Published: March 13th 2010March 13th 2010
Our next trip starts in India.Having joined the World Wide Organic Farming Network in India we were heading to Sadana Forest in Pondicherry to work therebefore heading further north to other projects. WOOFING is a worldwide network of organic farms which need volunteers to come and work in exchange for food, accomodation and training. It's really well established in Europe but we still have loads of places around the world we want to see and this is the perfect way for us to do it, not just because it's cheaper in the countries like India but because it's a way to get to know a country, the people, while gaining skills we hope will benefit us in the future. Sadana Forest is part of Auroville, a New Agey international community of people based on ashram principles, all working on different projects, including education, ecology and sustainable living. The community is vegan and teetotal - not everyone's cup of tea, maybe not ours, but that's what we wanted to find out. But first we wanted to spend a few weeks travelling the south to acclimatise and get to see tiny bit of India.
We had a rough plan for our days in
Mumbai visiting a few areas and the beautiful temple on Elephanta Island. We also wanted to spend a couple of days with a charity called Soava which helps provide education and support for Mumbai street children. Two days isn't a particularly meaningful contribution but we wanted to see that side of Mumbai without going on some sort of voyeristic slum tour. As it was none of this happened. We arrived in bustling, hot Mumbai and found it much like many of the big Asian cities we have been in - a real mix of extremes. It's a lot of fun if you can spend the cash and can handle the noise and traffic. And we felt that gap between rich and poor were far wider than we had ever seen before. The old colonial buildings are pretty beautiful, the parks and dusty scrub used for playing cricket, Chowpatty beach was wonderful for people watching as were the areas around Elephant Gate and the high court. We explored a few areas, spending most evenings walking the around Colaba and Fort areas, during the day heading out to visit Chowpatty beach (and a very long hot walk back around the bay), Gandi's
former house, now a museum, and Dhobi Ghat - a village within the city based around hundreds of basins of water, where all the washing in Mumbai is taken and done.
There are loads of train stations around Mumbai and it looked like a great way to get around but it was so, so busy - particularly during rush hour which ran from 6am to 11am and then seemed to start at about 3pm. And considering non rush hour was wall to wall people, rush hour was just total insanity. We found a delicious restaurant called Shivala and watched everyone commuting home one evening just before a holiday and it was manic Our favourite commuters were the crows which would swing past atop of of the single decker buses, a few of them hopping off at each stop
We took taxis - they are all metered but on the old style ones the meter doesn't work so whatever number pops up then has to be checked against a price card the taxi driver has. This meant a number of drivers did try to bump prices (by quite a lot at times - sometimes double) which was a bit wearisome but
once you asked to see the card they had to back down and let you pay the right amount.
We started our stay in the lovely Lawrence Hotel not lovely because of the accomodation - if we hadn't booked already then on the climb up the broken stairs, in darkness, past live wires on the walls, to the third floor where the hotel, was we might have turned back. But the management were lovely, the rooms really cheap. It just got a bit of getting used to the guy who brought us breakfast and managed the night reception being called 'The Boy'. The Boy was our first introduction to the wonderful Indian head waggle - sort of from side to side, always with a big smile, which can mean anything from 'whatever weirdo' to 'yes '.
We learnt by trial and error that the food and atmosphere in many of the small vegetarian cafes where you could eat a fantastic North or South Indian Thali for just 25p (places like Anubhav), was much better than many of the more western focused places like Leopolds, the legendary traveller cafe which is guarded by police checking bags.
However we only got to
do about half of what we had planned to do - early in the week we'd tried to book a train ticket online (not realising that online prices are much higher than if you buy at the train station) but had been told they were not available. So we headed to the fun that was the train station and after getting our forms filled out we managed to establish there was no seats on any trains to Goa until at least 4 days later than we had hoped to leave Mumbai. Apparently many people were heading out to celebrate the Hindu festival of Holi. We decided to wait a little and decide what to do - on the way back to the hotel we were nearly run over by a guy in a big car who said there was a big Bollywood production being filmed the next day - did we want to be paid extras? We decided against it - not being sure of the sincerity of the tout. However when we returned to the Lawrence hotel 'The Boy' popped into our room and asked us if we would like to be in the next day's production - he
had a friend who was a scout and he would get commission while we'd get a fun day out on a Bollywood filmset and Rps500
As it was our plans went slightly awry. Checking our email later we found that we had actually been booked onto the train and that night headed for Goa. We had a moment of fear heading for the platform - from all areas Indians were sprinting past us and when we arrived on the platform there were people climbing over each other as they tried to cram into the first two train compartments (and this was over an hour before the train left). But as we walked on we found that the sleeper class that we were booked was super organised with clear lists who was in what bunk. Feeling relieved and little guilty for those in the crammed cars we had a relaxed journey with lots of lovely people only too keen to chat. Panaji was a lovely stopover a small town and perfect for a fairly raucaus Holi - with lots of coloured water and dyes flying around - but still very relaxed.
And then onto the beaches of Goa over priced, over
Westernised, over-hyped and not Indian at all but still with the palm trees, sand and sea . We spent a few days in Anjuna observing the local wildlife interacting on the beaches - tourists, touts, cows and dogs alike. Cows which drive tourists off their towels and then would settle there contentedly , the packs of dogs which are so peaceful usually but turn wild wolves to defend their own territory from other dogs and woke us at 4am with the most vicious pitched battles outside our tents and the pugnacious, tenacious beach girls selling jewelery.
The main season was over by the time we arrived in March but there were plenty of groups of Indian tourists who stared open mouthed at some of the topless, thong combos sported by tourists. (As did we - there were some real horrors - one particular male octoganerian jogged past our tent each morning sporting just a pink florescent thong).
After a couple of nights in a really cheap room fending off giant ants that fell through the room and landed on your skin with an audible smack we moved to a tent on the beach.The decision was driven in part by someone's
decision to close the outer bolt on our room meaning we couldn't get out in the morning! The windows were barred and we were about to remove the ceiling tiles when Eric managed to call for help! Time to move to something where we couldn't be locked in. We moved to a lovely tent at the Elephant Cafe and then onto a tent on the beach at the Five Five cafe. We didn't haggle but both gave a hefty discount as the season was ending.
We checked out Anjunas festivalish flea market, which was every Wednesday and also explored some of the beaches to the north like Vagatar, scooters are the easiest way to get around although we did see some rather horrific accidents. And we did spend much longer than planned in Goa because unexpectedly we got asked to do a trek in really far north India for an article in a UK magazine. Fantastic, we thought, but because we needed to head north, the shedule through amazing Hampi, spiritual Mysore, and to the homestays in Kerela were postponed. We were gonna head north....and given how the sea breeze dropped and temperature rose so rapidly in the short time
we were in Goa...this was probably no bad thing! Onward and upward to the cool Himalaya!
There are more photos below