my other eco realisations is that sustainably IS community. Again, more on that later).

Another unexpected benefit of ditching plastic is the way in which it has reduced choice. I’m sure I’m not alone in often being overwhelmed in supermarkets, my head spinning at the hundreds of different varieties of everything available. Now, though, I know exactly what I can get, where I can get it and at what time. This is oddly comforting. Plus, I’m not impulse buying snack food as I used to.

So: saving time and money, eating less crap and getting to know my local area and it inhabitants better: so far, going plastic free is working out alright.

Why I can’t go to the beach anymore

Living in Saigon, as I do, can get a little relentless and often requires a quick escape. Last weekend was mine, and I was booked to go to Phu Quoc: an island to the very south of Vietnam famed for its idyllic beaches and natural beauty.

As luck would have it, I came down with a fierce case of tonsilitis and couldn’t go. However – expecting to be bitterly disappointed – I was instead surprised to feel a quiet wave of relief wash over me. Through it, a small voice whispered: “Phew! Now you don’t have to see all the trash.”

As I was recently discussing with a French colleague, it is very difficult to convey to Europeans that have not been to Asia just how bad the global plastic pollution problem is.

At home, we are shielded from the realities of our packaging pandemic by efficient waste collection services. Here in the developing world though, these services are limited – if not entirely non-existent.

“It is difficult to convey to Europeans just how bad the plastic pollution problem is”

As such, with the exception of a few spots in Thailand, every single beach in every idyllic spot I have been to in Asia over the past two years has been littered with plastic trash – from bottles to food wrappers to take-away boxes to toothbrushes to car parts to fishing detritus to everything in between.

Sometimes it is lying on the shore, washed in on the tide from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch floating in between Asia and the US that is now reportedly three times the size of France. Other times, however, it is further back, sitting in half burned piles or floating in stinking, open sewage.

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March 2018: Varkala Beach in Kerala, India from above
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Open sewage drain strewn with trash below
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The smell is indescribable
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Half burned piles of plastic

This is particularly the case in India, where a complex web of caste expectations is combining with a complete dearth of waste management infrastructure to turn its beaches – and indeed, the entire country – into one, big rubbish dump. It is heartbreaking to witness.

And once pristine tourist destinations such as Bali are catching up. I recently spent a month on the Indonesian island and every beach I went to, without, exception, was littered with plastic trash; as were the roads, the forests and the gutters of the rice paddies.

Tourist trash has nowhere to go

My despair reached something of an epoch in September during a trip to Atuh Beach on Nusa Penida, an island to the east of Bali, where I came to a realisation about the nature of this pollution.

Atuh Beach is a sheltered cove, reached only via a steep climb down a cliff-face. Crystal clear, temperate waters that lap gently against powder soft, glaringly white sand await those that venture down to it, and accordingly it is a top spot for eager Instagram snappers.

What those photos won’t reveal, however, is the horror that sits behind the food huts that now line the beach serving the tourists that flock to Atuh regularly. Here, piled metres high, sit mountains of plastic waste.

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September 2018: Atuh Beach on Nusa Penida, Indonesia from the front
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And behind the huts
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Piles of permanent trash
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More burned plastic
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Heartbreaking

As I surveyed this mess, full of my usual despair, it occurred to me that – well of course –getting rubbish bins up from this beach might be an issue. Indeed, this was why (as in India) much of it had been burned, leaving small black mounds of toxic sludge scorched into the sand.

Poverty, inaction, thoughtlessness: a toxic trinity

My friend and I brooded on this for a few days.

“But why doesn’t this happen in Portugal?” she asked.

“The beaches there are spectacular – no food stalls or trash in sight.”

I thought about the UK, which is similar.

“It doesn’t happen,” I answered, “because Europeans wouldn’t sit out for ten hours a day in the blazing sun selling bottles of coke and hacking at coconuts.”

“Why not?”

I pondered. “Because they don’t need to. They’re not dirt poor. Plus there are laws against it – you can’t just throw up a stall and trash a beach in Europe.”

“This is happening because people are poor, governments allow it and tourists don’t think”

And then it dawned on me, a small lightbulb moment. This happens because people are poor and governments allow it rather than safeguarding both their citizens and their environments through laws that ease poverty and protect nature.

Add to this the thoughtlessness of tourists not used to having to face the consequences of their consumption in the developing world (a situation set to change as China stops accepting our plastic waste) and you have a Holy Trinity of Trash.

Ultimately, tourism in developing regions is creating devastating pollution through a toxic cycle of poverty, opportunism, government inaction and the ignorance and apathy of visitors. And every single tourist that buys a bottle of water on a beach is part of the problem – including me.

Tokyo: where past and present meet in the future

From the moment I arrived at Tokyo’s Narita airport I felt as if I had stepped both back and forward in time. ATM’s with cube-buttoned pin-pads sat side by side with machines vending smart phone SIM cards pre-loaded with 4g data. Public bathrooms painted in soft pink pastel and bathed in muted down lighting concealed toilets that play mood music when you take a seat, do unmentionable things when you’re finished, and self-flush when you stand.

The city’s taxi’s – beautifully maintained old 1990’s saloons driven by smartly dressed, straight backed, white gloved cabbies – also evoked a bygone era of brick sized cell phones and shoulder pads, while its tiny black and red electrified public buses seemed to belong in a steampunk fantasy. Markets selling loose fitting, short sleeved blouses and tapered, high waisted chinos reminded me of my mother’s wardrobe, while the candy-pink haired girls of Harajuko belonged only to now, or maybe tomorrow.

A friend described Tokyo as ‘retro-modern’, which is a neat summary. The effect is certainly defamiliarising: making the every-day seem strange. While I (a child of the 1990’s) felt constantly nostalgic – every line of every sleek black leather sofa soothed me – the high tech gadgetry of Akhibara left me mystified. Yet, the robots and immersive arcades also seemed only the logical outcome of the future I imagined in 1995 – only it was as if I were seeing it then, rather than now.

Single file, no pushing

Despite all of it’s familiarity, though, Tokyo also rendered me genuinely clueless. Very little in terms of signage or menus outside of the main tourist areas are in English, making some of the more interesting places – like the top floor dive bars best for cheap beer and tasty snacks – inaccessible. Without Google maps I’m sure I would have found the metro system impenetrable.

However, this was not the stressful experience it might have been: I found I was guided by an orderly flow that seems to underpin life in the city, gently carrying its inhabitants to their destinations. Locals answer inquiring looks in rapid Japanese, but they do so with such warmth and respect that you feel you understand every word – and somehow get where you need to go.

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An easy self assuredness seemed to emanate from the Tokyo-ites (apologies if this is not the correct term) I surreptitiously watched on the many metro rides I took during my flash visit – more so than anywhere else I’ve been. Dressed in fashions of every conceivable ilk, yet generally silent and always respectful, I was envious of what seemed a deep, pervasive serenity. Another friend remarked on how hard it was to believe this was the nation famed for a brutal work culture that ends in premature death, known as karoshi.

Shinto serenity

The city’s temples gave a hint of the source of this inner calm, particularly the Meiji Shrine in Shibuya. As we entered from the surrounding forest, the vast courtyard echoed with the sound of a large skin drum, marking the beginning of an elaborate ritual performed by two men in immaculate, highly starched white kimonos. The grace and poise of these figures, moving in careful, harmonised steps around four earthenware jars inside the soothingly sparse temple was breathtaking.

I later read that Shinto is grounded – like many Asian religious practices – in the worship of ancestors, however it is specifically practiced as a method of keeping ancient and modern Japan connected. This struck me as fairly symbolic of Tokyo as I had experienced it – and even as it is divided: traditional East and modern West linked by a web of highly efficient transport.

I also wondered if this connection with the past – through the strong sense of identity it can bring – could be the foundation of the confidence I sensed in so many of the city’s inhabitants, and how this might inform Japan’s future. Might it ever – as is currently happening throughout the developed world – lead to an anachronistic nationalism? An isolationist drive based on delusions of reviving an economic and cultural dominance long past in a globalised world? Or are the Japanese, as ever, ahead of the West there too? I sensed the latter.

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Auroville, India: a hippy dream unrealised

The visionary town’s mission of love and unity has got stuck in exclusion and hostility

It has been more than a week since I swapped the dusty chaos of India for the more humid chaos of Vietnam. While much of the tardiness of this post is to do with the administration of life in Ho Chi Minh – mainly finding where I can buy moisturiser that doesn’t contain bleach – I also wanted to put some space between myself and my last destination in India: Auroville, where I spent five days.

For those unfamiliar, Auroville is an experimental, international community in the heart of Tamil Nadu, South India, that was founded in 1968 based on principles including human unity, non-possession and environmental protection: a hippy commune, for the less generous.

Portraits of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother above a model of the Matrimandir complex
Portraits of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother above a model of the Matrimandir complex

It’s esoteric name is a derivation of Sri Aurobindo, one of India’s most influential ‘swami’s’. However the name, and the place, is the brainchild of Aurobindo’s spiritual business partner, ‘The Mother.’ Real name Mirra Alfassa, The Mother was a wealthy Parisian Arab who together with Aurobindo built a spiritual philosophy and ashram in Pondicherry that hundreds, if not thousands, still visit every year.

“Auroville’s core mission statement is to create a place that ‘belongs to humanity as a whole'”

Auroville, though, is a different kettle of fish. Its birth came at a time of global counter-revolution – when peace and love were the buzzwords of a hopeful generation high both on liberating the oppressed and LSD. Accordingly, Auroville’s core mission statement is to create a place that “belongs to humanity as a whole”, where nationality is irrelevant, all property is shared and where inhabitants are expected to strive toward “the next phase of human evolution”.

Inspiring infrastructure

Arguably, this tiny community of less than 3,000 people from 55 different countries has achieved some inspiring things. The most impressive of these is the reforestation of much of the town area; nothing more than a barren red dust bowl in 1968, the town is now covered in lush green tropical forest that is a joy to amble lazily through on the rusty old bicycles for hire.

Numerous organic farms are also now flourishing, some of which are experimenting with pioneering permaculture techniques. Equally ambitious projects are addressing housing – using only natural materials to build affordable homes that are both sustainable and better for their inhabitants’ health than the airless concrete boxes many of us are forced to occupy today.

The icon of Auroville – the golden Matrimandir temple – is also an architectural wonder. Work began on this 20 foot high luminous golf ball back in 1971 and was completed 37 years later in 2008.

“Entering the Matrimandir feels like stepping onto the set of Kubrick’s 2001”

Entering the Matrimandir from beneath and ascending silently up its internal spiral white staircase (in white socks so as not to stain the hand woven white Marino wool carpet) bathed in pinkish gold light feels like stepping onto the set of Kubrick’s 2001 – it is a truly unique place dedicated to the admirable ideal of self-realisation outside of the confines – and conflicts – of organised religion.

The Matrimandir
The Matrimandir

A local town, for local people

However, while environmental and architectural achievements have been forthcoming in Auroville, its higher principles – particularly those concerning human unity – have been more challenging.

From my first afternoon in Auroville I sensed an atmosphere of exclusion; both visitors and local villagers seemed to be kept at arms length from the main life of the town.

The visitors centre is the main herding ground for the former group, where bus loads of wealthy, plump north Indians with grey-brown, cosmetically bleached skin drop by daily to watch a promotional video and then shuffle, bursting out of their denim hot pants and Polo shirts, toward the Matrimandir via a well cordoned-off path.

“Only visitors with true grit and determination will discover anything”

Only those visitors with true grit and determination will discover anything beyond these two hubs, and you certainly won’t see anything of the true life of the town unless you are staying with an Aurovillian.

This, ideally, needs to be arranged weeks if not months in advance through a website that does list the town’s homestays and guest houses, but which has no search facility – meaning you can only find out about prices and availability by individually emailing each property. Many also have a week minimum stay as a requirement.

This is the first of many hurdles for those keen on delving a little deeper into Auroville and makes it a difficult place for the laissez faire traveller – like myself – that is planning on the road based on word of mouth and only has a few days to spare. Indeed, as I discovered, Aurovillians do what they can to discourage us.

“Aurovillians only: no visitors, no guests, no sales.”

And one need not be a psychic to get the message – it is literally printed on signs in many of the communal project areas. These include the ‘Pour Tout Distribution Centre’ inside the “Solar Kitchen”: “Aurovillians only: no visitors, no guests, no sales.” The Solar Kitchen itself is a little less off-putting; outsiders are allowed but only as guests of an Aurovillian, only after 12.45pm and only with a day’s advance booking.

Most of the farms and businesses are also set well back from the main roads with very little signage, while amenities including the library and health clinic are almost actively concealed. The former took me a few attempts to find as the front looks like a residential home – no signs or information anywhere. When I did venture inside, to say I was about as welcome as a fart in a spacesuit would be an understatement.

Colonial overtones

For those in the surrounding villages I suspect the situation is far worse. During my four day stay the only local Indians I saw in the town were staff at the visitors centre and tending the grounds at the Matrimandir, as well as a few fruit sellers by the car park.

“Guest houses and shops run by local Indians are decidedly unwelcome”

In the outskirts, where I was staying, a few guest houses and shops run by local people have emerged but they are decidedly unwelcome. When I told an Aurovillian where I was staying his demeanour turned frosty indeed and I heard similar reports from other guests. One was curtly informed that Green’s Guesthouse was not “part of the community” – the implication being that trying to gain access to certain sites and activities would be difficult, or impossible, as a result.

Judging by the extortionate prices in the boutiques in the visitors’ centre, Auroville’s cottage industries – textiles, handmade cosmetics, home wares etc. – make a bomb by local standards, while the price for staying with an Aurovillian starts at around double the price of the guesthouse I was staying in. Aurovillians, it seems, do not want to share this wealth with locals.

“Aurovillians do not want to share the town’s wealth with locals”

The physical contrast between the town’s picturesque forests, farms, cafes, boutiques and the manicured gardens of the Matrimandir (incidentally, guests can only access the orb and its gardens as part of a tour booked at least a day in advance) and the surrounding area is also stark.

No more than a metre from the invisible yet impermeable border of Auroville normal India resumes: piles of stinking plastic rubbish is piled high, picked through by dogs and stray cows, most of which sit just metres away from hastily constructed breeze bloc houses equipped with outdoor plumbing and adorned with live-wires.

“I am often ashamed to see the way my fellow Aurovillians behave around local people – as if they are higher beings.” Housing Engineer

And so it seems that in Auroville, peace, love and unity are only available to Aurovillians – the majority of which are white Westerners. I had this impression confirmed by the director of one of the town’s housing projects, who – to quote him directly – said he was often “ashamed to see the way [his] fellow Aurovillians behave around local people – as if they are higher beings.”

To underline the slightly sinister, colonial feel of the place is also to say nothing of claims made by an Indian local to a BBC journalist in 2008, that the town harbored paedophiles that would pay to rape Indian children.

Human unity, then, has by far been the most difficult ideal for Auroville to live up to, and it’s not even close.

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To find out more about Auroville, see https://www.auroville.org/ 

 

 

Pondicherry on the cake: the French colonial grandeur of Puducherry, India

Pondicherry is a place of beauty, grace and tranquility that feels out of time, both eerie and deeply seductive

My last post not withstanding, Pondicherry (or Puducherry) is a wonderous place.

I arrived in town around mid afternoon, fresh from the 7am train from Madurai (one of the dirtiest and least friendly places I have ever visited) that was followed by a hair raising bus ride from Villupuram (most trains go here rather than Puducherry Station), where even the locals looked concerned and during which one woman berated the driver for a good ten minutes on his homicidal driving.

Thus, it must be admitted that the bar was set quite low for Pondicherry, or ‘Pondy’ as the locals lovingly refer to it. However, stepping into the heritage part of the city (“white town”, would you believe) I soon began to feel like Alice in Wonderland, or a visitor to the twilight zone.

The first curiosity was the almost complete absence of trash on the streets – far from the putrid piles of stinking plastic waste that adorn every other spare inch of India, the streets of Pondicherry barely sported a scrap of litter. This was enforced/encouraged by many signs extolling the virtues of not littering such as “Pondy won’t be the same if you litter” and – my personal favourite – “Beauty is our city, preserving it is our duty”. I was – and remain – stunned.

Second were the buildings; while I was aware the French had colonised Pondy, I didn’t expect that to mean much today – an assumption I perhaps based on Mumbai, which feels fully Indian despite a few grand old English buildings. However, what I found in Pondy were streets of pristine or gently fading eighteenth and nineteenth century French houses, schools, government buildings and churches; their gleaming white plaster columns supporting balconies decked in highly varnished mahogany and dripping in verdant vines and their walls painted joyful summer shades of egg yolk, rose and azure blue.

Moreover, these beautiful buildings were set into extraordinarily green and leafy boulevards, most of which led to the central Bharathi Park that is encased within ornate wrought iron gates and which itself is a magical green space bursting with fragrant foliage that provides shade for gently dozing tuk-tuk drivers and India’s ever tormented canines. At the centre of the park is a white marble monument so pristine it seemed to be radiating light for ten metres around – a gift, I later discovered, from Emperor Napoleon III commemorating the charitable endeavours of a notorious “harlot” of Hindu legend.

Exiting the park I then found myself facing Pondicherry’s sparkling seafront, the centre of which is marked by a glorious ten foot black marble statue of the Mahatma that – again – is remarkably pristine. The shoreline is equally spotless and was filled with Indian families basking in the late afternoon sun. Walking along the main beach road I also found a monumental garden dedicated to Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the law maker responsible for drafting India’s first constitution, at the back of which is an excellent free library that anyone can enter and peruse to learn more about the thoughts and policies of modern India’s most influential politicians and law makers. Later in the evening I discovered that the entire seafront is pedestrianised after 6pm to allow for completely safe evening promenading.

Perhaps most exciting for Westerner backpackers spent on veg curry and chappati, though, are the many, MANY wonderful French cafes and eateries that Pondy has to offer. There are far too many to list, but I would highly recommend Hot Breads and Baker Street for some of the best patisserie I have EVER eaten and the Art Cafe and Artika for a late afternoon coffee. Prices are high by Indian standards but for a two day blowout – it’s just the ticket. Restaurants range from the extravagant rooftop garden Rendevous to slightly lower key L’espace, the latter of which I enjoyed a beautifully cooked and seasoned poisson du jour avec pommes frites for 300 rupees, or £3.30. I didn’t try Rendevous due to prices touching the 900 rupee mark (which of course is still incredibly cheap by European standards), but which I am reliably informed boasts succulent steaks and an excellent wine list.

Finally – the shopping. As most who know me know, I generally hate shopping, especially when bargaining is involved. However, Pondy’s many handmade silver shops convinced me to part with some cash, as did a one-off craft market by the seafront and the extraordinarily modern and fresh boutique Ma Pondy Cherie, where I picked up a t-shirt from Mumbai based street fashion designer Jas Charanjiva, showing an Indian woman in traditional dress but flourishing a full-finger golden knuckle duster engraved with ‘BOOM.’

In terms of traditional Indian life, Pondy has little to offer – this is firmly an enclave for the wealthy and, more than in other Indian towns, white foreigners. I have not seen so many fashionable Europeans and glowing alabaster children idly cycling through leafy parks since Paris. There is also something a little sinister in the town’s order and cleanliness – something I have read is made possible by the fabulous wealth the Sri Aurobindo ashram generates from the thousands of spiritual seekers that visit every year from the West. As such the institution owns most of the real estate in the the town, and – I believe – is behind the strictly enforced clean street policy. Thus, while one cannot deny Pondicherry’s grace, beauty and elegance, I was left questioning exactly who gets to enjoy its peace and tranquility on a residential basis and at what cost. Nonetheless Pondicherry is a joy to visit, and a welcome respite from the glorious – but trying – chaos of mainland India.

Escaping an attempted assault on a train in Tamil Nadu, India

An opportunistic teenager tried to assault me on an empty train, providing a timely reminder of the dangers of solo travel

I am very sad to report that I just escaped an attempted assault on a train in Tamil Nadu, South India.

Arriving at Puducherry Railway Station – which has no live information boards – I wandered around, passing a hoard of irate, shouting men at the station master’s office, and tried to find out the platform for my train. A man at a tea stall told me platform three.

And so I dragged my luggage over the foot bridge to find an empty train and platform. I sat on a bench and a boy in a school uniform, aged somewhere between 12 and 14, appeared from the train. I asked if this was the train to Chennai. He spoke almost no English but seemed keen to try to help me and told me to follow him onto the empty train – indicating there was something or someone there that could help me. Looking in and seeing just a dark, empty carriage and with no one else around, all my alarm bells were ringing and so I said no perhaps three or four times. However, he came out and carried on talking and gesturing, and I began to believe he was genuine. He was also about four and a half feet tall and weighed maybe 70lbs dripping-wet, and so I reluctantly followed him.

Now – before you all cry “IDIOT!” (though you would, perhaps, be right) I would like to say as a caveat that this is often how I have found my way on Indian trains; the children are usually very keen to help and run and fetch parents or station and ticket staff. Although this has only ever been on busy or semi busy trains.

However, following this boy in I very quickly realised my initial suspicions were correct. He pointed in to an empty bunk and as I peered around the curtain I felt grubby little hands reach up and try to grab my face and neck. I reacted quickly, pulling back sharply and screaming all my colourful East London vernacular at him full blast, at which point he clearly thought better of it and stepped back as I fled the train.

Back on the platform, one cleaning lady on the stairs peered over but promptly resumed sweeping – clearly deciding she had seen and heard nothing. I grabbed my bag and hurried back up the stairs, at which point the boy emerged from the carriage and smirked at me as I struggled up and over the foot bridge.

On the main platform I found a station guard and reported what had happened. To say he was unconcerned is an understatement. I did, however, find out that my train had been delayed – by 14 hours. Hence the shouting men and empty platform, I realised. I told a nearby French woman what had happened and she seemed equally unmoved by the story – far more concerned about the lateness of the train and what she was going to do to pass the time.

I now find myself in an excruciatingly expensive taxi to Chennai as a very early flight tomorrow meant I couldn’t wait for the train, while the attempted attack combined with a lot of luggage made me unwilling to try for a bus. However, messages from Ola – India’s version of Uber – about sharing my location in order to “stay safe” are not filling me with confidence. Nor are the two unexpected “tolls” the driver tells me I need to pay on the way. I’m also paying cash as Indian bureaucracy makes registering your card for payment a Herculean task and on my last Ola ride the driver insisted I pay 100 rupees more than what was being stated on both of our apps due to the inconvenience of taking me to my destination. (As a side note, each time over the past week that I have tried to report this through the Ola app the “driver collected extra cash” reporting option has been in “error” mode).

And so, on the final day of my second trip to India I find myself reminded that as strong and tough, as experienced and well travelled, as savvy and personable as I may think I am – I am, in truth, a skinny little white woman travelling alone. As such I am vulnerable to enterprising opportunists or career criminals either looking to rape and/or rob me, many of which see me as nothing more than a wallet to be plundered (this is where the “white” is relevant in the above self-statement) and/or a potential vessel for their adolescent penis’s (peni?). It also makes all the terrible stories I have heard from other women – including one who was sexually assaulted in a guesthouse in hippy commune Auroville, where the authorities also did nothing as the man in question “owned most of the town” – all the more real. No longer are these avoidable situations that only naive women and inexperienced travellers find themselves in. They can happen to anyone – including me. A sobering and perhaps timely lesson.

Healing the past and forging the future through Mahatma Gandhi – my visit to Madurai, Tamil Nadu

In Madurai I faced the past and saw the path to a better future through India’s founding father, Mahatma Gandhi

I got my first post-colonial telling-off in Madurai, the capital of Tamil Nadu in South India. Freshly arrived from a gruelling 14 hour train journey from Varkala – Kerala’s main beach town, I had headed straight out to visit the city’s main attraction – the Meenakshi Amman temple. Having negotiated the usual wide eyed staring and giggling on the bus, dodged the canny street sellers at the station and had a delicious lunch at the famous Murugan Idli shop, I was feeling confident, comfortable and relaxed.

This perhaps showed, and was not – I found out – entirely welcome. Not long after entering the pedestrianised temple area I realised I was being followed by a middle aged man that was visibly drunk. Unusually for India, he was not the first I had noticed since arriving in the city – with a few gently swaying men lining the streets near the idli shop including one that stared inexplicably at my flat and well covered chest as I passed.

This man, however, was more persistent and began trailing me despite my trying to shake him by browsing at one of Madurai’s many fine sari shops. In a second attempt at evasive manoeuvres I stopped again at a stall and started chatting to a woman selling devotional sandalwood powder. It soon became evident, though, that he wasn’t going anywhere. I asked the woman for help: “Please – I think this man is following me.” Stepping up from behind me, the man responded:

“I am not following you. You are following me. This is my India. I am intelligent man, I am respectful. This is my India.”

The tirade continued in broken English for a minute or two as he swayed unsteadily, and I can’t recall everything he said. However it followed the same line and I felt, quite clearly, that I was being reminded in no uncertain terms that the sun has fully set on the British Empire and it’s barbarous rule over India.

He moved off and the woman at the stall communicated to me through hand gestures and a gentle pat on the arm not to take any notice – that he was just drunk, while a friendly nearby book seller invited me to take refuge at his stall until the man had definitely disappeared.

While my confidence was a little dented I wasn’t too shaken by the incident and I don’t want this to read as an indictment of Madurai or its inhabitants. This is a single occurrence in two long visits to India otherwise marked by a warm and friendly reception from everyone I have met.

Indeed, I am amazed that this is only the first time I have been reminded of my country’s terrible occupation of India. I felt I knew enough of our colonial atrocities, however visiting the Gandhi Memorial Museum in the north of the city the following day made the horrors of British rule all the more vivid. The museum, which houses the blood stained lungi the Mahatma was wearing when he was assassinated, lays out the history of the Raj from the first dealings of the East India Trading Company under Elizabeth I to final independence in 1948, and is a deeply moving tribute to one of the world’s most remarkable freedom fighters.

Gandhi’s philosophy and vision, encapsulated in his 11 principles that include non-violence, truth, non-possession, fearlessness, equality of all religions and peoples (the latter centred around the removal of untouchability in the Indian caste system) are the benchmark to which humanity should aspire but which no nation – not Britain nor India – has yet lived up to. His message around sustainable and measured consumption – in which he advocated buying locally produced goods and only as much as is needed – is one we are only coming to realise the importance of today as the excesses of rampant consumerism are ravaging our environment – turning our rivers and oceans into toxic plastic-filled cesspools. Here in India this is heartbreakingly evident on almost every festering street corner and open water source – the smell of which is often harder to bear than the sight – as well as the sunless smoggy skies of its major cities.

Politically the globe is also polarising at a rate not seen for eighty years since fascism took hold in Europe and tore the world apart (during which – in his magnanimity – Ghandi supported the British). Virulent hatred of the other is on the rise again – Americans vs. Mexicans/China/Korea/Iran; the UK vs. Europe; France, Austria and others vs. Muslims and refugees; while atrocities against indigenous peoples and civil wars rage in Myanmar, Syria, Ukraine and central Africa.

And so it is a gross understatement to say that almost every nation on the planet has a lot of work to do in realising the sort of world that Gandhi imagined. In this task it is essential that the past be remembered and honoured – and I for one have no problem with being reminded of and humbled by the role my ancestors played in the enslavement and misery of millions. Most important, though, it must be learnt from as every one of us strives to build a new, better future for all people.

Don’t pick zits: getting treatment for an abscess in India

You really shouldn’t pick zits – but if you do, and it gets infected, and you’re in India – this is what to do.

There is a reason we are told not to pick our spots. This is thought to be something to do with scarring. But, faced with a revolting puss-filled bulb on our faces, most of us opt for short-term relief and squeeze away. The consequence few of us consider, though, is infection; especially if you are from the UK where the tap water is clean and the climate cold enough to kill all but the most determined bacteria.

Certainly I didn’t think anything of squeezing a particularly fierce spot before I hopped on a plane to India. However, almost immediately after arriving in Kochi the fairly modest zit on my jaw began growing – and at an exponential rate. By the time I reached the Sivananda Ashram in Neyarr Dam four days later, I was drawing horrified gasps from concerned onlookers.

What I was now toting on my face was a fully-fledged abscess. On the advice of Ashram staff and community members – all of whom instructed me not to ‘f**k around’ with this and get straight to a ‘real’ doctor (the on-site Ayurvedic healer being ill-equipped with antiseptic anything), I headed to the PRS Hospital in Trivandrum, the nearest town.

Now, I am unlucky/careless enough to have visited many a hospital in the developing world – South Africa for a sprained ankle, Goa for a motorcycle accident, Thailand for a smear test, Cambodia for something else and Myanmar for a friend with a very dangerous tropical disease. What I have learnt through each experience is this: healthcare in the developing world is accessible, efficient, reliable and unbelievably cheap.

In most developing countries, if you require a doctor you simply go to the hospital the locals recommend, get treated and – for most run-of-the mill ailments – the bill doesn’t even graze the excess required on your well researched and almost entirely useless travel insurance certificate. This is even more the case if – like I did in Goa – you find yourself in a government hospital where the floors may be a little less clean, but where they will patch you up in no time for bus fare.

Such was the case at PRS Hospital in Trivandrum – a modern, well-organised and breathtakingly efficient institution. Upon arriving I was ushered by infinitely helpful staff to the registration desk, where I presented my passport for photocopy, filled in a form, was given a very smart laminated membership card and paid £0.55p to see Dr N. Jasmine in dermatology, who prescribed me a course of antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and a topical cream.

The entire process took less than 30 minutes and registration, consultation and drugs cost 750 rupees, or £8.33.

Sadly, my case was rather advanced. Over the proceeding five days the lump grew to – literally ­– bursting point. And so at the end of the amoxicillin course I returned to Dr Jasmine – hope for a non-violent solution to this problem shattered – to have it cut out.

Despite the praises sung above, though, I was nervous; memories of a somewhat heavy-handed approach to my RTA wounds at Panjim’s government hospital came flooding back. Nonetheless, I lay on the bed in the doctor’s office ready to endure – at this point I would have settled for a switchblade disinfected in whisky just to get this thing out.

I needn’t have been worried, though. The good doctor wrote me a prescription for the instruments and materials she needed, which I was sent to the surgical pharmacy to buy and fetch back (a slight oddity for me, but ensured sterility, I thought) and included a needle and local anaesthetic. I barely felt the prick as it numbed the entire area and again, within thirty minutes the procedure – through which my wonderful nurse Preeta held my hand tightly – was over. This cost a total of 800 rupees (£8.88).

To ensure that I didn’t contract further infection the doctor insisted I returned to the hospital daily to have the wound redressed, which I faithfully did over the next three days and during which I developed a sort of photo based correspondence with Preeta’s husband and daughter. I am not being hyperbolic when I say I was genuinely sad to be discharged.

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In the past five days since I have been faithfully dressing and redressing using Dettol and – thanks to the advice of the organic health restaurant and pharmacy I visited in the city – Pathayam – a turmeric paste; disinfecting first, then applying the mix of turmeric and water and bandaging up. I am pleased to report that I am now sporting a glorious dry scab as the erstwhile gaping hole in my face closes up.

So, key takeaway’s:

  1. Don’t pick zits.
  2. Don’t hesitate to go to a hospital in a developing country, especially India. They are clean, well run and efficient and affordable*.
  3. Unless you are hospitalised for malaria or require airlifting off a mountain (even then read the small print), be aware that almost all routine issues will not even meet the excess required for a pay-out on most travel insurance policies – even the most expensive ones. Decide on whether and which to take accordingly**.


*
I want to caveat this by saying I am aware that for many – including a vast swathe of the poorest Indians – this is not true. I hope the government of India and all developing countries work harder to make it so.

**If something truly dreadful happens to you and need extensive hospital care I say again: travel insurance will save you money. I only report my experience – in which it has not.

How to walk in Trivandrum, Kerala

Trivandrum, or Thiruvananthapuram (most prefer the former), is not a typical tourist destination. There is little to recommend it in terms of sightseeing – it’s chief destinations being the softly fading palace of the former Thirunal royal family and a few crumbling museums near the somewhat depressing zoo in its one public park. Though the grounds at the latter are, admittedly, lush.

Like most of India, the city is noisy, dusty and overflowing with rubbish. The pecking order on the roads goes from truck to bus to car to tuk-tuk to motorbike to cyclist to pedestrian – the latter, I imagine, thought to deserve death for their stupidity. For those brave enough to try though, a walk through any part of this city is well worth it.

During the ten days I found myself an almost daily visitor to Kerala’s capital and it’s fine hospital (more on that later), I was a happy ambler; the trick, I soon realised, being to hold my nose past the particularly large or smoking rubbish piles and any open water, and to start out early.

Being in the south of the country, the Trivandrum heat is intense, particularly around March time, when I visited. To battle it, you need early exposure – be up and moving in it from 8am then come midday when it’s full weight bears down, you are adjusted. Hide out in an air conditioned room until then and you’re done for. You will pour with sweat all day. Not that you won’t pour anyway, just less profusely.

On my final day in town I took a left out of the hospital gates toward the East Fort. Passing a cage of sweltering puppies that had been a daily heartbreak for me, I found myself on what I discovered later was the bazaar road. I was on the hunt for a nail cleaning brush and struggling – while you can find an Ayurvedic cure for everything from headaches to herpes in India, a scrubbing brush and antibacterial soap are often harder to come by.

On the journey I stopped at a tea shop for a lemon soda and met Atil. Like almost every Keralan I have spoken to Atil had very good English. He introduced me to the local beautician – Ripi – who Atil frequently reminded me was from the north. While we discussed what could be done to improve my looks, a wealthy Delhi family stopped to buy some water and snacks. Chat stopped for a moment while the family – outfitted in Western style shorts, jeans and T-Shirts – were served. As they left Atil seemed to warmly thank the tuk-tuk driver for corralling the rich herd to him and after they were gone he and Ripi argued over whether southern or northern Indian women are more beautiful.

Later I got chatting to a trader in a spice shop that reluctantly sold me a bag of ‘second quality’ almonds for 200 rupees (rather than the more expensive ‘first quality’) but who liked me enough to change a 2,000 rupee note as payment.

‘You from where?’

‘England’ (if English, you say England in most of Asia – the UK draws a blank, or is mistaken for Ukraine).

‘Oh, very nice. I have sister nurse in London’

‘Oh great! You know which hospital?’

‘No, no…. Selfie?!’ *pulls out phone

The latter is the ultimate result of most conversations or interactions in India and while awkward at first, you get used it. I’m also fairly sure it’s a significantly warmer reception than the first Indian visitors received in the UK.

Indeed, every day of wandering the streets of Trivandrum I found people that genuinely wanted to talk to me, even in the absence of a cash transaction. Many were concerned for my health – the big bandage on my face making me an even more alien presence – while others, especially hoteliers and my nurses, were keen to ensure I had eaten and always enquired exactly what that meal had consisted of (thin women are rare in South India). I felt genuine warmth from almost every person I spoke to in this city and indeed, almost every person I walked past; a smile always returned with an even bigger one (rather than the suspicious scowls offered by many in countries and cities that shall remain nameless, England, London).

The city also boasts two of the best eateries I have found in India: a Swiss cafe named Kaffeehaus and an organic health food restaurant named Pathayam. The former I spent a very happy birthday in over a chicken salad and warm chocolate brownie for dessert and the latter I recovered in via a green pea curry with steamed rice, carrot and beetroot cakes for breakfast and a ‘special’ salad of all things natural and delectable for dinner. Both were a blissful luxury in the dust and heat.

And so Trivandrum’s strengths lie not – like Delhi – in its historic forts and monuments, or – like Mumbai – in its parks, beaches and arts scene – but in its people and in its interesting dining options. I look forward to visiting again.