Thursday, 30 April 2009

Thanks (but can I have a new liver?)

This here is Brad, Brad Pike to be specific. I think the last time I saw Brad was in Zimbabwe at my farewell party before I left Zimbabwe. I was indulging myself in a couple of frothy tops in Rob De Ridder's lounge when Brad was leaving the party. I heard his truck start up and then a metallic thud as he reversed into someone. I started to laugh until someone in the room said "I don't know what you're snickering at, it was your car he just drove into."
Well that shut me up PDQ. As to the car, the damage was insignificant and a couple of weeks later the vehicle was written off when a fully grown Doberman sauntered into the road when I was driving home. Sadly things didn't turn out so peachy for the Doberman either. At the time I was livid for all the wrong reasons (IE the car being totalled) but looking back I just feel sorry for the dog. Insurance paid up for the vehicle and that in turn paid for my ticket to the UK and everything seems to have fallen into place for a reason. Unless of course you were a doberman whose moronic owners proved incapable of keeping you off a busy road.

Brad in the interim had moved to Australia and set up a new life with his family there, working mostly out of Chiang Mai in Thailand as part of the tobacco trade and travelling between Australia and Thailand for work and family reasons. Needless to say when we knew that we were making this trip emails were sent and luckily our timing co-incided with his and one Friday night we met up and things got a bit messy. We commenced play at the Un-Irish Bar and ended up at Spiceys, a late night joint that sells beer and plays bad music I am told. Between the two venues I could have been taken to Timbuktu for all I know.

The fun did not end here. A couple of nights later we went to watch some Muay Thai and lost all our bets through a combination of picking bad fighters and a very apparent and unsubtle amount of fight fixing that seemed to be taking place. I bumped into one of the fighters later, a behemoth of an Irish fellow who had been ahead on points and then just quit at the end of the second round. Literally. He just heaved his shoulders and dropped out of the fight. He was half way through munching a hot dog at Mikes Kithchen when I saw him.
"What happened" I cried, "you were doing so well, you were ahead on points."
"An old time injury started playing up" he winced.
"But you were ahead on points" I exclaimed, exasperated.
"Thanks," he said somewhat sheepishly.
"Thanks?!!!!! Thanks? I had money on you, you great poltroon," I wanted to cry. I say "wanted" as he was quite large both up and across and mean looking and I suspect that if I goaded him too much he might suddenly forget his old injury and decided to engage me in mortal combat.
The most alarming thing about the Muay Thai was not the rampant match fixing though. It was the fact that out of six fights three involved little kids of about eight, pounding each other with everything that they had. And the crowd loved it! If I put something like this up on Youtube then I would be sent to gaol, but it happens here three times a week.
A third time out with Brad ended prematurely when I ran away (to be fair Nipun was very unwell having picked up a dodgy tummy) early, but I still felt deathly the next day. But that aside this is meant to be about Mr Pike, who quotes Shakespeare when he drinks ("Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war") and inisists on picking up bar tabs that are not his. So thanks Brad, and when we hopefully see you in the UK it will be on us. But I suspect that there will time for a few more catch up sessions between now and Monday when we leave. So please, let us pay this time! Oh, and any chance of a new liver?

Monday, 27 April 2009

Of Elephants, Snakes and Temples

“We also have a circus” he said. “Also a school for animal training.” This interested me greatly, since I have a loathing for everything associated with performing animals.” I have never seen a lion tamer who did not deserve to be mauled; and when I see a little mutt, wearing a skirt and a frilly bonnet, and skittering through a hoop, I am thrilled by a desire for its tormentor (in the glittering pantsuit) to contract rabies.

Paul Theroux - Riding the Iron Rooster

It is hard to believe but we have now been in Chiang Mai for just shy of two weeks. The Rough Guide has a few warnings from the wise regarding Chiang Mai. It would appear that Chiang Mai is to the traveller what Calypso’s island was to Odysseus. An anticipated short stay turns into an unexpectedly long sojourn, and whilst you know that you should be getting on with your journey, it becomes difficult to leave. The pace of life is relaxing, the people friendly and the hospitality second to none. The other warning that the Rough Guide bundles in is regarding the food. “The main difficulty with eating in Chiang Mai is knowing when to stop.” And how true that is. Be it the street market food with barbequed chicken and pork, spiced to perfection, or the local specialities, the food is ambrosial.

It has to be admitted that during this two week stay my attempts to keep this site up to date have flagged somewhat. By and large we have been kept very busy, taking in the local town markets and Wats, the night markets, a cooking school and an elephant and snake show. My thanks to Mr Theroux for providing the quotation above whose eloquence sums up my general feeling for performing freaks of nature. Coming from a family that has bred parrots for generations my brothers are well aware that if it were up to me I would open the aviaries and set the birds free, and elephants, lets face it, should be respected and not made to paint pictures with their trunks. The snake park was more depressing and on this point I can only hope that in future when I see somebody manhandling a snake and swinging it around his shoulders by its tail, that he will shortly rue the day he chose this trade. Nothing personal but treat animals well, please. Sure, if you have a python the size of a baobab beneath your house, get a snake handler in. But do not chuck them in cages and watch them become gradually more and more diseased until their snouts are disintegrating. And is it really that ingenious to taunt a king cobra three times a day? Sure, there is a lot of skill involved and frankly of you asked me to do it you’d get a very short and pusillanimous response, but really. I would love to say that the crocodile handler at the snake park just outside Harare had learnt his lesson. A year after losing his arm to one of his captives he was still prodding our reptilian friends about with a pole though, grinning like a troglodyte who has just half discovered the powers of fire. He was clearly not a man to whom the saying “Once bitten, twice shy” was applicable.

The Elephant Farm was not so bad in spite of my diatribe. Many of the elephants are orphans and the Indian Elephants have a far more agreeable and compliant nature than their African counterparts. Some of the show was pure cheese, the aforementioned painting show (sadly the elephants failing to plunge a paintbrush through the eye of their trainers), elephants doffing their hats and walking around in circles tail to trunk. When they started to kick a large plastic football around though you began to get an understanding of their immense power, and whilst watching them stack and pile enormous logs it was hard not to be impressed by their grace, power and the precision with which they were handled. I find this kind of work orientated display easier to reconcile than cheap tricks, yet I was in the minority it would appear. The marauding masses seemed quite bored by this part of the show, but when the straw hats came out they became euphoric once more. Our tuk tuk driver, Adoon Ireland, tried to get us to go to a Monkey Show too, but by this stage I was practically ready to the monkeys dirty work for him so instead we went back into town and did the cultural stuff (in other words we went to another Wat). Adoon was a likeable fellow, gregarious and with a mischievous laugh that always made you wonder if you were at the brunt of some arcane joke. The “Ireland” part of his name seems to have come from the fact that he lived in Dublin for five odd years working as a construction worker before he found himself struggling to find gainful employment and returned to Thailand. He was no fan of the Irish winter either so I suspect that leaving Ireland was not the end of the world for him. He now drives a tuk tuk with a Bob Marley sticker emblazoned across the side and willingly chats away about most things other than politics. Try as I may he would only shake his head on this one and remain very non committal. This seems to be a common trait. Our other taxi driver was Mr Chai and he too was happy to chew the fat about anything else but. Mr Chai was a cunning one. He offered to take us around town for 100 baht (GBP 2.00) which seemed far to cheap. What we did not know was that every factory shop in Chiang Mai seemed to bankroll him. For every tourist he bought to their shop he received a fuel coupon. As such, he was very eager to show us around, indeed far too eager at times. In his defence he was completely honest about this and our 100 baht jaunt would have cost a lot more if this was not the case. After looking at silverware, gold, brass ware, ceramics, lacquer ware, leather and umbrellas I suspect that he had enough fuel to last the rest of the month. What was interesting on these trips was meeting the apparently large Nepalese community that now reside in Chiang Mai. Chiamg Mai has welcomed them as part of a co-operative scheme in the interest of diversifying the already burgeoning handicraft market that exists. They were nice guys, displaced from home but making a go of it abroad. Once we got past the aggressive sales bit they relaxed a lot and were very open and easy to speak to. Like everyone else at the moment they are finding things difficult, the global recession has caught up with them and they seem to be willing to sell most of their stuff off as cheaply as they can just to help cash flow. Whether that was just sales talk or not I guess I will never know, but at the end we were chatting pretty frankly.

We ended up at Bo Sang, the area where a large proportion of the Thai umbrellas are made. The umbrellas are made from either silk, paper or cotton with bamboo shafts. The fabric is then hand painted and varnished to make it water resistant. Like all the Thai crafts that we saw that afternoon the umbrellas were that beautiful that you feel compelled to reach into your pocket and say “Yes! Please! How much!?” Unlike all the places though the compulsion at Bo Sang beat common sense around the head and we are now the proud owner of a silk umbrella. Nice.

In the last couple of days Nipun and I have largely been at cooking school. We took different days, firstly capitalise on doing two days each and as such getting four days of knowledge between us, and secondly to have a bit of downtime where we can get around a bit by ourselves. The cooking school was a great experience and makes me wish we were returning home to our own kitchen in some ways. Travelling can be great, but it is over a month since we ate a home cooked meal and a wardrobe seems like such a very precious commodity.
We have also been up Doi Suthep, the mountain that is crowned by Wat Phra That. Upon arrival there are three hundred stairs to ascend and then you reach the Wat proper. Quite honestly it has to be said that the three hundreds steps pale in comparison to the journey up to the Monkey (Jakhu) Temple in Shimla. The Wat is very beautiful, as are all the Wats we have been to. The vibrancy and attention to detail is again awe inspiring and whilst sometimes ruins can be more beautiful than a glistening, well maintained building, I would argue that Wat Phra That is an exception to this. The fact that it is built so high up and on a seeming precipice is again very impressive, as you look over the edge there are long ridges of concrete reinforcing that support the build. 1000 metres below via a short but serpentine route is Chiang Mai. The road bends and twists so much that upon arriving at the Wat both Nipun and I felt nauseous! In the week that lies ahead we plan to go hiking in the hills outside Chiang Mai and then start looking onwards and upwards towards Laos. Whilst Chiang Mai has been great if we do not shake this gentle contentment we find ourselves here next year, wondering if the money will last that much longer and how much we can get as teachers.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Happy Songkran!

Alas I am a bit behind on the whole blog at the moment, a combination of having been really busy (what DO travellers do all day?), sporadic internet connection and an inability to get onto the blog from the hotel and hence the laptop where all the images and text are saved! USB keys don't work as our Operating system is Vista and this has Microsoft works and all the internet cafes have an older Operating system that cannot open the aforementioned. And I'm lazy, the truth will indeed out. In response to this a picture is apparently worth a thousand words and so I'll bung down a couple of those and I'll chuck in a video clip from Songkran, the biggest water fight in the world. That should easily bulk it all up a bit! Songkran by the way is the business. It rocks.

Journey from Hell Part II

Our original plan had been to arrive in Bangkok early on the 9th April and then take an overnight train straight through to Chiang Mai in the North of the country. Upon arriving at Hualamphong Train Station in Bangkok it became very obvious that this was not going to happen. Alas, owing to the New Year festivities of Songkran the first train that we could get out of Bangkok was on the 13th, so we had four days to kill in Bangkok. In itself this was no problem, Bangkok is a town that neither of us are that familiar with and as such it gave a chance to explore the city, albeit with the Red Shirts in town running amok and burning buses and generally antagonising the police in all manner of ways (for my own part I imagine that I would react rather unkindly towards anyone throwing a fire bomb in my direction). But being what Morrissey would have referred to as the “Lazy Sunbathers” in his heyday (which for me was Vauxhall and I), we were fairly oblivious to the disquiet downtown more or less up until the time that we were meant to start heading out towards the station.

Our train was scheduled to depart from Hualamphong Station in Bangkok at 1800, however as we arrived back at out Guest House we were told to check if this was still the case by a couple of people. I legged it across the road to the station (only to have a bucket of water thrown at me by the cleaning lady and her companions, Happy New Year to you too) to be told that the train had been cancelled and would not be going anywhere, whilst the next available train would be in three days time. I pleaded. The bored ticket sales man looked on, wholeheartedly unsympathetic. After all it was a bank holiday, he had to work and I was clearly being a difficult customer asking stupid questions. “The train is full hombre, get lost,” his expressionless face said. He flicked through pages of trains on the screen, all with no availability. And then he had a brain wave. If we did not take the sleeper option and went for a reclining chair then could leave the same evening at 2230 and save money too. We would have to leave from Bang Sue at the other side of the metro as no trains were leaving from Hualamphong due the red shirts, but other than that, happy days. Why we not offered this option from the outset was a murky, swampy, pestilence ridden topic that I did not want to go in. We did the refund, got the new tickets and I went back to the lodge to explain the news.

At 9 o’clock we found ourselves at Bang Sue Station in eager anticipation of our 2230 train, which was now leaving at 2300. The station was rammed with people all congregated on the open platforms beneath the stars and sharing the balmy evening with the mosquitoes. This was no glamorous, modern station by any means. It was functional spit and sawdust stuff. At 2300 our train was said to be leaving at midnight. And then I got talking to some of the other people on the platform. It was now 1100pm. Many of the people I spoke to had been at the station since 1900. At midnight very little had happened but apparently (sun?)light was at the end of the tunnel and we would be on our way by 0100. People were now sleeping on the tarmac platforms all around us. Soon Nipun joined them for a brief nap. At 0200 there was still no train and by three I was losing the will to live. By four I was hopeful that I may see the sun come up over Bangkok, by five though the predawn light showed me in sufficient detail that whilst I might get to photograph dawn, there was not much of interest to take a picture of. We were in Bangkok’s ugliest corner. It has to be said that the occasional train did show up and depart, infrequently, late and after sitting at the respective platform for an hour. And by about 0500 I had really kind of lost all interest.

The sun came up at just before six and we were still on hand to shoot it. Like the station, I can say that I was there and it was ugly. But at least I have some proof that I have been up for sunrise in Bangkok. At about seven that morning we finally pulled out of Bang Sue and were on our way to Chiang Mai. I must admit that doing the train during the day offered some really stunning views that we would have missed on a sleeper train. We passed through paddy fields of rice and other grain crops, lakes and rivers all of which we would not have seen by night. But again part of me has to admit that we were too tired to do anything other than recline in our semi-reclining chairs and hope that the journey would be relatively painless and quick which it mostly was. About one hundred kilometers outside Chiang Mai we had to leave the train for a bus as our train was required back in Bangkok again. The bus was AC though and to be fair it was probably quicker. We are now in Chiang Mai and ready to take to the streets for Songkran tomorrow. But for now Goodnight, we are off to sleep!

Final Result: Red shirts 1 / Lazy Sunbathers 0 Referee: BKK Police

Sunday, 19 April 2009


Well here we are in Thailand. After a nail biting connection between the Bangalore to Mumbai leg for the onward flight to Bangkok we are here at last - hurrah! I say nail biting as we had the usual palaver that always seems to occur when you need make a connection flight, the plane leaves late, lands later still, and the bus driver between the terminals has had a long, long day and done the entire trip without ever having made it out of first gear. It was a little stressful but we got here, and hey if we didn’t, there is always tomorrow.

The last time I left Thailand I had a little tear in my eye. This was not primarily due great sadness about leaving (which I was), but more because I had picked up an eye infection that left me with two continually seeping, swollen shut eyes and the terrifying suspicion that if it was not cleared up quickly I might go blind. I jest not, when I got home the only way I could negotiate traffic lights was by following the car in front of me and hoping that they had not jumped a red. In the end I had to ask a friend to take me to a doctor PDQ. I digress though, the other reason for the seeping eye was because I was finishing up Mordecai Richelieu’s Barney’s Version, a stunningly poignant and beautifully written tale about, erm, Barney. And then of course I was very sad to be leaving Thailand and toyed with the idea of coming back to teach English when I got my sight back.
Arriving back it is easy to recall why I was a little heavy of the old ticker. We have spent the last few days in Bangkok and it has been a blast. And I have seen enough to make my eyes water again, how symbolic that I left half blind. We got the bus into town and checked into Your Place, a guesthouse near Hua Lumphong station. Whilst not the most exciting part of town location wise it works really well for us, the super efficient metro is a two minute walk away and there are pretty good buses to most places. As importantly China Town is a twenty minute walk down the road which means cheap, good food. We have been eating street food for four days solid now and after India my constitution seems fabulously robust. Songkran (the Buddhist New Year or the worlds biggest wet t-shirt party depending on your interpretation) is also upon us which has meant pitched water fights in the streets. It is great! 35 degree heat, ice cold water and water pistols. Oh, and cold beer too. But the cultural bits first.

We spent our first full day at Wat Pho (your humble narrator having panicked and got off the bus too early as we were on our way to the Grand Palace) where there was a food festival on in the lead up to Song Kran. Any weight I lost in India promises to return all too quickly at this rate. Besides housing the food festival Wat Pho is also home to the Reclining Buddha, a behemoth of a statue in the form of a gold Buddha that measures 45 metres. It is enormous. The rambling complex is fascinating in itself and before we knew it was six in the evening, we had eaten the equivalent of a small armies rations and it was time to go. The next day we tried to out do our gastronomic efforts of the previous day in China Town and spent our time there, eating all manner of things that could occasionally be identified. They have a Tesco’s in China Town which seems a bit surreal, the Tesco Lotus. (Edit: Tesco Lotus seem almost as ineluctable as they are in the UK, they were even sponsoring Songkran events in Chiang Mai, offering peppermints to anyone who would take one.)

Songkran was drawing ever closer and the next evening we found ourselves in Pat Pong for the night market. Patpong remains much the same as I remember it. Within minutes of arriving I had been offered “DVD SEX," and when these tactics failed several personable and pressing invites into go-go bars (I declined). Oddly, many beautiful women seemed to think I was handsome (maybe they had a point). And then minutes later I was offered all of the above again. And a few minutes later the offers were repeated. By the time we left at about 1 am Songkran had officially started and was underway in full swing. We were both drenched, Levi's soaked through and a sweat shirt that came off at about midnight because it was so ridiculously wet that it weighed about ten kilos. In Bangkok they also add to the water throwing with smearing clay across your face as a blessing. No sooner have you managed to hose the clay off before somebody else decides to do it again. In short it is best to go with it as resistance is futile. Since then we have been back to Pat Pong for the Songkran festivities again. The fire department were out with their hoses to douse the crowd and I am really glad we got to see Songkran in Bangkok as well as Chiang Mai. It is Same Same but Different as the saying goes. Needless to say this time I wore shorts and a vest and abandoned any hope of avoiding a drenching.

An A to Z of India

Childlike yes. Though as Paul Theroux observed so much of travel seems to be waiting so herewith. This was scribbled down on the back of napkins and in my little notepad which is slowly falling apart. It was conceived partly at train stations, a bar in Bangalore and bits of pieces of were obvious immediately and pressing on their nature. For an example see "I"

Anyway here it is....
“Are You Experienced?” Amusing novel we read here about a nineteen year old's first trip to India. It was never going to win the Booker prize but it is laugh out loud in places in spite of it’s scatological humour and light hearted foolishness. In places it reads like a Bible, mentioning a “rugby team of touts” and the heat in Delhi. However cue the lamb burger incident, and the astute observation that there do no seem to be any lambs in India (so what the devil is that that masquerades as lamb on all the menus?) and we are really on to something.

BlaggersOne of the less appealing aspects of India was the feeling that everyone who was helpful or friendly was probably trying to get one over on you. From the kindly gentleman in Delhi who told us that the official Government Tourist Office was closed for refurbishment to the affable taxi drivers in Goa who mentioned that there was no bus that ran from the airport into town, the streets seemed alive with petty cons and vastly inflated prices. Then of course there were the snake charmers of Jaipur who tried to demand fiendish amounts of money for a somewhat unsatisfying display of their “skills” and the Worst Restaurant in India (found in Agra) whose greasy omelettes on dirty plates cost the same as a small island in the Mediterranean.
Cricket” From the dramatic foothills of the Himalayas to the magnificent shores of Goa and Kerala the conversation goes something like this:“What is your good name?”“What do you do?”“Where are you from?”“Ahhhhhh, Zimbabwe. You have a cricket team.” Warmth and congeniality radiate out from the speaker. We are now officially companions, friends, soul mates. I didn’t have the heart to mention that the last international game of cricket I watched was about twenty years ago.
“Driving” In our time in India the roads have shown me things that are just not scientifically possible. Cars fitting into and out of spaces that are just too confined to really happen, motorways where cars come at you from the right. And the left. And the sheer volume of traffic. I wonder, is there an un-rush hour?

“Enterprising” Everywhere we went in India I was struck by the way in which her denizens manage to get things done. In Zimbabwe we used to call it MacGyver after that mulleted, loveable eighties TV hero, and indeed in India the spirit of MacGyvering lives on. Whether it be taking a combine harvester down stream by lashing a platform across to narrow boats and towing the resultant catamaran with a smaller vessel, or supporting a five story building with bamboo scaffolding, there is always a way. Even those rogues the touts seem to possess a certain genius like quality.

“Food” The food in India has been nothing short of delicious, bar an omelette I had (see “Blaggers“). I thought I would struggle eating mostly vegetarian meals but there is such an enormous diversity of dishes on offer that this was the least of my worries. Aside from the gastronomical delights is the added bonus that I have almost lost my beer belly and their best pals the Love Handles (See “Imodium“).
“Generosity” We have been shown enormous generosity throughout our time in India. From Nipun’s Mum and Dad who helped us on our journeys and put us up in their palace home, to the relatives and friends that put us up and fed us around India. Thank you, from us. And we hope to repay the kindness. Another example of Indian generosity and hospitality that was displayed more times than I can count was being invited into a complete strangers house to have a cup of tea (no doubt with sugar) or a even a meal. The invitation was spontaneous, innocent and welcoming. It didn't make you do a double take. If a stranger off the street in the UK asked me in for a cup of tea I'd alert the authorities. Immediately.

"Humidity” I did not realise that it was possible to take a cold shower and sweat at the same time, but it is. And as I type this there is a swimming pool in my boxer shorts.
Imodium Give that man a knighthood.

Jantar Mantar Built by Jai Singh Jantar Mantar is home to the largest sundial in the world (erm, make that 27m high) and astronomical calendars and instruments that could confuse the daylights out of Confucius himself. If it is not impressive enough that the largest sundial is accurate to within two seconds, then pause to consider that this was constructed in the 1730’s.
“Kingfisher” And I ain’t talking about the bird. A refreshing lager if ever there was one.
“Laundry” In the event that you do not have access to a washing machine Indian laundry seems to be predominantly done by a Dhobi Wallah. The Dhobi Wallah will take your clothes by the sack full down to the river bank and then give it a thorough going over, soaping it, pummelling it and thrashing it down on a slab of stone to get the dirt out. It is then rinsed (back in the river) and hung out to dry. The clothes are then returned clean, but one arm of your favourite T shirt may be longer that the other and for the ladies your revealing neckline may possibly display your new navel piercing.

“Mosquitoes” I would be lying if I said that the mosquitoes here were the size of horses. However if I said they were the size of Shetland Ponies then this would not be too far from that thing called Truth. At a mere five foot I am surprised that Nipun has not been hauled away in the night and discovered sucked dry by some river bank, wilted, Rusk like and sapped of all blood. As for myself, well they would have too much of a time lifting my beer belly.
“Noise” I remember reading a story about a lady who moved from India to central London. In her tale she wrote about how very quiet London was at night. “Balderdash” I exclaimed. “We have buses, thousands of people, overland trains, lager louts!” Now I know what she meant. London is like a sepulchre in it’s deafening silence when put alongside India.

“Odours” Some good (the food, ahhhhh, the food!) and some not so good (railway stations, certain street corners and the man who made my breakfast in Agra (see “Blaggers”).My nostrils have been constantly assaulted with new smells.

“Paradoxical” India can be Paradise and it can be hell. All in the same breath. For example, on our plush, all inclusive Rs4 000 a day houseboat we went past a young village girl washing her teeth in the river. She did not have a tooth brush, she was using her index finger in it’s place. The water she used was no doubt thick with soap, washing liquid and diesel from all the vessels. And around the bay, no more than a ten minute slow cruise away was a five star resort. Being from the third world I did not think I would notice or really be effected by little things like this. But they are impossible not to see and reflect upon.
“Quinine” Did I mention the mosquitoes? Alas some carry a horrible little disease called Malaria. Malaria is generally prevented by taking tablets that contain Quinine. I am allergic to Quinine, which is wretchedly inconvenient for anyone that likes Gin and Tonic. Or for that matter anyone who should be taking malaria tablets. True there are other medications that are available. True, I should have taken these. Laugh now cry later?

“Rough Guide” Apparently I should have bought the Lonely Planet. My ear has been bent on this point several times now.

“STD” A phone box, for international calls home. Sadly I have not had much luck with the lines between India and Zimbabwe and I suspect that my family thinks I have fallen off the end of the world. Or caught Malaria.

“Temples” And what wondrous temples they are. Alas our Eurocentric history at school in Africa never mentioned that there was much in the way of history and culture outside Europe. The temples, monuments, forts and buildings that we have seen along our journey have been magnificent.
“Unpredictable” India is nothing if not unpredictable. This specifically includes travelling.

"Vibrant” From the clothing to the temples to the country side there is such an array of colour and life. The vibrancy is not just restricted to colours either, the animation with which people talk and interact is fantastic.

"Whisky” Especially big in the Punjab. Chivas Regal tends to be the poison of choice, though is restricted to the more discerning and valued guest. For example, if you arrive at someone’s house and they crack open a bottle of Bells then you know that you are not imposing, but don’t settle too deeply into that leather couch. On the other hand if the Chivas is uncapped then make yourself at home. For a long, long time.
“X” When we used to go camping as kids we had this theory that a mosquito bite would stop it’s itching if you firmly pressed an X into it with your finger nail. Clearly, as I sit here all x-ed up, this is rubbish or else I wouldn’t feel like someone had washed me in sulphuric acid.

“Yak” Before coming to India the only one I had seen was on a Swervedriver album cover. But they are real and alive and well and living in Shimla.

“Zebra Crossings” They have them here. At least they have White Stripes painted on the roads in several places. (Not the band but wouldn’t that be groovy?) HOWEVER, you’d be better off trying to swim across the crocodile infested Zambezi River during the Hippopotamus’s mating season than using a Zebra crossing in these here parts. You’d certainly last longer in the Zambezi, though I imagine the end result would be much the same.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

The Ghost of Christmas Past

A Short Un-Dickinsian Didactic Tale
A couple of years ago we decided to get out of London for the few days that follow Christmas and take you through to the New Year. A retreat from the busy city seemed in order and Devon beckoned invitingly. Our friends Craig, Sue, James and Jens joined us and together we found a country cottage near the sea in Ilfracoombe. It was predominantly cold and windy as you would expect at that time of the year, and as such the evenings were generally passed in front of a wood burner, eating, drinking and making merry as is common at Christmas. With the spirit of over indulgence heavy upon us it was not too long before Jens succumbed to a fitful slumber in front of the fire, snoring softly, hands resting comfortably on his tummy, beer bottles to the left and the last remains of a Tesco Cheese Board to his right. For some reason it seemed like a good idea to the rest of us to give Jens a bit of a makeover whilst he softly slumbered. This was done, undetected by our good man until he went to brush his teeth in the morning and caught sight of his newly pencilled moustache and arched eyebrows, to name a few of his new features. In retrospect though it was a poor effort. Jens, be warned. This guy made us think of you and how much better we can do next time.

(Strobist info for any of the London Strobists! - handheld SB 800 to high left fired by CLS)

Leaving India

My Vietnamese friend Huy’s wife (Minh Sa) told me that when she lived in Vietnam as a child she used to feel so hot that she would hold open the freezer door and put her head in there for two minutes. I got there today.
Our last day in India is upon us in a flash. I am sitting in Bangalore with one of my last pints of Kingfisher and wistfully wishing that we were here for just that little bit longer. India, overall, has been good. As Kurt Vonnegut said in the preface of “Slaughter House Five” (if memory serves me right which is unlikely), “Then it was time to go again. Always time to go.”
I’d love to say that I found myself in India, if only for the pretension value in that. Happily I remain unfound (“Only the shallow know themselves.” Oscar Wilde. Discuss.) It has been fascinating as an experience, in some ways I am left in awe, others disgust, some admiration. I guess the giveaway though is that I wish we were staying longer. Most of all I am really happy that we have had this opportunity though. There are thanks to give to many people, not least of all my wife for thinking of this whole trip in the first place. True, India has been deeply frustrating in many ways. The battalions of touts. The smell of urine and faeces striking your nostrils in the most unlikely of places. Cockroaches the size of rats and rats the size of aardvarks. But for every tout there has been friend, or at least a friendly person, for every unwanted smell a tantalising aroma and for every cockroach, well we’ll leave the story there. Unless cows on the beaches count.
I get ahead of myself. The last post written on the way to Kerala which is one of the most beautiful places we have been to on our journey thus far, and indeed a place that I wish we had had far more time to explore. We arrived in Ernakulum Junction, close to Cochin at about 11.00 pm after a train ride through coconut trees, banana plantations and lagoons meeting the ocean. We checked into the Hotel Excellence, and the Hotel Excellence did what it said on the can. Clean sheets, clean towels and a shower that could flay a man alive. The restaurant too was pukker to use the word in context, we tried it on our last day and kicked ourselves for not having tried it earlier.
After settling in and spending the first day exploring Cochin we went to watch Kathakali (traditional South Indian dancing) in the evening. The jury is out on this one. It was ok I thought, but I would been happier watching the sunset over the Chinese fishing nets with a refreshing beverage close to hand. Maybe that is just the cultureless bum I am. Or my fascination with fishing.
Kerala is famous for it’s backwaters and the house boats that cruise it’s idyllic waters. And no that is not cruise in a George Michael kind of way. We took two house boats trips. The first was day trip organised through the tourist board which was really good and took us firstly on a larger boat around some of the islands (indeed next to the island where Arundhati Roy, Booker Prize author of “The God of Small Things” hails from) and then later, on long boats through the smaller canals and into the villages. Sure, it is a little contrived with three trips a day being poled down the canals, and yet it was really worth doing. Whilst I suppose it was not a unique experience, it was a unique experience to this young country bumpkin from Zimbabwe.

In the evening Nipun and I went walked down to a local temple where we had been tipped off about a festival that was taking place. This turned out to be to be something of a highlight of our journey. The festival involved three (deaf?) elephants, an army of Tabla players (they bang the drums), trumpet players and an irascible priest who took exception to the gigabyte of photos I took. About half way through the evening whilst I was minding my own business (as you do) I was befriended by a ten your old boy, who then bought a friend who bought five friends who bought along a few more mates too. You get the picture. Nipun and I thronged by ten year olds, all of them great fun and relishing the opportunity to practice English and gentle tease the Foreigners (me). It was really refreshing, they only wanted to chat and laugh. For example, Vishnu - the apparent menace of the class room - approached us and said “Hello, what is your good name?” (They say that a lot here.) We told him, asked about his to which he exclaimed something in Malayalam whilst laughing and then ran behind his mates. His friends too fell about laughing. I assumed he had said something a bit daring, rude or mischievous. It turns out that he was not that good at paying attention in English and that was all he knew how to say or understood and he had confessed as much to the other kids, evoking much mirth. To be fair, Vishnu got more abuse during the evening than I did. Nipun and I beat a retreat when we had about 30 vociferous children about us all cajoling for attention and creating a racket that was not unnoticed by old friend the bad tempered priest. I really wish I had taken some photos of this kids, they were great fun. Sadly though, coming from the UK anyone who points a camera at a child other than their own is a probable pervert and old habits die hard. Much to my retrospective regret the camera stayed in its bag.

The following morning we caught a passenger train (i.e. one size fits all, there is only one class which was great) to Alleppy where we stayed at Gowri Guest House and then embarked on an overnight boat trip on the backwaters. Again, this was fantastic and we had a wonderful trip. The house boats are quite expensive (worked out to about £60.00 for one night) but for your money you get the boat for 22 hours, a chef who would out cook Gordon Ramsey and two other crew hands to pamper you and ensure happy travels. So not bad value at all. At times the backwaters can seem a bit M25 like with house boats coming at you from all angles, but we had it good. In the high season there can be triple the amount of boats we saw and a house boat with set you back a whole lot more money.

The house boat was worth every penny for the sights along the way. Urban India can sometimes make you forget what a beautiful country it is and the boat allowed us the opportunity to kick back and relax, surrounded by water, country side, tranquillity (and beer).
We caught an overnight train (departed 0015) to Bangalore yesterday and went out briefly in the evening. Banglaore is modern (and expensive) and seems different to much of the India that we have seen so far with regards to it’s commercialism and consumerism. For example we ate KFC (just around the corner from McDonalds) and went to the very swish Rock Bar. The Rock Bar was ultra modern and trendy other than the fact that they played Bon Jovi DVD’s at us for the forty five minutes we were in there. It struck me that if ever there was a man that should not have a Superman tattoo on his arm, Jon Bon Jovi would be him. Poor Clark Kent.
And so it is farewell India. In a few minutes we will be on the bus to the airport and stage 2 of our trip will be upon us - Thailand

Leaving Goa

The trip from Jaipur to Delhi consisted of a couple of flights, firstly between Jaipur and Mumbai, followed by the leg from Mumbai to Goa. Flying over Mumbai was quite surreal and I kicked myself for having left the camera up in the overhead com[artment. Actually surreal is just a lazy adjective in this case. It was a view of constant juxtapositions. One hand the modern cityscape and glass buildings that on display in every direction, built almost on top of slum housing held together and covered with bits of blue plastic and dirt. As the plane came into land we flew directly over some of these houses and life there looks like it would be pretty, erm, challenging. It reminded me of standing on a balcony in a student house in Grahamstown, all very comfortable and cosy, whilst overlooking the township that was very close by. You knew that life in those townships was hard, whilst up on the hill… On the flight out to Goa I kept my camera on hand to record this, and was rewarded with views of the sea and nothing else. More comforting in some ways.

Our arrival in Goa was greeted with the usual barrage of people trying to find work in the form of taking us to a hotel or offering their transport services into town. Having been straight to the tourist office on arrival we knew that there were buses that would take us to Panjim, the capital of Goa, though the touts and taxi drivers had no qualms in brazenly telling us that there were no buses that covered this route. On one hand the blagging is comical, though on the other it can get really frustrating and give the feeling that everyone you meet is on the make. I think we are beginning to get inured to it now, to the point where if anyone appears to be genuinely helpful we get suspicious. I do not know if that is sad or healthy. No doubt I have offended a couple of honest souls by dismissing them out of hand by this stage.

It has to be said that the atmosphere down South is very chilled out in comparison to the North. You notice it on the roads immediately, the drivers are more sedate and the incessant hooting is replaced by the occasional honk of a bus or taxi. The people as well seem more laid back. On arrival in Panjim we checked into the Hotel Ashok, a recommendation. It was a fairly soulless place but passably clean if you were tired and the staff seemed eager to please. We checked in, chewed the fat with the receptionist about his new restaurant that was in the process of being refurbed and asked what time breakfast was between. The usual kind of rubbish really. The next morning we were sent down the road to a local restaurant for brekkie and were somewhat taken aback when we were presented with a bill, having been led to believe this was included in our room. We had also checked this with the restaurant manager who had confirmed that this was the case, or so we thought. He had rolled his head in that endearing South Indian style and told us to sit down and eat our fill, whilst clearly having not listened to a word that we had said. So a bit of a spat developed, initially between my good wife (Punjabi, ie Warrior Class and take it from me this is accurate) and the good Sir behind the counter. I was playing Switzerland. The he started shouting. The Warrior shouted back. She is, to use my friend Phil K’s words, a formidable lady. And then the shop owner started pointing his finger very close to Nipun’s head and Switzerland became America (in other words involving itself in other peoples disagreements and threatening to destroy everything in sight regardless of any collateral damage). It got a bit ugly, and very quickly we had a hate triangle of gargantuan proportions. At one stage I feared that our verbal sparring might become physical sparring and so was immensely relieved when we legged it with a copy of the bill to claim it back from the hotel Ashok. Funnily enough the Hotel Ashok also claimed to be gob smacked when we presented them with the bill, and in a repeat of the previous argument gob smacked he nearly was. In retrospect it is fiendishly embarrassing, but your most humble narrators are both pretty damn sure that breakfast was included and had checked with both the hotel and the restaurant. Both had rolled their heads and seemed happy to confirm anything we asked, though in all honesty I suspect that neither of them listened to our questions. The most embarrassing thing of all is that the bill came to all of about three quid.

Our welcome in Panjim seeming to rest on rapidly cracking ice we decided to make out way down to Pallolem beach, about forty kilometres south. The beach is beautiful with long stretches of sand, a lagoon at the Northern end and then a hill with panoramic view at the other side. The sea is clean and whilst you wouldn’t be surfing the waves they are alright for a bit of body boarding with no real fear of getting dumped to badly. And the ocean is a whole lot warmer that Brighton which is the last place my bulbous beer belly met the salty seas.

We spent three days in Pallolem just catching our breath. It is beginning to dawn on us that travelling for a year is very different to being on holiday for a year. Sure it is great, an epic adventure to quote that splendid fellow Mark Knapp. But it can also be pretty stressful at times and packing a backpack up every two days and wondering where you will next have a chance to do your laundry can be a pain in the proverbial. So we stayed on the lagoon with the sea a hundred metres away, drank sundowners and ate fish each evening. In an attempt to woo tourists the beach is littered with bars and eateries that for some reason all want to make (bad) “continental” food. Finding fresh Goan cuisine was a nightmare and as evidence of this my first Goan curry knocked on the backdoor at about midnight if you will excuse the scatological reference. For those who may feign interest it knocked again at two and then at three. But at this stage that is a positive, I have lost a few kilos and this has done no harm whatsoever. I am still not ready to liken myself to Adonis, but hey, a journey of a thousand miles starts with one small bout of food poisoning. So maybe a comparison with Adonis’s podgy brother may fit the cap better.

Our last nights in Goa were spent in Margao, which merits mention only for the quality of its bed lice, the size of it’s mosquitoes and the inferno like quality of our room. You could have baked bread in there, though you would have had to throw it away due to all the bugs in it. Thankfully we are now on the train headed further down South to Kerala, a sixteen hour journey. So far the views have been fantastic, palm trees and banana plantations, lagoons and rivers, paddy fields. Kerala is our last stop in India and if the journey so far is anything to go by then it will be a very special place.