Archive for the ‘India’ Category

Your money or your life?

Our flight landed 1hr late at 12.30am in Kolkata. Our first experience of West Bengal was frustrating. Having taken the safe option of a pre-paid taxi, our clearly agitated driver started demanding an extra R100 as it was night time. I told him no and Muneeza even explained the situation in Hindi. Still he persisted. I told him to take us to the hotel for the money we paid or i’d get another cab and report him. Still not getting it. He then down-sized to R50 and after a gentle prod from my jani not to provoke, I simply said “teek hai” and let him drive.

Arriving at night is never good. You are tired, wary of the dark and unknown cities have a certain menace. Kolkata also has a strong reputation for poverty and with that comes a potential threat. The drive to the hotel took us through the poorest, most broken parts of town. At times we thought we were being taken to a dodgy street to be lynched and robbed. We were nervous, anxiety driven by our crazy driver who drove like he wanted to die.

He lit up a spliff. I’m not joking. The pungent smell of skunk is unmistakable (Parents – like Clinton, I didn’t inhale!). His eyes narrowed, pupils dilated and his head started nodding. At one point he nearly fell asleep taking a sharp corner at speed. Muneeza’s nails dug into my legs. We were worried that something bad might happen. So when we arrived at our hotel still alive,  his crazed look encouraged me to hand over the extra R50 and get into the hotel before anything happened.

In hindsight, it was probably the night time and tiredness that made us feel threatened but I’ve learned to trust my instincts. It’s better to be ripped off by $1 than to put your fiancee in a dangerous situation.

Kolkata – much better than expected and fantastic to explore by foot

Having felt intimidated by the squalid streets as the taxi dashed to the hotel, we went to bed with the classic late arrivalitis – the impending feeling of doom that you aren’t going to enjoy it. A new day brings a new dawn and, more importantly, a new attitude. We hit the streets. We loved it instantly.

The street markets, especially Hawker’s Bazaar up in BBD Bagh, are an assault on the sense but immensely enjoyable. You can buy anything from anyone and everyone wants your business. Crazy prices are shouted at the tourist and as you walk away smiling, they keep coming down until they reach local price land. The shopkeepers try to make you feel guilty for haggling but that’s the nature of the game here and Muneeza is a consummate pro (not in the sense boys).

As with other big cities, we explored by foot. It’s the only way to get a feel for the city and meet the locals. It is incredibly rewarding and we found Kolkata, once you get past the dirt and bustle, to be an endearing place. We were often stopped by inquisitive locals wanting to know all about us. The people were lovely and went out of their way to help us.

The most disappointing aspect of our stay was the food. We had been told that Kolkata was famous for sweet tasting Bengali cuisine. We tried a recommended local haunt and found it too polished and full of western ex-pats. The food was average but the price steep. It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t the place you would love to go back to. The hunt for mouth-watering Bengali cuisine was to continue.

The old glory of Kolkata

Mother Teresa – saint or sinner?

We took a stroll to Mother Teresa’s Mission, hidden down a small alley off the main AJC Bose thoroughfare. The Motherhouse is a humble abode where the famous Nun spent her last days in a typically chaste and barren room adorned with religious symbols; the ubiquitous crucifix, rosary beads and biblical quotes a plenty.

Before we entered the Mission, we didn’t really know much about arguably the 2nd most famous Indian in world history, Gandhi winning the popularity contest for the small matter of being a key driving force behind independence, peaceful protest and national/religious unity. By the time we left and had soaked up the info in the interesting museum, we had a better idea.

There is no denying the woman was a saint, meant in a non-religious context. She championned the causes of the poorest and treated them with such gentleness of spirit that it makes you realise how selfless humanity can be. When I stripped the religious context from her quotes, for my atheism prevents me from believing the role of the almighty,  she made a lot of sense. Much of what she spoke struck a chord with my own outlook and sensitivities. Her words on the need for all religions to come together in peace for the good of the world is a sharp reminder of how far they have to go. There is a clear parallel between her pleas and the spiritual leanings of Mahatma.

However, some of her moral attitudes are incongruous with logical steps for reducing poverty and child starvation. As a staunch Catholic, she was against abortion and actively preached its sin to her Indian public. In a country where so many families can’t support their children and thousands of children are dying of starvation or serious illness every year, it makes no sense to argue that abortion is immoral. Surely bringing another soul to this world that can’t be supported and is condemned from birth to live in abject poverty and suffering, is immoral?

Her Mission over the years has also been criticised for accepting donations from the corrupt and criminal classes. Her justification was that the money does good and it was not her place to judge those who offer. Again, that doesn’t sit well with me. What if the money was gained by exploiting someone else, so that their life was impoverished? Does the good the money then makes justify the means? Does one person’s happiness justify another’s pain? I find the turning a blind eye approach to be common with religious zealots. I’m not saying that is what she was but I’ll be interested to read more from the critics (though I’ll probably ignore Germaine Greer because she usually trots out a tedious line in post-modern feminism).

What irked me the most was reading the pithy soundbites from famous politicians and world leaders who just love to cash in on the people’s love for genuine heros. My favourite was a quote from Jimmy Carter advocating the examples that Mother Teresa set and how others should emulate her actions. Granted he has a strong reputation for philanthropy and has worked hard to contribute to those less fortunate; indeed he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 (far more deserving than a certain Obama). However, this coming from the leader of a country that has done as much as anyone to displace the poor and further enchain them to the walls of  subjugation and misery didn’t sit well with me. Perhaps I’m getting too cynical in my old age…..

Knowing when to lend a helping hand

When we started our travels back in September I had a steadfast rule regarding street beggars; giving them money doesn’t solve the problem, it simply encourages them to continue and not find real solutions. That may sound crass coming from someone who has led a comfortable life but I’ve listened to a lot of leaders from not-for-profit and NGO organisations and they have eloquently explained this viewpoint from years of experience.

However, life on the streets of India will slap in you the face like a salty kipper. In Kolkata we have been confronted by poverty on a different scale to other areas of India. Yes it exits everywhere, especially in the Northern states and particularly in Muslim areas which seem to suffer an unfair poverty burden. But here, on every street, in every park, by every food stall, lie destitute families and tired looking eyes. When a mother asks for food and you are staring into the starving eyes of her malnourished and dirty kids, having just finished your continental breakfast in a clean AC cafe, it makes you feel rather empty of soul to maintain this philosophy.

So in Kolkata, and perhaps swayed slightly by the legacy of Mother Teresa we decided we should be more proactive and not just channel our philanthropic efforts into charity support. We started by treating a few homeless kids to a cold drink from a street vendor as we walked to the Victoria Memorial (a glorious marble edifice built to honour Queen Victoria I on her 1901 diamond jubilee). The kids here are really cute and they went off happy and showed off their treats to their Mum who smiled warmly at us.  We decided that, instead of handing out cash and looking like an arrogant westerner, we would simply offer food and drink to those who needed it. We decided that giving people something healthy to eat, like fresh fruit, was a positive contribution. I hope we were right.

On our first day, Thursday 10th Feb, a kind homeless man escorted me to the Post Office to ensure I got our postcards stamped before putting them in the box. Apparently, unbeknown to us, if you add the postage stamps and put them straight in the box there is a strong chance they’ll be lost. You have to get the official stamp as well, free of charge, from the Post Office clerk. He didn’t ask for money but asked if we could help with some food for his family. We met them but only gave him R10 so he could buy some rice from the street. Later we felt bad that we hadn’t been generous. We resolved to return and buy him and his family a meal later. Alas we couldn’t find him. So we came back the next day. The wife rushed off to find her husband and left us looking after her sleeping child. That’s incredible trust.

Whilst she was away another woman came over with her children who were in a sorry state. We were caught. How can we select one family over another? So we decided to split the money we had earmarked for food between the two families. The wife came back and a row started between the two ladies. She told us not to give anything to her. We tried to placate her but this was clearly a turf war. We worked out that there is an unofficial territory for homeless people when it comes to begging. Understandably they are fiercely protective of their areas. For them it is a daily fight for survival for their kids. And here we started to realise why many charities advise against giving money. It can be divisive. Good intentions can lead to mixed outcomes. Still, we had good intentions and couldn’t walk by and pretend we didn’t care. We returned the man’s kindness by enabling him and his wife to buy food for their kids, enough to last a few days. At the same time we helped another woman but inadvertently created a bit of a confrontation. Luckily they calmed down and the street returned to normal as the passers-by stopped staring and returned to not caring.

Our reason for the change of heart is simple. Charities and NGOs aren’t helping every homeless and poor family. They can’t. There isn’t enough resource to go round. Estimations are that over 50% of India’s 1.2bn population live below the poverty gap. With a seemingly uncaring Government, how can charities cope with 600m people? So if many of these people haven’t got a helping hand, surely stopping to listen and helping them by either buying food or giving the mother enough money to buy food for a few days is better than walking on by like the masses and reassuring yourself that it’s for the best. The problem is that in India there are millions of people like this and when you stop, desperate eyes fixate. It’s impossible to stop for one person without attracting many others. Then the impact of your attempted kindness is muted. In our mind that’s still better than doing nothing. Perhaps we’re wrong but I’m not sure what the alternative is.

I’m not judging anyone who walks on by. You can’t help everyone. You don’t have to help everyone. But India has evoked in us a genuine yearning to make a difference and to offer a little affection and kindness to those most ignored. We don’t think this makes us any better or worse as people, it’s not an ego thing or need for recognition, it is simply a natural reaction to what has tugged at our heart strings for 6 weeks. We want to find a more long term contribution but that needs to be thought through carefully because you can’t mess with people in these situations, you have to be able to commit.

love james & muneeza x

The markets of Kolkata in BBD Bagh

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I had intended the usual dissection of life in our latest stop over but came up short. Bangalore is not unwelcoming but for us it was the least intriguing destination in our 6 week schlep around India.  There just isn’t anything exciting about old Bengalaru; it’s hot, noisy, dirty and sweaty but there is little to hold your interest and distract you from the constant traffic. It is the hub of India’s IT industry, boasting the home of global giants such as Infosys yet you wouldn’t guess the wealth of its industry by the state of its streets and public spaces. The most interesting discovery of our 2 day visit was that Bengalaru means “town of boiled beans”. Need I say more about its riveting social dynamic?

I digress. So, instead of the usual diatribe, I’m going to give you insight into the crazy world of maniac drivers and blatant flouting of any traffic laws that might rest in dusty tomes on some lawyer’s bookshelf in Delhi.

Rickshaw rude boys

These boys are unaware of anyone else on the road apart from other rickshaws. It’s like the British White Van Man community; they look out for each other and reciprocate local knowledge. Most rickshaw wallahs won’t listen to where you want to go, especially if you only speak tora tora gora hindi. They want the ride, the money. They see the dollar sign lit up in neon in your eyes.

As you nurse the map on your lap, knowing they aren’t going the most logical route, they stop at every corner, or even randomly in the middle of the road, to ask other rickshaw compadres. The answer is usually entirely vague and rarely accurate. It consists of a wave of the hand and a generic “over there”. When the details are spot on your rickshaw driver will only pay attention to the first few words. After that it’s fluffy clouds and improper thoughts of Ashwarya Rai (Muni thinks she’s smoking hot, I’m more interested in the Deepika/Priyanka triangle). At the next traffic hold-up he will ask the same question again. He will only partially listen. You get the picture.

What adds to the impending sense of doom is the criss-cross driving patterns the rickshaw dudes employ; they don’t see lanes, they don’t even see other traffic, they just head for daylight. This involves bobbing and weaving like a punch-drunk boxer, snaking between fast moving vehicles and often being sandwiched between buses. As a passenger you put your faith in the lap of the gods and hope that at some point you’ll arrive safely at the right destination. To be fair to the wallahs, they always get you there, it’s just rarely a serene experience.

Definitely not driving Miss Daisy

We booked a taxi from our hotel to Bangalore airport on Wednesday 9th. Our flight was at 21.20 so the hotel recommended we leave at 18.30 to arrive in plenty of time at 19.30. Why did we listen? We know that, no matter how good their intentions and desire to help, Indian people are spectacularly bad at doing things on time and estimating distances and time. It drives Muneeza mad and raises my pre-flight stress levels. We got there about 20.15 with little time to check-in, get boarding passes and find some dinner before the flight. In my rush I left my 10 year old, ripe cheese-smelling sandals in the cab. My jani was devastated.

We left bang on the dot at 18.30 but hit traffic that makes the M25 at rush hour seem like a picnic. The non-AC car heated up quicker than a meteor passing through the earth’s atmosphere. My forehead, expansive as it now is, resembled a paddling pool in summer. The driver did what any Indian driver would do when confronted by queues; he performed the manic lane change and under-cut strategy that simply adds to the congestion. Everyone was doing the same, so instead of the traffic clearning it was getting worse. The shocking nature of the rush hour traffic compared only to my rising stress.

Once the traffic started to ease I saw my life flash before my eyes. Taxi driver was haring up the backside of the vehicles in front, swerving in and out of traffic, over taking, under taking, leaning constantly on his horn (no, not that one you children). On several occasions we were only spared a serious crash because other drivers swerved out the way.

Indian driving is as mental as anything I have ever seen. It makes Cairo seem laid back and L’Arc de Triomphe positively serene. There are seemingly no rules. Speed limits are ignored. Lane discipline is passe. Traffic lights don’t always get obeyed. Pedal twitchy drivers edge forward and often speed off before red becomes green. Aggressive driving takes precedence over sanity. Flashing lights and horns shout at other drivers to get out the way when it is clearly your driver who is in the wrong and driving like a devil. All of this is done with a mobile phone glued to their ear and a big, broad smile.

Only Indians could do this smiling. I have to admire their resilience and willingness to put their life in the hands of crazy people every day without breaking down and needing a therapist. I won’t miss the experience, though it has made me yearn for the good old roads of blighty. To drive in India you need balls of steel or a death wish.

love jamer & muneeza x

We left the delightful yet scorching Kochi and started the first of many planned bus trips through the varied landscape of South India. We hadn’t expected South India to be so enchanting. The journey from the coastal tropics of Kochi winds its way through gently undulating hills and onto the higher hills of Kerala. The landscape is gorgeous, trees roll by interspersed with fields of lush green grass and fine smelling crops. The bus is incredibly slow as the asthmatic engine crawls up the steep hills with clear anguish. Clouds of foul smog belch out from the exhaust in stark contrast to the beauty of the natural world.

Whilst we were intoxicated by the sights and sounds of Keralan countryside, we were appalled by the evident lack of respect for nature of its otherwise wonderful inhabitants. At every corner, in every nook and crannie and in every roadside stream, lay piles of rotting, squalid rubbish. The degradable rubbish we can accept even though it taints the horizon but the miles of plastic wrappers and bottles sadden your soul. It baffles us. The Indian people are incredibly friendly and the dominating religion, Hinduism, preaches love of nature yet the people think nothing of throwing an empty plastic bottle out the window of a bus as it chugs along. It’s not even deliberately selfish, they just don’t have a concept of environmental protection and they don’t link their actions with the side effects. Education really is the key.

Tiger, tiger burning bright

Kumily was our first stop as it lies on the boundary of the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. This is South India’s most popular wildlife sanctuary, covering 777 square km and including huge stretches of serene lake and forest as well as healthy populations of elephant, leopard, tiger and sloth bear. A veritable cornucopia of nature’s finest for the discerning eye.

We stayed at the quaint Mickey’s Cottage and were well looked after by the attentive and caring owners (she was the classic hot older lady – don’t tell Muneeza!). We only had 1 full day so headed to the popular Ecotourism Centre to sort our wildlife extravaganza for the next day. After hasty discussion, we opted for the nature walk in the morning, joining up with a friendly Irish couple, and a river boat cruise in the afternoon. With little to do in Kumily at night, we crawled into bed and enjoyed a brief chat before passing out early.

We met Richard & Carol at the park entry gate at 06.45 and took a rickshaw down to the departure point for the forest walk. It started intriguingly with a river crossing on a makeshift log raft that barely floated. Watching Muneeza try to balance as she made her way to the seating area, edging along slippery beams, was too good to be true. We spent the next 3 hours being guided through the forest by a friendly Keralan. Whilst we spotted limited wildlife, as is often the case, the walk was really enjoyable and took us through the early morning mist, surrounded by the waking calls of legions of birds and the rich scents of clean air and abundant flowers. After the smog of the bus, it cleansed the soul.

We chilled in the afternoon and caught up with the usual email procession. Early afternoon we headed back to the park and this time walked down to the lake front. The walk winds for 4km through the forest and you suddenly realise you are alone and wild animals could be anywhere. In reality, most animals steer well clear of humans but still the fear and excitement that rises up when you think that a tiger could be round the corner is heart-pumping.

The river boat trip was super chilled though we had to wear these ridiculous life jackets for the entire journey, making it difficult to move in the cramped seats. We lucked in, seeing 4 wild Asian Elephants bathing by the lake shore. Interestingly, we discovered that Asian elephants are smaller and have much smaller ears than their African cousins. Well, interestingly for us. You can take it either way.

As with any wildlife trip, you are left wanting more. And so it was that we left Kumily wishing we could spend a few more days in search of the elusive tiger but equally looking forward to our last stop in Kerala in the land of tea.

The tea fields of Munnar

Munnar sits at an elevation of 1,524m and has the perfect climate for tea plantation; hot and dry during the day with soft breezes floating in across the hills and cool at night with regular rainfall. Described by the Lonely Planet as scruffy, we found it a great place to spend the day.

We only had an overnight stop, so gladly took the offer from the rickshaw driver of an afternoon trip out to the tea plantations and echo point, a spot along the road to Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary. The afternoon passed in a pleasant daydream, driving through rolling hills covered with tea plants. The air here is so crisp and the valleys so clean that the smells dominating your senses are incredibly fragrant and uplifting. Having been accustomed to the strong smell of vehicle pollution in Northern India, this was a pleasant change. Ironically, despite being the tea capital of India, it’s the only place we didn’t have any chia.

Hill station of the Raj

I was really looking forward to Ooty, the most famous hill station in South India. It was established by the British Raj in the early 19th century as the summer headquarters of the government. The most scenic route is on the miniature railway, awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2005. However, that involved a waiting list for a 05.20 train from Coimbatore, so we sacked it off and picked up a cheap as chips local bus instead. The bus journey was pretty spectacular as well, with winding roads taking sharp and hair raising hair-pin bends through the mountains. We arrived slightly dizzy from the spiralling turns and glad the bus made it intact.

It was in Ooty that we failed to make the most of our time, through lack of planning and really poor advice from the locals. The day we organised ourselves sight-seeing went well, culminating in a walk up to Doddabetta Lookout which gives views across the valleys of Tamil Nadu. It was, however, Day 2 that proved frustrating. We wanted to spend the day and night in Mudumulai National Park, recommended to us by a friendly chap on the bus. Apparently it’s a good place to spot tiger and blank panther, the most elusive of the big cats in India. We tried in vain to book tours and the visit to the Wildlife Warden’s Office in Ooty was less than useless. We found out we could stay in the park in Government run accommodation but couldn’t trek or take safaris. So what was the point of staying there?

Finally, with a certain reluctance, we booked my nemesis, a group tour that included Mudumulai. We left early on 5th Feb and had the most boring day of our travels. The tour spent the first 6 hours visiting the dullest places, including a much hyped tree park that had more litter and sh&t than trees. Finally, at 16.30 we reached Mudumulai and made it on to the last park bus to go wildlife spotting. The bus crawls along a 15km stretch of park that is off limits to private vehicles that can only travel on the main highway. The trip revealed a lone elephant but otherwise was fruitless. Annoyingly, the earlier bus, which we were meant to be on but missed due to arriving late, witnessed the apparition of the black panther. To say we were gutted would be a gross under-statement.

We were dropped off just before 21.00, nearly 2 hours late. The driver asked for basksheesh and I hopped out before I let loose with much deserved abuse. I’m trying to reign in the anger and abuse and maintain my newfound calm. How long will it last?

In the lap of the kings

We had another brief stopover in Mysore and turned out we were right not to spend more time; not that we didn’t like the town but there are more interesting places en route.

Mysore is steeped in history though. It was the capital of the Wodeyar maharajas and it contains many remnants of royal heritage, none more impressive than Mysore Palace. The hawkers on the approach to the palace are enough to put anyone off but we’re now used to it and a friendly smile and bold “muhje nai chahiye shukriya” (I don’t need any thanks) seems to do the trick. Annoyingly you couldn’t take a camera inside the palace and you have to take your shoes off, so we emerged 1hr later with no photos, dirty feet and R400 lighter of pocket. After a few obligatory tourist style snaps outside, we hit the local market to find Muni jani some bangles. My girl loves her shiny, shiny jewellery – that’s why I call her Magpie.

We closed out our time in Mysore with a slap up meal at a local cafe we found earlier in the day. For a princely R100 (only $2) we had amazing thalis and a few drinks. It blows my mind the prices charged in tourists restaurants for the same food; when you travel, you need to hunt the local shacks and get stuck in. Often the food is much better and far cheaper and the owners appreciate your popping in.

So the charming towns of Southern India have drawn to a close and now it’s off to the big city noise and chaos of Bangalore. Hope you enjoyed the update, drop by and say hello.

love jamer & muneeza x

We rocked up to Kerala more frisky than a litter of kittens with a bag of cotton wool. We’d been strung out by the cold for 3 weeks in Northern India and whilst we had an amazing time, we longed for the sunshine once more. The heat that hit us as we stepped out the airport reminded me of the slap you get when you first go on holiday as a kid. You know, that magical moment when the doors open to another world and your face melts in the solar glare. Boy oh boy is Kerala hot. And humid. With no breeze. The decision to take the non-AC taxi the 30kms to Kochi was a schoolboy error as our skin melded with the cheap plastic seat cover. We became as one sweating organism.

Marching to the Fort Cochin beat

We decided to stay away from the more hectic streets of mainland Ernakulam and head to the sleepy colonial charm of Fort Cochin, one of the peninsula islands that make up Kochi. We lucked in with our choice of accommodation; we phoned around and could only find 1 place with availability and it just so happens that Costa Gama Homestay is a really cool place. Run by the friendly Benson and managed by the lovely Midhu, we couldn’t have picked a more relaxed homestay.

We spent a few days ambling around the old town. It’s not a beach resort but it has a lot of charm. The vibe is so relaxed and Keralan people are incredibly welcoming. Alas they speak Malayalam here so Muneeza had to stop busting out her Hindi and we reverted to English.

The highlight of the visit was seeing the traditional Chinese fishing nets in action by the northern bay. Centuries old, they are still hand operated by the locals and we got stuck in, for a fee of course. Reeling in the nets involves 5 mean heaving on gnarled ropes, hauling down a series of concrete weights that in turn pull the wooden stilts out the water and unload the net onto a wooden platform. Words don’t really sell it but up close and personal, it’s lot of fun. Although it’s quiet season for the fish, there is still a large daily catch. We came back the next day and bought some tiger prawns and white snapper (not a reference to a tourist) and I whipped them into an improvised platter for dinner. For a bargain R500 we dined like kings. Except there were no goblets of wine or silver cutlery and we were in a guest house. Apart from that, we ate like kings.

Exploring the Keralan backwaters

On Thursday 27th we took a day trip on the much touted Keralan backwaters. The morning involved being punted in a wooden canoe through small canals, getting off on various islands to see local women spin rope and to check out spice plantations and coconut farms. It was a very chilled experience.

After a quick lunch of Keralan thali, we were picked up by a large wooden sailing boat and sailed gently down the river to our pick up point. The backwaters are stunning and the backdrop beautiful. We’re glad we did the trip but I’d be lying if I said it was a fascinating and well organised trip. The guides practically gave up after lunch and the return journey was rather dull.

Cherai beach, faraway in time

We’d come to Kerala expecting stunning white sand beaches but hadn’t really done our homework. The stunning beaches sit to the far North and South of Kerala. Kochi is slap bang in the middle. Luckily a bit of reading of the faithful old Lonely Planet revealed a beach within striking distance.

The journey to Cherai beach is half the fun. First we took perhaps the grottiest ferry over to Vipeen Island and then hopped on a local bus to cover the 20kms to Cherai. All in all it took 1hr30 door-to-door and cost a whopping R26 (less than 50p). From the bus stop we had to endure a 20min walk in the midday sun and arrived at the beach sweating like crazed Brits. Our tiredness and heat exhaustion was stripped away when we caught sight of our first beach in oh so long. We chilled out for a few hours and had a random encounter with the Aussie couple who were on our backwater trip.

We got back to Fort Cochin in fine fetter and relaxed after a very calm and enjoyable day trip. I treated Muneeza to a slap up meal at the pizza shack. I know how to treat a lady.

Kathakali dancing

We were told by Midhu that you have to see the live Kathakali dancing when you come to Kerala so we gave it a pop on the last night. It turned out to be the strangest live performance we’ve ever seen. Kathakali is a traditional interpretive dance performed using only facial expressions and dance, accompanied by a singer who sings the story as it unfolds. The make-up, which you can sit and watch, takes over 1hr. It is so elaborate; I don’t really understand why.

The main character is an evil man, the General of the Army and the Queen’s brother. His face is painted half green and half red. He has this odd white plastic protrusion from his cheeks. He mimes his part of the story with strange hand gestures and every now and then lets out a base scream. Opposite him is the Queen’s lady in waiting, the unwilling target of his desires. Her face is yellow and she wears a sad expression. Every emotion is acted out so elaborately that it takes 30mins to portray 3 lines of written plot. Crazy. Those Keralans must have had a lot of spare time back in the day.

I could sit and describe the bizarre ritual for hours but to be honest, it wasn’t that interesting. The pageantry and detail is quite amazing and I have to applaud their dedication to tradition, but it just wasn’t floating our boats so we left early so Muneeza could watch the Bollywood Awards!

So it’s au-revoir Kochi and on to the hills to find respite from the sun and dive into the realms of wildlife spotting.

love jamer & muneeza x

For weeks now I have been mockingly claiming to other gringos that we are heading to Mumbai to try to crack into the Bollywood scene and kick-start the fledgling acting career of the number 1 gora on the block. So it was most amusing to meet on the train to Udaipur a lady whose friend is a Bollywood talent scout with a great network of contacts. She gave us a number and we said goodbye. I never took up the offer because the thought of spending 50% of our time waiting around for potentially no reason seemed a waste of time. 4 days later we arrived in Mumbai after a short flight, ready to tackle arguably India’s busiest city.

Mumbai is the capital of Maharashtra and the eastern seaboard is dominated by docks. Koli fishermen have lived on the 7 islands that comprise Mumbai since the 2nd century BC and remnants of their culture remain along the seafront. It is a popular myth that Mumbai was called Bombay during the British rule of India because the British could not pronounce Mumbai correctly. The truth is that the Portuguese christened the area “Bom Bahai” (which I think translates as beautiful bay) after the Muslim Sultans ceded control of the area in the 16th century. When the British took possession in 1665 it became Bombay. The name was officially changed to Mumbai in 1996, derived from the Marathi name for the goddess Mumba who was worshipped by the Koli.

Tripadvisor inaccurate for once

All the hotels listed in the Lonely Planet bar one were fully booked. With no room at the inn and other places we found via the web showing shocking reviews, we had no option but to take a room at Hotel City Palace. Though the LP gave it a reasonable dissection, the reviews on Tripadvisor suggested it would be a filthy, unfriendly dump. So we stepped into the reception expecting the worst and then were pleasantly surprised by the friendly welcome. To my surprise the cheapest room, 30USD inc taxes which is a snip for the Fort area, was acceptable. Despite its rabbit hole size, it was clean and had AC. Ironically, the more expensive 50USD room was worse and stank of rotten sewage.

Exploring Colaba and Churchgate

Fort and Colaba are the tourist hot spots to the south of the city and well away from the posh celeb spots on Juhu and the slums well documented in Shantaram.

We spent a few hours ambling along the surprisingly quiet streets and taking in the main sights. The centrepiece is undoubtedly the Gateway of India, a huge basalt arch built to commemorate the visit of King George V in 1911. It was the place where the last British Regiment was paraded off as India marched towards independence. Behind the Gateway is the elegant Raj Palace Hotel, a 5 star paradise with Islamic and Renaissance designs. For me the location is not ideal as the area is swamped with local and foreign tourist every day but there is no denying the beauty of the buildings. Alas the area is tight on security and police presence, legacy of the 2008 terrorist attacks that still encourage paranoia from the officials, quite understandably.

The other highlights for me were the visit to the Jehangir Art Gallery, which displays exhibitions from Indian artists, and a walk through Oval Maidan, the open expanse of grass that sits off the back of the Main Court and Mumbai University. Here, every Sunday, crowds of boys and men come to indulge in their favourite sport, cricket. It is a crazy sight as there are no structured pitches and people just turn up and pitch their stumps wherever there is space. The result is a series of interconnected pitches with fielders and bowlers weaving in and out to focus on their own game. Quite a spectacle.

Moving further north for some local culture

On Monday 24th we took a taxi up to Haji Ali Mosque, north of Chowpatty Beach. The mosque is sacred to the locals and sits at the end of a concrete causeway that connects it to the mainland. At high tide the causeway is submerged, and the mosque seemingly floats in the Arabian Sea. It was built in the 19th century and contains the tomb of muslim saint Haji. Rumour has it that Haji died on his pilgrimage to Mecca and his casket miraculously floated back to this spot. However, despite the beauty of the mosque and its unique location, the experience is ruined by the din of hawkers and beggars who line the entire causeway on both sides.

We exited sharply as the constant hassle prevented me from enjoying the view. Next we walked north-east towards Mahalaxmi station where there is a bridge that affords perfect views of the famous Dhobi Ghat. Celebrated in Aamir Khans latest film, Dhobi Ghat is a hamlet that contains Mumbai’s oldest and biggest human-powered washing machine. Every day hundreds of people hand wash thousands of kilos of clothing and linen in 1,026 open-air troughs. It is an amazing sight and makes you realise how hard some people have to work to earn a living. Standing knee-deep in dirty soapy water all day, then rinsing the clothes in clean water troughs in the close heat of Mumbai is hard work.

Living it up at Dome Bar in the Intercontinental

We decided to take in some of the social scene in Colaba and Churchgate and invest some hard-earned cashola. First we stepped into Leopold’s Cafe, one of the places written about by Gregory David Roberts in Shantaram. Unfortunately we couldn’t see Karla and the upstairs bar is a sweaty, smelly hole that doesn’t deserve to be patronised. We left after a quick drink and eat instead in Cafe Mondegar, a much cooler place.

In  the evening, as promised, I took Muneeza to Dome Bar, the rooftop bar-brasserie of Hotel Intercontinental. With an award-winning Thai chef and reputed to be the place in Churchgate to spot Bollywood stars at the social elite, we thought it was worth the financial indulgence. Though we spotted nobody famous, or at least not that we know of, the bar is a cool place to enjoy the Mumbai nighttime scene. We knocked back a few reasonable cocktails, soaked up the city sounds and neon night sights, then headed back to get some sleep before our early departure the next day to Kerala.

So all in all an enjoyable little trip to Mumbai. I much prefer Delhi for its historical and cultural variety but there is no denying  that Mumbai has some beautiful architecture and a pleasant vibe. It would have been good to have had an extra day to take the tour of the Dharavi slum, run by a local NGO that forbids photography and donates 80% of profits to the community. Unless I seriously want to become an extra in a Bollywood production, I doubt I will come back but I am glad we made the effort to come here.

love jamer & muneeza x

PS For tour companies out there, given how many tourists are reading Shantaram in India, a guided Shantaram city tour that takes in the key locations he writes about would be a genuine money spinner. Just a thought.

Udaipur has been called India’s most romantic city. To me it’s Rajhastan’s equivalent to the Riviera. That may be a loose and tenuous association but Udaipur has that air of European charm and the heat to match. Surrounded by the ancient Aravelli hills and set around the beautiful Lake Pichola, the city formerly known as Mewar was founded in 1559 when Marahana Udai Singh II (he was my favourite Mewar by far, simply for his elaborate and ever so slightly camp tache) took off under the rampaging advances of the Mughal emperor Akbar. Udai and his band of merry men resisted the Muslim onslaught and gradually built the city that has a reputation for its patriotism and staunch independence. Oh and let’s not forget that tache.

Time to splash the cash

Because (yes I know its bad form to start a sentence with a conjunction but I’m of the Internet age) we had both suffered the infamous Delhi belly and felt a bit jaded from ill travels, I decided to up the game and book us a more plush hotel. After a few phone calls I opted for the Jaiwana Haveli on Lal Ghat, about 5mins walk from the lake shore according to my brief perusal of the map. Imagine my delight when we turned up and realised the hotel was no more than a stone’s throw from the water. Go on, imagine. We arrived late, just before 10pm, so headed straight to the rooftop cafe for some much need snackette action. The view that greeted us was the perfect tonic for sore eyes; the calm waters of Lake Pichola glimmered in the moonlight, tinged with orange by the fairytale lights on the nearby Lake Palace Hotel (a 5 star hotel resort that covers the entire island of Jagniwas in the middle of the lake, accessed only by chartered boat).

We gorged on the view until the weariness kicked in and retired to our spotless, for once, room. To be in a clean and quiet room, with marble floors, comfy beds and a clean tiled en-suite after so much noise was refreshing for the soul.

Obligatory walking tour of the city

No city visit would be the same without me dragging my jani half way around town until her legs can barely support her. After 1 full day of doing very little to give our stomachs chance to recover, during which I rediscovered my love for binge eating toasted cheese sandwiches, it was time to tread the tarmac.

We left Lal Ghat and escaped the hoardes of shop keepers trying to entice us in with cunning lines like “just look, look, no buy”. We headed up to the City Palace, an imposing and stunning edifice that dominates the skyline. It is Rajhastan’s largest and arguably finest palace, stretching some 244m and with towers and turrets over 30m high. That it sits alongside the lake merely adds to its allure.

Bearing in mind that we’ve seen a lot of cool buildings, visited a lot of forts, palaces, monuments, memorials museums etc, I was completely blown away by the majesty and intricacy of this place. It is rare for me to last more than 1hr in an historical place before boredom kicks in and I have to take rude pictures using ancient artifacts as my muses. However, at this palace I lost track of time and loved every passage (insert gag here), nook and cranny. The Mewar artwork on display was interesting though hardly beautiful but what impressed the most was the detail of the decoration. Just inside the entrance you will find 7 arches which commemorate the 7 times that the maharajas were weighed here and then distributed their weight in gold and silver to lucky locals. I can’t remember the British royal family doing that.

Inside the beauty of the rooms was incredible. From the relaxing garden of Bari Mahal, through the ornate mirror work of Moti Mahal to the intricate ornamental tiles of Chini Mahal, each part of the palace housed a different surprise. Crowds of people gathered to marvel at the visual overload. We left amazed at how much we had enjoyed a peek into history and in awe of the creative vision of the artists of that period. Never underestimate the man with the camp tache.

Sunset point and the singing fountain

The next day we opted for a morning march and chilled afternoon. We walked south, past the flowing open sewage and stench of death, towards the cable way that connects ground level with the hilltops where the old city walls can still be seen. For a bargain R66 each we enjoyed a sedentary cable ride up to Sunset Point, which turned out to be a hugely disappointing cafe rooftop surrounded by rubbish. However, the walk along to the walls of the old fort was enjoyable and afforded spectacular views of Udaipur from its elevation. It was enjoyable to gaze at the old city walls and imagine life as Udai Singh. We went to find the singing fountain but it doesn’t live up to its name or the romantic image it conjured in my mind. It is in fact a decrepit old water pump, now with its very own red plastic bucket to catch the leaks. Quality.

Enjoying local music by night

We spent 2 of our evenings listening to local music. The first night we went to the Jagdish Temple, an Indo-Aryan temple built in 1651 that enshrines an image of Lord Vishnu. It was full moon and we had heard that there would be a ceremony taking place. The ceremony consisted of hypnotic chanting by a Hindu crowd, with some rather odd dancing from crazed old women who stopped only to ask for baksheesh. Begone old crone. Despite the solicitations for money, the temple was worth seeing. It is beautiful and the detail of the carvings quite something. Udaipur has a lot of intricate stone work to dazzle the eye.

The following night we went to the evening Rajhastani dance performance at Bagore Ki Haveli, the 18th century museum that Muneeza found out about. It was excellent. We were treated to 1hr of dance and song by a variety of local men and women, wearing traditional costumes. It culminated with an old lady balancing up to 9 earthenware pots on her head whilst whirling around like a dervish. The other notable sight was that of what I can only describe as 3 badly shaved trannies sitting on the floor, slapping their legs with little bells and grinning maniacally at the crowd. It was disconcerting but strangely erotic….

Do you dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?

We spent the last evening at the rooftop cafe watching the sunset over Lake Pichola. It was a peaceful and rather romantic backdrop as the sky changed colours from blue to orange to red to black. We hit the hay chilled and ready, if not willing, for our flight to Mumbai and 3 days in India’s busiest city.

love jamer & muneeza x

ps if you ever find yourself in Udaipur, book room 21 at Jaiwana Haveli for amazing lake views and a touch of wonderful service and efficiency

I’d been looking forward to hitting Rajhastan ever since we arrived in India following Muneeza’s glowing endorsement of the land of Kings. Rajhastan is home to the Rajputs, warrior clans who claim to come from the sun, moon and fire. The Rajputs have a history of infighting which led to them becoming loosly controlled by the enduring Mughal empire from the 16th Century onwards. There are parallels between this warrior clan and other cultures led by a strict code of honour, such as in Japan. Rajput warriors would fight against any odds and, when all hope had dissolved, would carry out jauhar (ritual mass suicide). During the reign of the British Raj, the Rajputs allied with the British. However, the British profligancy and indulgence was contagious and many of the maharajas took to travelling the world, dining out on their titles. Following Independence India’s ruling Congress Party forged a deal with them, furnishing them with titles, property and handsome allowances. However, when Indira Ghandi rose to prominence in the 1970s she abolished the hereditary rights. Amen!

Walking tour of Jaipur

Jaipur, the City of Victory, is the capital of Rajhastan. Founded by the great warrior-astronomer Maharaja Jai Singh II, you can still see the old city walls amidst the sprawling modern town.  We arrived Monday 17th in the morning and checked into the ever so friendly Karni Niwas close to the station. Suitably refreshed we hit the roads to soak up the sights. As Muneeza had been to Jaipur before, it was a time to test her memory.

We entered the old city via Ajmer Gate. The old gates have retained their majesty and are imposing pink sandstone structures that loom over the modern market streets. Around the gate there is a constant bustle and heady din of competing noises.

From the gate we headed north on Kishanpol Bazaar towards Iswari Minar Swarag Sal, a towering minaret erected by Jai Singh’s son. The views of the city from the top are awesome and afford unrivaled vistas of the hilltop fort of Nahargarh. We were given a guided tour/commentary by the sweetest old man who insisted on giving us his very own David Bailey tourist photo session. With a breath of fresh air he didn’t ask for any tip but of course we happily gave him one (and the tip!).

From the Iswari we walked eat towards the picture postcard facade of the Hawa Mahal, Jaipur’s most distinctive landmark. It is a 5 story honeycombed pink sandstone building constructed in 1799 to allow the ladies of the court to watch life and processions from its myriad of windows. The architecture is wonderful and it’s a great place to pass time on a lazy sunny afternoon.

We next wandered gently through the bazaars to the Jantar Mantar, an observatory begun by Jai Singh in 1728. Alas we arrived after it had closed for the day, so I came back on my own the next morning as my jani rested in bed with a still troubled belly. As described by the Lonely Planet, it indeed looks like a bizarre collection of sculptures but on closer inspection in contains an incredible array of sophisticated recording and measuring instruments, way ahead of their time. The centrepiece, a huge sun dial, is still allegedly accurate to within 2 seconds. The explanations of the instruments left me cold as I’m no prize winning astronomer (“say it isn’t so”, I hear you cry) but the experience was enjoyable.

We’d heard from other tourist peeps that Jaipur wasn’t a nice place, too dirty, noisy and hectic. However, I’d have to say my experience was the opposite. I really liked it. Yes it is noisy and crowded but this is India, home to the world’s fastest growing population that is due to overtake China by 2030. Jaipur is the capital of one of the main states, what else should you expect? Despite the crowding, the town is steeped in history and fascinating buildings and has a very friendly ambience.

And on to the next stop – Udaipur bound

Our sejourn in Jaipur was a short one and we booked tickets for the afternoon train to Udaipur on Tuesday 18th. Much to our joy and surprise, the train once more left on time and we waved farwell to Jaipur.

love jamer & muneeza x