donderdag 21 januari 2016

Trivandrum Tales: The Thiruvananthapuram Terror

Though the Keralian capital if officially called Thiruvananthapuram, I'll stick to the more convenient and pronounceable Trivandrum, the former British name and still it's unofficial one. Usually city names get shorter, easier to pronounce (like my hometown 's-Gravenhage to Den Haag), but here other factors play a role in the name changes. It's not about shorter or convenience (obviously), but about authenticity or maybe more accurately, nationalism. And though it's understandable a government opts for the original name rather than the imposed one, does it really need to be such a tricky one? Kochi to Cochin, yes. Aleppey to Alappuzha, hmm yes. From Trivandrum to Thiruvananthapuram, oh hell no! But what can you do...

Still, the city itself is worthy of such a majestic name as Thiruvananthapuram. The first thing you notice when wandering around the city, is that it's alive. While both Cochin and Alappuzha are busy bustling Indian towns, Trivandrum's pulse is that of a modern city heading towards the future. Not that there are hypermodern busses driving around or futuristic buildings, nothing like that. The pulse is its people. There are students heading towards classes, blue and white collar workers on their way to work, there are traffic lights and traffic rules that are actually obeyed! Well, sort of (more about that later).

At the same time, with its Shri Padmanabhaswamy Temple and the neo-Keralan architecture that dots the city, Trivandrum is also in touch with its ancient and not so ancient history. Minor flaw in this picture perfect is that the temple is only accessible to Hindus and most of the heritage buildings are in a state of seemingly perpetual decay, even though they're still in use as University buildings.

Despite being the capital of the state, Kerala's tourist department does not do much active promotion for the city. Rather, they focus on the backwaters (Cochin and Alappuzha) and the beaches such as those at Varkala and Kovalam, both not too far from Trivandrum. And in a way, it makes sense. Other than the - Hindu only - Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple, the city does not boast any major sites, nor is it very tourist orientated. Enjoying Trivandrum, is enjoying the little things. The hustle and bustle of a city market, the local food, the history hidden in a little museum, housed in - what seems to be - a colonial pigeon palace.

The Napier museum, housed in the characteristic building described earlier and depicted at the beginning, is not your average well organized museum. It's more like a display of a British collector's frenzy of Indian artifacts. The wooden and bronze statues of Indian gods and goddesses, marble Buddha and countless gorgeous Ivory items were more than worth the 10 rupee (14 eurocent) entry.

The same cannot be said of the Trivandrum zoo unfortunately. While at 20 rupee it's probably one of the world's cheapest museums, it also fails to deliver on most of what you expect from a zoo. Though it has some nice forest parts, the animals are not the luckiest. Birds are kept in dark cages, barely visible through the triple bars. Giraffes seemed to have already given up at all and left, while the only visible lion was somewhere knocked out. The hippo seemed to be doing fairly well, being almost fully submerged in their baths, preferring the water temperature to the air one of 34 celcius.

Highlight but at the same time the low point were the tigers. While they do have a fairly big enclosure with quite some green, only one of them was enjoying it at the time of my visit. All the others were locked up in small cages, little more than cells. And though it was impressive to see these majestic animals at 1,5 meters with just a single row of bars separating you from them, the constant back and forth and back and forth pacing of some of them made me fear for their mental health. This does not strike me as the best way to threat your national animal. As Yann Martel based the animals in his book 'Life of Pi' on the ones in this book, maybe he can have them share in his prosperity. Just a thought Yann.

So regarding the rules. There is one rule that is set for all, rickshaw drivers in India, but one that I have never seen enforced in the four months I've spent in this country: using the meter. It's a classic. As rickshaw drivers can make more money negotiating a price compared to using the meter (especially with tourist, Indian or foreign), rickshaw drivers from Delhi to Varanasi and from Amritsar to Udaipur will tell you the meter is broken. Even a brand new rickshaw will not have a working meter. It actually led me to believe, they were produced as dysfunctional, just for show items.

But in Trivandrum they miraculously work. Most times. Some still negotiate (but turn on the meter for the police), others give an approximate price that's just higher than what the meter will show, but if you want you can always fine one that will use the meter. It was such a surprise the first time, I kept staring at the meter for most of the ride and took a dozen pictures. Good job, government of Kerala, Trivandrum, whoever made this happen.

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