Minstrel's Tales

Stories From a Guitar Case

13 - 16 October; Munnar

Posted: 18 October 2017

I suppose if I was a superstitious type I would not have chosen to travel on Friday 13th.  I mean all that rubbish about it being a bad luck day is a lot of old wives tales. Isn’t it? What could possibly happen? As it turned out, quite a lot and what happened about a week before I was due to travel should have alerted me to revise my plans. 

     I was  in Fort Nagar, Kochi, visiting John Rumold and Noah Naveen, old friends from my last visit here. As we were chatting over a beer, you can always count on John to have a good supply of cold Kingfisher, Noah asked if I had any other trips planned.
     ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I am going to Munnar next Friday.’
     ‘Where are you staying?’ asked Noah.
     ‘The Plum Judy Hotel. Why?’
     Noah nodded and looked a bit concerned, probably in much the same way that his namesake looked when he was told to go and start stockpiling gopher wood.
     ‘Have you paid for it?’
     ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Why?’ Now it was my turn to look concerned.
     ‘It’s closed,’ said Noah. One thing about Indians is that they really know how to sugar-coat a bitter pill. Not.
     The long and the short of it was that due to a landslide the local government had closed the hotel until they were satisfied it was safe. Noah called the hotel and after a long conversation was able to tell me that inspectors were going to the hotel on the tenth and that it was expected it would re-open then.
     ‘Don’t worry. It will all work out in the end,’ Noah said, a statement which had a vague Marigold Hotel ring to it. And it took Maggie Smith and Judi Dench to fix that and, as things stood, I was right out of theatrical dames. 
     I spent a long week sending emails and making frustrating phone calls to Make My Trip with whom I had booked the hotel and eventually, late on the Thursday night, I received an email telling me that alternative accommodation had been made at the Parakkat Nature Resort and my trip could go ahead as planned. O frabjous day! Callous! Callah! I chortled in my joy. 
     The journey from Fort Kochi to Munnar is about 100 km and it takes, by bus, four and a half hours. It does take you through some amazing scenery but as most of the time you are holding on to the seat you don’t notice too much of it.
     I arrived at my hotel, tired, hot, desperately needing to go to the loo and have a shower. I cheerfully gave my name to the young woman at the reception and waited while she looked up my booking. It wasn’t there. Make My Trip had sent me an email about the change of accommodation but they hadn’t told either of the hotels. 
     ‘Please, take a seat in the restaurant until we can clear this up,’ the manager said, and so I sat and looked at the most breathtaking view over tea plantations and mountains. A view which, in normal circumstances, would have been wonderful, it was still pretty wonderful, if I’m honest, but all I wanted was a shower. And I ordered tea, well what else do you do in the place where they grow some of the world’s best.
     As I sat waiting for my room and my tea I wondered what kind of tea they would serve me. Assam, perhaps, or maybe something a bit heavier like Gunpowder Tea, strong and dark and smoky, the Laphroaig of tea, or maybe something lighter, a first flush Darjeeling, perhaps, guaranteed to get your tastebuds tingling. 
     What they brought me was a small pot of hot water and a Tetley tea-bag. This is not, I am sure, what the British tea planter A. E. Sharp had in mind when in 1880 he first planted about 50 acres of tea in what is now the Seven Mallay estate. Prior to this the region grew crops of coffee, cardamom, cinchona and sisal but these were abandoned when it was discovered that tea was the perfect crop for the region’s climate and terrain. 

     It was the job of another British planter, A. W. Turnor, to begin the large scale cultivation and in 1895 the company of Findlay Muir and Company entered the scene and bought 33 independent tea growing estates, including Sharp’s and in 1897 The Kannan Devan Hills Produce Company was formed. You might think that with all this history and all this tea it would be a simple matter to get a decent cuppa but clearly that was not the case. I did get my room though.

     Munnar, for all its plethora of high end hotels, is not really a tourist area. The town itself is a maze of dirty, busy streets and alleys with all kinds of stalls selling mostly fruit, vegetables, dried fish and plastic toys. You always know when you are about to come across a fish stall, the air quality changes quite dramatically and you are surrounded by a sort of blue haze. The town is here to cater, not for tourists, but for the local population, most of whom work in either tea plantations or, paradoxically, in one of the many hotels and homestays. That said Munnar still seems to be something of a must-visit destination and wherever you go you will see hot, weary backpackers looking tired and fed-up and more than a little bewildered. I could only take so much bewilderment and after about an hour I jumped into a Tuk-Tuk and headed for the air-conditioned comfort of my hotel and a Tetley Tea Bag.

     Before I left Munnar I visited the Tea Museum which was interesting enough and showed a very good documentary about how the tea industry has grown since A. E. Sharp first decided that this was definitely the place to have your morning chai. By far the most interesting exhibit in the museum was a proudly displayed certificate telling the world that on the 24th May 1902 Lodge Heather 928 was affiliated into the Grand Lodge of Scotland.


   That evening as I was having dinner the hotel manager approached me with the same kind of look I had seen on Noah Naveen’s face a week ago.
     ‘Bad news, I’m afraid,’ he said.
     ‘Tomorrow there is a transport strike and all buses have been cancelled. You have two choices.’
     ‘Which are?’
     ‘You could get a local open bus which will take about seven hours or you can stay another night.’
     Something told me that staying another night wasn’t being offered free gratis but the thought of seven hours in an old rickety bus with no windows was hardly appealing.
     ‘Are there no other options?’ I asked.
     ‘You could book a private taxi. That would cost you about 4,000 rupees (about £45).’
     It really was a no-brainer. Even in a taxi the journey could take up to four hours although the manager did say that because of the strike there would be very little traffic so it would probably take a lot less.
     Next day I left Munnar in my air-conditioned taxi which for some reason the driver was very reticent to use and preferred to drive with the windows open. He did, however, after much muttering in Malayalam eventually switch it on.
     The journey itself was not without incident as every time we entered a village or town we had to cross a CPI (Communist Party of India) picket line. I noticed that on every approach the drive would place on the dashboard a sign saying ‘AIRPORT’. I suppose this was to indicate to the pickets that it was not his fault he was breaking the strike, it was all the fault of the Western Capitaist in the back.


12 October; Alice Delice

Posted: 15 October 2017

Coming across a genuine French café in the middle of Fort Kochi was not something that was high on my list but that is exactly what I found in Rose Street.
     Alice Delice is a delightful boulangerie run by Alice and Julien Flock who, after running their organic bakery business Paroles de Pain in Brittany for almost 15 years, decided to open up Fort Kochi earlier this year. 

     With its red checkered table cloths you would be forgiven for thinking you were sitting in a pavement café somewhere in rural France, an image which is enhanced the moment you step inside and see the display of freshly baked bread and pastries. Old black and white photographs of Montmartre, the Sacre Coeur and various Parisian street scenes cover the walls while, in a somewhat incongruous fashion, a portrait of Picasso shares a space with a carving of Ganesh, the famous Hindu elephant-headed god 


 I happily stumbled upon Alice’s one morning as I walked around Fort Kochi. That morning as I sat in the rear garden, a peaceful, cool haven, with a distinctly Mediterranean feel, I tried the Café Gourmand, excellent Café Presse with two different types of bread with unsalted butter, fresh butter as my grandmother always called it, some of Alice’s home made pineapple and ginger jam and a piece of chocolate brownie. Even before I had tasted it I knew I would be back again and again. 

 ‘Is your bakery in France in Paris?’ I asked Alice. A reasonable question I thought as we were surrounded by all thing Parisian. She shook her head.
     ‘No. Never in Paris. I was born in Paris but I do not like Paris. Our bakery is in Brittany. It is much nicer there.’
     ‘And why did you come to Kochi to open a café?’
     ‘We were here visiting and just fell in. Love with the town. It is a beautiful place.’
     Two days later I was back for lunch. I was going to a local school that afternoon so I had my guitar with me.
     ‘Will you play?’ Alice asked as she served me my lunch, a gorgeous platter of Salade de Fruits, a selection of freshly baked breads, Pain au Chocolate, croissant, more of the delicious jam and coffee and all for 300 rupees, about £3.50. 

     After playing a few songs in the café we moved outside where my playing seemed to generate quite a bit of interest from the locals. While I was playing a film crew passed. In Kochi there always seems to be a film crew somewhere making what they hope will be the next Bollywood blockbuster. 

   What do you do in circumstances when you are asked by a glamorous young film star, whose name I have forgotten, I am ashamed to say, but I am sure she doesn’t remember mine either, if she can sit beside you while you play? As I sang and played she posed and smiled. Film cameras rolled and stills cameras clicked, especially Alices’s who had decided that this was a sure fire way of getting some local attention for the boulangerie. This is the second time I have been filmed in Kochi. Last time I was here I was filmed by the BBC for their series ‘The Real Marigold Hotel’ chatting to Denis Taylor, Amanda Barrie and Lionel Blair but my role as ‘British customer in a  fruit and veg market’ ended up on the cutting room floor and I fully expect the same fate awaits this. Who can tell, though. I may be just about to make it big in Southern India as ‘vagrant itinerant minstrel’. Still we all have to start somewhere. 


11 October; St Josephs Lower Primary School, Kumbalanghi

Posted: 14 October 2017

No matter to which school I go in Kerala and, no matter the age of the children, two things are always the same; the warm excited welcome I receive from the children and staff and the smiling faces of the children, all eager to sing and learn new songs. 

     St Joseph’s LP School is set within the grounds of St Joseph’s Church in a quiet Ernakulam suburb and caters for about 40 children aged from 4/5 up to 10. I was working with a middle school class of 7/8 year olds who had, so Mary Jacqueline the headmistress told me, been looking forward to my visit for weeks. 

     ‘They are very excited that such a famous singer is coming to their school,’ she told me.
     ‘You must let me know when he is coming,’ I replied. ‘I would like to hear him too.’
     A puzzled look came over her face before breaking into a smile. ‘Ah. You are making a joke,’ she said.
     ‘Almost,’ I replied. 

     The children at St Joseph’s, as I have found everywhere, were amazing. Coulter’s Candy had been such a success I thought it might be worth trying something else in Scots and for that I turned to Matt McGinn’s ‘Coorie Doon’.
     Mary Jacqueline helped me explain that it was a lullaby being sung by a mother to her child while the child’s father was working in a coal mine. The children sang it beautifully and seemed to understand the beautiful poignancy of the verse;

    Your daddy coories doon, wee darling,
    Doon in a three foot seam.
    So you can coorie doon, wee darling,
    Coorie doon and dream.

     ‘Could you please do me a favour?’ Mary Jacqueline asked me.
     ‘If I can.’
     ‘Could you please teach the children ‘Silent Night’. We always sing it a Christmas and next time they sing it, it will remind of you.’
     How could I refuse. And so in a temperature of about 35 degrees centigrade, in India, in the middle of October, we began to learn and sing ‘Silent Night’. One of my most surreal experiences? Oh yes, definitely. One of the most beautiful too. 

10 October; The Vypeen Island Ferry

Posted: 13 October 2017

The ferry from Fort Kochi to Vypeen Island is an eye opener on all sorts of levels. First there is the craft itself. Old, rusty and looking as though it should have found its way to the breaker’s yard long ago or, at the very least, taken out into the Arabian Sea and quietly scuttled. Interestingly the ferry I was on displayed a brass plate which, if it was to be believed, stated that this particular ferry was built in Belfast at the Harland and Wolves Shipyards in 1957. As we left port it flashed into my mind that that was where they built the Titanic. 

     The second thing you notice, simply because you have no choice but to become part of it, is the complete disregard for anything remotely concerned with health and safety as foot passengers, motor cyclists and cars all push forward to get on board at the same time. It is even worse when it docks as disembarking foot passengers leap forward to get off even before it has docked properly and tied up. If they had a mind to I suppose they could just as easily jump off mid-crossing as there is nothing between them and the ocean briny except the angle of the on/off ramp which is only slightly higher than deck level. 

     The crossing itself only lasts about ten minutes but it was still a bit unnerving to notice the complete absence of life jackets or any kind of buoyancy aid or any kind of information should an emergency occur and the ferry sank. Needless to say, it didn’t sink and I made it to the island and back without encountering an storms or hurricanes and without any kind of trouble form marauding pirates or denizens of the deep.

     After such a perilous voyage some kind of sustenance was required. In the absence of lime juice or a tot of rum I made my way to the Killian Hotel where I had arranged to meet Dave Rees-Jones and Debbie Aldous from Birmingham who were on their last night in India. I met Dave and Debbie when they came to my concert a few nights before when they told me about the Killian Happy Hour which is actually the Happy Two Hours from four til six. This, I reasoned, was a deliberate marketing ploy on behalf the hotel management; they provide somewhere to go for a cold beer in the heat of the afternoon which somehow seamlessly becomes evening. By this time, of course, you are quite settled and you may as well stay on and have dinner and enjoy the rest of the night during the ‘unhappy’ hours. 
     After a starter of pakora and Kingfisher, the beer, that is, not one of our brightly plumaged feathered friends, I had a delicious fish curry. Kochi is, after all, a fishing port, famous for its Chinese Fishing Nets, so it seemed only right and proper that I sampled the local fruits de mer. Served with rice and chapati it was quite outstanding, especially when washed down with an ice cold Kingfisher Blue. Just the thing for a hungry and thirsty sailor type on shore leave. R. L. Stevenson summed it up perfectly:

    Home is the sailor , home from the sea,
    And the hunter home from the hill.

     I woke up about four o’clock with my stomach telling me that my fish curry was perhaps not quite as magnificent as I had thought. It felt as though one of the Kingfishers had taken flight inside my large intestine.  I had a fitful couple of hours sleep before I eventually got up and staggered to the loo where I found that things were just as I had feared; my insides seemed to have melted during the night. Time for a couple of charcoal capsules, I think.  

09 October; The St Thomass High School for Girls Collective

Posted: 11 October 2017

Today I returned to St Thomas’s with a plan to get both my groups of girls together and create The St Thomas’s High School Girls Collective. And my girls didn’t let me down.

     My idea was that I would spend some time with each group of girls and then bring them all together in a massed choir and to record and video the result. If nothing else it would be fun.

     I had thought that we would all just get together in the classroom we had been using but Sister Agnes had other ideas. 
      ‘You can use the main auditorium if you like,’ she told me.
     ‘Great,’ I said even though I had no idea what the main auditorium was like. 

     As it turned out it was amazing. We had a huge stage to work with and it was pretty obvious to everyone just how things would be set. Me in the middle with all the girls grouped around me. Val Doonican eat your heart out.

     We had a ball and the girls sang their hearts out. It was hard to believe that just two days before these young girls had never sung anything in English never mind something in a Scottish dialect. We managed to record everything and eventually I hope it will make its way onto these pages. In the meantime, enjoy the photographs.


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