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Published: November 20th 2019
Many Travelbloggers begin their entry with an applicable proverb or quote. Today we're doing the same with an old British catch-phrase that you'll never see penned again: "Don't just book it, Thomas Cook it". Yep, strangled on multiple fronts and after almost two hundred years in existence, the old travel chestnut finally went belly-up.
This, whilst sad on an institutional level, is obviously catastrophic for its workers. No, we were not personally impacted by its demise: we're flying out with Emirates thank-you-very-much (they, miraculously, being the cheapest option). My parents had though, by a margin of only twelve hours, just made it back to the UK on a TC flight. Lucky they were; their luggage, less so. The official explanation was that due to the flight's late running it would not perform its usual refill on mainland Greece (planes always take off from Skiathos with a partial fuel load due to its short runway) and thus to make it back to Blighty it needed to jettison weight (pre-departure): that being eighty percent of all the cargo. My parents thought the excuse somewhat disingenuous, suspecting that TC's tottering status might have disinclined the aviation fuel provider from topping up
the tanks: would they ever be paid? Thankfully, after three panicky, phone-heavy days they were reunited with their bags...
Anyway, having just regained the reflex habits of drinking tap water and depositing toilet paper in the bowl, having lost the reflex habits of applying sun cream (a.m.) and mosquito repellant (p.m.), rediscovered the joys of hoppy real ale and hunks of red flesh, and having loosened the belt buckle several notches it was time once again for the off. Destination: our unpredictable old friend, India.
Our rough plan is to overland it to China before Central Asia and Eastern Europe. In theory getting from India to China should be easy, simply passaging up and through Nepal. However, Nepal abuts only Tibet and transit through there requires an expensive and restrictive tour package. So, plan B: we'll exit India from the tribal eastern State of Mizoram (yes, His Dudeness, we had said we wouldn't be returning to this neck-of-the-woods To Nagaland and beyond...
), scurry through Myanmar (if they'll let us enter by the Rohingal-depleted north), similarly Thailand, into Laos and proceed up into China's Yunnan province. Hmmm, we'll see...
Emirates Airlines proved to be as
good as we'd been promised: excellent leg room; great meals; limitless alcohol (not expected); and an amazing array of entertainment options (Ali was never to win "Who wants to be a millionaire", even with her top notch "ring a friend"). There was a smooth transit through Dubai, a short wait at Delhi airport for the Metro to start running and as dawn broke we alighted outside New Delhi railway station.
Unfortunately we were on the wrong side of its sprawling mass, Paharganj and its budget guesthouses lay on the far side of the many tracks. As we paused to consider how to navigate our way through the station we were approached by a helpful young lad who pointed the way; a little later and an elderly gentleman corrected our route. Now inside we asked a man who was, seemingly, in charge of a scanning machine (they're everywhere these days). Without further directions he stated his concerns that the area of Pahraganj was unsafe. Indeed he thought access was only possible with a permit. There was a Muslim festival due to start and the renewed troubles in Kashmir were heightening local tensions; Delhi itself - particularly Pahraganj -
was not a good place to be. He wrote the address of a government tourist agency where we could - for free - obtain a permit and, deserting his position, led us to a rickshaw to ensure it took us there for the going rate. Exhausted and somewhat flummoxed we tamely complied.
Sure enough the D.T.T.D.C. office was already open at little more than 6.30am and the gentleman behind the desk reiterated the sad state of affairs: Paharganj was off limits and there were no access permits. In fact such was the problem that the wi-fi was down and trains out of Delhi fully booked for days hence. In response to our skepticism he pulled up some packed schedules by way of example. Flights to another Indian city would be the way to go and he duly produced some extortionate examples of fares. Apparently Ethernet connections were still possible then? Sadly our technological ignorance didn't aid us as to this potential flaw in his arguments. Could I borrow his computer? I'd have a look on Skyscanner. Yep, these prices were markedly lower. But, we were assured, we couldn't (he couldn't) procure those here in India? Ali had
just bought a SIM card at the airport giving her 4G access... But it wouldn't be activated until 2pm that afternoon (a very real fact). What we could do, he advised, was hunker down in a safe centrally located hotel... but these were all four and five star. Yeah, OK, we were beginning to wake up; this whole ruse was simply a more dramatic variant on "that guesthouse has closed down". No thank you; we'd simply return to New Delhi station, check out the train situation in person and - worse case scenario - retrace our steps to the airport and buy a ticket there using their functioning wi-fi (if the officious guards would give us access without a ticket). He wasn't impressed.
On exiting the office our "waiting" rickshaw driver listened to our plans and rapidly decided that he was knocking off for the day (no hefty baksheesh was coming his way from an expensive hotel), although there was a new rickshaw who was happy to take us back for the same standard 30 rupees (45 US cents). En-route, ignoring our protests, he insisted on pausing at "the real tourist information office". Christ... At this point
we were totally happy with walking back to the station; indeed, now at Connaught Place we knew our way back and the route would pass Paharganj's Main Bazaar that was almost certainly not cordoned off or imminently life threatening. Nevertheless we did venture into the office, just to see how much further the story could be spun and in return perhaps impart some choice words of our own. Bizarrely, information officer no. 2 was not part of the scam and he knew of no local problems, necessary permits or likely riots. We thanked him and left. Driver no. 2 had disappeared, without being paid anything: we'd had a free ride half way back. It might be surmised that he'd taken pity on us and our wasted time, knew that this "real" office - that he'd forced us to - would confirm what we strongly suspected, and simply didn't want to be associated with the previous hour's debacle. If so, that was really rather kind.
Thus we wearily advanced up the broad Panchkulan road, politely declining offers of rides whilst passing still recumbent homeless, topless longhi-wearing men bathing beneath standpipes, litter-grazing cattle, early rising cross-legged cobblers, metal probe-bearing
ear-cleaners, chai wallahs and purveyors of paan.
And sure enough, opposite New Delhi station's western entrance, Main Bazaar appeared as always: a choked bustle of vendors, loiterers, food stalls and commerce. It beggars belief that we could be persuaded - however transiently - that it would be otherwise. Hell, we've ranted about the station's reputation as ground zero for elaborate scams "Scams", "rip-offs" and "robberies"
... and yet... All said, we do know why we were targeted: shiny new rucksacks that, incidentally, for all their grand reviews and expense, we both bloody hate, marked us as raw newbies. Still, no harm done and surely we were now re-hardened against naive errors of judgement?
The government D.T.T.D.C office's cryptic acronym obviously stands for: Duplicitous Tourist Tricks and Dastardly Cons.
We'd heard that Paharganj's maze of lanes is now home to numerous hostels - as opposed to old school guesthouses and basic hotels - that are both rather swanky... and expensive. We spotted none. Prices at previous (remembered) haunts Ajay
(many, many years ago) and Anoop
(2013) had both spiraled, the latter from 400 to 1100 rupees in just six years. Oeerrrr. However, after a few more
enquiries we discovered, down a narrow little alley, Hotel Prince Palace (The Green)
. At 600 Rps the large, musty-smelling, third floor room was hardly diamond but it did have several industrial-sized fans and up above was a decent terrace from which to view life on the surrounding flat rooftops and in the alleyways down below. Directly beneath us was a muddy lane lined with rickety shacks out of which spilled bulging sacks of seeds, grains and pulses, and from which projected low platforms bearing fresh vegetables. These would open pre-dawn and remain so well into the night until, finally, many of the merchants would curl up amidst their remaining produce or crawl under tarps either atop of or behind - in the adjacent graveyard - their premises. The ubiquitous roaming cattle, many that breed with the fatty hump wobbling between their shoulder blades, congregate as dusk approaches knowing that unsold spoils will be left for them. Meanwhile huge black fruit bats swoop through darkening purple skies, before making loud scrabbling landings in the neighbouring mango trees. Later still, mangy feral dogs prowl in the milky dimly-lit gloom and sleepy vendors rouse to come piss outside their competitors' establishments.
We reacquainted ourselves with the smokey little eateries clustered in the back streets around the entrance to Main Bazaar, found an amazing chai stall and lassi stand (the latter having ice delivered by a hand-pushed, wet hessian-covered cart from whose massive block its own needs are hewn), fortuitously remembered the location of the wine shop (dispensaries that, as we've mentioned in a blog long ago, sell all manner of evils with the exception of wine) and... we gathered our breath. For no good reason we were truly shattered: how a mere five hour time difference can be so discombobulating astounds.
Our lassi drinking venue introduced us to a charming Kashmiri gentleman with the firmest of handshakes, our repeated wanderings to a friendly young lad selling almond biscuits cooked in-situ on his barrow. Indeed our traipses up and down Main Bazaar were increasingly stalled as we chatted with acquaintances old and new, not least the persistent offerers of marijuana and hashish who were hard to shake. On a rather less tasteful note we also met another (coincidentally) Kashmiri who proved to be far less pleasant, but we won't dwell on him.
New Delhi railway
station's tourist reservation centre still exists (on the second floor); don't believe anyone who says it doesn't. It was always well run, but now there is a twist: before it was heaving, today - a first thank you to mobile phone booking - it is almost empty. Our upper sleeper class tickets to Odisha's (Orissa's) Puri were booked in a few minutes. A thirty-odd hour journey over two nights would see us in our 26th Indian State.
And a really important money saving tip here: do not automatically ask for "tourist quota" tickets as these are actually significantly more expensive than "general quota". If no bunks are available in the general quota only then resort to those reserved for tourists - typically you won't have to.
Train booked we decided on some sightseeing. Since 2007 there has been a new attraction in town, the Hindu Swaminarayan Akshardham temple. Built of pink sandstone it already has a washed-out aged look and with 234 ornately carved pillars supporting nine domes and a 43 metre central monument it is pretty impressive. It is also closed on a Monday; we'd visit next time...
day we received some very sad news, that our friend back in the States - the reason for the accompanying pink cape through Central/South America - had passed away. I added a fluffy pink patch to my shorts.
The station itself has changed. The great open entrance is less choked with sprawled bodies and strewn detritus, indeed it is really rather clean and tidy. Access to platforms necessitates passing through a metal detector, whilst all bags are screened. And then you emerge directly onto platform 1 that could, its vast length aside, belong to any European city.
And here's a thing. Stations and their grounds, indeed all public facilities, are now strictly non-smoking and everyone - in fear of the lathi-bearing police and the 200Rp automatic fine - complies. That said, we were later told that once issued with a fine you may not be fined again if you recommit the offence within 24hrs? Our informer recommended smoking away on a train (obviously from the open door) and simply considering the one-off fine as a smoking tax / additional cost necessary these days for a smoker to travel by rail.
train departed from platform 15 and as we descended from the aerial walkway to it the nostalgia flooded back. Showcase platform 1 it is not. Awash with humanity milling and eddying around the vast mounds of sacked goods and huddled families squatting or sat eating on the less than immaculate floor, it is turmoil. Amidst all there are tiny kiosks selling tea, snacks, books and newspapers, red jacketed coolies and their trolleys alert for a job, and a steady stream of beggars confronting any stationary individual.
Whilst sitting on our packs awaiting the train's arrival a barefoot, saffron robed and gold turbaned sadu with a tangled waist long beard and red trident daubed forehead ambled past, munching on a bag of Lays crisps.
A book vendor lit a surreptitious bidi; I didn't follow suit.
An AC-only train pulled in looking rather plush and its passengers boarded in a dignified, orderly manner. This was followed by another bearing a combination of sleeper and 2nd class carriages. As it neared, the platform's edge was thick with justling bodies: 2nd class is still unreserved and it is a wild free-for-all to board first... and
actually gain a seat. Once stationary the panic escalates at the bottlenecks of the doors and amidst the pushing and shoving people squeeze in two abreast. Now, following countless tragedies over the years, each carriage has two barred windows that actually open: the only emergency exits. The first boarders are implored to open these up to enable others to thrust their luggage through and climb in themselves. Cue the arrival of a policeman and some freely dispensed lathi strokes. This does little other than slow the chaos. Ultimately the scene through the bars is grizzly, with people vertically packed until extruded through the impossible to close doors.
Sleeper Class is relatively decorous. With the coming of dark and the lowering of the middle bunk so the infiltrating bunk-less, who've managed to squeeze/share a seat with tolerant passengers during the day, tend to dissipate, somewhere; the chai vendors cease their endless oscillating back and forth; and the hidra (now a somewhat non PC term so we're told... so, errr, transvestites) pause in their hardly subtle flirtatious extortions (which still succeed with many passengers who really do believe either in their ability to bring luck/cast the evil eye -
depending on your benevolence - or, mostly, simply want rid of their embarrassing shenanigans). Regardless, up on the top bunks we'd been lazing relatively unmolested and a long journey saw us two novels down. During the day I'd been complimented, following my grilling through the narrow eye-level mesh divide, by my adjacent top-bunker - a rather precocious young Indian lady - on my English enunciation. I'd also come close to convincing another neighbour that Australia's Smith is, currently, truly a better bat than the living god Kohli.
In the old days meals could be ordered in-journey from a passing man with notepad, and multi compartmental trays would later appear bearing your thali: picked up from which ever stop approximated closest to lunch/dinner time. Now such pre-orders comprise foil take-away containers that, whilst more hygienic (no carrying thumbs or hungry flies in your dhal) and less spillable, are just... somehow... less...
On arrival Puri, at 7.30am (under two hours late), was already painfully hot. Our first impressions were that is was a scruffy, dirty, exhaust-polluted little town, although the locals were immediately welcoming. Almost everyone we passed bade us good morning, there were beaming smiles
and head shimmies, the rickshaws took a "no thank you" with an unhasseling good grace, directions were happily given, non self-serving advice provided and inquisitive questions asked. It being a religious town we'd presumed it to be alcohol-free (resolute stuff given that we'd already had three abstemious days in six thus far on the trip), that was until we spotted the first of several wine shops; our warmth for the town magnified. A man on a scooter cruised alongside and promised a good room at his place for only 400Rps. We said we'd take a look, but that didn't stop us enquiring at all likely-looking alternatives en route. Finally we reached Durga Lodge and it did prove to be adequate, for a night at least. Somewhat later as we sat out on a narrow upper terrace enjoying a cold beer the owner joined us and informed that the whole district had been struck by an extreme cyclone back in April. Nodding behind us he gestured towards the remains of his new, best, room: it was a roofless strafed husk.
The next morning, knowing that we were looking for somewhere with a more expansive, user friendly area to
chill and in all likelihood about to desert him, he offered up - with absolutely no pressure attached - a larger airier room in his old house for a mere 300Rps ($4). It was an improvement, and a bargain, but sadly we'd already discovered (and organised a room at) the beach-side Pink House
whose slightly elevated price looked well worth it. Years ago, even tighter, we would definitely have remained with him and we apologised profusely that we wouldn't be doing so.
Pre-April our new room would have faced a grassy garden bordered by gnarly wind-bent trees through which you emerged onto the beach. Now the trees are gone, uprooted, the lawns a barren expanse and all is limited by green nylon fencing. Still, the sound of crashing surf and a wonderful mosquito unfriendly breeze remain and a very nice vibe it has too.
Across the way is a local legend of an eatery, Peace Restaurant
; Lonely Planet
quotes: "World famous in Puri but never heard of anywhere else". It became our go-to breakfast haunt and was... the only place, in a week, that we encountered another foreigner: French ex-pat Buddhist, Frederic. Apparently, equally,
we were the only westerners he'd seen in weeks.
The festival of Dhurga Puja was, supposedly, upon us; although quite what this entailed, or how long it lasted never became apparent. We visited the magnificent, huge, Jagannath temple complex where some 6,000 men tend to the gods' ritualistic needs and on which, purportedly, more than 20,000 individuals rely for their livelihoods. Being non-Hindu we weren't allowed in, but what projected above its limiting walls did look impressive.
Along the beach to the left is a fishing village, several kilometres to the right, grandiose resorts. Of course we wandered left and before long found ourselves in a shambollic hamlet of flimsy dwellings tumbling onto the boat and net strewn sand. The larger alleys and lanes bear a shallow central drainage channel down which such things that can drain, do. Many of these shelters - it's hard to describe them as houses - were obliterated by the cyclone and much rebuilding is in evidence. We'd not meandered far when we were accosted by a lady who insisted we come look at her progressing re-build. In the conversation that followed she invited us to come eat fish
with her and her family that evening. No doubt, by necessity (they clearly had little of anything), this wasn't totally out of the goodness of her heart; there was definitely going to be an angle involved... and money... We thanked her, cried off for that evening, but said we'd try to return at noon the following day when maybe we could commit to something.
Following some thought, at twelve the next day we retraced our steps and, probably of great surprise to Laxmi, reappeared back in what equates to the village's hub where she was sat. We retired to her brother's one room shack and were soon joined by a throng of children keen to display their English and Mathematic skills: one young lad counted, very slowly, to one hundred (to rapturous applause - we didn't mention the forgotten 99); another tot drew with the tiniest piece of chalk on her blackboard; and the eldest struggled with some tricky spelling problems posed from his raggedy text book. I warmly congratulated the latter for his "quire" that whilst not correct for a group of singers was spot-on for an assemblage of folded paper and a useful Scrabble word
to boot. We agreed to have dinner with the extended family that evening and insisted that she accept a wad of money to go buy fish with: we'd all eat very well and she should have plenty of money left over for several bags of cement.
Before potentially having to endure more counting we felt the need for fortification and in the process of gathering our afternoon's libations (declining further offers of fish meals and quality weed) we passed a stationers who just happened to have boxes of chalk, pencils and jotters. However, predictably, as the arranged hour approached we were having second thoughts: we were very comfortable on our little veranda and what lay before us might, we suspected, prove to be a less than comfortable experience.
Laxmi met us and again we returned to her brother's house. The bed had been upended to maximise floor space and there we sat in a circle accompanied by her son (a primary school teacher) and a young nephew. She was soon filling the space with an array of dishes: crab curry, minced aubergine baigan bharta, rice and fried kingfish. Having sat herself, we all dug
in with fingers. And the food was good. With this polished off and the writing materials given to the son, who could hand them out to his pupils, we were joined by several men leading a topless, yellow-tinged, middle-aged man with a most distended abdomen. This was her husband. It came as no great surprise to hear that he was suffering from cirrhosis of the liver (the bloating due to ascites - a tell-tale retention of fluid). Thus the reason for our invited presence became more apparent. We studied his medical notes and CT scans (ignoring various included medical receipts), discussed his prognosis (pretty damn good if he stays off the alcohol) and offered advice (drink plenty of water; rather than simply lounging and feeling sorry for himself take some gentle exercise; try eating small amounts, regularly - he has no appetite; and, when relaxing, keep his mildly oedematous feet and legs raised). Yes, they all concurred, this was just what the doctors had told them. Laxmi had had no idea that Ali was a nurse, nor I a failed medical student, but she did know we were British, ie. monied. Prior to taking our leave she inquired if we
could meet again whence she could provide their bank account details and maybe some of our rich friends could help them out financially? I didn't have the heart to say that such self-inflicted afflictions were unlikely to be near the top of anyone's charitable giving's list.
Of course on departing we made a beeline to the wine shop; we'd return to our veranda, relax with our feet up and have a gentle de-brief. Thirty minutes later and we were doing exactly that: the six other rooms in line with us, each individual patio separated by a wall, were all empty and the night was still and serene. The local dog pack had been for their evening pet, had tired of digging for crabs, and were curled up on the sandy ground before us.
Then along sauntered a gang of young Indian lads, some seven or eight in number, the one holding court bearing a wireless headset and swigging from a can of beer. They would be our neighbours for the night. Introductions were made, with predictable consequences. The short statured beer drinker's name was "Big" (actually not a tongue-in-cheek inaptronym, nor a self-conceived conceited
title - he being the boss, it actually being short for a multi-syllabic Orishan name). He was down in Puri from Bhubaneswar, thirty miles up the road, for a night's R&R, the accompanying lads were his employees and they'd be relaxing themselves when not looking after him... and now, us also.
Although employed himself in IT, Big is on a year's sabbatical and has started his own carbonated drinks company, Big Beverages. The business's unique selling points are the use of an old family recipe for his front-line product, lemon soda, and the fact that the bottles are of the old fashioned nipped-neck/trap-a-marble variety. All his workers are uneducated and previously unemployed lads from his local town and he weightily explained how a dozen or more families now relied on him for their survival. Indeed, he gravely intoned, all of the lads would happily give up their lives for him, such was their love. I winked at the throng and said that maybe he was overstating their devotion, certainly no one in the UK would go that far for their boss.
A debauched night/early morning ensued.
Royal Enfield motorcycles, once a
British firm (without the preceding "Royal"), have been manufactured in India since 1955. On our first visit back in 1990 we did see them, occasionally, nearly all beautifully tired old "Bullets" and almost without exception they were ridden by foreigners. By 2013 there had been a massive expansion both in the Indian middle class and the number of motorbikes on the roads; however, the market was swamped with another collaboration, the Hero Honda, a characterless functional chariot. Today, Royal Enfields, of numerous models, are everywhere. And, they are ridden... proudly... by Indians.
I mention motorbikes because thus far the cheap guesthouses and hotels we've been staying in are swamped with bikers. The wealthy Indian youth are on the move, touring their country. And as Big and his team departed so we were joined by three bikers (although, admittedly, none of them riding an Enfield). These guys (and one girl) weren't just criss-crossing India, they were on their way up to Bhutan. "Bhutan" I spluttered... "Yes, it is expensive" they conceded, "but as Indian nationals we only have to spend $100/day compared to your $250 to visit". Phew.... Anyway, no doubt more about them in the future as
the youngster among them, beer-guzzling Prasobh, has offered up his home in Kerela to us when we are passing; whilst our lady biker, Doji, has added us to a social media group dedicated to Indian travel.
And this brings up another point: in Central America we were constantly meeting and making friends with a whole bunch of.... non Central Americans. During several weeks back in India we've not even had so much as a protracted chat with another foreigner. Why is there this discrepancy? Is it because in Central/South America the cheapest places to stay are hostels where you are constantly thrust amongst other travellers? India does have - some - hostels but these are typically twice the price of old fashioned, more insular, guesthouses and hotels. That said, we are meeting local tourists in these places, just not (expensive hostel-dwelling?) foreigners. Maybe that's the thing: many Indians speak English and therefore we are more able to communicate, whereas our absent Spanish prohibits us from chatting with most locals in Latin America... Thus, if people everywhere we visited spoke English would we have as much time for/interest in our backpacking brethren? Ali disses all these theories and
simply reckons that those choosing to visit Asia (rather than Latin America) are a different breed: seeing themselves as too "real" to readily fraternize with other random westerners. Actually, Ali may of hit upon something here: we were not the only non-Spanish speakers backpacking in Latin America and sooner or later everyone seeks some kind of dialogue, necessitating even deeming to talk to your own?
Scatty random thoughts aside, Puri threw up a gem of an eatery. On our first visit Ali opted for a veg chowmein (don't ask) whilst I had a - as it materialised - masala-less fried fish dish. Mine was totally average, her's - bizarrely - was pretty good. Such an introduction was unlikely to merit a re-visit, but for some reason ("you know, I quite fancy chowmein again") we did. This time Krishna was busy and the heady aromas wafted down the alleyway on our approach. Chowmein forgotten we tried the Chicken dopiaza and Kashmiri aloo dum along with a stack of parottas (we'd know them as flaky rotis): wow, really wow. On leaving we lent into the open kitchen to praise the chefs, particularly on the most scrumptious dopiaza. The next
evening there was a single amendment to the quite extensive menus: the pricing for the chicken dopiaza (100Rp) had been scrubbed out in biro and a new price added (140Rp). Chortling, we opted for the veg masala and chicken tadaka: the latter was to die for (we didn't tell the chefs); then the veg jalipur, the mutton (actually goat: seems that goat is often referred to as mutton in these parts) biryani, the fish curry... We delightedly waded through the menu, quietly. Oh, and a final note on Krishna... We should have known that it was (very) good as soon as we'd witnessed the preponderance of "Zomato" delivery service bikes that were constantly ferrying away take-outs to the discerning local public.
The day before we were Bangalore (Bengaluru in modern, post-colonistic, parlance) bound, wouldn't you know it, Big returned for another night's R&R. Being with Prashobh and co. we didn't meet up until well into the night, but inevitably we did, for another glorious hangover. And as we had to head first to Bhubaneswar to catch our onward train he insisted that he drive us there in the morning and that we come meet his family over
Ali had, several days before, started with the trots. Suspicions on their origins might have pointed to Laxmi's, but you never know... plates and glasses often arrive still wet with water of unknown provenance, you are constantly handling money, shaking hands, opening doors... and can't forever be washing your hands. Whilst nothing nasty, they simply were not abating, necessitating several better-safe-than-sorry Lomotil (here less than one cent per tablet, something like 80x cheaper than back in the States) before setting off on the journey. Personally I was constipated. Yeah, OK, enough bowel disclosure.
On arrival in Bhubaneshwar we stopped off at Big's current operations site as well as the in-development, massively up-scaled, new plant. At the former we were re-acquainted with several of the lads from the first R&R who were busy bottling the yellow nectar via some scary-looking pressurized equipment. They halted production to enable us to look around, Big explaining that he didn't want us to enter during active bottling as sometimes there were unexpected explosions. Jeez... Health and safety.... Maybe they would die for him?
Back at his house we met his beautiful wife, charming mother and
endearing eighteen month old daughter who is already wielding a (plastic) cricket bat with intent. Contrary to most Indian parents, Big is not hoping for her to blossom into a doctor or engineer; no, he expects her to captain the women's national cricket team.
Of course, lunch was delicious; of particular note was an amazing dry goat curry.
Following a quick tyre change where Ali (nervously accessing the surrounding shrub), bless her, had to ask the mechanics where she might find a convenience (and quaff two more Lomotil), we were dropped off at the station amidst hugs all round. Big by name and by hospitality. He may have several views on life that differ from ours, but he is a wonderful advocate for the famed Odishan congeniality.
Bengaluru had never called to us before but we were hoping to meet up with a member of the Bangalore crowd, mixologist Balakrishna, with whom we'd hung on Om beach back in 2013 Chai, chillum, chapatti
. However, the city's vast size, the limited coverage of its metro system and the expensive accommodation (we resorted to an AirB&B - whose web site we still struggle with) restricted
our stop to just two days. Ali's plumbing was still awry and totally unsuited to any boozy socializing. Thus she succumbed to a course of antibiotics (self-prescribed, bought over-the-counter, and even cheaper than the Lomotil) and we headed onwards to another previously unvisited destination: the hill station at Ooty.
Getting there required an overnight sleeper bus. We've experienced these before and they're great, essentially a curtained-off double width bunk that whilst a little pricey are very pleasant. We killed the hottest hours prior to departure hanging - en route - in the shady peace of Cuddon park. This was very nice but also very green: we needed to score some cola type beverage in a plastic bottle... the plan being to drink half and pour our stash of rum into the remainder. I did find a shop, but my request was greeted with disgust: "this is an organic shop, you'll not find the like within this park". Why did we need to displace half a litre of rum into a plastic bottle? Because every bloody metro station screens you (on entry) and already our glass bottle had been observed and commented on. Ali's confident explanation of "oh,
that's water" .... in a glass bottle... was unlikely to pass more officious scrutiny on our next re-admittance. You are not allowed to carry glass bottles on the Metro, let alone those filled with liquor. We didn't manage to find any mixable beverage within walking distance of the station and thus ran the gauntlet once again. "Madam is that a bottle in your bag"? "Oh, that's just water" stated Ali (once again)as she shouldered the bag and strode off. No one hauled her back. This girl is - always has been - scarily good.
We turned up at the bus station as the sun began to set. I fancied a cigarette and, fully aware of the new legislation, walked through the buildings, the extensive bus forecourts, and almost out onto the street, to an area that resembled a building site. I'd just lit my fag when I noticed a policeman ambling by. Although maybe he was actually a bus conductor? Same khaki uniform... but, he was mustachioed: definitely police. For no real reason I moved away, only to notice him perched on a railing, seemingly oblivious. Ah, obviously he wasn't interested in me at all, surely I
was fine to smoke here? I half turned back and he pounced: "smoking is 200 rupees fine". Really...? I tried the usual pathetic, ignorant foreigner, excuses (that always worked in Colombo, Sri Lanka, now similarly rabid): "I'm so sorry, I was totally unaware of this"... "but there is no sign"... then, indignantly, "I'm not actually in the bus station"... He was having none of it; really, he was quite excitable and went running to his sergeant fifty meters away. I carried on puffing imagining his gushing: "sir, sir....". The sergeant, with supplicant scrabbling behind, advanced, twirling his lathi. Actually that's a lie, he had no lathi. But if he had had one he would certainly have twirled it. All smiles: "200 rupees sir". No smile: "Yeah, I'll just finish this first". As he filled out my receipt and pocketed my 200Rp it was so, so very tempting to light another just to see if you really are immune for 24hrs. Not having Ali's nerve, I didn't........
Our sleeper, an hour or so late, finally arrived, although it was double parked and blocking the busy road. Evidently it was not stopping for long and we, seemingly the only
passengers, jumped into the open door as it, engine revving, pulled away. And - bizarrely - that was it: no further stops (intended at least - we did get stuck under a low bridge) and no other passengers. We were truly amazed not to be shunted onto another bus; still, we weren't complaining.
The climb up to Ooty was pretty, the town itself less so. Unfortunately the toy steam train has been retired and the diesel replacement makes only a single accent (7.30am) and descent (2pm) each day. If only they'd flip these timings as night buses can't meet the former, whilst the three hour-plus trip down severely limits onward transport options. Accommodation is expensive and good food options limited. One feature of interest is its stance on plastic, that is essentially banned: water is purchased (extremely cheaply) from ATMs - a fine idea, if you happen to have a receptacle... Three nights and we pushed further south from Tamil Nadu's highlands into Kerela, for a first visit to Kochi.
We have been to Kerela's backwaters before, back in something like 1998 (unblogged). Ali has happy memories of cruising around on a houseboat, eating
scrumptious coconut-infused curries; I remember three excruciating days curled in the foetal position, moving only to discharge something - very - unpleasant into said waters. The causative agents of my misery went painfully undiagnosed until our arrival in Goa (blessedly soon after) when Savage Paul (of Benaulem's Usual Suspects) examined my bloody, sulphurous effluent and announced: "Ha, dysentery AND giardia, you don't see that often".
A couple of further asides... India remains bereft of wi-fi, everyone has 4G on their phones and the needs of computer luddites are largely ignored. What India does have, in spades, are OYO hotels; six years ago this chain was non-existent, now they are everywhere (being, blatantly, beyond our means we have no idea if they're any good).
At the crack of sparrow's fart we caught the government bus down to Coimbatore, then a taxi (yes, a taxi - damn it, that was still cheaper than the rickshaw jokers; although, dohhh..., with hindsight, the journey was totally walkable) across town to the required onward bus station, another bus to Kochi (Ernakulum), a supposed 2km walk in the dark to the ferry pier (followed by another 1.5km to the correct
pier), a ferry to Fort Kochi, and, finally, a 2km trudge to the target area (hopefully abundant with budget guesthouses). By this point Ali was jolly glad that we'd down-sized the rucksacks.... just not with their - "I hate this bastard" - design.
During the last leg we blindly followed her Maps.Me (OK, thank heavens for mobile phones; I have serious doubts that this would have proved as cordial - "it's really chaffing my fucking hips now" - if we'd been following LP's map by head torch) that took us down narrow dark lanes, muddy alleys (Kochi has certainly seen some rain recently), across a canal, through a bustling junction (with many promising-looking local restaurants) and, finally, to Jasmine's
. It has to be said that the vibe, through those deserted, semi-lit passages explain a lot about our love for India: never did we feel uncomfortable, threatened or ill at ease.
We'd spotted this Homestay (en-suite rooms within the owner's property - typically on an isolated upper floor) on Booking.Com. It goes without saying that we never book through the site, indeed I shudder at the thought, but with Lonely Planet being so woeful these
days it does at least give you an idea of cheaper accommodation clusters. Joisy (not Jasmine?) and her contagious, beaming smile responded to our knocking; she asked if we'd booked, loved the fact that we hadn't, informed that it would have been 500Rps if we had (true, we'd checked), but suggested we might like her (almost completed, it did need a final lick of paint) new uppermost room for... 400Rp (less than $6). We looked, we loved, we took, without the slightest thought of haggling: light and airy (she apologised that the neighbour had taken exception to her proposed third window); spotlessly clean; amazing virgin mattress, crisp linens and proper pillows; immaculate bathroom; towels, soap and toilet paper all provided; and.... an excellent balcony overlooking the street. Yes, she'd see to it - now - that we had two chairs and a table for the balcony. Oh, and she promised a special Kerelan breakfast for only 60Rp (that is less than $1) if we were so inclined. Judging by the value already on offer only a fool would have refused.
And what a breakfast our refreshed bodies awoke to. Pancakes. Yes, pancakes, but delicate beauties that sat
somewhere between crepes and their American equivalents; each ready-rolled steaming delight bearing a slightly sweet, lemon and cardamom-infused, wonderfully moist, coconut filling. Were there two, four... six, of these heavenly tubes? No, eight of the chunky beasts nestled in their insulated snugness. Over the next four days that was the least of the breakfasts that Joisy would concoct for us. There was the ultimate - we have sampled hundreds - dhal/roti combo, perfect soft dosas with all the accompaniments, and - the piece de la resistance - three vast logs of steamed coconut/mystery magnificence (check out the steamer photo) that were to be eaten three ways: with a to-die-for curry, popadoms, or sliced banana. Always present: tea/coffee, of course; and a further bunch of bananas just in case your potassium levels needed a boost. Never were we to come remotely close to consuming all that was offered; and we can eat.
So, what of Fort Kochi and its neighbouring Mattancherry (Jew town; really, there is a sign)? Both are very pleasant. Forget beaches, but revel in some culture: a very comfortable mash of Christian, Muslim, Jewish and... a smattering of Hindu.
The, still operating,
huge pivoting Chinese fishing nets scoop up but a lapful of fingerlings per dip in the Arabian sea. Each monster requires at least four men to operate: with the submerged net - strung between four tapering, diagonally-orientated, multi-jointed arms splaying from its apex - initially raised by the pulling of ropes until the counterweight boulders (hanging from additional ropes) take effect. Lowering of the net is performed by several men striding out along the slanting central spine until their positional weight tilt the structure and the four limbs touch the water's surface like a scarily outsized water boatman. Each dip lasts for maybe five minutes before repeating the cycle. It's a lot of work for a paltry catch of whitebait.
Along the coast, set behind the Chinese nets, are stalls displaying far larger, boat-caught prey: mackerel, king fish, pomfret, mullet, snapper, grouper, small tuna and sadly under-sized shark; alongside prawns, crabs, lobster, squid and octopus. These you may buy for a neighbouring - associated - shack to barbeque. Fine. But we wish they'd actually cook the fish - or at least provide the option of doing so - with some zingy masala (something that was done out
in India's far-flung province, The Andamans ). There are also small refreshment stands, one of whom - often accompanied by his tame shoulder-riding chipmunk - became our go-to lemon soda provider.
Mattancherry has some lovely old weathered buildings and a pervading spice aroma that, mostly, over-powers the less appealing odours of it's back streets. The synagogue here is nothing from the outside, but, apparently, worth a gander inside; wearing shorts we were not appropriately attired to see.
One evening, empty rucksacks shouldered, we made the 3km round-trip walk to gather some beers. On entering the hidden, piss-reeking, alley we were shocked by the mass of congregated, inevitably male, bodies assembled. We had to queue/pile-in well before the funneling metal walls; there were three or four hundred thirsty drunks ahead of us. Many men turned to us: "Why are you queuing? Just go to the front; you're tourists... and she's... she's... a woman". Women - pretty much unseen in such lines - do not have to queue: they get served immediately (regardless of race), as do white faces. Nevertheless, we're British and queue we will. Bemused, few cut in before us, but when they did
our surrounding brothers-in-need let them have it... I'm guessing somewhat, but no doubt it equated to "hey, if these foreigners can cue, then surely you wankers can do the same". It became apparent that two of the three government dispensaries were closed this evening and that tomorrow was a - booze-free - election-related holiday and half the drunks in town were stocking up.
Oh, I almost forgot. Kochi rickshaw drivers inhabit a world very similar to those in Mysore - and indeed Bangkok - in that a foreigner's worth is not really in requesting a ride Chai, chillum, chapatti
. A short journey may earn them 50Rps; far better to offer a free ride, with a few detours... One repeatedly knocked-back driver appealed to our better natures: would we do him a favour? It would earn him 5kg of rice if he could simply be seen to drop us at a particular artifact emporium. Of course we complied... and duly excelled ourselves in the bullshitting department, the owners really pushing for completion on two big bucks sales (including a truly unique piece that... we later saw elsewhere at a sixth of the price). Our driver was grateful, equally he was
persistent, and eerily omnipresent. We had given him a false residency for this very reason and yet, within five minutes of exiting Jasmine, there he would be cruising alongside. The next day we said no to an alternative excursion proposed by him, as well as to similar offers by two further rickshaws; although, on our penultimate day, we did perform the dance once more. Seemingly this visitation, to a spice store, was worth 200Rps and on our exit the beaming benefactor presented us with 2 litres of water by way of a small thank you. It didn't escape our devious minds that the dozen or so like-minded shops might all be visited in a single day and that a sensible driver should totally be up for splitting the monetary gains.
Anyway, as per usual, I drone on. Although, as a foot note, and getting a little ahead of myself here, I'll mention one further (related) snippet. As the next blog will elaborate upon, we were doing a week's "work-away" (free accommodation and three meals/day in exchange for 5x5hrs of graft a week) in Alleppey; and, in so socialising post-work with some of our guesthouse's guests, we subsequently
sent a young French lad and then a rather more mature Canadian Longshoreman to our lovely Joisy's "Jasmine Homestay" back in Kochi. Incredibly they both actually sent us messages of thanks for introducing us to this special woman, her Homestay, and, not least, her astounding breakfasts. Meanwhile, following each arrival, Joisy would send us voice messages via WhatsApp (phones... again) thanking her dear brother and sister for the delightful (these guys are) custom. The second of these messages ended with her singing us a rather beautiful song.
Sod the utility of phones and pre-booking via skimming intermediaries, this is how backpacking should work: by word-of-mouth. There is no more immediate, accurate and honest information out there. Needless to say, all this rather warmed our hearts.
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