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.

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