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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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.

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.

Plastic pollution: cropped out of sight, but not out of mind

Tourists and travellers don’t talk about – and certainly never take pictures of – the heartbreaking pollution that exists in the developing world. But we need to.

The one thing that absolutely no tourist or traveller talks about – and certainly never takes pictures of – is the heartbreaking level of pollution that exists in the developing world. So keen are we to boast to our friends and family of the exponential, life changing experiences we are having in magical, spiritual that we crop out – both consciously and unconsciously – the tragic filth we see around us every day.

For six months I lived in Ho Chi Minh, in an area called Binh Thanh, which is largely populated by older local people and young, white expats like me looking for the ‘authentic’ Vietnamese life. In Binh Thanh authenticity looks like this: great food that costs nothing but that is guaranteed to give you gastroenteritis roughly every three weeks; many, many rats, cockroaches and – if you’re lucky – huntsman spiders the size of your father’s outstretched hand that will keep you safe from both, at least inside of your house. And the arse-end of the Saigon River.

“Plastic bags inside plastic bags, bubble tea straws the size of copper pipes, it all finds it way into Saigon River”

Those that have only ever stayed in district 1 – the central business and tourist district of HCMC – will know the Saigon River as a fairly benign feature of the city – generally lazy and abundantly populated by water chestnuts floating up from the Mekong. Anyone in Binh Thanh, however, will know it as a stinking, belching, tar pit of refuse that gives off the most appalling stench that even a two minute crossing is a life changing experience. And why the difference? The authorities – in their wisdom – put nets up at either end of the part that flows through district 1 to keep the pollution in the poorer districts.

The Saigon River, as seen from Chinatown
The Saigon River, as seen from Chinatown

In Binh Thanh, the whole waterway is now almost entirely artificial. So obsessive are the Vietnamese about plastic bags, cups and straws that new river banks are created by the hour. Plastic bags inside plastic bags, bubble tea straws the size of copper pipes that funnel 20g of sugar a pop that is fast making children obese and diabetic – it all finds it way into Saigon River. It is heartbreaking to see an old woman rowing through carrier bags, straws, sewage and used nappies to reach her riverside house – now less than a rubbish tip.

On a visit to Cat Ba island in the north of the country I visited a number of beaches – every single one was awash with plastic rubbish. It comes from both holidaymakers and the distant floating villages, where fisherman thoughtlessly toss plastic wrappers into the ocean – ultimately poisoning the fish that are their livelihood, as well as those that eat them. On one beach I met a group of young local boys and a Sicilian backpacker that were swimming out to fill bags with rubbish. The latter told me he had been collecting for just an hour and had filled four large white straw sacks around a metre high and half a metre wide.

“In Delhi and Mumbai you truly cannot see the sky for the greasy smog”

Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh and the south especially – is blessed by a geographical position that means the air pollution that comes from the astonishing number of motorbikes on the road (in both HCMC and Hanoi there are two motorbikes for every citizen) doesn’t linger. This is not so in Delhi and Mumbai where you – quite literally – cannot see the sky for the heavy, grey smog that makes an already oppressive heat quite unbearable – particularly in the latter city. This inescapable evidence of environmental degradation makes it all the more frustrating to see the arsenal of plastic rubbish that carpets India’s most ancient monuments, such as Elephanta Island – a UNESCO world heritage site covered in empty water bottles.

Elephanta Island, Mumbai
Elephanta Island, Mumbai. A UNESCO world heritage site.

As a privileged white European, my experience in the developing world was the first time I have been faced by pollution of any meaningful quantity. Over the last 40 years Europe and the West has outsourced its manufacturing and by extension, our pollution and industrial waste to these regions. Many also labour under corrupt governments that do not build the infrastructure that can solve waste challenges as long as they are being incentivised by Western companies like Nestle and Coca-Cola not to do so. If Vietnamese and Indians could drink their tap water, their plastic waste problem would be halved overnight.

Since returning home it seems that we in Europe are waking up – excellent campaigns by Sky News and latterly Blue Planet are highlighting the irreversible damage we are doing to our oceans through our addiction to plastic. I have seen how disturbingly easy it is for us to sit back in our – truly – green and pleasant European lands and simply not see. And tourists that choose to crop out pollution from their holiday snaps do not help. During my whole year travelling and living in the developing world I took less than five photos of the terrible pollution I saw. I have published them here. And I call on all travellers to do the same.

“It’s time to acknowledge the rubbish – and to do something about it”

Meanwhile, I have made a firm pledge to change my own behaviour: I will not buy a single disposable water bottle or coffee cup again. I carry both a water bottle and travel mug with me at all times. I am also reducing waste – and saving money – by taking my own lunches to work and I will not use a plastic bag unless there is absolutely no choice. It’s time to open our eyes – to see and to acknowledge the rubbish – and to do something about it.

Mumbai weather forecast
Mumbai weather forecast