Sunday, March 13, 2011

Rishikesh to Amritsar: Golden hospitality

It's been a while. I'm getting lazy. My writing is always rushed, inaccurate, and not to the best of my ability. Many apologies. Blog is coming, the Indians would say.

I had a moderately awful yet bearable overnight bus ride to Rishikesh, arriving just before sunrise at 5am. I sat in a chai shop with some Russians and Israelis while we waited for the sun to make an appearance. Then, got a vikram (a new form of transport, but basically a large rickshaw) to Lakshmanjula, on the East (or was it West?) side of the river, which is only reachable by a suspension bridge. It's relatively quiet and I found a very cheap single room (which had actual hot water and even a tv) for 160 Rupees. Then I slept for most of the day. The next 5 days I felt pretty rough, with my stomach consistently playing up and the weather being pretty rubbish. The first day was stunning. The Ganges is a turquoise colour as it crashes out of the Himalayas, it sits in a little valley with forests on either side, and so many ashrams you can't walk more than 10 metres without tripping over a hippie, sadhu (ascetic holy man) or yoga course. The plan was to do a yoga course, but I found the ashrams and whole 'new age' thing a little much (and not to mention a little delusional) and decided to go to some drop in sessions instead. The man who runs it, Swami Umesh Yogi, teaches transcencental meditation (which he tried to sell me for 200 Euros....I think not) but the yoga was extremely good. I finally got the breathing and asanas and everything. It all clicked, but after 3 hours of it I spent 2 days barely able to walk. It was pretty intense.

I spent most of one day with a Russian man, and we spent a lot of time talking about different brands of vodka and comparing notes on our national foods. Did you know Russians wear their wedding rings on their right hand? Small fast fact. Despite his initial cold, unfriendly manner (which I judged far too quickly) once he got going he was a lovely man. I can't for the life of me remember his name. I think I've got him in my little travel address book though.

I also had an angry day where I walked for half an hour to Swarg Ashram to use the State Bank of India ATM, queued for 15 minutes and then found it was broken. Then the one round the corner was broken. And the next one was broken. I point blank refused to get a rickshaw into town and walked for an hour along the banks of the Ganges - past very beautiful beaches and a funeral pyre, amongst all manner of other bizarre Indian things, including an impromptu cricket match amongst the kids.

I ate at the Little Buddha cafe (loved the Tibetan staff) nearly every day. I felt pretty bleugh though, and after spending a lot of time wondering what to do, decided to leave early and head for Amritsar after 4 nights. I spent Friday (a week last Friday) feeling very sick indeed, and dreading the train ride. I was barely eating and had no one to go with, and couldn't be bothered to handle it on my own right now. However, after getting a rickshaw to the bus station, I hopped straight onto the bus to Haridwar, where I sat in the little booth at the front (side facing seats, in the dark - Raleigh would have been mortified) with the driver and a assortment of Indians. Of course, I was the only foreigner on the bus.  I arrived at the station, set myself up with some chai and joined the group of turbaned Sikhs similarly heading for Amritsar. I was shocked and stunned when the train turned up on time. Of course, this was too good to be true. Half the train had turned up. For some reason, the other half, with my carriage, was nowhere. A group of Spanish people were also looking for my carriage, which is where I met Martha. She was on the upper berth in the next alcove to me, an unbelievably energetic Pilates instructor who pronounced my name in the most wonderfully Spanish way.

I slept badly - 2 of the loudest snorers I've ever heard were in my vicinity. Of course, it arrived 3 hours late into Amritsar Junction. Martha and I made a beeline for the free bus. We could barely believe it. Nothing is free in India. Nothing. We crammed onto a tiny school-like bus, and as we set off, all the Sikhs (we were, again, the only foreigners, standing in the aisle and balancing as the bus must have been packed to 3 or 4 times its actual capacity) began chanting a call and response song which was pretty damn beautiful.

We arrived at the gurudwaras of the Golden Temple - the Sikhs' holiest shrine, which welcomes everyone with unbelievable equality. We got a room in the dorm (for free) and headed over to the kitchen - also free. You sit in a huge hall (wearing your free orange bandana to cover your head, of course) with a Thali plate, and armies of volunteers, with unbelievable, uncharacteristically un-Indian efficiency, doled out meals of rice, chapati, curry, dhal and rice pudding. I still wasn't eating much but was more bewildered and excited by the incredible atmosphere around me. One of the key principles of Sikhism is equality - and they really do go out on a limb on this, if that makes any sense. Anyone, of any nationality, race, religion, or anything else is equally welcome in all parts of the Golden Temple. The volunteers serving the food and the armies involved in washing up showed the genuine compassion which came form this special place. Unlike in some holy places in India, which are plagued with people trying to rip you off and sell you stuff at every turn, I felt genuinely welcome. Also, the communal bathrooms were immaculately clean. To European standards. There was even SOAP at the sinks. O.M.G. This is a HUGE deal.

The Golden Temple itself sits in the middle of a large pool or lake. We circumambulated it and of course had the usual number of requests for photos and all that...but quite a lot of the time conversations with Sikhs from all over the world who were genuinely just curious about who we were and where we were from. How refreshing. Of course, the creeps made their appearance, but I've got the look of daggers and disdain down to an art. There was constant, beautiful music echoing around the entire complex, and we visited the Sikh museum before crashing out.  Martha enthusiastically woke me up at 2pm to announce that a group of people were heading to the border for a 'dance thing' and did I want to go. A huge, motley group of us, organised by Mathias, a German guy, crammed into a school bus and headed to Wagha, to the India-Pakistan border. absolutely hilarious. After so much security and all kinds of searches, we finally made it to the specially erected stands and the two gates which faced each other, with the flagpoles and respective flags fluttering in the early evening sun.

There were 'MCs' for each country, revving up the crowd. There were annoyingly loud happy-clappy-singy Hare Krishnas standing behind us, and hundreds of Indian flags and all the kids dancing to Jai Ho and other Bollywood favourites in the aisle below. Eventually a trumpet sounded, and the ceremony began. It involved a lot of shouting, goosestepping, outlandish hats and very silly costumes, as well as some robust handshaking and gateslamming. It's difficult to describe how hilarious the whole thing was. Youtube it. For two countries which in general hate each other, there was a fair amount of empathy, although you could still see a little tension in the shouting competitions: 'PAKISTAN...[something in Arabic] ... 'HINDUSTAN... [something in Hindi/Punjabi] it got louder and louder until it reached a deafening crescendo and the flags were lowered and marched back into the special border patrol hut.

On the way back to the Golden Temple, we stopped at a Hindu temple, the Mata Temple. It was like a fun house at a fair - crawling through tunnels, strange mirrors, crazy, colourful and sometimes gruesome statues of various Gods and other assorted deities. Then, we were given rice and dhal and chai - unbelievable! Some sort of ceremony was going on, and our multinational group looked very odd indeed amongst the bell ringing, chanting Hindu devotees who were flocking to the shrine.

That evening I saw the closing ceremony where the Sikh holy book is 'put to bed' amidst much pomp and circumstance. The Golden Temple looked particularly beautiful as it was all lit up at night, reflecting in the waters surrounding it. The next day, after very little sleep, I decided it'd be a good idea to crack on to Dharamsala - which had been at the top of my 'must do' list the whole time I'd been in India. Tired but determined, I headed to Jallianwala Bagh, a park where the British committed a horrific atrocity in April 1919. General Dyer's troops open fired on an unarmed group of men, women and children who were breaking a law which banned public gatherings. There were around 1500 casualties, of which about 300 were fatal. Not our finest moment. The park has been restored beautifully and made into a memorial to the dead, though quite chillingly there is a well in which many tried to jump to avoid the shootings, and where they drowned. You can still see the bullet holes on the inside. Strangely I saw a few Punjabi kids running around the park playing with toy guns, which was very odd.

Then, Lulu, a Dutch lady from the border trip, and I, headed off for Dharamshala. We missed the direct bus by 15 minutes, and so instead took the indirect route, getting at first a bus to Pathankhot, 3.5 hours away. Then, there was no bus to Dharamshala. Instead, we got on a bus to Gaggal, which took another 4 hours. We were still 12km away, and after waiting over an hour eventually got a taxi and got up to Mcleod Ganj (Upper Dharamshala - where the Dalai Lama lives and all that) and collapsed into Pawan Guesthouse, and I fell asleep to the calming tones of BBC world news, something I hadn't seen or heard in many, many months.

I woke up, turned over, and saw snow capped ridges, mountains, and forests, and a sky as blue as could be. (Considering everyone in Amristar who'd came from there had said it was raining and hailing, I felt very lucky.) Like Darjeeling, I thought. It was like coming home, I was so glad I decided to make the extra effort to come up here - it has been magical. From the Sikhs' holiest place to the seat of the Dalai Lama and scores of Tibetans in exile, these have been two of my favourite places in India. But I must save my time here so far for another post, as I must get to bed - this is already extremely rushed and I have to get up early to hear the Dalai Lama's teachings in the morning.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

"Does India have an ocean?": some 'full moon party' and other tales from the turtle island

Post Open Water course, all I wanted to do, really, was the Advanced course. However, I'm really glad I managed to get in a couple of fun dives instead, as it was a completely different experience to diving with an Instructor. The Divemasters just do the fun bit: pointing out all the cool fish. We did Red Rock Drop off and this was my favourite dive of all. We had a small group, just Saul, Dave, myself and (unfortunately) a Dutch girl who ended up being my buddy but couldn't dive for shit.  Fresh from our courses, we kind of knew what we were doing, but her buoyancy was all over the shop, she couldn't equalise and, worst of all, she kept banging into the coral. We were swimming through little holes and caves, up and down and upside down, you had to be pretty careful, and I'd constantly be looking over my shoulder (to the point where I actually had a sore neck the next day) to check she hadn't shot off to the surface (again).

I went the wrong way once or twice but it was such a cool dive it didn't matter too much. Our DM was Steven, who was a lot of fun and really knew his stuff.  At the second dive the visibility was poorer, and my attempt at a dramatic direct ascent was an epic fail as it was too painful on the old ears.

Apparently the visibility gets poorer around full moon as this causes the coral reef to reproduce or something(?!) For the Big Blue crew, however, full moon meant something else. I was so happy to see Sarah, Julie, and their friend from home Sinead arrive and do their Open Water courses. There was, by this point, 10  freshly qualified divers, deprived of beer and ready to party.  The night before full moon we had a chilled evening at Chopper's, listening to acoustic music (a blessing since my ipod was stolen) and then headed to the beach to catch up with Team Bermuda's 'graduation' party - which, when I left at about 1am, looked as if it was going to end as messily as ours had. Lots of buckets and diving banter (OK? GOING DOWN! and so on) was had and they had the funniest, nerdiest guy who was hilarious and lovely at the same time. Oh Paul. When he lost the 'mine' game (as Karen had done earlier in Choppers) and had to do 10 push ups, it was too much, I think i had to look away. And then the dancing.....

I left them, buckets in hand, and went to rest up for the inevitable night of no sleep which awaited the following day. 4 messy, noisy Japanese guys had moved into my room (yes it was my room by now!) and they woke me up in the mornings with their noisiness, which meant I was fully allowed to prance in after full moon and screech goooooood morrrrniiing! As they slept.

We went down to the pier, where we made friends with 'the twins' - Keisha and Tanhi, the most identical of identical twins, beautiful girls with the most incredible afros - it was like walking around with celebrities all night the amount of times they were stopped, and boarded the 'party boat' to Ko Phanhgan, where some Korean guys, fascinated by the twins, bough our entire group of 10 a beer and shared their pringles. Good times! We arrived onto Koh Phanghan and had a shit pad thai in a rubbish restauarant and starting painting each other with fluorescent stuff and  guzzling buckets.

I blame Karen, mostly for what happened next. I wish I could remember it all...It was so hard to keep together. 12,000 people on Haad Rin; I hadn't thought it possible. You couldn't move for people in paint, fluoro, buckets, blaring music, people filming, screaming - pure madness. We found by chance, Amy and Eleanor, who'd been on Koh Tao a few days before, and I saw Liv too. I even got everyone to 'number off', Raleigh style, so we could check we all were there. Old habits die hard! Moo Bang (Black Moon, 2009) painted down one arm, I can't remember what down the other, I just remember the sensation of fun. The bucket throwing incident - Karen - was one of the highlights of my night. There was wild dancing, fun times and a blurry, hazy messy sense of fun. That is what I remember. I didn't go near the sea, or walk down the beach, I think we pretty much stayed in a similar spot all night. I was down buying my 3rd (fatal) bucket when I heard Shakira's finest (waka-waka) and in my drunken state went a little crazy as memories from being in a similar, drunken state last summer in South Africa came flooding back. Lots of random people know now the dance, anyway.

9 out of 10 of us managed to make it back onto the boat at 7am the next day. By this point I was hanging badly and seriously angry. You do not need techno, Goa trance-esque music on a boat at 7am in the morning after a night of no sleep. I crashed out and no one emerged until 3pm that afternoon.

That evening, the night after full moon, was really sad, we all sat on the beach at the Fish Bowl, with a beer, and started the goodbyes. Sarah and Sinead (Julie had remained on Koh Phangan....) would be leaving the following day, as would Becky. The day after, I would follow. Saul and Dave would be doing their ridiculous visa run to Burma and the twins would also go to Phangan.

We had such a fantastic group, it was a melancholoy and bittersweet evening. Walking down the beach at midnight, ankle deep in sea, was one of the moments where you think you never want to go home ever again and want life to just crystallize at this moment, seemingly perfect.

Our final goodbye night, just Saul, Dave, Karen, the twins and myself, ended up being buckets again. Hi bar, Office Bar, Lotus Bar....same same, but always just a little bit different. Karen and I had a full scale drunken argument with some stupid Scandinavian boys who were throwing their cigarettes into the sea (I was still remembering the documentaries...) about the damage they were causing. Eco warriors, even when drunk. It's just RUDE!

The next day, I caught my boat back to Chumphon, and then a bus to Bangkok which arrived at 2am. Liv had bought me a room at Sidthi Guest House again and I crashed out. Unfortunately, the next day I felt really rough. Sore throat, fever, all the signs of having had too much fun in the previous 2 weeks. Also there was the bad news that Seb, from my dive group, had caught Dengue Fever and was in hospital on Ko Phangan.

I took a day trip to Hua Hin on Thursday, to meet one of my Mum's friends who was on holiday there and had brought my new debit card out with them. How lucky is that. They bought me lunch, I relaxed by the pool at their luxury hotel, and checked my card worked, and then headed back to Bangkok.

Still feeling rough, I did nothing on my last day and a half in Bangkok. I had no money to do anything anyway, and my one treat was a Thai massage, which was amazing.

My tiny room had space for my single bed and little else, there was no furniture, a window which faced onto a breezeblock wall and fan which chased hot air around the room. I was kind of glad to be leaving the tourist circus of Khao San (which, when i had arrived, I couldn't have wanted more) and be heading back to some 'proper' travel in India. That's not a very fair comment, but India is definitely in a class, world, (hole?) of its own. How moods change, as this is exactly what I'd been looking forward to escaping - the ease of Thailand, the lack of hassle, the efficiency of everything, the ease of booking stuff. I guess after being in both countries, comparing them side by side, I appreciate their strengths and weaknesses far more. They are almost opposite in style and outlook. Thais will do anything to avoid 'losing face'; they are calm, quiet people. You would not et anywhere by shouting at a tuk-tuk driver to try and get a lower price. Not so in India. Survival of the fittest. Survival of the one who can shout the loudest, be the brashest and boldest.

I had to laugh as my plane landed into Delhi and everyone scrambled for the exit (and then we were told to sit back down as Delhi airport wasn't ready for us to disembark.....oh INDIA).

My worries about arriving in Delhi, alone, late at night, have come to nothing. I got a taxi and room with a lovely Austrian girl called Romy, and am escaping to Rishikesh tonight. After a few weeks away, what was started to grind on me is now amusing again. For example, this morning someone tried to give me change in bananas. the constant stream of beggars, spitters, sweepers, hawkers, rickshaw-wallahs, street-sleepers and all the other crap that comes with India has been a delightful presence today. Not that I am going t say I enjoy Delhi - I don't, really.  I have realised that travelling in India is like being in a turbulent relationship. If it were on facebook, it'd be listed as 'complicated'. Like having a boyfriend who cheats on you, lies to you, shouts at you - but you can't help but carry on loving him anyway, after the anger and rage and hate has subsided. You leave and say you'll never come back, but it's never the end. India has a strange, sado-masochistic quality quite unlike anywhere else in the world.

I love it. I hate it. I will be back for more!

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Inevitable Return to Koh Tao: Diving and buckets of fun

I have been out of touch for quite a while. The internet on Koh Tao was nearly 4x as expensive as in bangkok, which is already double the price of India. On my minsicule budget, on the most expensive of the Gulf islands, I couldn't afford it.

The past 2 weeks have been blissful. The bus dropped us off at Chumphon at 2.30am, and the ferry left at 7am. I crashed out in a waiting room, and slept solidly.

Arriving somewhere you've been before, and have fond memories of, is always very strange. Expectations run high, it's so easy to be disappointed and I was trying not to get hopes up too high.  It was far busier than I remembered. Everyone at Big Blue Diving seemed absolutely rushed off their feet. I got a bed in a nice enough 6 person dorm and booked myself in for my discounted Open Water course to start the next day.

Those few days were seriously intense. It was an 8am - 5pm intense course of academics and theory in the morning, learning about the physics of diving, decompresion sickness, nitrogen narcosis, diving tables - a lot more than I'd expected. I even got set homework. Then the afternoon was learning diving skills and gradually building up to deeper dives. It felt great to be really learning something again. I also had a great group - Saul (dive buddy), Becky and Seb, Amy, Jennifer and our Instructor, Sonia, who, like many on Koh Tao, had the familiar story of  'I came here 5 years ago to do my Advanced course and have never left'. She was incredible.

My little dive log book records all the fish and things I saw. Blue spotted stingrays, clownfish, puffa fish, bat fish, groupers, parrot fish, pipefish, jelly fish, and so many more I can't remember without looking it up. Even when the visibility was failry poor, as it was at Chumphon Pinacle and Twins, the whole experience of being beneath the water was sensational.  Swimming alongside huge schools of rainbow coloured fish and spectaculary coral reef that appear to have been painted onto rocks they are so beautiful. It's something else, something so addictive it was very, very difficult to leave (again).

We did 5 dives as part of our course, Mango Bay (where I'd been previously with Dave and Ryan) Japanese Gardens, Twins, White Rock and Chumphon. The final dive site was our early morning (6.30am) dive and our qualifier. We had to do all the skills (taking off your mask, clearing it, taking out your regulator, practising the 'out of air' buddy technique etc) at a depth of about 10m and then we messed around having a dance off underwater whilst the videographer filmed it all. Buddy checks (Bangkok Women Really Are Fellas (BC/Weights/Releases/Air/Final OK) were supposed to stop any disasters but somehow Saul's tank managed to fall off as we were descending on the mooring line. I had to sort this out underwater, which was actually pretty easy, we'd had to learn to take off all our equipment, including BC and tank, weights and everything, underwater as part of training. This is probably a testament to how good Sonia was as an instructor.

We got back onto the boat and got back to Sairee beach at about midday. Shattered, we all retired to bed for a good solid nap. That evening everyone met in the bar to watch our video and recieve our offical Open Water certification cards. The group got larger as we headed out down to Lotus Bar, and celebratory Singhas and Changs turned into celebratory buckets and it all turned pretty messy pretty quickly. It was an amazing end to the course, and the huge group of us that started out slowly diminshed until the last few staggered home at about 5am.

I think I spent the next 2 days recovering and not diving or doing anything, really. Liv came over from Ko Phangan for 2 days, so it was nice to catch up with her, and there was a mass exodus from the island in the opposite direction as everyone went to start worshipping the full moon at Haad Rin. It was perfect on Koh Tao at this time. Lazy afternoons in the bar, watching movies and chilling on the beach, the amazing all you can eat buffet breakfast at the hotel up the road, and Saul's conversion to eco-warrior after watching two documentaries, Sharkwater and The Cove - both are highly recommended, really powerful films about illegal shark finning in Costa Rica and dolphin slaughter in Japan, respectively, and their effects on marine ecosystems and general damage to the planet. I never realised that coral reefs provide 70% of the world's oxygen, or that 40% of these reefs were already lost or severely degraded, and had no idea how killing a few sharks would so severely displace the fragile underwater ecosystem which hangs finely in the balance. I learnt a lot in those few days. We were swimming in the sea one day and picked up a ton of broken bottles and litter and I have myself a 'Big Blue Conservation' T-shirt. Seriously interesting stuff I knew nothing about.

Check out and the Cove won an Oscar for best documentary - deservedly so.

I would have loved to do my Advanced course, but that was pushing my already ridiculously tight budget too far. Next time, Divemaster. Definitely. I am hooked.

Monday, February 7, 2011

To the kindness of strangers (and Thailand)

Yesterday was the worst day of my travels. Of travelling, ever. I realised, at Calcutta airort (what a dive - worse than Humberside) my debit card was missing. I don't know how or why, but it is my only source of cash. After a lot of crying and panicking, I am in Bangkok, with some very kind people. A woman at the airport offered a hug and a tissue. The Indian guys working at Cafe Coffee Day even tried to offer advice and comfort. A wonderful Taiwanese girl, Wan-Yin, bought me water and offered me a free space in her room. Unfortunately, I lost her at customs, I waited but there seemed to be some problem with her visa.

I tagged along with a group of Israelis and a Polish guy, who all offered sympathy, to lend me cash and just general reassurance. I have a plan now and enough money to last for the duration. Found a cheap guest house (SO CLEAN, everything seems so clean) and can't wait to see Liv later. Walkng down Khao San alst night, hearing shit Western pop Music, seeing people drinking, remembering the women selling wooden frogs and the fake IDs - oh, 2009! Culture shock after 4 months in India. I'm wearing SHORTS! My shoulders are out! It's 35 degrees! It's swarming with people and this is exactly what I need. Ease.

Now I've realised I'm going to be fine, I'm getting excited about going to Koh Tao. I am enjoying doing nothing except sorting my life out for the next few days, and then heading south to start diving.

I think it's time for some Pad Thai....

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Darjeeling, unlimited

My first experience of going solo in India got off to a relatively bumpy start. Not only was the train delayed by 4 hours (meaning it arrived at 1am) but there was someone in my bunk. This meant I had to turn on all the lights, pull his blanket off him, and generally throw a strop until eventually he moved. The wait hadn't been too bad as a group of gap yahs and a lovely old English couple, Steve and Betty, who bought us all fruit, had sat it out with me.  Eventually the train arrived into NJP sometime in the early evening of the next day. I had a group of Bangladeshi lads on tour in my carriage who were actually really friendly and non creepy (how refreshing) and asked me to sing my national anthem  - refused, but offered to play them a song on phone instead, onyl having stuff from South Africa they all clapped and cheered along to waka-waka which was pretty funny.

Then it was time to transfer to a jeep for the climb into the Himalayan foothills (Darjeeling is 2100m), which took 3 hours. It was freezing when we got out the car at 8pm and I'm glad Sarah and Julie were there to take me to their hotel!

The next morning I got up at 4am with them and a group of Kiwi guys to go to Tiger Hill, even higher up. On a clear day, you can see Everest and the whole Himalayan range into Sikkim, but it was cloudy and we saw nothing. I was gutted. We got the jeep back down, stopping briefly at a Tibetan Monastery on the way. There are prayer flags streaming everywhere all around Darjeeling and 'Gorkaland' (there are currently strikes and protests for a separate state from West Bengal) as it has a huge Tibetan refugee presence.

What I loved about Darjeeling was its relaxed atmosphere: no 'come look my shop', no 'Madam, madam, look this, just looking', no one asking for money, no staring, no rickshaws, no traffic, no hassle. Perfect. It's difficult to describe how much I appreciated just being able to browse in a shop without being mobbed by desperate salesmen. What a relief. I spent the morning with Sarah and Julie, visiting the local market, drinking tea at Glenary's (English style patisserie and cafe, complete with red phone box) and sitting at the viewpoint. We got really excited when we caught a glimpse of Kanchenjunga, the 3rd highest mountain in the world, as the weather had been rubbish and cloudy for their whole time in Darjeeling.

That afternoon, after they left, I wandered around the windy streets and found myself at a Victorian mansion, only to be promptly escorted out by a man with a gun as it was off-limits government property.  There were few tourists around and I felt a little lost that afternoon.  I had a comforting dinner of mac & cheese and then went back to the hotel at 8pm, as everything shuts down pretty early due to the freezing weather (I assume this is the reason). Luckily I got chatting to a group of Japanese guys who were planning a trip to Tiger Hill the next morning, and decided I'd give it another try - the weather forecast looked good.

This was the best decision I've made in a while! Despite the cold and the horrendous 4.30am wake up, the stars were all out when we arrived and when the sun started to come up it was simply magical. Kanchenjunga and the mountains around it slowly came into view, and as the sun came up it lit up each mountain range in turn - from Everest on the far left, three sisters, then Kanchenjunga and the Sikkim ountains. There was a purple haze behind Everest and mist in the valleys below. The sky was bright orange and Darjeeling itself, looking tiny in the valley below, was slowly bathed in the pastel hues of the early morning sun. It was honestly one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen in my entire life. Greenery, snowy mountains (warm chai at 6am sharp!) and magic. I'm going to go to Sikkim itself next time.

I met Margie and Charlie, who I'd briefly bumped into the day before, at Tiger Hill and we wandered back to Darjeeling (about 13km) via several beautiful Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries, quite unlike anything else I'd seen in India or South East Asia. An energetic blend of Hindu iconography and Buddhist beauty, they were really special, peaceful places, and I loved walking back through Alpine-esque scenery. Tango 5 would have been proud. I even heard, climbing a hill, walking past a chai shop, a scratchy version of 'The Climb' coming from a radio. I thought of Tango 5 and smiled.

That afternoon I wandered up to Observatory Hill, which was strewn with prayer flags, and again happened to bump into Steve and Betty who were staying at the Windamere, a lovely Heritage Hotel perched up  on the hill. They very kindly treated me to another cup of Darjeeling's finest.

That afternoon, as the mist moved in, I went and did my tea shopping. I tried several teas and have ended up with nearly a kilo. But it is bloody good stuff (they supply Harrods) and when I run out I have the details fo how to get shipped more!

That evening I met up with Margie and Charlie again and we went to see another Bollywood movie. It was so funny, as they always are, and an early night was again in order after some great chat and noodles in a nearby cafe.

The morning after was, again, thankfully, crystal clear, and I booked a 'joy ride' on the famous Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, otherwise known as the toy train.  It chugged up the road at a very leisurely, often walking pace, alongside the road. Quite literally, on the road, sometimes zig zagging across and stopping the traffic. The views were absolutely out of this world, and the Bastasia loop, around the Gurkha War Memoiral, was another great opportunity to gaze at the Greater Himalayas.

Feeling pretty happy and energetic, I set off to find he zoo, which everyone I'd met had recommended, and which was full of pretty interesting and sometimes exotic Himalayan animals. It had some decent breeding programmes, too, but the best part for me was the attached Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, founded by Tenzing Norgay, where there was a really cool museum all about the Himalayas and all the expeditions and attempts to conquer Everest. They even had the British flag hoisted a\at the top in 1953. 

I then hiked round, looking down on all the tea plantations (a darker green than those in Kerala) to the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre, where recently arrived refugees were taught English and other useful skills to help them find work in India. There was also a really interesting display on the plight of the Tibetans.

I finally got back to Darjeeling proper at about 5pm, hiking again up some insanely steep roads (the altitude was a killer, at least I blame that for how out of breath I was) and had some dinner and wrote my postcards. It was great to get some alone time and chill out after a lot of exercise.

I had my last cup of tea the next morning, and bought yet more tea to take home as presents. I didn't want to leave - the people were so friendly, there were so many more women around (this was a big deal, Indian streets are very male dominated), and it was so unbelievably beautiful. I'm now in Calcutta and about to head to Thailand but must go as I'm late or dinner with Sarah, Julie and Liv.

Namaste, India (for now). Sawasdee-kah, Thailand!

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