April 14th – Welcome to India

At bang-on half five our tuk-tuk arrives at our guesthouse, as requested the previous night. It’s an impressively punctual cabbie considering it was the Sri Lankan new years’ day. I imagine, though, that the morning after isn’t quite the collective hangover that the first of January is throughout the western world.

On our wandering through Negombo we did see some celebrations, although muted and not exactly rowdy. Outside a church that opened out onto the beach, we passed a small sound-system playing out to a crowd of young lads, sheepishly bobbing away to Happy-Hardcore remixes of nineties chart hits and film theme tunes, while others stood in the wings looking shifty and drinking cans of coke. (Funnily enough, this was ten-times closer than we had hoped to get in our tongue-in-cheek plans to try and find a rave.) Such a picture of adolescent awkwardness played out to the Mighty-Ducks theme tunes, again, struck a poignant chord in reminiscence of any number of school disco situations. Ahh, the joys of being thirteen!

Up and down the beach, families strolled and conversed with one-another. A sporadic firework popped occasionally behind the houses. In general, though, it was an occasion for spending time with the family and relatives, listening to the stories of the old folks, eating ceremonial meals together, praying, reflection and other such non-Sambuca related activities. Indeed, alcohol and meat were banned for sale on this day, decisively ruining mine and Alec’s well-intentioned plans to help the citizens of Negombo celebrate their New Year in style. There goes the plans for the beach barbie then!

We ended up in an English bar up the top end of town (ahh, tourists!), watching Manchester United versus Arsenal on Sky Sports, with a tea-pot full of beer each, cleverly disguised in case some curious policeman decided to poke his head around the door.

“More tea, Alec?”

 ***

The flight had been a piece of cake- three hours from stepping out the tuk-tuk to walking out of the arrivals hall at the other end. As we walked through the car-park towards the road, we were literally engulfed by a crowd sandy-uniformed tuk-tuk drivers all aggressively pushing their trade very belligerently in our faces, whilst jostling with one-another and trying to drown each other out.

“Rickshaw? Rickshaw?”

“Hello sir, you want Rickshaw?”

“Come on my friend, good price Rickshaw!”

“Rickshaw?”

‘Tuk-tuk’ had become a word that I wouldn’t hear again on my travels. Not only had there been a name change, but the system of Rickshaws was also better and more publicly organized. Where in Sri Lanka they were all decked out with individual designs, go-faster stripes, stickers and all that other furry-dice business, in India the drivers all wore the same uniforms and the rickshaws wore the same two-color design that changed from city-to-city; usually a boring yellow and black. Bunch of spoilsports, eh? Still, though, it didn’t stop these guys being every bit as persistent as they were in Sri Lanka, and then some. Not only did they offer you their services, but they would also follow you, regularly checking whether your mind hadn’t changed and you now required one. We had one guy cruise alongside us at walking pace all the way to the cash-point that we found, all the while offering ineffectual nuggets of enticements as he patted his back seat.

After roughly half an hour in the country, we have had our first South Indian curry and spiced Chai tea whilst familiarizing ourselves with Bollywood melodrama. It’s no small challenge holding back the laughter as the very first song breaks out. The build-up to the moment ran something like this:

A man- clearly the hero due to his winning smile, big hair and gleaming white teeth- winds his way through a busy street scene to the young girl in a red Saree, whose jeweled face is concealed up to her beautiful, brown eyes. He offers her a flower and this winning smile of his, whilst holding out his hand to her. She shakes her head and pushes his hand away, and just as his smile drops, brandishes a handful of read tikka-powder. ‘Ahh,’ the audience says,’ it must be Holi, the festival of color!’ She dashes it into his face in her dainty manner and, along with her assembled friends break out into giggles as the film revels in the pie-in-the-face moment. All of a sudden, the entire cast, including the hundred-or-so extras around them all swivel to face the camera and break out into tightly synchronized dance-routines and carnival song as heaps and heaps of multi-colored dye is hurled into shot by hundreds of unseen hands.

Bollywood films tend follow his kind of pattern of campy, over-acted theatre between the very flatly laid out character roles or a teary dispute between the love-struck daughter and her controlling parents, followed by a song of some sort. The songs tend to alternate between happy and sad in a fairly uniform way. Then, two hours later (at least), a resolution is usually reached where the male hero has either had to prove his devotion and honorable intentions to the father of the girl, or has beaten up a large group of henchmen and killed the baddie that had kidnapped the apple of his eye. As the credits roll, they indulge in an extra-long celebratory song in which they chase each other around a park or run on the beach together or stroke each-other’s faces. They never seem to kiss though- perhaps an unwritten rule of some sort? Or perhaps I’m not watching the right ones.

It was great finally being in India after all the planning undertaken. The sense of claustrophobia that I had felt from time to time in Sri Lanka was behind me- I have the entire continent at my feet with four figures in my bank account and that many months ahead of me.

***

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