Going west

To continue from last time, we went from Siliguri in West Bengal to Varanasi. This involved a two-stage flight, the first on AirAsia, who pissed us off greatly on our flight to Bagdroga by rigidly enforcing baggage rules. They were fine this time and the second stage of the flight from Kolkata to Varanasi was in a half empty Air India plane. All very jolly.

Varanasi was STINKING hot. In fact, the whole place was like a hot brick that barely cooled down overnight. The temperature was comfortably over 40 degrees every day we were there. The only time to really enjoy the place was at dawn or dusk. Most of the action took place at dawn and that was when it really worked its magic. I have said before, when people have tried to allude to what is really India and what is not, that there is no single place that sums it up as it is remarkably diverse. But there is something in wandering by the side of the Ganges at dawn, with the ghats and buildings clustered on the bank, that is quite enchanting. Like something out of an old history book of India, how I might have imagined the place as a kid. Travelling by row boat down the river at dawn was simply mesmerising. I had expected the place to be swamped by western tourists but they were considerably diluted by Indians. In fact, the place was not a western tourist trap at all in the way Goa or parts of Kerala are. The street scenes were not as harrowing as I might have thought. We certainly saw a number of cremations and the transport of dead bodies wrapped and carried on stretchers. But this was not as openly graphic as I might have thought. Varanasi is a very holy city for Hindus to be cremated and an even holier one in which to die.

Despite the spectacle, it was a relief in some ways to escape the place as it was essentially like being in an oven. It was dry heat rather than the oppressive humidity of Kolkata but hard enough, nonetheless. I’ve experienced this before and you just have to grin and bear it, venturing outside in small journeys and allowing time to rest up and re-hydrate in between. Overall it was quite some place. The ghats were a source of endless interest and the narrow back lanes were a fascinating labyrinth where it was very easy to get lost.

From Varanasi, it was a large jump to Amritsar. It was a disjointed two-stage flight again that involved a long layover in Delhi airport. By some fluke, we had managed to get premium economy on one leg which was pleasantly comfortable. It was impressive how the onboard staff could get all the food and drink out on such a short leg. I remembered visiting here years ago and visiting the famous Golden Temple which is an impressive religious monument. Amritsar was, on the surface, a friendlier place and, except for the day we arrived, blissfully cool. It was great on the second day when grey skies appeared and rain fell. It was a comforting feeling. I have seen hardly any rain in last year and while many would think this was a blessing, I think you need to have some balance in seasons and weather. The first place we visited was the memorial park where the 1919 massacre at Jallianwala Bagh took place. This was quite a hideous episode where an unarmed and largely peaceful crowd were fired upon by British commanded troops. The commander at the scene, General Dyer is not well looked on in history. He chose to deal with the situation without regard to the amount of bloodshed and only the structures in the area prevented the deployment of armoured cars which would have caused even more mayhem. A very unpleasant reminder of British rule, that despite apologists emphasising some of the few positive aspects, was essentially vicious and self-serving.

The Golden Temple had also seen more action in previous years when it was stormed and heavily damaged by Indian troops during the infamous Operation Blue Star in 1984 in response to its occupation by militant Sikhs. This led to rebuilding some of the temple complex which, although much of the damage was repaired by the government, there was a preference to rebuild much of the tainted area. I avoided handing in my shoes at the shoe booth, you are not allowed to wear shoes inside the temple area, by putting them in my shoulder bag. I did not close it too well which turned out to be a mistake. They were spotted by a passing pilgrim who relentlessly hassled me. I knew you couldn’t wear shoes but didn’t realise that this included not bringing them inside the temple at all. I was reported to the temple guards who duly escorted me to the shoe depository. It is an impressive complex. An adjoining museum has a gallery of pictures detailing some of the hideous and tortuous punishments meted out to and by the Sikhs over the centuries. The Sikh men in particular look quite dignified in their turbans and impressively cultivated moustaches. I’m still unclear quite how the women fit into all of this as they don’t appear to have such distinctive dress rules. They are required to cover their heads but this usually done with a chunnai scarf but women also wear turbans sometimes. There are five requirements for Sikh dress including special underpants.

Amritsar mobile (4)Amritsar also had a network of narrow lanes that threaded through shops and workshops and this made for a fascinating walk. While the place had a generally friendly feel about it but there were few westerners about and that seemed to create more staring than usual as well as a higher number of selfie posing requests. I can tolerate a high degree of staring but sometimes it is a bit hard. For instance, occasionally a waiter in an uncrowded hotel will linger and stare at every bit of the foreigner’s eating habits, much like you’d watch an animal at the zoo. It is usually disconcerting and somewhat annoying. As for the selfies, I am amazed at how many selfies someone can actually take but it is a national pastime in India and any tourist site in the country will be surrounded by Indians pointing phones at themselves. I have to admit that the need of many people to take a picture of themselves standing next to a foreigner is a mystery to me. I guess they show them to their mates but I can’t quite see the attraction. But it is a fact of life here. I’m not sure how many pictures I appear in but I am stored in quite a number of Indian phones.

Next it was to the final leg of the two-month travel finale in India as we headed to Rajasthan. First, we flew to Jaipur which is a place I visited about ten years ago. Not that this was a long layover. We headed straight off to Ranthambore National Park the next day in the hope of going on safari and spotting a tiger. I was caught short on my research here as I thought all that was required was to turn up and all the touts, hotel staff or hawkers would duly set us up for a safari. It wasn’t that way at all. The whole business was run and controlled by the state government and was a bit of a schamozzle. You were required to book online, I discovered, and there was limited space available. I had hoped to stay a couple of nights and get a few safaris in a “gypsy” (jeep). Not so lucky. First, the hotel manager came knocking at the door of our room offering us a rather overpriced ticket on a “canter” – an 18-seater 4WD. We walked through the village armed with sticks to brandish at packs of threatening dogs, to the official ticket booth. The rudeness was quite appalling and only one or two helpful people eventually clarified what was happening. No gypsy available as they were booked ages ago. Only one safari ride available which was the following morning in a canter. We did manage to book that online, thus avoiding the 33% commission on offer at the hotel. The hotel staff were helpful in other ways but it still involved a trip down to the ticket booth at 5:30am so I could show the online booking and be allocated a vehicle. I then had to travel back to the hotel on the back of a motorbike to wait for the safari vehicle to call by and pick us up. Typical Indian red tape.

Tiger pic 2So, in the back of an 18-seater being bumped around uncomfortably we headed off.  To make things more complicated, the park is divided into zones. We luckily got on the canter to Zone 6 which is a high tiger spotting area. After being bumped around for an hour and a half and seeing very few animals of any sort we stopped next to a watering hole. At this point I had given up all hope of seeing a tiger and couldn’t wait to go back to the hotel and on to Jaipur. A gypsy pulled up close by and clearly reported seeing a tiger as our driver took off at breakneck speed. While there were other vehicles present, we finally did see a tiger emerge from the undergrowth. It was an impressive beast. Beautiful, like all the big cats, and certainly the largest cat I have ever seen. It made up for some of the stress of getting to the place and on a safari.

With improved spirits but still weary from the early morning wake up we returned to the hotel and made as swift an exit as possible back to Jaipur. I had abandoned the idea of a second night at Ranthambore as there was little point, with no prospect of further animal spotting. The hotel we stayed in had a heritage style and lovely grounds with a murky swimming pool. There was a large stone wall across the road form it where, legend has it, leopards sometimes sit and wait to spot their next meal We didn’t see any, but I’ll settle for the tiger.

Back in Jaipur we limited our activity to taking another trip to see the pink city and one to the Panna Meena ka Kund, a so-called step well near the Amber Fort.

SteppystepsNow we are getting nearer the end of the journey. A one day lay up in Jaipur where we rested up and prepared for the next stop at Pushkar. The travelling can be a bit hard at times but it is nothing like the sort of gruelling travel I did as a young backpacker in these parts. Age and more money has seen to that.

Kolkata and beyond

From the south we headed to Kolkata. I first arrived in that city when I came to India in 1976. It was called Calcutta then and was entirely different place. As I’ve said before, India and the world were different places then. I remember suffering a bit from culture shock despite having been travelling in South East Asia in the previous months. I thought it was great at the time and was not disappointed after my lengthy absence. It had a bit of a different vibe to Mumbai and in many ways was rather more pleasant. The old yellow taxis gave it a Manhattan sort of feel. I was surprised to see them in such abundance. Based on the old Ambassador cars they really added to the atmosphere of the place. Interestingly they had “No Refusal” written on the side. I took this with a grain of salt and see I was probably right to do so. In theory they use the meters and although on our first ride the driver did so, all subsequent experiences were different. This included reneging on the original deal when we were already inside and setting off.  I did push back against this by shouting “Stop the car and I’ll give you 20 rupees!” It worked every time and the original deal was reinstated. After this we mainly used Uber and Ola – not always easy hooking up with the ride but considerably cheaper and no hassle about the fare.

Kolkata (8) (2)These hassles aside, the place was a treat. The sumptuous Victoria Memorial was on a Taj Mahal like scale. I barely remembered it from the first visit but it presented magnificently and was set in lovely parkland. We also loved the Indian Museum. It had some old and crumbling exhibits but the building was brilliant, this is so often the case with many of the museums in India. Often these are small with quite eclectic collections but housed in lovely buildings. The Indian Museum is on quite a different scale and a wonderful place to visit.

It must be added, that although Kolkata was fun to explore it was also hideously hot and humid. I was best able to stand up to it and spent a bit more time walking about. It was hard however keeping adequately hydrated as I became drenched in sweat. I photographed some of the lovely old buildings expecting to be shouted at by some guard. Many of the loveliest old buildings house government departments and that usually means photographing them is banned. I was chased off at one point but just carried on everywhere else as brazenly as possible, thinking that if they stopped me so what? There is an obsession about photography in India. Many things are exempt from any forms of photography. Often quite innocuous buildings or particular parts of museums. There is usually a charge added on at museums for cameras. Then sometimes you are only allowed to take photos with a mobile phone not a “proper” camera. It can be annoying and often seems arbitrary and stupid but that’s the way it is. Sometimes playing dumb or being sneaky gets you past this.

I also ventured over to the Central Market near where I had originally stayed all those years ago. I would be instantly pursued and harassed by some young lad as soon as I entered the place. They would list everything they could think of: “do you want pashminas, handicrafts, carvings…” the list would go on. Then in more hushed tones they would say: “Do you want hashish? Heroin? Morphine? Speed? Cocaine ..?” again the list would go on. Then: “You want girl?” And in even more hushed tones: “You want boy?” Anyway, the place burned down some years ago so it is unrecognisable today. So, life goes on….

I left Kolkata thinking that I had not really had as much time there as I would have wanted. It’s probably nicer at street level than the great city of Mumbai and has the reputation as a cultural and intellectual centre in India. A friend who spends quite a bit of time there on business had a few suggestions for places to eat and visit but we only got to a few of these. But there is always another time. From Kolkata we headed to Darjeeling. This involved a flight and a three-hour drive. We were finally caught having cabin baggage that was too heavy by AirAsia. It was an annoyance and cost us about $A30 (£13). They’ll probably do it again the next time we fly with them.

Darjeeling, a famous old British hill station, was far less touristy than I expected. Most of the tourists are Indians and we saw only a few Westerners. The town was hardly over developed for tourists either. What we did encounter was something we hadn’t seen for a while: rain. In fact, we got caught in a huge downpour and our flimsy umbrellas were of little protection. The lower temperature meant it was quite pleasant to walk. I had booked a ticket on the narrow gauge “toy” train that these days is pretty much a joyride. The day before they sent me a text saying it was cancelled. As the weather the next day was fine, we chanced going to the station and were rewarded with a ticket on the next train up the hill. I got covered in large coal dust but thoroughly enjoyed the ride. It brought back memories of my late father who was a huge steam train fan. He would have greatly enjoyed it.

Then it was off to Sikkim. I had always wanted to go there after I read about it as a kid. In those days it was an independent kingdom but that changed in 1975 when India decided to depose the king and take over. Sikkim’s strategic location abutting the Chinese border may have pushed India in that direction.  I should probably have researched the trip a bit better and left time to get a permit to visit Lake Chengdu. As it was, we needed a special permit to visit Sikkim which was a bit of a nuisance to acquire. It involved going to two different offices where stuffy old geezers wrote details in books and issued stamped forms. In the end no border soldiers looked at it but the hotel needed to see it before you could check in. But we were blessed with the weather in Gangtok and got great views of Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak after Everest and K2. It was really nice in Gangtok and the drive up there from Darjeeling was beautiful. Getting out proved a bit trickier. I hadn’t really accounted for the largest democratic exercise on earth – the elections for Lok Sabha – the Indian central parliament. This has received quite a bit of publicity in other countries. Over 900 million people eligible to vote and 15 million new voters since the last election in 2014. It is staged over about five weeks but unfortunately kicked off on the day we were planning on heading south. It appears that the advent of the election brings in all sorts of restrictions. Alcohol was not sold in the days preceding it and on the first day itself nearly all transport services were suspended. After some searching, we found a taxi driver willing to take us. After nervously waiting for the next day, he’d obviously farmed it out to a friend. We ended up with the guy in the picture. He looked about twelve years old, but was twenty, and drove like a maniac. He was a nice guy however and thankfully arrived in one piece.

Driver from GangtokI write this while sitting in a hotel room in Siliguri, a not particularly notable town but one that is a point between Gangtok and the airport at Bagdroga. Tomorrow we have a two-stage flight to Varanasi. Our time here gets shorter but as we are doing so much it all seems so long. It’s going to be quite a change. Now we go back to the great heat of the plains and away from the relative cools of the hills.

Fond of Pondy

Fast forward to India again. From Kandy we had headed south. First to the Udawalawe National Park for a safari amongst the elephants, monkey and birds. It was nice but again it was a bit of a shit fight with the other armada of vehicles. Eventually these seemed to disperse and we were left to wander in relative peace around the park. The park has its problems with the conflict between foraging elephants and the farmers who live around its perimeter. There appears to be some stress on the animals themselves whose opportunities for feeding themselves appear to have diminished. Elephants are large animals who eat a lot and can be a threat to humans when their lives conflict. This has escalated in recent years in Sri Lanka with over 375 people killed by wild elephants and over 1,100 elephants killed by humans within the five years to 2018. I have seen this in Africa before. Often it is the big businesses that own safari parks not really sharing that wealth around. Therefore, subsistence farmers bear the brunt of animal incursions.

From there we went to the southern city of Galle. This gave us an opportunity to have probably one last trip to the beach which was nice. We stayed in the Fort area which was a lovely area based on the old Dutch colony. Certainly, it was a lovely spot. See the pictures here.

Sri Lanka was a pleasant place but I am not overwhelmed but a huge desire to return. I would certainly recommend it to those who find the prospect of India daunting. It is altogether a far tamer and more benign place.

So, from Sri Lanka it was back to India and a flight to Chennai followed by a three hour taxi ride to Pondicherry. I have long wanted to come here. It is the main part of the old French India. There is still some influence left here. The old colonial town, White Town, is lovely, There has clearly been some effort put into restoring the old buildings and to emphasise its Gallic past. The result is rather nice. There are some very tasteful restaurants and boutiques and overall the place is lovely. It has to get a nomination for one of the most pleasant places I have visited in India. The only downside to this seaside town is that it lacks a beach you can swim on. It has a seaside promenade but this faces a sea wall. Notices ban any thought of swimming. We visited the neighbouring new age town of Auroville which I have to say was largely underwhelming. It has a fair presence of westerners with about 40% of the resident population being non-Indian. There some photos of Pondicherry (colloquially known as Pondy) here.

Pondicherry (68) (2)The French had a presence in India for several hundred years. There were apparently a number of reasons for the French withdrawal from India. The areas under French control were disparate and tiny. Times were changing and old-style colonialism was unpopular and outmoded. France had been hammered by the Vietnamese in Indochina and had come to the realisation it wasn’t the power it was anymore. A number of European countries had tried to carve out empires in India with the Dutch being ousted by the British, who appeared to tolerate the longer-term presence of the French and Portuguese. The latter were of course duly kicked out by the Indians in 1961 as their fascist regime had clung on desperately to its colonies until the mid-1970’s. Even the Danish had a few goes but were small and often disorganised. I feel an over-reliance on Wikipedia as a source here but it provides a fairly accurate overall picture.

Pondicherry (258) (2)We needed a new power board and were pointed in the direction of a local department store called Pothys. As we made our way to the electrical section on the fifth floor we passed through a dazzling selection of sarees. They made for a very colourful two floors. Quite a stunning scene. The shopworkers seemed to think it was a bit strange that we were quite taken by it. Obviously, they see it every day. The purchase process following typical red tape laden procedures.   The shop assistant comprehensively tested he power board by taking it out of the package, taking me to another desk and demonstrating that each power socket worked. Not bad customer service. He then typed up a sales invoice and directed me to the payment desk. I duly paid and had the sales invoice stamped four times in two different colours. I then had to go to another desk where another shop assistant officiously grabbed the stamped sales invoice (grabbing bureaucrats and frontline staff are another feature of Indian life), and then stapled the invoice to the plastic bag that was in front of him with the purchased power board. As soon as he had stapled the invoice, he then instantly ripped it off (leaving a hole on the side of the bag) and matched it with another shorter version receipt. He then stamped the two pieces of paper twice each with a blue stamp at dizzying speed and shoved the receipt and shopping bag at me with a look that reeked of resentment. Perhaps I was a little bemused and amused at the whole process at the same time. I was disappointed that he kept the sales invoice with the most colourful stamps on it but you can’t have everything. Red tape is a way of life here. It can be infuriating at times when you are stuck in a needless process but quite entertaining at others. I must admit I kind of preferred Pothys to David Jones or Marks and Spencer. The customer service was attentive and the colour of the place was seductive. The overstocked interior and the armies of sales staff reminded me of older times. I’m not been condescending here. I love these little things that this country throws at you. They come often in the most unexpected places and during the most trivial of tasks.

So, from here we leave the south. First to Kolkata and then even further north to Darjeeling and Gangtok. What a lovely part of India it has been. I haven’t been to Kolkata since 1976 but it was the first place I landed here and so significant as the first time I discovered India.

I love Kandy

Well not really. It’s not quite the green and pleasant place I had wanted it to be. It’s one of those places I remember seeing on the world map in my bedroom as a kid and wondering what it might be like. Over the years I probably built a picture in my mind of lush bush surrounding a quaint old colonial town. Not really much like that. Kandy was the kingdom that for centuries successfully fought off the Portuguese and the Dutch invaders, only to finally succumb to the British in the mid-19th Century. There is certainly pleasant countryside surrounding it but it brims with stinky traffic. Dambulla (68)Not on an Indian scale mind you. Sri Lanka has been comparatively mild compared with India. There is not the dreadful polluted air and manic traffic zooming around amidst odious mounds of thoughtlessly strewn rubbish. It has been a treat to smell things here – fresh air, hints of flowers. The traffic here is said by all guidebooks to be manic and lawless. But again, compared with India it is positively tame. The roads are generally well kept with all the white lines in place and there is far, far less of the eternal rubbish that despoils beautiful India. This is meant as a statement about some of the immediate and largely superficial differences between the two countries. I could not be said to be anything but an admirer of the chaos and swarm of humanity that characterises India and have blathered on about this at some length before. But India does take it toll on the senses in many ways and a brief respite is not such a bad thing. At this point, after a short foray further north to various ruins and things, Kandy has been where I have spent the last two days. It is something of a permanent traffic jam which does greatly detract from its charm. There are glimpses of what it has been and probably can be at times as you look over the lake into the green hills behind. But sadly, it hasn’t quite matched my preconception. But I’m not going to complain as it is pleasant, nonetheless.

Colombo was an immediate contrast to previous months as the streets were well paved and the rubbish piles relatively well contained. I found it a bit souless really. Not a particularly interesting city but I don’t think it is really fair to judge places in this way. There is a lot of development going on in the old Fort area which makes for some pleasant walking but has probably diluted some of the old charm of the place.

I have probably seen enough of temples for the time being despite some of these being quite striking. We didn’t really have time to explore the ruins of Anuradhapura and learnt on that visit the first problem of temple visiting here – hot feet. The sun that beats down makes the ground so hot, walking through them impossible at times. The answer is to take a pair of socks that makes it a bit more bearable. We then went south to stay at Sigiriya, home of the famous rock fortress. Too famous as it turns out. It is a tourist cliché here and if the climb to the top in unpleasant temperatures wasn’t enough then the crowds detracted from it as an impressive site. See the photos of the crowd waiting to go up the stairway. I imagine at the right time it would be magical but we didn’t see it at its best. I tend to grin and bear the heat a bit but it does make some of the trip quite hard. The ruins at Polonnaruwa were very impressive both in their scale and the attractive setting that surrounds them. I had thought to leave a visit to them off the itinerary at one point but was rewarded for the effort. “Effort” may not be the right word. We caved into pressure and went with a car and driver here. Public transport is not the greatest and the cost of taking individual cars from place to place was pretty much the same or more than hiring our own driver for much of the time we were here. It is hardly my usual style of travel but you can get used to it. At least it is to our own timetable and itinerary. The sweat factor very much in play and the increasing oppressive heat can make sightseeing tortuous at times. But I have persisted and the sweat-dripped climb to the top of Sigiriya rock was the dedicated labour of a long-term traveller. This was even more heroic given the unexpected violent vomiting I had experienced at breakfast that morning. For some reason a glass of freshly prepared pineapple juice seemed to induce it. I brushed it aside and persevered nonetheless. It is otherwise refreshing that my battered legs and foot survived the climb with no problem. It is a great relief to me that the foot that I almost cut in two before embarking on this journey has proved to be pretty much problem free. While my reconstructed toe has no power of its own, it neatly and agreeably falls into step with the rest of my foot and causes me no bother.

So today we headed higher through the tea plantations and gorgeous green foliage interspersed with colourful flowers that are part and parcel of the tropical highlands. Another day up here and it’s off to the hotter lowlands and coast.

I’ve added some photos here. But there are more to come.

Heading east then south

I’m sitting in a hotel room in Chennai on the eve of a flight to Sri Lanka. The journey since last writing has taken us from Kerala to the state of Tamil Nadu. The last leg of the Kerala journey was up into the hills. We stayed at a place called Munnar. It was blissfully cool and green. The area is known for its tea and the tea plantations themselves were a sight to see. The wonderful sea of green was surrounded at times by beautiful wildflowers and trees that also had uniquely coloured foliage. The contrast from place to place in this country is quite amazing. Of course, I have been to Himalayan areas and know how different they can be but the more I see of India the more I realise I have seen so little and that will probably never change.

There wasn’t an awful lot to actually see around Munnar as the wildlife park I had wanted to visit was closed as the rare nilgiri thar (a kind of goaty antelope) were having their breeding season and they didn’t want them to be upset or put off. But the scenery made up for this deficit as it was verdant and the air was the freshest we had breathed in some time. In fact, the air of south India so far seems better. We will return to the north and probably much worse air later. As I banged on about before, the air pollution is one of the worst things about being in India.

From Munnar we got a car to Madurai. This is in the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. Down from the Western Ghats to the drier plains. It was a beautiful drive and thankfully over fairly decent roads. The previous year there were very bad floods during the monsoon that caused quite a bit of damage, but a lot of road building had gone on and it was better than most we have experienced so far.

Madurai (26)Of course, with the drop in altitude came the return to the heat. A drier heat than Kerala but very hot nonetheless. We were staying next to the huge Meenakshi Amman temple. It is one if the largest in India and quite imposing. We went inside but large areas are off limits to non-Hindus. We did see enough to see the extent of it and it was impressive. Madurai has been referred to as the spiritual heart of Tamil Nadu and this temple is at the centre of that. There is more of the history of it here. Out hotel was right next it and we didn’t know but the roads around it were all closed and so this necessitated a walk with luggage under the hot sun. We had to repeat this when we left. Madurai is a pleasant town and not too big, around one million, although this has probably grown since the last census in 2011. This is pretty small by Indian standards. It had some quite ridiculous traffic jams that belie its size, which is clearly an area that needs work. It was very low on western tourists as well so it was Indian breakfasts eaten in very downmarket places. Not really a problem for me and quite a refreshing change in some ways from much of the touristy areas we have visited. There was also a quite imposing palace, the Thirumalai Nayak Palace, that apparently used to be much larger. It had huge pillars and I was left wondering what it must have been like in its better days. Like most things in Madurai, the prices have not yet been jacked up to sting foreigners. These can often be quite high. Understandably they should pay a market type price in order to maintain them and that poor Indians should be able to visit them, but sometimes this is a bit steep. Foreigners are frequently made to feel they have the same status as a walking ATM in India. There is an understanding that they should pay more but sometimes it grates a bit. This is sometimes why I find myself bargaining down a tuk tuk fare by 60 cents. Unfortunately, you need to do this to an extent otherwise you will be treated with a degree of contempt. When someone is honest with me, I am happy to give a large tip.

So, we flew from Madurai to Chennai to catch the flight to Sri Lanka. This was poorly researched on my part as, when I got to the airport I realised there were direct flights from Madurai to Colombo! They are not particularly expensive either. So, I added an unnecessary flight to the trip. I didn’t need that as I have lost track of tge number of flights we have done here and airport security is a real chore. Some airlines in India perform an extra security check after you have gone through normal airport security.

Photos of this part of the trip can be seen here.

Kerala continued

From Kochi we have headed south. Kerala is a beautiful place, all lush and green. It was lovely to journey through the small roads with the coconut palms and glowing green foliage. Not entirely different from other parts of India but it feels quite a bit more tropical anyway. Certainly the heat and humidity is cranking up although that is largely due to the change of seasons. I have been in north India before around April/May and I know it gets hideously hot. That’s something to look forward to, not.

Among the many sights that is striking is Indian men often hold hands when they are walking together. This is not a sign of a same sex relationship but quite a common thing, more an expression of friendship. It is a strange thing at first but easy to get used to. It is common in many cultures around the world and was once quite common in Western societies especially in the nineteenth century. It can look a bit incongruous when you see a man in western dress holding hands with his friend wearing a short mundu (local skirt).

Alleppey backwaters (259) (2)The mundu or its close relatives, the dhoti and lungi, are very common dress in Kerala. I’m not sure if I have an exact handle on the difference among them. It probably relates to length, style and colour. “When unbleached, the mundu is called “neriyathu”. In modern times, two types of mundu are prevalent—the single and the double. A single mundu is draped once around the waist, while the double is folded in half before draping. A mundu is usually starched before use.” Then we start on the lungi: “In Kerala the Lungi, locally known as Kaili or Kalli Mundu, is worn by both men and women. It is considered a casual dress or working dress of labourers. Most men in Kerala use lungi as home dress or sleep dress. Lungis are generally colourful, and with varying designs. Lungis are not used during occasions such as weddings or other religious ceremonies.” Thank you Wikipedia for that info, further reading is here. I’m still confused personally but suffice to say that blokes in this part of the world wear skirts and seem to prefer it to western trousers most of the time. This is not surprising considering it is stinking hot. I don’t think I’ll be making the switch just yet.

Kovalam (1)

Indians in the sea are an ongoing source of fascination to me. I think I have written about this before. As an Australasian, I have a distinct relationship with the sea. I love to swim in it, preferably playing in the waves. That is in my DNA, from childhood that was our beach culture. Swimming was regarded as a life skill that everyone should learn. It was funny to see Europeans in Goa lazing endlessly on their beach lounges just looking at the sea. They only occasionally venture into the sea Kovalam (4)and only when it’s not too “rough”. That is when there are waves of any sort. I struggle to spend hours at the beach as much as I love it.  But it is nice to enjoy the sea. Indians on the other hand are a different bunch again. Many of them can’t swim of course and to see them in places like Goa and Kerala as visitors borders on the comical. Beachwear is pretty much unknown to them so they frolic in the shallows in their clothes. I loved to show off in the sea by catching wave while bodysurfing which is often met with gawping stares by wading Indians. Also at the pool in our apartments I would jump in and do a four lap medley again to gawping stares.

Kovalam (14)

Kerala has had Communist Party led governments on and off since the 1950’s. They are certainly influenced by these ideas but function mostly as a reformist, democratic socialist style government. The flags with hammers and sickles can be seen in many places and there are some more festive and stylistic interpretations to be found on the walls in some villages. The history is rather convoluted with various factions and splits of the Indian Communist Party forming coalition fronts with other left wing parties to form governments over the years. Either way, Kerala has the highest literacy rate in Hammers and sicklesIndia, 95% vs 74% for the country as a whole. Overall, Kerala scores relatively high on the Human Development Index compared with many other states in India and other countries. The reasons are mixed and debatable. Left leaning governments have focused on healthcare, education, women’s rights, basic infrastructure and sanitation with consequent positive results. But Kerala appears to have strong grassroots organisations that are active and successful. Many Keralans have benefited from working in the Gulf however their success there can also be attributed to higher standards of education.

Kerala is a lovely part of India for a variety of reasons but it has an interesting political history and has achieved some success in human development that outstrips much of the rest of the Indian subcontinent.

See photos of Kerala at https://easytravellerdotnet.wordpress.com/kerala/

On the road south

The first stop past Goa was Bangalore or Bengaluru which is now its correct name. It comes from the local Kannada language Benda-kaal-uru. It means essentially “place of the boiled beans”. There is a legend behind it but that is open to some debate. Follow that link if you want to delve deeper. It was surprisingly green and pleasant. The tree lined streets were not what I was expecting. It doesn’t seem as big as it is, at 12.3 million people it’s not very large by Indian standards but hardly small. It is one of the main centres of Indian IT so that should probably make it one of the centres of world IT. Not that I really saw much evidence of that. I had booked a stopover here for a couple of days with the thought of just having a look at the city itself but that was, in hindsight, a bit of a mistake. The neighbouring places of Mysore (Mysuru) and Ooty are attractive destinations in themselves. I knew we were not really going to make it to Ooty but only realised later how attractive the sights were in Mysuru. It is a pleasant place itself and has a famous palace. In the end we made a one-day trip there by hiring a taxi which included a stop off at a place called Srirangapatna, which is home to another old palace that was rather fascinating. I have included some pictures of it under the Mysore tab. It was about 150km to Mysore from Bangalore, a 300km round trip. That is quite long by Indian standards as roads are usually in poor condition and clogged. This road was better than usual but still was a bit of a slog. I was a victim of my own poor planning. It was worth the journey anyway but I left both places feeling I hadn’t really done them justice. Not to worry, we still saw quite a bit during our stay.

In the background of this has been the latest dust up between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. This was triggered by a hideous loss of life (more that 40) in a suicide bombing of an Indian army convoy by a terrorist group in Pulwama, Kashmir in February. This led to an Indian incursion into Pakistani territory to bomb a supposed terrorist training camp, an Indian plane getting shot down followed by the Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan, handing the surviving captured pilot back to India in a gesture of supposed goodwill. Pakistan has been fairly conciliatory but the sabre rattling on the Indian side has been louder. This is not least because Indian elections are due soon and the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and his BJP party are in danger of losing their parliamentary majority. This whole episode brings a largely welcome distraction from India’s inconvenient problems such as rising unemployment. These incidents can be a gift to incumbent politicians everywhere who are under pressure. I expect this to blow over but we are keeping travel plans up north to a minimum and seeing how it all goes.

From Bangalore we flew to Kochi (previously known as Cochin). These new names for places are seemingly used interchangeably. I haven’t met any Indians yet who feel particularly strongly about it. Bombay is still frequently used in Mumbai. It is largely the same with Bangalore and Mysore. These were essentially Anglicised names that have been officially dumped as an unwelcome vestige of imperialism. I’ve yet to hear anyone call Chennai by its old name of Madras but I haven’t been there yet so I’ll wait and see.

Kochi, at least the area of Fort Kochi is lovely. Pleasantly laid back and not overwhelmed with tourists. The places to eat and stay are largely decked out more tastefully than Goa, where the evidence of its Indo-Portuguese character has largely been wiped away by rapid development. There are a greater range of nationalities among the tourists with a more noticeable presence of French, Australians and even Americans. Although not the worst of your loud Yankee tourists by any means. One great advantage of this is the greater availability of halfway decent coffee.

I finally made good on my threat to hire a Royal Enfield motorbike for a day and rode out west of the city. The roads were a bit less clogged than Goa and not quite as infested with speed humps or speed breakers as they are called here. These are frequently not marked and take you by surprise and leading to hitting the breaks hard or being uncomfortably tossed in the air and threatening to break the suspension. Annoying as these are, they are really necessary because there would be terrible mayhem without them. There are few road rules here and stupid behaviour is common but it has some logic to it with an underlying code of practice. It is possible to ride here fairly comfortably as traffic is generally pretty slow. Even on the old Royal Enfield I barely got above 60kph. There are just too many daft drivers and other obstacles like stray cows, dogs and pedestrians who don’t mind walking three abreast and getting in the way of passing traffic.

This state, Kerala, currently has a communist led government and I have yet to investigate what changes they have brought here. There are numerous slogans and murals on walls concentrating on social issues and warnings about the dangers of drugs. The red flags with white hammer and sickle emblems fly in many places.

Now the plan is to head south through Kerala and then back north across to Madurai and Chennai before a side trip to Sri Lanka.

Goan Goan Gone

I write this on the last day we spend in Goa. It’s been great. We have made friends that will last, we have seen more of this great country, swum day after day in the warm and pleasant Arabian Sea, watched more gorgeous sunsets than I can remember and partied with some fabulous people. It’s been a ball.

More than that though is the fact that it has been great to wake up day after day in India. To be living here has been quite different.  There will be plenty of people who say that Goa isn’t really India but in many ways it most certainly is. In fact, it is very hard to point to one place on the sub-continent and say: “This is the real India”.  The variety over a huge country of 1.3 billion souls is so great that a lifetime would not be enough to explore and truly know it. Goa has had the advantage of an expat community that has helped provide us with amenity and the companionship of like-minded people. If that has detracted from an “Indian experience” well then so be it. This is a different part of India with its Portuguese background and that lends it a special flavour.  It is, to an extent, the Las Vegas of India with its endless hotels, cheap booze and casinos. It is changing from a playground of foreigners to the playground of Indians. I would have loved to have seen it many years ago when I first came to India but that never happened. Places change and it is foolish to lament what was. It still is a charming place and as a crossroads for travellers it has been endlessly interesting.

There is not much more to say than that, although I have written quite a bit previously about it. For us it has been one more chapter in life’s story. These are the things you don’t forget and it has been a wonderful experience. Our trip since leaving Australia has been largely settled. First to England to dump our bags and stay for months and then here to do much the same. It has been very comfortable but now for a bit of wandering again.

So goodbye Goa. I don’t know if I will pass this way again but if I don’t, well it was great to have done it at least once. Ahead lies two months on the road: Kerala, Sri Lanka and northwards (if the conflict with Pakistan doesn’t affect that). So, with a tinge of sadness there is also the excitement of new places, new experiences and all sorts of people to meet. That is the true spirit of life for me. It brings with it a love and embrace of change. Change can be a mixed bag but when you are making the changes you are setting life’s agenda, as much as that is possible. Onward we go.

A typical day

A typical day in Goa kicks off around 8am. Sometimes it’s a bit earlier. I do manage to get to the gym every second day and when an Aussie friend was here, we would swim between the lifeguard stations which is probably around 800m. But otherwise it’s a routine of getting up to a strong Nescafe. I’ve managed to adapt in some ways to awful instant coffee. Had I been a bit more on the ball I could have tracked down a plunger but on some days, I venture to the German Bakery or a local franchise called Coffee Day Café for a half-way decent brew.
Our apartment is a rather spacious two bedroom one with a study that serves as the open suitcase room. It has two bathrooms with one including a bath that has been claimed by Jackie. This works well as the shower is rather pathetic, with a flexible tube and an old fashioned style telephone type shower head. Very English in every way. While my bathroom is somewhat more utilitarian, it has a decent shower.
Our kitchen is spacious and well equipped expect it doesn’t have a proper oven. Eating out is very cheap here so apart from fried eggs for breakfast most days, simple pasta dishes and experimental Indian cookery learned through cooking classes.
We have ample ceiling fans and air conditioning however power cuts are frequent. Sometimes many times a day. It generally comes back after a few minutes. There are backups in most modern places. When ours cuts out we lose the air con but not the fans, We lose the fridge and microwave but not the tv. It is generally no more than a mild annoyance. More annoying is the internet. There are virtually no landline connections so a mobile modem is the only way. The internet is usually ok in the morning but tends to get worse in the evening. I hedge our bets a bit by having two mobile modems on different networks and some data allowance on my mobile (on another network again). But sometimes all three are rubbish and you just have to suck it up. I’ll complain less about the internet in Australia when I get back.
We hire a scooter as main transport as taxis are very expensive by Indian standards. Buses are reasonably frequent and cheap but the convenience of our own wheels is too tempting. The rental for it is about $A6 (£3 a day). The traffic is mad of course and takes some getting used to but as in all these countries with virtually no discernible road rules there is a kind of etiquette. I’m sure it would bamboozle most in the West but it is helpful that traffic is relatively slow. There are the added hazards like cows, dogs, poorly marked speed humps and people who aren’t too fussy which side of the road they drive on. Nuts, but you kind of get used to it.
Path to the beach 1So, to resume the daily routine. We usually head down to the beach at the first opportunity. While Candolim is a fairly developed part of Goa, the beach is very large and so pretty uncrowded. With a mostly European and Indian tourist population, they barely venture into the sea. Many are English and Russian so sit or lie on sunbeds doing anything but actually engaging with the sea itself. They look at me strangely when I emerge from waves that they consider far too rough to even think of going in. Of course, by Australian standards it’s all pretty mild. I do impress some of them with my body surfing. Path to the beachSomething they wouldn’t even think of doing. Indians are even stranger in this situation. They have quite a different way of swimming. “Men in drawers walk the beach or dive into a resort pool while their fully clothed women frolic in its shallows..” says one Indian website describing the new age of Indian tourism. The article is an apt description of local tourism in modern India: https://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/column-when-the-twain-shall-meet-2691391?fbclid=IwAR1h7mWRsBYLdKGhnQAyNq9yKxyVHnOI1g15DnkPzRnosbEaHWoHkvhGoMc. Indian tourists are on the rise in Goa as Europeans increasingly retreat in the face of over development, higher prices and annoying, expensive visa regulations. Indian tourists are not particularly popular with locals. They tend not to spend money in restaurants and bars and often are to be found roaming the streets in packs (males especially) inebriated on cheap and strong beer. Booze is cheap in Goa – much more so than other states in India, some of which are completely dry. With large groups of Indians comes the inevitable: noise. They are not a quiet people. This article sums up how tourism is developing here: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/society/the-ugly-indian-tourist
This is not a racist rant, Indians like all others on the planet, some are lovely others certainly not. The people are amazingly diverse, ranging in colour from the white to the deepest black. This is a country that swarms with crowds, noise, colour and chaos. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea but for those of us who embrace it, it is life affirming. To have lived here month on month and lived it every day, it is wonderful.
But I digress again. The beach is lovely and the swim is like having a bath as the water hovers close to 29°C. Some days the surf is great for a frolic, others it is rather too calm. On those days the English will venture in for a paddle. The walk to the beach takes around ten minutes. It is a pleasant one down a dirt track that wends through the palm trees and old Portuguese villas. Strange and exotic bird noises fill the air. On many days this short walk fills me with the invigorating essence of what travel is for me. I suspect it would be like all of Goa was twenty or so years ago. But on the way back when you hit the main road that vision tends to vanish.
Our daily walk to the beach has brought us into contact with our three main furry friends. Ashley, Stumpy and Tyrian. Ashley loves to lie in the ash residue of the frequent rubbish fires that are lit in our street just over the wall.

Stumpy is fairly obvious. We meet her near the beginning of the track to the beach. Sometime in her past there was an unfortunate accident with her tail. Finally as we progress down the track is Tyrian. A strange looking dog. The picture does not convey his diminutive stature. When you see him you would think he should be bigger. He has the rumpled and loose skin that should be on a larger beast. He is a pleasant creature although a bit doddery. We greet each other everyday when we pass and it is unusual not to find them in their customary places.
The days never drag. It always seems to be a surprise when we mockingly ask: “Where has the day gone?” Of course, typical days are not always typical. Some days we have errands to fill. Sometimes there are things to find like clothes, medicines, bags etc. We have out rides into the hinterland or to other beaches north and south. Sometimes we venture into the state capital Panjim and walk through the old Portuguese quarter. Others we spend time with friends we have made here, usually at some musical event. Life is hardly hectic but not really empty either. This is some sort of practice run for retirement It would be hard to understand for many friends back in the world of work. A rigid adherence to the protestant work ethic would probably fill me with guilt most days. But it does so less and less. I am aware however time can be wasted so it is best to try and fill it with creative things if possible. Work does loom on the horizon as we haven’t retired and realistically can’t retire for some time. For now, typical days are very pleasant days.