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Published: December 11th 2012
Almost without exception the initial exposure elicits a profound feeling of wonderment and awe, mixed with a certain amount of repulsion and bewilderment. That first encounter with any of the possible ports of entry is an assault on the senses: the myriad colours of the disparate mass of milling humanity; the cacophony of sound; the jostling, jousting multitude of vehicles; roaming beasts; heady aromas of incense, cut flowers, spices and sandalwood battling the astringent stench of urine and stagnant effluent; and, unless arriving in a Delhi winter, all bathed in a stifling, oppressive heat. Juxtaposed, like nowhere else on earth, are tarmac and dirt, wealth and poverty, the mouth-watering and the repugnant, the hi-tech and the medieval, suited businessmen and loin clothed or naked sadhus, ladies in stunning sari/choli combinations and filthy rag-wrapped old crones, munificent kindness and indignant rudeness, trendy iphone-sporting youths and desperate broken and twisted beggars, the obese and the starving. India: our first love; the one country – to date – that we can never imagine tiring of. For the western traveller it defines culture-shock. That said, like all gut-churning, head-spinning infatuations the passion – the frissance - is inevitably tempered by familiarity. This, our sixth extended
visit since 1990, felt more like being reacquainted with a dear but unpredictable old friend, one who you can never quite define – and therein lies the magic of the relationship.
We flew from Colombo to Chennai, lucky to be chasing the tail of the cyclone and having avoided its brunt. Previously one of our least favourite Indian cities, Chennai immediately welcomed: simple rail-links to the city centre, good cheap accommodation and excellent food. Chai stands are once again everywhere (although seemingly always referred to as tea stalls these days) and real masala tea (ginger and cardamom-infused) is well worth the few extra rupees. The amalgam of boiling milk and steeped tea is still – magically - mixed by the elaborate repeated pouring from one elevated, head-high vessel into another at waist height.
Certain changes were immediately evident from our last visit six years ago: where once all women, regardless of age, had long plaited hair, now - in Tamil Nadu at least - many boast short pixie-cuts; whilst the aging man is apparently less likely to think it a good idea to dye his hair/beard a violent shade of orange. It is also much cleaner, street-side bins
are common and people use them. Predictably there are far fewer bicycles, almost no peddle rickshaws and many, many more motorbikes (far more common than mopeds) and cars.
However, street-side urination for men (and children) is still common place – some of this is pure laziness as there are far more public toilets now available in cities. Nevertheless, more than a quarter of a billion (250,000,000+) Indians still have no access to any form of a toilet and much common/derelict/in-development/simply semi-private land are the only places available for the purpose. Meanwhile, following rain, black horrors continue to bubble out from beneath the man-hole covers of inadequate sewage systems – those that are actually covered.
Power was constant whilst we were in Chennai, but in the rest of Tamil Nadu it remains erratic to say the least – in Mamallapuram, forty miles from Chennai, you’re lucky if it’s on for six hours a day.
Predictably, like the rest of Asia, mobile phones are everywhere. In fact new 3G phones with their internet access are commonplace which may explain the dearth of public wifi; really it is almost non-existent, being far more common in Laos or Myanmar. Bizarrely, whilst
the majority of Indians still speak only a smattering of English, they and just about everyone else in the world – except the Japanese – now answer their mobiles with “hello”.
Anyway, Mamallapuram, a mere couple of hours down the coast from Chennai, was hit hard by the tsunami which took and temporarily gave: long forgotten monuments associated with the shore temple were, momentarily, exposed by the waves only to be steadily reclaimed by sand and sea. Town is no longer scarred and has advanced well beyond any resemblance it had to back in 2004, let alone the 1990s:once mud lanes are now sealed and lined with restaurants, shops and guesthouses.We enquired at half a dozen of the latter, the cheapest of which offered us a room for 400rp ($8). Then a wizened old man appeared - don’t you just love them – and offered a place for 200rp. We went. The Hotel Five Rathas, tucked away in the residential area to the north of town, has several smallish, basic rooms to one side of a very private courtyard garden (beware the coconuts – whilst sitting chatting one crashed
into the table missing my head by inches). They’ll happily provide anything you may require, although most extras can be bought at a more reasonable rate independently. That does not include food – which is cheap, excellent (fish curries, tomato masalas and some of the best home-made chapattis you’re ever likely to encounter) and the longer you stay the more you’ll receive. Mother is not nearly as stern as she initially appears. Meanwhile, if you’re lucky, you may experience neighbours (most are long-stayers) like Dian (a talkative one-eared Slovenian author), or John (a 76 year young, Aussie tepee dweller – from Norfolk via Nimbin) who will, if nothing else, provide a different outlook on life. These guys did far more than that.
And then you stroll into town, passing the majestic bas-relief boulders and the stone masons squatting in the dust, and witness a whirling dervish. It isn’t quite the outpost it used to be, but it’s still… some place.
With the exception of certain rare re-visits this trip to India is all about seeing as many previously neglected destinations as possible. Consequently, they’ll be no Kerela, no Hampi, Agra and the Taj, Rajasthan’s
more famous cities/forts, hill stations such as Darjeeling and maybe not even mystic Varanasi (oh, the missed photo ops). Fortunately, we’ve hardly touched the far north in prior visits – but these States will have to wait until after Bangladesh, Nepal and the start of spring as they are already snow-bound and we intend to do some serious trekking this time round. Whether we’ll have the patience and resolve to obtain the permits necessary to gain entry to the Eastern Tribal States remains to be seen.
So, after a sojourn in a familiar old haunt we set about meandering through Tamil Nadu. Nearby Auroville was a tempting start due to its bizarre credentials: a new age community of several thousand (70% Western) built on land donated by 124 countries (I’m guessing these countries all bought adjoining plots of land) and on which exists a cross between a kibbutz and a hippy commune. John was heading there, but, in all honesty, I think they’d have little demand for molecular biologists. Instead we headed west to the grand Hindu temples at Tiruvannamalai and Trichy. Both had these in spades, with soaring pyramid-like, rainbow-coloured gopurams covered with intricate figurines providing access to
ever deeper sanctums. Painted sadhu devotees bearing Shiva tridents lurkat every turn (a photo will likely set you back a cup of chai); and rich-sauced curries, accompanied by the longest-grained rice imaginable, await you at dinner. These certainly aren’t must-visit destinations (indeed Trichy is down-right expensive: cheap lodges shooed us away as soon as we approached), but were pleasant enough nevertheless.
Inside Arunachaleswar temple at Tiruvannamalai there was the sad spectacle of a performing elephant. It was surreal to witness an elephant inside a building, but also distressing to see it pacing-time, head swaying back and forth, as the faithful presented it with coins. These the elephant passed to its handler and the donators were then “rewarded” with a tap on their heads from its trunk. I had visions of the great pachyderm deciding enough was enough, hurling the crowd aside and crashing blindly through the maze of pillars. Actually, there have been a large number of deaths recently at the hands of wild elephants drawn close to towns by shrinking water holes, so much so that in certain States the locals have been warned not to walk jungle paths at dawn or after dark.
Maybe after two months in Sri Lanka – where they are also staunch proponents – we are becoming immune to the ubiquitous Indian head waggle. I’m sure we go days without witnessing/receiving it; saying that, Ali reckons that I’m a bigger user than most locals. As I am totally unaware of having adopted it – let alone what I mean by it – I now feel it is unfair to expect the Indian’s usage to convey any set message.
From headshakes to handshakes; and this note really should have featured in the Sri Lanka blog as that is where Ali first experienced it. Rarely, and it was (is here) pretty rare, Ali received/s some weird bastardized handshake where the middle finger mysteriously curls, mid-grasp, to be pressed into her palm. She feels it has some unpleasant sexual connotation (and I’m sure she’s right, although I was also treated to it once; either that or the Masons have started recruiting women) and she has long since mastered the art of quick release accompanied by her sternest, withering, Paddington bear stare.
After a week of buses we finally had the option of a train: Trichy
to Mysore in Karnataka. These days the ticket classes have been re-jigged. Seven years ago there were first class sleepers and first class chairs (luxurious, possibly even with AC – we were never to take one), second class sleepers with two or three tiers of bunks; second class seats and finally (and most certainly a last resort) wooden-benched third class seats. All grades could be reserved in advance with the exception of third class and some second class seats. Our target, for a journey of any real length, was always the two upper, facing bunks in three-tier second class. During the day the middle tier is dropped so that all passengers can sit on the bottom bunk. The top bunk always remains in place, giving the occupier the choice of lying down at any point during the journey – it is also closest (indeed beware if you have long hair) to the ceiling fans. Today there are air-conditioned compartments comprising just two bunks (1AC), four bunks in two tiers (2AC) or six bunks in three (3AC). Non-A.C. is limited to an open carriage of sleeper class and the new lowest grade, second class seats; apparently there is nolonger a third
Certain major railway stations have tourist reservation offices (I’m presuming they still exist), negating the need to jostle with the masses; Trichy doesn’t. We queued (really, this does seem to be catching on) at the reservations window and were eventually informed that the train we sought was fully booked. Did we want to join the 362 people on the waiting list? This didn’t sound too promising. As we stood pondering our next move a kindly gentleman, overhearing our plight, suggested the “emergency quota”. But, I reasoned, we don’t have a valid emergency. “You’re a tourist” he smiled. So, we bought a waiting list ticket and, sure enough, on finding the appropriate office and filling the appropriate form, sleepers miraculously became available: a little shard of paper was tucked into one of a huge stack of ledgers and a beaming head shimmy confirmed that we were sorted. It isn’t fair, but the “tourist quota” of tickets on certain trains still exists, just semi-hidden behind the “emergency quota” façade (at least local people can use this in an… emergency).
As the train rumbled into the station (clean; non-smoking ;
with minimal homeless curled up for the night; far less red-jacketed coolies than normal in evidence; and – tragically – chai no longer served in handmade, unglazed disposable clay mugs) we waited by a post flashing a digital “S3” (supposedly our carriage). Indeed the sleeper carriage number three ground to a halt in front of us. The Shinkansen-esque precision parking was in no way reflected in the train: a dirty, noisy diesel engine hauling rickety wooden carriages with barred opening windows. Thankfully, as per forever, pasted to the side of the carriage was a list of all passengers and their berths - including us. As if we ever doubted Indian paperwork.
The journey, sadly only twelve hours, followed typical Indian railway standards: got chatting to friendly engaging locals (Ali obviously got to hold a baby); attempted – in-vain – to refuse proffered contents of tiffin tins; dashed off at stops/pauses for additional snacks, chai and crafty cigarettes; slept soundly and arrived early (ok, so the latter was unusual).
We didn’t really plan on staying in Mysore, but being Diwali (festival of light) there was only a skeleton staff working at the station and that didn’t include “emergency
quota” personnel (onward trains were all fully booked). Serendipity because Mysore is charming: leafy, tree-lined thoroughfares;roundabouts and squares with impressive monuments and arches; friendly, helpful people; a stunning – particularly when illuminated by its 100,000+ light bulbs (Sundays and public holidays only) – Maharaja’s palace; the Devaraja market, a narrow perfumed maze selling mountains of flower heads (for garlands), precarious conical piles of kumkum (coloured powder used for bindi dots) and benches overflowing with bottles of essential oils; plus it has a rather good roof-terraced restaurant.
On arrival we had stalked the streets seeking a reasonably priced room. Help came in the delightfully unexpected form of a young rickshaw driver: no lift required, no commission extorted, just simple directions provided. We bumped into him several times over the next few days, always declining his offers of cheap prices to the sights (it’s actually a good hearty walk to Chamundi hill for its panoramic views over the city). However, on hearing how we could earn him in excess of 400 rps commission and a new jacket (standard rickshaw issue) at no cost to ourselves we felt compelled to return the favour. And so with the aid of our smartest clothes,
his cousin’s taxi (for impressive arrivals) and convincing touristic buying-heads on, we toured the swanky silk/carpet/artifact emporia. We took pictures of the pashmina that our mothers would select between, weighed up the bronze statues, drank some wonderful gratis teas, promised returns and bought diddly-squat. He and his cousin must have done well as they later treated us to further teas.
From Mysore to Mangalore; just an overnight stop, but worth it if only for the souvalaki-style chicken shwarmis and then on to the fabled Gokarn(a) and Om beach. Somehow Om missed our radar twenty-odd years ago. We learned of it through Steve Carey and his ballad “Chai Chillum Chapatti” (recited live to The Usual Suspects most – inspired - nights at Felix’s in Benaulum, Goa) in the late 1990s, but still we hadn’t partaken.
The dusty town of Gokarn is not without its visitors, western and local alike (it has several important, mainly Shiva, temples). It does have tourist flotsam, but is still an independently functioning town and definitely retains soul. And then you walk the forty minutes to Om (the lazy can now rickshaw almost the entire way) and
are transported back to that fleeting period when India’s beaches hit their tourist zenith: dispersed and discrete enclaves of beach huts that are almost invisible from the lustrous bays and yet serve all possible – backpacker - needs. Yes, you can advance further along the wooded coastline to the very rustic Half Moon beach (15 mins) or yet further to Paradise (another 20 mins) where it is still primarily camping and self-reliance; but really, Om is paradise: Sangam’s is on our short list for best guesthouse in Asia. In the words of Steve’s song: “Dolphins in the magic sea, coconuts among the trees, smiling faces, life is free – internationally; half past six time slips away, as day and night revolve we play, watch the sun set from the rocks….Chillum”. We dragged ourselves away after fifteen days; it could have been fifteen weeks. We missed it instantly.
Obviously, two weeks spent throwing a Frisbee, browning to a crisp, chilling, following the first two Test matches, devouring books and anything from Sangam’s excellent kitchen, supping ginger-lemon tea, cold beers and the odd old monk rum doesn’t make for lengthy prose – hurrah, I hear you say
– but, and here I really am loath to promote: go before it changes. There is (surely) no finer beach scene in India. Big thanks to the mystic Israeli, the Bangalore crowd, Mr. Bhang and particularly the wonderful staff of Sangam’s.
Wow, and that brings up a year. How time flies…
We advanced up the coast to Christian Goa where saris are largely replaced by printed dresses and alcohol is at its cheapest and most accessible. Rurally, haystacks resemble giant muffins, pigs roam freely and the cow is no longer revered, indeed it may also end up in a tangy, vinegary vindaloo. We stayed in Palolem, at a quaint, quiet, family-run place set back from the – now ruined – over-developed beach. This was a great spot twelve years ago and, to be fair, still isn’t a bad place for a holiday: the sea food is good, but… it isn’t what it once was. Moved onto Panaji, supposedly one of India’s most picturesque State Capitals and it really does have a lost in time feel, very much like Malaysia’s Melaka or Georgetown with old colonial relics and dreamy winding backstreets. Nevertheless, the
only budget option found us in a grim hole with me sleeping on a rattan mat on the floor. Aging bones forced us to upgrade for the second night to a pleasant enough room, but with the spitefully mean (not yet Tracy) check-out time of 8.30 a.m.
Margao has replaced Vasco De Gama as the train hub of Goa and has modernized rapidly. It also epitomizes the problems, reported in the press, that Goa is having with alcohol. Our hotel – there are no guesthouses to speak of, only local flop-houses that patently would not have been either secure or safe – located near the train station was surrounded by wine shops and grotty bars (many so grim that even we would not consider patronage) and by mid-afternoon the streets were littered with prone drunks. It’s heart-rending enough to be surrounded by poverty, but even worse when a sizable proportion is obviously linked to alcohol abuse.
Nevertheless, we did take advantage of Goa’s cheap alcohol and purchased 6 small bottles of Old Monk which we know will prove invaluable for upcoming dry States such as Gujarat. What we didn’t realize is that transporting alcohol out of
Goa requires a license and that regular checks are made at the borders with other States. Failure to produce a license (easily obtained from the bottle shop if you are aware of the necessity) can result in fines and/or confiscation. We packed the contraband wisely and ran the risk – successfully.
Leaving the beaten track we headed north east to the fort town of Bidar. This is not an easily accessed destination (trains via Hyderabad, the simplest route, were fully booked for days and there is no emergency quota) and saw us take a train to Hubli (5 hrs), another to Bijapur (6 hrs) where we stayed overnight, then buses to Gulbara (4 hrs), Sirdoan (30 mins) - walk over the bridge here as it too weak to take heavy vehicles, and finally another to Bidar (3 hrs). This region of Karnataka is very agricultural and we passed golden fields of thirsty sunflowers with heavy bowed heads, green fields of squat chenna (not sure if these are soya beans or chickpeas or something more exotic) and great expanses of sugar cane, much of it in the process of being harvested and hauled off in oxen-drawn carts or towering lorries.
Meanwhile, Goa’s muffin haystacks have morphed into concave teepees.
Contrary to what we were expecting, getting away from the tourist trail (we haven’t seen a white face in a week) has not seen a decrease in accommodation prices, in fact quite the opposite. No habitable rooms exist in Bijapur for less than 500 rp and Bidar is only marginally cheaper. The room we took in Bijapur was tiny with peeling walls and the odd cockroach (no problems with that at all), but a filthy encrusted toilet and dirty sheets at $10/night is peevishly shoddy indeed. Remove the bloody television – saving on electricity – and pay someone to actually clean the room.
Thankfully, Bidar proved to be worthy of the effort: a bustling town with friendly inquisitive locals including a sizable Muslim population, mosques outnumbering Hindu temples; atmospheric, crumbling sultan’s tombs (packed with burka-clad visitors – we were attractions in our own right); and the wonderful ruins of Bidar’s 15th
century fort spread out over undulating hills with its winding, triple-gated entrance, 5.5km of encircling battlements inside three moats hewn from solid red rock.
Rasganga pure veg restaurant deserves a special mention for its delicious
and dirt cheap special thalis.
Western tourists are obviously a rarity in Bidar and the usual questions of “What country?”, “What’s your name?” and “How many children?” were typically replaced with – in the nicest possible way - “Why you come here?”.
Anyway, from here we will head to Nagpur where we hope (subject to ticket availability) to attend several days of the last Test match – we’ll be wearing the Burmese hats (keep your eyes peeled for us on the television).
Oh, five weeks into India and (I am touching wood at this point) not a single stomach bug – how times have changed.
Yes, I can’t resist a quick mini resume of the last twelve months: Hong Kong, China (very superficially – back there next year), Laos, Cambodia, Thailand (just passing through), Malaysia, Indonesia (seven islands), Myanmar, Sri Lanka and India (on-going).
It has to be said that this doesn’t seem like a lot of countries for a year and, for that matter, it is only four new countries for us. Still, it has been a fantastic year and one we’re very
a) People: ha, now that I have a list of countries in front of me I see that few wouldn’t merit special mention; however, for us the Cambodian’s, Sumatrans, Myanmar and Sri Lankans were very, very special indeed. Hell, the Laos were delightful; whilst the Chinese are far friendlier now than we remembered them. On a negative note, many touristic areas of Bali and Lombok in Indonesia should be ashamed of themselves; whilst the Thai’s seem plain jaded.
b) Sights: China (and so much more to see); certain Indonesian islands (Sumatra: almost everything we were privileged to experience, Lombok’s Mt. Rinjaniand Suluweisi, not to mention the sunsets, orangs, dragons and snorkeling); and Myanmar’s Bagan.
c) Food: Every country has provided something exceptional (save Hong Kong where we know they have it, but price prohibited enjoying it – they do have great Maccy Ds though). Laos for banana flower and rattan salads and Tai Dam food (Papaya restaurant was magnificent); Cambodia for their special – and at no extra cost – pizzas; Melakain Malaysia for sublime noodles; goes without saying anything cooked by Mark;
Indonesia for the gorengan and Warung Bambu’s pelecing kangkung and bakso; Myanmar for its Shan and Mon cuisines; Sri Lanka’s veggie curries – yes, I am thinking of Mrs.Bawa’s; and India is just simply food heaven.
d) Alcohol: It has to be said that China can out budget anyone in South East Asia in terms of beer (lager), although both Laos and Cambodia (and Malaysia’s duty-free LangKawi) have notably cheap brews; Indonesia and Sri Lanka for their variations on palm and rice wines – the latter in particular for the ambiance of the drinking experience.
e) All round backpacker price-friendliness: current thinking would beLaos but we’re still saying India, although it is no way as clear cut as it once was. The big surprises were that Myanmar and Sri Lanka really can be experienced on a small budget (both cheaper than Laos for us, plus Laos didn’t have to absorb any flights). Indeed South East Asia is still backpacker heaven pricewise (just don’t rely on Lonely-sell-out-Planet for any bargains) - even with 16 flight tickets and 16 visas we are still averaging a fraction under $40/day ($39.96 as
I type) between
us and we weren’t expecting that.
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