Monday, January 31, 2011

Varanasi: Burning, burning, burning, burning (and murdering a sitar)

I ventured out alone last night, with Liv still ill in bed,  to wander the narrow, labyrinthine streets of Godaulia just to see what would happen. I was again on my guard for hassle, but none was forthcoming (well, not much).  All roads lead to the Ganges and eventually I found myself strolling along the ghats.

I'd heard all about the burning ghats but not much prepares you for seeing human bodies going to meet their maker in such a graphic way. Huge piles of wood marked the beginning of the burning ghat, and silhouettes under white shrouds gave me a very strange feeling; I've never experienced death so close up before. The Hindus seem very happy for people to show you around and explain what is happening. They burn 250 bodies per day. The workers build a pyre, then the body is dunked in the Ganges to 'cleanse' it, left to dry for a while, then put on a bed of differing types of wood, depending on what the family can afford. There's no bad smell, as they use sandalwood powder and ghee to increase burning time (and I assume hide the smell). I stood literally next to these fires and it was a very ethereal, morbid and fascinating experience.

Then I wandered back along the ghats to where the evening's puja ceremony was taking place. 6 men, identically dressed, stood on high red platforms and wafted lots of fiery things, feathery things and sprinkled water everywhere. As per usual, I had no idea what was going on. Lots of bells were rung and I joined in a bit by lighting a candle and sending it off down the Ganges as a 'prayer'. It was a beautiful ceremony, but again a reminder of how far I am (and ever could be) from 'getting' India. I guess this is why it is so compelling as a tourist destination.

I again wandered (lots of wandering in Varanasi) fairly anonymously back to my lovely guest house, via an Indian classical music concert where I had lemon tea, which I'm addicted to (as well as chai).

A group of girls had taken over the kitchen and were cooking rice, chapatis and chutney, so I joined them for dinner.

Went to bed nice and early, but spent the wee small hours being disturbed by an incredibly noisy Indian family who moved into the room next door to us. Their light floodlit our room and after much shouting, and wailing of small children, eventually they stopped. I got up at 5.30am (again) and took a boat down the Ganges. It was lovely and peaceful, and I again stopped by the burning ghats, as well as watching the morning bathers taking a dip in what must have been freezing (a well as filthy) water. I again got to see the sun rise, this time over the banks of the Ganges opposite the city.  The sun was such a perfect, orange circle it looked as if someone had cut a hole into the sky, revealing an orange backdrop.

One of the strangest moments of today was getting knocked out of the way by a funeral procession, I think I very nearly touched some death. I then went for my long awaited sitar lesson with an ancient old man in someone's house. I expected to be able to do nothing, but the scales he taught me were easy to remember and I could get something like a tune out of it by the end. I guess musical theory in some way translates West to East, though I'm not entirely sure how. Now it's time to read, write, relax (maybe have a nap?) and then get on the train to freezing Darjeeling. I have a bit f a sore throat and feel a little run down, so hopefully some mountain air will do me good.

Namaste x

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Taj Mahal and all that

Horror story after horror story pours from the mouths of stricken travellers fresh from the clutches of the 'Golden Triangle' of Agra - Delhi - Jaipur. It was with much trepidation and worry that we said goodbye to lovely Jaisalmer and headed to Agra.

Jaisalmer was refreshing. Fewer creeps, and lovely people going about their everyday business. There was Bobbi, the henna lady with one of the most wonderful smiles I've seen on anyone, and the cut old man who we met at the wedding who took us up to his house perched on the edge of the fort to admire the views onto the town below at sunset. Everything seemed golden. The fort's golden sandstone continued into the deserts that stretched beyond it, as far as the Pakistan border and beyond. I didn't really get chance to write much about our Camel trip, but I have to again mention how unbelievable those stars were. We're all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars, somebody once said.

Everyone you meet travelling is at a transitional point in their life, either about to start a job, just finished university or school, taking a career break and rethinking their lives, or just taking time out to enjoy it all. It's at times like these when you get perspective. I may be the poorest I've ever been (and hopefully will never get any poorer than my current, terrifying nearness to the Natwest Graduate Overdraft Limit) and at a similar what-to-do-next point in my life, but you can't really put a price on these kind of things, and I wouldn't swap with anyone for the world right now. I'm not sure the path has become any clearer but I am certainly getting  much better idea about the kind of life I want to lead.

Pseudo-philosophical rambling over.

On returning from the Camel Safari our bathroom was flooded with sewage (actual shit). Eventually they cleaned it all up but it didn't improve our relations with the dodgy hotel manager. We went out for a meal with Nikki and then hit the sack. The next day we tried (and failed) to book our train tickets from Agra to Delhi at the train station and went back to the lovely German lady at Adventure Travels (highly recommended) who sorted all my train tickets for the rest of my time in India.

We thought our 2 part train ride (12 hours to Jaipur, change at 5am, 5 hours onwards to Agra) would be hell but we slept well, had breakfast, and got back into bed on leg 2. We met Max on the train, a lovely English guy who we 'did' Agra with. Having taken heed from the horror stories we'd heard, we arranged someone to pick us up from Agra Cantt station (Loliviase Rrai, the sign read) and booked into a recommended hotel. Showered and refreshed, we had some great Mughlai curry and headed over to the Taj Mahal, which you could see from the rooftop of our hotel.

I'm not sure it's worth bothering to describe it. It was very busy, you got a free bottle of water and it cost R750 (R20 for Indians) to get in, which is a tenner, a whole day's budget for me.

Everybody has seen countless images and models and all that. Despite the crowds and the endless requests for photos with randoms, it effortlessly transcended all the hype, commercial crap, annoyances and touting which surrounded it. If there are words to describe its beauty, then my English simply isn't good enough. All I can say is we stayed for 3-4 hours and it's the only thing in India I think my Mum would like (which says a lot).

The next day we got up at 5.30am and caught a rickshaw to th opposite bank of the river Yamuna to watch the sunrise over the Taj. It was freezing, and shrouded in mist, but a warm cup of chai and a surprising lack of any other tourists made it worth the while. Agra Fort was a little disappointing (what wouldn't be after that) and we even managed to post the parcels we'd been lugging around from Jaisalmer - Republic Day meant the post office had been closed - and get to the train station with plenty of time.

Only to find our train 3 hours late.  We panicked and bought general tickets for the next train, hoping to upgrade, but on seeing how over full that was, quickly changed our minds and got a refund. We went to a lovely South Indian restaurant and then Cafe Coffee Day (Indian Starbucks) for chocolate cake and went back to the station. 5 hours after the time it should have left, our train arrived.

Our train was, thankfully, empty and quiet (unlike last night) and we chatted to a lovely geeky man who looked like he may be a computer nerd. He kindly found a decent rickshaw driver for us and got us a decent price from Nizamuddin to New Delhi.

'Avoid Delhi like the plague' is a commonly heard phrase amongst backpckers, especially freshly arrived ones. I ddn't think it was that bad, but it was pretty shit. Hassle, hassle, hassle, constant rickshaw bullshit, and even though I'm very used to India's mounds of rubbish and crap Delhi topped the lot (I have an incredible photo of actual mountains of litter). We had a huge breakfast (stayed in a fairly nice, cheapish place in Pahraganj) and spent the day with another 2 English guys, visited the Jama Masjid (Red Mosque) where they made us girls wear ridiculous dressing gown type things and then decided the traffic was too much and retreated to the nicest restaurant we've been in India (since Jen's birthday at the Metropole in Mysore, way back in December....) and Liv and I broke our vegeterianism with an incredible butter chicken curry. Even better, we had our first beer since Mumbai. It was genuinely exciting to see  proper Dettol soap in the toilets and hear non-Hindi music in the background. Opulent luxury for us, at a total cost of about 4 or 5 English Pounds.

Time to say goodbye to Aimee who is homeward bound, and Liv and I are now in Varanasi. I haven't yet ventured out of my hotel, as I've been changing my train tickets so now I can go direct from a station nearby to NJP, near Darjeeling. The lovely hotel man helped me sort it all out, and I am so grateful! Liv is ill in bed and I've just realised I haven't eaten yet today, and it's 2.30pm.

Eat when you can!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Udaipur, Jaisalmer, a Wedding and a Camel

Often called 'The most Romantic city in India' - I didn't really know how that would translate - Udaipur was an Indian Venice (though I've never been to Venice, but I imagine it'd look like Udaipur). In the middle of Lake Pichola sat the beautiful Lake Palace, now a hotel (rooms starting at $800) which didn't even seem to be on an Island, it just sat there seemingly in the lake. The city makes a 'U' shape around the water and our Guest House had a gorgeous rooftop with a lovely view of everything, all the whitewashed houses and terraces. Just up the road was the City Palace, an imposing beast of a Mahal which was better on the outside than the in (hoardes of noisy Indian tourists and little signage, classic India) but very pretty to look at. Udaipur was hilly and had lovely cobbled streets with actual shops as opposed to a bazaar or stalls, which was refreshing. Its beauty was, however, offset by the vast numbers of creepy, leery men who enjoyed making comments and relentlessly staring. They seemed to have come with us on the train, as we endured 5 hours of consistent staring which would make anyone uncomfortable. Some of them also like to video or take pictures of you, which is even weirder.

We met some lovely Bermudean girls, Sarah and Julie, in Pushkar, and we met up with then again in Udaipur. We had my favourite curry to date at a place called The Green Room, a tiny rustic restaurant with a window box overlooking the lake: paneer kadhi and butter chapati. Simply divine. The first day in Udaipur, after the City Palace, I had a horrendous headache and a resulting 'bad India day' where I felt pretty homesick and rubbish. This picked up after an amazing second day. Liv, Aimee, Julie, Sarah and I all caught a rickshaw to the Princess Gardens and strolled around a lovely peaceful bit of greenery and fountains (and a very strange education musuem which we only went in because it was free) and just sat for a while. Bus loads of Indian tourists then styarted to arrive and ask to have their picture taken with us - not in a weird way, this was families and women and the like - but still, how very odd. This happens frequently. It seems to be a novelty for an Indian to get a whitey in their family holiday snaps.

We took a cable car up to the top of a nearby mountain to look down on the whole of Udaipur, which was beautiful. On the way, a random evil man thumped me on the back as he whizzed past on his bike, which was very strange, but I put it down to xenophobic hate crimes and got over it pretty quickly. I'd have loved to have stayed up there for sunset, but that evening we had a cooking class I'd heard about from an Aussie girl on a train way back down in the South.

Shashi was a Brahmin (highest caste) woman and a widow, with a fascinating life story. Brahmins women are not allowed to do menial work, so after her husband died she was left to wash tourists' clothes on the sly to survive, with 4 kids to bring up. Eventually someone picked up on the fact her home cooked food is INCREDIBLE and advised her to start classes. I think Lonely Planet, got wind, and it took off. What a lady. 7 of us crammed into her tiny house and kitchen and learnt how to make proper Rajasthani, North Indian food. Masala chai, mango chutney and coriander chutney, vegetable pakoras (Brahmins follow a 'pure veg' diet - no meat or eggs) chapati, aloo gobi, naan bread (surprisingly easy!) and other curries that are too numerous to name. Then we had to eat the lot, which all tasted phenomenonal. I have pages and pages of her recipes and promise an Indian dinner party (from scratch, none of this curry powder malark) when I return. Two of the other 'students' were an Austro-Dutch couple who turned out to be chefs, about to open up their own restaurant in Germany and were doing a culinary tour of the world. I'd love to go try some of their food, another address to be taken down, another place to go visit....

Since South Africa I've been dying to get on a horse and explore some countryside. I finally mamaged to do it just out of Udaipur. I spent an afternoon on a skitty skewbald Marwari horse, far out of the city and into the jagged hills and arid landscape that envelopes the white city. As I was waiting in the car to be driven to the ranch, a German guy walking past decided to jump in and join me, and he turned out to be one of the most friendly people I've met, we got on really well. There were only 3 of us on our ride, us and one other Korean lady, and I spent most of the itme battling with a very highly strung horse. Riding without gloves has given me horrendous blisters but it was so nice to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and see some landscapes again. The air was fresh, the sun wa shot and the sky was azure. Perfect.

I spent my final day in Udaipur having a bit of an internal battle. The places I really wanted to go after Rajasthan; Dharmasala, Amritsar, Shimla, Manali, are just too cold at the moment to visit. Well, they are too cold to visit when no guest house I can afford has any heating. This scuppered my plans somewhat, as I planned to go up North and then return to the South for the last few weeks before my flight back from Bangalore. With the North essentially out of the question (I came here to avoid this sort of weather!) and Nepal also only reaching about 15 degrees in the day, the thought of going back to Koh Tao to do PADI Open Water, which has been in the back of mind pretty much since the day I left there, jostled its way to the forefront again. After many calculations, agonising and discussions, I decided to go for it, as it's what I've really wanted to do for so long. I found a super cheap flight from Calcutta to Bangkok and will be saying  Sawasdee-kah to Thialand on the 7th February. I won't hang around too long, just get straight down to Koh Tao and get diving right away. I emailed the diving people I went with last time and they've given me a discount and free accommodation, which is very exciting. It's cheap to fly back from Kuala Lumpar to the South of India, so I'm hoping then to go overland to Malaysia and fly back to Kochi or Chennai. I may have to come home a week or two early to afford all this, but we'll see....

Anyway. My final day in Udaipur I spent mulling all this over, and finally booked it. Amy G joined us which was great, and we had a good old bitch about how awful some of the leery Indian men are up here in the North. It's something I never experienced in the South, and has been really getting to me, though a little bit of shouting and ranting always sorts this right out.

Our bus journey to Jaisalmer was so typically India. We set off at 9pm and were suddenly told to get off at 5am and change bus, what a nightmare. To make it worse, they crammed loads of Indian men into the aisles who sat on our bags and possessions and some of them played filmi music on their mobiles throughbout the night - not cool. A bad India day!

Some days its difficult to see past the staring, the ripping off, and the touts to the amazing beauty which lies underneath it all in India. I'd been finding it harder and harder to see, even in such a visaully stunning place as Udaipur, but Jaisalmer has given me my sight back once more. It's like putting on sunglasses after squinting at the sun for so long. Equal in beauty to any of the gracious fort towns in Rajasthan - if not more so, for its extreme' edge of the desert feel'  (the Pakistan border is quite close, you see planes patrolling overhead) and warm jurassic sandstone which all the buildings are made from - I finally found the warmness and kindness of the Indian people which I'd lost for a few weeks amidst the creeps and rip off merchants.

A group from our hotel - 2 Israelis, an Aussie (called Nikki, who is a great laugh) a Frenchie called Fred and us 3 piled into a jeep the next morning to head out into the desert, closer to the Indo-Pak border. We were all extremely bleary eyed, having finally managed to attend an Indian wedding the night before.

This was one of the most opulent, loud, beautiful, fun and ridiculous things I have ever seen. We'd heard there were many weddings going on that as it was an auspicious day in the Hindu calendar, and there are many wall paintings around the fort (where we're staying) advertsing them with pictures of Ganesh and the like. There was a mobile disco party van type thing parked in the main square opposite the temple blaring out some Hindi pop favourites and occasionally Shakira and very random English songs. We hung around for long enough (after chatting to a very kind old man in traditional dress, including a turban, who explained what was happening) to see the bridegroom arrive in all his finery on a white horse. He was led throughout the streets of the old fort, and the entire city appeared to have turned out for this wedding. All the women were wearing the most beautiful items of clothing I've ever seen on anyone, anywhere, in any culture. the saris were dripping in gold, and must have cost a fortune. There was a real carnival atmosphere, and everyone was invited to join in. The 'party van' slowly processed through the streets, followed by a huge crowd of rowdy dancers, revellers, randoms, us, and the bridegroom and his horse. Periodically, people would go up to him, waft Rupees ceremoniously in his face and then put it in some sort of bag. He was wearing a beautiful gold embroidered suit and red and gold turban, carrying a small dagger and a bejewelled bindhi - he looked gorgeous. This went on for several hours, during whcih time the dancing got crazier, free ice creams were given out to all and sundry, I chatted to the bridegroom's sister who explained it was a love/arranged marriage (not sure how that works) and we were heading for the ceremony. There were fireworks, and at one point I stood in fresh cow shit. This is all part of the essential India experience - so much beauty juxtaposed next to a steaming turd.

We couldn't believe our luck when we got inside the ceremony. A beautiful old haveli, decked out like a marquee but in reds and yellows and golds. The bride and groom sat on silver thrones, we were given free food and drink, and there was exchanging of garlands, and lots more wafting and all sorts. We wanted to stay for the walking around the fire ceremony bit but it was already 1am and we had to get up for the camel safari.

It was one of those experiences that transcends all of the bad times you might have been having, certainly made up for the petty annoyances and illness and hassle and everything, which just drifts away. You can't pay to get in it, you can't go to admire it like a Palace or lake or mountain, but it's the very heart of Indian culture and I feel so lucky to have gotten to have seen it.

The Camel safari also did not disappoint. Having done it before in Morocco (oh, the pain) I wanted to catch what I missed last time - the stars. This time we slept outside, fully outside with just blankets on properly rolling sand dunes. I stared at the starriest sky I have every seen as I dozed off. It was mesmerising and despite my extreme fatigue I couldn't shut my eyes.  The sand dunes were beautiful too, though I found the visit to the village a bit awkward, but you can't have it all. Our guide, Abi, was simply wonderful and cooked us amazing food over a fire under the night sky.

I have to go now as the internet man wants to go to (another) wedding party but our final day in Jaisalmer was also lovely. The next few days are going to be absolutely manic, we have to cram in so much before Aimee flies home, so I'll write when I can.

Every day, good, bad, or ugly, India is still surprising me. Incredible.

Monday, January 17, 2011


Mumbai was a complete head rush, but I enjoyed every minute of it - and now I miss that 30 degree smoggy madness as I brave the cool desert regions of Rajasthan - it's been about 20 degrees in the day but the nights are very cold indeed, I'm so glad I kept my sleeping bag.

The Bollywood experience turned out to be one of highlights of India so far. We were picked up in a car at 8am from Colaba Causeway and driven for over an hour to the Northern suburbs and 'Filmcity', where a huge air hangar type building (yet made from tarpaulin or something) housed the set. We'd been warned about long, dull waits and drab food but our breakfast was pretty good and we were soon been put into costume (office workers in a bank) and make up and were on our way over the the set. We hit the jackpot as far as being an extra goes: a post-terrorist attack scene in a German bank, with blown out elevator doors, broken glass everywhere, smoke, fire and the sprinkler system going off. After a briefing with the stunt team, who were from Germany and so uber efficient, we had rehearsals and then went straight into shooting. I screamed, panicked and flailed my way towards the exit, pushing, shoving and banging into the other extras and stunt team as I went. tT was brilliant fun, and we shot it several times before the director was happy. I kept my eyes open for Shahrukh Khan, the star of the film (Bollywood's super megastar) but he wasn't to be seen. We were exceptionally lucky to finish by 3pm and get a lift back to Colaba by 4. Watch out for the back of my head in the Bollywood Blockbuster 'Don 2' due out in 2012.

A group of us then went for donuts and a smoothie in Leopold's Cafe. Unbeknown to me, Gregory David Roberts, the author of the famous novel about India, Shantaram, was sitting a few tables away. One of the Dutch guys we were with pointed this out and I had a brief chat with him. What a lovely, interesting guy. He made time for all the fans who flocked to his table to get books signed and take photos. 

Our final day in Mumbai couldn't have been more of a contrast to the 'glamour' of Bollywood the day before. 6 of us who'd been filming together booked onto a tour of Dharavi, the slum made famous by Slumdog Millionaire, scene of riots in the early 90s. With almost 1 million people living in 1.75 square kms, it's often referred to as Asia's largest slum. Reality Tours were really decent - the money raised from the tours funds a school and computer education centre for the residents. It was sensitively done, and truly fascinating. 

I've seen a fair bit of poverty around India, and other parts of the world, but this was one of the most squalid place I've seen so far (I've not yet been to Delhi, many travelers say it is worse). Interestingly, it's also one of the most productive: you may see people scavenging through bins for plastic bottles or dragging old oil drums through the streets, and it all has a purpose. Dharavis' residents make their living primarily from recycling. Nothing goes to waste there. Plastic, glass, pots, anything and everything is reused. Many shopkeepers tell me that 'In India, anything possible', and it's in these sorts of places you what they mean. People quite literally live on top of each other, with huge municipal rubbish tips juxtaposed with children's playgrounds, and one toilet between so many thousand people. And they're paying, so most people just use the street, or wherever. It did smell just a bit. Despite this, we saw pots been made, poppadoms shaped, suitcases sewn, all in people's front rooms (their only room - most people seemed to live, eat sleep, wash and work within the same tiny space).

Our 18 hour train that night was pretty unremarkable, if very cold, and it passed pretty quickly (I slept a lot of the way). We managed to book into a lovely homestay and got there mid afternoon on Wednesday. Too tired to do much, a trip to Big Bazaar was in order (40% off all clothes sale - score) food, then bed.

Jaipur was busy, noisy, hectic, almost choking in terms of traffic and quite expensive. 'The Pink City' certainly has some rustic charm in its faded orangey facades, but I'm not quite sure if it merits being the third corner of the so called 'Golden Triangle' along with Delhi and Agra. The hassle was fairly persistent and a little tiresome, but nothing we couldn't handle. We were lucky enough to meet a lovely guy who invited us up onto his rooftop for breakfast and to watch the kite festival, which happened to be on in Jaipur while we were there. The flat-roofed houses of the North are so very different from those of the South, and watching what seemed 
like the whole population of Jaipur flying kites from their rooftops was pretty special. We retreated from the cacophony of the Pink City to a rooftop restaurant for dinner, and then went to a Chocolate shop for cake. With our new found Bollywood fame, it seemed right to spend an evening at one of the most fancy, art deco cinema houses in the country, the Raj Mandir. 

'Isi Mein Life' was pretty spectacularly funny. Not that we laughed at any of the same parts as the Indians. The hilarious dance sequences and predictable plot were balanced out by the unbelievably beauty of the main actor, Akshoy Oberoi. All the girls in Bollywood are generically pretty hot, but he is something else. Wow.

We managed to make it out of Jaipur without any major stresses, and caught the public bus to Pushkar, where I currently am. It's a beautiful whitewashed town set around a lake, which is sacred to Brahma. There are 52 ghats and over 500 temples in the surrounding area - all kinds of Holy. Priests and various other randoms keep trying to get money out of me by offering blessings and throwing petals into the lake. They then give you a red piece of string, called the 'Pushkar Passport' which stops any further hassle. My Cambodian bit of tat (I got conned in a similar way last time) is doing the job just fine! 

I've done yoga in the most beautiful setting imaginable, overlooking the entire lake and temples at the top of the ghats as the sun sets - the yoga was substandard, but who cares. I've hiked to the top of a steep, steep hill  to a Temple overlooking the whole town and the desert and mountains beyond, which was stunning. I've eaten some of the best curry (Channu Masala and cheese Naan, today's lunch) and watched the prequel to the Bollywood film we're in (Don - it's a hilarious action film vaguely similar to the fairly terrible HOllywood film Face/Off) whilst also meeting a guy who was in Isi Mein Life (and had pictures of Ashok and him on his phone. Amazing).

We're moving on again tomorrow, to Udaipur, which I'm really excited about. Pushkar is absolutely beautiful, and I've really enjoyed my time here. It's so cold at night though that I'm reconsidering my travel plans post Delhi. I really wanted to go to some of the Northern hill stations but I think they'll perhaps have to wait till I come back. This does, however, mean I can spend more time in other exciting places a little further south.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Mumbai: Dobi Ghats (when you can't) or tea at the Taj when you can

Finally, here I am in the super megatropolis that is Mumbai, Bombay, or whatever you want to call it. I expected a deluge of touts, beggars,  traffic, hassle, smog and craziness, but have been pleasantly surprised by the whole experience. We managed to find space at the backpackers' institution that is The Salvation Army Red Shield House, a semi-building site with spartan yet airy dorms.  A very strange place full of lots of really lovely people from all over the world.

The 14 hour bus trip actually ended up taking 20 hours (Oh, India) due to a tyre bursting within about an hour of leaving Hospet and the horrific state of the rural roads. I also had an angry confrontation (and I hate confrontation) with an Indian waiter who tried to rip us off something royal in a roadside restaurant. After many heated words we ended up throwing down what we thought was appropriate and marching out. Then, I had to fight my way past an old woman who seemed to think she was in charge of the toilets (she wasn't) which was a very bizarre experience indeed. Luckily, I slept for most of the journey (after they turned off the unbelievably loud Bollywood films) and we got dropped off not too far from VT and caught a taxi straight to Red Shield, all pretty painlessly.

Yesterday afternoon was spent wandering around Colaba, admiring the Gateway of India (erected to commemorate the visit of King Gorge in 1911, or thereabouts), visiting the super posh toilets in the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and buying a unbelievably decadent chocolate cake from its exquisite patisserie. Wandering around Colaba and Fort gave me slight culture shock, as parts of it could easily be London. Nowhere else in India have I so strongly felt the echoes of the British Raj, and the beautiful buildings it left behind strangely fit so well into this very modern, very Indian city. We wandered up and down the wide boulevards and streets, happening upon a 17th Century (British built) church which was pretty nice, and I had a small geeky moment when I found the Asiatic Society Library has a 14th Century edition of none other than Dante's Divina Commedia, which I've spent the last few years trying to get my head around at uni. I went in to seek it out but it appeared to be closed, so I'm going back on Tuesday morning.

We wandered down Marine Drive, which has a beautiful panorama of the city at night, and after getting a bit lost were shown directions by a really friendly architect from Goa. It's nice to know some people are just being friendly, a welcome reminder after the constant money grabbing of the touts and freeloaders in Goa itself.

We rounded off this 'cultural' day with a McDonalds. It felt a little wrong, but Mumbai is so hideously expensive by Indian standards that it was the cheapest thing we could find on Colaba Causeway! No beef, of course, but a McChicken Sandwich. Oh dear. Then an early night, as we were supposed to be heading to Bollywood at 6.30am this morning.  That fell through, but luckily after breakfast today I ran into Amy who I haven't seen in a week or so, and we agreed to meet for drinks later. There's a really great mix of people in my dorm, and we're all going out for a few beers after I've finished here. I finally feel like I'm doing productive stuff after all that tiring relaxation, and today we saw Chowpatty beach (meh) and the Gandhi Museum (very interesting - most of all his off hand letter to Hitler casually suggesting world peace). After a fantastic ALoo Palak and roti for lunch in a cramped, properly Indian place we tried to find the infamous Dobi Ghats where a monumental amount of rock-bashing washing is done by hand every day. We took about 5 different trains and still it eluded us, so eventually we gave up and Aimee and I headed back to the Taj for tea.  She had Earl Grey and I branched out to try the Taj Special House Blend, which was as good as you'd expect from Mumbai's top hotel!

Now it's time to get changed and meet up with all the others for some food and beers. I can hear the relentless jingle jangling of the silver horse and carts and the endless beeping drifting through the window - yet it's strange not to see a cow, anywhere. I'll be sad to leave Mumbai, I've met so many lovely people, and not just other travellers - it's nice to meet some Indians who are genuinely just interested in who you are and 'Where your country?'.. One guy today kindly shook my hand, smiling, said 'welcome to India' and then babbled on about cricket for 5 minutes before saying 'good luck' and wandering off.  Good vibes, good times.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Fail when you can

I should, at this exact moment, be sat on a night bus to Mumbai. Aimee and I have, however, been thwarted by a typically Indian cock-up. Our travel agent booked our ticket for the wrong day, we didn't double check, and so after a really fun rickshaw ride with a lovely Kiwi guy called Richie and the crazy driver ('Don't worry, chicken curry!' he cried as we swerved dangerously close to cows, buffalo, chickens and children) to Hospet, we were turned away. The same man drove us back and we are setting up camp in Hampi Bazaar for the night, then doing the yoga we have been meaning to try all week in the morning before getting on the 14hr bus tomorrow eve.

This morning we again hired (motorised) bikes and flew around the temples and ruins - though again I found myself more interested in the general experience of being on 2 wheels than looking listlessly at the ruins themselves, especially with the steep admission charges to what can only be described as a crumbling mess (perhaps a bit harsh, but it was very expensive).

I am love all this sort of stuff, but the Hampi ruins need a lot of TLC from UNESCO or the Indian Government or someone before they are going to hold my interest for longer than a bike. The signage was poor, and compared to Angkor Wat I found myself losing interest as I couldn't connect the story of the place with the ruins themselves. The landscape, however, did not fail to amaze, and I'd love to go rock climbing or bouldering around here, even though I know I am atrocious at it. I imagine that if you were to return here in ten to fifteen years later the adventure sports potential might become a real draw for tourists with bigger budgets than the predominantly backpacker crowd currently here, with luxury hotels and all the rest. Whether they'll be able to get around the beer ban is another matter...

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Blog when you can

I have finally got around to starting this blog. It was beginning to be more work not to start a blog; typing out the the same information four times explaining where I am and what I've been doing to family and friends was not a very productive way to spend my time in internet cafes, as the Rupees clock up and the time creeps on.

Kavi digs into an excellent thali
Kavitah must take full credit for the blog title (and I can't wait to read her 'come look my blog!'). 'Eat when you can' (/drink/sleep/insert indulgence here when you can) has been our mantra over the past few weeks, and I have been taking the 'eat' part of it very seriously indeed. The food has been incredible throughout my time in India, but whilst I've been travelling over the past 3 weeks I've shunned curry a little in favour of more Western comfort food, particularly whilst I've been ill this week. Whilst on Raleigh we got the best of authentic, rural, South Indian food: the mighty thali, the delicious dhosa, and the brilliant parotha, amongst others. My taste buds have manned up to the spice and I've forgotten what meat tastes like (and don't really miss it).

Retrospectively, not wearing a helmet was a bad choice
Now I'm well and truly on the tourist trail these kind of foods are more difficult to find and far less genuine, and by that I mean what Indians actually eat away from the tourist centres. Some of the best curries I've had have been in tiny dhabas in the middle of nowhere whilst trekking in Kerala, which look about as clean as the streets they sit on (i.e, rank) but they serve up a fantastic egg curry for a little over 40p a go.

Sadly I've had an extremely dodgy stomach over the past few days and my calorie intake has mostly come from rather dry toast and bananas. I've managed a pancake today which is a huge achievement!

I write this from Hampi, or Vijayanagar, the ruined 'City of Victory', a once great Empire which has been left to fall into an awful state of repair, leaving the ruins looking far older than their 500 years. For me, the prime attraction in Hampi has been the landscape the ruins sit amongst. The whole site is a surreal moonscape of giant boulders, hills made from these boulders and strange rocks precariously balanced upon each other. I spent the first 3 days looking at the inside of my wooden hut,  due to the combination of a hideous cold and the unsettled stomach. Finally I made it out on Monday, and we had a great day, hiring mopeds and whizzing around the backroads, soaking up the atmosphere, and climbing up what seemed like hundred of steps to the Hanuman temple (monkey god) from where there was a spectacular panorama of the whole of Hampi.

My rubbish camera doesn't do it justice at all.
We went inside, got a blessing (the ubiquitous red dot - or in this case a huge stripe - on the forehead) ate some sugar, sniffed and wafted some incense and listened to a woman in a very bright saree sing/wail what must be some sort of holy chant or song. I think Hinduism is even more confusing than Buddhism and most of the time I have literally no idea what is going on in any of these ceremonies.

On the way down (and up) we were followed and hassled for pens and water by a huge gaggle of school children who had quite literally arrived by the truckload. As in, an open back truck, crammed with kids, all stood up. Oh India. And this very cheeky monkey.

That day we waved goodbye to Amy, who was heading off to Mumbai, and the next day Kavitah also left us to return to Bangalore to meet her friend. Yesterday morning we got up early to see Lakshmi, the temple elephant, being washed in the river which separates Viru (where I'm staying) and Hampi Bazaar, and then had a wander amongst the weird landscape to the Vitthala temple and had much fun taking photos. Sadly there's not much in the way of information provided by any kind of signage, and so it's up to you to imagine why the ruins are there. Or you could fork out for a guide, or, as I hope to do tomorrow, hire a moped and dirve the the archeological museum. then it's time to move on, on again to Mumbai, which I'm sure will be in every way the absolute antithesis of Hampi. Exciting, nerve-wracking, bizarre, frustrating and brilliant - as India always is.

Generic ruins