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Published: February 22nd 2013
Blog 1-8 Feb Mumbai to Varkala, Kerala
"Bollywood in Bombay and Keralan Coconuts!"
From the moment we first decided on a trip to India the prospect of a weekend in Mumbai was going to be both unmissable and unforgettable. And even though our sickly bodies chose not to comply with an ambitious social schedule nevertheless this monster of a city did not disappoint. Our experience may have been different however, had it not been for the very kind hospitality from my friend Vijesh and his lovely girlfriend Himarsha. Having worked together in London for five years before he moved out to India, it was so exciting for us to catch up and V was quick to clear his schedule. He pulled out all the stops to give us a great taste of the Mumbai highlife and waved a magic wand to whisk us out on set to see Himarsha starring in the next Bollywood blockbuster!
Following a torrid last day for Jo in Udaipur, thankfully she felt semi human again as we checked out early at 5am on Friday morning and said our final fond farewells to Rajasthan. With her 'corked up at both
ends' she put on such a brave face as we headed to the airport, thankfully no overnight trains to endure this time.
From the skies we got our first view of this monstrous metropolis - an abundance of huge high-rise skyscrapers tipped in a cloud of polluted fog above and immediately surrounded by the multi coloured tin roof slums below. With a population bursting at the seams at 16 million, where nearly 50% live in slums with no toilet, I don't think we will ever see such a visible contrast between the rich and poor anywhere else on our trip. Even as we landed, our plane almost skimmed the corrugated shanty rooftops of the great Dharavi slum. As India's biggest, sprawling over 500 acres and home to over a million people, its situated right next door to the terminal.
We were blessed with a well earned break away from the daily onslaught of rickshaw bartering and scam evasion as Vijesh's driver Abdul was ready and waiting for us at arrivals. We travelled in style and comfort back to V's place in Bandra, a relaxed and spacial suburb with tree adorned roads and home to
many of Mumbai's young business execs and tv/film stars. Following a light bite and change we were off for one of our most exciting adventures yet - Bollywood!
We headed back north out of the city on Bombay's infamous train network.This was a new experience for V too who was yet to have this pleasure. Thankfully our timing meant we avoided the daily "super dense crush load" where at rush hour nearly 5000 people cram onto a train designed for only 1500.
Within 90 minutes we had arrived at the coast where jungle woodland ran right up to the sea. This was the set for "ROAR! Tigers of the Sunderbans". Jo and I were a little overwhelmed by the whole set up, from the size of the crew and back up teams, to the number of cameras and lights, not to mention the cast and directors. Bollywood is officially the worlds largest film industry and it's global audiences top Hollywood's by over a billion. ROAR has been tipped to be a huge success, illustrated by its huge budget and a Hollywood accredited Directorial team. We met everyone and sat behind the Director's chair to
see live action footage married with CGI tigers on screen.
Aside from all the complimentary food and drinks, the highlight was definitely catching up with Himarsha and all the cast. Like her, this was the first big film for a few following initial TV and acting success. Everyone was so passionate and optimistic about the film and it was clear they had all worked hard and had a lot of fun making it. We were a little taken aback by one guy who was quite frankly ginormous. Having represented India at Mr Universe he his globally known as the largest vegetarian (that's right dad!) bodybuilder. He was great fun and enjoyed bantering with Jo and I, clearly revelling from the attention. It was India's answer to Arnie who took centre stage for most of the afternoon, and it was tricky to take him quite so seriously after seeing him roll around and 'wrestle' with a fluffy blue pillow. This would later become a bloodthirsty tiger on screen but before then it was hilarious to watch him have a pillow fight with himself, over and over again.
With Himarsha staying up north to shoot for
a couple more days, Vijesh escorted us back into town for a weekend of partying. With Jo slowly on the mend were treading with serious caution, but not knowing that I too was about to succumb to a sickness bug. We were treated to a cracking night at Bandra's finest Mexican restaurant (ironically a welcome departure from the stock diet of curry curry curry we'd had so far) where we embraced pitchers of margaritas before heading to a hectic bar full of expats.
Saturday was spent recharging the batteries but it was apparent that I was heading in the wrong direction. We persevered and headed out into the heart of Mumbai city taking the long harbour bridge road which was like driving over into Manhattan. We arrived at the Four Seasons hotel where we were met by high level security - a clear reminder of the impact of the 2008 terror attacks and level of intense precautions still in place today. On this beautiful sunny day we had stunning views over the city from a fabulous rooftop bar and saw a cracking sunset. Like his times in London, Vijesh's impressive social status was quickly confirmed as the
bar manager ushered us over to the VIP area - this boy has certainly done well in the short time he's been here!
Such views however, whilst spectacular, did once again have a sobering affect. Both Jo and I had mixed emotions. Its hard to find a balance between such huge generation of wealth and this energetic push for mass development and growth in all directions, when its all in such close vicinity to and often directly on top of such poverty...
Finally, on arrival at a trendy upmarket restaurant we unfortunately had to end the night early. Following two mad dashes to the loo it was clear I couldn't keep anything down. ("I was literally chundering everywarr.. Hahaha.."). Abdul ferried us back and this time it was Jo's turn to play nurse as I clutched onto a make shift sick bag for a nervous ride back to Bandra.
Whilst we were gutted not to finish Mumbai on a high we did have such a laugh and Vijesh was a cracking host. Having witnessed a bit of modern Bollywood and sampled life in the fast lane we were able to see
a completely different side to the India we'd experienced so far.
Our next stop on the list was the wonderful region of Kerala situated down on the very south west coast tip of India. The climate is a world a way from the fairly dry and barren lands of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. The tropical heat, luscious greens and humidity hit us the moment we got off the plane in Trivandrum. Some sun at last! Bizarrely a rickshaw driver greeted us at arrivals and actually agreed to take not only the two of us but also another couple along with all of our bags in his old auto. Lots of fun and games packing ourselves into this tiny wee scooter before the poor thing gave in and died at the sight of the first hill. We ended up on a 2hr local bus heading north to the beach town of Varkala. Arriving tired, hot and sweaty we agreed a good price for a lovely room unknowingly situated directly opposite a night club - a choice that would come back to haunt us later in the week.
Although Varkala is overdeveloped in some areas (like
most places these days it seems) it remains a beautiful place. The beach is shielded end to end by huge cliffs on top of which lies a fun and hugely atmospheric mix of guesthouses, shops, bars and restaurants. With the development comes lots of things to do and the pull of tourists provides a real calling for the regions fishermen to deliver the most incredible daily catches of massive fish and seafood (Lance - you would love it!). There's a wonderful sea breeze that rises up over the cliffs removing the humidity and keeping the Mosquitos at bay. We stayed four nights and found it the perfect place to finally unwind after the whirlwind of north India and the elements of 'forced fun' in Mumbai. In true 'twinsie' fashion we tried to work off a month's worth of fried and oily food with a few early morning runs and some fairly wild games of bat and ball. Seeing it only fair to support the local tradesmen we bought pirate photocopied books for twopence and nestled ourselves on the beach. Even here below the steep cliff front the "chai walla" makes his daily rounds offering sweet milky shots of tea, alongside
old ladies chanting the monotonous yet infectious "mango mango pineapple pineapple coconut". The sight of the sun setting as huge waves crashed in front of us, while eagles circled and swooped into the shallows - all in all the place wasn't too shabby.
After feeling fully recharged and ready to get back into action we left Varkala for a 2hr train ride to the town of Kollam - the home of cashew nuts (well we bought a lot there anyway) and the gateway the great Keralan backwaters...
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