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Published: January 17th 2020
With a week to go before the start of our work-away the prospect of labour pushed us south to Varkala for some beach time. Not that the weather was suited for such plans: the State of Kerala being in the midst of its second, minor, rainy season (mid-Oct to mid-Nov). And there had been, and subsequently would be, some heavy rains.
Varkala's bus station is located about three kilometres from where you want to be: somewhere near the cliffs overlooking the beach and sea. As we followed the GPS's most direct route, predictably down numerous mud-clogged alleyways, we met a man. He hails from Varkala, but has lived in England for many years; nevertheless, his nephews were trying to sublet a big rental and would we please come take a look? We did and, following his kind offer, even left our big packs there whilst we checked on other options - his price wasn't bargain basement, nor the open nature of the house, ideal. Sadly for him there was a much better, nay excellent, alternative in Baby House
, for a great price. On our return our English Indian slashed his offer by half making it cheaper, but still
not as desirable. We apologised and moved on. Regardless, our paths crossed on numerous occasions over the coming days and we always stopped for an amiable chat.
The scene at Varkala comprises a single sign-studded lane that winds precariously along the shrubby cliff top and from which you can view the seemingly endless ribbon of sand and advancing oblique stripes of foaming breakers. The lane's inner margin is punctuated with eateries and bars, guesthouses and Indian memorabilia emporia. Slotted between these are alleys that lead to further alleys, forming a veritable maze. It is within this back-set mycelium that most, affordable, guesthouses and home stays reside, many amidst steamy gardens of palms, banana and hibiscus.
The cliff lane extends from the helipad/car park (the former presumably more for emergency rescue operations - the sea is treacherous - rather than grand arrivals; the latter primarily the loitering ground for hopeful rickshaws) until it steadily drops in elevation and peters out, a kilometre or so up the coast, at a stream whose sandy banked mouth is dotted with fishing canoes and tangles of net. Here we were greeted by a toothless old man offering hashish. Beyond
lies a rather ostentatious minareted mosque hidden equally by a tall surrounding wall and towering old coconut palms. We passed at dusk and saw but half a dozen responding to the muezzin's call. Still further there are some rather tasteful small scale resorts with quaint, well-appointed, sea-viewing huts. These, it still being low season, were, without exception, empty. Out of curiosity we did enquire as to prices and several owners did try to bargain, but the discrepancy between our upper limit (700Rp) and their opening gambit (1800Rp) was never likely to be bridged.
The walk back into town is not inconsiderable, but that's where the wine shop is located. Very kindly the proprietor of Baby House
gave us access to his fridge and we duly kept it fully stocked, with beer.
On the night of our arrival the hidden whereabouts of said shop was revealed to us. Ali was ambivalent, could we honestly be bothered with the trek, and.... didn't it look like it might rain? What's a drop of rain said I. Twenty sweaty minutes later we were maybe half way to our destination when the first spots fell. Ten seconds later, drenched,
we were sheltering under the frontage of a vegetable stall as it rolled off the corrugated iron roof in a blanket; the mud road was being strafed. Five minutes on and the road had disappeared, replaced by an ankle-deep orange river. Ali gave me an "I told you so" look. Gleeful rickshaws pulled up before us. To their amazement we declined their - now - elevated offers and waited it out until it was merely raining heavily. At least the beer proved to be the cheapest yet in India, and we waded back with daypacks fully laden. Oottupura
restaurant, near the helipad, has been around forever; it is a local place for local people, although the wonderful front man (performing waiting services as well as helping chef - it is low season and staffing is minimal) is extremely welcoming and does not have an up-turned, porcine proboscis (I guess that's one for the Brit's...).
Here we met Dave from Brighton. The description "a character" doesn't come close. He was hobbling somewhat and appeared most agitated. It wasn't long before he overheard our accents and enquired if he might join us. An older (our age),
crazy haired individual he operates at a speed and intensity you might equate with large piles of white powder, although he doesn't do that anymore: he has a temper and, as a consequence, is prone to being - his words - "punched on the nose"; such stimuli, apparently, only magnified this outcome's likelihood. He'd sprained his ankle and it wasn't improving. His fitness regime was purportedly being limited to some strange energetic practices performed on his bed; yet, he assured, in recent times he could still complete 50 chin-ups. Sceptical, I was tempted to challenge, but feared it might end with a bloody nose.
And so onwards to our perfect sounding "work-away" at Johnson's hostel "Johnsons
". Correspondence had indicated that Ali would be on cleaning duties, with myself painting as well as - bizarrely - editing a long on-going historical novel that is already of War and Peace dimensions. Five hours of work, five days a week, in exchange for an en-suite room and three meals a day. A flick through 2011's LP surprisingly revealed the hostel to be listed and it did sound rather nice, although Johnson himself was described, somewhat cryptically and not too reassuringly,
Arriving in Alleppey's sleepy railway station we contacted Johnson who announced that he'd pick us up from the front entrance in five minutes; he'd be driving a small white car. Sure enough a short while later a white car pulled up before us. We waved, the driver waved back. We approached the car and the driver alighted. We shook hands and introduced ourselves. Then, just as I was reaching for the door handle, Ali had the good sense to actually ask "you are Johnson?" To our shared amusement he wasn't, he was merely exchanging pleasantries with some friendly strangers.
Johnson did finally appear, looking nothing like we'd predicted: he was actually younger than us, short and rather tubby, with dyed orange hair. As we drove back to the hostel he explained that he'd had to dismiss his previous volunteers - two Germans - as they hadn't proved suitable; however, there was still one Work-Awayer in residence, a sixty year old British woman, Sarah. Being an Art History and English teacher she was on full-time editing duty.
The hostel itself, positioned within a large walled and gated garden, resembles a
somewhat neglected old colonial house, with a pillared and peeling front terrace supporting the sweeping balconies of the rooms above. Much of the frontage is covered in climbing plants that would be very attractive, if better tended. Behind the road-facing front wall is a long narrow shelter under which sits an equally long, trestle-raised, wooden canoe. These peculiarities are explained by a most out-of-place and sad looking tethered horse, Ria. Seemingly the canoe acts as a food trough. A suitable equine facility it is not.
The guest rooms are large, but extremely tired and certainly wouldn't pass Ali's cleanliness threshold; whilst her subsequent efforts to remedy this in the days to come were limited by task time alloted and materials provided. Not helping the cause were the presence of numerous cats (Ali says "countless cats"), that whilst good for vermin control were very bad for cat piss throughout the property. Nevertheless, the guest rooms are immaculate compared to the kitchen and dining room that are truly filthy, the latter surely coming as a shock to any breakfasting guests. We were shown to our room around the back. This, thankfully, was only temporary: until Sarah vacated the normal
volunteer's room. Its one plus point was an intact mosquito net, essential as the buggers - predominantly Aedes
(dengue, not malaria, carriers) are everywhere and voracious as hell. We were quick to learn that repellant needed to be applied even before emerging from beneath said net in the morning and reapplied regularly thereafter (not aided by our profuse sweating, nor the periodic torrential rain) until finally safe within its confines once again. I clocked several thousand larvae thriving in rain-filled old buckets, paint cans and other discards: they met with a dry death.
The one permanent member of staff is Bindu: cook and general dog's body. She is adorable, although her precocious toddler took more warming to, especially at meal times when, hardly toilet trained, he sat naked (save silver jingling ankle bracelets) on the dining table being fed by Johnson who, bizarrely, refers to the child as his own. Happily married Bindu assured us - mid eye-roll - that this, shudder, is certainly not the case.
Sarah was toiling away on the tome, although little advice was apparently being taken. Indeed she left prematurely; an act that did at least enable us to
move into her much improved quarters. Our days started, following a seriously strong coffee infusion, at 7 a.m. with Ali raking the grounds and shoveling (Indian hoeing) horse manure. No, she refused to use her flip-flop to aid the process and found and old metal plate in the midden out-back as a scoop instead. Worryingly this was later discovered in the sink. The chapattis that day were viewed with suspicion and Ali took to hiding the plate. She'd then commence room cleaning/linen changing as guests duly departed. Personally I was straight into my bleach/detergent scrubbing of the mold/moss/filth covered boundary walls. Once clean and dry (in this weather that wouldn't be for weeks), and although totally perished, they would then be cement patched and re-painted. Errrr, I thought I was meant to be painting... Previous volunteers had averaged 2-3 seven foot square panels a day and Johnson was very impressed with my 7-8; hell, once he almost said as much. To be fair he did treat us pretty well, calling me in out of the downpours (pointless, and ignored, as continuous scrubbing in 40C leaves you sopping in minutes anyway: the rains were a heaven sent, mosquito diminishing boon) and
several days in, having seen the way we toiled, he was happy to leave us to work off our own initiatives. It was however rapidly clear to us that we wouldn't be staying for a month. Ali, frustrated with the scale of the neglect and lack-luster attitude to its reversal, wanted to leave on day one, although we privately agreed - grudgingly - to serve at least ten.
Bindu fed us very well and she'd invariably nip out pre-breakfast with a chai and later post-breakfast with a lime soda or freshly cracked coconut milk. Indeed the "work away" description had stated meat/fish only once or twice a week and yet we received it daily. And on Bindu's day off Johnson provided excellent bought-in thalis.
Meanwhile, come 6 p.m., Johnson would drive Bindu home, a round trip that took a good hour. This just happened to coincide with the prime time for guest arrivals. By now we were showered (re-coated in mossie repellant) and entrenched on the front patio with beers to hand (and a lengthy jaunt that entailed). It was our favourite part of the day: welcoming guests (predominantly large Indian parties), chatting and
showing them to their rooms. During our tenure there were also half a dozen thirsty western visitors and I'd typically end up directing (escorting) them to buy beer ("Ahhh, it wouldn't hurt to get a few more in ourselves") and we'd subsequently join them in their consumption. Young french Oihan was a particular delight (especially to Ali's smitten eyes) - a real charmer who never tired of asking for yet more traveling tales, whilst Canadian longshoreman Al was himself a bountiful font of stories.
One day Al took a backwater trip and later returned with four of his fellow excursioners. With other guests in mind we retired to our domain at the hostel's rear for a booze-up. Rising the next morning at 6 a.m. for work was most unpleasant.
Once we were into our stride with Ali having developed a smooth room cleaning routine ("but why can't we have a blackboard chart showing all the arrival and departure dates"), the boundary walls scrubbed, a new manure pit dug, the gardens weeded, external iron stairs washed free from years of encrusted dust, accumulated flotsam removed, and the rear dumping ground made less likely to initiate
a cholera outbreak (ancient dirty nappies filling unemptied rubbish bins combined with the rains had produced an effluent swamp), things, hostel-wise, were looking up. Forthcoming jobs really would include some painting and the hostel's shabby state would soon start showing signs of marked improvement. It was tempting to remain and be responsible for a real transition.
However.... Alleppey is not the most interesting of towns and with the exception of backwater boat trips or a long, bus requiring, slog to more attractive beaches, there is little to encourage a protracted stay. There aren't many (any?) restaurants worthy of splashing some cash; hell, it's a struggle to obtain a masala chai and nowhere sells lassis. Thus with ten days almost served we notified Johnson of our imminent departure. He wasn't happy to be losing two studious workers. Bindu begged us to stay.
Now, of course, subsequent to such an arrangement there are normally references written from each side's perspective of the experience. This does bring up a grouch. Even before we arrived Johnson had asked if we might submit a review (obviously fictitious) to "Booking.com". I explained that such an eventuality - might - occur
once we had experienced his hostel, but it certainly wasn't going to happen blind. Once in-situ he elaborated upon how certain guests would hold him to ransom, threatening poor reviews if a discount wasn't forthcoming and, thus, bogus write-ups were necessary (and justified) to offset these. I fear that many of the disgruntled guests' complaints may well have been merited. He does have an excellent 9.1 rating, writing - evidently - a fine review himself. Thus, we were not overly inclined to report on our experiences to "Work-Away": an honest description, even with the highlighted positives, would, knowing Johnson, not necessarily be reciprocated. So... although having performed some service, we'll remain unreviewed. Of course there's a real moral dilemma here: you should report honestly and trust to your host's integrity but, selfishly, no review is better than a negative one. We, now a month down the line - a month admittedly without wi-fi access - have merely let it ride; but again that spanks somewhat of cowardice. Obviously an experienced (much reviewed) "Work Awayer" doesn't have to consider such nonsense.
Ahhhhhh.... A huge exhale of breath.... Where would we head to next? Gokarna and Om beach: a
fine little Shiva-centric town and, a forty minute walk down the coast, the most chilled of chill beaches was the answer.
Our old Gokarna haunt, Pradma Laxmi
, had only raised its prices from 300 to 400 Rps (still less than $6) in seven years, not too shoddy.
The wine shop remained in its bus station-side location (the only premises you can truly rely on to still be there years hence), our go-to thali establishment (now LP recognised) was a shadow of its former self; although, regardless, there are two diamond breakfasting locations (facing each other) where excellent masala dozas or even better roti chennai (-like) breakfasts are available at a scrummy 40 Rps.
Checking out the scene, prior to lugging our packs, we walked Om-wards. You nip down a lane by the old stepwell, proceed up and over a langur-infested hill, drop down towards and then across Kudle beach, up another hill to... oeerrr, a road - that wasn't there seven years ago. Rickshaws were loitering for such an appearance. From here you would previously traverse another headland following a volcanic pavement, but we were instructed - admittedly by the disgruntled
rickshaws - to follow the road. This, it materialised, appears to have been constructed in a most meandering manner - the sceptic might imagine to make the journey to Om as long as possible and thus motorised transport as desirable as possible. We wouldn't be walking that again and quickly backtracked to reacquaint ourselves with the headland off-road short-cut.
Meanwhile, on the beach itself - thankfully - little has physically changed. There are still no developments over a single story in height and indeed there are no new operations, all compounds nestling or semi-concealed within the beach-fringing palms. The only eyesore is a new (rickety and rarely occupied) lifeguard's platform that sits on the central arm of the Om. This is likely a concession to the increase in non-swimming local tourists (now far more likely to don a modest bathing costume than remain in a suicidal sari) who, regardless, still ignore (or are ignorant to) when a rip is obviously running... and indeed the whistle-blowing lifeguard trying to shepherd them to a safer area. Several drown each year. Sangams
guesthouse remains, although they have demolished hut no. 2 (the once graffiti inscribed "Love Shack")
where we'd stayed in 2013. This has been replaced by a more upmarket abode and only a few shared bathroom rooms now remain: transient Indians invariably request private toileting facilities. Sangam's boss (the politest yet most imposing and discerning Indian you will ever meet) was off on the day of our recce and his deputy was unauthorized to negotiate room rates. We said we might be back for a chat on another day and instead investigated limping Dave's recommendation of "The Jungle Cafe
A tiny gate gives access to a sandy passageway through the bush that eventually opens out onto partially cleared jungle... and... The Cafe. It is really rather special. We met the proprietor - apparently known for knocking-back prospective guests who he considers less than... shanti - and then set about negotiations. We could have a thatched hut for 300 Rps (bargain), but the lush en-suites were to die for: at nine hundred. We'd stay for at least a week, how about six hundred? He couldn't, with high season approaching, possibly do those for less than eight. Excellent, we'll give you ten days at seven? Done...
And what is there to say
about such a glorious beach? Although still beautifully neglected, the Israelis are now well in the know and comprise ninety percent of the foreign clientele, massing and filling adjacent shacks until they spill - post-midday stone-overs - onto the beach to cluster in a surreal hula-hooping, weighted cushion-tossing, frisbee throwing, fire juggling clique. For once we left them to it and didn't even issue any Yaniv challenges.
The non-Israeli old hippy types have decamped to the semi-deserted, though less photogenic, Gokarna beach. This does save the two hour (Om-Gokarna) round-trip to collect supplies, a thrice-weekly jaunt that we view as a work-out. And, traipsing back with 10L of water, several bottles of rum, mixers, limes and other essentials in 38C, it is.
Thus for the first time in months we hit the sand with lingering intent: my chest hair turned white overnight.
We did make a couple of chums, predictably Indian. One of these (name excluded to avoid embarrassment) was later to be extremely grateful for our hitherto brief friendship when a member of Sangam's staff came tearing into Jungle Cafe
to report that "sir, young Indian fellow in most bad
way". He wasn't about to drop off this mortal coil as he had convinced himself, but was instead suffering a dehydrated- (earlier that day he'd joined us on a lengthy walk to Half Moon and Paradise beaches) and alcohol-induced panic attack. Flat on his back with feet raised, a steady infusion of salty sweet water, followed by some bland solids and plenty of reassurance he was soon shaken, but stable. Leaving for home/work the next day and having sworn off the booze for the foreseeable he kindly presented us with his remaining half bottle of Jim Bean.
Anyway, there is little to wax lyrical about when lounging on a beach for two weeks, so we won't.
From here it was a bee-line to meet up with our old friends Ashok and Pinky. Seven years ago we'd met Ashok on a lengthy train journey to Kolkata, but had later stayed with him and his delightful family way back west in Rajasthan's Bhilwara Thank you southern Asia...
. His business interests have since changed and he is now the proprietor of several massage parlours in Mt. Abu, where he is based. This, sadly, leaves Pinky holding the fort back at
the family home.
So, we needed to get to Mt. Abu, Rajasthan's only hill station. Whilst somewhat ignored these days by western visitors it is anything but by neighbouring Gujaratis: Gujarat is a dry state and alcohol-driven tourism to Rajasthan is very popular.
Gokarna does not do long-haul public transport and thus the journey would necessitate a few changes. Regardless, in theory, this should be a cinch. In practice - in early December - this was far from the case. Still, Margao, a few hours up the road, is a major train hub and surely we could catch a train to Rajasthan - any bloody where in Rajasthan - from there? No. All trains north were booked for weeks ahead. Thanks to IndiaRail's Ap (yes... on Ali's phone... maybe I'm warming to them) we knew this already, but we'd also seen that most trains had availabilities in Tourist Quota. Having checked this was still the case we went to the station only to learn that none of these trains originate in Margao and hence they (the booking office) are unable to access the tourist quota. This did sound vaguely familiar from the dim and
distant past, but really... in this computer age... We said we'd pay for the initial leg, ie. the total journey and simply join the train here mid-route. Not possible. What we were advised to do was backtrack all the way to Ernakulum (the trains' originating point), some twenty-odd hours down the coast, where we would be able to purchase those tickets sitting going begging. Really?
Fuck it: we sought out a bus that would get us as far as Gujarat's Ahmadebad and entail a mere 31 hours of upright discomfort. Halfway into the ride, on the outskirts of Mumbai, we were told to alight. Contrary to promises (and ticket details) this particular bus would not be going as far as our destination; the connection would - apparently - be along in two or three hours. And here an up note: four hours later when the bus did finally arrive we discovered it to be a "sleeper", for no extra charge. It was now mid-afternoon but we could, and did, grab some shut-eye. And then, by way of balance, a sour note: we pulled into Ahmadebad long after the sun had set and nowhere near the train station,
necessitating a dastardly rickshaw. Fortunately trains to Abu Road run at all hours and there was one leaving almost immediately at just past midnight; not so fortuitously this was a solely General Class train, it was already mobbed and, there being no seats, we were forced to squat on our packs wedged between the external doors and the loos. Still, it was only a five hour skip and we had slept most of the afternoon... Our space we shared with a number of other unfortunates: one prone individual who (obviously nasally congested and with scant regard for his personal cleanliness) lay sleeping oblivious to his blockage of access to both toilets; two friendly chatty young lads and numerous transients coming to the doors for a clandestine fag; plus others clambering over us all in an attempt to access said loos.
Somewhat pre-dawn we drew into Abu road, grabbed a momentarily chill-banishing chai and sat waiting for the sun to rise and the buses to start running up the hill. Not having eaten in almost forty hours we were ravenous and decided to seek out breakfast before notifying Ashok of our arrival. As we wandered along the highstreet
checking out the menus of early opening eateries a scooter pulled alongside. It was the man himself about to perform his daily constitutional of power walking twice around the lake. Of course this was now postponed as he hurriedly shepherded us to a place he knows that makes excellent aloo parathas.
And an aside... Indian - certainly Ashok - hospitality prohibits a guest from ever spending a dime in their host's presence. On one day trip I'd managed to pay for a round of chais, only then to see Ashok chastising the proprietor for accepting my money... Couldn't he see that we were with him? However, what we could do was - when he was at work - return from our ambling with an assortment of fruit, local sweets or cakes (much appreciated by our young roomies) and, predictably, alcohol (even more appreciated by, in particular, Nagaland's Elona). And so to the point: beer in India these days is all "strong". Their world-wide export, Kingfisher beer, is often only available here in its red label alcohol-elevated 7% version. Other beer varieties such as Haywoods 5000 or Tuborg (brewed in India under license) are all of similarly absurd
strengths. Ali took to watering down her's with Sprite.
Anyway, back at the rental house we met Ashok's co-habiting employees, five young massage therapists from the north eastern tribal states: the three sisters from Manipur, sensible Sonita, preening tic-tok addict Josephine and the giggler, Marina - the former two both sporting traditional tattooed eyebrows; shy Ronime from Assam; and the eldest at a stately 23, Elona from Nagaland (who reminds us somewhat of our own Maho). I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. Ashok, not surprisingly, treats them with the utmost respect, more like an indulgent father than employer and, from the girls' perspective, they landed oh so luckily in what might well have been a very risky employment venture many many miles from home.
A little later we were receiving a tour of the most recently acquired spa, a tour that predictably ended with Ashok enquiring if we'd like a massage. Ali was immediately keen (her on-going neck problems tempering her politeness) whilst I was more reticent, not wanting an inevitable freebie. Excuses were ignored and an hour later Sonita and Ronime had well and truly soothed our tired old bodies. The
last time I'd worn a pair of hospital knickers was indeed in hospital. Payment for services rendered was impossible so - as general thanks to all the girls... not least for relinquishing one of their bedrooms to us visitors (they'd take it in turns to crash on the mattresses in the living room) - we split the rejected massage fees between them.
Mt. Abu is a small but sprawling town dominated by Nakki lake whose 1.5 mile shoreline and surrounds are lovingly maintained by the Brahma Kumari community. Actually these guys (and girls) - they're renown for women holding high ranks within the movement - are quite interesting. The organisation's philosophy "teaches to transcend labels associated with the body, such as race, nationality, religion, and gender, and it aspires to establish a global culture based on what it calls "soul-consciousness"". This is a rather fine aspiration and almost one million people in one hundred countries have adopted it. Indeed, regardless of age, for a one-off $5000 payment you may live indefinitely in the rather swanky retreat on the outskirts of Mt. Abu (nice gardens and, on the day of our visit, very decent - gratis - food;
we didn't get invited to check out the rooms though). That is if you can live a vegan, alcohol- and smoke-free existence. Oh, and if you are unmarried (that's a no-no), and partial to wearing white (residents dress solely in white). Still, that is one mighty cheap retirement community. Maybe I'll bring it up with Ali's mum? She looks great in white and we could sneak-in the odd bottle of Baileys.
In the apartment next to Ashok's lives Bunty (girl's comic book name, but definitely male) and his family. I say "lives"... Actually they are only there term time as the pre-school (for his young kite-infatuated son) is apparently amazing and Bunty seems to be able to run his empire (copper mill and interests in the extended family's 7 star - yes, seven star - hotel ... check out Suryagarh hotel in Jaisalmer: the building rivals the bloody fort) from the end of his phone. Now, I mention Ashok's friend Bunty as, it so happens, we share a common passion: wildlife (and we are not talking massage therapists here). Much to his wife's chagrin he is prone to spending the early hours out in his 4x4 spotting
sloth bears, civets and leopards. We were somewhat sceptical about his apparent encounters until he - following a late night whiskey session (us, the girls and Ashok, not himself) - took us out. As we drove and parked up in various places on the outskirts of town he'd point out where various leopards hunt (one guesthouse has - steadily - lost all six of its dogs) and chill. And as we chatted, windows only marginally ajar (you can't be too careful), he stated "there, you see the eyes". We didn't. He called out her "name". "You've named them?", said I. And a few moments later there was a definite silhouette, sat, posturing, seemingly appraising us, only twenty yards above at a clearing in the brush. Out came his fancy camera and a few shots later it was readily apparent that there was indeed a leopard simply sat observing us. And then she, maybe bored with the stand off, slinked down the hill towards us. Wow.
On a subsequent night we checked out the sloth bears at the rather less picturesque location of the local dump; certainly less photogenic but, following the day's deposit, an assured spotting site
as they root quarrelsomely with the wild pigs and dogs. As for civets, they scuttle around balconies and along tree limbs when making their early morning rounds.
Each day one of the girls, on her day off, would accompany Ashok and ourselves (and maybe additionally Bunty, or Sonu, Bhagchand and Sreyansh - visiting extended family, or, latterly, our gorgeous Pinky) on an outing to surrounding view points and national parks. It was a splendid, loved-up time. Ashok, in the absence of Pinky's culinary magnificence, has morphed into a great chef (his chapattis are second to none - my efforts to replicate these were... disappointing), whilst the girls - very much meat eaters - cook the spiciest mutton (goat) curries that are simply beyond gushing.
We semi gate-crashed a mega local wedding (Mt. Abu is a very desirable location for nuptials), the girls having made-up Ali to Aunt Sally dimensions whilst I'd borrowed both shirt and trousers off Ashok, nothing in my pack being remotely suitable as wedding attire. And once again the three of us rode off into the elevated chill of the night on his scooter. The food, encompassing all manner of Indian
specialities and provisioned from dozens of peripherally located stalls each heaped in steaming silver tureens, vast sizzling woks or afore stands of tandoors, was spectacular even though Ashok insisted on us all starting with endless platters of sweets.
And I mention the food and not the ceremony because we didn't witness the latter. At big Indian weddings the hundreds of guests - many (probably most) unknown to the bride and groom - merely arrive and dive into the food. When the thumping beat of the marching band and the accompanying fireworks announced the arrival of the betrothed's horse-drawn carriage maybe only a quarter of the revelers raised their heads from their plates, whilst many less actually broke off from their gorging to greet them. The running order is thus: guests arrive in the early evening and devour food; bride, groom and entourage arrive - largely ignored - mid-evening and proceed to their thrones on the stage (all very Posh and Becks); photographs of worthies are taken; there's some stage-based entertainment around the solemn couple and then, eventually, when most guests are finally satiated and have departed, at something like midnight, the wedding ceremony takes place. And we
moan about having to invite great aunt Nora...
At one point several bouncers did enquire as to the legitimacy of our presence, but seemed happy enough with my explanation; well, we weren't frog-marched out. Later, stuffed though sober - no booze at these dos - we returned relatively snugly with four of us squeezed onto the scooter, Marina having also joined the festivities.
Of course during our visit to Mt. Abu there were many pictures taken and in a number of these various Indians gesticulated towards the camera. And here, chuckling, I'm reminded of walking passed a school in Alleppey. It was the end of the school day and gaggles of smartly uniformed small girls were piling into rickshaws for the journey home. One huge bundle of little angels in a particularly packed tuk-tuk began calling out to us. "Hello", "Good afternoon". We greeted them back only to be faced with eight sets of less than polite "Vs". It would have made some juxtaposed photo. Anyway, yes.... Indians seem to be somewhat confused as to hand orientation when making the peace sign; either that or we often receive some rather rum receptions.
One day Ashok took us to visit a pair of small Jain temples in nearby Delwara. Initially we weren't overly enthused at the prospect; hell, we've visited dozens of Indian temples. But they were Jain, responsible for the most stunning carving at Ellora's Petra-like complex and these two diminutive examples - Vimal Vasahi started in 1031 and Luna Vasahi in 1230 - had, combined, taken 4000 masons 29 years to complete. Apparently the artists were encouraged to deliver super-intricate abstruse work by being paid in gold equivalent in weight to only the dust they produced, carving yielding grains and lumps was worthless. There's a central shrine bearing a gold statue of Adinath surrounded by atria and roofed walkways comprising a forest of pillars and arches. But... All, everything, is marble and the minutiae and splendor of the detail astounds. Think the most delicately carved item you have ever seen - maybe (distasteful I know) a priceless Chinese ivory, then apply this image to two temples. Ceiling panels are typically 6ft square and the depth of the excavating carving may extend four feet into the block with stacked paper-thin layers, protruding designs, elegant sensuous figurines of women whose details include
dainty finger nails, whilst there is often a central "ceiling rose" of mid-boggling complexity. Sadly photography is forbidden, although there did just happen to be a gentleman selling sets of prints outside. Of course photos of photos do not good blog images make..
And here's a thing, a niggly thing. Outwith the Taj or other totally iconic (high maintenance, revenue requiring) sites, in years gone by, there were no/minimal charges (even for non-Indians) to enter places of interest. Prime Minister Modi has recently restructured all that. A previously nominal fee, to access a viewpoint say, has since bounced to 300+ rupees (for a foreigner). Indeed such monies are now required to enter many temples. This set Bunty - not a person of small means - off on one. How can you charge an individual for entrance to a place of worship, regardless of their own beliefs? The act demeans the building's purpose and he would certainly never comply.
Interestingly, how Modi is regarded is very polarized in India: many, Hindus in particular, believe him to be doing a sterling job; others, notably - though not exclusively - Christians and Muslims, feel very differently. The
girls from the tribal states are aghast that they may no longer be able to eat beef. It all rather spanks of The Indian Mutiny, in reverse.
Related, but different: cash. Far less than a decade ago a cash-less transaction would only ever occur in an upmarket hotel, posh restaurant, or for a big money purchase outside of most Indians' means. Now however the universal mobile phone has revolutionised spending. Even hand-drawn carts selling chai or samosas accept payment by mobile barcode Aps, whilst entrance to those sites demanding payment is - bizarrely - often more expensive with cash...
Having circumnavigated around the Indian coast we were now headed back to our starting point in the east from where we hoped to be able, via passage through the seven sisters, to enter Myanmar overland and start pushing towards China.
Much like our disappointment regarding the potential for solo unimpeded travel through Iran (damn near impossible for Brits and north Americans) this was looking increasingly unlikely/unwise: Assam and Manipur in particular (never the most stable of places) are in a state of uproar, this time over Mr. Modi's new immigration policy (the
Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2019: rather more Merkle than Trump) that they fear might flood them with refugees, primarily Hindu Bangladeshis (even though citizenship is only being offered to the persecuted who arrived pre-2015 - notably though it makes no provision for the muslim Rohingya).
Anyway, heading east we were, but en route there would be stops at two old stomping grounds, Jaipur and Varanasi. Why? Because that is where Pinky and Ashok's boys Chinu and Monu currently, respectively, reside.
At this time of year train tickets continue to be a bitch to obtain, although - surprise surprise - Ashok knew a man who could. And thus a short ride took us back, for the first time in 30 years, to Jaipur. Many non-India-lovers state this city as the primary reason for their distaste, it being infamous for its unwelcoming, money hungry, tourist consuming duplicity; and, in all honesty, we weren't that endeared ourselves all those years ago. Still, we aren't those naive young travelers anymore. What could possibly go wrong? Indeed we found a very convenient, excellent and reasonably priced hotel just a few lanes away from the station. The owner of Chit Chat
could not have been more welcoming, hospitable or accommodating. Yes, we could certainly lounge in their restaurant's charming garden, and he had no problem with us bringing in our own beers for the purpose. Cue the search for a wine shop and an immediate gammonacious encounter with a misguiding rickshaw driver. Having quickly realised that his directions were bumpkum spite (as we didn't require his services) we retraced our steps and lo and behold there was one right around the corner. Kingfishers were quoted at 150 Rps (mid-range for different Indian States) and thus I handed over 600 for four bottles. Almost immediately the proprietor flashed me two 100 Rp bills... I'd mistakenly not given him a 500? I really wasn't absolutely sure, unfortunately/uncommonly (we'd recently withdrawn cash) there were an unknown number of 500 notes in my wallet and hence I couldn't check. Following a hard stare I made up the difference. Several days later he tried exactly the same scam, not realizing that I'd deliberately come out with the exact money. Brazenly, when confronted, he readily accepted that perhaps I had given the correct money. Following a retrieval of my notes and some suitable phrases regarding his honesty,
dubious parentage and possession of female genitalia we frequented his establishment no longer. Maybe I should have threatened the police and attempted to regain my - evidently - previously stolen money, but it was partially my own fault for being sloppy. Regardless, do not buy beer at the shop closest to the railway station entrance in Jaipur.
It was lovely to meet up again with Aniket (Chinu), now a fine dashing young man, and be able to provide some hospitality to the Jangid family for once. He would very much like to study (cuisine/to be a chef) and work in either Australia, Canada or the UK in the future, so anyone with links/advice regarding the first two countries please contact me. Ali - currently back in the UK (I'm ahead of myself) - is researching possibilities for the latter.
We did revisit some of Jaipur's sites, whilst ignoring those that now extort exorbitant entrance fees: you don't need to enter Hawa Mahal (Palace of Winds), its main street frontage is its glory; whilst for a panorama over the city and up to the fort on the hill forget paying to climb the minarette and
instead cross the road to the tallest building in town (it comprises various jewellery/silver stores - with friendly amiable staff - in a ramshackle assemblage of stairs and levels) where you can ascend to the roof and do so for free (many thanks to the kind local who put us onto this). But, in addition, we also took a 100km day trip out to the biggest of India's grand old stepwells (Choud Baori) at Abhaneri. Local trains leave regularly from Jaipur, but to avoid what happened to us make sure that they actually stop (physically) in Abhaneri. As we drew close to the station the train did brake and we were ready to disembark when another passenger informed that it was only following speed restrictions and that the next station was in fact Ajmer. "Ajmer?" I exclaimed. "That's bloody hours away". Giving Ali little time to think I jumped whilst shouting "run forwards as you land, ruuuun forrrrrwards". Fortunately we came to a jogging halt, rather than a messy pile, directly in front of two transport police who thought us a jolly amusing spectacle. Westerners jumping off moving trains, whatever next?
There are some wild peacocks knocking
about the station's grounds which was a boon and an excellent chai/snack stall right outside its exit.
Ignore the taxis, its a very pleasant 5km rural wander to the stepwell. However, on arrival - predictably: Modi, you arse - we discovered that Choud Baori (free only two years ago) now charges 300 Rps for a foreigner to enter (50 Rps if Indian). As the photos suggest it is pretty impressive, but it is also only a ten minute wonder. And, I might add, why have they implanted several ugly layers of metal fencing? Sure, have a perimeter fence to prevent people from descending the steps, but why then have an additional photo-blighting layer halfway down. No one can get there; they are not necessary. Idiots.
As we walked back towards town and the station a group of farm workers with a tractor and trailer attempted to lure us into a lift... for a sizable price. One kilometre on and a motorcyclist pulled up alongside us; he was also heading to Abhanari and would be delighted to offer us a lift. We thanked him but said we were happy to walk, only for him to
reply "please let me help you". Not wanting to be rude, we did. And, along the way, we duly passed other lane-side workers who clocked us and made finger-rubbing, money-indicating gestures to our rider who, bless him, shook his head dismissively.
Varanasi's ghats aren't actually that picturesque, especially in the current colour-sapping, smudging climatic smog, which is - officially - worse than that present (and highly publicised) in Delhi. Cough, cough... In fact I did pick up a cold which - no excuses as a smoker - has lingered long with... a persistent cough. What it does have though, in spades, is a myriad of characters and a monstrous maze of capillary-like backstreets who and that most certainly are photogenic. With expendable time finding your way to a destination is truly a wondrous challenge, one that always throws up unexpected surprises (do I really have to climb over that cow?); whilst trying to arrive on time for a rendezvous is a bloody nightmare. Plus there is now - was there always? - a nightly extravaganza Ganga Aarti at Dashashwamedh ghat. This we've witnessed at other holy sites on this most sacred river; but, elsewhere, simply as the
massed devotees setting afloat candle- and flower head-bearing leaf boats into the night. Not here though: it's a Vegas-esque show with a line of elevated platforms hosting topless gents performing choreographed simultaneous bell ringing and exaltations with huge fire-brandishing chandalabra. There are a multitude of seats set up along the ghat for viewing and a whole armada of boats moor-up in the river itself. It is a spectacle, but the pure, silent beauty of the understated reverence at - say - Haridwar, Uttarkhand Julley Ladakh
is far more moving.
Our initial residence was Kashi Guesthouse
that provided a decent and reasonably priced room with amiable staff and a rooftop terrace (fenced in to prevent access to the thieving monkeys - of which there are many - who may still come beg through the meshing) with an amazing view over the most famous burning ghat. One downside to this is the smoke that does have a distinct long-pig (that would be grandma then) aroma.
Here we met Harry, a visa organiser (Indians to... wherever...) by trade, and his entourage; and the ever present staff member - shit, I've forgotten his name - man-who-can. Harry is charming,
good company and generous - and presumably wealthy: I've no idea why he was staying there. And thus we hung on the terrace, inhaling our fellow humans, and shared numerous bunches of beers. Then his driver appeared, limping heavily, and of course Ali asked as to the reason. On drawing up his trouser leg it was readily apparent that he was in a very poor state. "He drove you here, like that?" They'd been an accident, something about a tipper-truck and a shed load of hard core, an amount of which had found its way onto said leg. It hadn't been broken, but the gash was extreme; and now, several months on, it was still unhealed, the skin graft patently hadn't taken, it looked infected and... always a bad sign, it smelt. He'd been told it would be fine and, when we first saw it, was merely covered with a dirty old rag. There was no way that was going to be fine; another few weeks of neglect and he'd be picking out his prosthesis, if he was lucky. Ali was busy cursing her available selection of dressings; yes she did have some tolerable wet-ones, but x and y would
be so much better. Christ, he needed a swab and some appropriate antibiotics. Long story short: it got cleaned and dressed; Al's sourced and daily applied some semi-suitable dressings prior to their departure (no amount of emphasis on her part as to the pressing need was cutting short their break), but they did promise to head immediately to a hospital on their return.
And today, several weeks on, Harry sent me a photo; it still wasn't pretty, but (and Ali, by email from back in the UK - still ahead of myself - confirmed) it does look much improved. Improved... as in non-imminently life-threatening, but still miles away from healed. Let no one in the west ever moan about our shite health services...
On a much happier note, we met up with Askok's youngest, Ashmit (Monu). And another bloody strapping lad he's turned out to be. Strapping, sharp as a sharp thing, and as delightful as his brother. Breaking from his studies at the university for several days he was soon off to partake in some rock band competition over in Mumbai.
Meanwhile, having found a less barbeque-scented location, we moved
residence to Vishnu Guesthouse
that boasts an unobstructed view over a ghat, more reliable hot showers, was cheaper, and - bless him - was without the constant attention of the man-who-can. Yes, he had introduced us to the most wonderfully cheap and delicious locals' restaurant and he really could organise anything, but beer donations (and the increasing expectation of them) were beginning to grate.
From the elevated terrace at Vishnu it was sadu-/snake-charmer-snapping photographic heaven, albeit from a zoom-challenging distance.
It's a tough old place for wildlife is Varanasi. There was a cow lay in muck down our lane that simply didn't move during our last four days; whilst we spotted another, headless, floating down the river (just beyond the bathers). Barking dogs are a predictable night chorus anywhere in India, but here you hear the mother of all dog pack fights with some hideous, pitiful screams. And one morning whilst eating breakfast down a narrow back alley we spotted a cat, a real rarity. I had just commented upon how it better beware the dogs and monkeys when I saw it again through the facing derelict window, struggling in the jaws of a
dog. Even the cobras have it rough: we observed one misbahaving for his charming handler who duly got whacked on the head with his basket lid.
And then, with train tickets hurriedly organised for the unexpected detour into Nepal via the devil's own Gorakhpur (Ali's mum's knee replacement surgery having finally received an inexpediently imminent date, necessitating Als having to fly home to oversee her convalescence and hence me a quiet - Ali trusted... how old am I? - place to hang for a month), I came down with giardia. Being well acquainted with this amoeboid, and facing unavoidable train and bus journeys, the third consecutive tell-tale sulphurous belch was swiftly thwacked with a course of Metronidazole. I love Asian pharmacists, when they freely stock what you need.
Prescient, prompt, or poor antibiotic practice... Fuck it, I didn't poop my pants.
And that's it; finally, I hear you say, from India for a good six months. We will, sadly, miss Ashok and Pinky's 25th wedding anniversary celebrations, but it is simply impossible to just sit however much you love somewhere or some people. And we certainly love them.
This has been a weird, mostly headless, ramble for the last two months - mainly due to the need to remain accessible (and ready for action) for June's up coming operation - but, on Al's return, hopefully we can regain focus.
Quite where that direction will be is, not necessarily badly, pretty fluid.
And, as a sub note: thank you India, you are still without equal.
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