I had been dozing through the helicopter-din of heavy rain on the roof above our heads but the thunder clap bought me sharply to my senses. It had been a strange and restless night in our little green box, plagued with mosquitoes and sweating profusely. Alec (and the timepiece that he carried) were no-where to be found, so I wandered through the streets unaware of how early it was; the streets were again empty and the shop shutters still grey and drawn. Under the lead sky and heavy rain, the entire city looked sullen and withdrawn. The occasional old men I did see sheltering under the awnings of a closed shop or with newspapers held over their heads looked similarly sullen. The place seemed empty of any occupants at all, let alone tourists.
On the train up to Allapey we met a short old gentleman on the train- Mr.Babu- who, like many richer Indians, spoke better English than either Alec or I. He was keen to pick our brains as to whether Leeds or Manchester University would be better to send his daughter to if he wanted her to do Electrical Engineering and about any job prospects therein. He himself was an electrical inspector for the railway lines and, he proudly told us, took many bribes in the course of his rounds (yet he was, apparently content riding the trains of which he was responsible the lax safety inspections of). Taking out a generous wad of sand-coloured five-hundred notes from an envelope in his pocket, he showed us the ‘Baksheesh’ he had just collected before he met us. This was a fair amount of money to be regularly collecting- Five hundred Indian rupees at the time was worth more than ten dollars and he held almost an inch-thick wad in his pocket.
But to be fair, it sounded like Mr. Babu’s lifestyle required some generous overhead investment: his largest elephant (of which he owned three) had killed twelve handlers to date. Again, he told us this with his chest puffed out and a proud grin. He was, he pointed out, only one caste set below the Brahmin caste, the highest strata of Indian bloodlines. During his years as a sailor Mr. Babu had seen much of the world’s ports and took a rougeish pleasure in pointing out to us the hookers that walked up and down the platform opposite us. Quizzing us on our sexual habits and preferences and offering (by Indian standards) a surprisingly candid account of his own, he referred to anal sex as ‘taking the emergency exit’. He was, it would seem, the typical sailor.
During the train ride an old man plodded up the train and took a seat opposite us. His left leg emerged from his shorts in a regular form but roughed and nobbled towards the knee, exploding into violent, tree-trunk like swellings below and towards his feet. Grossly swelled around his ankles, the elephantitis had made it necessary for his sandal to be especially converted and it was, as a result, large enough to have fitted over my head. The disease is no misnomer; the discolouration of his skin and the pinched, stretched waves of tough and gnarled skin really did resemble that of an elephant. The stigma and fear attached to this infectious disease is alive and well. Mr. Babu hustled us away quickly as the man sat down next to us, claiming that a mosquito bite shared with a sufferer was enough to pass the disease on. While this is fear is justifiable (but incorrect) the man did not bat an eyelid at Mr. Babu’s audible warning to us. Clearly he was used to being avoided.
Our first choice of guesthouse in Allapey was a horrible, cheap room in a dingy multi-storey hotel. With snow-drifts of rubbish and piles of bottles filled with green water outside our door, the room had a slimy floor in the bathroom and piles of used razorblades on the windowsill next to our smelly beds. Tired and with a bag full of dirty brown clothes, I insisted we instantly check out again and try the guesthouse we had been given a card of at the train station. It was the clothes washing facilities offered that sold it for me in the end.
So the evening was spent conversing in English and broken French (which was, for once, the dominant language) with the other backpackers who were also staying there; two Belgian girls, two Bulgarian guys, one Italian man, one Russian couple and the two young tabla-playing Indian patrons who did a good job of getting everyone acquainted and happy. A more cringe-worthy moment saw my attempt at singing ‘Football’s Coming Home’ by Baddiel and Skinner when the time came for the round of national songs that all Indians regard as mandatory in these situations. I particularly enjoyed talking to Sasha and Anton, the pair of Russian twenty-somethings that were here for six months on their honeymoon. Their drunk duet-rendition of the Soviet Union’s official anthem was the highlight of the evening.