Friday, 28 March 2014

I went to Tamil Nadu and this is what happened...

Rick Stein Mahabalipuram
And the wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round. And the wheels on the bus go round and round, all day long. As apt and profound as these lyrics are, they only describe 75% of the journey from Munnar to Madurai, for the wheels also jerked up and down, up and down, all day long, such are the potholes on the thrilling-but-Jesus-Christ-that’s-a-steep-drop Western Ghats roads. And as uncomfortable and terrifying as this was, the jerkiness massaged my back better than any Ayurveda specialist could. The moral of this incredible story, then, is to save your hard-earned rupees by shunning the spa in favour of travelling on local rattletraps, which will (eventually) refresh and rejuvenate with the added bonus of getting you somewhere you need to be. The downside is that you’ll be contributing to the decline and subsequent extinction of a traditional millennia-old medicinal practice; a reason to visit south India in itself. Still, swings and roundabouts.

Hill folk, a term that sounds patronising but isn’t meant to, warned me that Madurai would be a cramped sweatbox of ubiquitous fumes, spittle and decrepitude. Or broken English words to that effect. But it gives me huge pleasure to independently and unbiasedly report that the city is nothing of the sort - steeped in Hindu mythology and boasting one of India’s finest temples, Madurai is absolutely a city worth visiting, if only for a couple of nights. The Meenakshi Amman complex is spellbinding, the craft shops aren’t the type owned by your rickshaw driver’s friend or brother, and to my surprise the city wasn’t that busy, at least by Indian standards. But the best thing in Madurai is a magician by the name of Sardar Hussain, whose repertoire of card tricks and making things disappear culminates with him coughing up a kilogram of nine-inch iron nails.

Tanjore temple
While I would go so far to say that I quite enjoyed my time in Madurai, I wouldn’t want to settle down there, marry a local and start a family, so I decided to proceed north-east to sunny Tanjore, a city that promises visitors the spectacle of a temple 600 years older than the one in Madurai. Yeah, screw you Madurai! Brihadeeswarar Temple is so old, in fact, that it pre-dates the invention of colour. Back in 1010, construction workers only had brown stone to work with, but they were clever enough to polish each and every block to reflect the morning and evening sun, which is rather pretty. Sadly, my experience was ruined when my flip-flops were stolen by a gaggle of teenaged boys in shiny black and pink shirts (essentially anthropomorphised Liquorice Allsorts), who mercilessly pointed and laughed at my hair before eventually tossing back my disgusting footwear. When I returned to my hotel room I realised they had been absolutely entitled to rib my salt-and-pepper locks, which have started to resemble the nether regions of Bodger’s badly-behaved best mate. It felt only right to punish myself, so I purchased a red snapper and repeatedly slapped it across my face until I got too hungry and ate it, starting with its fishy little eyeballs.

Suitably humiliated, I decided I had consumed enough fish and quite fancied some steak and a glass of red wine. And as luck would have it, the coastal down of Pondicherry, once administered by our chums across the Channel (or, in the interests of geopolitical unbiasedness, mates across La Manche), was the next place on my to-see list. Provencal it is not, but in Pondy couples walk hand-in-hand along the promenade, men play boules in front of the church, and croissants and coffee are consumed for breakfast. But the most entertaining thing here is awarding yourself 100 rupees of spending money every time ‘Life of Pi’ is mentioned. By the time I was due to proceed north for Mahabalipuram, a name that took me approximately three days to memorise and pronounce correctly, I had enough notes to run myself a money bath; a bit like that one in Slumdog Millionaire, minus the being murdered by gangsters bit.

As it happened, I bloody loved Mahabalipuram, whose name was recently changed to Mamallapuram but is often more conveniently referred to as Mahabs. In case you were wondering, which you weren’t. It reminded me of a scaled-down version of Hampi with a fishing village and arguably Tamil Nadu’s best beach thrown in for good measure. After checking into my hotel I took a stroll along the beach and noticed a string of seafood restaurants facing out to sea, the first of which I vaguely recognised. On closer inspection I noticed a sign outside: “BBC TV Telecast by Rick Stein England”. I bloody knew it. My belly rumbling in anticipation, I walked into the restaurant and asked for whatever Rick had wolfed. “White fish and gravy, sir”. “That’ll do squire, that’ll do.” “Sorry sir?” “Yes please, white fish and gravy.” And very nice it tasted too, with the added bonus of me not being confined to bed and writing in agony for 48 hours hence. Little did I know that such a scenario would be waiting for me in Rajasthan a few weeks later.

I didn’t really want to leave Mahabs, but I had a hot date with Delhi and most of north India to attend. My taxi to Chennai Airport was driven by 19-year-old Vetri, a man so impossibly gentle that I wanted to take him home and wrap him in cotton wool approximately 15 seconds after meeting him. Vetri had effectively been forced to take his cab driver job three months previously in order to support himself and his mother - something his councillor father could no longer do after a recent local election defeat led to his suicide. With zero inheritance, Vetri was forced to drop out of his college journalism course, get a driving licence and start working for a boss who pays him 10 per cent of each fare. “How much do you earn in a week?” I asked. “On average, 1,000 rupees only.” Which equates to roughly a tenner.

This wasn’t your classic sob story aimed at rupee-wielding tourists, chiefly because shy, modest Vetri was reluctant to tell me anything about his life, presumably out of modesty and for fear of becoming upset. I told him it was OK and that he could stop, but I was curious to find out more. “You know,” he said, “everything I do, I do it for my mother. But she very sick.” So sick, in fact, that she won’t be around for too much longer - and if the tragedy of impending orphanship wasn’t bad enough, Vetri also has to pay for his mother’s ever-increasing medical bills, because the pair aren’t entitled to any help from the government.

Correctly sensing that my mood had become a little sombre, Vetri changed the subject by introducing “a very interesting story” about how a cigarette saved his life. I was all ears. “I was in Hyderabad a few years back with my best friend and some others,” he explained. “We were entering the Mecca Masjid and I needed a cigarette, so my friends went in before me and I started walking to the shop. Then a big blast happen. My best friend, he died. And the others they die also. But I survived because I wanted cigarette.” But Vetri only just survived: his story explained the presence of a large scar on the left side of his face, while a glance at his bare arms revealed numerous shrapnel wounds.

What this young man has been through, is going through and will have to go through.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

I went to Varkala, Alleppey and Munnar and this is what happened...

Saturday 15th - Sunday 16th February

I’m becoming rather partial to travelling alone on Indian local buses, primarily because it puts me in point-blank proximity with people and situations I fundamentally do not understand. It’s essentially like being three-years-old, when everything is new and entertaining but you’ve got no real idea what’s going on or what people are saying. And then you fall asleep. This morning’s journey from Cochin to Kollam followed this exact pattern - half-an-hour in an elderly lady boards and sits herself down (that’s right readers, we’re rolling in the present tense; hold on to your hats). Seconds later, she stands up and starts shouting in Malayalam at a seemingly random man a few seats across. He ignores her and retains a nonchalant expression. Frustrated by his lack of response, the orthodontically-challenged woman starts gesticulating and upping the decibel levels. It’s becoming a little awkward - maybe this man has done something unspeakable? He quite rightly makes the decision to stand up and move to another seat a few rows back, at which point the woman directs her attention at someone else. Her anger is making me claustrophobic. She catches a whiff of my fear and she likes it; another trapped victim lies helplessly in wait, somewhere in front of these cataracts. Like Chucky off of Child’s Play, her neck turns mechanically until her eyes meet mine (she thinks - thank you cataracts #LOLLE), at which point I realise her diatribe is arbitrarily directed towards me. Resisting the need to hold the hand of the man next to me, I instead turn to offer him a nervous smile, which he interprets as: “Oh, you find this funny too! I thought you were about to shit yourself. But your facial expression now suggests otherwise! Ha ha ha!” Or words to that effect. In Malayalam. He proceeds to slap the back of the man next to him, repeating his assertion that I think the whole thing is hilarious, at which point they both start belly-laughing before five others join in for good measure. Feeling left out despite unwittingly initiating the hilarity, I half-heartedly laugh along with them, seemingly prompting angry woman to sit down and shut up, which makes me comfortable enough to fall asleep. I have no idea what just happened.

I didn’t really know how to get to Varkala, today’s final destination, from Kollam. I thought a train might be cheaper, faster and less witchy than another bus, so I caught a rickshaw, auto or tuk-tuk to the station and shared my hopes and dreams with the man at the ticket counter. He sold me a general compartment ticket for a measly 10 rupees, and I didn’t say thank you when he handed it to me. Not because I wasn’t brought up proper, but because I’m trying to blend in and shed the blithering Englishman perception I’m lumbered with (sporting a pony tail is also helping, I’m discovering). To keep up appearances, I coughed up a ball of spittle on the walk to the platform and rather majestically gobbed it onto the tracks. No one batted an eyelid. Then I burped really loudly and some teenagers started laughing at me and my pony tail. One step too far. Perhaps two, come to think of it.

Before I knew it, I was watching the Varkala sunset while sipping a vanilla latte, which pretty much set a precedent for the day to follow: a blissful 24 hours spent mainly on the beach chatting to stray dogs. I can only presume the waves had swallowed their boyfriends and husbands, but my goodness there were lots of them. On the steps back up to North Cliff, where most hotels, guesthouses and restaurants are located, I was unfortunate enough to be walking right behind one wearing a thong, which was inappropriate and disgusting in equal measure. To show my disdain I coughed up a ball of spittle and rather majestically gobbed it into the adjacent undergrowth. She didn’t bat an eyelid - clearly she had been desensitised. Which is ironic, because she thought nothing of walking around a town famous for its 2,000-year-old temple with nothing more than a piece of string between her lobster-pink arse cheeks.


Monday 17th February

It looked so easy: a two-and-a-half train ride north to Alleppey, gateway to Kerala’s face-slappingly beautiful backwaters. I was hoping to ride another local passenger train, but the 16346 Netravati Express (a name worthy of inclusion in any self-respecting train spotter’s wet dream) that rolled in was rammed to the point of inducing a sweat-riddled panic attack. Anyone familiar with Indian trains will know that carriages have upper and lower berths, with the former acting as luggage racks during daytime journeys. Which is absolutely fascinating. Upon boarding I persuaded a disinterested couple occupying an LB (if you’ll permit me to casually adopt Indian Railways’ terminology) to let me have the window-less bench above them, which resembled a high street household goods stores. God, I sound like such a racist. Soon after jerking myself (excuse me) into a borderline-comfortable position I felt a disconcerting tickle on my upper arm. It was a cockroach, and in the ensuing frenzy I beat the six-legged scuttlebucket with that copy of 100 Years of Solitude I was boasting about in my previous post. Until it was dead. Which wasn’t easy, considering cockroaches are the honey badgers of the invertebrate world. Afterwards, I noticed the whites of approximately 50 people’s eyes on mine; their blank expressions beyond interpretation. I like to think they were impressed, but on reflection it’s more likely that my aggression repulsed them and that they were quietly maintaining their dignity after I had so violently lost mine, which made me feel smaller than the pathetic pile of bent kindling that poor, innocent cockroach, whose only crime was to find itself a new playground, had become.

Because my berth was window-less, I had no idea when we reached Alleppey. And because the gentle chugging of Indian trains is the most soporific sensation known to man, I happened to be semi-conscious by the time we arrived. Fortunately, screams of “Is this Alappuzha?” from a middle-aged German couple a couple of berths back awoke me from my slumber. We disembarked together, skipping along the platform hand-in-hand to begin the next chapter of our respective holidays. Alles klar.

Tuesday 18th - Wednesday 19th February

A brief deviation: cast your mind back to when your parents picked you up from school and asked how your day had been. Chances are you shrugged your shoulders while sorting your football sticker swaps (David Batty AGAIN, Jesus Christ), mumbling something along the lines of “Fine” or “OK”, because you couldn’t be arsed to go into further detail. And your day was fine - you grew some water cress, sang a couple of songs from Bugsy Malone and learned your seven times table. In a few years you’d look back at these being among the most pleasant and carefree days of your life. Which is precisely how I feel about the nicer, incident-free parts of this trip; like, for example, Alleppey and the backwaters. I rode on a houseboat, ate some delicious Keralan food and basked in the serenity of one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. The same goes for the next chapter, in which I travelled up to Munnar, whose surrounding hills are decorated with tea plantations and more cardamom and pepper than you can shake a cinnamon stick at.

Rest assured that things will spice up in the next post, in which I meet a man with a penchant for inserting nails into his oesophagus and… no, that’ll do for now.

Friday, 14 February 2014

I went to Cochin and Guruvayur and this is what happened...

India train

Tuesday 11th February

5:30 am: Beep beep beep BEEP BEEP beep beep beep. The mind’s response: Goooood morning! You have served your time in the cottage, my friend. It’s time to leave Ooty. Pack your things and let’s get out of here! Yipeee! The body’s: I am very tired. It is five degrees outside and pitch black. And despite those suspicious-looking stains, this blanket feels rather cosy, doesn’t it? You don’t really care about the stains, do you? You’re disgusting. But you’re also comfortable. So very comfortable. So shut the hell up and go back to sleep. When you do, that annoyingly chirpy mind of yours will take you wherever you want to go: a spring meadow with bunny rabbits; a chocolate factory without Oompa-Loompas; maybe even somewhere less innocent like, um, Carol Vorderman’s cockpit.

Don’t get me wrong: I think Carol is one fine piece of pilot, but that last image was all it took for my mind to conquer the slumbering mass of flesh and bones it lives in, something I immediately regretted on the rickshaw ride to Ooty’s bus station. The wind-chill factor made it feel freezing, a deeply unpleasant sensation worsened by the donning of flip-flops and a wafer-thin hoody. But that didn’t really matter: in 13 hours I’d be in Fort Cochin sipping beer from a teapot by the sea, underneath a palm tree or beside a Chinese fishing net. Which at this point felt comparable to bridging the gap between Blackburn and Barbados.

The bus to Coimbatore, from where I would be boarding a train to Cochin, had already departed by the time we reached the station, but my driver had no trouble catching up and persuading Mr Conductor Man to let me clamber aboard. He looked concerned at the amount of baggage I was carrying and told me in Tamil that I could spend the journey’s duration in his seat at the front. It was just as well my language skills are so fantastic because within half an hour it was standing room only, which didn't look much fun on the precarious mountain roads. For the princely sum of 55 rupees, it was an absolute steal.

It took approximately three hours to wind down the Nilgiris (during which the temperature had risen to the low 30s) and another two to reach non-descript Coimbatore. Shortly after midday, I boarded my train compartment to find an item of unattended baggage in my seat. If this was England all hell would have broken loose, and I would have almost certainly wet myself in the ensuing panic. But this was India, so I had to man the hell up. Squinting my eyes and gritting my teeth, I placed the bag’s strap between by thumb and index finger, which undoubtedly looked super-duper camp, and pulled it slowly towards me (which in hindsight is absolutely not what a bomb disposal expert would do. Had I learned nothing from day one?). Nothing happened. THANK GOD. Feeling rather smug I sat down in my rightful place, but no sooner had I started surveying the scene from my window did the bag owner interrupt. “Sir, I placed my bag on that seat.” I won’t bore you with the minutiae of our conversation, but it ended with him condescendingly “allowing” me to sit there, despite the fact I had reserved this specific spot. Another man opposite felt my frustration and offered me an Oreo, which seemed a fitting empathic gesture, but by accepting I was actually granting him permission to rest his bare feet on the end of my seat for the next few hours. Such are the unwritten rules of Indian train travel.

I checked into my Fort Cochin hotel at 8pm and then I had a nice dinner and then I experienced an overwhelming sense of relief and then I fell asleep and dreamed of puppies and at no point did Carol Vorderman enter my subconscious.


Wednesday 12th - Thursday 13th February

I essentially tortured myself by arriving in Fort Cochin when I did. A place I know and love, this morning I had to prise myself away for a hot date with a temple town by the name of Guruvayur. 58 km north of Cochin (which I should really start spelling Kochi), the big draw here is the Hindu-only Shri Krishna Temple, particularly during Pooram season, which it happens to be. It seemed I was the only Westerner in town, which was rather exciting, and while I was able to soak up the atmosphere from a respectful distance, I wasn’t able to throw myself into proceedings, not being a Hindu and all. Which was a little disappointing. So, after another wonderful night’s sleep (this time of dreams unremembered), I boarded a local passenger train back to Cochin and engrossed myself in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, because I'm like, so well read. About two hours in I realised my arm, dangling from the window in direct sunlight, was essentially on fire. It's now as pink as Peppa the Pig’s facial blemish, and I'm in so much pain that typing this paragraph has taken the best part of a day, which means Friday 14th’s entry will really be something to look forward to.

Friday 14th February

I had a really nice day in Cochin. I am going to Varkala tomorrow. Which should also be nice.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

I went to Coorg, Kannur, Mysore and Ooty (phew) and this is what happened…

kannur theyyam

Wednesday 5th - Thursday 6th February

It’s never a nice feeling when your taxi doesn’t turn up, and by the time I flagged a rickshaw to take me to Bangalore station I wasn’t particularly confident about making my 11:30 train to Mysore Junction, which sounds like it should be a marvellous euphemism. Fortunately, I was gifted a fearless driver who promised to get me there on time; an obligation fulfilled thanks to manoeuvres that in other countries would have landed him with a prison sentence. In India, it meant an extra 50 rupees.

It was a relatively short two-and-a-half journey to Mysore, during which a middle-aged smartly-dressed man by the name of Nav introduced himself. I’m just about getting used to the lack of pretence when it comes to Indian introductions - Nav happily picked up my manbag on the adjacent seat, placed it on my lap and plonked himself down. “And what is your good name, sir?” “Oh, hi. It’s Charlie. Is that a good name?” “Very good, sir.” After five minutes of small talk he moved to a seat five rows in front and initiated the same conversation with two Western women. “Charlie! Charlie!” he shouted down the packed carriage, “These women are from London too!” Cue the obligatory exchange of awkward smiles.
golf in Coorg
I’d be coming back to Mysore in a few days’ time, but for now I had a further transfer to Coorg: a lush region of hills, forest, coffee plantations and, er, golf courses, in Karnataka’s south-west corner, and which was a state in its own right until 1956. Lonely Planet says a visit here is “rejuvenation guaranteed”, and they’re absolutely right - with a pleasantly cool climate and overwhelming greenery, it’s the perfect antidote to the traffic fumes and congestion of Bangalore. Coffee, bananas, lemons, mangoes, cherries, cashew nuts and rice are all cultivated here, so if you enjoy putting tasty things in your mouth, you’ll absolutely love Coorg - especially as it’s relatively undiscovered by overseas tourists. And there are elephants! And tigers! Subtext: I want to be back in Coorg.

Friday 7th - Saturday 8th February

Northern Kerala is only down the road from Coorg, so it seemed rude not to pay this bloody beautiful part of the world a visit. Most Kerala-bound travellers head south to Cochin, Alleppey or Varkala, so I was quite looking forward to seeing the lesser-explored north. Unspoilt palm-fringed beaches aside, the big draw here is Theyyam; a ritualistic art form pre-dating Hinduism native to the villages surrounding Kannur.

An intensely local affair (this is a religious ritual, not a dance performance), protagonists portray one of 450 deities through elaborate red and orange-coloured costumes, some of which are up to seven metres high. It’s an utterly spellbinding spectacle that’s worth devoting an entire day to, and I needn’t have worried about turning up with my camera and annoying locals with my ignorance. I lost count of the number of friendly greetings, offers of food and extremely helpful explanations - it was such a nice experience, in fact, that I had absolutely no desire to return to my hotel.

Sunday 9th - Monday 10th February

My itinerary was craftily engineered to enable a return to Coorg, where I stopped for a delicious home-cooked lunch en route to Mysore from Kannur. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Coorg is beautiful. Go there. If you do, please let me know whether you think the Coorgi accent sounds remarkably similar to the meerkat from Compare the Meerkat (I specifically mean Aleksandr Orlov, not a generic Russian twang): a reason to visit in itself.

It took just over four hours to reach Mysore, which meant plenty of time to visit the city’s famed palace, whose appeal I absolutely do not understand. Grand only in terms of scale, this unloved, ill-maintained monument to tack is quite possibly southern India’s most overrated attraction. Its saving grace is the nightly ‘light show’, which sees the entire building beautifully lit by thousands of attached bulbs, which must scare the shit out of the pigeons living on them (and indeed does, on closer inspection). A brass band strikes up shortly afterwards, and the ambience is suddenly rather pleasant.

But in case you think I’m having a lovely time in the beautiful tropical paradise that is southern India, you’ll be delighted to hear that my Monday morning began in similar vein to yours, by which I mean I got up early and sat in traffic. I was catching the early-morning bus to Ooty, the famous hill station in the Nilgiris (aka the Blue Mountains) that, by all accounts, has been ruined by mass domestic tourism. The journey into the heavens took my breath and raised my hairs, of which there are probably millions (you should have seen the looks those unnaturally-smooth Russians gave me on the beach in Goa) - after passing through the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary, the road suddenly climbs into one of the most gob-smackingly pretty mountainscapes I’ve seen: in the background are dramatic peaks and picture-perfect valleys, while in the foreground are coffee plantations and towering eucalyptus trees. I required a good ten-minute sit-down on arrival in Ooty just to get over what I had seen.

It turned out to be a little longer than ten minutes, for the sight of Ooty physically drains the wanderlust from one’s pores. The rickshaw ride from the bus station to my hotel revealed a polluted-looking lake, lots of dust and so, so many signs, all of which compete for your attention with ginormous fonts, foul colours and false promises. India, it appears, is where graphic design and subtlety took each other’s hands, walked to the top of the nearest cliff and jumped to their deaths. In other parts of the country the signs are almost endearing, but here they're an insult to the surroundings. Just as I was about to write a strongly-worded letter to no one in particular, I realised that I was cold, which made sense because I was 2,000 metres high. On reaching my ‘mountain cottage’, a description that should be reported to Indian trading standards (think concrete box accommodating a bed, comically-placed TV and redundant fireplace), I put on my hoody and fell asleep to Arsenal getting whoop-assed by Liverpool.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

I went to Hampi and Bangalore and this is what happened...

Temple in Hampi

Thursday 30th January

The eagle-eyed pedants among you will notice that I’m now using dates rather than days. The reason is simple: I’m so awful at maths that even basic sequential patterns baffle me, to the extent that I was unintentionally adding days that hadn’t happened, a reoccurring mistake that threatened to get out of control.

In more exciting news, hello from Hampi. I arrived this afternoon after an eight-hour train journey from Margao, whose train station is confusingly spelled Madgaon. The journey was pleasantly unremarkable, save for the masochist English girl sat opposite, who spent the entire journey in the same cross-legged position, her defiant toes never so much as twitching. “That was quite a feet of endurance”, I wanted to tell her at journey’s end, before realising it was probably the worst idea I’ve ever had.

I did manage a little kip on the train, though it was cut short by loud clapping and stomping. I opened my eyes to see a woman’s surprisingly broad sari-draped back about nine inches from my face. When she turned around I was struck by her prominent jaw and large hands. Then it clicked - ‘she’ was a hijra, one of India’s unfortunately-downtrodden third gender. I rewarded her heavy-footed rhythm with 10 rupees, at which point she was happy to dance her way to the next berth to threaten somebody else with a curse.

On arrival at Hospet Junction, Hampi’s closest station, I caught a rickshaw with a 49-year-old New Yorker called Jeff, who happens to be the youngest almost-quinquagenarian I’ve seen. We arrived at Pushpa Guest House to be greeted by Raghu, the friendly-yet-money-grabbing owner, who hastily introduced us to ‘Prince’, a local tour guide he’s affiliated with. What a nobhead he turned out to be; a conclusion I should have arrived at immediately after learning his ‘name’, which definitely wasn’t ‘real’. After receiving the hard-sell and haggling until my voice all but disappeared, Jeff and I agreed, wearily and reluctantly, to half a day’s sightseeing for the equivalent of a fiver. How bad could it be?


Friday 31st January

Prince greeted us at 10 am, only to tell us he had to go to the bank in Hospet, 15 km away, to deposit a wad of cash. He ushered us into a nearby rickshaw, whose juvenile driver tugged on the accelerator before we could question what the bloody hell was going on. Our ‘guide’ never told us his name, nor cared to ask ours, but Jeff and I grew to love him. His limited English was made up for by his relentless spouting of misinformation: apparently, the whole of Hampi was built in 50 years rather than two centuries, while the population in its heyday was a mere 2,000, not the half a million universally quoted in the guidebooks. If you’ve ever been on the Bullshit London tour, you’ll know how fun this can be, even if it felt a bit like we were actually being shitted on.

Still, we got to see Hampi’s magnificent Royal Enclosure and Islamic Quarter at our own pace - the driver wasn’t interested in getting out and explaining the context behind the centuries-old ruins, which suited us just fine. And while I’m not particularly interested in regurgitating Hampi’s fascinating history in this here blog, I will mention that there are approximately 1,600 temples, monuments and structures to explore. Its scale is almost overwhelming, and I don’t think there’s anywhere on the planet quite like it.


Saturday 1st February

I woke at 5:30 for an illicit rendezvous with Prabu, the Pushpa housekeeper who supplements his incoming by moonlighting, mostly literally, as a sunrise guide. Remarkably petit and as agile as a cat, Prabu happens to be Hampi’s most famous man. Cries of “Mr Bean! Mr Bean!” ring out when he hops, skips and jumps around the bazaar, and it’s true - there’s something of the Bean about him. “All these blah-blah people,” he told me the day before, “Always calling me Mr Bean. But it’s no problem, I like Mr Bean, very funny.” Which, when read back, sounds exactly like Data off of the Goonies. Go on, read it again. Told you, didn’t I? Ha ha ha. God, I love that film.

Prabu’s boundless enthusiasm was funny yesterday, but at this ungodly hour it was as irritating as being trapped in a lift with a flatulent Jedward. Unlike Rowan Atkinson’s loveable buffoon, Prabu has a proper voice on him (or rather in him, constantly fighting, and winning, to get out), and he spoke so quickly that only certain words and phrases registered, namely “sun”, “long” and “time”. It turned out that we had climbed Matunga Hill a whole hour before dawn, and Mr Bean’s miscalculation meant he had to depart 15 minutes before sunrise to get to work on time, leaving me on top of an unfamiliar hill frequented by black bears. Which, as the following photo shows, was absolutely worth it.

Alcohol is forbidden in Hampi, so yesterday Jeff went in search of beer while I had a nap. He ended up spending most of the afternoon at a watering hole in nearby Kamalpur. Full of solitary drunks young and old - all male and all whisky drinkers - Jeff described it as “the saddest place on earth”. He also said he absolutely loved it, so it seemed like a good idea to return this afternoon. And if there was one thing I needed after my Mr Bean morning, it was a cool Kingfisher.

My god, was Jeff right. Stepping over empty bottles and streams of spilled whisky to our table, the bar was the most tragic place I’ve laid eyes on. Looking around, everyone was drinking scotch from cartons costing 60 rupees (60 p). And if you couldn’t stump up the cash then no problem - 20 rupees would get you a third of a carton. Jeff and I were quickly surrounded and asked all the usual questions, though things escalated when one chap, pictured below, took off his shirt and squared up to me, demanding a play fight minus any good humour. Seconds before he was bent over a tableside bucket discharging caramel-coloured gloop from his oesophagus, so I decided to politely decline his kind offer.       


Sunday 2nd February

Following a lazy day soaking up the atmosphere of Backpackerstan, an appropriate nickname for Hampi Bazaar (I decided to sport a pony tail to fit in), it was onwards to Hospet Junction for the overnight train to Bangalore. After locating my berth I fell into blissful unconsciousness in seconds, only slightly concerned that I had to wake at 05:55 to summon the strength to disembark at Bangalore City Junction.


Monday 3rd - Tuesday 4th February

I awoke on time, wahoo! I even got to the carriage door before anybody else - but despite being rather pleased with myself, it turned out I was in an awkward situation. With a backpack, holdall and manbag hanging from my shoulders, I was too loaded up to let someone pass in front of me, while there was no chance of turning back. And in India, when a train pulls into a station the able-bodied jump off almost immediately. It was a case of jump or be pushed, so I jumped, ungraciously, but somehow managing to stay on my feet. By the time I regained my composure I realised the exit was right in front of me. Today was going to be a good day. Welcome to Bangalore.

Full of home comforts and familiar-looking European faces, Bangalore is an easy city to settle into, though it’s a bit of a bastard getting around. There aren’t any stand-out sights, which I actually quite enjoyed as it meant getting into the swing of things without having a to-see list to tick off. During my couple of days here I tasted a particularly delicious beef lasagne, sipped a Western-style coffee and travelled in a pre-paid taxi. How bloody civilised. I could have happily spent an extra night here, but I had a very important date with a golf resort, which you shall shortly read all about. Oh goody.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

I went to Goa and this is what happened...

Goa beach
Days 9-11

August 2008: Gordon Brown was fumbling around the prime minister’s office, the English football team were halfway through their four-year hiatus from tournament football, and I was enjoying that lovely little window between graduating and getting a proper job. So I decided to travel to Goa, oblivious to the fact it was the height of the monsoon. On arrival in the sleepy little fishing village/seasonal resort town of Benaulim I realised why it was so quiet, save for the relentless thudding of golf ball-sized drops of rain. The beach resembled coastal Norfolk after a period of chronic global warming, complete with packs of stray dogs. There wasn’t an orgy enthusiast-populated tepee in sight. It was massively disappointing.

It’s taken nearly six years to return, but here I am again in Benaulim. I’m alone, there’s no power and my stomach is spinning right round baby right round, but before I tell you more about the wonderful time I’m having, let me take you on a journey. A journey to north Goa, a land of hippies old and young, drugs hard and soft and Russians unfriendly and unfriendly. Oh, and where I have spent the past few days. Or rather tried to.
After travelling across the Maharashtra-Goa border, my first stop was Anjuna - a place chiefly famous for its Wednesday morning flea market and over-developed beach. I noticed that my room’s only door, facing the guesthouse’s garden with direct street access, was of the sliding glass variety and featured a charming handmade lock that could be picked by a monkey with a cocktail stick (a surprisingly common occurrence in this part of the world). Things got worse when the chap at ‘reception’ insisted on keeping my passport for four hours until some guy turned up to photocopy it on his magical machine.

To make myself feel better I hired a moped - no questions asked - and scootered on down to the crowded beach, where I was approached by approximately 20 drug dealers in quick succession. This impeded my ability to find a little patch of seaside sanctuary, a task that was challenging enough given the plethora of drunk Russian men in impossibly-tight swimming trunks. Fuck this, I muttered to a tag-along stray, before heading back to the guesthouse, sleeping, waking up, and catching a taxi to Panjim, the state capital.
Most travellers bypass Panjim, but it’s absolutely worth seeing. The old quarter is jam-packed with quaint Portuguese colonial houses, most of which are red, blue or yellow - though unlike Nuuk in Greenland the colours don’t correspond to the occupier’s profession. Peppered throughout the districts of Sao Tome and Fontainhas are cafes, tea houses and boutique shops, and inside most are actual Goans, whose existence by this point I wasn’t entirely sure of. My two-night stay here was interrupted only by a swift visit to the coastal ‘resort’ of Arambol in Goa’s far north, a destination I wasn’t quite able to focus on given the story Diogo, my taxi driver, told on the way there. In 1987 he was asked to drive a customer from Panjim to Calcutta - a distance of over 2,000 km. Diogo drove continuously for four days and four nights - breaks he couldn’t do because the passenger had an urgent funeral to attend. His own. That’s right, the passenger was stone-cold dead: a 24-year-old man who tragically died in a construction accident. Diogo chain-smoked continuously from day two, partly to stay awake but also to mask the smell coming from the back seat. “That back seat?” I asked. “No sir, different car.”


Days 12-14

My Anjuna-inflicted wounds sufficiently licked (despite the image of necrocab), it was onwards to Benaulim, which I have already fabulously described (you are probably wondering why I went back there. I think it was nostalgia). But since I wrote the above paragraphs, two unexpected things have happened to me; one of which was nice, the other not so. As my girlfriend (who is real – you can check her Facebook profile and everything) will tell you, I’m not one for complaining, which is why I haven’t mentioned my chronic tooth ache until now. Well, it got to the point where a trip to the dentist was needed - something I haven’t done since 2008, a year I have also already fabulously described.

Dr Vas did unspeakable things to me, but for 150 rupees I was happy to walk out of there with a diagnosis and a prescription. A gum abscess that would clear in three to four days with salt water and some gum that tastes like curry. Praise be. I felt a little cheated that my bravery wasn’t rewarded with a sticker, so I decided to treat myself to a nice beachside lunch. On arrival the sands were surprisingly quiet save for - wait, what’s that? A litter of puppies! I’m having trouble recalling the two hours I spent with them as they were probably the happiest of my life; made happier still given the fact that I’m yet to contract rabies. Goa, I think I’ve fallen for you.


Days 15-18

With my time in Benaulim having drawn to an impossibly-blissful close, I ventured further south to a beach hut in Palolem. En route I stopped at Cola, a destination Lonely Planet describes as “one of south Goa’s most gorgeous hidden beach gems”. And hidden is the operative word, because unless you know which turning to take, it’s near-impossible to find. Flanked by forested hills, the beach is backed by a gorgeous freshwater lagoon, whose source is a spring just a few hundred metres inland. The water is absolutely pristine - rare for a natural watercourse in India - and fortunately free of snakes and alligators, meaning it’s absolutely perfect for swimming. The lagoon is flanked on either side by a modest collection of beach huts, each having its own space and identity (which is absolutely not the case in Palolem, as I was to discover). It’s the closest thing to paradise I’ve seen, and I was rather reluctant to leave.

The problem with Cola, inevitably, is that every other beach visited thereafter isn’t as good, and unfortunately Palolem is no exception. It’s far prettier than anywhere in the north, but such is the density of huts and restaurants that the place has a festival feel, which may not be the thing you’re after. For example, I woke up to Daft Punk’s Get Lucky playing next door and the unmistakable, slightly-disconcerting-when-it’s-so-close sound of wee on porcelain. I could practically feel the splash on my sleepy face through the wafer-thin coir. There were also two immensely irritating firework displays during the night: one at 2.30, the other at 4.30, each going on for half an hour. Real India this is not, so I did what any aspiring bon vivant would and got out of there; specifically back to Cola, convinced by this point that it’s among the most beautiful places in the world. I was lucky enough to find one of those brilliant beach huts I was banging on about, so there I stayed, enjoying barbequed seafood and probably the best sunset I’ve laid my eyes on. Jobs a good'un.


Wednesday, 22 January 2014

I went to the Konkan coast and this is what happened...


Day 5

The journey to Murud, a little-known destination on the Maharashtran coast around 150 kilometres south of Mumbai, took approximately six hours - not necessarily because the roads are shite, but because there’s a lot to take in en route. Once we had escaped Mumbai’s urban sprawl and the subsequent land of the shipping containers, the ‘real’ India started to appear. And very nice it was too - steep forested hills, colourful villages and glimpses of the Konkan railway, one of India’s most aesthetically-pleasing lines. And about five miles from Murud the first palm trees started appearing; always a good sign for the beach-hungry traveller.

I envisaged Murud being a kind of exclusive Goa. No European I know has heard of it, nor many Bombayites I had spoken to. And on arrival at the government-run resort just back from the main beach, it was clear there weren’t many other people around (apart from a party of Whirlpool engineers from Pune, who partied hard, as refrigerator designers and washing machine engineers tend to do, long into the night). During a stroll on aforementioned beach I noticed the imposing silhouette of Kasa Fort - an island fortress four kilometres out to sea - though at this stage I had no idea what it was. I asked the security guard, and to compensate for his lack of English he thought he’d repeat “Kasa Fort” until any other thoughts my mind may have been harbouring were totally banished. “My friend has boat, 350 rupees,” he said, gesturing towards the island. “Meh, when in Rome,” I replied, before verbally hitting his befuddled face with a firm “OK, boss”.

Before I knew it I was speeding off in a crappy boat, part of which fell off as I hurled myself aboard, to an island whose most recent function was a high-security prison. There were two chaps on the boat with me, neither of whom spoke English or made even the slightest effort to acknowledge my existence. “Please smile at me,” I asked them, “I need some reassurance that you’re not going to abandon me.” Nothing. Time to up the ante. “A little kiss maybe, just on the cheek?” Nada. It was worth a try. We arrived after 15 slightly uncomfortable minutes at sea, in both a physical and social sense, when I was unceremoniously dumped into the shallow waters, thus ruining my Peacocks finest espadrilles. My boat chums then sped off into the sunset (literally), giggling like schoolgirls (probably).

Kasa Fort is utterly decrepit; a complex of crumbling walls, arches and steps. And most of it is black, to the extent that it reminded me of Iceland’s barrenness, or the shores of hell. It’s more modest than Janjira Fort, a few kilometres to the south-east, but it’s a place you can have all to yourself, though I can’t decide whether this is nice or slightly terrifying. After 45 minutes of conflicting emotions and initiating some solitary prison-style role play, which sounds disgusting, I can safely say I’ve never been so relieved to hear the spluttering of a distant outboard motor and the sight of two unfriendly men in a boat coming for me. My heroes.

Day 6

I was only in Murud for one night, but it was a bit of a wrench to leave. It really is rather nice - at the northern end of its long, perfectly-clean beach is a huge palace overlooking the sea; in front of you is a centuries-old fort and at the southern end you can sit on an elderly donkey for a couple of rupees. This place really has everything, but this morning it was time to depart for the star attraction: Janjira Fort.

Located just 500 metres offshore from Rajpuri, a run-down fishing village not lacking in charm, Janjira is the only fort on India’s west coast to have never been conquered. By anyone, ever, despite the best efforts of the Dutch, the Marathis and those bastards from the East India Company. So who the hell did it belong to? Well, since you asked so nicely, it was built by the Siddis - descendants of sailor-traders from the Horn of Africa - way back in 1140. And yes, they were pirates. Bloody good ones.

Getting there and back costs just 20 rupees. I hung around on the quayside waiting for 29 others - for the boat only sails when 30 people are assembled – and after they and a few hundred others turned up we edged our way out of port. En route we were treated to an explanation of Janjira’s history by one of the on-board guides, whose speech was delivered entirely in Hindi and entirely in song. I had no idea what he was singing, but I was completely captivated, which proved a pleasant distraction from the ‘how many people can we fit in the boat’ game I was unwittingly a part of.

On arrival at Janjira I knew I was in for a treat. The gateway is pretty tiny given it’s the only entry point to the 22-acre fort, and once I climbed up the steps it was, to use an old cliché, like stepping back in time. Or, as I tried to joke to one of my Indian counterparts, like a set from Indiana Jones. He humoured me with a smile sans eye contact.

Built in the 15th century, Janjira’s 19 rounded bastions are still intact, as is each facility inside - from a freshwater lake (amazingly, when the fort was being built, a natural spring was discovered, so everyone who lived there had on-demand access to fresh water) to a collection of canons and a slowly-decaying mosque. It’s spellbinding, and I could have spent all day there. Hindi-only guides are available to show you around - it’s not possible to keep up with everything but I got the gist, and my guide was so charismatic that, to be honest, not understanding everything didn’t matter. Besides, there was a small group of university students visiting for the day who didn’t mind translating the odd detail. And the details were odd, but I’ll let you discover them for yourself when you come here, which is the solitary aim of this post. You think I’m writing this to entertain you? You’re so naïve.

I was looking forward to the journey back to shore as our guides promised to rig the sails (we were pulled there by a tug – tugged, if you will), but first we had to clamber aboard. Everyone thought they were being polite by obligingly moving towards one end of the boat so that others could board, which had the inevitable effect of making the vessel tip to a fraction of the point of no return. It was mildly exhilarating.

Days 7-8

After departing Murud-Janjira we proceeded to Chiplun, which I presumed would be no more than a handy stop-off roughly equidistant between Mumbai and Goa. And while the town is nothing to write home about, or at least blog about, the surrounding hills are. I rested my head at the Riverview Resort (when one travels to India one must make the effort to slum it, you know), which affords genuinely stunning views down to the Vashishsti River and the Konkan Railway. It also has the most spectacular pool I’ve seen in India so far, perfectly located for watching the sunset. I spent the night tucking into a creamy Malai Kofta, rather pleased with myself for discovering somewhere so bloody lovely, minus any other western faces.

Next stop Ganpatipule, a little further down the coast, which Maharashtra Tourism labels as “one of the most spectacular beaches along the Konkan Coast”. And they’re not wrong - it’s as pretty as anything I’ve seen in Goa, minus the over-development. Its appeal goes beyond aesthetics, though - pilgrims visit Ganpatipule’s temple and walk around the hill whose base it sits on as a mark of respect. So a little bit of culture ‘pon the beach, which is nice.

Monday, 20 January 2014

I went to Mumbai and this is what happened...

Taj Mahal hotel Mumbai
Day 1

When I woke up this morning I didn’t expect to be treated to a display from the Indian Army’s bomb disposal team. Then again, I didn’t actually sleep – I spent most of the evening sitting in extremely close proximity to a spellbound elderly Indian gentlemen; the object of his tactile awe being the mid-90s Casio watch around his wrist, or more specifically its relentlessly piercing beep. At this point I should mention that the pair of us were sitting down with a few hundred other people on a plane flying to Mumbai from London. He didn’t say a word to me during the eight hours, not even when I borrowed his pen to complete my landing slip. Now there’s a snippet of detail that will live in your memory forever.

Anyway, I was trying to write about the bomb disposal guys. Well, it appears I’ve arrived in India on National Army Day, which is celebrated in Mumbai through the medium of static World War One-style guns the size of houses, hastily-erected green tents, soldiers sitting on plastic chairs and teenagers taking crap photos of my Turkish face on camera phones. It’s an absolute hoot, especially as the army cordons off the entire area around the Gateway of India, meaning you can’t really get anywhere near it. I found this especially annoying as I promised my mum I’d go and do a selfie in front of it to demonstrate that a) I was having fun, or at least pretending to, and b) that I was still alive. I have Instagram now you see, which saves on tefelome bills.

Still, I had to make the most of it, so I tootled on over to the bomb disposal tent in the hope of seeing a live display. Or display prevention, to put it more accurately. There was something slightly uncomfortable about having such a facility yards from the Taj Mahal Palace, a hotel that only a little over five years ago bore the brunt of a horrific terrorist attack. So I suppose I was relieved to discover that all the bomb disposal guides wanted to do was sit down and stare at nothing in particular, which makes the first line of this blog so disgracefully misleading that I’m thinking of stopping right now. And right on cue, my brother’s old housemate Rachel has just walked into the hotel reception where I happen to be writing this. Honestly, you travel 5,000 miles to get away from familiar faces…

Day 2

Did you know that if you turn your watch upside down in India, you’ll see what time it is in Britain? It helps if your watch has hands, but it’s bloody well true. Today, dear reader, I went on a heritage walking tour of Mumbai’s Fort region – it was truly fascinating and very entertaining, but unfortunately this is the only thing I remember. Other than the fact that Mark Twain (whom my dad so intelligently quoted in his farewell text) stayed in India’s first five-star hotel, which today still stands but has been somewhat neglected, at least on the outside.

I walked with Saurabh, our guide; Margaux, an American girl who was taking a break from rehearsing a meticulously-choreographed routine she would be dancing at her friend’s wedding in a couple of days, and a lovely French couple who were taken by Mumbai’s ‘underwear pavement’, which does indeed resemble millions of pairs of y-fronts happily slotted together in crotchtastic unison. When the conversation moved on from pants to sport, I was devastated to discover that the pair (that nearly works, doesn’t it?) had never heard of French cricket, thus dispelling my forever-held belief that this rudimentary form of the game is exactly how it’s played across the Channel.

Later I befriended a chap, as one so easily does in India, called Asad, who recently completed a Master’s degree in Bath. To my delight he also knew of Cheltenham Town FC and the restaurants of Whitechapel, so naturally we ventured on over to Colaba Causeway for a spot of lunch, Iranian style. I told him I was planning on having dinner with Rachel again in the evening, which meant travelling on one of the commuter trains in rush hour, for it was my turn to make the effort to see her in Bandra, one of Mumbai’s northern suburbs. 10 people are killed on Mumbai’s local trains every day, so I was a little apprehensive, but Asad agreed to meet me at 18:30 to hold my hand, which fortunately doesn’t warrant a double take in India.

Mumbai’s commuter trains have first and second class, with the addition of a separate carriage for women. Asad assured me second class would be fine (something about an authentic Indian experience) as long as I subscribed to the culture of “adjustment”, which essentially means abandoning all pre-conceived ideas regarding personal space and public transport etiquette. After purchasing a ticket we strolled to the end of the platform, walked on to a surprisingly-quiet carriage and sat down on one of the carriages. It was all very civilised. By Grant Road station, a few stops up the line, we were penned in like battery chickens but still sitting down, every word of our conversation soliciting blank stares from tired commuters. Asad prompted me to stand up by the time we got to Mahim Junction and brace myself for “the push”. I managed to find a vacant handle two seconds before another chap did, so naturally he went to hold it anyway and ended up gripping my hand for the final five minutes of the journey. As the train started to slow into Khar Road, I was forcibly pushed from the carriage onto the platform, somehow managing to avoid the gap. Thankfully, the return journey a few hours later was a tad quieter…

Days 3-4

All I had left to do in Mumbai was see the Gateway of India at dawn, which you can too thanks to the below image, complete a top secret mission that will soon become public knowledge, and have a few Kingfishers with Asad and his entourage (one of whom had not only heard of Reggae Rajahs, whom I love, but had been to see them; and another who’s dad used to play international football for India) to celebrate my last night. Rest assured that all three activities, spread over two days, were very fun indeed, but I’ll spare you the details because after all, you’re not my stalker.


Thursday, 9 January 2014

I'm going to Cumbum

On Monday evening I’ll be embarking on a voyage of discovery, flying east from London to Mumbai. The plan was to explore the sights of one of the world’s most fascinating countries, but after a few minutes on Google Maps I thought it better to instead visit places with funny names. And I’m delighted to reveal my first two destinations: Cumbum and Wankaner. Don’t they sound devine?

Cumbum India

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Kelis, sledging and Iceland's unpronounceable volcano

Eyjafjallajokull rock
Clambering aboard a sledge in the middle of June and sliding down an icecap while listening to Kelis: an activity worthy of gracing anyone's bucket list. Apart from Kelis's, perhaps. Or Bjork's. Welcome to Iceland. 

So surreally brilliant was this experience that it surely pushes the northern lights, waterfall gawping and Brennivin gulping under the midnight sun as one of this weirdly beautiful north Atlantic island's highlights. That it took place on the summit of Eyjafjallajökull, the impossible-to-pronounce volcano which spouted ash across most of Europe in 2010, made it all the more memorable.