Sunday, November 30, 2008

Land of coconuts

"You've got a Pakistan visa! You went to Pakistan? What's it like?" The young fella is registering us at the guesthouse and leafing through our passports. "It's great. The people are very friendly." "But don't they all carry AK47's?" The attack in Bombay is still going on. "No! They're just like Indians." "But they want to kill us man." The papers are full of how the attackers came by boat from Karachi. "Most of them just want peace - they can't stand all the bombings and fighting, " I can sense I'm losing this one, he's looking at me sceptically. "And they love watching Indian TV - they watch it all the time," I add. He positively beams. "Really?"

Cochi in Kerala has a history of trade, supplying spices and latterly tea, rubber and coffee. The Chinese, Jews, Portuguese, Dutch and British have all left their imprint on the small town. It sits at the tip of a peninsula, guarding the entrance to a long lagoon. We arrive appropiately by boat, on a small ferry from the mainland, and it's a relief to find it a sleepy little place, with little traffic or noise, and easy to get around. Along the sea front are remnants of old Chinese fishing nets - large unwieldly things that cantilever out over the water - an indication of the early contact with Chinese traders. Around the fort area are scattered a number of well-restored Dutch merchants' houses, and along the dock side, in the shelter of the lagoon, the spice and tea warehouses stand shoulder to shoulder the whole length of the road. There are stagnant canals left over by the Dutch and scattered through the town are temples and churches. There is still a working synagogue here, built in the 1500's, but there are only 11 Jews left. Gayle saw a reference to it in the local paper - there is one young unmarried woman and one eligible batchelor, but the woman says she has no intention of marrying him. The synagogue is mentioned in Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh, so we visit to see the blue painted Chinese tiles across the floor which he describes.

Kerala, which means 'Land of Coconuts', has become a popular tourist destination so we're not surprised to find quite a few holidaymakers knocking about. These are distinguished from other Indian travellers by their crisp bright white clothes, short skirts and strappy tops, and a separate wardrobe for dinner. But thanks to them, there is good fresh coffee available and cake - which makes a change from gobi masala and chappattis. We get a very decent room here too - thanks to all the competition - although the friendly fella on the desk never mentioned we would have to share it.

One of the must-do things in Kerala is to rent a houseboat - a large floating rattan affair and cruise the backwaters. Miles of waterways criss-cross the land, linking to the sea and cutting across swathes of farmland. So we opt for the cheap and cheerful ferry from Alleppey to Kottayam - a lovely day return ride that covers the same territory but costs an nth of the price, with a luxurious thali for lunch thrown in. Often we seem to be floating higher than the acres of surrounding paddy fields - many of the channels have built-up dykes on which are perched famers' houses. Coconut palms line every bank. It's a lovely lazy comfortable ride. Nearly everyone we pass by is doing their laundry in the water. There is the usual soaking, rub down with a block of soap and then the vicious thrashing against a flat stone. It looks like an endless process, but judging by the sparkling white lunghis and bright washing lines, it does the trick. Later on we pass several houseboats with Indian couples having a romantic holiday, along with the boat's captain, cook, cook's assistant and houseboy. We wonder what they do about the mosquitoes - it's extremely humid and the towns are infested. One evening we are sitting in a restaurant slapping our legs and scratching all over when the waiter comes round with a small brazier of smoking coals - very atmospheric, but it only kept the buggers at bay for about ten minutes.

Our final stop before we reach Trivandrum to fly to Sri Lanka, is at a small beach resort called Varkala. The lovely sandy beach has been saved by protecting cliffs, which has kept development off it. The cliffs though have a strip of hotels, shops and restaurants that all look the same after a while. But it's not too big a place, and there is talk that the attacks in Bombay have put off some of the usual seasonal holidaymakers. This is a relief, because the beach isn't that big. There's no boozy party scene here - there's a more developed resort just down the coast - so we have nice quiet days and even quieter evenings. Time to tackle our mobile library.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Railway days

We reach Ahmedabad at dusk. We have been on a sweaty train all day, and arrive at dusk, the light murky with pollution, the streets busy at rush hour. The city has been called 'the Manchester of India', because of its role at the centre of India's cotton industry, and like Manchester, the city has passed its boom days far behind. We have only one night and one day here before catching a night train and the only place we want to visit, a textile museum described as one of the best in the world, is closed on Wednesdays. Needless to say, it is Wednesday. As always in such instances we resort to the standard fall back of wandering around the bazaar. There's an old mosque built by Mr. Ahmed himself, and his tomb, which is now surrounded by houses, lines of washng hanging up, and a herd of goats eating anything that doesn't move. At the station that evening we discover that we have moved up the waiting list and now have confirmed berths on The Gujarat Mail to Bombay. We have plenty of time to find our seats and stow and lock our rucksacks. The carriage is open and divided up into sections that sleep six, with two more across the corridor. We have paid extra to go in an air-conditioned carriage, because the next morning we will be changing trains and continuing for another 27 hours to Kerala. Our decision not to stop in Bombay turns out to be a good one in hindsight. As everyone settles down to sleep mobile phones start ringing and we hear occasional English words pop out amongst all the Gujarati, Maharashtri and Hindi. "Bomb blast" gets our full attention. In the morning, we get off with the family from our section at a suburban interchange. It's not yet 6 o'clock, but people are already queuing to buy tickets for the local trains. With perhaps 20 million residents, the trains are always busy, but the ones we take to our next station are mostly quiet - mind you it is early. We have no more information about the bombings, but luckily we meet two young English women who have a mobile phone so that we can ring home. We think about Elke and Axel who were planning to fly home from Bombay in the early hours of the morning. As normal, the policemen at this station are just sitting around scratching themselves and twiddling their lathis - looks like just another day.

Our train to Cochin leaves just before 12. There's an inordinate number of people in our section for six, and after some quick questioning we determine who are actually travelling and who are family seeing them off. The standard ratio is about 1:4. We then engage in the usual what is your profession, where have you been in India. Finally the train whistle goes and we slide away. It's a huge snake of a train, but then they always are - millions upon millions must travel every day across India - and amazingly the whole system seems to work very smoothly. Shortly staff are plying the passengers with tea, coffee, pakora and taking orders for lunch. The third stage of our journey south has begun.

The following day we pick up another English-language daily, but there is only the front page with coverage of the attacks in Bombay and not much new information. In fact very little in the way of facts at all. But in the sports section a double-page spread on how it will affect the cricket! We have time on our hands and read every page. Gayle spots this in an article on state elections: "The second ... phase of Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh saw an estimated 60 per cent turnout on Thursday and was by and large peaceful but for the killing of a BJP candidate and stabbing of a presiding officer." On another page there is a paragraph about the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, campaigning for re-election. Her name is Mayawati, a Dallit, who is being tipped as a possible future prime minister. She will have some help on her campaign trail: "Seven-year-old Simran Bangotra who looks, dresses and addreses rallies exactly like the UP CM, is being brought in to campaign in different parts of Jammu. Party sources say 'Mini' Mayawati is also likely to address public rallies in areas where polls will be held on December 24th."

Looking out of the windows the landscape has changed. Vivid green paddy fields and brightly painted houses tucked in amongst coconut palms. The sea. We are now trundling into Kerala and it looks like a hundred miles from the urban sprawl of Bombay. And the rest.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bom dia

Junagadh is a dusty little pilgrim town to break our journey to Diu. It's the weekend and when we visit the fort on the hill there are many locals also looking around including a young Indian woman from Leicester who gives us a surprised hello. We're hardly on the tourist trail here. There are a few other interesting buildings to see and some great old arches marking the gateways of the old town, but as with many places, everything is decaying rapidly. The streets of the bazaar are full of shops selling all kinds of odds and sods. We have soda and fresh lime juice at a paan seller's stand. He is smearing large green leaves with a reddish paste of betel nut and then adding a concoction of spices for flavor, before folding it into a tidy little wad for the punter, who tucks it inside his mouth. Give it a chew and some time to mush up nicely and soon he'll be gobbing huge amounts of red liquid left, right and centre. Mmmmm, lovely.

We are sitting in a bus station waiting for our ride. A young man sits down next to Gayle. "What is your good name?" "Gayle. What's yours?" "Monty." After the usual which country stuff he points out an old man in the crowd who is wearing a white shirt that, halfway down, breaks into a pleated skirt. He is wearing earrings and chunky silver bracelets and carries a worn wooden stick with coloured bands. "That man is wearing traditional clothes", says Monty. "And why aren't you?" Gayle asks. Monty points to his jeans and t-shirt. "I am fashionable!" he declares.

There follows a week of lazy days in Diu, a small island that once was part of the Portugese territories in India. We find a dreary simple little place to stay run by dreary simple little folk, but it's cheap as chips, very quiet and hey, it's handy for the beach. The little town is small, with more decaying buildings, including some grand old Portugese houses tucked away down narrow streets. Up on the hill is a large whitewashed church, now a museum, but there are still a handful of Christian families and a few people who speak Portugese. The town seems to survive on fishing and tourism, boosted by its cheap booze - Gujarat state itself is 'dry'. So there are sometimes a few jolly Indians all drinking beer and then stumbling around on the beach. It's such a small place that within three days we have bumped into probably all the other foreign visitors here, know their hotel, travel itinerary and what they wear on the beach. Amongst them is Heather, who we first met in Ladakh and then in Udaipur. Once again she supplies us with some quality books to add to our mobile library. We also join Axel and Elke, a German couple who arrived on the same bus as us, on the beach each afternoon and in the evening for fish suppers or prawn curries. Elke spent some time studying in Bradford - a remarkable fact. We have conversations about the highs and lows of travelling in India. I had been thinking about what it was that made India such a great place to visit. It's rarely beautiful in the accepted sense, it can't be the filth or the desperate women and children who approach for money, or the consant irritating invitations to take a rickshaw or come into a shop. Perhaps it's the craziness of the streetlife, the mixture of people and faiths, or the uneven blend of First World 'progress' and Third World 'simplicity'. (For those not interested in these reflections, please look away now.) There's an incredible amount of energy and creativity here, possibly driven by poverty and an excess of people, that fascinates. But at the same time there is the large gap between rich and poor, visible every moment of every day, which repulses. It's like a fairground Hall of Mirrors distorted reflection of life in the West. Everything is more colourful, weirder, bigger, bendier, scarier and it's multiplied endlessly into infinity. As Axel observes after about two weeks of their three-week trip, it perhaps isn't the ideal place for a holiday.

Each day we walk through the streets and greet or are greeted by the locals - women sat on doorsteps in the shade, children running around in circles, men ambling along the road. On the dock, skinny barefoot fishermen unload their catch, or load up blocks of ice into polystyrene crates for their next journey. There's a permanent whiff of rotten fish about the place. And there's no hustle and bustle here. A nice long siesta in the heat of the afternoon - perhaps the longest-lasting Portugese influence. It seems a shame to leave, but our train tickets are booked.........

Friday, November 14, 2008

Heading out west

Before we leave Udaipur we try to work out our train tickets to Kerala in a month's time by logging on to Indian Railways' website: The experience is a bit like doing a sudoku puzzle in the dark. The railway system is of course huge in India, and it is now possible to log on and book tickets if you know how. We've picked up tips from other travellers and there are websites that explain how to use this website. Before we dissolve into babbling wrecks we opt instead to do the old-fashioned thing - turn up at the railway station reservations office, fight our way to the window to get a request form to fill-in and then fight our way back to the window and book a ticket. It's all a bit sweaty and unnecessarily violent, but much more satisfying. Mind you, our ticket tells us we are numbers 26 and 27 on the waiting list. "No problem" everyone says.............

Next stop and it's all the fun of the fair at Mount Abu - an old colonial hill station and pilgrimage place on the border with Gujarat. Diwali holidays are continuing apace and the little place is crammed with Indian holidaymakers having a ball. Every building is either a hotel or restaurant or a shop selling tat. It reminds us of Blackpool. We don't feel homesick. We pass on the 'Sheratone Hotel' and 'Holiday In', opting instead for the foreigners' choice, a quiet place with rooms painted asylum green. There's a real hurly-burly bustle on the streets, as extended families parade past the street hawkers and stalls, ice-cream and 'English Wine & Spirits' shops. The crowd is focused at one end of a small lake which has a flotilla of pedalos, row boats and punted gondolas. Along at 'Sunset Point' an eager crowd is already gathering at 4 o'clock to watch the sunset over the plains 1,000 metres below. You can have a horse ride while you wait. There's not many people walking around here, despite the cooler temperature - jeeps and 4WDs whizz past, and for those in the centre who find it all too much of a bother you can hire a man with a trolley to push you to your next destination. The latter appears very popular with overweight Indians. We visit a collection of finely-carved Jain temples. Two are particularly special with marble columns and archways, domes and ceilings, doorframes and walls covered in figures and scenes. Too much for the eyes to take in.

Seeing as most of Gujarat seems to be in Rajasthan, we head for Gujarat, the western corner of India's kite, if you see what I mean. Bhuj was hit by a big earthquake in 2001 and as we wander around we can see where the cracks have been filled in. It's hard to tell what survived and what is new - everything looks a bit scruffy and tatty and well, Indian. But it's all low-key and the centre is a warren of streets that make up the bazaar. It feels more normal than the tourist towns of Rajasthan, and we sense over the days the genuine warmth and hospitality of Indians, as opposed to the artifice and shallowness you come across in the tourist hotspots. And the food is better too.

"I spy with my little eye something beginning with d."
"Yes, your turn"
I spy with my little eye something beginning with n."
"Nose ring"
Yep, your turn."
I spy with my little eye something beginning with c."
"Okay, your go."
I spy with my little eye something beginning with t."
The tin can of a bus rattles along the road through the desert of the Rann of Kutch. We're standing in the aisle, hemmed in, and surrounded by locals from the villages that are dotted around in the scrub. In the distance all we can see are heatwaves and a blurry hill poking up above the salt flats. We are returning from a village close to the border with Pakistan. We've been looking for traditional mud houses that have been decorated. We find only concrete box houses and some plain mud houses - the earthquake might have reached up here? A family invite us in and offer us tea, but before we can reply they produce tatty embroidered clothes and bedspreads in a desperate hard sell. We are obviously not the first tourist in these parts. We say no thank you and leave quickly, and give up our search. Another day we visit a village known for its embroidery. India's biggest product is textiles, and Kutch is known for its tie-dye, batik and block-prints, but especially for its embroidery. There's a shop selling fine work from a collection of villages in the area. It's run by a charity set up by a woman who wanted to help village women affected by drought. The venture looks like a success and the quality of the work is very high - too high for our wallet. Instead we admire the samplers that are exhibited like artworks - stunning large detailed pieces.

On the coast south of Bhuj is Mandvi, an old port where pilgrims would depart to Mecca for the Hajj. They still build wooden cargo boats here that sail the seas around East Africa, the Gulf states and the Arabian Sea. We while away some time sitting with Tony, an English pensioner, at the chai stalls and soda stands that can be found at each junction of the little town. We also taste possibly the best thali in Gujarat. A thali is a traditional Indian meal, usually vegetarian, served up on a stainless steel tray with small dishes of different curries, sauces and dal. There's always rice and chapatis to bulk it out and the Gujaratis are famed for their good thalis. Down the coast sits the maharajah's palace surrounded by trees and close to the sea for the breeze. The building was used in a Bollywood film called 'Lagaan', where a song and a dance is made about the Indians beating the English toffs at cricket. They still do. We use a private beach here - it's quiet, clean and the first time we have swum in the sea since last October. Lovely.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Lighting up

Back to the real India - the pollution-hazed sunshine, streets full of rickshaws, stalls, cows and cow dung, the smell of incense barely masking the whiff of frying samosas and urine, the clamour of horns and bicycle bells, hawkers yells and unsolicited greetings from all and sundry (mostly sundry) as you idle down the street. Actually, this is a slight exaggeration, we never "idle" down the street - this takes years of acclimating, as they say here. There is the joy of discovering other new expressions. My favourites are given in response to a request for directions: "Upside!" "downside!" and, if they're feeling especially perky "backside!"

After a few days in Delhi, letting our senses acclimate, we have been skittling south west through Rajasthan. In Jaipur, the state capital, the preparations for Diwali are in full swing. The bazaars in the old walled town are bedecked with fairy lights, the pavements and roads crawling with shoppers, moving slowly along like ant trails scurrying backwards and forwards. At Diwali, the Festival of Light, it's traditional for everyone to put on new clothes and to clean out the house. The festival also marks the end of harvest time, shopkeepers open up new accounts. It feels like Christmas and New Year rolled into one. Like Christmas, it seems also a festival of shopping too these days, although one cycle rickshaw wallah told us that Diwali is for the rich people, not a festival for the poor. But it is a Hindu festival that everyone here seems to get carried away with. For a country full of temples, mosques and churches, this is still a very material world. Every day we can see people just trying to get by. We read recently that just under half the population survive on 80 rupees a day on average - that's one pound. A kilo of bananas here is 20 rupees. So maybe the cycle rickshaw wallah is right.
We visit Amber Fort nearby, busy with holidaymakers in their new clothes. Rajasthan is littered with forts and palaces like this, set dramatically on hilltops. Before independence the region was a collection of warring kingdoms, rarely invaded by outsiders. Now it's a tourist hotspot, the fort doors all firmly wedged open to the masses. Down in Amber village the streets are scruffy and run down. There's a row of makeshift polythene tents housing a group of families. Children run around half-dressed. The women carry pots to and from the water pump in the centre of the village.

Away from the noise and bright lights of Jaipur, Bundi is an oasis of calm. That is until the evening of Diwali proper, when the narrow lanes echo and boom with fire crackers and bangers and the sky is lit up with fireworks. The womenfolk in this little town open up the doors to their homes and emerge onto the streets carrying trays of oil lamps. Window ledges, roof parapets and door thresholds are dotted with these lamps and the women carry more to the various shrines and temples around the old town. It's a simple but magical effect re-enacting Rama's return to his kingdom after exile, the lights welcoming him back.
Bundi's a peaceful town with the requisite fort and a palace decorated with murals of the life of the raja. The twisting streets below are full of brightly painted crumbling old houses.
Cows wander around, leaving huge mounds of dung that get collected up, dried and used for fuel. Now and again we come across a step well - an elaborately-built structure that enabled people to walk down to the water, rather than just use a bucket. Sadly, most are now full of rubbish and shit and the best, which has been restored, is closed off to prevent it going the way of the others. We experience another theft here, from our guesthouse room. We are shocked, particularly because it occurs right in front of our eyes as we're sat on our bed having a mid-afternoon siesta. The robber is quick and efficient - sneaking in through the balcony door carelessly left open, sticks his head up, grabs the bag on the bed and runs out as we shout out in protest/fright/surprise. The cheeky monkey - stole our last banana.
On our way to to Udaipur we stop off in Chittor. A rickshaw driver offers us a ridiculously cheap too-good-to-be-true price to take us to the budget guesthouse just inside the fort walls. On the way he stops to explain that actually the guesthouse has been closed for four years now and wouldn't we like to stay at a nicer hotel in town? We insist we go to the guesthouse. It does appear to be closed. But we ignore the sad driver, who has lost his hotel commission, and decide to look around the ruined fort's temples, towers and palaces. Then it's down to the bus stand, pick up the last two seats (back seat - a bum deal) on the state-run battle bus to Udaipur.
Ahhhh, Udaipur, the jewel in the crown of Rajasthan - a lake, a palace and a hundred and one hotels all with a roof terrace to capture the view of, er, a hundred and one roof terraces, oh and the Lake Palace Hotel which seems to float on the water. Octopussy was filmed here. You can watch the Bond film any night at any of the hotels - or every night at ours. We're staying at the Hanuman Ghat Hotel. It's cheap and cheerful, but the staff are a right bunch of monkeys. We came here the last time we were in India and it has got a little busier - but then everyone is still enjoying their Diwali holidays. On the lakeside there are ghats, or steps, where local women do their laundry and have a quick wash themselves. From a distance the lake looks very pretty, but close up it's like all still water in India - a fetid dirty pool with green scum on the surface. This may sum India up - looks great if you don't get too close.