Posted in Photography

Recent Photos

Since my last update, about a trip to Zhaji, I haven’t done much of interest. This semester has been brutal. I teach far more than in previous semesters, and my work now require me to give constant assessments that require hours of tedious marking. In addition, I got a slipped disc that put me out of action for three long weeks, by the end of which the short Anhui springtime had been replaced by the crushing heat of summer. As I write, it is about 38 degrees Celsius outside. A few days after my slipped disc healed enough for me to resume semi-normal activities, I slipped and fell and damaged my right ankle, further impeding my ability to do anything.

In short: it’s been a crappy few months.

Still, I have managed to hobble outside and escape the confines of my house and classroom. By large, Huainan is a pretty ugly place, but I did manage to visit a tiny park with some pleasant flowers:

A few days ago, we also managed to climb a small hill near our house and take a few photos:

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It is getting harder and harder to upload photos to WordPress, so if you want to follow my travels and other silly photos, follow my Instagram account, which is somewhere at the bottom of this page.

 

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Posted in essay

The Absurdity of “Cultural Appropriation”

Yesterday I watched a series of presentations by young Chinese businesspeople. Their task was to find a product or service from China, then choose a target market abroad, and figure out how to break into that market. It was an exercise in culture, as much as anything. Their assigned reading included various essays on the failures of businesses attempting to enter the Chinese market and vice versa. My job was to pick apart their presentations and find flaws in their plans, and then challenge them to defend or change their presentation.

Most of the groups picked various Chinese foods that have not yet penetrated international markets, but two of them looked at Chinese clothing. In particular, they decided to pick the qipao, and market it to consumers in the United Kingdom. One of the groups intended to hybridize the qipao with Victorian-style clothing, which I think is just a horrible idea that profoundly misunderstands modern British tastes, whereas the other thought they could simply sell the qipao as it is to British women.

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A woman wearing a Qipao (Source: Wikipedia)

My question to them went a little like this:

“I think that most people in the UK and other Western countries would agree that the qipao is a beautiful and elegant item of clothing, and maybe fifty or a hundred years ago they would love to wear it. But these days people would be afraid of receiving criticism for cultural appropriation. How do you intend to get past this obstacle?”

The students were unfamiliar with the concept of cultural appropriation. In fact, if you try to explain this issue to just about anyone here in China – or, for that matter, much of Asia – they look at you as if you were insane. And I would tend to agree. To me, the whole concept is indeed insane.

The Chinese, like the Japanese and Koreans, mostly wear Western-style clothes. Their idols are American pop stars, movie stars, and basketball players, and, each year, their diets are comprised of more and more Western-style food. Their cultures are utterly permeated with American and European influences. It is hardly surprising, then, that people from this part of the world dream of the day that Westerners walk about in Asian clothing, listen to Asian music, watch Asian movies, and eat Asian foods. The idea that this could somehow be offensive to them is absurd.

The issue of cultural appropriation was widely discussed a few weeks ago after an American girl wore a qipao to her prom, and incurred the wrath of America’s liberal trolls, who said she was offending the Chinese. Meanwhile, in China, people agreed that she had done nothing wrong.

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Keziah Daum in a qipao

My girlfriend has asked me about this before. Last year, she was looking for a dress to bring to Scotland, and she suggested I buy something Chinese for myself. She thought it would be nice if we both wore Chinese-style clothes when we visited. I tried to explain that British people would think I was stealing from her culture and being offensive to Chinese people.

“But it’s my idea! I’m Chinese and I want you to wear Chinese clothes!”

“You don’t understand,” I said. “It doesn’t matter what you want. There are a bunch of people who think they know best, and they decide what’s right and wrong, and they’ve decided that this is offensive to you.”

We “argue” about it sometimes, although I’m entirely on her side. I am merely trying to explain what cultural appropriation is. I have no interest in defending it. I can certainly understand why it’s wrong for kids to wear offensive Halloween costumes, and that there’s a difference between respecting someone’s culture and mocking someone’s culture, but it seems that too many PC folks cannot understand these nuances.

When pressed, these critics will argue that cultural appropriation is a matter of power. The argument goes that Western countries have pushed their culture on the rest of the world for so long that it is impossible for them to steal from us. However, when Westerners take an element of another culture and incorporate it into their own, it is a form of theft. This is reasonable, except that is usually a form of respect to see something worthwhile in another culture, not to mention a natural part of intercultural exchange throughout human history. Surely it would be far worse to dismiss that other culture entirely, saying, “I’d never wear Chinese clothes! I have more class than they do!” As for the power dynamic, as my girlfriend pointed out, surely by now China has far more power and wealth than, say, Scotland, and yet no one would complain about a Chinese man playing the bagpipes.

In Asia, despite the sudden influx of Western fashion, people remain fiercely proud of their traditions, even when they don’t engage with them much themselves. A Chinese person who has never done kung-fu or played the er-hu will nonetheless tell you of the subtle sophistication of these cultural artifacts and, whenever a picture of a white person engaging with either makes it onto social media, they are not offended. On the contrary, people are filled with pride that something from their part of the world has made an impact on someone from another part of the world.

If you ask them about it, they’ll say, “Well, we have x from your country; why shouldn’t you have y from ours?” And that is exactly the point. It is precisely why cultural appropriation is a deeply ignorant concept, even if it is, in some cases, well-meaning.

To be honest, I have no interest in wearing Chinese clothes when I go back to Scotland. It’s just not my style. However, I have been in Asia for more than ten years now, and in that time I have travelled through dozens of countries. I attempt to see and experience the culture in each place I visit, and it always makes me sick to look at the limited perspectives of the people who get riled up on social media about cultural sensitivity. These folks are mostly from the US, and their entire worldview is shaped by American society and politics. They attempt to apply their morality on the globe, whilst at the same time decrying ethno- or geocentrism. The things that they say make no real sense from a global perspective. Their hearts are, mostly, in the right place, but their heads are firmly lodged inside their own rectums. They make me embarrassed to call myself liberal.

Posted in travel

Weekend Trip to Zhaji

I’ve been living in China on and off for almost eight years and sometimes I forget that it can be a beautiful place. Between the pollution, the people, and the government, there’s a lot here that’s just plain awful. The cities are vast and unpleasant, and the countryside is being swallowed up at an alarming speed. Even when you take the train from one city to the next, all you see are mountains being torn down, forests devastated, and rivers that run grey with filth.

Where I live is especially bad. The air is thick with coal dust and the people utterly uncivilized in the truest sense of the word. Most of northern and central Anhui province is like this, unfortunately, and as the giant metropolis of Hefei grows and grows, it simply swallows up more of what was once pleasant land, and turns it into what Chinese people desire most – bland, grey swathes of land covered in huge buildings.

If this all sounds unpleasant, then imagine travelling on a national holiday, when hundreds of millions of people (I’m not exaggerating) take to the roads and rails in pursuit of somewhere to take a selfie. Venturing outside at these times is just foolish, although I have done it on several occasions (Jiuhuashan, Dali, Meilixueshan). Lacking the capacity for creative thought, the Chinese all go more or less to the same places, but even if you find somewhere with fewer of them, you still have to contend with the small matter of getting there on jam-packed roads and train stations crammed with screaming, spitting, shitting morons.

Thankfully, we accidentally purchases tickets for business class and were delighted to find a small cabin with four luxurious reclining seats. It was utterly silent in there, in stark contrast to the rest of the train. What a wonderful beginning to a journey:

Vera Enjoying a Business Class Seat from Hefei

We arrived in a small town called Jingxian, and from there took a local bus for an hour and a half up into the mountains to Zhaji. On the way, we saw some incredible birds and I regretted having not brought a longer lens. In packing my camera equipment, I had assumed Zhaji would be as utterly devoid of wildlife as everywhere else in eastern China. Boy, was I wrong. There were eagles and huge colourful birds with long tails. Yet I was never able to shoot any of them with the camera stuff I’d brought.

Oh well, c’est la vie.

Zhaji proved to be scenic enough to get some good photos:

Zhaji is unlike other historic towns in China in several ways. The first and most important is that it’s not at all well-known. Others, like Sanhe, are swarmed with idiot tourists year-round. People move there just to sell souvenirs, and all the buildings are renovated to make it more tourist-friendly. The result is that it becomes very fake and rather gaudy. The beauty of old China was that it revered subtlety – something utterly lost on modern Chinese, who prefer things loud and obvious. Zhaji, by contrast, retains the pleasant charm of old dynasties, and the fact that it has been largely left to fall apart keeps it looking as authentic as it is. The people there seem like good, honest folk who go about normal lives in spite of the small number of tourists that visit, rather than the greedy snakes who inhabit other tourist spots. As a result, Zhaji is a relaxing, pleasant place to visit with no scams or related pitfalls.

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All the woman in Zhaji wash clothes in the stream that runs through town.

We didn’t have much time but we made the most of it, even exploring the town and its surrounding areas at night:

On our second day, we took a taxi further into the mountains to a place called Peach Blossom Lake (Taohuatan) and went rafting on a river there. The national park (or regional forest park, whichever it was) was pretty small and pleasant, with not too many tourists due to its remote location. In fact, aside from rafting it’s best-known for a Li Bai poem. We walked around for a while and admired the surprisingly clean water before renting a raft and drifting peacefully down the river over the course of about an hour.

IMG_1471It was so nice, it felt like being in another country!

After a brief trip, we had to leave little Zhaji and head back through the miserable transport system to Huainan. Unfortunately, I’d made a mistake in buying the train tickets and it took a complicated series of buses and taxis to get home over 14 long hours… Back just in time for a few hours’ sleep before work.

Oh well, at least I have the memories and photos to remind me it’s not all bad here.

And hey, China will always be funny because it’s so damn weird. After all, where else in the world do they teach children fire safety like this:

Chinese fire safety for children

Posted in travel

10 Years

Ten years ago today, I landed at Incheon airport. It was my first time in Asia and I had no idea what to expect. I knew nobody on this whole continent, but I had found a job online that promised me a somewhat decent salary, something that was impossible for me back in Scotland.

I spent a little less than three years in South Korea. Unfortunately, the job was pretty awful. I actually disliked the country for a lot of the time I was there, although now I look back with a more mature perspective and realize that it wasn’t so bad. In fact, there was a lot of beauty there and I had some amazing experiences.

In Korea, I spent most of my time working but on weekends I’d head out into the mountains to hike. That was the best thing about the country – it was all mountains. After a year or so, I bought a motorbike and I ventured further off to the coasts. It’s not a particularly large country, and by the time I left in 2010, I’d seen most of it.

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In 2010, I left South Korea. On the way out of the country, my plane crashed. Thankfully, no one was badly hurt, and after a few days I continued on a journey that took me across the United States, through Europe, to Taiwan, Malaysia, and finally China. The twists and turns that brought me here, to China, were bizarre at best and culminated in me receiving an anonymous phone call to a hotel room in Kuala Lumpur asking, “Can you come to China tomorrow morning?”

China has been my home on and off since 2010, when I first arrived in a relatively unknown city called Hefei. At that time, the president was Hu Jintao, and he was pumping money into Hefei and the surrounding areas. Since then, the city has changed unrecognizably. It is massive, and has often been cited as the fast-growing urban area on earth. In 2010 I was living in the countryside outside the city, and had to take a bus for thirty-five minutes to reach the center. Nowadays the city has spread for miles beyond where I lived, and the center has changed to a completely new location. There’s an international airport, theme parks, and a host of giant hotels, train stations, malls, and whatnot. Most towns change less in a hundred years than Hefei has in eight.

After a few years in China, I took off for Cambodia, where I ran a bar/restaurant/hotel for a year. This was about 2013, and by that time I’d spent a lot of time exploring Southeast Asia, and felt like it would be a great place to live. It was, but in 2014, I returned to China, to a smaller city near Hefei, and resumed teaching. I have remained there ever since.

China is crazy. It’s the weirdest place in the universe. Going anywhere and doing anything can be exhausting and unpleasant. I remember when I invited a friend over here many years ago and he said: “Even the simplest things here are just… different. You want to go buy a carrot and it becomes this huge adventure. Nothing works like you’d expect it to.”

But I guess it’s alright because I’m still here. It certainly gives me opportunities I would have had back home. The same was true of Korea. Since arriving in Asia ten years ago, I’ve visited about thirty countries and had an impossible number of experiences that just would never have happened had I not ventured east. I’ve run marathons in North Korea, hiked Mount Fuji, swum with dozens of sharks, gotten close to blue whales off Sri Lanka, and so much more. What an incredible ten years it has been – full of extreme ups and downs – but never, never boring.

David with Mount Fuji and Ice Cream

Posted in update

Back in China

All good things must come to an end, and so after a month wandering India and ten days in Sri Lanka, I returned home to China. China is the land of filth and bad manners, but it is not all bad. There is a level of weirdness here that you just don’t find anywhere else on earth.

Take, for example, the outdoor pop-up dental practices:


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Open-air dental surgery

Before you ask, yes that the big filthy puddle on the left is an open sewer. The local elderly will at the same time use it as a toilet and a place to wash clothes, dishes, or just about anything else.

And, of course, is there anything funnier than Chinese attempts at translation? No, there isn’t:

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Rape Festival

(For the record, the Chinese says “oil seed rape festival,” which is still a bit odd.)

Every day brings a new weirdness, even after all these years. Some of it is just exasperating and some is easier to laugh at. Some, like this homemade bench-press set-up is actually quite impressive.

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If Rocky had been Chinese, he would have trained here.

I have been far busier with work than in previous semesters and so have done relatively little of note, but last week I found a spare few hours to go see the cherry blossoms herald the arrival of spring.

 

Posted in travel

Beaches, Animals, and Mountains: Why Sri Lanka is the Greatest

I love Sri Lanka. It is absolutely one of my favourite countries. Back in January, 2017 I spent two weeks travelling around the south of the country and had such a great time that after my long journey through India, I thought I’d pop back over for another visit, this time bringing my girlfriend, Vera.

We arrived separately in Colombo and stayed at the beautiful Canes Boutique Hotel. After more than a month of hostels and cheap guest houses, it was pure luxury. I had some time to kill before Vera’s flight arrived, so I spent a day exploring Colombo by myself. I had totally dismissed it during my first visit, but it was actually quite a nice city – though it indeed doesn’t offer much more than a day’s worth of sightseeing.

Colombo Waterfront

The next morning, we headed south to the beach town of Unawatuna. On my previous visit to Sri Lanka, I’d taken the bus from place to place. It is outrageously cheap and, honestly, it was quite fun. However, this time we had time-constraints and so opted for taxis.

At Unawatuna, we spent two days exploring the beaches, finding that Jungle Beach was far superior to the main Unawatuna Beach. It was pleasant for swimming and snorkelling, whereas the main beach (as with almost everywhere else in Sri Lanka) was quite choppy. While swimming, we were lucky to see a number of small sharks enter the bay and scare the hell out of the Russians who were swimming there.

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Unawatuna Beach

Nursing some minor sunburn, we opted to move on from Unawatuna to our next destination – Yala National Park. Actually, we were heading to the nearby town of Katharagama, which is a pleasant little place right by the entrance to the park. We took another taxi, this time driving for four hours across a big chunk of the country. It was a beautiful drive, though.

In Katharagama, we went to the Katharagama Homestay, where I’d stayed last year. The owners are really friendly and the room is very clean. I had no qualms about going back again, and would definitely recommend it to anyone visiting the area. We explored the town for one evening:

The following morning, we set off to explore Yala National Park. Not long into our safari, we had a very, very close encounter with a leopard:

Of course, there were numerous other incredible animals in the park:

After Yala, we took another taxi north to the little town of Ella, where we spent a couple of days walking around the hills on the train tracks. The town itself isn’t much, but the surrounding mountains are beautiful.

Finally, we spent a day in Kandy on our way back to the airport at Colombo. We explored the forest park and the lake, and walked about the bustling little city.

Finally, our time came to an end. We hopped in one last taxi for the ride to Colombo airport and journey back to China, stopping off for a day in the southern city of Guangzhou.

Posted in travel

Final Stop in India: Varkala

My trip through India took me from the east coast (Chennai, Auroville, and Pondicherrry) through the temples and hill stations of the central south, to stop finally on the west coast at Kochi and then Varkala.

Along the way, I had many adventures. India is a great country and I saw some incredible sights. I also met many very cool people everywhere I went. However, it is an exhausting place to travel, especially when you travel – as I do – very cheaply, going by local bus and staying in hostels. Although I had enjoyed seeing the country, by the time I  got into my final week there, I had lost the interest to venture further. I had had my fill of temples, of mountains, of culture. I was ready to sit by the beach and relax.

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Varkala Beach

Fortunately, the beaches on India’s west coast are far nicer than the ones on its east coast. On my journey, a few travellers suggested I visit Varkala (emphasis, contrary to what you might think, is on the final syllable). I took my last long bus journey south from Kochi to Varkala, and holed up for two nights at Pagan’s hostel, not far from the beach. It was very nice but I soon switched to a private room at Sunrise Guesthouse on the cliffs.

Varkala is a tiny town on a series of cliffs, with a few small beaches dotted here and there. Getting down to them means finding the steep steps, if there are any, cut into the sides of the red cliffs, or walking until the land naturally slopes down to meet the sea. The main part of town is located above a nice white sand beach and  divided into North Cliff and South Cliff. Most of the businesses there are run by Tibetan exiles and a few folks from Kashmir or Nepal. Stretching out along the eroding coastline are rocky beaches and little fishing villages that meet stagnant backwaters – a famed type of scenery in Kerala state.

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The backwaters.

The wildlife captivated me from my first day to the last. Where in Scotland you might see seagulls or pigeons, in Kerala there are huge brahminy and black kites swooping overhead. They are majestic animals, yet common enough to almost be pests. You simply can’t go anywhere without seeing them. I spent much of my time shooting photos of them along the cliffs:

In addition to these huge birds of prey, I saw a number of other cool animals. While watching the birds one day, a dolphin jumped clear out of the sea in front of me! I spent the next days hoping it would happen again so I could shoot a photo, but it never did. I did, however, repeatedly see up to 15 dolphins swimming near the beach. While swimming at a beach five kilometers north of town, I also saw a small shark being washed onto the beach by a large wave. Thankfully, it managed to wriggle back into the sea without my help.

Mostly, though, I walked around town meeting nice people, admiring the scenery, watching the fantastic sunsets, and reading my books.

I also enjoyed big breakfasts looking out over the sea each morning:

Although it was tempting to push on and explore further, once I arrived in Varkala I realized I would be there until my time in India came to an end. India is a huge country, just amazingly vast in physical size as well as cultural diversity. I’d only seen a small part, but it really does take a lot of time and effort to get about. Besides, as I’ve said in previous posts, sometimes when you travel, you need to leave things behind for your next trip.

And so, early one morning, I set off in a taxi (no more buses for me) to the airport at Trivandrum, heading for my next destination: Sri Lanka.

Posted in review

Books I Read in India

I recently spent one month travelling the south of India, from Chennai in the east to Varkala in the west. On my journey, I did a lot of reading. Much of it was related to India as I felt it would be a good time to learn about this vast and fascinating country. I’m going to list the books below, along with a short description/review.

  1. Neither Here nor There, by Bill Bryson. Buy. I’ve read a few of Bryson’s books in the past and really enjoyed them, but this was by far the best. I laughed out loud countless times. His was of describing the various places in Europe that he visited was absolutely hilarious, particularly when things start going wrong, which they often do. He can put a funny spin on anything. Consider this rather depressing passage:IMG_0739And to think that this was written in 1991, long before millions of Chinese tourists were unleashed upon the world!
  2. Lonely Planet – South India. Hmm… I can’t seem to find a link for this one. I never buy guidebooks but given the complexities of travelling in India, I picked up a second hand 2014 copy of LP’s guide to South India. It was, to be honest, crap. Total waste of money. Full of silly grammar errors and useless information.
  3. The Great Railway Bazaar, by Paul Theroux. Buy. I’ve read a couple of Theroux’s books on my travels and immensely enjoyed all of them, but this one was a particular highlight. It details his travels around the world by train, with one chapter for each train journey. Unfortunately, much of the route is no longer viable – can you imagine trying to cross the Middle East on a train these days? His descriptions of the landscape are beautiful and the conversations with other passengers often funny and always engaging. I particularly enjoyed the sections in India.
  4. The Summer of Crud, by Jonathan LaPoma. Buy. A novel about two young men crossing America by car. Sort of an On the Road updated for the 21st century. I didn’t really enjoy it. I reviewed it here.
  5. Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, by Niall Ferguson. Buy. A fantastic book about the incredible British empire that was so vast that it covered a full quarter of the world at its peak. Ferguson explores how an insignificant nation, whose “navy” was just a bunch of pirates, conquered the globe, and how that led to the world we have today – for better or worse. As the most important part of the Empire, India dominates much of this book.
  6. The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice, by Michael Krondl. Buy. Did you know the knights of Britain and France would have sat around a table in a castle eating food that tasted more like an Indian takeaway than anything we’d consider British or French today? Spice has long been imported to Europe, and three cities dominated that trade – at least for a while. This great book explores the histories of Venice, Lisbon, and Amsterdam through the prism of spice. (The author also narrates partly from Kochi, where I visited last week.)
  7. The Good Father, by Noah Hawley. Buy. I can’t get enough of Noah Hawley’s books. Or his TV shows. He’s the guy who wrote Fargo (not the movie). Two years ago, I read his novel, Before the Fall, and was very impressed. This book is just as good. It’s about a man who finds out his son assassinated the man who was all but certain to become president of the United States. He’s determined to prove him innocent, but the son claims to be guilty.
Posted in travel

Confusing Colonialism in Cochin

I have long been interested in colonialism, and in particular the history of British India. Perhaps it was being raised in a culture that – although it no longer celebrates colonialism and, in fact, often looks back with shame – still venerates certain products of the era, like Rudyard Kipling and his beautiful stories from the subcontinent. Or perhaps it was because I studied history at university. Although it goes without saying that I cannot support the occupation of one country by another, there is still something oddly romantic about that time in history, and I often find myself thinking about it. I have travelled a great many of Britain’s former colonies, from the United States to Myanmar, and from Zimbabwe to Sri Lanka. I always find myself wondering what it was like back then.

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Much has changed, but the sunset would have been just as beautiful centuries ago.

Of course, it was not just Britain that had an empire, and it’s easy to forget that when looking very briefly at history. We tend to think of “British India” and of pompous white men in pith helmets and absurd mustaches teaching the “natives” cricket. Yet the French were here, too, and the Portuguese. The Dutch, naturally, had their own outposts, and even the Danish tried their hand at the colonial game. In fact, the British were merely the winners in a scramble for influence and power in a part of the world that was already being contested by various forces.

One can feel this mix of history in Kochi, formerly known as Cochin, and sometimes even known as Ernakulam. Its role as a port city, from which India’s bountiful supply of spices were shipped out to the world, goes back centuries to trade with the Arab states. In 1500, the Portuguese showed up, and three years later they took Kochi by force. It wasn’t long until the Dutch leveled the city and took it from the Portuguese, and later the British sent the Dutch packing and took it for their own – or rather, they manipulated the local rulers to make it essentially a vassal state. The result is, at least in the historical center of the city, a bewildering mix of cultures and monuments to the past. There are mosques, churches, temples, and synagogues. There are Muslim districts and a long street called “Jew Town.” There is British colonial architecture and a Dutch Palace that is neither a palace nor was it even built by the Dutch! It is schizophrenic town, a place with serious personality disorders, and yet it is absolutely charming.

My arrival in Kochi came after – you guessed it! – a long bus ride. By now I was very much used to these sorts of journeys and I actually quite enjoyed watching the scenery as we zigzagged through Kerala, a state that calls itself “God’s Own Country.” I arrived on the outskirts of town and needed to transfer via a local bus and a ferry just to get to the historic old town, where my hostel was located. Again, I was beginning to enjoy the hassle as a means of seeing more of India. At the ferry port, I was treated to the sight of a man beating a two meter long snake to death with a bamboo pole in front of a group of stunned children. Only in India…  or to put it in a more modern way, #indiaproblems

After checking in, I set out for a stroll along the waterfront, first admiring the huge Chinese fishing nets at the north of the island, and then watching the sun go down over the Laccadive Sea. Brought to India centuries ago by Mongolian traders who passed through China, the fishing nets are lowered by massive wooden levers into the water just off a small beach. It takes several men to lift them back out of the water, even if there are no fish inside. They are still operational, although it doesn’t seem like they actually catch many fish. Several operators charge tourists to help out with the lifting as a way of making some extra cash. “Come do my fishing for me, white man! It’ll make a great selfie for your Instagram!” Tourists cluster to take photos, although the background now is of a giant oil refinery, which rather ruins the ancient allure of the scene.

On the beach, people all pose for photos. I hate to sound like a crotchety old man, but I don’t understand why photos are now the point of any excursion, rather than a happy by-product of it. All across India, as well as most of Asia, it seems people now simply go to a beach or a park in order to take photos of one another. I watched a group of ten young men pose for more than an hour before leaving. They did nothing except take photos of each other. Half the time they were pretending to walk along the beach while a friend shot this nonchalant image, and yet no one actually bothered to do any walking just for the sake of walking! Back in Kodaikanal I saw families putting their children on trees and taking photos that will look oh so fucking adorable on Facebook, but it was all set up to make it look like they just caught the kid playing on the tree and captured the moment. The kids never actually got to play on the trees, though. I read recently that we are now in an “experience economy” where rather than collecting things, people collect experiences. This all sounds true until you realize that they aren’t even experiencing anything; they’re just getting photos to show off on social media the same way the previous generations bought new TVs and ornaments for their house.

The next morning I took a stroll around the town. Kochi is very different from other Indian cities in that its narrow streets are rather clean and quiet. They are not clean and quiet compared to, say, most cities around the world, but they are more relaxing to explore than most of this hectic land. Having already seen the northern tip of Fort Kochi, I ventured into the middle of the island and then over to the eastern shore. While the north is very touristy, most of the rest is just a normal town and most of the buildings are occupied by companies that deal in small-scale manufacturing. Halfway down the east side is an area called Jew Town, centered around Jew Town Road. I thought the name was rather offensive, myself, but then perhaps that is my delicate liberal sensibility. It just seems like they could’ve gone with something more neutral, like “Little Israel” or even “the Jewish Quarter.” Jew Town sounds a bit blunt to my ears.

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At the top of Jew Town is a rather non-descript building called the Dutch Palace. I wasn’t hugely interested, but when I saw that entry was only five rupees – incredibly, it was the same price for both foreigners and Indians – I ventured inside. It was now a museum, but once upon a time it was built by the Portuguese as a gift for the local nobility. (That’s right, the Portuguese; not the Dutch. They just restored it many years later.) This was intended to keep the peace between the Europeans and the locals, after the Portuguese and looted a temple and pissed off the Kochi maharaja. The building then is a mix of 1500s European and Indian architecture and art, and while it looks like a contender for World’s Most Boring Building from the outside, inside it is rather charming. It is also furnished with enough information, displayed in three languages, to keep you there for an hour or more, even though it is quite small.

As I walked around, I noted how each of the Kochi maharajas became less and less powerful as European influence grew. In the beginning, the Portuguese were eager to appease the local powers, but by the time the British came onto the scene, they had figured out how to play the politics game, and soon had the royals fighting among themselves while clamoring for British support. In the portrait gallery and other photographs, you can see how the royals became more influenced by British trends until, in the late nineteenth century, everyone took to wearing British clothing. It is funny that this actually occurred after the notorious Indian Mutiny, and not long before the move for independence began to take hold. It seems that the Brits were reluctant to Anglicize and Christianize India, and yet that’s exactly what happened, even after they took an official policy to avoid it happening. Independence has only sped up the process. Looking around India today, or at least the south where I have travelled, one could be forgiven for thinking that it is a Christian country more so than a Hindu one.

Posted in travel

On the Tiger Trail – Periyar National Park

From Munnar, I took yet another overcrowded bus on an unnecessarily long journey south to the town that is known as both Kumily and Thekkedy. All across India, I had encountered towns with multiple spellings or pronunciations, and even ones with names so difficult that they were normally just abbreviated (like Tiruchchirappali, which is thankfully just known as Trichy), but here at the gate to Periyar Tiger Reserve, two names are given for the one little town.

Kumily, as I shall call it, is a tiny little town comprised of gift shops, tour guide offices, and hotels. Pretty much all private residences also function as homestays, and anyone not employed in the above places drives a rickshaw for a living. The reason is simple – Periyar Tiger Reserve, which is located right on the edge of town, is a huge draw for tourists across India and abroad. Although your chances of actually seeing a tiger here about as great as the likelihood of seeing the Dalai Lama while wandering through the Himalayas, people nonetheless flock to this little national park that straddles the border between the states of Kerala and Tamil-Nadu. With a population of around forty tigers, as well as some one thousand elephants, it is certainly the region’s premiere destination for viewing wildlife.

I arrived and walked about two kilometers to my homestay – a nice little house on the edge of the forest, run by a polite elderly couple. From the offset they seemed utterly determined to help me enjoy my time in Kumily. They were almost aggressive in their friendliness, in fact. After being shown to my room and told that I must take a rest, they attacked me with cups of tea and advice about what to do, and then booked four days of activities for me after negotiating slightly lower prices than advertised. “You just tell me whenever you’re hungry, David,” the old woman told me. It sounded like a threat, and I got the impression that I might end up being held down and force-fed at some point during my stay.

The first stop on my itinerary was a spice garden. Kumily – and in fact much of southern India – is covered with these little plantations. They are basically just spice farms that have been turned into tourist attractions in order to boost profits since the Kings and Doges of Europe tend to go to Tesco for their cinnamon instead of having it shipped directly from India. Nowadays, friendly tour guides will take you around and show you where your cloves and cardamoms come from, and what pepper and nutmegs look like when they are growing. It is, in fact, absolutely fascinating, and visitors are encouraged not just to look but to grab a handful of each plant and have a good taste or sniff.

A heavily pregnant woman, who told me she was on her last day of work before maternity leave, guided me and two Indian families around the garden, giving us copious details about every plant. Her knowledge of botany was rivaled only by her ability to deal with the Indians, who treated her with the sort of rudeness I’d never before seen. It was so unbelievably casual that they were almost friendly in how they abused and belittled her. It was India’s infamous caste system in action.

The next morning, I was up at four o’clock for a full-day tour of the local national parks. Bleary eyed, I stumbled into a jeep with my guide – a young man who spoke relatively little English and sped off into the night with awful music blasting from the radio. We tore through the dark country roads until we arrived at the entrance of a neighboring national park a little before six.

“The office opens at seven-thirty,” he told me. “You want to sleep?”

I wondered why we had to leave at four o’clock if we were going to arrive an hour and a half early. Couldn’t I have just slept longer at home instead of, as he seemed to be suggesting, the back seat of a small jeep?

I sat patiently until seven-thirty, at which point the guide went in to get my ticket. He came back out and told me that we just had to wait a little longer – for what, I had no idea. Next, he asked if I wanted breakfast, which was really code for him wanting breakfast. Why couldn’t he have eaten during the time we were waiting for the office to open?

It was nine o’clock by the time we got moving. I had been awake for five pointless hours. This had better be a bloody good tour, I thought.

We set off into the park, a vast expanse of dense forest with only tiny roads and a number of reservoirs to remind you that humans sometimes come here. There were two tour jeeps and four private cars. In the other car was an elderly couple from Scotland who liked to complain about anything and everything, which was fine because I have the same hobby. The other cars were filled with friendly but idiotic Indians who I think were disappointed that the park was not divided up into enclosures like a zoo.

That was it for visitors; the park only allowed six vehicles each day. The cars took off at speed, beeping their horns as Indians are inexplicably wont to do, chasing away all the wildlife to ensure that no one would see a damn thing. It probably didn’t matter, though. My driver drove too fast and had little in the way of a knack for wildlife spotting. This was a skill I’d developed during my many safaris in Africa. I saw several sambar deer by the road that he missed, and a number of interesting birds. When we did see something, he was unable to tell me what it was, and gave me all of five seconds to have a look before he took off again. I was decidedly unimpressed.

Thankfully, during the day my driver had the idea of closely following the other jeep, whose driver spoke fluent English, had a wonderful sense of humor, and knew the flora and fauna of the region as you might expect from someone employed as a guide. We were able to latch on to his finds and whenever we stopped, I would strain to hear what he told the elderly couple in his vehicle. Instead of “It’s a bird,” he would explain the mating and migratory habits of the Malabar hornbill. He would point out tracks and scents, and lead us off trail to spectacular viewpoints. Meanwhile, I was surprised my driver could manage to operate the vehicle at all. He didn’t seem to have the requisite intellect for moving different limbs at once.

By the end of the day, we had seen a number of fascinating birds, a family of bison, and honestly not that much else. The park was incredibly beautiful, but the thick forest that protected the animals made it hard to actually see them from the road. I didn’t mind, of course. I was happy to see that such a place existed in an otherwise grossly overcrowded country. There were places where wild animals could live as they were meant to, and I was honored to get close to them – even if I couldn’t actually see many.

The next day I went on a trip into Periyar itself, where my small group hiked for about ten kilometers to a little lake, and then rowed a bamboo raft for half an hour. Along the way, we got within a few hundred meters of some elephants and saw various signs of tigers – like scratches on trees and paw prints in the mud. We were accompanied by several former poachers who had an intimate knowledge of the local wildlife and showered us with useful information. There was also one man who, thankfully, didn’t have a background in poaching as he was armed with a pump-action shotgun. He explained that if we were attacked by a rogue elephant, he would fire it into the air.

“Have you ever had to use it before?” I asked.

“Oh yes!” he laughed, looking very proud.

Later that day, in another part of the park, a ranger was caught unawares by a sloth bear, who was evidently quicker than its name suggests. The bear snuck up behind him and ripped one of his eyeballs out. Everyone seemed very excited about this and not at all worried for the ranger or indeed the possibility of it happening again.

On my third day I took an even longer hike around the park with a group of four other tourists. We mostly climbed over hills on the border between the two southern Indian states during an enjoyable six hours of walking. Again, we got up close with some elephants, saw more bison and sambar, and a huge variety of birds. But, as was expected, there was no tiger sighting.

I didn’t feel much frustration at not seeing a tiger in the wild. I have been incredibly privileged in my life to go on a number of safaris, nature hikes, and even just boat rides into the world beyond human habitation. I have seen lions and leopards, sharks and whales, and a great many of the most amazing species on our planet. Tigers are elusive. They are good at hiding, and that’s probably the only thing keeping them alive right now. All over the world, wherever tigers live, they are under threat. If it were easy to see them in their natural habitat, they would have been wiped out long ago to make fake Chinese medicine and provide trophies for men with small penises.

I would still like to see a tiger in the jungle, but it would not happen on this Indian trip. That’s ok, though. When travelling, you should always leave something unseen or undone. That way, you have a good reason to come back in future.