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January 14th 2005
Published: January 14th 2005
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***
I wrote most of this blog before we became aware of the devastation caused by the recent Tsunami which is why there's little reference to it. It’s been particularly shocking for us as many of the destinations of our trip so far have been severely affected. We've heard back from some people we met in southern Sri Lanka who are safe and well but fear the worst for the many guest house people that we've met on the way.
We’re probably far less aware of the extent of the tragedy since travelling through India it’s very easy to lose touch with world news.
***

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Plane, trains, and automobiles...coaches, buses, boat, motorbike, bicycles, rickshaws, floating bamboo basket; we have needed them all to travel the vastness that is India but have as yet only covered a minute proportion of it!

In less than a month we have made our way up the west coast, from Kovalam in Kerala, through Goa, Karnataka, Maharashtra and are now in Gujarat; having celebrated Christmas in Mumbai and New Year in a converted palace on the northern border between Gujarat and Rajasthan.

We spent our now customary 5-day seaside acclimatisation in Kovalam, a beautiful beach resort on the southern tip of India. Once an isolated hippy retreat, now part of the well-trodden traveller route and an obvious target for touts.

Speaking of which, grappling to hold onto our rucksacks while besieged by an array of touts, hawkers, drivers and beggars is so common place in India that, amazingly, you almost become immune to it after a while. OK not always, there have been occasions when it all becomes a little too overwhelming. One day in particular, while wandering the streets of Ernakulam, Bob alerted me to yet another beggar approaching us. I turned round to see a guy so contorted and disfigured that it was all I could do not to run away - I feel guilty even now that the only emotion I could conjure up was fear.

On a lighter note, having soaked up enough rays in Kovalam, we continued our journey from Kollam to Alappuzha via a boat trip through the Keralan backwaters. 'Kerala' literally means, 'land of coconuts' which pretty well explains why the region is India's coir capital. Drifting along, you get a real feel for traditional rural Keralan life, untouched by the modernisation which has influenced so much of India, from Chinese fishing nets dotted along the waters edge to dug-outs precariously laden with enormous quantities of coconut husk. Kerala's characteristic houseboats are a common site, a perfect marriage of design and engineering, although they are mostly used for tourists now. It was a wonderful experience for us, but with recent events I wonder if the backwaters will ever be the same.

A two hour bus journey from Alappuzha took us to Cochin, a city comprising Ernakulam and Fort Kochi separated only by a narrow causeway. Kochi has a rich history influenced by the Portuguese and has been a trading port since at least Roman times. Today the town largely comprises low, picturesque buildings. Wandering through the Hindu, Muslim and Jewish quarters was an excellent way to soak up the town’s atmosphere, although at times the odours were pretty overpowering.

From Cochin, we had our first experience of an overnight sleeper train, to Goa. Just as the guide books say, travel by train in India is generally reliable and pretty comfortable - so long as you don't mind someone sleeping in the luggage rack above you (day time) or being woken periodically by snoring from a neighbouring triple bunk (overnight).

Palolem and it's neighbouring beaches in southern Goa, although established backpacker destinations, were a far cry from the package resorts we had expected. Palolem, the main beach, is lined with bamboo restaurants and 'coco-huts' on stilts while the beaches nearby, Colomb and Patnem, are virtually deserted. A 'coco-hut' set on a rocky outcrop between two bays was to be our home for the next five days.

Relaxation is the name of the game in Palolem. Eating, drinking, sunbathing. This routine was interrupted only by a local massage for me, an uncomfortable looking ear cleaning session on the beach for Bob and an evening spent sat around a camping stove learning how to cook Goan food.

We elected to hire an Enfield to explore Goa's capital Punaji and the surrounding countryside. A truly memorable experience, made more so by a lack of sign posts and petrol stations.

It would be unjust to portray everything as rosy while travelling in India - it isn't. Why? Well for one, spitting, and the noisy foreplay that proceeds it! I am not talking about the occasional discrepancy on the football pitch. This is something entirely different. It transcends social spheres, age, gender, religion; it can be executed at any time and in any place and is as popular as cricket.

From unusual habits, to an extraordinarily unusual place. Hampi, over 12 hours by bus from Goa. A community living amongst the ancient ruins of hundreds of temples and palaces dating back to 1336. In it's heyday the city was enormously wealthy 'greater than Rome', having held a monopoly of trade in spices and cotton. Today, the town largely exists on it's ever increasing popularity with tourists. Hampi certainly was one of the highlights of our trip so far, a magical place where you almost feel like you have been transported back in time. Hiring bicycles was an excellent way to explore the area and keep cool.

An overnight bus journey took us to the outskirts of Mumbai, India's largest city and commercial face of the country. Ironically, squalor and poverty is the first thing that strikes you. Over a third of the city's population live in 'chawls' of cramped and miserable hovels. This is none more apparent than on the prolonged route in from outskirts to city centre.

We elected to spend Christmas in the Colaba distinct. Fortunately we managed to find a hotel with fabulous views of the city and only a few minutes walk from the Gateway of India. It was while staying here that we first heard of the devastating tsunami.

Christmas Eve was spent touring the sites. Mahatma Gandhi Museum was thoroughly fascinating, particularly letters from Gandhi to Hitler and Roosevelt asking them not to go to war.

I was intrigued to see Towers of Silence. A place where Parsis lay their dead to be picked clean by vultures. Parsis believe that the elements of water, fire and earth should not be polluted by the dead. We guessed no bodies were out when we visited, as there was a distinct lack of circling vultures.

Although not as large scale as anticipated, the dhobi ghats, where thousands of items of clothes are beaten on stones and washed en mass in murky soapy water, were pretty impressive.

With 80% of Mumbalites being Hindhu, Christmas day felt pretty much like any other. Much to my disappointment and his relief, Brain Green Fried Masala, Bob's choice for Christmas dinner, was unavailable.

Boxing Day was spent Bollywood style. By chance we had been approached on Christmas morning by a specialist 'foreigner crowd' tout looking for extras to appear in a new Bollywood blockbuster, 'Eight', a psycho-thriller (no prizes for guessing which film it's based on) set to hit Indian cinemas June 2005.

Excitement mounting, we were rushed to a secret (to us) location for a 7.30 am start. Nothing happened until 2 in the afternoon when we were called up for the night club scene, having been allocated costumes. Dancing 'loud' to no music, becomes less amusing by take 20. Nonetheless, our director got his shot and we got paid (500 Rs each) for an experience we'll never forget. Check out the bearded one in the silver/grey get up, and it's not me.

In India, the phrase, 'too many cooks......' just doesn't exist. There must have been a crew of 60 involved in the one day shoot. (We estimated this amounted to 10 seconds of actual footage). It appears to be the same in many professions, from building a wall, to fixing a leaky pipe. There's one 'doer' to every 5 'helpers', nobody seems to get irritated though, it's just the way it goes.

Christmas over we travelled to Aurangabad, a good location from which to explore the sites of central Maharashtra. Bibi ka Maqbara, aka 'The Mini Taj Mahal', is on the outskirts of Aurangabad. It is an exact half size replica of the famous Taj Mahal at Agra but made of plaster, which would explain why it cost three-hundredths of the price to build. Since Agra is on our itinerary we thought it would be an interesting precursor to the real thing. Views from the ancient Deogiri Fort, at Daulatabad, again only short rickshaw ride from Aurangabad were beautiful. The trip was made more memorable by our now seemingly nation-wide celebrity status. The further north we have travelled, the more we have tended to drift 'off the beaten track', which in turn has made us more of a novel attraction. From crowds of school children eager to have their picture taken with us, to grown men desperate to chat and shake our hands and, most amusingly, to signing autographs at the top of Deogiri Fort. I feel a lot less intrusive knowing that the people we meet are as intrigued about us as we are them.

Ellora, a 45 minute taxi journey from Aurangabad, comprises a series of Hindu, Jain and Buddhist caves carved in volcanic rock. I was pretty much 'templed out' by cave 25, but the magnificent Kailasantha Temple made it all worth while. This extraordinary structure is carved out of 85,000 cubic meters of rock and is the only building started from the top down. At 50m long and 33m wide, a pretty imposing sight.

Ajanta, a 6 hour round trip from Aurangebad are older caves, dating back to 200 BC. Carved in steep crescent-shaped rock in a forested ravine, it is easy to see why they lay unnoticed for centuries. A tour of the wall paintings in caves 1 and 2 were a real highlight for me although Bob was more interested in the camera settings.

With all this activity we were ready to see in the New Year with a bit of R & R. Balaram Palace is located in the characteristically dusty plains of northern Gujarat, an oasis in an otherwise barren landscape. From lush jungles and warm nights in the south we had arrived in a land of camels and dusty hazes. Our New Year was dry in more ways than one, not only was the natural spring pool empty as there had been no rain for five years, but our celebratory meal was washed down with water, perfectly chilled, as impeccably demonstrated by our highly attentive waiter - Gujarat is an alcohol free state.

Our introduction to the diverseness of India has been fascinating, the food, geography, religions and especially the people. Needless we're in no hurry to leave. Roll on Rajasthan!


Additional photos below
Photos: 33, Displayed: 29


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Pushkarini Tank, HampiPushkarini Tank, Hampi
Pushkarini Tank, Hampi

An ancient swimming bath
Lakshmi Narasimha statue, HampiLakshmi Narasimha statue, Hampi
Lakshmi Narasimha statue, Hampi

This monolithic statue is over 6m tall
Vitthala Temple, HampiVitthala Temple, Hampi
Vitthala Temple, Hampi

View towards main gateway
Ragunatha Temple, HampiRagunatha Temple, Hampi
Ragunatha Temple, Hampi

Enjoying sunset on the rocks in front of the temple


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