Heartbreak Hotel

by Ant Stone on April 23, 2008

in India

After a quick blood pressure test the gang of nurses rushed me to the surgery operating room. Pain was brandishing my neck and shoulder, a sickening sensation ten times greater than the height of ‘pins and needles’, when it really feels like your stricken limb might just implode. And you might just want it to.

A nun entered the room and cast me a gentle look, that only she was capable of. I grimaced, and as she glided silently backwards I turned my gaze to the floor. A moment later, Elvis entered the room and as quickly as he appeared, Elvis – predictably – left the building. Five minutes later he returned, balancing a thick polyester wig, aviator sunglasses and an open pink Versace shirt, revealing his wiry black chest hair. He inquired about my symptoms, though quite obviously only took note of key words; neck, pain, 10 days ago, agony, euthanasia? “Cervical Scoliosis“, he claimed confidently, “you want pill?

A nurse reappeared, glared at me and held out her pale palm, where two nondescript pills gently wobbled. “What, is it?” I stammered, “Complicated” replied the doc – and a sigh saw the pills inhaled. He continued “You want injection?“. My eyebrows went skewiff, “What’s it for?” I asked. He feigned understanding but later admitted to Reb it was “For his disease“. Moments later the nurse rolled me over and jabbed a needle so deep into my backside, it would ache for weeks. Next came the x-ray, the offer of a wheelchair and an exhausted kip on the surgery bed.

I found out in the coming days that scoliosis was to do with curvature of the spine, I’m no doctor but I’m confident things weren’t this serious. In a garbled conversation with Elvis I heard the syllables of morphine mentioned and following the mystery jab, the pain rapidly decreased to just a twinge. The x-rays (left to me to self-examine) showed nothing but a slim pale guy, which seemed normal, so could it be that this doctor just rid himself of me – the over-inquisitive foreigner – via some cocktail of potent pain killers?

He refused to give me his name before I left – though I secretly sourced it from reception, in case I curiously developed tourettes. The stage for my unfortunate audience with the king was the small Keralan city of Allepey, 66km south of Cochin and one of the most popular places to slip into the famed backwaters of Kerala. It takes little persuasion to get me by a river, so to cast off into the flowing waterways aboard a houseboat, complete with a chef and two crew was an opportunity not to be missed. There are hundreds of these boats on the backwaters, since a bright spark converted a rice barge into a floating rupee magnet the rivers are (excuse the pun) flooded with them.

The route took us by villagers going about their peaceful lives while the temples gave us an ambient audio as the palms combed the bird life from the silent blue sky. I find it hard to switch off and relax automatically, it’s rather like being eight again and your mother sending you to bed while it’s still light, and playable outside. You just lie there, mind racing around the tracks of life beyond, and then you sleep and then, you dream.

The peace of this passage was still in my spirit as we jumped back on the Enfield the next day and roared northwards. When the clutch cable snapped I managed to ride the stores of positivity for 5km, to a garage, where we fluttered our tourist eyelashes until we had it fixed.

When the chain snapped a couple of hours later, we ground to a swift, clunking stop and with some priceless help from a handful of locals we were set free.

When I realised I had been set free with no back brake, the smile was fixed with mellow adhesive. Until, we sped into the city of Coimbatore. Where segments of my peace with the world dispatched with each hotelier that gave me a look that screamed “You’re covered in grease and oil son, no way“.

The eleventh took us in, and later that night I discovered we were paying triple the going rate! After a restless nights sleep, the new day started with an almighty row with the scrawny manager and then continued an hour later — at his request — with the plump owner. I cornered them with facts and they eventually conceded but Coimbatore and it’s inward roads were unkind, and both had an urban bitterness — an ugly, grey bolshiness that offered the peace no glimmer of an early revival.

Being Sunday, the mechanics had shut shop so we were stuck for 24 hours. On Monday morning a highly recommended mechanic all but admitted he couldn’t replace a chain, and simply tightened a nut or two and off we went, middle finger extended at what turned out to be the most unfriendly time in South India, if not the whole subcontinent.

The day was not lost. The direction we were heading was back into the Western Ghats, those familiar mounds of tea plantations, jungles, waterfalls and peaceful villages bound together by hairpins and slick new tarmac. The idea was to get to Ooty, 75km up the hills but the reality was we ended up in a water park just a few clicks out of Coimbatore.

My hesitance to make myself the object of attention was soon proved unwarranted. Reb had dragged me in and we joined the fully-clothed masses in Black Thunder, soaking ourselves on death slides and water chutes while the mounting list of repairs being demanded by the lovable Enfield floated far away. Few people seemed alarmed at having two westerners striding through the soaked saris and shirts and we left refreshed in every possible way. Coonor is one of three hill stations (cool retreats for the British) in the Nilgiri Hills. It’s multicoloured face seemed to fill the base of the valley like a bowl full of multi cheerios. It’s around the rim of this bowl that we’ve explored the lush landscape from the Enfield, it’s day like these that justify the decision to explore by bike.

We’ve replaced the throttle and the speedo thingamajig. The clutch cable. The chain is clunking over two worn sprockets and the right indicator refuses to blink. The back brake went AWOL and at altitude the exhaust pops in agony. That’s not to mention the time it wrestled Reb and I to the ground — or the two times it’s drank too much and passed out (though fuel theft is a mounting theory).

For every three blissful bends in the road there’s one with two buses jostling for position, and even on the straights these juggernauts will assert their position and run you off the road head on. In India, lorry beats truck beats van beats car beats auto rickshaw beats motorbike beats pushbike beats pedestrian and, deep breath, bus beats all. The problem is, everyone thinks they’re a bus. Against popular belief, the police leave you be and the road conditions rival my homeland. When we’re lost, we’re constantly given help to find our way, and when we find it we’re lost for words – and it’s for these simple reasons, that I love to travel.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Reb April 29, 2008 at 3:35 pm

wonderful, what more can i say? how is the curved spine by the way?

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