Monthly Archives: December 2007

from sunrise to sunset

Udaipur in the morningI left Ahmedabad late in the evening and arrived in Udaipur at about 7am. Arriving to this town after the noise and pollution was absolute heaven. My rickshaw driver stopped off at the side of the road so we could have some early morning chai before he dropped me at the Lal Ghat guesthouse. After dumping my stuff in the room I went straight up to the roof terrace, with beautiful white arches looking out over the lake. I’d known the view was going to be impressive but still, it was amazing. A still lake surrounded by beautiful old white and cream terraced buildings with a few tiny pavilions edging out into the water. The central Palace Hotel (as featured in Octopussy) gleaming white in the centre in the morning sunshine and the mist still hovering around the far shores with the distant hills fading into the sky beyond.

Udaipur sunsetAs lovely as the view was I was exhausted and half an hour later was fast asleep and didn’t wake up until midday. At which point my lonely plans for lots of independent cultural activities in Udaipur kind of went out of the window as I made some new friends. After a prolonged breakfast I went up to visit the City Palace on the shores overlooking the lake with two of the guys Daniel and James. We wondered around the ancient courtyards, galleries and gardens and took in the full testament to what life was like for an Indian Maharaja.Thanks to Daniel’s cheerful brazenness also sat down to drink chai with the palace guards and had a long chat with the chefs in the kitchen. Afterwards we wondered around the back streets eating samosas, Indian sweets, strange fruits and drinking pomegranate juice. The locals here are pretty relaxed and really friendly and chatty to tourists, the town to itself, although undeniably touristy is charming and wonderfully free of noise and pollution, at least by Indian standards. Small temples squeeze out of nooks and crannies and some of the buildings have beautifully dilapidated facades, cows lounge stubbornly on the sides, and often the middle of the roads as the muderous rickshaw drivers whizz by.

After watching the sunset over the lake a whole group of us, from Slovakia, Australia, the UK, Belgium, Germany and Bulgaria in all,  caught rickshaws to a nearby musical festival taking place that evening. We sat on cushions in the VIP area (I felt a little guilty especially after abusing the dusk to pay the Indian entry fee and saving myself a whopping ten rupees!) and watched a whole range of dances and performances from around the country. There was mime, swirling jewelled girls, enthusiastic drummers, zithers, singers, a duo performing the Indian equivalent of dirty limericks (in Hindi of course), pantomimes and at one point they had all the musicians on stage do perform a joint symphony which was fantastic, so much rhythm and energy. Afterwards we went up to check out the Indian mini fairground and went on a tiny ferris wheel that was hand propelled and far scarier and less stable than anything else I’ve been on for years! We had juice and Pav Bharjs and got befriended by all the stall holders. Especially Eddie who they absolutely loved! Then on the way back we somehow crashed an engagement party and were asked to have all our photos taken on stage with the prospective bride and groom.  After which shenanigans we finally made it back to the guesthouse and sat on the rooftop with rum and whiskey, wrapped up warm (it’s bloody cold at night here!) and talking away the hours.

Festival in Udaipur

Today we hired two mopeds and two motorbikes, I wisely elected to remain a passenger after my wee Goa debunkle, and went out exploring. Actually our only plan was to make it Out on the bikesto the Monsoon Palace to watch the sunset. We got lost around tiny villages in the countryside, rode around the lakes, lost each other, found each other, went for a superb lunch and eventually arrived at the gates up to the palace to find the sun was almost already set and the gates were closed. We did, however, get to spot a very strange antelope in the grounds around the base of the hill and admire the guardsman’s large and very impressive moustache.  After all this excitment I may take the day off tomorrow and go peddaling around the lake, maybe some souvenir shopping, possibly just sit reading in the sun on the roof terrace. So many difficult decisions to make….Happy New Year!

pols and passageways

Preparing Kite thread for the festival, Ahmedabad My final day in Ahmedabad I got up early to go on one of the city’s walking tours thSweet Stall Ahmedabadrough the old part of the city. It was definitely worth the early start as I sat waiting in an archway overlooking the old Swaminarayan Hindu temple as the sun was coming up over the horizon and the pigeons and hawks were circling the rooftops. The walk itself wound around the city’s orginal neighbourhoods, called pols with some beautiful ornate decorated buildings, traditional elaborate bird nests on stands, Jain temples and secret passageways connecting one Pol to another. There were also lots of guys stretching thread between two poles and pasting it with fluorescent pink goo. The goo turned out to be a soft glass paste which dries on the thread making it sharp and hard and this is used as the string for kites in the January kite festival in town, to better cut up their opponents with!

an Indian Christmas and the right way to travel on trains

Well, I had to go all the way to India, but I finally had my first real experience of helping to cook for a large number of people on Christmas Day. Under the masterful supervision of (Mrs) Sarah we managed to do roast chickens, vegetables, bread sauce, gravy, roast potatoes, apple crumble with custard and ice cream for fourteen of us on Christmas Day evening. Eilen decorated the table with cloth and tiny santas and we even had mince pies, crackers and fake snow and a secret santa afterwards. After all the wine and cooking we all sank down and watched Harry Potter on the laptop! What more could you want from a Christmas away from home?

On Boxing Day, having learnt a valuable lesson coming back from Mumbai, I got the intercity express, AC Chair no less which got me to the city in under three hours in relative luxury. Then at Mumbai central I hopped on board the Gujurat Mail in the 2AC car (Sleeper berths 2 rows high with curtains and remarkable clean toilets!), had a swig of my Old Monk Rum (secret santa present) and slept soundly all the way to Ahmedabad in Gujurat where I hopped off. Twenty minutes later I had booked into a tiny hotel room downtown and fell straight back asleep until midday!Gandhiji

Ahemdabad is the capital of Gujurat and is loud, polluted and congested. It’s also bustling, colourful, friendly and relatively relaxed in terms of its welcome to tourists. The rickshaw drivers barely attempted to augment their fares and I found a gorgeous outside organic cafe restaurant for lunch with huge beautiful photographs of the city suspended from the walls. I had steamed pulse dumplings and a cappuccino for lunch which was just wonderful. After a wander around the nearby streets, carefully avoiding the glittering beckoning of the bangle and jewellery stands I went up to visit the Ganhi Ashram a little north of the city centre where he lived for a large proportion of his life. The ashram now has a museum that shows in pictures the story of Gandhi’s life, his words, letters, political movements and personal life. Really interesting especially as despite having been in India for 3 months, I still knew relatively little about the man still universally adored by the population and credited with playing a major role in India gaining it’s indepedance from the British Empire. Almost every town and city I have been to in India has an MG (Mahatma Gandhi) Road. The only sad thing I thought was that Gandhi was particularly dismayed in the partioning of India into Pakistan and Bangledesh and the resulting religious divides that created (yet another example of the good old British sowing the seeds of future discontent) and how dismayed he would be about the continuing rift between the countries and the religious undercurrents still around today. The religious-incited Bombay riots and subsequent blasts were almost fifteen years ago and yet my friend Suranjana, who lives in a predominantly Hindu building in North Mumbai, said she had policemen outside the building in the run up to the Muslim festival Eid, in case anything “kicked off” in their words. Some things never seem to change.

On another note completely I’ve just finisehd reading a section of lectures from 2003 on neuroscience, called the Reith lectures by Dr Vilayanur S Ramachandran. Really interesting look into how different parts of the brain work and might have evolved based upon studying people with unusual neurological traits arising from damage or cross wiring in different areas. This is a quote from Huxley metioned in the lecture that I particularly liked:

 ”We are not angels, we are merely sophisticated apes. Yet we feel like angels trapped inside the bodies of beasts, craving transcendence and all the time trying to spread our wings and fly off, and it’s really a very odd predicament to be in, if you think about it.”

happy (but hot!) christmas

Happy Christmas

Back in the polluted but familiar walks of Pune and back at the house with the girls for Christmas. Train from Mumbai was interesting…sadly I chose to take the fast long distance Mumbai-Bangalore Express which stops at Pune. Bad move, there were only a few 2nd class carriages. I thought I would be fairly safe in the women’s only one. Well I got a seat, mainly because I was happy to clamber up to what I thought were luggage racks, actually they are overhead seating. Every inch on the floor was occupied but things were fairly civilised until we reached Pune station. What happens when saree wearing ladies turn bad. I literally rugby charged my way out of the train and nearly got swept back in by the press of women trying to get on and get a seat. Elbows out, head down and a few seconds I popped out the other end feeling rather ruffled. Women in India…dangerous!

room with a view

Room with a View

Still love Bombay, crazy ass place that it is. Here is the view from our fourth floor hotel room at about 7am in the morning, not bad considering most of the budget rooms in this part of town are akin to sleeping in a large sized coffin!

Suranjana and IOn Friday night I took the train all the way up to Bandra, an area in north Mumbai where apparently loads of the bollywood stars live, not that I would have recognised half of them anyway but still cool. I met up with a friend Suranjana, I met and last saw three years ago on a L’Oreal metier in Paris. She’d found me thanks to the wonders of facebook. Bandra has some really lovely bars and restaurants so we spent the evening drinking beer and catching up and I even had a lasagne for dinner, definitely my first in India! It’s strange how you take so many things for granted living in the west. My friend was saying how lucky she is that her mother is not putting any pressure on her to get married, at the age of 32, which is definitely unusual in India. On the other hand my Mum made me promise not to get randomly married on my travels around the world.

I got back rather late to Colaba, and possibly a little tipsy to find that Lianna had arrived and one of our mates Kev was also kipping on the floor until his bus left at 4am. So Saturday morning was a late one! We ended up taking a bus (after a rather extended and expensive trip into FabIndia to buy ouBombay’s Muslim quarterrselves Christmas presents) up to Bindi Bazaar in the Muslim area of Bombay north of Fort and the best place to buy bangles. There is a whole row of stalls full of more brightly coloured, glitzy, sparkling bangles than you can shake a stick at. I may have a bangle problem…

Afterwards we strolled around looking at the perfume stalls, beautifully ornate mosques, drinking lassis, and noticing the rather large number of glossy, large goats tied up around the Lianna and the Goatarea. Like the turkeys their days as numbered, they are all about to be slaughtered for the Muslim festival of Eid!

It’s so nice to get away from the more tourist trap areas of the city. The streets around the bazaars are bustling, crazy, people filled, traffic heavy pulsing centres of life that have nothing to do with providing the air conditioned coffee shops, internet cafes, hippy clothing and conveniences for the likes of me. Bombay is, well like so many Indian cities, such a place of contrasts. The tourist stalls along Colaba Causeway, the sweep of Art Deco buildings along marine drive, the museums and old colonial churches in Churchgate, the muslim bazaars, the slums on the waters edge down by the World Trade Centre, one city with a million difference faces.

I am Legend

I_Am_LegendNot me obviously, I’m talking about the film which I went to see, a little apprehensively yesterday evening in Bombay. I love the Richard Mathieson book and was terrified that the combined forces of Will Smith and Hollywood would have completely destroyed what is so extraordinary and powerful about the novel. Then I saw the trailer and thought, I have to see this.

The film was wonderful, really, really good and I don’t think I was relaxed for one moment. It’s involving, desperate, moving, thrilling and pretty intense. Okay, so they did Hollywood up the ending a little but I can forgive them that as it after 90 minutes of the film even I felt that I needed a slightly more uplifting ending than the original which is a little more dark and twisted. The only shame is that the ending in the book, where the character realises that he himself has become the perversion in society, the misfit and the abhorrance rather than the new, vampire like mutated humans that have overrun the planet, and that is why they are bent on destroying him, because they fear what is different, is one of the most interesting commentaries on the nature of humanity. Clearly not really mainstream audience though. Other than that, fantastic film and Will Smith is excellent in it.

What is fascinating and thought provoking about all these types of post-apocalyptic novels, whether it’s I am Legend, Mary Wesley’s The Sixth Seal, Cormac McCarthy’s On the Road, or Jean van Ure’s Plague 99, is that you, or at least I, invariably end up wandering what I would do in those situations. When the world around you has altered and changed beyond all recognition, when you become the few, the hunted or the survivors, what do you do? Would you have the strength, the perseverance, the sheer bloodymindedness to get up every day, to keep going, to hold onto hope when there is none to be found, to stick two fingers up at the world around you and say “fuck you, I will survive!”

Well fortunately for me there are no nuclear holocausts, chemical storms or mutated viruses to wipe out the world’s population leaving me in such a situation…yet! Instead yesterday evening I walked through the city of Mumbai, or Bombay as everyone here still calls it, a city of 13 million people, all still one hopes, warm blooded non-vampires, and stuck two fingers up at the vast numbers of taxi drivers who all refused, point blank, to take me back to my hotel and instead I found my way back to Colaba on my own two feet. Okay so it’s hardly surviving an apocalypse, but hey, it’s a start!

pleasing Lord Shiva

Nasik bathing tank Nasik is a little town nestled in the flat countryside between Aurangabad and Mumbai and was a quiet place to spend a day before heading back to the big smoke of Bombay. Nasik has a huge bathing tank called Ramkund on the banks of one of India’s seven holy rivers for Hindus, the Godovari. I took a walk down the riverside which was bustling with market sellers, the odd man soaping up in the holy waters, families and a few pilgrims. There are temples everywhere in Nasik, most of the Gothic school of temple building with black stone and a slight air of the macabre about them. I stopped into one and was chatting to the guy on the door who pretty much insistedWomen at Ramkund, Nasik that I spend 5 rupees on a leaf plate of flowers, sweets and incense as an offering to the Hindu god Shiva, the destroyer. So dutifully I lit the incense and gave the flowers and sweets to the shrine attendant who made me repeat the necessary chant until I had it just right, daubed my forehead with a big red spot and finally I was allowed to leave!

Panda lena, Nasik Today I took a rickshaw (after much haggling) out to some more caves called Panda Lena (going to need a break from rock cut caves soon) on the outskirts of town with fantastic views across the countryside and some landscaped gardens below where I relaxed reading for an hour or so before heading back into town for more thali!

going with the flow

Ellora Chatiya You have to love India, really you do. Having finally left the happy comforts of Pune to go off adventuring alone again around Maharastra, I was a little worried about spending so much time on my own again. India however, it seems, has other plans for me.

In Ajanta I was adopted by a family from Tamil Nadu for the day, going out for a meal in Aurangabad Saturday night I was joined by a lawyer for 10 minutes who was keen to practise his English by grilling me about my job and family, and then a local guy, who lives in Peckham for half the year, sat down to chat for a while. Then today, sauntering around Ellora caves by myself, I befriended one hilarious jewellery-seller called Vijay, who accompanied me for some of the day in-between running off to sell necklaces to bus loads of arriving tourists. I had my photo taken shaking hands with no less than five smartly dressed Indian men, had chai with two off-duty rickshaw drivers and spent 15 minutes being shown the interesting pen sketches of a budding artist from Nagpur. I think getting some time to myself might be more of a challenge than I’d thought. Seriously though, it’s been a hugely amusing day, particularly Vijay who has been spouting his beliefs about Buddism, love and lifestyle to me all day, and telling me about his German girlfriend who is coming out to see him in two weeks. He also insisted on giving me two ‘healing’ crystals, a book of postcards and a weird rock which looks like a egg. I must have had my nutter attraction perfume on, he was very sweet though and very harmless!

My friend Vijay and I

Mini Taj MahalI started off visiting Ajanta caves yesterday in a random motley tour from Aurangabad which proved fairly entertaining although our guide did get very agitated if he didn’t have everyone’s full attention in every cave before imparting his pearls of wisdom. The caves themselves are incredible feats of architecture, thirty in all carved out of a continuous horseshoe of volcanic rock cut into the countryside. Most of the caves are dimly lit inside to preserve what is left of the beautiful frescoes on the walls and ceilings, so a greenish light adds a huge amount of atmosphere to the carved ceilings of the chatiyas and the enormous sitting Buddas. I ended up being befriended by a couple and their son from Tamil Nadu, who I rode with in the car (as the bus was full), one of the big, seriously retro white ambassadors they have in India. They didn’t half grill me about my job, my work in Pune, my family, their jobs, marital status, life in London. Not that I object to getting to talk a lot, but you know what I mean! On the way back we got the driver to do a small detour to the mini Taj Mahal in the town, Bibi Ka Maqbara which is really beautiful although clearly a good deal smaller than the Taj. Since I haven’t seen the big one I found it very charming indeed.

Today I caught a local bus to Ellora caves, about 45 minutes north of Aurangabad. A very different site to Ajanta, all the caves are spread out along the rock’s ridge covering about 3km in length and split into Jain temples, Buddist temples and Hindu temples. On arrival I met Vijay who showed me around some of the temples in-between running around trying to offload his gemstone (?) necklaces to various bus loads of tourists, and in the meantime I spent a good seven hours somehow just wondering around the temples and taking in the views from the hills behind. The cave temples were really amazing, huge hollowed out columns, engravings and pillars all carved out of the same rock from the top down between AD 200 and AD 800 by hammer and chisel alone: Shivas, Ganesh, Kalis, Buddhas and Shivlings galore. The largest one, Kalias, in fact the largest cave temple in the world (thank-you Lonely Planet) is immense and unbelievably intricate. The most fun part is that you can clamber up the steps and explore the different floors, every nook and cranny, and you almost forget the size of the place until you look down on it from above and see the sheer immensity of the construction. Engravings of Shiva, Ganesh, elephants and lions look out from all around and surrounding it is a columned gallery lined with more engravings of Hindi gods. Although there were lots of tourists around I quite often found myself alone walking through the large halls and gazing at lines of Budda incarnations. Once I heard a beautiful bass voice begin singing in Hindi from the other end of the cave, momentarily thinking I was having some kind of bizarre spiritual experience I was relieved, and a little disappointed, to round a corner to find a local guide demonstrating the meditative acoustics of the chamber to his charges!

By five it was time to bid farewell to the charms of Ellora and head back to Aurangabad. Feeling that I was a master of local transport by this point, I elected to hop into one of the shared taxis instead of waiting for a local bus. To start with this seemed an excellent and far more comfortable way to travel.We set off with two people in the front with the driver, four of us comfortably (just about) along the back seat and four people in the back which I thought, oh how naively, made the taxi jeep full. By the time we pulled up into town there were, and I do not exaggerate, 18 people in the jeep with the driver’s side kick hanging out of the back holding the door to, as the vehicle was literally over flowing. Note to self, the jeep taxi is only full when there is no space left to breathe or move. This is India!

I got back to my hotel which has a gorgeous outside sheltered restaurant area and have spent the past two hours swapping travelling stories with a really lovely couple from Holland who so far have journeyed through Russia, Mongolia, China, Tibet, Nepal and India. Now there’s food for thought, I wonder if I could get home the same way…

it’s a cold night in Pune

Me at the DISHA party with one of the girlsWell it’s my final week in Pune and my last day in the office which is definitely kind of sad. Last night we had one of the DISHA client parties so the roof was packed and we had dancing, Ash and Daryl playing hindi classics for the kids on the guitar, candy floss, street plays and Avinash, one of the DISHA team announced that the volunteers were doing their bollywood dance. Well it was news to us, especially Eilen and I who were in sarees. Well we didn’t have much choice so in sarees to a totally different track we just about managed it. That video will thankfully not be appearing on YouTube! However the below is the DISHA team with Hans camping it up in the background and the boys playing guitar last night!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7tca47yCCRw
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6hm9-A7OGiM

Well we joke about how dangerous the rickshaws are but one of the girls BanglesHannah is now is hospital. A guy on a bike grabbed her bag through the side the other day, she doggedly held on to her bag and as the bike accelerated it dragged her out of the rickshaw onto the road where the vehicle ran over her, bruising her and breaking her collarbone. And worst of all the guy got away with the bag. Hannah’s much better now although her arm is in an attractive shoulder immobilising sling for the next few weeks so no more bollywood dancing for her this Christmas!

Oh and the photo, well you can never have too many bangles, Sarah and I thought her last night would be a great opportunity to see if we could wear all the ones we’ve bought here…well almost!

And since I have been requested to put the lyrics online (no really!) here’s the Pune song as performed in a saree in Soul (and in the Beer Garden a few nights ago, and many times in the house!) It’s a damn catchy tune I tell you!

(chords C, F, C, G)

Chorus: It’s a cold night in Pune,
But we’re tucked up safe and warm in Tate Tope.
The dogs are barking and dinner’s long since cold,
Well I know I’ve missed my curfew I guess I’m just to old.

The bus for work leaves at half past nine,
To go to Tadiwala, where we work ten till five;
In the creches and Balwadis and down in the slums,
Well the food is pretty standard, sometime we get the runs…

Chorus

At the weekend we go drinking, Kingfishers in our hands,
Sitting out in the Beer Garden of the Hotel Grand;
Or shooting balls around in Toons on MG Road,
And we’re crooning out a few tunes in Sunday in Soul.

Chorus

Back in Tate Tope, the house is in a mess,
We’re sitting watching TV playing cards or playing chess;
Then out on to the balcony for a final smoke,
And slipping shots of rum into bottles of coke.

Yes, Pune’s got pollution and Pune’s got smog,
Shopping malls and bowling balls, pigs and cats and dogs;
Chapatis and parathas, chinese food and thai,
And everytime I take a rickshaw, I think I’ll fucking die!

It’s a cold night in Pune,
Come the 1th December I’ll be on my way,
Though I’ll miss my friends and my work, although I don’t got paid,
But if I don’t leave Tate Tope, I’ve never gonna get laid.

Chorus

bollywood, beers and four bald heads

Busy week in Pune, from the very cheesiest of Bollywood films to a very messy farewell weekend, pet puppies and the shaving of four heads in the house.

mondayLennox the puppy we went to see Om Shanti Om, the big Shahrukh Kahn film. It’s big, it’s bright, colourful, brash, over-the-top and I loved it. We’d all been singing the the soundtrack for weeks in the house anyway and when the scene came on where Shahrukh Kahn and his new wonderful pecks do an over-the-top Peter-Andre-eat-your-heart-out someone-chuck-a-bucket-of-water-on-me-from-off-camera disco-dance routine I thought I would die laughing. It’s out in the UK, definitely go and see it, sheer brilliant comedy value!

tuesday we found two tiny little puppies wandering around Tate Tope abandoned so of course they ended up coming back to the house for the night until we could find them some owners. These two little bundles of fluff had us running around making them scrambled eggs and warm milk and clucking like a house of mother hens. Sadly before a baby sitter roster had been established they had been randomly donated to some neighbours by a disapproving Manda.

The gang in Soulwednesday the Sarahs, Dave, Carole, Jill, Nige and I headed down to City of Child for the day as most of the kids had the day off work. We played on the swings and fell asleep watching Hindi movies with them in the afternoon. In the early evening we took on the boys at a game of Kabaddi, a fairly violent game which involves trying to tag someone in the other team’s half and get back to your side before they drag you down before you can cross the line, highly entertaining, but we did get our arses fairly whupped by the boys, there were just far too many of them, and they totally cheated! (Click for Video!) Not that I’m competitive you understand. Tina and Prashant, who run City of Child, arranged for the bullock cart to give us a very bumpy half hour ride along to the main road in the dark where we caught a local bus back into Pune and went out for some mid week beers and jazz at Soul.

Cavier, Punethe weekend Friday night was another trip to Touche Le Sizzler for steaks…has to be done…with some digestive beers at the Beer Garden afterwards. Saturday night was the last big one out for Lucy, Dave, Carole, Jill, Nige and Emmanuel so we all went to take over Aqua club again and towards the end of the night half of us ended up in a hip-hop club called Cavier. Really good night although I definitely do not recommend drinking Indian Sambuca, nasty! We stayed up sneakily drinking rum in the living room until about 4am so when Lucy woke me up on Sunday morning at 10.30am to Dancing Queen on the ipod I was curt to say the least! Eventually I dragged my dishevelled form out of bed as it was the day of the head shaving. all baldFaithWe were all crammed in the lounge, the boys from City of Child, girls from Vidala and Sahara were there along with Hans, Claire and Ashlesha. Dave very professionally and efficiently gowned, cut and shaved the heads of Jen, Allison, Faith and Teri who between them have raised over three grand so far. Surprisingly (although I’m sure their mothers would disagree) none of them look that bad, it fact they all looked kind of cool although they are all wearing bandannas around the house now. I mean I’ve done some crazy things with my hair but I don’t think I’d have the balls…