A Travellerspoint blog

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En route to Delhi

Flying to India I had literally no idea what to expect. Despite having skimmed much of Lonely Planet's guide to India, knowing several people who have visited and travelled in India including my little sister, attended two Indian weddings and having seen both Slum-dog Millionaire and Best Exotic Marigold hotel, I had literally no idea what to expect I a way I've never experienced before. I spent the flight watching in-flight movies and trying to sleep over the continuous high pitched shrieking of a small child.

It was dark as we landed (at 5am) and air-side the airport seemed pretty calm. Upon exiting customs I sought out the pre-paid taxi booth in the arrivals terminal seriously jealous of those people who had pre-arranged transfers and had taxi drivers waiting for them. My guide book referenced this booth as being 'official delhi police' approved but to me it looked like a shabby mini-cab office who, were I in the UK I wouldn't trust to take me home from a night out. But, for want of no better option, and having seen the rabble jostling outside the airport, I paid my 330R, took my ticket and ventured outside where the sun was still yet to come up. Amongst the relatively usual looking cabs, I found the area to which I had been directed and the least official looking taxis of them all. I'd both heard and read about taxi drivers scams ranging from telling you your hotel is burnt down/closed/dreadful/overbooked and then trying to take you to their friends place where they receive a commission and you receive a filthy bed for the night, I was determined this was not going to happen to me. I gave the driver the address - area, street name and building number and the fact that the hotel was behind a cinema. He conferred with his mate outside before telling me it was not a complete address. They asked me why this hotel to which I replied my family were waiting for me there (which they were not) and conferred again, presumably coming up with new tactics. At this point I retrieved my guide book and pointed to the general area in which I wanted to go. This seemed to do the trick and after a bit more discussion we were off on my first experience of Delhi's highway system.

The car putted along, the noise of the engine drowning out the drivers questions. My first impressions of India's roads - people do not indicate or use their mirrors, they merely beep (literally all the time), lane markings are ignored, cars, rickshaws, busses and animals are all welcome in all lanes. The journey was longer than I'd expected, it was still pitch black outside and the roads were relatively quiet, very poorly lit but the first signs of life were beginning to appear in the form of people walking down the sides of pavement-less carriageways.

We arrived easily at the hotel, suspiciously as if the driver had had a pretty accurate impression of its location all along and fortunately, despite it being 6am I was able to check in immediately for which I was extremely thankful. Clean room, very large bed and ensuite with a powerful shower and warm water. Although I couldn't sleep, I collapsed on the bed for a good three hours happy that I'd arrived without too much difficulty.

Posted by madeinmold 11:44 Archived in India Comments (0)

Day 1 in Delhi - first impressions

After a rest I set off to explore a bit of Delhi. Hotel staff advised against walking or getting my own taxi (they may not take you where you want to go) and arranged a 'free shuttle' for me to the centre of town. Their taxi took a while to arrive during which time a hotel employee took great interest in my plans for India. I took care to make it clear that I was joining a group of people and wouldn't require any help in arranging trips/onward travel etc. When the car arrived it was unexpectedly new and air conditioned. After a drive that took longer than expected (we stopped at traffic lights at a busy intersection and a small girl did handstands next to the car and knocked on my window) we 'arrived' at a place that didn't seem very central at all. I expressed concern and insisted that I wanted to be taken to the centre but eventually after much insistence got out of the car and un-surprisingly was taken to a tourist office. I managed to escape with just a free map and the staff were amused at my refusal to sit down and drink tea with them. The map proved to be pretty useless as it was of greater Delhi and showed the centre in very little detail but I managed to arrive at Connaught Place - the supposed centre. I'm not really sure what I was expecting but it wasn't anything like the reality. On the map Connaught circle appears as if it would be a grand central circus - in reality it's a different type of circus. Think huge crowds, difficult to cross roads, tons of people, a great deal of beeping, severe looking security guards at the entrance to all shops, a surprising number of men selling very thick looking winter coats and a dense smog hanging over the whole place. I also saw a lot of young men holding hands - assuming initially that perhaps Delhi was the Brighton of India, this link put me on the right track: http://www.stuffindianslike.com/2008/04/170-holding-hands.html. As I walked around the circle I was asked several times by overly friendly, 'helpful' young men what I was looking for and where I was from. As I was not looking for anything in particular, did not want to engage in mundane conversation or be incessantly followed, I ignored them and carried on walking. Connaught place turned out to be rather un-appealing so I wandered back the way I came looking for somewhere to get a drink and study the annoyingly disjointed maps that lonely planet India has to offer. Embarrassingly the first place I came across was a McDonalds on a street corner so I bought a Sprite and sat down to study the map - something that's pretty impossible to do outside if you want to avoid being approached. Whilst I couldn't actually work out where I was on the map, I had a general idea that was confirmed for my by large group of tourists also taking shelter in the western haven that is McD.

I found myself walking towards India Gate (http://delhitourism.nic.in/delhitourism/tourist_place/india_gate.jsp) . The streets en-route were quieter and I was largely ignored with the exception of a few stares when passing bus stops. I got the impression that tourists tend not to walk (I met some people in the morning who'd hired a driver for a half day for under £10 so I can see why). Roads are difficult to cross although probably equally as unsafe as traveling by auto-rickshaw. I made it across the six lanes of traffic to India gate with the help of a friendly Indian man - the fact that he was about 3ft6 probably helped him to seem unthreatening although did mean I didn't feel he offered as much protection from the onslaught of traffic as the larger packs I'd used until now. India gate was impressive and there was a large number of Indian tourists milling around as well as some persistent women selling bracelets for 2rupees and taking great offence in the form of spitting in your direction if you refuse. Everyone in India spits (and noisily too) and I can sort of see see why - after a few hours in the smog I too was feeling phlegmy. I chose to use a tissue.

After leaving India gate I made my way back the way I'd came, feeling pleased with myself for having successfully navigated to somewhere on foot. Upon finding myself back near the McDonalds, I carefully took out my guide book which informed me that I was near the Imperial hotel. My sister had raved about the afternoon tea here. Although I'm not a fan of finger sandwiches and cake, I was sold on the idea of a good cup of coffee and getting to use a nice 5*bathroom. It took me a while of walking in circles to find it but it was certainly worth it. Every staff member put their hands together with a polite Namaste when I passed and the garden terrace was beautiful (although still a little smoggy). I ordered a cappuccino and an orange juice (and munched 4 free biscuits) which although not unreasonable (about £5.50) cost more than my later evening meal. The Imperial was lovely and I had thought about staying there - I'm glad I didn't as a) it's bloody expensive b) it's less of an 'authentic experience' and c) going outside from here would be too much of a culture shock I'd probably never have left!

I did eventually leave and after attempting to haggle with a few auto-rickshaw drivers, walking away from those offering to take me shopping despite me shoving the hotel's business card under their noses and giving up on those who didn't seem to know where it was, I eventually found one. Turned out he also had no idea where it was and we stopped for directions three times along the way. Eventually we got to Pahar Ganj and as the driver beeped his way along the street winding manically around cars, people, mopeds and one of the largest cows I've ever seen (it was so big it might not have been a cow?) I smiled, actually giggled, at the mania of it all.

Posted by madeinmold 11:46 Archived in India Comments (0)

Day 3 in Delhi - Travelling by metro, getting lost & eating

After a quiet-ish second day which involved suffering from jet lag, a bit of shopping (two pairs of Aladdin pants for about £3.50), eating some butter chicken (so much for vegetarianism), watching India's got talent and finally a decent 7 hours of sleep, I felt ready for a big day in Delhi. And a relatively successful day it turned out to be too (however since being here I have had to seriously modify my definition of success). Having temporarily given up the auto-rickshaw it was time to try the Delhi metro. I'd heard good things. After being pointed in the direction of the right ticket counter by a friendly Irish man, I bought a day ticket at the highly inflated tourist price of 100 rupees (about £1.10) - still cheaper than several rickshaw rides. It worked like an Oyster card - so far so good. When boarding the Delhi metro you put your bag through an airport style scanner and pass through the ladies side of the metal detector. There's also a ladies carriage at the front of each train - apparently added later after too many complaints of en-route groping of female passengers. I can see why - the regular carriages were sparsely populated with females but rather crammed with men - I didn't fancy squeezing my way in there. The ladies carriage by contrast was a nice place to be.

I took two trains to get to Old Delhi where I emerged into another bustling street, Chandnk Chowk, lined with 'shops', stalls selling padded coats, animals, rickshaws, cars and pedestrians and, after fending off offers of rickshaw tours, I made my way to the Red Fort where there were two queues for tickets - Indian national and foreigner. The foreigner queue was fortunately much smaller (and the price much higher - still only 250R which I suppose isn't bad if you compare it to the £16 you'd pay to visit the Tower of London!). Once inside however, with the exception of a few offers of a 'personal guide', I was left relatively alone to wander with my guide book and learn about what I was looking at - Red Fort is a 17th century fort complex constructed by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan.

After an hour or so inside, I ventured back out into the chaos of Chandnk Chowk, making my way carefully amongst the people, I made my way back to the metro feeling immensely satisfied to have made it to the Red Fort successfully on public transport. Encouraged, I decided to attempt the second destination on my day's agenda, Hauz Khas. I didn't really know much about Hauz Khas ( http://travel.cnn.com/mumbai/play/hauz-khas-village-create-cool-urban-community-322804) but I'd read in my guide book and online that it was a pleasant area with a park and some nice roof top cafes. This was quite a journey to South Delhi and I emerged from the metro station onto a busy, pavement-less highway. After a brief walk it didn't look promising. I re-entered the metro station, taking a different exit in hope of better luck only to arrive on the other side of the highway. The third exit looked more promising and I set off walking down a leafy road. There was a sign to 'Mayfair Garden' which sounded promising but turned out to be a gated residential area. After 10 minutes walk in search of I'm not actually sure what, I gave up and went back to the metro to try the third planned destination of the day, Humayun's Tomb ( http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/232).

Getting off at the metro stop indicated by my guide book, I set off in what I hoped was the right direction. It was a quiet-ish tree lined road with few pedestrians but I marched on not to be deterred. After a while I came across a veritable party going on at the 'Methodist church centre' - I briefly debated going in, in search of a good story for my dad to tell his church 'pals' but decided against it and continued in my quest for the tomb. At the next intersection I came across what I can only assume was the source of the Methodist revellers. Parked on all corners on wasteland were several run down busses marked 'tourist' packed to overflow with women in saris, children hanging out of the windows and men on bus roof-tops - utter mayhem. There were fruit sellers, luggage, carts animals and a strong smell of urine but everyone seemed to be having a nice time which I certainly would not be were I sharing one bus seat with my entire extended family. Further along the road did not look promising and, as i still didn't know if i was indeed headed in the right direction and due to exciting evening plans, at this point I decided to turn back - I may have not found the tomb but I'd certainly found something worth seeing. On the way back to the station an old American man stopped and asked me for directions to the tomb - I told him to walk a long way and to persist after the crazy Methodist party and bus-fair. I hope he found it - a later study of my map indicated that another 15 minutes walk would have indeed got me to my destination. I didn't feel too bad however - I'd found one of the three things I was looking for that day and not been groped on the train ... All in all, I'm counting that as a success. Retrospectively I thought that leaving the station would have been the time for a rickshaw to the tomb but I still had another day in Delhi and I needed to get back as I'd booked on a 'food tour' of Delhi for the evening (www.delhifoodtours.com). My sister expressed concern that 4 days in Delhi would be too long but what with jet-lag and so much time spent getting lost I'd beg to differ!

That evening I was met by Prashant who rescued me from aimlessly wandering in the wrong direction from the metro to our meeting point and joined the rest of the group for the food tour, Delhi's answer to the pub crawl. The group consisted of 10 recent Harvard law graduates (German, Belgian, Swiss, American and two locals) in Delhi for one of their weddings, and Prashant's wife Ayesha. First stop on the tour was an out-of-the-way tea shop where we sampled 8 different teas my favourite being Hibiscus (supposedly good for lowering blood pressure (#Stepherz) and quite yummy. The shop owner was great at explaining the process of making all the teas and where they came from. Having not eaten since breakfast (on Prashant's advice) I left the tea shop feeling pretty hungry. First food stop was a south India. Vegetarian restaurant where we shared a gigantic aloo masala dosa - basically a long crispy pancake made for rice and lentil flour filled with a spicy mashed potato served with various dip-y things. It was pretty good but I was wary of eating too much as we still had 4 more stops to make. After the dosa we were served an amazing coffee that we had to pour between a cup and a small dish several times apparently to mix in the sugar and make it frothy. According to Ayesha, coffee in India is only worth drinking in South Indian restaurants. Based on my experiences of it so far, I'd have to agree with her. Second stop was a short walk around the corner to an Indian BBQ. There we were served goat meat with onions, a yoghurt dip and some thin wraps to pick it up with - it was amazing and I ate a bit too much not realising that still to come was some amazing chicken and biryani. I'd never eaten goat before but it was pretty good and Prashant explained to me that goat and chicken are the best meats in India as these are the freshest (with the exception of seafood by the coast) - cows are not eaten and sheep meat is imported from Australia so is expensive and not very fresh. The next stop was a fast-food joint. There we were each given a stodgy wrap - flatbread with an egg cracked onto it wrapped around goats meat and fried. We dipped it in a mint and coriander yogurt. I guess it wasn't that healthy - Prashant described it as heart attack wrap and laughed as he convinced the bride-to-be to eat one - but the Scottish could do much better, it wasn't even battered! We were then given the option of one more stop before desert but the general consensus was to make a final desert stop as it was getting late. En route we got caught up in a rather large traffic jam which turned out to be the funeral for two Indian mafia brothers who had shot each other to death - apparently over, if I understood correctly, their mother trying to make them live together. Most Indian deserts it seems are made with 'milk fat'. I tried most of the selection we were given but wasn't really a fan. All in all, it was an enjoyable evening (surprisingly one that didn't involve a single curry) and, although pretty pricey, the commentary was interesting. One of the Harvard group lived in and had grown up in Delhi and gave an interesting commentary of various sights and areas as we passed through in the minibus so we didn't only learn about food.

The journey home was slightly less enjoyable - whilst I'd already broken my resolution not to eat meat for my month in India, I was very glad to have so far kept to my plan of not drinking alcohol during my time here. After a slightly unnerving nighttime ride on the metro (the men had invaded the ladies carriage!) and a dark walk back to my hotel through Pahar Ganj (Prashant had described the area as 'lawless' but touristy) I made it back to the hotel feeling satisfied with the day's achievements, sleepy and glad to have my wits about me.

Posted by madeinmold 19:18 Archived in India Comments (0)

Agra and the Taj Mahal

After a great last day in Delhi, during which I finally made it to Humayun's tomb (with the help of a friendly rickshaw driver called Puneet) and had a wander around the completely tourist free street market in Karol Bagh, I met up with a tour group to travel to Goa, making various stops along the way. After 4 days in Delhi, the terrified feeling and very much subsided, I'd even started to enjoy the city. I was however still grateful to be travelling with people, particularly for the first attempt at travelling on India's trains.

After dinner together we headed to bed early in preparation for an early start. Our train was at 6am, we were to leave the hotel at 5am and my roommate set her alarm for 4am! I hoped that at least this may finally sort out my jet lag.

Arriving at the train station, it was less chaotic than expected helped by the fact that Zahir our guide had already arranged tickets. It was a 2 hour journey to Agra that passed relatively quickly helped along after sunrise by various entertaining sights along the way - monkeys ran freely across the tracks, an extremely stationary cow stood ignored by passengers on one platform we passed through and small children squatted on railway lines in the distance to do their morning business (I'm not sure why they chose railway tracks as a location - perhaps the thrill of potentially having to leap out of the way of trains? Or to give the tourists something to comment on?).

Zahir warned us that we could be swarmed by beggars, children and offers of rickshaws and taxis upon leaving the station but it was relatively calm. Perhaps a group if 15 foreigners with oversized bags was enough to deter the rickshaw drivers at least. After checking in to the hotel (and drinking a Costa coffee) we headed to the Red Fort with a local guide who gave us an extensive commentary on the Fort and the various people who had lived there including the Emperor who commissioned the Taj Mahal who was later imprisoned there for the final 8 years of his life by his own son. It was also from there that we got our first glimpse of the Taj Mahal towering mysteriously in the hazy distance. I'd assumed the haze would lessen as we left the smog of the capital for a much smaller city however here apparently it was more to do with the changing seasons.

After lunch at a Southern Indian vegetarian restaurant (which I seemed to enjoy more than most) we headed finally to the Taj Mahal. Again warnings from Zahir proved largely unnecessary, we were hassled only by a few photographers. Our foreigners entry fee was 750R (about £8.50) compared with the 20R (about 25pence) for Indian nationals. For his highly inflated price we were privileged to skip the much longer queues suffered by the Indian nationals. The entrance is into a red stone fort and it's not until you've turned a corner and passed through an archway that you catch the first glimpse of the marble building shimmering magically in the distance. I don't know much about Indian history (in fact every time the Mughal dynasty is mentioned I hear Muggle...) but the Taj Mahal, even on a hazy day, is probably the most impressive site I've laid eyes on. We were told a bit about the history of the building and the various rumours surrounding it (e.g. that after completion the emperor ordered that the hands of all the craftsmen be chopped off to prevent them ever creating anything so beautiful again), took the obligatory photographs of the building reflected in the water (which was disappointingly dirty), and unsuccessfully tried to avoid the many camera lenses that came in our direction before making our way inside.

After removing our shoes and again joining the barely there foreigners queue (whilst the Indian nationals queue snaked twice around the building - incidentally the first time I've seen an orderly queue in India) we were herded into the dark interior of the Mausoleum where we jostled a circuit admiring the intricate engravings before emerging again into the fading sunlight.

Sunset is recommended as one of the best times to visit the Taj Mahal however the Mausoleum faces due south and the sun sets behind the mosque to the left. Whilst watching the sun go down, we were both entertained and slightly troubled to watch a seemingly parent-less little boy drop his pants and take a wee on the marble floor in front of us. We walked back towards the entrance/exit where I sat again for a while and concluded that despite the detailing that's only visible close up, from a distance it shimmers mysteriously in the distance almost as if an illusion.

After being 'accidentally' caught in a few more photographs, we made our way back to the bus (motorised vehicles are not allowed close by), back out in the 'real India' where there was a distinct smell of camel shit and children selling Taj Mahal snow globes. I bought a book of postcards to send to my Grandpa (as India doesn't yet seem to have invented the tourist-tat shop) that on closer inspection appear to have been printed in the 80s).

That evening we headed for the group's second evening meal. Whilst it's certainly helpful to have a guide organising your transport and giving suggestions of what to do, our evening meals have so far been slightly disappointing perhaps as it is only touristy restaurants that can accommodate a group of 16? Still I'm grateful that there's been no Delhi Belly to date!

Posted by madeinmold 19:21 Archived in India Comments (0)

Jaipur

Leaving Agra we were to take a 'local bus' for a 6 hour journey to Jaipur. We were all a little skeptical as to what six hours on a local bus would entail. I had visions of being packed amongst goats and chickens with my 20kilo backpack on my lap. The reality was not so bad - we had a seat each, there were no farmyard animals, the bus was mostly full of travellers and there was even a/c (in the form of windows that opened). Not bad as I believe the tickets were under £3 each. It was another early start however I managed to keep my eyes open for a short while. As we beeped our way out of town we passed a 'pond' (stagnant pool of black water and litter) around which several people, both children and adults, were taking a morning dump, some deep in conversation with one another ... Christine likened it to arriving at work and immediately taking a poo next to your colleague... a pretty accurate description I thought. We passed fields of crops with the odd farm worker scattered about, many of them women wearing beautiful saris sitting in the 'India squat' position - perhaps not the most appropriate of outfits for farm work but it certainly made for interesting and colourful watching. After a short while I closed my eyes and attempted to sleep. It was rather challenging as the bus driver loudly honked his horn every thirty seconds or so. That being said, the journey passed relatively quickly and by lunch time we were checking into our next hotel, the Jaipur Inn. This hotel was a dramatic improvement on the last one - the room was large and clean with a big bathroom, a shower that worked, a 15 litre supply of hot water at a time (about enough for a 5 minute low pressure shower), free wifi and a lovely sunny roof terrace.

In the afternoon we took a cycle rickshaw to the old city driven by a guy with thighs about half the diameter of my own, we felt a bit mean when he started standing to cycle until we noticed that that was the norm. We took a brief orientation walk around Jaipur - a city with an estimated population of 6 million. Whilst still pretty chaotic, compared to Delhi it was a breeze. We visited a small temple outside of which 3 men sat 24 hours a day to take turns in continuously chanting. We had a wander around the old city market stalls (again the height of organisation in comparison to Delhi) passing a 4x4 that had got stuck in one of the narrow streets, a man asleep in the centre of a main street, seemingly oblivious to the traffic passing him by and several farm animals tethered at the side of the road. As it got dark we made our way to a rather grand old-school cinema (the type with a curtain and birds in the rafters) to watch the latest Bollywood release 'Jab Tak Hai Jaan' (http://www.firstpost.com/bollywood/movie-review-how-jab-tak-hai-jaan-gets-romance-wrong-523771.html). Tickets, a drink and popcorn came to about £2 and we took our seats amongst both locals and tourists. The film was relatively easy to follow despite not having subtitles and perhaps helped slightly by the fact that Zahid had given us a brief outline of the plot before hand.

For three and a half hours (with a brief interval) we were entertained by bad lip synching, Indian dancing, loud cheers from the audience and some interesting scenes of London (for example Olympic Rings shown on tower bridge in '2004', a tube that terminates at Stanmore pulling into Charring Cross station and a rather round-about on foot journey to Neal's Yard going south across Millennium Bridge and then under Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner. Chelsea's Albert Bridge also seemed to lead directly to Hampstead and the top of Parliament Hill was portrayed as a convenient meeting place...). Whilst thoroughly enjoyable, it seems that Bollywood certainly knows how to drag out the entertainment as only after numerous possible ending points did the film finally draw to a close at about 9.45pm by which time we were hungry and exhausted. We made our way to Moti Mahal restaurant on MI road where, over good conversation, I shovelled down a pretty good Paneer Lababdar.

After dinner, utterly shattered, we made our way outside to the waiting rickshaws. These were quite a step up from the tin cans I'd travelled in in Delhi - Jessica, Ole and I fitted comfortably into one that had a star patterned roof, disco lights and loud music and we chair danced our way back to the hotel, racing the other rickshaws and at one point going the wrong way around a round about (why not take a short cut if yours is the last exit?!)

The next day we didn't start too early (up at 8.30) and the three of us hired an auto-rickshaw for the day (unfortunately not a party rickshaw like we'd had the night before). It was a pretty bumpy ride swerving around several pot holes (more like small craters) and over bumps - after a few minutes I began to wish I was wearing a sports bra! We wove in and out of motor cycles (at least here most people seemed to wear something that vaguely resembled a helmet (at least the adults did whilst children bounced around on the back, heads exposed - mopeds in India are a family vehicle). Ravi drove us to the Amber Fort, stopping briefly at the Water Palace on the way where we were asked by an Indian family if they could photograph us with their children. We passed an elephant on the way, the first one I've seen - I was pretty excited and leant out the back of the rickshaw to attempt a photograph but Ravi laughed at me and said there'd be plenty more of those at the fort. Once the fort came into view he pulled up so that we could take photographs. After a couple of attempts on various cameras we got at least one passable one (initially he held my camera upside down, on Jessica's he managed to snap just our legs and on Ole's the fort was in perfect focus whilst we stood blurry in front of it.

Arriving at the fort, we had the option of walking to the top, taking a jeep or riding an elephant. We chose to walk (about a 10 minute climb), grateful for the exercise and skilfully dodging the elephant shit. Whilst I'd like to take an elephant ride at some point, the elephants we passed on our way up looked pretty sad, their 'drivers' sat atop their beefy necks seemingly kicking them behind the ears for control. We bought a combined ticket for the fort and some other attractions we'd visit later and climbed up to the main entrance. Inside there were not many explanations of what we were looking at but there were some great views of the surrounding hills and other forts. We looked down over the saffron garden before following a sign (one of the only signs) marked 'latrines'. As we entered, the guard told us that this was the "kings toilet, must not use". I laughed and assured him that we wouldn't, assuming he was joking.the smell inside however told us that he was not, this was indeed a serious warning. After later visiting the public hole in the ground outside, I started to wish that I'd gone in the kings toilet too! We spent a while longer admiring the architecture, patterns and engravings before leaving. On the way out we stopped for a coffee admiring the view. It was nice to be able to sit somewhere calm and enjoy a drink as India so far seems to have a distinct lack of cafe culture, the locals instead preferring to meet and sit at the side of the road breathing in the pollution.

After the fort we found Ravi (who'd kindly waited over 2 hours for us instead of the promised one) headed back into town. Deciding against the City Palace museum, we visited instead the observatory, Jantar Mantar, home to the worlds largest sundial, where we looked at several astrological tools with little idea as to what they were and barely understanding the technical language of the explanations. Next we sought out the beautiful Hawa Mahal, or the Palace of Winds, a facade of a palace with a view over one of the main squares built for the ladies of the court so that they could observe the goings on below without being seen. It took us a while to find and Ravi pointed us in the vague direction so we could make our way through the maze of passages on foot. One in particular stood out, that I have henceforth named Shit Alley - a narrow rather smelly passage way with small suspiciously brown hand prints along the walls that led out to the main market place.

After Hawa Mahal it was time for lunch. En route I was pleased to find a shop selling decent single postcards. I bought several including one of Pushkar (our next destination - in case I was unable to find one there) and another of the Taj Mahal as I'd seemed to have mislaid the stamped one I'd written for my grandpa before managing to find a postbox to put it in. Our choice of lunch restaurant was called LMB, a vegetarian restaurant also famous for its sweets, recommended by both Zahid and Lonely Planet India. It seemed popular as there was a 15 minute wait for a table and it was busy with locals. During our wait we popped out for a spot of shopping. Both Jessica and I bought some more Aladdin pants (at £1.50 a pair (after a spot of determined haggling) you can't have too many!) and Ole enjoyed shopping with girls as he was left unhassled.

Lunch lived up to expectations, I ate a Mali Kofta (mashed potato dumplings in a spicy yellow sauce). At 3.30, full to the brim, we headed back out to Ravi and his rickshaw to visit the final destination of the day - the monkey temple. It wasn't as far as we'd expected and there were certainly a lot of monkeys around. It was another climb to the top and we passed several animals en route not just monkeys but goats and pigs as well - the vast majority of them seemingly rather frisky. A brief goat courtship ritual (from meeting to mating via a bit of kissing in under 30 seconds) led to some giggles (not immature in the slightest - animal sex is always funny) and one monkey inspecting another's bum also quickly turned into something more (they cuddled afterwards which I thought was sweet). The temple offered a great view over the city - walking around it had been hard to grasp how 6 million people lived here, even in cramped conditions but from above we saw that the city spread out as far as the hills in the distance, the famous 'pink city' distinctly visible at its centre. On the way back down I threw a rather squishy banana that I'd had left over from breakfast in the direction of one of the monkeys (no 'do not feed the animals' signs here) and he peeled it swiftly and efficiently. Then it was back to Ravi's rickshaw and the hotel - we successfully turned down his offers to take us to his friends' shops. Dinner consisted of a vegetarian thali (I had aloo gobi, daal, something yummy and mushroom-y and too much chapati and then it was time for bed. Next stop Pushkar.

Posted by madeinmold 19:24 Archived in India Comments (0)

Pushkar

The bus journey to Pushkar was a manageable 4 hours, again on a local bus. It was a twenty-five seater and unfortunately there wasn't enough room for all the bags in the trunk of the bus - the rest went on the roof. This seemed a dodgy strategy given the holey-ness of India's roads and I was glad that mine had been at the front of the queue. Boarding the bus we found the seats wrapped in plastic sheeting and we were offered sweets apparently in celebration of the bus's inaugural journey..... The seats may have been newly cleaned by the rest of the bus was a bit shabby and this time there was no a/c - our window was jammed shut (this actually came in handy when some street sellers attempted to pry open the windows later on and offer us bread and water bottles) This bus had certainly had previous outings. Still it was nice to know the seat was clean. And we needn't have worried so much about the luggage either, there seemed to be far less holes in the road - it was almost a dual carriage way by UK standards and the were times when we must have reached a good 50mph. Better quality roads did not however prevent an eventful journey. After reading for a while (currently reading Getting Stoned with Savages - a book about life in the South Pacific), I began to nod off but was opened my eyes as I felt the bus go into an emergency stop (or what I guess was an attempt at an emergency stop with Indian brakes) as we headed towards a petrol lorry that was mid U-turn. These braking turned out to be relatively frequent and I soon decided it better to just keep my eyes shut!

After a couple of hours we stopped at the midway point to use the facilities. The facilities turned out to be holes in the ground swarming with flies so instead, along with a German lady, I headed into the buses figuring that was at least a less smelly option. We squatted to pee, chatting as we did so having seemingly adjusted to the Indian way of going to the bathroom. Waiting to board the bus again several locals with camera phones did a bad job of sneakily taking pictures of us on their camera phones and for once I didn't mind, I was just grateful they hadn't snapped me peeing!

The rest of the journey passed without incident and we arrived at our hotel - Hotel New Park. It was nice enough with some attractive gardens, a restaurant serving good Daal and even had a chilly little swimming pool although the hot water situation would later prove slightly problematic.

After lunch we headed on foot into town. Pushkar is a village and it was nice to be somewhere smaller for a change and be able to walk the whole place without needing a rickshaw. En route we passed a man with a long metal rod who seemed to be plying up bits of road - perhaps that goes some way to explaining the pot holes? Pushkar is a small place but popular with visitors as it has a famous temple and a holy lake. As its a holy place it's also totally vegetarian (which also means no eggs in India) and alcohol free - fortunately both of these suited my current lifestyle choices just fine. We were also arriving at the busiest time of year - the annual cattle market around which has grown a huge yearly festival known as the Camel Fair.

First stop was at the lake where both locals and visitors alike bathe in the holy waters. To me they looked pretty Thames-coloured so I decided to steer well clear. With a local priest we participated in a 'thread ceremony' attempting to repeat Hindi chants after him and throwing petals, rice and sugar into the water. The ceremony supposedly brings good karma to you and your family and a thread is tied around your wrist to indicate that you've participated.

The view across the lake was beautiful in spite of the murky waters - we could see the whole of the town with its many many temples and some hills in the distance. After the ceremony we walked towards the market passing several monkeys along the way - in contrast to those in Jaipur, these ones had black faces whilst the ones we'd seen to date had had red faces and bums. Heading into the main bazaar we observed that Pushkar had the highest concentration of foreign tourists we'd encountered to date and the market stalls reflected that. Whilst those in Jaipur had stocked everything you could require for life at home (kitchenware, toiletries, clothing,spices, linen, electronics etc), the ones in Pushkar seemed much more geared around tourist shopping - plenty of scarves, hippy clothing and handicrafts. Pushkar is only as small town and we were pleasantly surprised to discover that this meant there were very few rickshaws around and consequently very little beeping. It was a pleasant break for the ears and whilst the streets were still heaving with visitors to the camel fair, it was nice to have a rest from the constant threat of being hit by a moving vehicle.

The sun was going down as we made our way towards the centre of the festivities, the cattle market and a fun fair. As we entered the cattle market it was like a scene from Arabian Nights - across the dusty (and dusky) desert landscape there were hundreds upon hundreds of tethered horses and camels as far as the eye could see. Colourfully decorated camels pulled large canopied carts behind them as their owners offered camel-taxi rides and the buyers and sellers who apparently travel from all around the country were settling down to cook their evening meals on camp fires outside of their makeshift accommodations.

Next stop was the 'stadium' (a term used very loosely) which was where the main entertainment of the festival took place. The schedule included moustache competitions (with contestants displaying far more impressive growth than the average Movember participant), both horse and camel races as well as 'dance competitions' for both animals, temple dancing, camel decoration contests, wrestling and much more. We were there however for the Indian Bride Competition in which three members of our group were participating. They'd volunteered to be dressed up as Indian brides along with several other foreign tourists in what was essentially a beauty pageant for grown ups. I'd declined, not wanting to risk getting accidentally married off at the end of the contest.

We sat on big sheets on the ground as rehearsals finished and the event began at 19.00 Indian time (so 19.45). In a classic demonstration of lack of organisational abilities, the 'brides' were directed around the stage, instructed to smile and when to stand still over loud speaker as the 'hostess' shouted loudly at the judges "this is blah blah blah from France and so and so from Israel'. Just like the Bollywood film (but far less entertainingly) things dragged on a little too long. It got surprisingly cold, we got progressively more hungry and I felt sorry for the girls participating. Finally it drew to a close with a Spanish girl winning a trophy and we were free to leave the shambles and head finally for some food - lemon iced tea, mushroom curry and garlic naan. There was a selection of nice looking rooftop restaurants and (booze-free) bars - I imagine outside of camel-fair-season it would be a calm, chilled out, hippyish place to hang out for a couple of days enjoying the sunshine.

The next day, we were supposed to do a sunrise trek to one of the temples outside the town up at the top of a rather steep looking hill. Unfortunately the priest advised against it for the reason that, due to the in-town-alcohol-ban, many of the visiting traders tended to head up in that direction to drink all night and it wouldn't be safe for western women to venture there in the dark. Whilst grateful to not risk encountering inebriated village farmers and cattle traders, it was disappointing not to experience the view. Instead, having decided that the menu looked good, we headed back to the same restaurant as the previous night for breakfast. En route we passed the preparations for the first of the day's activities, a religious parade through the village - there were carousels pulled by camels, brightly dressed women and costumed children all milling around looking rather bored. We popped into the Sikh temple that, to my inexpert temple-eye looked pretty similar to the Hindu temples we'd visited already with the exception that, as well as removing your shoes, it was also required to cover your head. A lack of scarves amongst the group led to hoods on hoodies being pulled up and a rather dodgy looking pack of foreigners entering the temple.

Breakfast turned out to be a drawn out and rather shambolic if amusing affair with several of the wrong dishes arriving and all at different times, drinks arriving well after food and the waiter getting progressively more pissed off at us as we continued to call him on his mistakes. Half way through our meal the priest turned up and left his 8 year old son with us. We'd arranged with him that the girls would have henna tattoos done by his wife that morning and, as he was busy, his son would take us to their house after we'd finished eating. Eventually, once everyone's food (or at least a vague attempt at their order) had finally arrived, we followed the boy to his house where we met the priests wife. Their house consisted of just three rooms - the downstairs living area, painted a bright purple, had a single-bed sized cushioned seat that doubled as a bed for the children, a small stove and a couple of cupboards. Off it was a small bathroom - no shower but two taps and a large bucket and a small jug (just as I'd been getting use do using in the hotels thanks to crappy pressure and limited hot water) and the cleanest hole in the ground toilet I'd encountered so far on the trip. The seven of us girls were ushered up to the one upstairs room while the boys left to wander around town. The room was bright but small with just one wardrobe, some family photos and a double bed. That four people could live in a space smaller than id previously had for just myself (with around one tenth of the storage space between them) was pretty impressive - I'd imagine I have more clothes in my backpack than this woman owned which made all my other possessions stored at home seem rather indulgent and a little ridiculous. We arranged ourselves across the bed and the floor while the priest's wife prepared us some very sweet chai before beginning our henna. She spoke extremely limited broken English so there wasn't much conversation with her and she spend a good fifteen minutes each painting patterns on various hands and feet. After she'd finished and we'd waited for it to dry she asked for 300 rupees each - this was almost double what we'd been told it would cost but it was an interesting experience, if just seeing inside a local home, and I wasn't about to haggle with the wife of a priest. The henna had taken longer than expected and we hurried back as the next thing we'd planned was a camel safari out to the desert. As we were running late, lunch consisted of a bottle of Limca and 4 Oreo cookies.

Back at the hotel we changed into traditional nomadic tribes' outfits in preparation for our camel ride - garishly printed long skirts, tops and shawls for the women and white pants and shirts topped with a turban for the men. Fourteen colourfully decorated camels were lined up (sitting-down lined up?) outside the hotel and, after a demonstration as to how to get on one, we each picked a camel, each one led by a 'camel-driver'. I tried to get one that looked sturdy and placid - his name was Romeo. Zahid warned us to ensure we took our feet of the 'stirrups' (loops of rope hanging from the saddle pad) as soon as the camel stopped as they liked to role in the sand. Once on board I realised it was pretty uncomfortable having bare feet on rope so I chose to forgo the stirrups all together and attempt to adopt best horse-riding practice (whilst tightly gripping the front of the saddle!). I kept my heels down, sat up tall and tried very hard not to do anything that might make the camel speed up as we set off in a procession along the road towards the desert.

Their walk was rather uncomfortable and I didn't feel too happy perched about 8 foot in the air on a wobbly cushion. We were falling behind the group and the guy leading my camel tugged at the reins and clucked his tongue in an effort the speed him up. I held my breath as he broke into a camel equivalent of a trot but it was actually a much comfier gait than its walk as well as being easier to sit than a horses trot - unlike a horse which moves its feet in diagonal pairs a camel moves first both left feet then both right feet. I stretched my legs down careful not to kick him and grateful for all those years spent horse riding. Once on the sand it became comfier still as the camel's padded feet were put to good use.

As we left the town towards the desert the camels were brought to a halt alongside a small bridge and the 'drivers' jumped up on to the railings. It soon became evident that they planned on hopping up behind us at this point and Romeo did not seem keen and kept turning away from the bridge. Neither was I, certain that they'd have greater control over the camel from the ground than they would sat behind with the reins looped around us. Eventually all the 'drivers' were on board with the exception of mine (I've forgotten his name so will henceforth call him Joe) - Romeo was still protesting and I started to freak out a little - I've heard camels can run pretty fast and even with my feet out of the stirrups in anticipation, I didn't fancy having to leap from a bolting camel whilst wearing traditional dress (including a long skirt) over my own clothes. Joe geared himself up to leap about three feet through the air whilst I made frightened whimpering noises. The first time he missed but realigned and tried again - as he pulled himself up I felt the 'saddle' I felt it slip slowly sideways but once on board he righted it and we set off at a fast trot to catch the group.

It quickly became enjoyable and as he clucked at the camel to speed it up I felt my legs automatically go to kick him on - I don't even know if that's how one makes a camel go faster. Looking at the other camel drivers I was pleased with my selection - Ole's was just fourteen and Cara's was considerably younger - maybe ten? - and kept turning round hanging off the back to chat to the others.

Along the way we passed several homes built from branches where whole families appeared to live in one room. We were passed several pick up trucks packed with locals travelling back to the villages surrounding Pushkar all of whom waved at us probably amused by the foreigners in silly outfits. As we left the track, Joe pointed out several antelope grazing - a new animal to add to the list - and some men shepherding goats. After an hour or so on camelback we seemed to reach our destination although there was no sign of Zahid and the 'priest' (I was beginning to question his authenticity as a priest as he seemed to act more as local guide and activity arranger) who were supposed to meet us there. We dismounted the camels getting quickly out of the way as some of the, began to role in the sand. After a few photographs the men mounted the camels and trotted off into the desert quickly disappearing from view - we sat and waited and after ten minuets or so Zahid and the priest arrived on a motorbike.

First we attempted to play cricket using a bat, a red tennis ball and a small broken table as a wicket. The Australians and the Indians were pretty good as was one girl from Hong Kong. I tried batting and managed to hit it (and by hit I mean get the bat to make contact with the ball) only once. Then I gave up and sat instead with the rest of the girls not playing to watch the sunset.

It was easily the most impressive sunset I have ever seen. As the sky turned from a bring blue to pinky orange and the sun passed down behind a small sliver of cloud there were actual rays visible like in a child's drawing. Through my slightly orange tinted fake RayBs it looked even better and I experimented with taking a photo with my iPhone through the lens of my glasses - it worked pretty well.

Once the sun was down the next game on the list was an Indian came called Kabati. Played by two teams on a volleyball sized pitch, Kabati is essentially a combination of tag and wrestling. A member of one team has to venture to the other side of the pitch and touch a line through the middle of it and then back to their original side all the while repeating the word Kabati. Once the line has been touched the other team's goal is to prevent them from getting back to their home side in any way possible - usually a pile on. If the attacker stops saying the word Kabati that means they surrender. If they don't make it back they're out and if they do then anyone of the other team they touched is out. It's a pretty rough game especially when played barefoot on a thorny desert landscape.

After a coupe of rounds we were all pretty knackered. The priest had arranged for us to watch some of the nomadic tribes people playing music and dancing. The music was tinny and hard on the ears but the young girls dancing was impressive - mostly I wondered how they managed to keep their sequined outfits clean in such a dusty place. Apparently these communities were formerly mostly snake charmers and made their money that way until the Indian government outlawed snake charming (although there is unfortunately still the odd one around - I'm not so interested in snake-rights, more terrified of angry serpents that've been cooped up,in small baskets). Now they make their money by performing traditional dances and music. After the entertainment we were served traditional food that these communities would cook for themselves in the desert on dung fires - ours too was cooked on such a fire. It was hot through and seemed safe enough to eat - it was mostly rice, chapati, cooked vegetables and daal, bland but edible. Then a bumpy jeep ride back to the hotel. Next stop Udaipur.

Posted by madeinmold 19:25 Archived in India Comments (1)

Udaipur

We left Pushkar in jeeps (bags piled on the roof) for the train station in Ajmer. Leaving the hotel, the town was just waking up and people wandered slowly along the streets carrying water and going about their morning business. The drive to Ajmer was just 11k and the view was beautiful - as we drove over the hills a shimmering morning mist hung in the valley and as we entered the town, the soundtrack of India (the incessant honking of various horns) began again, startlingly obvious after the lack of vehicles in Pushkar. We also passed a man walking stark naked down the street which was pretty bizarre, made more so by the fact that he was walking with a fully clothed companion who seemed to think nothing odd of the fact that his friend had seemingly forgotten to get dressed.

At the station, as many people had missed breakfast, we bought snacks at the platform where a cup of chai cost just three rupees (about 3pence) and a small packet of biscuits cost just 10rupees. We used the 'upper class ladies washroom', a smelly unlit hole in the ground and as we passed the sign fornthe 'complaint book' on the platform I refrained from writing a snooty message regarding their lack of toilet roll and lockable doors. Our journey to Udaipur was to take about 5 hours and we were travelling 'with the locals'. We stood in the correct position on the platform and when the train arrived there was a scrabble to get inside - the train tends to stop at each station for just two minutes and, carrying 20kilos of backpack, I didn't fancy running after it. I soon realised that bumping into people was not something to apologise for but rather the thing to do in order to ensure the train didn't leave without you. Any apologies from my side were not to be returned. The carriage seated around 100 people sat on benches either side of the aisle arranged into clusters of 6. The ceiling was covered with fans and the windows opened fully ensuring a good breeze - if anything it was a little cold. We sat six of us squished onto a bench and I was pleased to be both by the window and facing forwards. Indian trains it seems don't close their doors 30 seconds before departure - they don't close their doors at all and later in the journey I stood at the door of the train watching the Rajasthan countryside pass by. When we stopped at a red signal to wait for another train to pass, several people got out to stretch their legs/see what was going on. The journey wasn't as bad as I'd expected but the benches were extremely uncomfortable and I soon had a numb bum and stiff legs from being unable to stretch out. For a shorter journey however, it would have been perfectly fine. And at a fraction of the price of my regular London to Chester train, Virgin trains could learn a lesson or too from Indian rail (apparently the country's largest employer).

Arriving in Udaipur (pleasingly earlier than expected) we were all glad to get off the hard benches and stretch. Then it was back to travelling by auto-rickshaw again to the hotel where we were greeted with a glass of mango juice and were pleased to see both a small swimming pool outside and a coffee shop opposite.

I'd been told by a friend that Udaipur was his favourite place in India and, not knowing much about the place, I was keen to see what it had to offer. We took a cable car to the top of a hill for sunset from where we could see the whole town arranged around a lake and surrounded by mountains. It was particularly beautiful lit up once the sun had disappeared and the city lot up for the night. In the centre of the lake, two water palaces (now hotels) looked amazing. For dinner we headed to a rooftop restaurant at a hotel overlooking the lake (Lake P.... hotel) where they had a good selection of both Rajasthani and Indian food as well as some attempts at western food which I steered well clear of choosing instead a sweet corn and spinach curry which was probably the best meal I'd had so far in India and I was enjoying the choice of vegetable vegetarian options (as opposed to paneer). It was also great to be in a restaurant where all of our meals arrived at the same time - we'd had quite a few where one person had finished by the time the last person was served. They also kept good track of who'd order what. I was surprised to see the price of wine on the menu, - about £5 for a half bottle - seemingly the only thing that costs more in India than England despite them making some local wine that I'd heard good things about. Yet further encouragement to stay off the booze in India! The view from the restaurant was incredible and, across the lake, we watched some big Muslim festival that was going on that day too.

Udaipur, we'd discover had that cafe culture that had so far been lacking. There were numerous rooftop bars around town, great for people watching. Our hotel also had a rooftop with a great view and at 8am the next morning I could be found, headphones in, with my skipping rope on the roof circuit training in the sunshine and admiring the view. After a while one of the hotel staff appeared and stared at me for a while - I took out ,y headphones and asked if he was okay. He said yes he was fine and carried on staring for a while longer before leaving. It felt good to do some proper exercise finally, even with an audience. Thankfully the hotel also had a powerful shower with a seemingly unlimited supply of hot water. Whilst I'd become pretty adept at 'showering' using a bucket and jug, it was nice to able to just stand under hot water for a change.

Attempting breakfast, I headed to the coffee shop opposite the hotel. The previous day they'd had no ice for cold coffee, this morning they had no coffee at all so I asked for orange juice instead and was given a warm sugary bottle of a of something attempting to be fanta. First stop of the day sightseeing-wise was a miniature painting class where they demonstrated the technique on our finger nails - one of the boys had an image for the karma sutra painted on his thumb nail, I had a really detailed peacock painted on mine. In the late morning nine of us attempted an Indian cookery class held on a rooftop with a view of the City Palace. Around one (rather filthy looking) stove, the nine of us learned to make chai, samosas, palak paneer, daal and chapatis (although my chapati was shaped more like India than a perfect circle) before eating our creations for lunch.

Whilst so far I'd been successful at avoiding Delhi belly, I was unfortunately starting to feel a tickle at the back of my throat that seemed to be more than just a side effect of too much pollution inhalation. The stuffy nose and incessant sneezing confirmed that I was coming down with a cold. Perhaps my body was aware of the fact that it was November but hadn't quite cottoned on to my geographic location. Either way, whilst I was prepared medically for all sorts of gastric problems, headaches, bites and allergies, I'd unfortunately not packed anything for a common cold or sore throat. I did find however that by just pointing to my throat in a cafe, I'd be brought a soothing concoction of ginger, lemon and honey tea which provided temporary relief.

After an afternoon wandering round the City Palace and seeking out cafes with working free wifi, the evening's entertainment was a Rajasthani cultural show. Initially it consisted of tinny drums, dodgy singing, some poor dancing (including a drunken looking fat woman who kept bumping into things) but the final act was a old woman balancing 11 water pots on her head whilst dancing for a good five minutes which was really impressive. Dinner that night was at an open air, canopied restaurant where I ate a vegetarian version of Laal Mas - a Rajasthani speciality - followed by hookah pipes.

Some then went on for an all night party on the roof top - I went to bed and woke up the next morning feeling pretty refreshed and enjoyed the luxury of another hot shower. I headed to the coffee shop across the road to see if they indeed had any coffee and was in luck. Sitting outside with my cappuccino, Annie - an older german woman also travelling with us - greeted me "good morning Mandy" - I'm not quite sure why she thought I was called Mandy but I chose not to correct her. Ole joined us and, as we discussed Udaipur, he compared it to a Greek island - I'm not sure I quite agree but with its calm lake side setting and many rooftops I can see where he's coming from (sort of).

We headed towards the town for a boat ride which afforded us some beautiful views of the city palace, the surrounding temple-topped hills/mountains and the two lake hotels. The view from the lake was essentially all the good parts of Udaipur without the grime and pollution. We saw several people washing in the lake - the women really scrubbed the clothes with soap before dunking them back in the dirty water to rinse whilst old men and young boys in their underpants scrubbed themselves 'clean'. After the boat ride we haggled for a rickshaw to take us into town for breakfast and free wifi. I ordered poached eggs on toast and when fried eggs on soggy bread appeared I still happily ate a meal that at home I'd have sent back immediately - funny how standards change. We had a lazy day getting better henna done (for much less than the priests wife had charged us) by a cheery guy in an art shop. Whilst the other girls got traditional pretty patterns, I asked for a camel, the Hindu symbol of love (because if you can love camel you can love anyone). I also got him to try out a tattoo I've always wanted just to see what it looked like temporarily - unfortunately he struggled with roman letters and ended up spelling it wrong but at least the camel was pretty cool. After a brief walk around the market, Maria and I chose another rooftop bar to enjoy the last of the day's sunshine. The waiter decided to test out some English phrases that he'd learnt ... 'Does your leg Hurt' .... 'What?'.... 'Because you fall from heaven?' ... and others of similar quality. When Oli and Christine joined us we were treated to a similar demonstration of his German skills. I pointed at my throat and asked for something good - he asked if i drank alcohol and offered to make me a hot rum with lemon and ginger. I declined and opted for a tea. When we commented on how cheap alcohol was in stores here (90 rupees for a small bottle of rum) he said it was because 'Indian people not like Europe, they drink only for the drunk, not for the fun'. On the rickshaw ride back, as Christine popped into the pharmacy, the driver asked Oli if 'German people smoke joint'. Oli assured him that he didn't touch the stuff and I asked if Indian people 'smoked a lot joint'. He opened his palm and said 'in my hand I have very good hash'.

In the evening Zahid took us to eat street food - most of us had so far been too worried about Delhi belly to try any although we were getting more adventurous as time went on. We took rickshaws to an area outside of town where next to the lake, on a busy road were several stalls that looked more fast-foodesque than street food per-say but it was on the side of a street. We shared some momos (steamed dumplings), I order a Bombay Masala Pav (which was essentially a mixed-veg curry sandwich) and we couldn't not order the hot chocolate chilli pizza. It was essentially a small greasy pizza with Hershey's chocolate sauce on top - the general consensus was that it was surprisingly good but, having tried it, there would never be the need to order it again. We ended the meal with a great cup of frothy coffee served in a mud-clay cup. The rickshaw ride back was in another party-rickshaw playing Justin Bieber and, as we raced the others, encouraging him to go faster and attempting to high five the others as we passed by, we commented on how immune we'd become to the driving. We'd asked Zahid if driving tests existed in India and if so what they consisted of (here's the horn, you're ready to go?) - apparently they do and are relatively similar to the rest of the world (I'd hoped they involved some sort of obstacle course around donkeys, taxis and foreigners) but many people bribe various people for one.

Later in the evening I temporarily broke my no-alcohol rule drinking a rum and coke on the rooftop with everyone else - it was our last night in Udaipur before the journey to Ranakpur. A few of us stayed there drinking a bit and chatting until about 1am when it got cold.

Posted by madeinmold 19:27 Archived in India Comments (0)

Ranakpur

We met at 10am to journey to the hillside village of Ranakpur, home to a famous Jain temple, and 75k way from Udaipur. I'd started taking my malaria pills in preparation for Goa and the rest of the trip, advised by the nurse not to lie down after taking them and to take them with food. I gulped one down with a cup of coffee and about 20 minutes later began to feel very sick. Initially I attributed it to drinking the night before (although if two rum & coke were now going to make me sick the next day I was in trouble!). Then I panicked that got food poisoning and began to dread the drive ahead. After being sick however, I felt much much better and attributed it to doxycycline on an empty stomach. It did however have the advantage of earning me the front seat in one of the jeeps for the drive to Ranakpur.

We were all pleased to be taking jeeps instead of the bus - that the local bus takes 3 hours to drive 75 kilometres should give some indication the the quality of roads we were about to endure. Winding through the city traffic, we were soon on quieter and less polluted roads, the breeze through the open windows and back making it almost chilly inside. Although we weren't travelling anything like quickly, we still had to slow down for the occasional reversed speed bump (hole across the road) and the cows. I'd initially been intrigued to see the first cow in Delhi but once leaving the big city, cows roamed freely everywhere. In Jaipur there was a cattle grid at the entrance to our hotel to stop them coming into the garden. We'd asked Zahid previously about the cows wandering the streets and he'd explained that whilst many Indian families would own a younger cow for milk, once the cow got old and was no longer useful to them, being a holy animal, they'd 'set it free' (to risk death by traffic and eat garbage at the roadside!). Apparently there are even some 'old-cows homes' but unfortunately there are too many cows for the homes to cope with so the remaining holy animals are free to do as they please in Indians towns and cities.

Several times a cow meandered slowly across the road in front of us and at one point we were caught up in a veritable heard being shooed along by a farmer - these must have been young useful cows! As we left the city there were also several cows that had been decorated, some with their horns painted multicolours.

It was a beautiful drive into the countryside and I had a great view from my seat. We drove through some tiny 'villages' where housing consisted of tarpaulin arranged over sticks and women sold fresh vegetables at the side of the road. We passed one woman multitasking carrying a baby whilst hearing goats and, when we came onto a better road, the pot holes disappeared and were able to pick up the speed slightly (75kmph down hill), there were women in saris making repairs to the fencing at the side of the road. We passed a small lorry driving the wrong way down the dual carriage way and I was pleased to have a seatbelt on.

Our driver seemed to know a lot of people and frequently waved at both drivers and pedestrians as we passed by. When we stopped at a toll booth, he waved at a guy who came over and hopped into the front of the seat. The driver schooched over towards me so that the gear stick was now between his knees and the new arrival took over the driving for a while before getting out again at a village about 40k further on.

Along the way, back on the minor roads again, all three jeeps stopped at the side of a road in the middle of nowhere and Zahid indicated for unto get out and look. There in the tree tops, in broad daylight (and 30+ degree heat) hung hundreds and hundreds of bats. There were three trees full of them and the other trees were all bat-free. There was no obvious reason for their tree selection as the trees around were all the same type. Driving through the villages several round-shaped 'dung circles' were drying in the sun to be used later as fuel. We stopped again a little further along at a well where two bulls were being used to turn a mechanism designed to get water from the well out into the surrounding fields. The bulls walked tight circles turning a horizontal wheel which in turn turned a vertical wheel of scoops which then deposited the water into a channel from where it would run towards the surrounding farmland. There were also several cows drinking from the channel and the water in the well was a beautiful clear blue colour with some tiny fish swimming in it.

Shortly afterwards, as the scenery became more beautiful still we arrived at our hotel Aranyawas - it was a beautiful series of spacious rooms arranged as cottages on a small hillside with great views and a lovely, if freezing, swimming pool. The presence of both duvets and blankets on the beds indicated that it would get pretty chilly later on. After a decent thali lunch, half of the group got back in the jeeps to drive to a fort 50k away. The rest of us decided to enjoy the resort itself and the scenery. Having visited three forts already in the last week or so, I decided to head to the pool for a spot of very peaceful sunbathing interrupted only by occasional bird squawking. At a good 28 degrees, it was beautiful temperature and I broke out the suncream for the first time.

The temperature dropped dramatically as soon as the sunset and so for the first time on the trip so far I wore thick socks, trainers and proper trousers in the evening. The hotel was completely isolated and had no tv or wifi so after an overpriced buffet meal in the hotel's restaurant we sat around a bonfire whilst Zahid played at being DJ.

In the morning the owner of the hotel had offered to lead a walk out into the jungle at 8am so I set my alarm for 7.30 and was therefore surprised to wake up at 8.03. I threw on clothes and ran to the meeting point, there by 8.06 but unfortunately they had already left so instead I took my skipping rope to the poolside. There was also a conveniently located pyramid of stairs by the pool which made for some interesting training too. There was a great view and no one around except monkeys. I was sad to miss the walk and even sadder when I returned sweaty to the room to find there was no hot water as Jessica had just showered. Sitting outside and feeling slightly annoyed, I accidentally dropped my iPad which cracked the screen. All in all I wasn't having a very good morning. After breakfast we lay by the pool, entertained by the monkeys swinging through the trees and the little ones playing games (running up to the top branch, swinging down and then free-falling into a pile of leaves below. In the afternoon we headed to the famous 15th century marble temple nearby, the Chaumukha Mandir. A Jain temple, it consisted of 1444 individually engraved pillars and 80 domes. Having seen quite a few temples already, this was the most impressive yet with views of the surrounding countryside.

Posted by madeinmold 19:28 Archived in India Comments (1)

Night train and Mumbai

sunny 34 °C

We arrived at Falma station a good 80minutes before our train was due to leave and, unable to see anywhere selling hot food, we stocked up on snacks - that night's dinner consisted of chai, fruit, crisps and Oreo cookies. The journey to Mumbai would take us 13 hours arriving at 8.30ish the following morning. We were in the three tier sleeper carriage - beds were arranged along a corridor, two sets of three tier bunks faced each other perpendicular to the corridor and then there were two bunks along the corridor. I had the middle tier and, once the bed was set up, there wasn't enough head room to sit up straight. Staff waked up and down the corridors for the first few hours of the journey selling chai, crisps and even train-thali (packed into tiny bags and sold with a tray to eat from) which seemed a relatively impractical food for a wobbling, moving vehicle but Jenny, Zahid and Ole seemed it enjoy it. For 25rupees each we were given two sheets and a flimsy little pillow and, after a visit to the shaking, smelly squat toilet, we settled down for the night. I actually slept surprisingly well and the rocking motion of the train was quite soothing. I woke up only once in the night when the Indian family, several members of whom were sleeping on the bunk below me, got off at about 5am.

At 7.30 I woke up to discover that the sun had come up and we seemed to be passing through the outskirts of the city. Despite the early hour there were several people moving around. All along the train line for miles we passed tiny slum houses, some more permanent looking than others, packed tightly together with tarpaulin across the roofs.

From what I'd been told, I was expecting Mumbai to be somewhat like Delhi on crack. Driving to the hotel however, I noticed a distinct lack of beeping, the cars seemed newer and the air cleaner. Whilst Delhi was a city to be endured, survived and perhaps eventually conquered, maybe Mumbai was somewhere to actually enjoy?

Our hotel was small and pokey but seemed initially okay (there was warm water and a fan), the main downside being that I was still sharing a room with Jessica who, even with my most tolerant head on, I was beginning to find challenging.

After freshening up we headed in taxis into town. There was a distinct lack of rickshaws in Mumbai but several uniform taxis, black with yellow roofs and Zahid told us that they all used meters. We drove along Marine Drive, a road that follows the beach, a bit like Mumbai's answer to Ocean Drive but with faster moving traffic, and headed to the Gateway of India and the port. My expectations of Mumbai continued to be proven wrong - not only were there continuos, unbroken pavements but people were actually using them to walk on as opposed for littering and pissing, I could count the number of cows we saw on just one hand, I enjoyed breathing without feeling like I wanted a SARS mask and there were fewer piles of rubbish on the street. The Gateway of India, a large archway by the waters edge built to commemorate the visit of George V, was teeming with tourists, photographers and giant balloon sellers. It's opposite the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, one of the sites of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. We ate lunch nearby on a touristy street lined with stalls selling pashminas and jewellery at a place called Cafe Mondegar - it was the least Indian place we'd been so far, sort of like a German themed diner - they did a pretty good veggie burger though and it was cheap. After lunch we wasted a lot of time trying to get a taxi to take us around the major sights. For some reason we'd only had one day (actually two half days) scheduled in Mumbai so there was a lot to cram in. I'd suggested walking - there were pavements after all - but Mumbai is pretty big and spread out. It was also 34 degrees.

Eventually, after much arguing from Zahid, we managed to get two cabs for the afternoon. Neither driver spoke English so Zahid, who wasn't joining us, explained to them in Hindi all the places we wanted to go and, when we got to each stop we held up fingers to indicate how long we wanted him to wait for us. First stop was Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the gothic Victoria train station - we held up 5 fingers and took a few pictures before getting back in. Next stop was the Crawford market, which was difficult to enjoy as we were followed round by a guy wanting to 'guide' us, and we quickly moved onto Chowptty Beach. Apparently chowpatty means beach in Hindi so it's called beach beach. We walked towards the water which was disappointingly but unsurprisingly dirty with a lot of rubbish in the water. Apparently it's a popular place at dusk, perhaps because the dark hides the dirt. Although even the locals seemed to be mostly avoiding the water, I dipped my feet in anyway having at this point not read the Lonely Planet's description of the water as 'toxic'. After a couple more stops, the last destination was Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat, Mumbai's open air manual launderette - over 1000 troughs of water where hundreds of people were beating the dirt out of clothes with thousands of garments hung out to dry. Apparently if you send your laundry to be done in Mumbai, it would most likely go to the dhobi ghat - I was glad I'd become practiced at washing by clothes with shampoo in a bucket in the shower.

Back at the hotel we were told that there would be no hot water until 6pm but when I made a fuss, two buckets of hot water were brought to our room. On hands and knees I washed my hair under the cold tap below the shower before using the jug to pour hot water over my body. Having become accustomed to washing inventively, it was actually a pretty good 'shower' and I was able to go out for the evening feeling clean and refreshed after the sticky city heat. I was excited about the evening's choice of restaurant - we were going to Leopold's of Shantaram fame. I'd made it my mission to seek out this bar once in Mumbai and it was a lot easier than expected - turns out Leopold's is the number one tourist hotspot in the city. It was also another site of the 2008 attacks, along with the Taj Mahal hotel and the Victoria station. It was packed with foreigners but the food was good and the drinks were cheap and it was cool to be somewhere I'd read so much about - almost on a scale with a visit to the Leaky Cauldron for butter beers.

After a couple of happy hours at Leopold's the group made its way to a club called Bluefrog. In a way it was everything I'd wanted to leave behind in London, an expensive club where we had a table, chatted inanely outside and danced to minimalist music. But at the same time it was great fun - from everything I'd seen in India so far, it was sort of good to be somewhere just like home - or at least to discover that it existed - a club where locals went to drink and dance. I chatted outside with a couple of Indian guys who were genuinely friendly and were pleased that I was enjoying India. We talked about where I'd been so far and they gave me some suggestions for placed to visit further on in my trip. Oli, Christine and I left at about 12.30 and after arguing with our taxi driver who'd fiddled the meter, paid him half of what he was asking (although still more than it should have been).

While many of the other slept, we met the next morning to go to theTaj Mahal Hotel where we'd planned to have a coffee. In the end we had a wander around and had an interesting conversation with the concierge before breakfast at a nearby bakery before leaving for the airport and a flight to Goa. I'd liked what little I'd seen of Mumbai and was looking forwards to revisiting in a couple of weeks time.

Posted by madeinmold 19:30 Archived in India Comments (0)

Goa

sunny 31 °C

We flew with SpiceJet from Mumbai to Goa and drove for about an hour to reach our hotel in north Goa. . The drive was beautiful and green with the sun a deep orange. As the final destination on our trip together we were staying in Calangute and Baga described by Lonely Planet as follows: 'Once a refuge of wealthy Goans, and later a 1960s hot spot for naked revelling hippies, Calangute today is popular with extended Indian families, groups of Indian bachelors and partying foreigners. If you want to experience authentic Indian (or Russian) tourism full on, come to Calangute.' It was a stark contrast to the rest of the places we'd visited and heading into town for dinner we encountered obnoxious Russian tourists, groups of older leathery Brits and several sleazy locals asking if we wanted 'party or boyfriend'. The only real reminder that we we in India was the intermittent electricity at Hotel Alor.

Goa is famous for its seafood so in the evening I ordered a calamari vindaloo expecting eye-watering, sweat inducing spice. I was sadly disappointed, I didn't cry or sweat and the meal's only redeeming feature was the presence of garlic cheese naan. Whilst I was sad our trip was coming to an end, the freedom to chose my own less touristy eateries was something I was looking forwards to. After dinner Zahid led us to a sports bar (yes they have lots of them in Baga) so, having little interest in watching football, Christine, Olli, Maria and I left and walked down to the beach repeating the word no over and over as we were asked 'taxi?' every couple of seconds. The beach was littered with bars/shacks and their fairy lights glittered far into the distance in both directions. Walking to the sea for a paddle (pleasantly warm), we watched a guy wade in a couple of meters to knee height, cast a net and pull it in after just a few moments. He then showed us his catch, several catfish amongst smaller ones and a few small starfish which he threw back in to the waves.

The next morning there was no electricity again. Keen to get away from the touristiness of Calangute, Olli, Christine, Maria and I got a taxi to a quieter beach in the north, Vagator. Zahid had told us that the beach near the hotel was very very busy and we wouldn't want to wear bikinis there.

Our driver, Sunny, was friendly and gave us his number so we could call him when we were ready to go back. He dropped us at the top of the beach path and we bought coconuts on the way down. The beach was relatively quiet, a few foreigners were beginning to arrive and a group of school boys were playing fully clothed in the water. After setting up a base we immediately got into the water, which shelved gradually but had strong currents, and lolled around for quite a while before lying in the sun to dry off.

A large group of local guys were making a sand mermaid nearby, paying particular attention to the detail of the chest area. A couple of them asked Maria and I if they could have a photo with us. When we refused they had one with Olli instead. Within an hour it became too hot for lying in the sun and we headed off in search of refreshment. Along the way Olli asked me to look at his ear - apparently a couple of locals had tried to grab his ears and we was wondering why as they didn't seem interested in his earrings. We soon found out why - a little but further along a local had a tourist held by the top of the head and was inserting a long metal rod into his ears and pulling out enormous amounts of wax - there are several ear-cleaning touts along this stretch it would seem.

On the other side of the cliffs we came across a different part of Vagator beach. Here seemed to be a popular local, Russian and cow hang out. It was busier and had some shacks serving food. Although it was lunch time, we ordered mostly breakfast foods. I had the 'Indian breakfast' and for just 80 rupees (about 85p - by far the cheapest meal I'd had so far including paying for coffee and toast at hotels) I had three puris and bhaji (not the same as onion bhaji - essentially a mixed veg curry). Not only was it a bargain but it was also a very strong contender for the best meal on the trip to date. Walking after lunch we came across David and Sophie on a scooter they'd rented for just 200rupees, a bargain compared to what we'd payed for a taxi but I wasn't sure if I'd be able to brave the Indian roads myself.

After a sweaty afternoon walking around Baga and the beach near the hotel, the group met for our final meal together at a beachside restaurant called Brittos. Amongst the pies and seafood on the menu there was one spicy veggie curry that turned out to be pretty good. It did however take almost an hour to have our order taken, the waiter understood my order of ginger tea to mean g&t and there was some warbling karaoke going on in the background. It was a quiet last night and fortunately, after walking back to the hotel I found that both electricity and wifi were in good working order so I attempted to plan where to go next. I was sad to leave the group having met some great people and had an easy two weeks in terms of travel and accommodation details being taken care of but at the same I was, if slightly apprehensively, looking forwards to the challenge of going it alone.

Posted by madeinmold 21:09 Archived in India Comments (0)

Going solo in Goa: Panjim and Old Goa

In which I develop a taste for kingfisher beers

Leaving the hotel as the group dispersed, a bird shit on my head. I hoped that, as per the superstition, this was a gift of great luck for my onwards travels as opposed to signs of crappy times to come. Ally and Emma from the group had an extra day in Goa so the three of us headed to a secluded beach bar where ordering a drink (for about 30p) earned us a day of hassle free sun-loungers. We chose some in the shade as the heat was almost intolerable and I couldn't help order a salad for lunch. Having been warned against salad in India, I waited for the sickness to come but I was lucky - it had seemed like a safe place. Whilst we were eating, another bird pooped on my beach towel - more good karma?

After a lazy afternoon amongst overweight Russian sun worshipers we strolled back through the touristy bits of town, visiting the first supermarket we'd seen so far in India. I stopped in a few dodgy travel agents in an attempt to organise my onwards travels and booked a sleeper bus for a couple of days later to Hampi. In the evening, Ally napped before her flight and Emma and I sat in a little bar, surprisingly full of Brits (of the old leathery kind) and shared a large bottle of Kingfisher (for £1).

The next day, Ally had left but Emma and I ate breakfast (my new favourite Puri Bharji for 80 rupees) in an open air bar called something like the Happy Horse where one of the staff was still asleep on a mattress on the floor. It seemed again to be another popular British hang out. We got talking to a tanned old British man with sparkling blue eyes. He was probably only in his late 40s but his hippy lifestyle and too much sun had aged him dramatically. His hands shook as he ate his fry up and regaled us with tales of India and recommendations for my onwards travels. He was very friendly and seemed to love India and have travelled extensively but he reminded me very much of someone I used to know. I couldn't help but feel sad for him and I hoped he had family to go home to in the UK if adventure ever got old.

He pointed Emma in the direction if the beach and I decided to join her for a while, again sitting in the shade before eventually saying goodbye and returning to the bar from the previous night, Prashant's, to satisfy an unusual lunchtime beer craving, something that had never happened to me before. One of the Indian customers stood up and asked when I wanted to go to Panjim and I realised that he was the taxi driver who I'd asked to drive me there, apparently enjoying a large kingfisher (sprite-d down) while he waited for me to want to leave.

Leaving in the taxi, I was still nervous but feeling better about things - turns out I'm too lazy to have any unnecessary emotions while severely overheating. I couldn't actually sit on the front seat of the car as, having been parked in the sun it was so hot it was burning though my silk trousers. The driver kindly put his jacket on it to help protect my bum and i just hoped it wouldn't get sweaty. His name was Pradeep and he was very chatty. He showed me the bus stop I'd need to go to the following evening to ride to Hampi. A native Goan, he told me that Goans were the friendliest of Indians and the most honest. Whilst I'd found the shopkeepers highly irritating, I'd have to agree with him to date. He asked how old I was and I laughed when he said he was 29, thinking he looked much older but retrospectively I don't think he was joking. Dropping me off, he gave me his phone number (even rickshaw drivers in India seem to have business cards) and told me to call him the following day if I wanted to go anywhere or needed help. I didn't think I'd be using his services and hoped I wouldn't need help but I thanked him anyway.

Standing outside the Paradise Inn in Panjim I assumed that it had obviously been named ironically as it looked like a complete shit hole. Attempting to find the entrance, with a sense of foreboding, I accidentally rang an old lady's doorbell and she pointed me around the corner. Once I got to my room I was pleasantly surprised. I hadn't yet checked for hot water but it was a big room, clean and there was a/c that worked so well that the room was pleasantly chilly.

After checking in, I set out to explore Panjim, the capital of Goa built on an estuary and reached by two bridges from North Goa. Goa has a lot of Portuguese influence and as i walked along the water front in the early afternoon I though that it had rather an air of a sleepy, dilapidated European seaside town. There were some once grand, most of them now crumbling in a way that only buildings in India can. In the water were India's only casinos that some how escape the law by being located in old ships off-shore. Zahid had pointed them out to us on the drive to Calangute - apparently gambling is generally illegal in India because it would make it too easy to legitimise black money or something like that. Walking along, I received a few stares and was indiscreetly followed for a while but managed to lose him and eventually came to a small park at the waters edge where I found some steps to sit on and write a postcard to my grandpa. The small beach there smelt bad, in fact generally Panjim didn't smell great (despite the presence of several public toilets) although I guess that's the prerogative of a capital city. After sitting for a while I wandered back into town,pleasantly surprised at how little attention I received and how a simple no thank you was enough to turn down the offer of taxis. I saw the odd white person walking around but in general Panjim seemed lacking in tourists. Whilst in the last few days that's exactly what I'd craved, I began to sense that Panjim may be a little dull and briefly contemplated returning to Calangute to find Emma again until I remembers that taxis in Goa were not cheap.
There was a United Colors of Benetton in town along with several sports shops which surprised me. Whilst the waterside paths certainly lent themselves to jogging, the temperature certainly didn't and I was still feeling distinctly hot and sticky. Aside from a few museums, the main tourist sight in Panjim is the a church, described by lonely planet as a wedding cake atop a hill but despite my best efforts,even with the help of a map and the small walkable distances of Panjim it took me a while to find. Since arriving India, I'd constantly felt as if I'd left my sense of direction at Heathrow. Eventually, after getting slightly lost in a covered market, I stopped in a park (where for the second time in two days I was approached and asked a question in Russian) to re-consult the guide book and thought it must be near-by. Eventually I found it, I'd in fact passed it earlier but must not have been looking up as there it was, perched atop a small hill looking wedding cake-y. It didn't take long to 'do' the church (it made a pleasant change from temples!) and next I sought out the post office again with the help of the map. I accidentally entered several municipal buildings (one of the only indicators that I was in a 'capital city' before finding it, crossing my fingers and handing over my postcard. Next I went in search of a place for a drink - I didn't find the guide-book recommended place I was looking for as I was looking in the wrong place. I did however find a clinical looking spa (much more hygienic looking than those I'd seen in Calangute and Baga) where a pedicure cost 300 rupees (about £3.30) so I settled down to have my feet cleaned and scrubbed by a small Chinese woman. She did a very good job - I'd recently been wondering if my feet would ever be clean again aft touring India in havianas - and chatted to me while she worked away, seemingly oblivious to my grimy state (I'd caught sight of myself in the mirror downstairs and, as expected I was a dreadful sweaty mess). She described India as 'some people is good, some people is bad' and asked me if I was Protestant or Catholic - I answered that I was neither but my dad attended a Methodist church so I suppose I would be Protestant. Then a man, possibly Russian, also came in for a pedicure and four of us sat in companionable silence.

Once my feet were suitably buffed, I left feeling pleased with myself and thinking that 300 rupees was affair price to pay for an hour in air conditioning even without the added benefit of a pedicure. I made a brief stop at my hotel room where the air con was going full blast and immediately regretted it when I had to go outside again, sure that it had got hotter in the 10 minutes that I'd been inside. It was now dark and the 'city' had livened up, or at least the traffic had. I successfully navigated my way to one of the lonely planet's recommendations for drinking, a bar/restaurant with a balcony overlooking the traffic, the bridges and the water where I slapped on the mosquito repellant and, slightly confused by my own actions, ordered my second kingfisher of the day. Whilst the beer was cheap, the food prices were reminiscent of several of the restaurants we'd visited in the last two weeks as a group (£4+ for a meal) and so I decided to stick to beer and enjoy the view whilst holding out for under £2 food later on. After two beers for 120 rupees (hurrah for finding cheaper places) I moved to another lonely planet recommendation, Viva Panjim, reputed for its seafood and pork dishes and low prices where, under the relative protection of a mosquito candle, I enjoyed a thoroughly unnecessarily sweat inducing veggie vindaloo and two chapatis all for 100 rupees. I went to bed in air conditioned paradise with my wallet still heavy and feeling pleased with myself.

In the morning, my skipping rope, resistance band and I decided to make the most of the aircon with a spot of hotel-room circuit training to the tune of Grey's Anatomy on TV before taking the most powerful shower I'd had in India to date. With all that and a noon checkout, the Paradise Inn was actually living up to its name.

Leaving the hotel I was unsurprisingly asked 'taxi?' and although I'd planned to have some breakfast first I asked how much to Old Goa. Somehow I ended up on a pilot, a one passenger taxi in the form of a moped heading along the Mondovi river towards the former capital of Goa. It seemed to be a busy market day in Old Goa and it was bustling within Indian tourists and locals. Looking for somewhere to sit to consult my map, I chose a rock opposite the police station but was shortly told by someone I assumed was a casually dressed police officer that I wasn't allowed to sit there. Instead I relocated to Sanjay's cafe, the only eating recommendation in lonely planet where, at the filthiest table I've ever come across, I ate a masala dosa and was given a glass of warm sugary milk with a dollop of coffee powder on top which, once stirred was actually delicious.

I walked through the market to Se Cathedral, Asia's largest church built in the 1500s under the instruction of the king of Portugal. There were 5 churches within 200m of each other so next I visited the smaller but slightly grander Basilica of Born Jesus. After managing to fill two hours with breakfast and churches, Old Goa seemed to have little more to offer. I'd wanted to visit another remote church on a hill top 22km away but wears advised not to make the trek alone and, given the heat, I was easily dissuaded from a 2km uphill walk.

Instead of taking a taxi or pilot back to Panjim I decided to add another mode of transport to my repertoire and instead took a local bus for ten rupees for the 20 minute journey back. I clambered over an old Indian lady who didn't seem to want to move when she agreed to me taking the seat next to her and enjoyed the breeze coming through the window.

Back in Panjim I was at a bit of a loss at what to do. It was slightly overcast and clammy so a beach was out, I'd seen most of what Panjim had to offer the previous day and, having already eaten I headed back to Down the Road bar for a drink. Unfortunately they decided to close 30 minutes after I'd arrived so I went in search of another lonely planet recommendation - Hospedaria Venite. Unable to find it I used an Internet 'cafe' for a few minutes before deciding to stock up on essentials. I'd just finished a book and lonely planet referenced several book shops in Panjim. I was also out of shower gel. Unfortunately these two purchases took under 15 minutes, but at least I'd bought a new copy of a Sam Bourne book for under £4 in an Indian bookstore.

I found Hospedaria Venite eventually. I was the only customer and sat on the balcony where the owner gave up his seat for me as it was the breeziest. I settled down with Sam Bourne and a kingfisher thinking that 7.30 pm and my sleeper bus to Hampi couldn't come soon enough.

Posted by madeinmold 03:38 Archived in India Comments (0)

My first sleeper bus and Hampi

I gobbled down a mushroom mutter masala with garlic naan at a veg restaurant before going for the bus. Things were certainly getting cheaper as the meal came to under 140 rupees. A rickshaw dropped me off at the private bus station and I asked the first foreigner I saw if he knew which bus was which. He was french and said 'Ampi a lot which I took to be a good sign so I sat with him to wait. Next to him, also sat on his back pack, was an Australian by the name of Felix. He had blonde dreadlocks and was swigging from an ornate bottle of rum. The three of us sat in companionable silence whilst an Indian bloke ate an ice lolly with his teeth and unashamedly stared at me for a good 15 minutes straight. As I wasn't alone I found it quite funny - Felix found it hilarious - but sincerely hoped that he had not splashed out on the a/c sleeper bus as well. The french guy left on the non a/c bus and Felix started telling me about how he'd been getting drunk and riding mopeds around Goa for the last two weeks. He had lost his wallet bus seemed consoled by the fact that he still had some weed on him. I made a note to ditch him once we got to Hampi where I'd read they don't take kindly to drugs and where alcohol is banned. For some reason he reminded me vaguely of my Uncle Trefor (who for the record I have never seen smoke weed or swig rum from a bottle).

Boarding the bus we saw that there were rows of two tier single-sized beds lining the aisle and that two people were booked per bed. An obnoxious old guy got on and the conductor tried to direct him to the bed that I was on - I firmly pointed out that his bed number was below and prayed that a more suitable companion would come along. Felix was on the bed opposite me sharing with a German guy called Martin. They looked pretty cramped.

The conductor tried to show a russian lady to the bed below me with the obnoxious guy but she said firmly, 'not with man'. The bus moved off and still I had my bed to myself. I crossed my fingers but we still had a few more stops to make. Having seemingly drank a fair amount of rum, Felix insisted on a toilet stop shortly into the journey and we stopped in a lay-by where the Russian lady and I attempted to find a discreet place to pee. On the way back to the bus Felix offered me his splif and when I declined he laughed saying 'no drink, no drugs, what did you do in Goa?' I ignored him and got back on the bus. After two more stops I still had no bed mate and when the lights went off I attempted to sleep. It was a lot less comfortable trying to sleep over speed bumps, potholes and the occasional horn - not like the gentle rocking of a sleeper train. It was also pretty cold thanks to the a/c. I hadn't planned this well and was wearing a just vest top, thin trousers and flimsy scarf. Felix kindly gave me his 'bed sheet' and despite its dreadful smell I was grateful for the warmth - apparently he'd recently been using it as a beach towel. Eventually I nodded off and after what seemed like not too long it was light and we were arriving at 7am in Hampi. Getting off the bus we were swarmed by offers of rickshaws, rooms, guesthouses and maps. Ignoring them and picking up our backpacks, Martin, Felix and I wandered towards the bazaar that was just a 5 minute walk away.

Hampi was already incredible, I felt like I'd stepped into a movie set, or the flintstones. We agreed to stop for a coffee and consult the guide book to work out where we were and a find place to stay. We were still being harassed for rooms so we decided to look at one where we were having coffee, a place called Vicky's (owned by Vikram). 'Vicky' told us there was hot water and 24 hour electricity apart from 5 hours when there was no electricity... we didn't catch if these were a set 5 hours or not. It wasn't a great room, the worst i'd stayed in so far, but it was 500 rupees for a twin and, as I was only staying for one night, Martin and I decided to share. I hoped he wouldn't turn out to be a pscyho! Felix went in search of somewhere even cheaper but he popped up again later having found himself a box room with a shared bathroom for 200.

Avoiding yet more offers of rickshaws, the three of us made our way to the Virupaksha temple, the focal point of the Hampi Bazzar. The temple was teeming with monkeys and we met Lakshmi, the 24 year old resident elephant - I asked the attendant if she was happy and he assured me she had a very nice life. She looked pretty cheery and apparently has a bath every morning down by the river.

After the temple went down to the riverside. Here, as in most water in India, local women were scrubbing and beating clothes in the water. The river added a certain something to the already stunning scenery. We took a rickety boat across the water (15rupees for tourists, seemingly free for locals) - there are no bridges - the map in lonely planet 2012 shows one ruined bridge and one under construction. Lonely planet 2007 also shows the same bridge under construction.

The other side of the river is supposedly the quieter place to stay. With not much there it seemed except for some hut type accommodation and bars where you could lounge out on beds all day in the shade, that seemed to be the case. The old guy Emma and I had met before leaving Goa had told me about one specific bar/place to stay he recommended on this side and had told me to mention him there. Unfortunately I couldn't remember either his name or the name of the place apart from that it sounded a bit like sex pest... We saw a sign for a par called Shesh Pesh and figured that must be it and there was indeed cute little hut type accommodation and a lounge area where I had a late breakfast of a masala omelette. The rickety boats stopped running at 6pm (there are several boulders in the river so it would be tricky to navigate in the dark) and so I was quite glad I'd opted to stay on the main side of the river.

Back on our side we went back to the temple where the boys had left their shoes a few hours previously and climbed up behind the Virupaksha temple to the top of Hemakuta Hill. It was there that I decided that Hampi was my favourite place in India so far. The view was amazing, as far as we could see were amazing rock formations and crumbling temples surrounded by green countryside and palm trees. One of the most peaceful spots I'd been in India, it genuinely felt as if we were on a completely different planet.

Felix left to find a motorbike to hire for the afternoon and Martin and I decided to look for the Vittala temple, apparently a 2km walk in a straight line from Hampi, according to the lonely planet map at least. It started off well, after a few hundred meters a sign pointed us to the left. There the road stopped and we found ourselves on more uneven terrain and definitely off road. We were still following the river so I hoped we'd have a fair chance of finding our way back. After a while we came to a large arrow painted on a boulder pointing to the right with no indication as to what it was actually pointing to. Naturally we followed it and came not to the temple as we'd hoped but to what seemed to be a public bathing area. There were women filling large basins of water and several men sat around with towels around their waists. We could see a temple, although not one that fitted the description of what we were looking for, on the other side of the water. Although no one seemed to object to our presence I felt slightly uncomfortable and we left and backtracked towards the arrow before continuing in the other direction. Eventually, amid the boulders, we reached the ruined temple we'd been searching for. Apparently this temple had never been finished or consecrated and, I guess for that reason, people unusually wore shoes inside. As the sun went down we made the walk back to the main bazzar, encountering a lot more people along our way. Although we declined, some children offered us a ride in a 'fun boat', a small floating basket in the water.

I was still amazed by Hampi and we tried to come up with adequate ways to describe the landscape. Non really did it justice - Imagine a boulder the size of a house, now imagine a thousand of them haphazardly piled around in mountains and ridges, with mini-temples and ruins perched between them. Actually, just visit Hampi because that, the best we could come up with, is a terrible description. It certainly made Stonehenge look look like a complete joke! Then we settled for making descriptions of Felix's dreadlocked-hair instead: imagine you leave a horse in a muddy field all winter and don't brush it's tail.

After booking onwards sleeper busses, Felix, Martin and I made our way to the Mango Tree, Hampi's number one restaurant. It was a short walk out of the main bazzar along the river and, now dark, it was pitch black there. We encountered only a few people along the way but there were a couple of signs showing the way to the Mango Tree. After a couple of minutes wandering through blackness we found an unlit path to the right, seemingly into a forest (apparently a banana plantation), and a small boy sat on a plastic chair. With his torch he guided us along the path to the restaurant.

It soon became obvious why the Mango Tree was the number one place to eat. In spite of being slightly challenging to find in the dark it was busy with tourists and locals, the prices were all under 110 rupees for a curry and bread and, were it not pitch black, I assumed it would have a great view over the water. When our food came (I'd ordered a veg Hyderabadi masala) it was excellent. They also served lavazza coffee. Felix asked if they had beer and the waiter shook his head.

We sat for a long time, under coconut and mango trees listening to frogs and crickets and learning more about Felix. Having lost his job in mining in Australia he'd booked the cheapest ticket from Perth to India, arrived in Kochi, bummed around the south for several weeks before getting ill and spending his birthday alone in Bangalore. Shortly before I met him at the bus stop he'd had his wallet stolen and now had little more to his name than his passport and a first aid kit but seemed relatively unconcerned with his predicament. His plan was to stay in India until the money ran out completely before booking a flight home on his credit card. I had a feeling that he'd find a way to stay as long as possible and could probably be found months later still bumming around Hampi with his first aid kit, perhaps attempting to become the new Shantaram. Having heard his stories, he'd grown on me a lot and I was glad he'd stuck around with us.

Eventually we left the mango tree, vowing to return the following day in the light to enjoy the view. We made the very dark walk back to the hotel lit only by the light of a mobile phone. I was extremely glad to not be alone. The walk back was slow and, looking up, I'd never seen so many stars in a night's sky. Despite it having been a slightly overcast day, it was now clear and I stopped several times to admire the view.

Back in town, Felix stopped at a couple of places to ask for beer. I tried to tell him he wouldn't find any but eventually a shop keeper told him 'chill out bar, maybe something else'. Leaving Martin and Felix at the Chill Out bar where they'd ordered 'special cokes' (mostly rum), I went back to the hotel to use the phone to call my grandpa. We chatted for about 10 minutes and hearing his voice was a great end to a wonderful day in Hampi.

Feeling as though I'd seem much of what Hampi had to offer, I had a lie in the next day before retracing my steps back up the hill alone with a now fully charged camera battery to take some pictures. The view bowled me over once again and I sat in the shade on a rock to write some postcards before meeting Martin for lunch again at the Mango Tree. Felix had rented a motorbike and gone off exploring but the scrapes on his arms were enough to deter me from getting on a bike with him. He later told me he'd had a good day getting lost, seeing the under-construction bridge (seemingly construction had been abandoned and the half that had been built was now being left to ruin) and giving a hitch-hiking police officer a lift to work.

The view at lunch time was as good as we'd hoped for and we sat reading for several hours in the shade. As I was trying to get to Kochi by Sunday and it was Friday, I'd booked a night bus to Mysore were I planned to stay for just the day before another sleeper bus to Kochi. After brief goodbyes, I hopped in a rickshaw to the nearest town, Hospet, and the bus station. I'd thoroughly enjoyed Hampi - I defy anyone to go there and not be bowled over and just completely happy - but it was time to leave. Although Martin planned on staying a further two days and Felix a further seven, I hadn't yet slowed to their pace and, conscious that I had just ten days left in India, there was still a lot more I wanted to see.

Posted by madeinmold 00:26 Archived in India Comments (0)

2 sleeper busses and 12 hours in Mysore

It was a Friday evening and the aim was to reach Kochi by Sunday to meet the Germans, who'd continued on the group trip to Kerala, before they headed back to Berlin. This was to involve two consecutive nights on sleeper busses via either Bangalore, Mangalore or Mysore. Felix had recommended Mysore having spent a week there and, despite his jokes about sending people to places he hadn't liked, the Lonenly Planet seemed to agree that Mysore was worth a visit: 'if you haven't been to Mysore, you just haven't seen South India. So twelve hours in Mysore it was to be.

It was a very dark journey from Hampi to Hospet (where most busses departed the area from) and I got into a brief dispute with the rickshaw driver when I got out as he decided he wanted a greater fare than the already inflated 200rupees we'd agreed on just for taking me to the private bus stand (200m further than the public bus stand). Laughing at me hauling my bag out of the back saying 'fat girl fat bag' didn't in anyway help his cause and so I ignored him and walked across the street wondering if three weeks of curry had indeed added some pounds. I smiled at some other foreigners, who turned out to be from Hackney and Frodsham and were also heading towards Kochi but via Mangalore. We went in search of a washroom together before they boarded their bus and I waited for mine.

This bus was very empty and the only other foreigners on board were an old Austrian lady and a guy about my age who turned out to be from Bangor. This time I had booked a single sleeper bed therefore alleviating any risk of having to share. Although I couldn't see as it was pitch black outside, it seemed the bus was taking a rather off road route and sleeping proved problematic as we bumped over numerous pot holes and speed bumps. The bus made no scheduled bathroom stops so I got out and pee-ed in a bush when the driver went for a snack.

It would seem that I did eventually sleep as I was awoken when it was still dark outside to cries of Mysore last stop. The guy from Bangor, who had some unusual Celtic name - maybe Kimball? - had kindly offered to let me leave my backpack in his room for the day so we went in search if somewhere for him to stay. The hotel he'd wanted was apparently booked out so he ended up in a complete dive across the road for which he paid 500 rupees for 24 hours (meaning that he'd have to check out the following morning at 7am!). The room was dreadful. The bed was lumpy and hard with no sheets provided, it was extremely damp and had a mouldy adjoining bathroom that made no attempt at having hot water - there was only one tap. I had a brief wash in the cold water and, once it reached a slightly more civilised hour, we went out to see the city. One of the main sights of Mysore, according to the city's number one fan, the lonely planet, is the Maharaja's Palace which it describes as being amongst the grandest of India's royal buildings. I'd have to agree with LP here, the palace was the over the top stuff of childhood princess fantasies and apparently rebuilt after fire in the early 1900s by British architect Henry Irwin. Unfortunately photography is not allowed inside and despite having bribed the guard a hefty 100rupees to let me take my camera inside the building, I was too nervous to use it.

It was interesting to walk around with Kimball (?) who'd landed in India two days before I had but into Mumbai and seemed to have lingered a while in Goa - I noticed several differences between his approach and my own. For example, whilst I had become expert at ignoring rickshaw drivers, touts and pretty much anyone who approached me, he still willingly engaged in conversation, often significantly slowing his progress. Whilst looking for the entrance to the palace a rickshaw driver had tried to convince him that it was too busy to visit in the morning and that we should go to the market and come back later....obviously he was happy to drive us to the market and back... At my insistence we visited the palace anyway and found it perfectly manageable. He happily handed over 500 rupees for a foul hotel room where i'd have negotiated or gone elsewhere, even tipping the tout who'd led him there 30rupees. When people tried to sell us stuff outside, he politely said no, leading to them following him whilst I ignored them and walked off. When people asked where he was from, he'd answer whilst I'd carry on walking. From his stories it seemed as if he had been scammed a couple of times as well. I did however admire his willingness to engage with people and acknowledged that perhaps my caution prevented some worthwhile and interesting experiences.

After the palace, we wandered the streets of the small city centre in search of somewhere to eat. Characteristic of my experiences with Indian cities, I was unable to find anywhere from the guide book and Mysore seemed to be distinctly lacking in the cafe culture that had made me so fond of places like Pushkar, Udaipur and Hampi. Eventually we ate in a bizarre hotel restaurant that seemed to be attempting safari theme.

With the exception of the palace, I failed to see in my short time there what LP and Felix had seen in Mysore. Perhaps had I lingered longer it would have grown on me but, keen to see Kerala and having had enough of polluted busy towns, I left for the bus station leaving Kimball in his mangey room.

I found my bus with relative ease and having slept surprisingly well on the last two sleeper busses (although still not well) I was not worried about the journey. Or at least I wasn't until I got on the bus. It was an a/c semi-sleeper bus meaning it looks like a normal coach but the seats recline much further than usual. As they are spaced as those on a regular coach, this proved pretty uncomfortable for my short 5'4" frame when, early in the journey, the guy in front of me cranked his seat back to full recline and I felt my knees crack. I was the only single female on the bus and one of very few foreigners - there was a young French couple a few seats in front of me and a friendly older Israeli couple I'd spoken to before boarding.

As the journey began, the conductor inserted a DVD and we were subjected to some dreadful Indian sitcom/film in which pale Indian women in very skimpy western clothing threw themselves at a creepy looking guy with a moustache and his overweight ugly companion. Attempting to read, I prayed that it was a sitcom not a Bollywood film and wouldn't last for the standard 3-4 hours.

When we stopped for a bathroom break where a door market 'ladies' led into a room that didn't even have a hole in the floor toilet in there, it was just floor with a small drainage hole at the back and a tap with a small bucket. I wasn't sure what to make of the situation but there were a lot of men standing around the parking lot so peeing in a bush was out of the question so I did the only sensible thing and peed on the floor before washing it away towards the hole with a bucket of water. Getting back on the bus it smelt like food, aftershave and feet - I wished that the windows would open and resolved again to avoid a/c busses in future.

I was shaken awake by the conductor saying last stop Ernakulam and was disturbed to find that it was 4.30 am. I'd planned to walk to a hotel recommended by both Mari and LP but decided to wait until it was light and there was a higher chance of the reception being manned. So I settled down in the ladies waiting room and read for over 2 hours until the sun had come up.

Posted by madeinmold 00:31 Archived in India Comments (0)

Kerala - from Kochi to Varkala

Mostly about eating and being a cheapskate

sunny 31 °C

Surprisingly awake, I arrived at John's Residency at just after 7am to find John awake and just one room available. It looked like a nice place and quite near to the ferry port to Fort Kochi so I snapped it up and went in search of the Indian Coffee House to wait for the room to be cleaned.

For some reason, after checking in, I wasn't yet tired so hopped on a ferry (for 2.5 rupees - about 3pence) for Fort Kochi where I later met up with Olli, Christine and Maria who'd continued to Kerala for a further week ok the tour. It was great to see them again but I was disappointed to hear that they'd not enjoyed the third week of the trip as much as the first two, seemingly mostly down the guide and the group as opposed to the places they'd visited. We wandered around Fort Kochi ending up in 'Jew Town', presumably a former Jewish quarter and home to a synagogue. Like in Goa, the architecture in Fort Kochi seemed to be best described as 'crumbling European' and, in addition to the synagogue, there were also a few churches dotted around.

Christine was attempting to do some last minute shopping for friends and family and we were thrilled to come across a shop advertising itself as hassle free where, as we passed, the owner sitting outside indicated that he was not going to say anything. It was a stark contrast to the rest of the shops which seemed particularly hassley and I remarked again that many of the shop keepers seemed to think that Europeans would buy anything as long as it was 'good price' regardless of what it was. They also didn't seem to understand the contradiction of saying 'only look' followed immediately by 'good price for you my friend' and it was difficult to refrain from snapping at several of them.

As the sun began to go down we visited the Chinese fishing nets on the north side of fort kochi - gigantic wooden contraptions with huge nets attached which were lowered into the water before being pulled our by several people using a simple pulley system and the flapping fish being transferred to buckets. Along the shore there you could select your just caught fish at little stands and then pay for it to be cooked up while you waited.

As it was their last night, we went in search of somewhere good to eat their last meal in India. Unfortuantely trip advisor's number one restaurant in kochi was full so we wandered aimlessly for a while passing some overpriced and some bad looking places before, too hungry to look further, settling on a hotel restaurant called 'drop inn'.

Despite having kingfisher napkin holders they did not serve beer. That wasn't the only thing they didn't have. As we attempted to order, the waiter explained that they did not have any of their menu choices that required cooking in a tandoori oven as it was too expensive for them to turn on. This included most forms of bread. By the time Ole came to order he asked 'just bring me what bread you can make'. The back of the menu stated that food could take 35-40 minutes but, being almost empty, we assumed that this was just a precautionary disclaimer. Turns out it was not. Even a lemon soda (bottled) took over 10 minutes to arrive. When the food eventually arrived I was just glad that this was not my last meal in India. As we left, the waiter demonstrated his comic abilities which were much better than his food. He did impressions of various nationalities including an American asking for a bottle of water.

Having missed the last ferry back to the mainland I went back to the hotel that Olli, Christine and Ole were staying at to take a taxi with Maria who was heading to the airport and would pass nearby my hotel. The hotel was better than anything we'd stayed in as a group and far better than anything I'd stayed in since leaving them. As we waited for the taxi in Ole's room, I nicked a toilet roll (mine didn't provide such luxuries) and a toothbrush from his room.

Eventually, utterly exhausted, I said goodbye to Maria and got out of the taxi as pulled up outside John's. as they left I noticed that the front shutter was down and there were no lights on in reception. I looked for another entrance but finding none I began to panic. I pulled at the shutter and pushed the door but it didn't move. Desperately trying to remember the name of the others' hotel in case I had to go back there I banged extremely loudly on the door. Fortunately, one of the staff members who was sleeping on a camp-bed in reception quickly woke up and brushed off my apologies for waking him. Panic over.

After washing off the day's sweat, sun cream and mossie spray in cold water, I hopped manically around the hotel room, flip flop in hand, attempting to kill two mosquitos who'd somehow crept in before turning the fan to full blast, putting in my ear plugs and passing out for a well needed sleep.

I'd planned to leave for southern Kerala the following day as I'd have to return to Kochi in seven days time for a flight to Mumbai. I felt like I'd seen much of what there was to see and was desperate to get somewhere where I could spend at least two nights in one place.

I therefore attempted to get to Varkala - an apparently backpacker oriented (as opposed to resorty) beachside town in the south. I bought a ticket for 95 rupees and was told to take the train at 10.10 from platform two. I had a sleeper ticket, the cheapest kind and had planned on napping on a bunk with my backpack. The only other foreigners on the platform were two younger Finnish girls who'd booked 2nd class seats.

Shoving my way onto the train with the locals, I found myself in the non-a/c reserved seating carriage instead. Not wanting to have to plough through the train looking for sleeper cars and having already struggled to get my bag into the racks, I sat in the bench and decided to cross my fingers and stay put. A man came with my seat reservation but seemed happy to sit opposite instead and a friendly woman sitting next to me seemed to think I'd be okay to stay there.

When the conductor slowly made his way through, checking tickets and ID cards, I put my book away and prepared to be down graded but, looking at my ticket he just told me that this train did not stop at Varkala and I'd have to get off at Kollam and change.

Disembarking at Kollam, I saw no sign of the Finnish girls who were also headed to Varkala and wondered what had happened to them. I talked to the station master who told me I'd have to buy another ticket for the next train, a super fast train from Delhi (a good 30 hours train journey north!). This cost an extra 60 rupees for seated class.

When the train arrived I looked for seated class but seeing a very English looking couple sat in sleeper class I got on there to confirm that this was the right train. The view the whole way on the train had been great and, on my sleeper 'bed' I sat back and admired the passing backwaters and coconut groves.

Arriving in Varkala, I shared a taxi towards the beach with the English couple. I stopped at one place that had been recommended to me but it was a walk from the beach and could offer only dorm beds for 499 or privates for 1600. I continued to the main beach strip where, carrying my backpack I was inundated with offers of rooms. I chose one that seemed clean (although I later realised I was sharing with a small lizard) and negotiated it down to 400 rupees a night.

Feeling hot and bothered, I went in search of a beer a couple of doors down. It was poured into a large mug and the bottle thoughtfully put under the table to keep cool, or so I presumed. They had free wifi so I stayed a long time waiting for some apps to update. After watching the sunset, I walked the full length of the cliff looking in a couple of the shops and eyeing up places for dinner. Eventually I settled on a place recommended by LP for its Thai food (but ordered Indian knowing there was plenty of Thai to come in just over a week). Having consumed only 5 Oreos and 2 beers all day I was pretty hungry and ordered a paneer pakora, a veg curry and a naan. As my food arrived the electricity went out and we were plunged into darkness, seemingly along the whole strip, although didn't seem to prevent them from continuing to bring out hot food. I laughed as a couple of British guys walked past, one grumbling loudly about recruitment agents (of all things to be discussing in a tropical paradise!) and I was extra grateful that I was sat in darkness on Varkala cliff as opposed to under strip lighting in a basement office. Returning to my room once the power had returned (after 30 minutes or so of darkness) I noticed that, despite clean appearances, it smelt slightly of damp but at under £4.50 a night I wasn't going to complain and, apparently still recovering from sleeper busses, I slept for almost 12 hours.

Leaving my room after a pleasantly cold shower I went in search of coffee and, despite my genuine fondness of traditional Keralan coffee, I was pleased to find a place with a great view of the sea serving a full range of western coffee shop favourites. I made a coffee and fresh juice last a good two hours whilst I sat reading and enjoying the shade. As sellers walked past offering a variety of drums, I wondered if anyone ever purchased one - if the noise they made wasn't off-putting enough surely the consequent packing logistics incurred would be a further deterrent. The bar also had free wifi and I took great pleasure in looking at the weather forecast back home (-1 in Mold, zero in London) whilst sitting in 30 degree heat before heading to the beach. I'd read that the currents on Varkala beach could be quite dangerous and whilst the sea was pleasantly warm, even as I stood with water up to my thighs, I could feel it tugging at my legs.

There was a pleasant breeze on the beach and the water was beautifully warm and I decided then that I'd probably have to stay longer in Varkala. Despite being uber-touristy, unlike Goa there was an appealing vibe to Varkala - much smaller, it still felt relatively undiscovered (although it obviously was very discovered), it was relatively hassle free and the beach was stunning - I saw how the days could easily slip by here.

After a couple of hours in the sun I went in search of lunch, needing something to cushion my malaria pills. I found a good rooftop and ordered a sprite. There I bumped into the couple I'd shared a taxi with the previous day. Looking at the menu however (that contained mostly Italian food with a few basic curries) it seemed quite expensive and I wondered when exactly I'd become a person who thought that £2 was too much to pay for lunch. I told the waiter I'd probably eat somewhere else as their food was expensive but he asked how much I wanted to pay and, when I said 100 rupees only, he agreed to make me the veggie curry I'd wanted (priced at 100) and throw in some bread and rice for free. In morocco a few weeks before coming to India, I'd been exhausted after a week of haggling for taxis and gifts but here I was, happily negotiating rooms, rickshaws, clothing and even menu prices in India without feeling even slightly bothered. I felt pleased with my inner cheapskate and felt it bode well for a future in which I had little intention of earning large amounts of money again.

I asked for my curry to be spicy and the waiter asked how spicy - I said Kerala spicy, not tourist spicy. He asked to see my tongue... When the food arrived it was pretty hot but in a good way (causing a slight runny nose but no tears). The waiter watched me and said he could make less spicy if i wanted. When I declined he seemed impressed telling me that he'd tasted it and it was quite hot. He was pretty friendly and I left promising to return the next day. He seemed disappointed when I said I was travelling alone and wouldn't be bringing a big group of friends back with me.

On my way back to the beach I came across the young Finnish girls from the train who were being followed along the path by an Indian guy - I wasn't sure if he was bothering them or not. Apparently no one had told them the train wouldn't stop at Varkala and they'd continued to the end of the line before having to take a bus back. I felt bad for not looking for them to check they knew and apparently they'd wondered what had happened to me when they finally got off.

After going slightly pink on the beach and watching the sun go down, I resolved to buy some factor thirty and, needing to pay for my night's accommodation as well, I went in search of a cash machine. There wasn't one on the cliff but LP mentioned one on its map that didn't look too far away. Yet again, I learnt not to trust my reading of LP's maps when I found myself walking for over 20 minutes away from the beach down an unlit road. When I eventually found it I felt very much as if I was out of the touristy centre and I was attracting a few too many stares.

After trekking back i popped into another guest house to check out the potential of moving somewhere that didn't smell like damp and with hot water for a well needed hair-wash. I asked how much a room was and was told 800. I laughed and told her I was paying 400 at the moment. As I walked away she shouted after me 'okay 400'. Pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to negotiate here, I decided I couldn't actually be bothered to move rooms (I was pretty used to washing my hair in cold water after all) and treated myself to a beer in a bar that was showing Slumdog millionaire. Unfortunately I'd sat far from the screen but true to its name, the Chill Out Lounge, they had comfy floor seating and chilled out music. I ordered a beer (again served in a mug) and after a couple of minutes I was told to put the bottle under the table as the police walked past. Seemingly most bars on the cliff do not have a licence - they mostly all serve alcohol but its not listed on their menus and is served in mugs. One upside of this for the drinker is that, being unlicensed, they aren't paying the hefty alcohol tax meaning that a 650ml kingfisher costs just 100 rupees.

Not particularly wanting anything non-vegetarian, I still ordered a fish curry, as is the speciality in Kerala, for dinner. The restaurants along the front proudly displayed their day's catch and some of the fish were gigantic, some up to a meter in length. Unfortunately as my food arrived the bar began to play La Macarena - it made a change from Gangnam style and I was reminded of the Martin Troost's account of life on Kiribati (the Sex Lives of Cannibals) where La Macarena was the only song ever played on the island.

The fish curry was excellent, just spicy enough and, unlike a lot of meat curries I'd seen, they hadn't omitted the vegetables. Sipping my beer, I emailed my Uncle Robin who I knew would be particularly jealous of my current culinary situation.

Several of the people I'd travelled with so far had recounted strange dreams as a result of the spicy food, not something I'd experienced until now. Whether it was down to spicy food or, more likely, a bit too much sun, I awoke at around 3am in pitch blackness with no idea where I was. Feeling behind me I felt a wall and the same to both the left and the right. There was only a small window up to one side and I felt as if I were rocking. I assumed I must be on a train. I scrabbled around desperately for my handbag, finding it almost empty on the floor devoid of all my valuables - no phone, no wallet, no iPad and, more importantly, no torch. Feeling thoroughly disoriented, I began to panic wondering how I had got here, who had put me here and where my things were. I couldn't remember where I'd been last, who I'd been with or what I'd been doing. Frightened, I thrashed around a bit more assuming I'd been kidnapped before finding my phone lying next to me. Using the light from that I discovered that my handbag was empty on the floor, next to my backpack, my iPad was plugged in charging and my wallet was next to me. I was in fact exactly where I was supposed to be, in my bed in the guesthouse that had for some reason slipped my memory. The 'train' sensation was coming from the large fan on the ceiling that I'd had on full blast which, as my earplugs seemed to have fallen out, was rather loud. Feeling comforted although still shaken it was a while before I fell asleep again and it was almost 11 before I woke the next day feeling exhausted and headachey.

I decided to stay another day in Varkala and so went in search of a new book. Not wanting to read the Da Vinci Code, one of the many books by Jeffery Archer or Fifty Shades of Grey, my options appeared to be limited. Eventually I settled on something by James Patterson to see me through the next few days.

The decision to stay in Varkala meant that I would have to choose between a trip along the back waters or a visit to Munnar, a hill station in the mountains where there are several tea plantations. Not in the mood for important decisions, I sat down for a coffee and juice (and no free wifi thanks to yet another power cut). My sister had said that all she'd done in Varkala in the summer was eat and read books. This seemed to be pretty standard for Varkala as that summed up well my time there. After investing in some factor 30 I headed back to the beach. Next to me a couple of German girls were engaged in conversation by two old Indian guys wearing dhotis. The conversation seemed to be going very well until one of the Indians said - 'Germany? Used to be very big empire. And Hitler.' At that point the girls started saying bye bye over and over until the men left.

Mari had told me there was a cafe near where they'd stayed called Blue something that served the best Mali Kofta and I had to try it so, not having eaten all day I decided to check it out. I'd walked past Blue Moon several times, never having seen any customers. Unfortunately I wasn't about to start the trend. Despite not being a huge fan of Mali Kofta, preferring something with more of a kick, I ordered one at my new favourite hang out, Cafe Del Mar. It wasn't great. Perhaps I should have listened to my sister but instead I concluded I didn't like Mali Kofta very much and that was that. Feeling thoroughly lazy having done nothing more physically exerting than climb the steps from the beach to the cliff a couple of times a day for the last few days, as the power cut again, I resolved that I would leave Varkala the following day (maybe).

Posted by madeinmold 06:21 Archived in India Comments (0)

Kerala - part 2

sunny 30 °C

I'd calculated that, at my current rate of expenditure, I could actually stay in Varkala for the next thirteen years (or longer if I got a further discount on accommodation as a long-term resident) but then, pushing 40, I'd be wrinkled and leathery and one of those old solo 'travellers' I'd so often pitied. Also, I imagine after thirteen years it would probably get a bit tiresome.

But, over a rum and coke (I'd decided the best way to combat excessive drinking was not abstinence but rather to stick to drinks I didn't particularly like or enjoy), I caved to my inner weak-willed self and decided that one more day on Varkala wouldn't hurt. But I promised myself I'd definitely leave the day after that and, much as I didn't want to go, I owed it to my waist-line to get out before it was too late.

My fourth day in Varkala was spent much as the first three had been, accompanied my by book, alternating between the beach and the sea front cafes. I bought a sarong to lie on on the beach (my towel still had bird poop on it from Goa), got sticky and sandy before reconfirming my theory that nothing is not improved by the addition of a runny-yolk-egg over a lunch of egg-topped masala mashed potato (my own invention as opposed to a menu option). When there was power there was music and when there wasn't there was just the sound of the waves, occasionally interrupted by the noise of the drum-sellers.

Having consumed books at a rate of one per 24 hours in Varkala, I returned to cafe Italiano in the evening to get a new one and to watch the sunset. Unfortunately it was a bit murky out to sea and the sun disappeared whilst still relatively high in the sky around 5pm. Down in the book store, the waiter I'd met the other day came to study my book selection and, seemingly attempting a poor chat up line, commented on my 'nice perfume'. I was wearing very toxic DEET (that I'd used the previous night to utterly destroy an ant infestation). He then looked at the book I'd selected, a Sydney Sheldon classic from the 90s, that despite being a crime novel unfortunately had a picture of a rather sultry looking woman on the front, presumably leading him to think it was a different kind of book.

Sitting up on the terrace of Cafe Italiano with a beer, the wind had picked up dramatically. It was hazy out to sea and as the waves crashed onto the rocks below me, the water looked utterly unforgiving. I saw two blobs, presumably heads, bobbing quite far out but I blinked and they'd gone. Darkness came fast, the shallow water emptied quickly and I hoped my eyes had been deceiving me. For the first time since leaving Rajasthan, I actually wanted to wear a sweater in the evening.

As I'd had the extra day in Varkala, I decided to eat at the Blue Moon to check out Mari's recommendation. For once, it wasn't empty and, as I took a seat, the old owner took my hand and kissed it exclaiming 'I know you!'. I was unsure if this was from me walking past several times over the last few days, from stopping for a diet coke there the other day (but being deterred from ordering food due to the lack of customers), because he thought I was Mari who had visited here a couple of times in the summer or if he just did that to everybody.

Regardless, I hungrily ordered a veg pakora and a Mali Kofta as I'd been instructed and showed him a picture of one that Mari had eaten here just four months previously that bore the caption 'the world's best Mali Kofta'. He was utterly overjoyed and immediately confiscated my iPad, taking it off onto the kitchen to show his chefs. I watched laughing as my iPad was passed around the kitchen to much high five-ing.

The veg pakora arrived first and, in anticipation of a non-spicy main course, I doused it with chilli sauce. It was pretty good but, according to my taste buds, it's hard to go wrong with fried spicy vegetables. Then the power went out. I hoped this wouldn't interfere with the preparation of 'the world's best Mali Kofta'. It didn't and I had to agree that of the three Mali koftas I'd eaten in India, this was by far the best.

As I was eating, Mr Blue Moon bought a jug over to my table and indicated that I should pour the rest of my beer into it. I did, thinking this was more hiding from the beer police, and he proceeded to drink it and ask me to take his picture and show my sister. 'She will know me!'. I actually really enjoyed the food (thanks Mari) but, having had eyes bigger than my belly and ordered a starter as well, I was utterly defeated - perhaps because he'd also given me six pieces of naan bread, more than enough for two!

Once I'd eaten, Ravi as was Mr Blue Moon's name, sat with me and insisted on more photographs. He then sent a minion off to buy some menthol cigarettes and sat with me for a while. It quickly became apparent that Ravi was an old drunk but he was a funny one who served pretty good food. It was only when he started to insist that later he play good music and I dance with him that I started to plot my escape but not before he'd written down his phone number (9567926673 - good cheap room in Varkala apparently!). When i asked for my bill it came to 420 - seemingly I was paying for his menthol cigarettes too - and he presumptuously kept my change from 500 promising me free breakfast in the morning.

I was laughing as I left (although it was the first time since being in India I knew I'd been thoroughly ripped off!) It was a hilarious evening, only slightly ruined by a group of 20+ rowdy Aussies taunting a street seller at the next table. Seemingly tourist season in Varkala was picking up - I decided it was time to leave, for real this time, so would unfortunately miss claiming my 'free' breakfast the next morning.

I went to bed feeling decidedly fat and awoke early the next morning. It was relatively cool (perhaps 25 degrees) as I went out for a coffee the next morning and the beach was scattered with people practicing yoga and the occasional joggers. I felt a bit disappointed in myself for having not participated in this more active side of Varkalan life, or indeed having seen it due to my lie-ins.

But before I could justify one more day 'to do yoga' to myself, I hauled my backpack on to my shoulders and headed off towards the station. As they had a rather captive market, the rickshaws from the cliff to the station were charging an outrageous 80rupees for the 2.5k journey but, needing to get a train, there wasn't much I could do about it so I paid up.

At the station it was as busy as you'd expect for an early morning. There were large groups of school kids milling around, the girls wearing some beautiful punjabi suit uniforms. Sitting on my backpack, I watched a man crossing the platform on his hands (on which he had flip flops) and knees - his legs were dramatically underdeveloped but he moved swiftly along, just getting on with it.

I caught the Mumbai express one stop to Kollam, about a 30 minute journey. Still not understanding the train system, I got on anywhere and found myself a sleeper on which to perch with my backpack for the 30 minute journey. Getting off at the other end, I caught a rickshaw (from the prepaid booth for 22r) to the ferry terminal where 300 rupees bought me a ticket for the leisurely eight hour journey to Alleppey.

The 'tourist ferry' was a rickety boat with about 20 passengers - an equal split between Indians and foreigners. I chatted on-board to a group of middle aged Indian men on holiday from Andhra Prasesh and a British couple who found themselves lost travelling without a copy of LP and took several pictures on their iPhone of the relevant pages of mine. The woman told me an interesting story about the difficulties encountered in attempting to obtain a rabies jab having been bitten by a dog at an animal sanctuary she'd been working at. I resolved not to play with anymore puppies.

The route began through large palm-edged lagoons scattered with Chinese fishing nets, canoe fishing boats and the odd plastic bottle. I noticed that some of the canoes were floating in the middle of the water seemingly empty but, as I watched, a man wearing a snorkelling mask popped up next to the small boat, shovelled a load of shellfish on board before ducking back down again.

Soon the lagoons gave way to smaller canals and we caught intermittent glimpses of village life as we sailed slowly by. The water was less blue here, quite murky and there were also a few jellyfish propelling themselves slowly along and I hoped the shell-fishermen had been wearing more than just masks. Between the palms were pink, purple and yellow houses, women beating clothes against large stones to get the water out and the occasional person bathing. We waved at several school children making their ways home along the canal-side paths.

Lonely Planet had warned that some people found the eight hour journey boring and, as we entered more lagoons with not much to look at except water, I took a short nap. When I sat up again we were coming back into the narrower waterways and it was there that I witnessed India's most orderly queue. That morning it had taken several attempts at getting to the front of the small queue for train tickets before I realised that pushing and violently swinging my backpack was the only way. But here, on the canal, stretching back for at least 100m was a perfect queue no more that two to four bodies wide at any point. It was a queue of ducks, seemingly waiting to exit the water at a designated point, presumably for feeding time.

I'd seen lots of advertisements for pricey house boat trips and had wondered why anyone would pay an extortionate amount of money to spend time on a cramped canal boat. The ones we saw however as we approached Alleppey were a far cry from the low, narrow boats that run the British canal system. These boats were tall wooden structures all at least as big as my parents' four bedroomed house back home, some as big as small streets. Apparently they came fully equipped with a staff that included a driver and a chef at the very minimum. Some reputedly served up 9 course meals on board. Most that we encountered seemed to be occupied by solitary white couples, far outnumbered by the staff on board. I was glad that I'd managed to experience the same waterways at a fraction of the price without having to spend the night on board being munched by mosquitos.

The sun set before we arrived and I wished not for the first time that I had a better camera with me. It formed a perfect circle hanging low in the sky fading from a bright yellow to a deep orange at the bottom.

We arrived in Alleppey as it got dark and, deciding to get the day's travelling over with, I caught a local bus back to Kochi accompanied by the British couple from the ferry. It was difficult choosing which bus to board when each person we asked merely wobbled their head from side to side Indian style. Eventually, when I'd said Ernakulam and had a head wobble from the conductor, we boarded a bus that did indeed take us back to Kochi. It was truly a local bus - bad suspension, cramped and no glass in the windows which allowed in all manner of smells from the street outside. After several days in the laid back south, it was reassuring to know that India was still out there.

I arrived back at John's in Ernakulam just before 9 and, after eating, went to bed ahead on one last lazy day in Kochi before returning to Mumbai. There was so much I still wanted to see, especially here in Kerala, and I knew I'd have to come back one day.

Posted by madeinmold 04:26 Archived in India Comments (0)

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