30 March 2010

Beach paradise

Since my brief trip to the Karnataka coast last November, I was looking forward to going back. The 10-hour bus journey from Bangalore on the pot-filled roads had been a nightmare, so this time I took the overnight train to Mangalore which was a lot more comfortable. The trip from Mangalore up the coast was also surprisingly a lot less bumpy because the roads had been repaved since November.

I think the Karnataka coast is one of India’s best-kept secrets. Though they share the same coastline, the beaches of Kerala and Goa have become very crowded and commercialized over the past decade, with big hotel chains popping up everywhere and direct charter flights arriving from international destinations like Moscow and Copenhagen.

In Karnataka you can still find quiet, idyllic beaches unblemished by crowds and commercialism. At my favourite beach getaway in Byndoor, we were the only guests and had the lovely beach all to ourselves! We then moved on to Gokarna, a place I had heard a lot about and had been meaning to visit for a long time.

Above: Outside one of Gokarna's many temples

Gokarna has always been popular with pilgrims who visit its famous Shiva temple and travellers who frequent the many beautiful beaches. The town is a charming collection of temples, narrow lanes and old houses. Pilgrims take a dip in the sea at Gokarna beach before visiting the main Mahabaleshwar temple.

Above: Kumkum for sale outside a temple

The best way to get to other nearby beaches is on foot. Actually there is no other way to reach them… the fact that you can’t get to these beaches by car make them all the more secluded. A short walk from Gokarna town takes you over the hill of red laterite rock and down along a rocky path, before emerging from a coconut grove onto Kudle Beach. This wide, semi-circular beach is popular with travellers. During the day there is a handful of people swimming or sunbathing. In the mornings and around sunset, it gets busier, with many people practicing yoga, taichi or capoeira on the beach or watching the sunset from one of the many beach cafés.

Above: Cow on Kudle Beach

At the other end of Kudle Beach a path takes you up and over the hill towards Om Beach. Along the rocky path I passed delivery men carefully balancing crates of eggs, huge sacks of potatoes, or gas cylinders on their heads! Since the beaches can only be reached on foot, this is how deliveries are made to the beach-side cafés and restaurants. Om Beach got it’s name because of its shape which resembles the Sanskrit character for Om. Smaller and quieter than Kudle Beach, this is the beach I preferred. Stepping into the water was like stepping into a warm bath. A short hike away are Half Moon Beach and Paradise Beach.

Above: A view of Om Beach

I’m not a ‘beach person’ and rarely choose a beach destination for a holiday. But I like the natural beauty and calm landscape of the Karnataka coast, making it one of my favourite places in India.

25 March 2010

Nagalinga tree

Photo courtesy of Bindu

I first saw a Nagalinga tree in Kerala. I had never seen a tree like this! Its huge trunk was covered with spindly vines, and hanging from these vines were hundreds of big pink flowers with six petals. The flowers have a strong, pungent perfume. Also hanging from the vines were round, brown fruits that look like cannonballs. This is how this astonishing tree (which is originally from South America) gets its English name: Cannonball tree.

Now is the time when the Nagalinga or Cannonball tree is in full bloom. A few weeks ago I was in Cubbon Park with my friend Kitty who knows a lot about flowers and trees. I asked her if there was a Nagalinga in the park and sure enough there was. She knew exactly where it was and took me to see it. Even before we found the tree we could smell the perfume of the flowers. The trunk was covered with hundreds of flower buds, some of which were open. Some had fallen to the ground, so I took one home. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera with me so I couldn’t take a picture.

The tree’s latin name is Couroupita Guianensis but in India it is often called Nagalinga because the inside of the flower has a ‘hood’ which looks like the hood of a snake (naga=snake) which protects the stamen (‘male organ’ of a flower) which resembles a Shiva linga.

For me, the shape reminded me of the hood of the snake Vishnu sleeps on.

18 March 2010

Swalpa adjust madi

I was sitting on a bench on the platform, waiting for the train to Chennai. A woman came up to me and said: “Please adjust.” I looked at her, perplexed. She then motioned for me to move over and I made some space for her on the bench. There wasn’t much space left, but she squeezed in and we waited for the train together.

At the time, I wasn’t familiar with this very Indian expression. In a country of over a billion people, Indians are used to ‘adjusting’. Seats on the bus meant for two people often accommodate three. Three people on a seat meant for two does not make the journey very comfortable, but no one seems to mind.

My landlords have a large extended family and often have visitors. My landlord once complained about the stream of visitors they were having during a period when there was a water shortage. This was clearly a problem for him, but he seemed ready to accept it and do his best to accommodate everyone. “We will adjust,” was his response to the problem.

“Swalpa adjust madi” (‘adjust’ a little) seems to be Bangalore’s motto. This is a superb example of how English gets mixed with Kannada to create a colloquial expression which can be used in a variety of situations. No free seats on the bus? A simple “Swalpa adjust madi” and a seat will magically appear. It may not be a whole seat to yourself but your fellow passengers will make some space for you. A government official tells you to ‘come tomorrow’ or that his office is closing? A ‘swalpa adjust madi’ may cause him to be a little more flexible (especially if a bill is slipped to him!). At a crowded restaurant, waiting customers are getting impatient and ask the waiter how much longer they’ll have to wait. “10 minutes. Swalpa adjust madi,” is his reply.

This popular expression is a reflection of the city’s easy-going attitude and a willingness to try to accommodate others. It is also an appeal to be flexible and to adapt when things don’t go as planned. “Swalpa adjust madi!” is the equivalent to “Just chill!” It’s Bangalore’s “Hakuna Matata”.

(Photo courtesy of Setu)

07 March 2010

Dilemma at the drycleaners

The drycleaner is taking a long time to find my dance costume. I scan the mass of clothes carefully wrapped in plastic and crammed together on the rack for a tussar silk with a purple border. I don’t see it. He goes into the back room and after some time finally comes out carrying my costume.

Something tells me to carefully examine each of the four pieces. As I do, I notice two faint pink stains on the salwaar. I take a closer look… Yes, they are definitely stains and I don’t remember noticing them before.

“There is a stain here, and here,” I say to the drycleaner, pointing out the two stains.

He leans forward, examines the salwaar, then straightens up again and announces:

“No, Madam! No stain!”

Is he blind or am I going mad? I look down at the salwaar and point out the stains again.

“Here. Look. These are stains!” I repeat, my voice rising in irritation.

“No, not stain,” he answers again. “Colour.”

Is he playing around with me?

“Yes, colour!” I repeat, exasperated. “A coloured stain! Which wasn’t there before!”
“No, Madam!” he says coolly. Not stain.”

The manager hears the commotion and comes to have a look. I point out the stains and explain that they weren’t there when I had left the costume a week ago.

“No problem, Madam. We will try to remove the stains,” he reassures me. “Come back in three day’s time.” I start to relax… “But kindly pay first,” he adds.

He must be joking! I leave my costume to be dry-cleaned, it gets stained in the process and now he expects me to pay for it?!

“I’m not paying one paisa until you get the stains out,” I tell him firmly.

He doesn’t look at me but wobbles his head in that Indian head gesture which means ‘OK, fine’.

When I go back three days later, I don’t feel optimistic. Sure enough, the stains are still there.

“Not stain. Colour, Madam,” the assistant repeats again.

I try to remain calm and ask to speak to the manager.

I’ve learnt that playing the sentimentality card often works in India.

“This is my very first dance costume,” I explain to the manager, “and it’s stained… If it was just a plain, everyday salwaar it would not be a problem. But it’s my dance costume! How will it look on stage? This is tussar silk! The sari the costume is made with cost me 1500 rupees!”

My tirade seems to be working… the manager is looking shamefaced and thoughtful.

“OK Madam, I’ll give you a discount,” he announces.

“A discount?!” I reply, outraged. “But the costume is ruined!”

“But Madam, I have cleaned it twice!”

We eventually settle on half the price.

When I get home I examine the stains again. I suddenly get a thought: what if I had stained the costume with the bright red alta (which dancers put on their fingertips and palms) and didn’t notice? After all the fuss I made at the drycleaner’s, I feel horrified!