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An epic BMW ride through southern India


We did of course sample what should have been forbidden fruit; they were sweet and addictive. Contemplating the scene before me, and a gaggle of conflicting thoughts, came about a dastardly plan. Very anti establishment.

Kovalam was a source of very good grass and it was cheaper than a bale of hay in February. It grew in the Government of Kerala’s reserve forest in Idukki. A politically motivated mafia looked after this business and had a remarkably free rein; only to be expected in God’s Own Country! Perhaps there could be some synergy of these remarkable governmental products. In the first instance I would need cashew nuts and paperwork.

In the godown office supping saucered tea, this was not the street, I enthused over their fine product and intimated that I would be only too keen to investigate export potential. I feigned that I had contacts in procurement back home and would need their best samples in all grades, a kilogram in total, and suitable descriptive paperwork required for customs. The prospect of money motivated all present including Manu to an extraordinary degree. Within minutes and my dictation, a trade sample pro forma was typed out on the all important Kerala State Cashew Nut Corporation headed notepaper and we were heavier by a kilo of nuts neatly packaged, according to grade, in little sealed plastic bags. I was keen to promote a Government of Kerala undertaking but it was not going to be edible.

Back at the guest house we supped with Manu in style and thanked him for all his genuinely kind hospitality and our memorable day. We would again go south in the morning and pursue the postal system for our scheduled import and a particular export. Back in our room we gorged on cashew and fell into a sickly slumber.

We ploughed all our necessary gear into the two bike panniers and made a point of keeping the weight down. Good old Balu was happy to store the balance in a white numbered and lockable almara. We assured him we would be back.

Down at Kovalam, Samba’s rooms were taken but we were lucky enough to hole up in a walled compound of simple porticoed rooms just opposite. On the agreement of a two week stay the room charge was about a pound a day. I liked the clean simplicity. It was very ‘Cohen’. ‘The windows are small and the walls almost square, there’s only one bed and there’s only one chair……..’. In fact there were two single beds pushed up together, a bare light bulb and an out of balance fan. The bathroom was the precursor of a wet room; western loo, a shower and a sink with no waste pipe. A Nag or Nagina sized hole in the corner went possibly,or not, to a drain. I now understood for the first time what Kipling had been on about.

We knew the post would be slow by any means, and spent the days lazily and hazily. The beach side shacks did great toasted cheese and tomato sandwiches and moreish nescafe coffee made with buffalo milk. I would hang around in these and chat with some serious and inspiring travellers. I remember one guy who had come across Mongolia, down through China and Nepal to India on a bicycle! Another had in earlier years driven back to the UK on a moped, an NSU, which he had driven out in the first place! They were truly modern day Marco Polos, scruffy like me, educated and with a global perspective. The chillum brigade were a different breed, excessive in their sensory flights of fancy, they looked either lost or forlorn. One young German, apparently on very psychotic datura, would dash around stark naked. Covered in sand, he would angrily threaten the surf, or come into the chai shacks and threaten the local boys or foreigners. The Indian boys handled him gently and compassionately, as if a wounded soul. It was impressive.

By three o’clock the heat really built up and I would cool off by swimming the bay far off beyond the breakers where the water was calm and gaze on the Arabian Sea. Returning back again, even at a distance, I could scan the beach to the east and enjoy the feminine form in all its eve glory!

I suppose three months of travelling to date had taken its toll a little. I was still very fit but had lost nearly a stone. Those toes and elbows were still a real concern and I was advised to keep out of the sea. You would think salt water a safe medium but strangely it is a dilute cocktail of bits of coral polyp and marine sperm. This is all ‘foreign’ protein and in an open wound tantamount to a monkey bite.

Paula and I remained an unusual couple. We were together but not together, symbiotic not parasitic. We drifted around separately during the day but came together, seemingly for solace, in the evenings to eat and get stoned. It was all acceptable and I was glad of the rest from punctures and hassle.

Evenings spent with Samba were always enlightening. We discussed the state of the planet. Tamil Tigers were fighting the Sinhalese, the Russians had occupied Afghanistan, and financed by America, Saddam Hussein was bombing the Iranians with some rather nasty chemical stuff. This was all rather sobering because the latter skirmishes were on our route home. He taught me about Hindu culture and caste, declared his passion for obscure vinyl, and, if alone, we discussed women and ‘conquests’. I had only ever made one, my wife. My reactionary fling with Sarah had been a role reversal. In this department I was very much on a learning curve!

Days drifted by aimlessly interspersed with the odd trip by car to Kanyakumari and Ponmudi, which served to reinforce the total and daunting chaos which was out there. There seemed to be just no rules or at least all were flouted. The neat order of England was so far away that valid worries over mortgage, bank overdraft, and dodgy tenants in the house, evaporated.

Observing on the roads and highways the illegal power connections from open fused transformers at child height level, dubious water piping, ‘five up’ on a Chetak scooter, and the tortuous metal hanging off scarred buses, a sense of complete lawlessness was the norm. It was a double edged sword. A September boy likes order, but I was not averse to this happy chaos and disregard for officialdom. It was thus, with a carefree mind, that I planned my foray into the possibly lucrative export business or at worst one hell of a celebratory party when I got home.

Although we had eaten a quarter of our cashew samples it was easy to compute the volume of a kilo. Biology had taught me that most dry plant matter if suitably compressed achieves the same density. Ergo could I compress a kilo of Idukki’s best into the same? The only way was to try.

It was an easier exercise than trying to find tampons for Paula, to find, negotiate, and acquire what was a huge bag of the stuff. It was rather musty but very pleasant. I checked the weight on a makeshift balance against a known kilo of salt, and my journey funds were lighter by fifty pounds.

For a suitable container I would need something I could hermetically seal and hold the large volume during compression. Four inch plastic sewer pipe would be perfect and was the diameter, more or less, of a beer bottle.

I rickshawed into Trivandrum city on two counts. First I found the main post office and enquired about my spares. With Manu’s calling card to hand they were very helpful and advised that if the mode of transit was by air, then for sure they would have arrived by now. On the other hand, if the goods had come by sea post or by air mail into Cochin, then all parcels landed up at Cochin Customs House for checking and mine could take considerable time to reach its addressee. ‘Considerable time’ in India translates to ‘aeons’ and I was obliged to face another trip up the line.

I detest going over old ground if it’s not interesting, and worse is back tracking. At least my second task was fun.

I easily found a plumbers merchant and procured six feet of heavy gauge grey plastic pipe, two well fitting plastic end stops, a hacksaw blade, and a small tube of Araldite glue. The shop keeper was most curious at this odd ‘souvenir’. I told him I was improving my host’s plumbing as a thank you.

Our room was now a den of iniquity. Paula was none to keen on this exploit but I placated her by accepting all blame and responsibility should anything go wrong. I assumed that my plan and ingenuity were foolproof. I had no reason to consider otherwise.

I glued one end up with its bung and filled the tube with my contraband. Little bits of spillage on the bed sheet were dusted up and enjoyed.

I do reckon that, used in moderation, marijuana frees the mind of picky thought processes, problems fade or just become challenges, and lateral thought comes about often in the most creative and artistic of ways. Not so bad for a lowly weed.

For compression you need a piston, and I used a Kingfisher bottle with an acquired broom handle, my con rod, spigoted into the top of the bottle. The whole assembly, now nearly eleven feet long, I wedged between the bathroom walls. Over time a slow compression occurred. Daily I would adjust and reposition my narcotic engine until by the end of the week I had forced all into about a six inch plug, the optimum volume according to my calculations. The last bung was araldited in and it was given a thorough wash with Ayurvedic soap, rather apt for the product and occasion.

The whole seamless and flush assembly was the width of A4 paper, and as was intended, that formal paperwork, ‘A Government of Kerala Undertaking’, neatly wrapped around the tube formalizing and legitimizing its origins. I added in typeface the codicil ‘Food Samples. Open only in a dehumidified zone.’ It was a simple matter to have it stitched up in a calico sheath, the way of all parcels in India, and consign it to the future.

I made a call to my father and discovered that he had at least made the dispatch par avion. Cochin should then hold the key, and with a few days of our room tenure left, I took off on my own, passport and carnet in hand, on the train up to Ernakulam, the nearest station.

The train was not so full at the crack of dawn and the five hour journey would get me in before lunchtime, allowing an hour for finding the relevant office on Cochin Island by the time afternoon work resumed. I was travelling second class non ac on a suitably cheap ticket, and out of boredom took to wandering through the carriages. A first class apartment was empty and I took to relaxing in these plush surrounds with my bare feet up on the opposite seat taking full advantage of the drier, cool, conditioned air.

I was enjoying a cigarette when my day dreaming was abruptly disturbed by the most officious ticket collector. I was severely reprimanded for smoking and on production of my second class ticket he just ranted and raved in a babble of unintelligible Malayalam, with brief interjections of English, threatening to throw me off at the next station into the hands of the railway police. In my present mood and condition I really did not want this level of hassle. I for once had to be subjugated and my quiet apologies finally calmed this Tasmanian Devil in braided and white uniform. He settled on a fine and my making up the difference in ticket cost. With no receipt the penalty was his to keep.

My imminent problem was now money. My first class excess had cost me dearly and the few rupees I had left would not cover rickshaws to much extent, any lunch, or cigarettes that had now been stressfully depleted. At least I had my return ticket. Definitely second class!

I hobbled, for that really was the condition of my feet, a mile or so out of Ernakulam to near where the bridge goes over the back waters to Cochin. There is a petrol station there, and I managed to hitch a lift into this smaller metropolis and was kindly dropped off near the customs office. I rewarded myself with chai and a packet of Ganesh beedies, rupees two for twenty. I was now primed and charged for another dual with bureaucracy.

The Central Post Office Customs House must have been inspired by Escher. Very Raj, and built around the period when he was in Italy, its typical and timely decay oozed excrescence from failed external plumbing, struggling to find grip through chased and breached corbels and cornices. The arcaded fa├žade, festooned with monsoon shattered tattis, secreted within a hive of booths and babus. They collated and created files. Ancient clerks with iron punches and cobblers needles, stitched the papers together. Important files were formalized with hot sealing wax and official stamp, all the food of bureaucracy. I had not, as yet, seen a letter or parcel!

On enquiry I was referred to another level. Hierarchy is true to its word here and you will always find the top dog with his acolytes uppermost in any government building. Perhaps there is a better chance of catching a cool breeze.

I had a choice of two opposing broad staircases. Broad enough for a gentleman and his lady. High up on the ceiling I could make out the lugs from which chandeliers may have hung and intended holes in the walls where the punkahs’ cords would have threaded their way down to the verandah.

Ascending one, through a stream of intent clerks and a returning chai wallah with his novel wire ‘tray’ holding eight empty glasses, I was faced by a wide coir carpeted landing. Off this were many rooms with titular name boards affixed to closed doors. ‘Assistant Deputy Under Secretary to…..’, Under Secretary to The Deputy Commissioner of Customs’. Rank was sequential and I was getting warmer. I came level with ‘The Commissioner of Customs (Post)’. This sported a newly varnished door with rather lovely original and polished ‘furniture’. A new ac cable had been butchered through the door frame. It looked daunting. Opposite across the landing the door signalling ‘Inspector of Posts’ was open.

I breezed in to a huge apartment bustling with more clerks and panelled booths of lesser officers. It may have been a ballroom. Now all danced the bureaucratic can can.
What was astounding was the huge construction in the middle of the room, a pyramid of parcels and mail nearly touching the ceiling. How the floor took the weight, I don’t know.

I approached an officer who was dressed in western pants on the chance that he would speak English, and put out a firm handshake. I had found from past encounters that this always works well. It’s also good to discern their faith, either by name, or if that is not apparent, by jewellery, dress code, or religious paraphernalia on office wall or desk. A ‘namaskarum’ or ‘salaam alekum’ to the wrong man does get you off on a bad footing.

Luckily he did speak English and was Christian. There might be an assumed affinity. With the bonus of Manu’s calling card, I had a short flush and he would be approachable. ‘Sir, have you had a parcel from UK with motorcycle spares?’

‘No, we have not…what to do?’. ‘I am sure they should have come after all this time’. A silence followed, verging on a bureaucratic impasse. My mind was racing with panic and frustration; I really wanted to move along with our journey. We had wasted too much time in Sri Lanka waiting for a non existent ferry and I was concious of the seasons we may pass through. We were ill equipped for snow and ice in the north. I glanced at the pyramid. The building spoke to me. Maybe there was a practical purpose to all these sedimentary piles of paper and ink. I was not going to assume that this officer’s word was fact. I had learned my lesson.

‘Respected Sir, do you have an entry book of all air mailings which have come into the building?’. ‘Register have..’. ‘Good Sir, would you be kind enough to allow me to look through it. I will take great care’.

A few words across the office in malayalam brought a huge tomb of a register. In an embarrassing but adamant moment I had to almost clear his desk to make room for the now open register in my hands. There were hundreds of entries as befitted that pyramid which was oh so slowly being reduced by various inspectors, breaking open parcels and tittering at ladies undergarments, or, binning suspect video tapes for their use later.

I looked back from the date I had telegrammed my father, nearly four weeks. There, down the second page,a week on, was my name. Bingo! The minutiae of this system had failed but the file showed my goods were in the building. An Indian file cannot be disputed. ‘Good Sir, it would appear my parcel is in your office.’ A waggle of his head in that duplicitous way confirmed a ‘yes’ that they were here, and a ‘no’ , I wish they weren’t and I shan’t have to suffer any further embarrassment. As earlier, rather sussed, headmasters had done when facing me, I now caught those imperceptible signals that this man was a rascal, and not averse to a bribe.

I withdrew to the pyramid and walked around it, scanning every parcel and protrusion of parcel hoping for some divine revelation or Act of God. Whether William was witness or perpetrator to the following, of course I shall never know. An inspection clerk had tugged out an appealingly large parcel and caused a minor cascade. Amidst the bland packaging of all, I caught the flash of a small union jack. It was affixed to a square box of clutch plate proportions. I grabbed it. It was mine! This eclipsed all my previous hassle. With the bike together I would be whole again and heading off into some new sunset.

My revelry was soon cut short by having the box seized from my hand and the firm advice from the sorting officers that it had not been checked and cleared.

I returned to my desked officer. ‘Sir, I have found my parcel…the one with the union jack from BMW G.B. It’s got my name on it. How long will it take to clear?’. I was expecting some answer to the effect of maybe one or two hours. ‘These goods will take between three and five weeks to clear’. ‘Weeks?!!!’. I was now on the dark side of the moon! Under my breath I mumbled that this was just fucking ridiculous and that their whole fucking system and fucking infrastructure was totally useless and we should never have given them independence. I was beginning to lose my cool at possibly a pivotal moment. I checked myself and coldly asked, ‘Do you have a superior officer?’, a sheepish yes, ‘Then I would like to see him immediately!’. I was reluctantly ushered in to the plush and cool cabin of the Inspector of Posts.

I saw the Kaaba framed on the wall and put out a hand, ‘Salaam Alekum’. A firm grip replied with ‘Alekum Salaam’. I was in. I was also feeling angrily cocky. ‘Respected Sir, your officer has advised me that it may take up to five weeks to clear my parcel’. I turned and pointed to it, now back on the flanks of the pyramid pile.’Kind Sir, would it be possible to clear it in five minutes as my ticket is for the six o’clock train? It could be an interesting exercise in efficiency!’. ‘My God, you foreigners!’ he exclaimed with a clear grin, ‘Ping’ went his bell, and with an authoritative roar ‘Expedite!’. All jumped.

The ability of the Indian bureaucracy to expedite or condone is its redeeming feature. In these bastions of chaos and apathy it is only senior officers who can, or who are inclined, to dispense with this civility. It is an affirmation of status and power. I sensed it was a subtle affirmation of creed. I was far happier now and nipped down to the street for a celebratory chai and singular Wills.

I returned after half an hour to find beaming clerks and inspection officers who were possibly rather pleased that I had circumvented extortion from one in their midst. I thanked the Inspector of Posts for his extraordinary gesture and left his office again on a salaam and a handshake. It was now four o’clock and I would not be rushed to make my train. Where was my parcel? Whoah, Mark! Not so fast! One more test of your temper and patience just for the hell of it!

The Inspector had fulfilled his remit. My parcel contained what was written on the manifest and there were no hidden articles in the way of ammunition and oxidising chemicals or blue movies and pornographic magazines. There was however, or could be, a customs duty element, money! This had not crossed my mind at all. I knew that duty rates were high and had not accounted for this hurdle. It would require a bluff and a gamble. My parcel had found its way into the booth of the Assistant Deputy Collector of Customs (Post).

The contents of my parcel were unusually high in value. Most parcels were gifts of small items to loved ones from Keralites working in the Gulf, hence the knickers. Unfortunately along with my manifest had come the invoice which totalled around a hundred and fifty pounds including the air ‘speed’ post. This new officer was determined to charge me nearly one hundred per cent duty.

I had no money but had had a lot of crap thrown at me that day. I just wanted to see the last of Cochin. I produced my passport and carnet to no effect. Initially I was calm and politely advised him that the bike and any applicable spares were duty free for up to six months in India, an implied term of the carnet. He was adamant and would not accept this. I remonstrated firmly and told him to show me where in his ‘book’ that was not fact. With my earlier ‘flush’ dealt, I was now bluffing.

Suddenly I was on a train in a first class compartment. This greasy dhotied creature surely had a brother which I had met earlier. He blew a fuse, morphed into a premenstrual witch, a Kali on crack. He bounced up and down in his chair, his dhoti loosened, his attempt at ‘trump’ coiffure in disarray, his arms flailing, and spittle settling on his moustache. It was comical and frightening at the same time. ‘You British, you still think you run this country…I tear your passport…I am customs officer…I have the power!’. The outburst subsided like a new year’s firework.

Others had heard this and he was now embarrassed, and really rather dishevelled. No one would have faced up to him before. It was a new experience for both of us. I stood firm. I concede very much the ‘burra sahib’. In exasperation he thumbed through his custom’s manual without success. ‘Sir, my spare parts do not attract duty and there will be no mention of that in your customs guide. Furthermore you have no right to damage or deface the property of my Queen. I am only the bearer. I would suggest we part with no further ado and you hand over my carnet, my passport and my parcel, intact!’. With a deflated wheeze he stamped my papers and I was out of there. No duty, no bribe.

With a bit of haggling I managed a rickshaw back to Ernakulam station and just made the train. The ten rupees left in my pocket were sufficient for several chais and the fare for the last bus to Kovalam. I still had my beedies! What a day!

I was utterly shattered from that occasion, my duel with India. The opposition had been heavily weighted. I was wounded but two rounds had missed their mark. In my prior world of forest and garden, I only knew the quiet countryman or eccentric colonel reminiscing of Burma or tea estates in Assam. Vexatious was just not in my vocabulary.

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