Tuesday, November 22, 2011

He's got a ticket to ride

So, here we are again! A lot has happened since last we spoke, so I think I will just begin rambling and see what comes out. I've been in Mumbai for 2 weeks now, and I'm desperately in need of some space, fresh air, and silence... so I've booked a ticket for the crowded hippy holiday resort of Arambol, Goa, where those who've had enough of trying to find themselves go to find other people and have long conversations about finding themselves instead. Last time I was there was in 2003, so I'm a bit apprehensive as to what I might find eight years on... is there a McDonalds yet I wonder? Or at least a Body Shop... No, I don't think it will have gone that far... it will most likely still be wrapped nicely in the beautiful hand woven shawl of hippy consumerism... ;)

So booking my train ticket was fun. After fighting my way off the local commuter train (which I'm getting quite good at now) I headed for the ticket reservation office and strolled past the queueing people to the "foreigners only" counter (long live apartheid!) which was empty, save for the rather bored looking lady sat behind it. "This should be a rather relaxing affair" I foolishly thought to myself as I approached. "Yes, yes, where you want to go?!" fired off the old lady at 100 miles an hour, suddenly waking from her hibernation and switching into a manic state of urgency. I reeled for a second from the switch in tempo that and tried to get myself up to the 200bpm gabba speed that she was now operating at. "Um, Goa... Margao.. sorry Madgaon... sleeper train.. " "Yes Yes Yes, when?!" she barked at me, her demeanour ramping up by 10bpm with each impatient look she threw my way. "Sorry, wednesday, this wednesday." "Nooo! Which date!! Date! Which date!!" I started to feel her urgency seeping into me like waves of gamma radiation, altering my biochemical make up and changing me, like Bruce Banner transforming into the Incredible Hulk, or in my case the Incredibly Neurotic Hulk. "Ok, sorry" I stammer, "let me check my calendar". I open my phone and "slide to wake". My phone thinks about waking, then hits "snooze" and has another 10 second power nap. Finally it wakes and I hit the calendar button to load up my life on it's shiny little screen. It thinks about this for a moment, "Date!! Date!! Which date!" she suddenly shouts at me again. "I know, I'm try..." "Here fill this. Date, train number, passport num, address, berth preference, signature!" she suddenly fires, pushing a form into my hand. "Closing now!!" I quickly scan the room and see that there are still queues of people at all the other counters and that the counter staff seem to be plodding along at the usual speed of indian bureaucracy, which is to say about as slow as a slow worm moving through tar. I look back at my lady, whose whole body seems to jumping now as if being animated by hundreds of small electric shocks. I snap back into the urgency of the situation and scan the form frantically, now fully in sync with this maniac. But my brain is trying to work too fast and I can't seem to comprehend the form... what was it I was supposed to put again?! I can't remember what she said! Oh my god, it all just looks like gibberish!! Oh hang on, it's in hindi.. I turn the form over and find the english version, but still my brain is trying too hard to rush and I can't make sense of it... at last I find the "name" field and start to write, "B...i...l..." "Here!" she suddenly interrupts me again, thrusting a bundle of notes and coins into my hand, "Give me 300!" After a moment of confusion in which I grapple with the upside-down concept of being given your change before you have paid or even been told the price of something, I do my best to respond. But I now have my phone in my left hand halfway through finding the date, a pen in my right trying to fill the form, and there really is no way I can do more. "Ok, one second" I say, trying to conjure up a few extra arms like a hindu deity. Failing to do so, I put the pen down and reach into my pocket for my wallet. No sooner have I done so than she snatches back the form from the counter, looks at it, and barks "passport number!! passport number!!" shaking it in my face and looking incredulous and my idiocy. "I know! I hadn't finished!" I protest, starting to lose my cool. Then, just as it seems the whole process is going to crumble into all out chaos, I find myself holding a ticket to Goa, on the train I wanted, in the berth I wanted, and maniac lady is smiling at me, suddenly all calm and serene. "Wow, that was easy" I say, and she smiles again as I leave her to go back into hibernation.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Back in Bombay...

So here I am. Mumbai... the most crazy concentration of humanity I have ever had the pleasure to be sensually assaulted by. After two nights of sleep deprivation, I finally arrived in Mumbai airport, refreshed my tired eyes with a couple of drops of Boots' own brand "eye drops for tired eyes" (Boots, you lie!), and headed out into the sauna that is India. After a worrying moment of mathematical ineptitude in which I tried to withdraw over $2000 dollars in Rupees (luckily the machine refused!) I finally made it to a taxi and set off for Mumbai centre to find the house of my host Samir.

It was still only 5am, and just starting to get light. The whole city was covered in a thick smog, and the air was pungent with reminders of decay and affirmations of life. In fact my nose is probably the first sensory organ to be assaulted by the city (they all got a go later). We passed over one area which looked, through the smog, like something from a Batman movie. Blocks of flats sat alongside a large waterway, the smell of which rose into the air like the largest blocked drain in the universe... which I later learned is exactly what it is. Apparently it used to be a rather pleasant river, but due to some industrial ignorance or another, it was transformed into this. Luckily for me the taxi continued it's journey into the heart of Mumbai, and eventually dropped me at Nana Chowk, a busy intersection where all the vehicles in the city congregate to test their horns. I managed to find Samir's apartment without too much difficulty, and clambered up the stairs, too chicken to attempt the old fashioned elevator. I rang the bell and was welcomed in by a sleepy Samir. I had arrived...

Or so I thought! After a couple of hours the house was awake, and I met Samir's mum, who is brilliant. She immediately decided that I should arrive for a second time so that she could film it for a youtube short that she wants to make about me, so I was bundled back outside with all my bags, giggling hysterically, and made to arrive 3 more times (to catch different angles), complete with Puja (blessing) and rice and flowers being thrown at me! If anyone sees this video and believes that it is my actual arrival they will think I am either mad or very rude, as I am laughing through the entire thing! I'll post the youtube link as soon as she's edited it...

So let me backtrack a little bit now... what, you may ask, am I doing in Mumbai? The story begins two summers ago, when I was contacted by a young Indian guy called Samir and asked to do an interview. Samir was studying Environmental Sustainability at Edinburgh University and was writing a paper on "Eco-festivals" and their contribution to raising awareness about sustainability issues. Whilst doing his research he stumbled across my music and decided that I must be an expert on these festivals (ahem) and asked to do an interview. So after a short while chatting over Skype and sharing with him my great wisdom on eco-festivals ("most people just go to them to get smashed"), we got to chatting about music and India, and Samir invited me to Mumbai. He explained that he had lots of friends in bands in the city, and that there was a growing alternative scene developing there. We talked about me putting together a band and doing some gigs.. nothing concrete, just some vague ideas... but the possibilities were all there...

So, two years later, I booked a flight (Oh... My... God....), got on a plane (Notification: 600 people have just "unliked" you), and set off for India. All joking aside though, deciding to fly was quite a big deal. The only reason it took two years was because I was refusing to fly and just couldn't find the time to do the whole thing overland. So how do I justify it now? I don't. Flying is bad, I just did it, end of story. :) Anyway, this story is just beginning, so where was I?

Ok, so having arrived, arrived again, had a little sleep and a good feed, I was invited by Samir's mum, Sushi, to go and meet a prominent tibetan activist called Tenzin Tsundue, who was screening his new documentary, "The Sun Behind the Clouds", at a local university. Tenzin has made quite a name for himself as an outspoken advocate of Tibetan independence, most conspicuously for his unfurling of the tibetan flag during visits of the Chinese premier. But before we could meet Tenzin or attend his screening, we had to find it...

Bombay, as everyone seems to call it here, is big. Sorry, it's Big. However, despite it vast size, it is quite clearly not big enough to accommodate all the millions of cars, trucks, people, goats, cows and motorbikes that are all attempting to cross it at any one moment. As a result, moving around in Bombay can be a slightly stressful affair. As your senses are attacked from all sides by a thousand potentially lethal accidents, your fight or flight instinct is on constant high alert, and it is because of this, I think, that every driver in the city has to use his horn at least once every 10 seconds. It functions like a pressure valve. As the pressure inside the person rises, so does the need to release it, and eventually the only sensible thing to do is to press the horn. It makes no difference whether or not there is someone in front of you, or whether you need to communicate something to them, what is important is simply that you press it. It would be interesting to see how incidences of road rage here compare to the UK. Back home, we resist the urge to press our horns until the last possible minute, by which time so much pressure has built up that we find ourselves shouting and swearing uncontrollably and making as many obscene hand gestures as possible whilst still steering the car. In Bombay on the other hand, most people seem to be calmly pressing their horns almost continuously whilst weaving through the complex web of near death experiences that passes for driving here.

Sushi, however, is different. Rather than use the horn, she simply has a series of minor panic attacks followed by fits of giggling. The journey was, for me at least, hysterical. It reminded me of driving with my own mum, as Samir tried to calm Sushi down and she tried to get him read the directions off the piece of paper for the 20th time. To her credit though, no matter how flustered she became, she never once failed to laugh and giggle at her own predicament, which I found to be a very endearing trait. After an hour of weaving in and out of traffic, asking every other driver we could for directions, we somehow arrived at the campus on time and headed for the screening.

The film was a very well made and informative piece, showing not only the brutal repression imposed on the tibetan people by the Chinese government, but also the divisions within the tibetan movement itself. It explores the impact of the Dalai Lama's move away from the goal of an "independent Tibet" towards his so called "middle way" approach of acknowledging tibet as a part of China in return for autonomy over their own affairs. All of this has become particularly relevant right now, as Chinese oppression in Tibet has reached such heights that 13 tibetan monks have set themselves on fire in recent months as an act of protest and to try to draw attention to their plight. In Tunisia, one man self-immolated and there was a media outcry, but in Tibet, 13 in less than two months and still no major news stories, and none of our governments have challenged China. In part, this is because the tibetan activists who risk their lives daily to try and get this information out of tibet have so far failed to capture any of the gruesome images of burning bodies that the media demands. But on a more general level, the reticence of our leaders to confront this issue is far more insidious. We need China. China is like a huge workhouse where labour is cheap and human rights non-existent. It is where almost all of our production of material goods is now outsourced to, due to the reliable nature of the Chinese government's dictatorial regime in controlling it's workforce. But hang on a minute.. aren't we the champions of human rights across the globe? Isn't that why we invaded Iraq? Afghanistan? Lybia? Ummmm, no. We invaded them for their resources, just as we leave China alone to take advantage of it's resources.

Anyhow, I'm off on a rant now. But please do go and read up on this and do anything you can to offer your support. The tibetan people's plight is being systematically ignored by our governments and media so as not to upset Beijing. Let's demand they take notice!

Right, I'm tired now so the rest of the story will have to wait I'm afraid!

Until next time!