sirisa clark

the things I do and the words I choose

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Ben’s Guest Blog: India Encounter #2

The girl opposite us was intelligent, interesting and intense.

A member of the India Forestry Service, Meera had joined our table in the busy restaurant, and was expounding over some very decent South Indian cuisine on the many ways in which it was becoming increasingly difficult to lead a simple, spiritual life in modern India.

“Did you know,” she asked, looking intently at me, “that there are now over a hundred million people living in India?”

Blink. No, I…didn’t know that.

“I think…” I replied gingerly, “I think it’s actually a bit over a billion.”

“Yes,” she replied without pausing, “that’s what I said. A billion is a hundred million.”

Now hang on, I thought. Hang on just one second. I know I’ve heard it used that way in the past, but I’m pretty sure there are more than a hundred million people living in India.

“No,” I began slowly, “I’m pretty sure a billion is a thousand million in this case.”

I was frantically trying to get my mental arithmetic to give me some – any sort of evidence for this sort of brutal assertion; on her home turf, no less.

“The U.K. has about sixty million, and I’m sure you have more than twice as many people as us. Twenty times as many, more like.”

Meera’s turn to blink, as her country’s population jumped in size by an order of magnitude right before her. I didn’t know what to say to ease this sort of realisation, so I went with, “I think it used to be a hundred million in America, but now everyone uses it to mean a thousand million.”

“Ah, OK.”

I knew I had no real reason to feel guilty. But when has that ever stopped the white man?


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Winter in Paradise

My dear friends, it is with a heavy heart I think of you at home in England, freezing your bollocks off for the sake of a white Christmas. Ben and I are also planning a White Christmas, but in our case it will be white sand. Our snowmen will be sand castles, our christmas tree a coconut tree (which, whilst awesome, engender a certain creeping paranoia that a coconut will fall and brain you at any given moment).

Alright, I know it’s not nice to gloat, but as you know from my last post, getting here was a bit of an ordeal, and paradise needed to be pretty damn paradisical (is that even a word?) to be Worth It.

And it totally is.

Aside from dudes wandering up and proffering free champagne, our past week has largely consisted of the following schedule:

  • Get up around 11am
  • Stroll to German Bakery for Banana Nutella Pancake breakfast
  • Stroll back to the beach hut, change into bikini/shorts, and walk the 20 metres to the beach
  • Play frisbee or catchy-bally in the sea for a bit (if you are Siri, this activity can be freely enriched with catching the ball with your face and cursing Ben for buying a cricket ball)
  • Order onion bhajis from the resort restaurant, and spend a couple of hours in a hammock reading the latest Tom Robbins novel you have acquired
  • Take a break from the beach to play with the week-old puppies that live under your hut and like to nuzzle your feet
  • Shower before mozzer o’clock arrives and the shower block becomes an open buffet for the mosquito population
  • Spend mozzer o’clock (around 4pm) cowering under your mosquito net and cursing mozzers of blocking any sunset action you may have planned. Substitute sunset with cards or chess, both of which can be enjoyed within the safe environs of the netted bed.
  • Walk, bike or get a moped lift to a cheap and tasty local restaurant for dinner with friends
  • Retire to friends’ beach hut to share a bottle of rum and the occasional complimentary champagne (if you are Ben, this activity can be enlivened by deciding to take a drunken bike ride later that night, and waking up the next morning with no bike lock key, no headphones, no mobile and no memory of the night before. Offer thanks to the Gods you don’t believe in for the neighbours who find and return said phone and headphones).
  • Repeat ad nauseum

Actually we’re far from sick of the above formula. The day before yesterday we decided to mix things up by trying out Neil Island instead of Havelock, but after a fairly hairy search for a place to stay on the island, an hour-long march along the beach with all our stuff weighing us down just as mozzer o’clock was upon us, and then two nights sleeping in a glorified chicken coop with a duvet for a mattress on a floor of uneven bamboo, we decided Neil just wasn’t for us. Our Dutch drinking buddies have apparently found Little Andaman less appealing than Havelock, and as they put it “why change a winning team?”

So right now we’re back in Port Blair, enjoying a dose of relative cosmopolitan bustle and its comforts: Real walls, proper beds, a bit of TV and a decent internet connection. Tomorrow we book our tickets back to Chennai in early January, and then it’s back to Havelock for a very easy Christmas!

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Ben’s Special Guest Blog

“Do you guys drink?”

The question was as strange as the still-invisible questioner. Before anyone had a chance to say ‘duhh’, the speaker rounded the corner of the beach huts and appeared from the darkness.

“I mean, do you drink alcohol? Champagne?”

He was English – probably London, late 20s, and if appearance was anything to go by, half-cut. He was toting an open bottle of bubbly, most of the way full. After a couple of glances at one another, we managed to get an answer over.

“Yeah, yeah, sure.”

“I’ve just got back on the motorbike from Beach Number Seven. It was crazy there.” he slurred, just about staying upright. “These guys from a huge ship…come ashore, set up these tables…every kind of food and drink you can imagine.”

The un-askable questions stacked up fast in the warm night air around us. Who? Where? And mostly, How the fuck did this guy make it all the way across the island, on a motorbike, in pitch darkness, and in this state? The four of us had had a few glugs of rum each, but this guy was only just upright.

“I sees them setting up and just serving it, loads of people around, so I thought I’d try asking for a beer. They had these boxes of Becks, see. And they just went ‘yeah’ and handed me one. So then I had a few more. So then I thought, I’ll try some wine. So I asks for a bottle of red, and yeah. So then I tries white, and yeah. So then I thought I’ll try asking for champagne.” He grinned and nodded conspiratorially. “And they just opened a bottle and handed it right to me. So I got through that and got another one.”

He handed the bottle in question to me. I glanced at the label in the light of the beach hut porch lightbulb. Cuvee Brut, the real deal. You couldn’t buy this anywhere on Havelock, that was for sure; and the residual coldness meant it hadn’t been brought in someone’s suitcase. This guy had, indeed, stumbled on a private shore party, and rinsed it for every drop he could, before motorbiking it back home swigging an open bottle of bubbly. Well, who wouldn’t, right?

In the face of this fantastic but apparently true tale, no-one could get anything across other than a few noises of gratitude and amazement. Before any of our wits could return, he was off, stumbling towards the next row of beach huts, disappearing as suddenly as he’d appeared.

“Anyway, enjoy, g’night.”

“Night! And, er, thanks!”

After we’d finished laughing, there was enough for a glass each, and you can believe that it went down a treat.


Better living through chemistry

We’ve spent four days at sea Ben and I, sailing from Kolkata (of which, more later) to Port Blair in the Andaman Islands for a dose of tropical paradise.

On Day 2 I discovered that I suffer from sea sickness. Terrible, green-gilled, head swimming sea sickness. This came as quite a blow to me, not just because I had another two days of roiling seas and unpalatable food to look forward to, but because I’ve always considered myself something of a water baby. I love water, I love swimming, I love boats and the sea (Mother of us all) and why? Why Lord would it make me sick when I love it so much?

Anyway, a chance encounter with a kind French couple (there are many of them in subcontinent, no?) brought some motion sickness tablets my way, and all of a sudden I was fixed! I was freed from the lurching, sweaty nausea that had grasped me for two days.

Ben and I are carrying a veritable pharmacopeia of drugs with us these days. Having rid myself of one daily Pill by getting the implant, I’ve replaced it with a daily regimen of malaria tablets (which really don’t help with the queasiness). We’ve got spare antibiotics, antihistamines for my bites, cold medication, ibuprofen, water purification, imodium, valium for long journeys and now, motion sickness tablets. It just makes sense to be prepared, and here you can walk up to any pharmacy and buy prescription drugs over the counter. One side of my brain says it’s nuts, and the other half says it’s damned handy to be able to just patch yourself up when you’re constantly on the move. And a clutch of motion sickness tablets is a much cheaper alternative to my boat problems than forking out for a flight back to the mainland!

So here we are in Port Blair! It’s not too paradise-y just yet, though it’s pretty tropical. We’ve just watched a fierce storm sluice down outside the net café, but it’s still easily 30C. I was a little disappointed when we arrived yesterday (tired, sweaty and jaded from 4 days of being the walking entertainment and curiosity of locals on the boat), but Port Blair is pretty cool. Last night we met my French saviours for a drink, and the guy (a drummer) told Ben that in Varanasi there are instrument makers who will make any instrument you can dream and draw. Naturally Ben is dying to go to Varanasi now…

This morning I bought our ferry tickets to Havelock Island, which is seemingly where the actual paradise bit kicks in. Thatched beach huts, white sands and clear teal waters. I will report back and let you know if the hype is deserved. We’re thinking that we’ll probably spend Christmas and New Year there, so for today we need to get on the snorkel and beach ball buying. However, I don’t think there’s much internets there, so this may be my last missive for a while. With that in mind, let me tell you about Kolkata!

Now Ben told me yesterday that my blog reads a little negative, so let me start by saying: I really liked Kolkata! I wasn’t expecting to, having had the culture shock of my life in Delhi and feeling a little sad to be ripped so soon from Darjeeling (we hurried to Kolkata to secure our boat tickets, which have to be bought in person at the Shipping Corporation). But Kolkata had a few things that recommended it to me, and in a way they are like a checklist of what makes a good city for me:

Pavements – weird I know, but it’s funny how quickly you come to miss pavements when you have to walk in the road and every single driver on the road is a madman who will only serenade you with his horn (ahem) if your life is in danger. Not, you know, brake or anything. Once we reached Kolkata I realised that pavements were the element sorely lacking in my enjoyment of Kathmandu.

Taxis – Every city has taxis obviously (Kathmandu has tiny suzukis and Darjeeling jeeps because it’s a rugged road up there) and in India they are huge retro Ambassadors, which is cool enough. But in Kolkata the taxis are bright yellow, making the whole city look suspiciously like Manhattan. And it seems right, because Kolkata is definitely an urbane, bustling metropolis, more so than anywhere I’ve been it felt like a European city. If New York had an Indian cousin, it would be Kolkata. It even has it’s own version of Central Park, the Maidan. Which leads me on to…

Parks – man you just don’t know how much you rely on green spaces until you’ve been staring at concrete buildings for three days. Kolkata has a huge park running through it, with wide open spaces like Hyde Park, dotted with manicured gardens such as you’d find in Regent’s park or something. We hired a pedalo to tour the lake in the aptly named Eden Gardens, and strolled around the Victoria Memorial’s crisp clean lawns and pools admiring the European dome and eastern minarets.

Architecture – We met some Germans in Darjeeling who weren’t so into Kolkata. They said “oh you know it’s okay, but you can see buildings like this anywhere in Europe, it’s not so special.” Me, I love a pretty building, and Kolkata is full of the colonial architecture of its past.

Trams – Don’t ask me why I’m nuts about trams, there’s no logic to affection, but I’ve always had a soft spot for them. They’re little trains that go on the road! Melbourne has trams, Lisbon has trams, Brighton has trams and I love these cities. San Francisco has trams, and it’s a city I aspire to visit (not just for the trams, I’m not some kind of tram-spotting nut). In my book, trams are the mark of a city worthy of esteem. So it’s fortunate for me that London, city of my heart, has a tram tucked away in some corner somewhere and saves me from being a hypocrite.

Anyway yes, Kolkata has trams, and one that sailed along the road right outside our hotel, so one night after dinner we caught it home (for 4 rupees each! That’s like 10p!) Ben read his book whilst I sat up straight in my wooden seat and bumped along excitedly, watching Kolkata jostle and honk and near-collide outside my window.

Cafes – My god they were expensive, we forked out a fiver for a couple of cups of tea, but it was worth it to take break from the world for a bit and sit in air conditioned comfort playing board games for a couple of hours

Museums and art galleries also score highly on my rating card, and I did have a wander round the Academy of Fine Art (some very fine contemporary stuff, and then a couple of things that had obviously been done in MS Paint, which threw me a bit). So, culture, cafes, parks, buildings, good public transport. Kolkata gets my cosmopolitan seal of approval!