Dreaming In Colour part iii)

27th January 2013

Dreaming In Colour, First Impression of Kerala, south India

iii) New Year’s Eve, Cardamom Hills, Western Ghats

The taxi driver takes us up 1600m from sea level to hill station. When the hills stop rolling and we start climbing properly something strange happens. My fingers, which for days have looked like little pumped up plastic bananas, start to deflate; the outside temperature is dipping into the low 30s and my body is adapting fast; moving from tropical survival mode with as much water as possible in the skin for cooling, to European mode, something closer to normal rest. Something more like me. As we pass 1000m it actually feels like I am shrinking, Alice in Wonderland style. Presumably my brain is contracting. Perhaps there is room for more thoughts to spark, for more feelings to be felt. I am definitely more me than I was by the sea. It’s not often that you get philosophical in a taxi, but when it’s a seven hour ride up a mountain there is surely enough time for a little self-examination. I think about Vishnu’s definition of the self not being the shirt on your back, which you can take off and discard; not being your finger, which you can cut off and live without; but being something other, something outside or more than your body. This of course is some kind of definition of a soul, a consciousness that is not tied to the earth. I think that the self is very much connected to the body and physical awareness and well being. This ascending, this shrinking, is a fine example of that idea in action. In this new coherent state, even the monkeys in the trees I can see out of the window don’t stop me from feeling that I am in the Alps; that this area is more familiar, more European of course. In fact, the climate is a little more friendly but we are still passing banana trees. This is still the Alps gone wild, bursting green in a thousand shades. Morning glory climbs the power lines and wraps it in flowing robes of green and purple; Angels Trumpets flow like white linen sheets over the rocks and pour down the hillside to meet the rising tide of cardamom plants lapping at the too small safety wall at the edge of the road. At points we come to a complete stop, then the car creeps forward, on all fours, over the pot-holed, pock-marked teenage skin of a road surface; at others we speed past a slow moving milk lorry, on the wrong side of the road, horn screaming – I am here, I am me, please do not be a large bus or lorry traveling, without screaming horn and without due care, on the right side of the road in the opposite direction. We have been to the temple and said the correct prayers and we have a small picture of Shiva on the dashboard and a little paste from the temple on our foreheads, so let our separate consciousnesses, and more importantly our separate and ever so fragile human bodies, remain intact inside this beautiful car, cleaned this morning, especially for the trip; and not splattered all over the not really at all European looking vertiginous slopes of this jungle hillside.

Yesterday we watched the sun fall into the mist above the Lakshadweep Sea on the Malabar Coast. Today we saw the same sun, this time tinged deep pink, sink smiling into the mist over the Cardamom Hills. Over there where the sun is setting is the coast; to our left the unexplored lands of Tamil Nadu. We are 170km from Madurai; 1.5km from the Perikanal tea factory; 500m from S.J. Tea Stall where sweet, milky tea with cardamom in tiny china cups costs ten rupees. S.J. makes it on his gas burner and pours it long, from one pan to another, to get the blend just right. This morning we were swimming in the ocean, tonight we are watching whole thunderstorms in the mountains. It’s the last day of the year and it feel like such a privilege to be here. To have been lucky enough to have been born somewhere with enough technology and with enough opportunities to make enough cash to allow us to explore another part of the world purely for our own pleasure; just because we want to and we can; even though filling our heads with these images is ultimately pretty pointless, unless perhaps we can share this feeling that life is a privilege with our friends and family back home. Who needs a new year party when nature is laying on a celestial light show, right there, flashing through the leaves of the banana trees? Who needs anything more than this and a cup of S.J.’s tea?

Tea, tea, it’s all about tea. It is possible that this whole adventure was formulated over a cup of tea and pivoted around the idea of seeing a place where tea comes from. Tea, that delicious drink that we drink every day; that delicious, stimulating drink that we take for granted; that delicious, stimulating, social drink that is the beginning of every conversation at the beginning of every visit to everybody’s house – would you like a cup of… – that delicious, stimulating, social, soothing drink that we reach for in times of stress and crisis, – have a cup of… , that will make you feel better – that delicious, stimulating, social, soothing drink that is part of the fabric of life.

So, after a light breakfast in streaming sunlight and a little light walking up hill and up muddy hill through the cardamom plantation, we are there, at the source, in a sea of tea leaves; perfectly good tips. We step into the green waves, waist deep in lush leaf and scratching branch; understanding now why the lady tea pickers wrap skirts of plastic round their waists when they take to the waves. Two leaves and a tip, two leaves and a tip, into the bag, or snip snip, give the plant a haircut with some oversize scissors with high sides to hold the crop till it is time for it to flow into the maté sack. Two leaves and a tip, we wade deeper, following a cow who seems as lost as we are, further into the flow. The patterns become strokes of the rake of an imaginary japanese bonsai zen gardener, the cow and me are bonsai too, shrinking, miniatures in this epic manicured landscape; tiny glitches in the mountain wide topiary, hand snipped by gangs of hired scissor hands. The tea climbs the hills in avenues set at ridiculous angles, spilling out of the cup in more green waves; into the saucer. We are wild elephants heading for a break in the fence, searching for the Kerala / Tamil Nadu border. We are the tea in the cup; we are the spoon stirring the tea; we are are the mountains and the sky. We are green peppercorns drying in the sun; we are red coffee beans drying in the sun; we are black cocoa beans drying in the sun; we are green chillies drying in the sun; we are brown coconut husks drying in the sun; we are rice seeds flying through the air; we are long beans hanging on the vine; we are cardamom picked and packed in sacks; we are forest green saris drying in the sun; we are the cockerel eating rice next to the dog outside the tea stall; we are peeled tapioca in a plastic pot; we are eagles on the thermals; we are dissolving into the green tea; we are disappearing into the plantation; we are lost in the leafy green tea leaves; we are tea dust; we are star dust; we are ten drummers drumming our new year beat; we are sparks from fireworks in the tea green sky; we are evergreen; we are tiny; floating like tea leaves in time and space. This is it, the pivot point, the whole point, the perfectly good tipping point, the tip top of the trip, 1700 metres high and feeling leafy and green, ever so leafy and green.

Every year, in January, there is a tiger census. The wild tigers who spend most of the year roaming through the forest, hunting and sleeping and being generally carnivorous carnivores with very sharp teeth, make their way to the state government tiger census office at Perikanal to fill in their census forms. The tigers use a claw, dripping in ink made from goats bloods and thickened with curry powder from the Malabar Food Stuffs Company factory down in the valley. They try not to rip the paper when they make their scratchy crosses on the census form. There are questions about appearance: Do you consider yourself to be: extremely stripy very stripy quite stripy not that stripy at all There are questions about reach (where the tigers have been traveling in the past twelve months): Have you been to: Matupetty Munnar Bison Valley Kurangi Hills Eravikulam National Park And there are questions about diet: In the past twelve months have you eaten: goat water buffalo rabbit egret human. This trick question always makes the tigers snigger a little. They all know the consequences of putting a bloody cross in that particular box.

Prinil is leading us down into the valley, the one we can see from the verandah; the rice paddies, the coconut palms, the orange and blue and pink houses; tiny boats bobbing on a sea of green. The long night of the soul has been replaced with dreams of a different hue. Verdant, fragrant, spicy, like bitter sweet lime chutney. Down through the deep, dreamy shade of the cardamom plantation; down past coffee plants with their red fruits, ripe and ready for picking; down past olive green pepper seeds cascading down vines wound tightly round choking trees; down past granite rocks blasted to make the houses in times long past; down to the cardamom seller in his breeze block shop, small desk surrounded by fat, white, fragrant bags of green gold. Past the paddies, flat and still in the shimmer of mid day sun; split into portions big enough to feed a family, with two harvests a year; past a ripe crop of bitter gourd, so pale green it is almost white, like the last block before pure white on a paint colour chart, bitter gourd, all mandalas and spirals spinning outwards and outwards. Beyond all this, the best ever 3D geography lesson, a trip to the long defunct Commonwealth Institute, now damp and covered in purple morning glory, lies something special. Prinil’s plan is parked in the drive of a freshly painted, bright orange house. It is a jet black bus chassis, bare and raw metal, freshly purchased from the Ashok Leyland factory, at a very good price for such a piece of quality engineering, body and wheels and engine and cab and everything. In 42 days he, or his partner, or his uncle, or his uncle’s brother will drive this hulking chunk of steel back up the mountain, from the valley floor, and down the other side to Kochi where it will be fitted with the most beautiful, well made, hand crafted bus body in the whole of Kerala and Tamil Nadu combined. And once attached to the extremely solid base with an excessively powerful engine, this bus will carry tourists around the sights of the hillside and the valley floor, the plantation and the farm land. And maybe, just maybe, one day, on such a trip, fully booked and sold out weeks in advance, tourists packed tight in the seats clutching their freshly wrapped packets of fragrant cardamom and double strength tea; one day, one of the tourists will look out of the bus and shout – tiger! – there, in the trees, extremely stripy, no more than a kilometre from Matupetty, eating a human, the census was wrong, he really is eating a human.

Isolated

24th January 2013

Isolated Mix by Orion & J Shore including first play of their version of the Chris Coco classic My Sunset.

Dreaming In Colour part ii)

24th January 2013

Dreaming in Colour in God’s Own Country – first impressions of Kerala, South India

ii) Marari Beach, near Allepey

Travancore, Malabar, Varkala, Kollam, Ananthapuri, Kayamkulam, Harripad, Allapuzha. Today we take the train to Allapuzha, affectionately known as Appley, like sort of like an apple.

Today we are on the beach. It is searing heat, fierce, harsh. You don’t see the heat in the photograph, you don’t hear the heat in the recording, but here on the beach there is nothing but heat, it is the dominant element, it overpowers, consumes, it feels destructive, dangerous. And I am sitting in the shade thinking – this is the dream that we dream about in the north – being on a beach, by the sea, in this heat, on the edge of nothing, watching the waves. And the people here, subsisting, fishing, farming, do they dream of moving to a city in the north and making a life and making enough money to be able to afford to dream about being on a beach, by the sea, in this heat, on the edge of nothing?

I can tell you the way to the beach, I can tell you about the train ride, I can tell you about the dreams, the long night of the soul, the dreams of future past, the hope for times to come, the same dreams as the home dreams, the ones about time passing and nothing happening, the ones about time passing and everything staying the same, the ones about time passing. I can tell you about the way to the beach; past the hammocks; over the creek holding on to the too thin guide rope; treading carefully on the too round trunks of the coconut palms; past the vegetable patch protected from the sun scorch by saris; past the fishing boats, nets packed, flags fluttering; and you are there on the Malabar Coast in the old kingdom of Travancore where everything is as everything was. The boats go out, the boats come in, the women water the vegetables and the men shit on the beach. Everybody knows what the left hand and the right hand are for and generation after generation live here and work here and die here, same as it ever was, same as it ever was. The train pulls out of Trivandrum Central. You can feel the weight of all the carriages and all the people. It slowly gains momentum. We have window seats in a sleeper carriage. As we watch, the world flows by at increasing speed, like an art film. Through the bars where a window would be if we were still in the north, houses and people and tuk tuks and traffic; then palms and fields and houses and people; on and on. A girl walks along the track, baby held tight and wrapped in cloth, getting somewhere by the fastest route. Water buffalo graze in the mud, no doubt glad of its sticky coolness. Varkala, Kollam, Ananthapuri, coffee, chai, onion bhaji; the blind man might help you pick a ticket for the lottery. Seat three watches a movie on his laptop about shady deals in the big city; Kayamkulam; seat seven sits cross legged and sari wrapped, headphones plugged in to music for a long journey; a long journey that tells its own story, through filters, in fragments. Lady in green stretches out across seats three and four; the man in the film sips whisky and talks about his divorce; the coffee is sweet and milky and costs seven rupees; outside is a lake that eventually leads to the sea. Here, then its gone. Here then its gone, like a black butterfly with vivid red wings, like our loves and our lives and all things, like the wind and the waves and the sound of the train passing by on its way on a steamy December day. Rumble and flash, a small boy waves at the rumble and flash, the clatter and crash, and we’re gone.

I can tell you about the disco bus, the jesus bus, the little girl killed on the road, the 90 year, six month celebration for the church that we must put our faith in or all is surely lost. I can tell you about the sea eagles circling crows eating sardines laid out to dry in the sun on brown mats on the sandy yellow sand; the eyes of a girl on the bench seat, brown and dark and deep and scary, like she already knows the ending. I can tell you about fluttering plastic bunting over the road, piles of plastic bags and bottles on the road side, and two Santas on a motorbike with white plastic faces; about hot, sweet tea and ginger cake; about buffalo curry and mango chutney; about coconut for breakfast and shark for tea; about mosquito nets and long nights at blood temperature; about battling the swell for a dawn swim. I can tell you about all these things, these details, these moments. I can tell you how my real self arrived this morning, after following me round the world; changing planes; chasing me round Thiruvananthapuram; jumping the train at Alapuzha. How he followed me here and sneaked into our room at night to give me a message written on the back of an Indian Railways ticket and the message said – happy journey. But that was already printed by the railway company. His message said – you can’t run away from yourself. I already know that, but he felt that I needed reminding and maybe he was right. But that’s for later, that’s for another time, in another life, back home, in the cold, when I know which day is which day and time is told by clocks and computers, not by the movement of the sun across the sky. Because now the children are singing in the church over the bridge over the river and I need to listen, really listen, so I can tell you about it later. Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way, they sing, like a hymn, like an incantation, brightly wrapped and a little funny; sugar coated and filled with fun; like church is a party.

Dreaming In Colour part i)

22nd January 2013

Dreaming in Colour in God’s Own Country – first impressions of Kerala, South India.

i) Thiruvananthapuram

Everything we see is filtered through our own past experience. The three white butterflies that I am watching floating round the garden at Varikat Heritage homestay are not the same three white butterflies that you would see at the same time in the same place if you were here with me. I like it here in Thiruvananthapuram. Even the name of the city sounds like it is made up for me, made up to make it feel like it belongs in a magical kingdom from somewhere else. But the place feels strangely familiar. Maybe if you come from London every city feels strangely familiar, because there is a little bit of everywhere in our great metropolis. Or maybe it’s just the traffic noise, the same incessant growl and rumble, the streets groaning; the true, unacknowledged soundtrack to modern living. We arrived here two days ago, on Christmas Day 2012. It says so on the stamps in our passports, a little detail that I rather enjoyed when the immigration official stamped the stamp in blue ink at the airport. We arrived here two days ago but it is only now that I feel I can write something down about being here. It is only today that I feel like we have really arrived. The rest has been the proverbial blur, the assault on the senses that we have all read about. Noise, colour, smell, information overload. When you are a foreigner in a strange land even the simplest action becomes an adventure. Going for a walk, crossing the road, are memorable experiences; taking a tuk tuk to the station is a fairground ride of an adventure. Staying in Thiruvananthapuram is like waking up inside a J.G. Ballard novel. You know, the bit where nature runs riot in suburbia; where the creepers grow wild and strangle the tower blocks; where mould expands and fills cracks in the concrete; where flowers burst out of the windows of the Secretariat. It all happens here naturally thanks to the steaming heat and the rain and more steaming heat. It’s not easy to know what to write or to photograph; every tiny detail seems worth recording; every scratch or mark on the walls; every sign or hanging; every leaf or flower; but isn’t it all already in the guide book that we bought in a book shop in Chelsea before we left?

I can tell you about the Indian Coffee House next to the station that is built like a reverse helter skelter. Red, socialist workers cooperative breeze blocks, bleached pink by the sun, spiraling up proudly; waiters in weird hats that look like those elaborately folded napkins you get in fancy restaurants heltering up and skeltering down the spiral with their trays of vegetable biryani and rose water. It’s not exactly worth traveling round the world to see but if you are ever here you really shouldn’t miss it. I can tell you that Hayley really got into her stride after she bought some of those baggy, one size really does fit all, pants that you see part time yoga hippies wearing in Ibiza in the summer. Before that she looked too Western and half naked and just plain weird in clothes that two days earlier, while packing, in London, seemed perfect for the steamy climate. I can tell you how we followed the music blasting from specially made speakers tied to lamp posts, down some side streets, and found ourselves, quite unexpectedly, invited into a Hindu dining room where people are fed before a festival, by some very friendly and very persuasive police men. How everyone was fascinated to see us trying to eat the rice and dal with our hands, as is the custom. How people smiled and laughed behind their hands as we drank the sweet rice based paste affectionately know and, it has to be said, looking rather like, sewerage. But will it help you or me to understand this place any better? Will it make you want to visit any more or any less than you do already? And does it really matter if you do or don’t? Not really.

Each day we visit the Zoological Gardens, apparently containing a tiger that was the inspiration for the tiger in the novel Life of Pi. We go partly because there are not that many places to visit in Thiruvanantapuram, partly because it is beautiful, partly because, and here it is again, it feels strangely familiar. On our third visit, feeling slightly more coherent and less out of time, I work out why. It is a formal Victorian park with long avenues flanked by benches, a bandstand, trees and flowers, and a fountain. It’s like home, but more. Like Battersea Park on growth hormones. The detailed relief of the fountain has been painted red and green and orange and pink. The same with the bandstand which is also decorated with extra detail – exploding flowers, elephants. The museum at the centre of the park is similarly drenched in colour, patterned with detail; vertiginous roofs to cope with the monsoon’s deluge and elaborate carvings and cornices. Imagine if gothic was less gloomy and imposing and dark and, well, less gothic. Imagine happy gothic, full of craziness and contradiction. Victorian Britain viewed through a kaleidoscope, the muted greys and browns and blues of the British winter replaced by vivid hues – deep blood reds; shining azure; burnt orange; sparkling green; unreal, fresh, impossible green. The light, the heat, the mix of familiarity and unfamiliarity, the smiling faces, all make for a fairytale feel to the place, like the Maharajah Rajah Ram Lieutenant Colonel has sprinkled magic dust over the park and turned it into somewhere else in the same place as it used to be. Like the cartoon photoshop goddess of goodness has turned up the colour and hue and saturation to maximum and pressed save so it stays like that forever.

Up on M.G. Road there is a very special crossroads. One that is remarkable for its very ordinariness. At this busy, bustly, noisy junction the tuk tuks and motorbikes and cars and packed to bursting busses hurtle past three distinctive, beautiful buildings – a church, a mosque and a hindu temple. All sit facing the bustle. The believers come to their varied places of worship, go about their devotions and leave again, all at peace, no culture dominating another. They may battle a little, the church covered in flashing lights for Christmas with its kitsch nativity featuring Mary, Joseph, Jesus and a giant Santa; the mosque with its call to prayer shouting loud over the traffic’s rumble; but it’s all good natured. And a great model that so many places in the world would do well to follow.

In the afternoon it rains like heaven is open. Like all the gods from the collection on the crossroads have decided to join forces for one almighty shower; a deluge worthy of mention in anybody’s holy book. Our shelter, our room at Varikat, with its teak or rosewood roof, feels like an upturned ark embarking on a dreaming journey on uncertain waters.

Tapes and Tapes

19th December 2012

I love these old 1/4″ reel to reel tape box covers, a real physical, human feel to the masters rather than the current faceless digital file.