India diary

They say that most blogs stop after a few weeks as people run out of steam.  Well, the reason I haven’t blogged for a while is that I have been touring India with a fair trade group organized through Traidcraft. It was a superb trip, combining tourism (yep, the Taj Mahal) but also meeting local people and visiting local workplaces, temples, ferries and homes.  Thanks to Ranjith Henry, our intrepid guide, and his team.  I’m sure I’ll write more, and if possible upload some photographs, but here is a resumé.  We flew out on October 14th, via Dubai, and met up with our seven travelling companions at the Godwin Hotel in the heart of Delhi – on a really lively road full of scooter rickshaws (“tuk-tuks”), workmen, school-kids, street barbers, vegetable stalls and milk stands – and a temple.

Oct 15thDelhi  Started with a tour of the new city, laid out by the British – impressive wide streets with magnificent Presidential Palace and ministries, parks and monument.  Empty plinth where poor Queen Victoria has been taken down.  Then a walk round traditional Delhi in the afternoon – getting to terms with the noise, the extraordinary press of people and traffic (the first time I’ve been in a human traffic jam – unable to walk because of the crush), the stalls on the pavements and the cows in the road.

Oct 16th – Extraordinary day visiting the fair trade projects – inspirational people (mostly women) providing decent jobs for craftspeople, health clinics, and getting their kids to school.  We spent the morning at Tara projects, and in the afternoon were invited to Manjeen run by a young couple (He Muslim, her Hindu) and then to the homes of three young women project workers in a Delhi slum – don’t know whether to be depressed at the conditions people live in, or impressed by how positive they are, and how clean and pretty they kept tiny shacks without running water or toilets.  Both, I guess. Photos taken inside the shacks don’t convey anything, as they are so neat and clean, though leaky and without mains sewage or water.  Food still great, wine less so.

Oct 17th – Up at 5.45 to get an enormously long train to Agra – Indian railway stations are everything they say – people living on platforms, cows wandering through, trains bulging with humanity.  Got to Agra, visited a fair trade workshop that makes soapstone ornaments – the Buddhas, elephants, tea light lamps, soap holders etc that you see in Oxfam and Body Shop.  Hard work, milling and grinding and carving.  Then off to Agra Fort – massive Moghul Palace Fortress with what you might think strong defences (alligators in the most, tigers between the walls).  Chipmunks and hoopoes around our feet, monkeys on the battlements.  Then on to the Taj, which is as lovely as they say.  Admission for locals 20p, for foreigners £8 – but we get to jump queues (of which there are none).  At-seat curry tray on the train home, then past the sleeping bodies in Delhi railway station, then to bed.

Oct 18th – Last day in Delhi. This morning, walking tour round Old Delhi, past historical sites (usually of massacres) and including a wonderful Jain temple up a narrow alley with exquisite houses. Then we went to Gandhi’s tomb in tranquil gardens. The rest of the group planned an afternoon of more  Moghul tombs and castles, so we ducked put for a siesta and visit to the Main Bazaar, getting round on classic Morris Oxford taxi, tuk-tuks (scooter taxis) and bicycle taxis. Back to hotel in time for India’s Got Talent and the Six O’clock News. Off to Kerala in the deep south early tomorrow.

Oct 19th –  Kerala  Travelling day, plane stopped at Hyderabad on the way down, then arrival at a beautiful Indian owned hotel overlooking the estuary of Kochi’s port – so mixture of native fishermen in canoes and container terminal.

Oct 20th – We’ve had a restful day in Kochi – partly because it is now pouring with rain in a warm tropical storm.  Spent the morning at the historic sites – because this is the first port of contact it has the first European church (we saw the tomb of Vasco da Gama, though the body was later taken back to Lisbon), a big Dutch Palace that became the royal household, and then the state museum. Took a workers’ ferry today to look at the island opposite, then back for Liz’s ayurvedic oily massage.

Saw Indian dancing last night – truly bizarre – mixture of legendary story telling, ballet, martial arts and pantomime.  Food is wonderful – chicken and lentils up north, fish curries in coconut sauce here, lots of vegetable dishes, Indian breads. Not enough booze, but we can live with that. Went to the off licence in Delhi, and it was for serious drinkers – almost all spirits !
Only downside so far is a total lack of interest in picking up litter, which is everywhere

Oct 21st – We have discovered how to get booze in Kerala – see attached photo. This morning we went for a punt in the peaceful backwaters, passed a gentle working elephant, visited some people spinning coconut matting. On the way back, dropped in to the nationalised men-only off-licence:  fortified, long queue and steel shutters ! Lunch of noodles, chicken and prawns (£1.80).  Afternoon visit to Jew Town, a district with the oldest synagogue in the Commonwealth (1506), and then some shopping. Out now to drink our ill-gotten purchases.

Oct 22nd.  Kerala – Left Fort Kochi today and arrived at this idyllic hotel complex a bit further up the coast by a big inlet of the sea, travelling via some agricultural projects, driven by a manic driver.    A pool at last … but as we are having another torrential tropical downpour – the third in three days – we aren’t lounging by it. The pineapple juice and ginger factory was big and modern (paid for by EU money) but underused – as it is out of season we didn’t see a single pineapple squeezed (and orders for the ginger they persuaded farmers to grow are falling).  However, in June and December 1000 small farmers use it to pack their pineapples into the little juice boxes our grandchildren like so much, and they like the support the company offers.  Followed, though, by heartening visit to family farm with pineapples and rubber, teak trees, ginger and nutmeg plants, where we had wonderful lunch.

Weather is very thundery, and we’ve both got heavy colds. We’re taking more Day Nurse tablets than anti-malarial ones.

Oct 23rd – Last day in Kerala – Hindu temple and old synagogue today, plus the most eccentric ferry ride you’ve ever seen. The jetty is strapped to the side of the rattling old ferry boat (makes the African Queen look like a cruise liner) and pulled across to be used as the jetty on the other side. Arrived at the church of St Thomas (who came to convert India in 52AD) which is located where he landed from Palestine: it features a weird but watchable multimedia show. Fish curry, rice, popadums and all the trimmings for lunch. Dips on the pool and naps on the hammock this afternoon. It’s Hindu new year so we went to a magical local festival with fireworks and dancing (and offerings to the god of smallpox – who says religion doesn’t work?). Not a tourist do – we were the only Europeans in a crowd of hundreds.  Only downside – you have to take your shoes off as a mark of respect, but no-one told the ants.  Ouch !

Oct 24th – Kolkata (Calcutta) Spent most of today travelling – plane changes at Bangalore and Chennai (= Madras as was), pretty straightforward but takes the time it takes, so we arrived at the hotel at 4.00. Amazing old British run hotel – Hello magazine and Rich Tea biscuits in the tea-room, pictures of William & Kate on the wall, plus autographs of the celebs who have stayed here (An important place for Felicity Kendal and her Anglo-Indian acting family, but also Michael Palin etc).

Went out tonight to the most amazing festival – Durga Puja, with Shiva and other gods in vast illuminations, in what is claimed to be the biggest outdoor festival in the world.  Our guide got us in to extraordinary temporary temples – ‘pandals’. People are kind and interested in us: Liz’s blonde hair is a particular draw (teenage lad asked to be photographed with her).

But we have also seen the other side of Calcutta. Beggar with mutilated arm, children clinging on to our legs, families living on the street, beggars tapping on the minivan window at traffic lights making ‘feed me’ mimes. Two homeless rickshaw drivers sleep on the pavement outside the hotel (see below – I paid him, for the picture, but not a ride !). Tomorrow we’ll visit some projects that aim to help, but we’re left with an amazing mixture of vigour and fun on one hand, and utter misery on the other.

Oct 25th – Another extraordinary day. Calcutta is a vibrant city with wide avenues, parks, a 95,000 seat cricket ground, heaving markets, gaily painted buses. This morning the visit included Jain temples and the home of Mother Teresa’s order, though I ducked out with my first dose of Delhi belly. Liz went and was struck by a museum exhibit of Mother Teresa’s work which used dressed up Barbie dolls as models.  Caught up at lunch in time to have a ‘paper dosa’ – crisp pancake about a foot long with vegetable filling. Later saw grand imperial buildings – this was the capital of India till 1911 – and some of the old English tombs including the founder of Calcutta, John Charnock. Then a boat ride up the Ganges, which is cleaner and nicer than expected, stopping off at one wharf which boasts the best samosas in town. The tradition of throwing the festival statues into the river meant we saw various gods floating down to the sea past us. And on the river steps (‘ghats’), there is all human life, washing, bathing and scattering the ashes of the dead.

The family of Anup, our Bengali guide, joined us for evening meal, and I had the great pleasure of sitting next to his very bright ten year old who spoke fluent English and grilled me about England, Europe and life (“do you have your own farm ?”), whilst showing me how to eat fishy rice with my fingers. At home we spend time getting grandchildren not to eat with their fingers, and now a ten year old tells me not to use a spoon (“it tastes better this way”). He is in a class of fifty, which appears to hold him back not at all.

Oct 26th – Today we visited a women’s textile cooperative outside Calcutta, in the rice fields to the south west (I think). The journey was eventful – I’ve seen people queue-jump in traffic jams before, but never buses with people on the roof charge down the wrong carriageway to get ahead. We ended with a stop-start journey through the most extraordinary village shopping street, with every service from vegetables to barbers, mobile phones to working carpenters (above). The project was great – Liz got into the needlework – and we visited a worker’s home before more fish’n’rice served on banana leaves, and more Indian dancing.  Back to Calcutta for the New Market (est. 1887, by the British, natch) humming with locals shopping for everything. Not much hassle, nice shops and friendly people. This is a wonderful city, despite the poverty and filth.

Oct 27th – My last bulletin. This morning we went to Sasha, the rather up-market shop that sells the goods made by yesterday’s women’s coop, and much else from fair trade workshops, farms and factories.  Very savvy manager, PowerPoint presentation, modern product range a scale up from the idea of Oxfam hippy shirts and canvas shopping bags. Then tea and biscuits (not as nice as it sounds.  Indian tea tends to be very sweet and brewed: half our group call it “builders’ tea” and lap it up, the rest of us drink water instead).

This afternoon to the Victoria Memorial, which (unlike other buildings here) has retained its name and statues because on the whole Indians appreciated that under Victoria Britain (a) got rid of the East India Company after the Mutiny/First war of independence (b) opened up the civil service posts to qualified locals and (c) had Indian servants in Buck Palace.  Opposite is a vast park with lots of informal cricket matches and cows at square leg (for the mishit hook, I guess). Then visited the Marble Palace – vast stately home owned by Indian tax gatherers, now down on its luck despite the statues and oil paintings.



Austerity. Yes, again.

I’ve never been convinced by the idea that a policy of austerity would lead us to economic recovery.  This was the approach tried after the 1929 slump (look up the May Report in Wikipedia) and it didn’t work then.  The UK is actually coming out of the current slump more slowly than it recovered in the 1930s, and more slowly than the USA with its wicked deficit spending .  This is in line with the predictions of Keynesian economics (not terribly fashionable I know, but rather better than those T-shirts featuring Karl Marx saying “I told you this would happen”): if you follow Paul Krugman’s tweets, or New York Times articles, it is all horribly predictable.

The current edition of the New Statesman features a survey of economists who wrote to the press supporting austerity Osborne a couple of years ago.  Their current stance is, how to say this delicately, rather more nuanced.  They don’t, of course, say “I was wrong”; it’s all “I actually didn’t quite agree, but the subtleties of my approach did not come across at the time”. Oh yeah ? Then why write to the paper saying you do agree ?

It’s plain that (a) there is plenty of work to be done in the UK; our infrastructure needs radical modernisation* (b) there are people that want to do it (c) government borrowing is historically very cheap, and there is no sign of the bond markets taking fright. It’s a good time to borrow and (d) the National Debt is low compared with the 40s, 50s and 60s. It’s so sad that the self-flagellation advocates can’t see this and put together a sensible recovery policy.  I think they’re waiting for the magic confidence fairy to return and energise private industry.  Well, she will return one day – even Robert Mugabe couldn’t quite kill off an economy – but she would come back a lot quicker if there was a sign of useful activity out there. And the government deficit might fall if tax receipts rose and welfare benefits fell (the Conservatives are currently borrowing more than Labour planned).

Footnote: three days after posting this entry, we learn that the government deficit is bigger than expected.  We also learn that the Minister put up to explain things – poor, poor Chloe Smith, savaged on TV in the past – says this proves how important it is to stick to the current policy.  An analogy: it’s like finding that a key doesn’t open a lock, but just turning it harder rather than try another.

* I speak as a man who drove from Sheffield to Manchester on Tuesday, crawling between two of Britain’s major urban centres on a single carriageway road through what might (in the absence of Polish artics) be picturesque Peak District villages.   A perfect project for regeneration.