“Can you take us to this hotel please?” I asked the tuk tuk driver.
He shook his head, “No, that hotel burned down.”
“Burned down? I just spoke to them on the phone…”
He held his hands apart and looked slightly hurt that I was doubting him, “Hotel closed,” he insisted, “I take you to one much better.”
Time for the Bad Cop.
In India, catching a tuk tuk and negotiating the fare – or even the simple existence of the destination – is a national pastime. Not one driver, in three months, took us where we wanted to go without comment, argument or an all out fight. At first, this grates on the nerves and then you cant help but be brought down by it. Then you feel victimised for being western and (relatively) rich. You start to think that they are all out to get you personally. However, it is none of these; it is an official sport. Take it as a sport, a sparring match, and you suddenly find it fun.
And you develop tactics.
Our tactic is to use the old Good Cop, Bad Cop routine, but with a twist. The twist being that I, the large white man in slightly military clothing, am not the bad cop. Cesca is. There is something about confident English women that is like Kryptonite to a tuk tuk driver. We sometimes really played it up. Cesca would fake anger at the guy and then I would step in and take his side.
“But Darling,” I would plead, “he has to earn a living, I am sure he is not ripping us off.” I would then give the driver a look, one I practiced, which said ‘Hey buddy, look at this, I have an angry white women here. I know you need to rip us off, you know I know, but please let’s just defuse this bomb before it goes off and we both look embarrassed’. It was a kind of shared-trauma pleading look.
Worked 90% of the time. The 10% is a story for later…
It was very easy to feel a little guilty about such behaviour, but honestly this is just part of the game as well. There is no White Man’s Burden, I didn’t owe anyone being “gouged” (the travelers term for rip off rides).
Cesca looked the guy in the eye and scowled – something she is very good at, “We want to go to this one please?” She said proffering the Lonely Planet aloft.
This guy was not cracking, “I not take you to that one,” he said.
Time for Phase Two.
“OK. Darling, lets get another tuk tuk,” I said and gave him another shot of the look. We made to leave and walked towards the waiting line of tuk tuk’s, whose drivers had been listening profusely and were already making welcoming motions to their vehicles, but the driver sprung out of his seat like it was momentarily electrified.
“OK OK. I take you,” he said and returning to his seat he kicked the beaten motor into life.
So, the hotel DID exist after all and, of course, it wasn’t burned down.
Mysore is Beautiful with large and very wide streets, which are exceedingly long and inevitably lead to some grand Victorian building. Mysore’s grandest building is exceedingly grand, dominating the skyline and giving balance to every other structure around. If its size was not enough to impress, then its extravagance more than made up for it. The entire, gigantic facade was covered head to toe in light bulbs (switched on every Sunday night.) It is a dazzling sight and well worth the trip to Mysore on its own.
Of course, Mysore is also bloody hot. I was starting to get affected by the heat and dust of travelling through India, even the CC Class, airline style, Bangalore to Mysore train had not improved my feelings. I felt dirty.
Where as, in Hampi, this feeling was part of a general return to nature in the cities it just made me feel awful. Add together those long streets to get anywhere and I made an executive decision,
“We shall hire a guide,” I announced.
“Yeah, well a driver and pay him for the three days we are here. It will probably save us all sorts of hassle walking around all this. I gestured to the expansive concrete Victoriana all around us.”
“Where will we find one?”
“Don’t worry,” I said, “he will find us.”
And he did.
Of course, our tuk tuk driver knew exactly who to call, could setup the entire deal and was the man to make our stay most welcome (head wiggle). After a quick bag drop at the hotel, he left us at the palace early in the day and we made our way through the ticket barriers and gardens to the cool shade inside. This was, for me, the first time I would visit a Raja’s palace, and certainly not the last, as Rajasthan is well named.
Mysore palace is enormous and winding. The gates are large and literally built for elephants. Inside family treasures and cultural artefacts abound. A raja is the central focus for the entire area, he is the largest land owner, the employer and the boss of everyone he meets. Thus his art is a strange mix of civic pride and self congratulation and their homes and private chambers reflect their obsessions and wealth like no other rulers I have ever known. Fine glass and art in room after room twist around the buildings like a maze. Always with a civic angle added so as to make the experience alike walking around a particularly wealthy mayor’s office. Here a chair he dispensed justice on, here a giant painting of him defending the locals against invaders; sword flashing and astride a fine white stallion – whose name and deeds are also the stuff of legend – a sort of Indian Shadowfax; taking on elephants and beating a bloody path through the enemies lines. Aside all this are grand ballrooms, large staircases and intricate detailing. You could be forgiven in thinking that the entire experience was taking place in Versace, London or Moscow, that is, until you see the religious parts.
Religion is a funny one here.
The royal family here worshiped the consort of Shiva; Druga, which is the Devi Pravati in Demon-Fighting mode. If that wasn’t complicated enough, then the story of what Druga did certainly is. Basically the short version tells of her being unleashed on a horde of Universe-invading demons at the last moment; saving all life. She fought them all and, apparently, retained her sense of humour the entire time. A strange sense of humour to be sure, which to me looked to be about impaling demons and collecting their heads. Still Each to their own. Druga could be a bit fierce, while still looking lkie a catwalk model in a Valkarie outfit. It all sounded like a Anime movie to me.
We walked around this splendour for a few hours, enjoying the best audio tour I had listened too since the one at Buckingham Palace before heading back to the hotel.
“Your room not ready,” the manager told us.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Man still in it. He refuse to leave.”
Cesca and I exchanged looks.
“Let me talk to him.” I said.
Up three flights of ridiculously steep stairs and a maze of identical corridors later we were outside a corner room with the porter. He knocked and stood back. The door opened to show a European man in, and I am not kidding, a string vest. He looked me up and down. Then looked at Cesca and then back at me again.
“I’ll get my coat,” he said.
The room was hardly worth the hassle; no fan and no view. We settled in and fell asleep together.
When we awoke, the night had drawn in and we went out to search for something to see. Our trail led us back to the palace, but the place was transformed. Every Sunday they illuminate the building in 9600 bulbs covering every inch and thousands of people come to see it.
The effect is incredible and it was a very romantic occasion, only slightly ruined by Cesca insisting that she took innumerable photographs. I waited 40 minutes in silence, standing next to her, with her cursing the camera and me every time I said anything. 40 minutes turned into 1 and a half hours. It might not sound much, but is was a lifetime.
I reached my limit.
We had travelled together for many many months by this time. I should have been able to handle the stress of being around someone 100% of the time, but I had had enough of the camera coming between us. It had felt as if I was second to the device. I know it was stupid, but I couldn’t take another click. Back in the UK I had bought a camcorder so I would have something to do at these times; you see I tried to mitigate and understand the the issue, a classic reaction, but even now I have to kill the sound in my films, why? because you can hear nothing but Cesca’s camera clicking away.
All these frustrations came out and I walked off into the crowd, which swallowed me instantly. It was very busy by this point, something akin to a major music festival, and as I pushed through something came to my mind. It was a conversation I had 12 months previously. One of the people who had inspired us to make this journey was talking to me in the pub on his arrival back.
“Was there ever a time, you know…” I asked him.
“Know what?” he replied.
“Well, where you were ready to just walk out on your girlfriend and leave her.”
He considered this for a moment.
“Yes. Once. I got angry with her and walked off, and as I stepped away the crowd swarmed all around me and I suddenly realised that if I didn’t turn around, that this would be it; we would loose each other.” He looked me direct in the eye. “It is never worth it Bash’, turn around and realise that. Shit happens, but love is forever.”
I stood in the crowd remembering those words. I was a couple of hundred meters away from cesca by now, more than enough to lose each other in an Indian crowd. My stubbornness had pushed me this far, but my friend’s words had come back to me and stopped me in my tracks. I suddenly had the feeling that if I took only one more step, I would not see her ever again. It came with a stunning revelation: I realised that I had not been this far away from cesca in over 7 months. I stopped and looked over my shoulders. Cesca was the other side of this sea of people. I pushed back into them and made my way back to where I had left her. She was still in exactly the same place: taking photos of the palace. She hadn’t even realised I had gone.
“Will you please stop with the fucking camera!” I shouted.
She looked up like thunder.
“Please?” I asked.
“Please what?” She snapped.
“Please listen to me,” I began, “I love you. I need you. I respect you. I know you want to make the best photos in the world and I support you. I bought you your camera after all. I also bought this camera,” I held my camcorder aloft, “for you, I just knew that I must keep up with you. But please, for me, for love, for this journey we are on together, spend your time here… with me. Not with those who will see those photos. With me. I am here with you. I am right here!” She looked down at the floor and I continued, “I am supposed to be sharing this journey with you and the camera is getting between us!”
She looked up, “Maybe, photography is really important to me!”
“Look at the palace,” I said. She turned to look. “Thousand of people worked here every day of their lives. Great kings visited through those gates, elephants rode around these grounds.”
“I want to share this special moment with you. I want you to share it with me. So share it with me!”
She turned and looked at me in the eyes. I could see that the fires of rage had cooled a little.
“Ok,” she said resigned.
I took her hand and we espied the vista in front of us. For the viewer it is one of the most impressive sights in India. For a couple, finally together, it was breathtaking.
We made up that night and the next two days were spent enjoying the area together. We had an amazing afternoon at the market, trying many of the scented oils for which it is famous.
Then we jumped in our taxi and drove out of the city and up to the great temple at the top of Charmundi hill. This was great fun and not a little impressive, but also filthy and surrounded by innumerable tourist shops.
We decided to move on as the heat was oppressive. We contacted an agent and booked on a bus out of town and up into the mountains above Mysore. We started to worry about the experience when half way to the foot of the mountain the bus stopped and the driver refused to go any further without us paying more money. This was pure daylight robbery and we complained loud and angrily. To no effect. Given the choice of being dumped in the wilds or pay up, we paid. The bus took a narrow road through a game reserve and eventually the road rose up the side of the mountain.
The journey up to Ooty is famous for its extreme danger. 36 nerve shatteringly tight turns lead to the top and each year people lose their lives by misjudging the assent.
The view made up for most of this, but it was a buttock clenching feeling rising over the plains and into the sky. At the top we came to Ooty. It was our first time in the high parts of India and the experience was immediate. We gratefully departed from the terrible bus and took in the town.
The first thing that strikes you as different up here is the reduced temperature, which drops from the high 30’s found in the plains cities to a much more palatable mid 20’s. Also the air was wetter and was much more akin to London in the summer. The town itself is collected against multiple hills and squatting atop steep roads. The buildings are of a different style and it took me a moment to realise which. They looked British. The British influence on India is always to be found in the highest places. Change not only comes slowly to such mountainous regions, but also the British spent most of their summers up at places like this to avoid the heat below. Consequently, these high places are like stepping back in time. I even spied a large Christian church on one of the hills.
Both Cesca and I started to relax. We approached the first in the line of tuk tuk drivers,
“Can you take us to this hotel please?” I asked him, showing him a page from the Lonely Planet.
He shook his head sadly, “No, that hotel burned down.”
Cesca and I shared looks and she nodded.