Hi I hope you're enjoying the Summer and the Rojiblancos storming World Cup run. I'm writing from Mamallapuram just South of Chennai and it's been a few weeks similar to the last in that having seen barely any foreigners anywhere I've now got to a beach resort and there's a lot around. I've been pretty shocked in India how most visitors seem to be content with a few of the biggest sights and staying at the beach- for a country with so much diversity and different aspects of the culture to enjoy I'm just shocked how unambitious most backpackers are here.
After leaving Goa I headed to the 2nd biggest mountain range in the country called the Western Ghats. It was nice getting into the highlands cooler temperatures but the 2 hill stations I went to provided very different glimpses of India. The Koorg region was lovely, quiet and covered with coffee and vanilla plantations as well as Tibetan refugee communities it was a great area to hike around in, and for the first time since Sikkim in the North have anything like some tranquility in this hectic country. Ooty on the other hand was a bit different; Indians understandably seem to like to go to relaxing rather than 'interesting' places on holiday and the old English station of Ooty located near the 2 giant sweatboxes of Chennai and Bangalore makes it an obvious draw. Whilst the area has a pleasant climate and surrounding vegetation it was almost like they lifted a normal, polluted, crowded and insufferably busy Indian town of 100,000 people and put it 2200m up in the hills. It's probably the worst place I've been to in India in just how ruined the area has become and I spent my first day there ensuring a horse got put down after it had been abandoned following an accident and then happily left the next day.
After Ooty I went to the Southern state of Kerala which is without doubt one of the most interesting in India. Geographically it's made up of wide rivers, spice, cashew, red banana plantations and a beautiful palm fringed coastline which attracted traders from all over the world. The Chinese, Dutch, Portuguese, Arabs and even Jews all left a varied religious legacy including Catholicism and Syrians Christians; they also created cosmopolitan coastal trading cities resembling those on the Malacca straights in Malaysia or even across the Indian Ocean on the Swahili coast of Africa making it a fascinating place to be for a while.
The interior of the state is covered in waterways which are still a very popular way to get around, aside from the relaxing waterborne serenity it's also a great way to see why for the poor Kerala is probably the best place to live in India.
India has a political system somewhat similar to the USA in that each state has it's own Parliament and elects its own government. In 1957 Kerala became the first place in the world to democratically elect a Communist government and (sorry Fidel) it's probably been the worlds most successful attempt at it.
The people are really proud of the tradition and you see big marches and the hammer and sickle symbol up everywhere, many people even have names like Lenin and Stalin. It's really noticeable how even the poorest villagers are much better educated and have a decent home as well as plenty of access to schools and clinics unlike in some of the Northern states like Bihar or Uttar Pradesh where if you're born poor your life chances are very limited.
The Communists achievements here are many, from female emancipation to infrastructural growth and a life expectancy of 75, fully 10 years higher than the Indian average. To focus on one thing however, Kerala has achieved a literacy rate of 94% one of the highest in the developing world and I've found education in India a fascinating thing to look at on my travels here.
Any Indian will proudly tell you their extremely capable Prime Minister Manoman Singh is the best educated leader in the world and the importance placed on education here is one of the things I've find myself most admiring compared to other developing countries. Whilst ensuring your kids are educated doesn't guarantee them a better life it certainly gives them more chance.
One of the single most common things you see in India are posters advertising schools or extra tuition classes with the qualifications of the tutors and their schools plastered everywhere. Most of the time its for Maths, Physics etc though I'm still weighing up whether to get some of the 'Personality Development' classes offered too. The focus on education undoubtedly shows the diaspora community in a good light; in the UK Indians rank only behind the Chinese in all ethnic groups results and in the States an Indian girl has just become the 8th Indian-American winner in 11 years of the American National spelling bee. The importance placed on education is definitely based on an imperfect system though, firstly in quite how judgmental Indians are about people according to their level of education. In part due to the caste system (the highest Brahmin caste are traditionally teachers) you seem to be completely marked down if you're not educated and where access to education is so uneven it's not exactly an equitable system.
Indian parents are notoriously competitive over their children (the mothers in Goodness Gracious Me was about right) and success in education seems to take on an almost obsessional tone which can be good but can also border on being slightly unpleasant at times. Exams seem to be over-competitive here to the point of being unpleasant, normally on the advertising posters for schools kids as young as 11 or 12 are made into mini celebrities. Their photos and details of their successful results are used to sell tuition classes in posters or in ads in the newspapers rather than the pass grade of the school as a whole like schools might use in England. When kids do really well e.g.at a national level then they can expect to be in the first few pages of the national newspapers along with several hundred word articles about them, which just for kids school results feels both well over the top and surely not what education should be about.
Critics of the system in Kerala like to point out that due to its higher taxes the state has been far less successful than others in attracting overseas investment and it triggers quite an interesting debate about education in India and other developing countries generally. India like most other developing countries is arguably too top heavy on education spending; whilst it annually churns out millions of university graduates in Engineering and IT fields etc it simultaneously has an appalling literacy rate of just 61% overall. In contrast somewhere like The Philippines has a fantastic rate of 92% yet doesn't produce enough high quality graduates. Consequently India has a large body of qualified workers who form the 'engine' to its fast economic growth whereas The Philippines has consistently struggled in this area, but is definitely a 'fairer' system to begin with. For countries with limited budgets for education and the impact it has on the wider society deciding where to spend the money is a hard one to manage and it's interesting both to debate and to see the differing approaches relative success.
In true Socialist fashion Kerala is also the only state in India with a visible drinking scene, or problem depending on which way you look at it. Many states like Gujarat and some in the NorthEast are completely dry and in most other states drinking out is both heavily taxed and not a very attractive option. Outside from the big cities with Western style bars (with prices to match) generally booze is only available at either bottle shops where you're given it in a paper bag by a man behind bars or at 'permit rooms'. These are incredibly depressing places where middle aged men escape from their wives to drink around dimly lit tables and as in most drinking establishments in Asia there are no women anywhere near the premises.
Therefore outside of Goa I've barely drunk but Kerala's great as dotted around the landscape are 'Toddy (palm beer) shops' which are reminiscent of the rum shacks in the Caribbean for their awesome prices and enjoyable ubiquity. I liked them of course but alcoholism and the probably related high level of mental health problems and suicide rates is becoming a serious problem which is largely unknown in the rest of the country.
Aside from the lack of booze Indians are pretty healthy in other ways, out of respect to the various religions you virtually never see pork or beef on a menu and I've been pretty amazed at how few Indians smoke. Having said that many men chew pan (sort of chewing tobacco) or betel nuts which do very bad things to your teeth and whilst they get up surprisingly late the lifestyle is generally pretty healthy.
An area where health isn't so good is sanitation; nearly 100 years ago Gandhi wrote that the lack of sanitation was 'the shame of India' and things haven't changed nearly enough.
Another of the most common 'Indian sights' are blokes pissing anywhere and everywhere and it's unusual to see Indians covering their mouths when they cough or sneeze. Much more seriously though is the 'toilet problem' the country faces. To much public hand wringing about the direction of the country, the number of mobile phones recently overtook the number of toilets and in most of the countryside a shocking 1 in 4 households actually have toilets. If you're wondering where do they go? well the answer is they take a small pot of water out and simply pick a spot they like the look of. Unsurprisingly Indian villages are often really unpleasant places to be as with the wandering cows everywhere too you're never far from the smell or sight of excreta.
At certain times such as on a train first thing in the morning you're 'treated' to the disgusting sight of seeing up to 20 or 30 people simultaneously squatting by the tracks. When you bear in mind this is a country that eats with its right hand and you have much of the answer for why India's found eradicating certain diseases so hard.
The consequences of this lack of sanitation can be seen everywhere in the country; the sheer number of beggars in the country is of course one of the things India is famous for ans astound most visitors. They vary considerably, the so-called beggar families are everywhere where parents will send out their often very young kids to guilt trip you into giving money and when you realise that they've probably been begging for generations and probably don't know any better than taking their kids out of school it's darn depressing.
Less forgivable are when ordinary seemingly solvent people ask you for money, the most memorable examples I've had of this were chatting for 20minutes with a guy who claimed to be a retired MIT professor (and talked the talk) about whether global warming exists only for him then to turn round and ask to 'borrow' some money. In Bihar at a Hindu shrine for hopefully the only time in my life I told a shotgun wielding police officer to piss off after he asked for 'baksheesh' for absolutely no reason.
However, without a doubt it's the polio sufferers/beggars I've felt most sorry for. Polio is transmitted via the 'fecal-oral route' and whilst it's been wiped out virtually everywhere else, in India it's still fairly prevalent. I'm too young to remember any cases in England but seeing it here it's a horrible disease that to differing extents leaves sufferers essentially with withered up limbs that don't work. Therefore everywhere you see beggars who are mentally fine but are unable to do virtually anything with their legs and arms; whilst better access to vaccines amongst the poor etc would undoubtedly help, just having better basic hygiene practices would certainly cut down on the number of cases.
After leaving Kerala I went to India's southern most state of Tamil Nadu where aside from seeing where the subcontinent ends to look out over where the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal meet the Indian Ocean at Cape Cormorin, some of India's finest Hindu temples are located. There are many things I really like about Hinduism; aside from the beautiful multicoloured temples it has by some distance the most visually interesting worship rites of the major religions. I think the fortunes of the C of E would be revived overnight if every medium sized church and up had their own resident elephant to bless you and the elaborate music and dance rituals the ubiquitous pilgrims perform are always entertaining. On a more philosophical note the lack of proselytizing and (certainly that I've seen) tolerance of other religions put the Abrahamic faiths to shame.
However, one area of the religion I'm really struggling to respect is the role of the Sadhus (holy ones) or so called 'God Men'. Almost every temple will have a few who'll uninvited mumble a few words to 'bless you' then demand exhorbitant (e.g. $10) 'donations'. With an unsettling glint in their eyes and a deeply unpleasant, almost lascivious aura about them they remind me very strongly of when I met Michael Howard several years ago.
But these are the unsuccessful ones; a key part of Hinduism is the belief that in order to show you the 'right path to enlightenment' you need a Guru (teacher) in order to point you the right way. Therefore India has a simply huge industry of God men (it's very rarely women, although you may have heard of Amma the 'Hugging Mother') where a man claims to have found the secret to 'a pure life' etc. If you can convince enough people that you've discovered 'the way' then you can become very, very (as in multimillionaire) rich. They remind me of American mega- preachers like Joel Osteen or Billy Graham Jr both in how often you see them on posters or TV but also in the degree of power they have over so many people.
The Beatles gave up on the Indian dream in the Mahesh Yogi Ashram when after a while they realised that the yogi spent more time asking for money and trying to sleep with the female guests than he did actually being 'holy'.
And that's a fairly neat summary of how they come across to me too; almost every week since I've been here there's been a big scandal involving a God man always involving money and sex. The influence they build up is incredible however, when one of the highest profile of the God men was arrested a few weeks ago with a truly appalling charge sheet including sex with minors, pimping, kidnapping, extortion and people trafficking by the next morning the former head judge of the High Court had gathered a group of celebrity backers to protest his innocence in all the newspapers- because he was their guru. As Louis Theroux felt when he did a programme on them, I find it incredible how a person can claim to have attained spiritual enlightenment and then firstly to use said enlightenment so blatantly to make themselves rich and famous - and that people actually believe it. Whilst it's a situation where I'm obviously at least partly wrong as they give a degree of spiritual wellbeing to so many people, it's definitely something I've struggled to accept here.
So with my visa running out I headed up the coast to the incongruous spot of Pondicherry. I remember it well from tedious French lessons at school and is basically a town the British for some reason allowed the French to keep on the East coast. The French part of the town feels nothing like the rest of India and it felt surreal to wander along tree lined avenues eating baguettes and seeing the odd tricolor. It's where Life of Pi is partly set if you've read it and whilst the more modern Indian influences make it look a bit ragged in places it was definitely a nice spot to watch Englands heroic draw against Algeria.
Tomorrow I fly to Sri Lanka which I'm both excited and quite anxious about as due to visa issues I'm not sure what's gonna happen when I get there. Hopefully I'll be there for a few weeks and whilst I'd like to look forward to getting a break from not so much the love affair as the all consuming white hot passion Indian drivers have for their car horns I think my eardrums will take a similar battering in Sri Lanka.
Whilst the only things I really miss from home are my dog and watching the Os having now been away for over a year it feels my life has little connection with England, like all my thought processes are wrapped up here so I hope you're able to still get through the emails!