Ajith doesn’t speak any English apart from to say yes whilst wobbling his head from side to side. This confusing contradictory combination of gestures has been adopted by most Indian service-industry workers. Here’s a quick guide:
Lesson 1 – in the restaurant: Do you have bottled water? (whilst gesturing opening a bottle) … yes, sir, yes + (wobble head) = they might, but then you might get Sprite.
Lesson 2 – using a petrol station: Do you take Visa? (whilst showing the bank card) … yes, sir, yes + (wobble head) = they might, but it might not work today.
Lesson 3 – negotiating with tuk-tuk drivers: Lalbagh Park Gate please (showing sat-nav route on phone) … yes, sir, yes + (wobble head) = I know where it is but I’m going to take you via my uncle’s shop cos I’m on commission.
I don’t speak any Tamil other than to wobble my head from side to side and Ajith doesn’t speak any English. So it was via a series of gestures that we stumbled through the couple of days at the VK Farmstay. Ajith may have been asking me if I wanted chicken, mutton or veg curry for breakfast but the language barrier being what it was I don’t know if he was offering me an espresso (although I doubt it). So Ajith cooked, and I ate whatever came, without cutlery, being careful to only eat with my right hand (your left hand is for other less savoury bodily functions). Farmers gestured for me to walk with them around the countryside. And the wildlife and the local children continued to observe both me and the bike with great fascination. The afternoon before I left VK Farmstay I ventured for a walk on my own. After a couple of hours walking in what I was confident was a large loop of the village, being mindful to keep an eye out for tigers, leopards and herds of elephants I re-found the gravel track which served as the village main road. In my head I had been considering my options should I happen upon an elephant or a big wild pussy cat, figured my options were limited and hoped that there wasn’t much wildlife in this part of the wildlife reserve today. It was then that Swamy turned up. Swamy, a delightful smiley guy in his early 50s on a little 100cc Honda, was very excited by the sight of a Westerner in this remote part of Tamil Nadu. It turned out that Swamy is a prep-school teacher who lives in our village but works in a school about an hour away on the other side of the reserve. He teaches all the children in the school aged 8-12 in one big classroom. He got even more excited by the news that I have been teaching music in England for 15 years and insisted that tomorrow morning I visit his school on my way to Bangalore. I can’t refuse, Swamy is too excitable, chatty and friendly.
Swamy meets me at 7:30am, swoons over my bike and then says that today, because I am with him, he thinks we will be OK to cross the tiger reserve on our own, without following the school bus which has a 4x4 escort … maybe there are tigers around here? He says that my bike is big and loud enough to scare away the wildlife! We ride deep into the forest, a far better adventure than any organised tourist route. Swamy takes me through remote hamlets where women still have to carry water from the central stand-pipe. He shows me where he saw a tiger walking down the road last month, and takes me down tracks which I doubt many Westerners have ever ventured. With the engine off the sound of the forest coming to life as the sun burns the mist off the hills beneath us is something quite exquisite. The dawn chorus runs on India time, which means a couple of hours behind when one might expect it occur, so 8am, a good 90 minutes after the sun made an appearance, the exotic Indian birds create a chorus that Messiaen (who transcribed bird song for his compositions – see Oiseaux Exotiques) would have been entranced by, I was.
It’s Monday morning so the children don’t yet know that their normal day is to be disrupted by the arrival of an English music teacher. The excitement is overwhelming when Swamy and I role up. They sit, transfixed on the floor and politely ask questions in English about my life back home and what I’m doing in India. Then I have the honour of hoisting the School flag in the courtyard. The flag is tied up in a bundle at the bottom of the flag pole, when it reaches the top it unfurls itself, showering me with flower petals which they have hidden inside – amazing! I am treated to a couple of traditional Tamil songs before Swamy suggests that I teach them some English songs. In hindsight I should have seen this coming, but I hadn’t, so now it’s think on your feet time. Over the last two decades I have no idea how many different variations of This Little Light of Mine I’ve taught to kids in unison, simple harmony and call & response, but trying to get rural Tamil kids to sing in a Western tonality was memorably challenging, bizarre and thoroughly rewarding, especially when (having got the basic idea) they wanted to do it again, and again, and again and ... after several different renditions and much applause and amusement I had to shake hands and be wished well by every child in the School. It took over an hour to leave. Unforgettable!
After one month in India I arrived in Bangalore. A major city which is the closest thing to London I’ve seen since being in London. Not that I’ve been looking for a replacement London, it’s just a long way from the rural retreat of the VK Farmstay, the tiger reserves and the classroom in Tamil Nadu. Bangalore is a westernized, switched-on city. There are some dubious reminders of globalisation here; Starbucks, McDonald’s, Burberry, but there are some great independent coffee shops, restaurants, and bazars. Having been in India for exactly a month I’ve travelled just over 5000km by bike, not always on roads, I’ve stayed in 14 different beds from nice hotels, guest houses, farm-shacks to flea-pits, I've eaten some of the strangest, spiciest, questionable-est and wondrous foods and seen some amazing places, and I’ve only really scratched the surface of West / South India. The week in Bangalore has been good. I’ve found a supermarket that sells cornflakes, brown bread and honey (I’ve had enough of curried dhal for breakfast).
Aussie Brett and lil’ David have arrived, Brett is staying in the same apartment as me, David managed to find a couch-surfing freebie, although his first attempt to find gratis accommodation put him in the most squalid health hazard imaginable. His photograph of the bathroom and sleeping area looked like a real-life attempt at out-fouling the Worst Toilet In Scotland scene from Trainspotting. The boys have been joined by two more bikers; another Swiss guy called Lawrence and Marcus, a Dutch dude. Lawrence is quintessentially Swiss. He is just a little bit OCD about plans, routes, timings, way-points procedures and BBQ sauce (he doesn’t like BBQ sauce, especially when ordering meatballs in an American style diner in central Bangalore – which one might assume would be where one may be assaulted by just such a sauce). Although it may be that a bit of OCD is is no bad thing, there needs to be a plan if we’re going to get across Burma and David’s cuckoo clock tends to run on flexi-time. Marcus epitomises the Dutch. He’s relaxed, alternative (he’s riding an Indian Royal Enfield which he bought on the streets of Mumbai), debonair and mischievous all at the same time. Big Phil, meanwhile, has had to fly back to Switzerland to get renew his passport and visa so we’re not sure if he’ll catch us up before Burma.
From Bangalore we agree to ride together towards Hyderabad then I’m going up through the centre of the country towards Jaipur, Delhi and Agra, then heading East towards the Ganges, Varanasi, where I plan to rendezvous with the boys again, then ride further East to the border with Myanmar.