Rajasthani Night Fever and Goan Pick me ups!

Have been off the radar for a while due to a rather unpleasant viral infection which I picked up on the tour of Rajasthan. The desert was hot and expensive and I spent half of our trip feeling like death warmed up! But after a trip to the hospital which included tests for typhoid and malaria… I was rehydrated through an I.V drip and almost back to normal for a 16 hour bus ride to Mumbai and then a 12 hour train ride to Goa…. covering some serious distance!

The bus was an absolute nightmare…. we had purchased reclining seats but after an hour in them feeling like we were in a washing machine… we ‘upgraded’ to a sleeper coffin…. which was a bit quieter and also allowed us to wee in a bottle and throw it out the window…. ah yes…. the glamour of backpacking continues! We were dreading Mumbai as yes another big city but it was actually ok… we only spent a day there and ate some very cheap and yummy street food!

At Mumbai's city beach

Our train to Goa was leaving at 5am (why all these trains are always so antisocial I will never know!) but we thought we might get some sleep on it! No such luck…. this was our first day train and we were in the cheap seats…. every 3 minutes there was a Eunuch asking for money or a woman selling coconuts or a man selling chai…. walking up and down the carriage shouting chai chai chai at the top of his voice…. we started to go a little mad after 12 hours! The view from the train was stunning though… beautiful green fields and rivers running alongside the train.

So when we arrived in Goa we were more than a little frazzled! our taxi took us to Arambol… a little town we had identified as potentially less touristy…. another scary breakneck speed journey through dark streets… but we made it in one piece. Headed to the beach and we were greeted by twinkly little fairy lights and tables all over the beach…. magical!

Our resort is lovely and chilled out and the beach is clean and offers loads of shade from the hot sun…. it’s definitely a place to do nothing and we arrived just before the mad season starts so all the hotels are dead cheap. The way to get around here is by motorbike, so we hired a Bajaj 200cc bike for 3 days to explore the coast…. discovering that our resort is one of the better and less manic than the others. We explored up and down the coast looking at beaches and drinking cold drinks in the shade…. then we made the big mistake of heading on the highway to the capital of the state “Panajim” where we were stopped and fined by the police…. in true Indian style… they pocketed 80% of the fine and wrote a smaller figure on our ticket….. trust us…. Other people come to Goa every year and never get stung!

So we are just relaxing here at the beach and recharging batteries… Andy has made a name for himself at the local music bar where he has been performing various covers and even some of his own songs…. its all good practice for Pleasantfest!

New photos are online at http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=564113&id=526920001&l=43398fcfd9

Mirrors, signal, manourvre

Well, once upon a time at the age of 17 all young teenagers wanted to learn to drive………… now is your chance…………if you’re mentally ill.

Follow these 3 easy steps to gaining success on the Indian roads.

1-     Have a GOOD horn

2-     Have GOOD brakes

3-     Have GOOD LUCK

At best, 1 out of the 3 ain’t bad.

Bald tyres, no suspension, no bumpers, cracked windscreens, leaking radiators/engines, no wing mirrors, no handbrake……… the list goes on.

Also, NO Licence needed. Welcome all 17 year olds, welcome to India, the land of easy driving………….

Camels, cobra’s and a lot of sand.

Smile Mr Camel!

We were sat in our nice and clean air-conditioned car driving through Rajasthan when I suddenly realised………..we were on our way to Khuir to do our Camel safari………….how excited I was.  I’d not been on a camel before or even seen one up close. This was going to be a great experience. We arrived at camp in the dessert around 4.00pm in the evening. The camels were there waiting………

As you can see from the picture that they are a smiley bunch. They kind of remind me of a drag queen……the one you might see at Blackpool. Unfortunately they don’t tell crap one-liners but do happen to have bad breath.

Rachel had been on a camel before as a kid but me on the other hand had not. My only experience of sand was making castles and burrying my dad at Bridlington in the 80’s, and as for camels…………probably the cigarette type……

I’d seen enough ‘You’ve been Framed’ clips to know that mounting a camel can be a dangerous exercise……..especially if you’re over weight and haven’t a clue which way to look and holding a suitcase……in the blink of a eye the camel rose from the sand like a rocket from its launch pad. I only had a second to spare to sit back otherwise I would have fell victim to the late Jeremy Beadle and possibly 250 pounds better off.

As it stood, it’s legs snapped back into position like giant stickle bricks.  I was lifted into the sky……. I felt like the Raj of Rajasthan.

We set off into the dessert where we would get to see the sun set. For about an hour, Rachel and I were bounced around on the back of the camel with only a light rug to separate the two of us (Me and the camel, Rach had her own camel).

For about 1 hour we were shown several different camel speeds. Several seemed to resemble the sensation of a  cricket bat covered in sandpaper  hitting you between the legs. Others felt more like a washing machine without the water. Forget the Raj of Rajasthan, I felt more like Freddie Murcury after a dodgy curry. The seat was not kind.

After that memorable hour we arrived at the dunes……. It was worth it……….. The sun setting was beautiful.

As we took a spot on the dune, we were even greeted by a couple of young boys playing some pieces of wood and a drum. It sounded like one of them had been strangled as he tried to sing but we paid them as we needed some peace and quiet to enjoy the scenery.

We returned back to camp to enjoy the evening entertainment. This was to be included in the price. It was a band…….. and a lady……..dancing round a fire……….the band pieces of wood…………and a drum………..sounds familiar……….the boys had materialised into men. It was fun anyway, after the beer started to flow. Rach got up and did a spot of belly dancing too. Then the group of about 15 were also asked to get up…………… The food we ate was a chicken curry dish and it was tasty.

Later, after the evenings entertainment had finished, we were asked if we would like to sleep in the rather crappy huts in the camp or the dessert. Rach and I decide to stay in the dessert. It was a really lovely experience. We even had beds to sleep on. A little fire with some wood we found. The sky was amazing. We could see the stars as clearly as a telescope. The only problem was that our taxi driver Rakesh and his colleague Chander also came and slept out in the dessert. After 10 days on the tour they started look a little like a bad smell……..that wouldn’t piss off! Lets just say that I didn’t click with Rakesh…….

We also had a couple of visitors in the night. A few dune beetles……..and possibly a cobra!!!! Not sure what the tracks look like but I’d like to think it was to make the story more dramatic. Yes it was a cobra!!!!

Remarkably, I was surprised at how warm the dessert was in the evening. I always thought that it got really cold. It was possibly one of the best nights sleep I’d had since traveling.

This experience would go down as one of my best so far for sure.

Andy’s poetry corner………..

India is like………… by Andy Shaw

Crapping in the street, kids throw shit on your feet.
No curries with meat, Pizza hut’s a real treat.
“How much you want to pay?”, “I don’t want it!” I say.
“Where do you stay?”, “not sure but we’ll find a way”.
Temperature is very hot, 50 rupees is all we got.
Andy’s nose is full of snot, cows in the road eat peoples rot.
Dirt in the air is all around, all you can hear is a beeping sound.
Reach in your pocket for an English pound, beggars don’t leave you alone until the sun goes down.

Traffic caos on the road, old cycle rickshaw nice and slow.
Lots to see and lots to do, dodgy Dehli belly makes me poo.
Catch a train to leave behind, in search of new treasures we go and find.
3 months in India could be a long time, at the end our hair long and clothes full of grime.
Leaving U.P. to go up north, in the dark we’ll need a torch.
Think a dream, catch a dream now it’s caught.

The mountain roads are high and narrow, now is the time I wish I was a sparrow.
People sell vegetables including marrows, can have your cards read by a tarrot.
Go out to collect fire wood, meeting animals from goats to dogs.
In winter they need to keep hot, drink lots of chia from a pot.
How hard is it to get a sim for a phone, even harder to eat chicken curry without bones.
Hear stories from travellers about their woes, including adult nappies and cow crap squelshing through their toes.

27-09-10

Cultureshock! Guide to India

worrying! very worrying

Since we have now been here for a month, we thought it was a good time to reflect on our time by taking a look at some of the intricacies of our adopted country’s culture! And a  very rich culture it is too! But why focus on the religion and history when you can learn about the smelly animals and various modes of transport!

So here is our guide to Modes of Transport, Animals, Hotels, Toilets, Food and the Language.

Modes of Transport

There are various ways to get around this crazy country… most of which we have tried already, with varying levels of success. Now; we LOVE the trains… easy to board, easy to find your berth, they bring you chai and you meet interesting people… however standing toilets when you have a dodgy belly is not good…. and random Eunuch’s getting on the train and demanding money to not curse you… not so good either! Other people we have met HATE the trains and find them stressful… but so far, we are train lovers! Buses on the other hand… come in two main forms 1)private bus, which can be deluxe (i.e not totally skanky) or semi deluxe (i.e marginally better than a carcass bus). 2) Carcass or government bus… a total shambles which should NOT be allowed on the road… painful on the butt, but gentle on the wallet (but for a reason). Generally has holes in it, flat and bald tyres and travellers must add their bags to the questionable roof rack themselves. Speeds of buses veer between crazy and suicidal… the driver’s seem to think that going less than 50 miles per hour will result in the bus exploding in a Speed-stylee. The phrase Jeep may conjure up images of rugged countryside travel… not so in India. A Jeep or mini jeep, starts from a Suzuki Alto which we boarded on our trip into the mountains… up to a roofless contraption which belches out acrid black smoke. Even when we tried to book a bus in Jaipur, we ended up in a Jeep! The infamous rickshaw is the cheapest, easiest, noisiest, smelliest thrill-seeking ride in India. Autos will usually cost from 10 rupees up to tourist-rate… which is usually 20 times more than the going rate. It is much cheaper to use an Indian Helicopter or cycle rickshaw…. the only problem is that we usually tip double as we feel so guilty about a skeletalised slip of a grandad cycle us for 15 minutes or more up an incline of 2 degrees with sweat pouring from his head…. you almost want to get out and push the bike! The best, most cost and health efficient method of transport is something called Chalkee (probably spelt wrong)… this is the Hindi word for ‘walking’ and generally we use this to fend of the hoardes of rickshaw drivers…none of whom seem to grasp the concept of walking anywhere! If you are feeling brave there are various animals to be riden… we are off on Camels tomorrow evening… which leads us neatly onto…

Animals

The most sacred of Indian animals… the cow… these buggers are everywhere… usually in the middle of the road, or a path, or trying to steal beans on toast from Andy. They are so well cared for and chilled out … although we did meet an angry bull in Varanasi who tried to gore anyone who walked past him! Believe me, the novelty of seeing Monkeys everywhere soon wears off when you realise that they are ‘crazy’… Indian description, not mine! In many places, it is necessary to carry and stick and take your sunglasses off… as this winds them up! Flies and flying elephant-sized bugs carry out a nightly attack… and soon wear you down. Significantly missing from Indian culture are cats, mostly due to the sheer volume of dogs; a law preventing them from being culled was passed in the 60’s and they are running rampant around the smelly cities. Some of the dogs are quite cute… but potentially still rabid and we have not had our jabs, so we steer clear. Others however have huge puss-filled craters in their backs and look like they are about to keel over… or turn into Cujo… this type will generally turn up whilst you are eating your thali. Camels and Elephants are a bit thin on the ground at the moment.. but we reckon they are hiding from the cows and dogs!

Hotels

As budget travellers, we opt for hotels in the book ranging between 300-500 rupees… this ‘budget’ lands us most often in strange 70s style rooms with only massive thick duvets, see through and slightly dirty sheets and no hot water! Sometimes we hit gold and have some hot water, but generally the rooms have not been cleaned since the 70s. The exception to the rule is our current ‘Flash-packing’ through Rajasthan which is very posh… but won’t last. Food in these hotels is invariably described as ‘home cooked’ and ‘delicious’… see section on food below for an accurate description of these terms. Homestays are another options in India; we sampled one in the far north which was akin to sleeping in an iceberg… but it was very ‘authentic’. We are also given the best padlocks we have ever seen to lock the doors… in some cases, they could be destroyed with a swift trump to the door.

Toilets

These are very hard to come by in India! Usually they cost anywhere from 2 to 20 rupees and in many cases the person collecting the money only asks the tourists! Sometimes it makes us want to wee on the street… which Andy has done in one of the public urinals… his words not mine “The most disgusting thing I have ever smelt… its burned my nose”. It can be very stressful worrying about the next place to go… touch wood we have had no requirements for the slightly worrying adult nappies we have seen on sale. Rachel was struggling in a train toilet to balance and managed to drop the toothpast down the toilet (or hole) onto the tracks.

Food

Generally, we have had some amazing food…. from bottomless thalis, to freshbaked, paratha, fish masala, fresh saffron lassi and delicious samosas. The chai is either spicy and hot or a bit off and warm… but it generally hits the spot

– Homecooked – usually means thrown together for the tourists… with an extra inflated price

– Delicious- see above

– English style… can also apply to mexican-style, chinise (yes that’s how they spell it), italian, israeli – so far off the mark it’s generally scary… although there are exceptions to the rule… some of the ‘western’ food we have had has been lovely.

– Breakfast – In India this means bread and stodge and pickle! Although we have found lovely muesli, porridge and eggs… we have also had deep fried amoeba eggs (two fried and stuck together in a brown mess with grease) and pink rice.

We wait in anticipation for the food in South India… including lovely fish dishes… but in the meantime, we are watching the menus for Cornflanx, Sakmaral Eggs and Hash Browns (which are potatoes friend in butter with chillies and tomato?)

Language

So how you might wonder, does one navigate this confusing place? Well by learning some of the local language of course! Namaste is the most useful, followed by Chalkee… but there are other gems which have made our life easier. Words like Internet, Beer, Please, No, Toilet are universal and English words are used in their place… although sometimes confusion does occur …

Andy: Do you have the internet?

Indian Man: You want room?

Numbers have proved hard to learn… we can ask how much in Hindi but the response is usually confusing. We can also ask how are you, where are you from, where are you going, and can say very good, very bad, enough and let’s go! But we are constantly adding to our repertoire. Having said that there is a language barrier… many of the good times have been spent with people who speak no English at all.

So culture-shock it might be.. but we love it! well perhaps not the hassle and the ‘excrement’ on the street…. Chalkee can sometimes result in very messy feet!

The Dalai lama has left the building

After a great time up in the mountains it was time to part company. Our tour guide Zaour, helped up find our bus at the local bus station. It was a challenge to get past all the people sat in the way of the bus stands and even a bigger one to get past the persistent beggars. Finally we made it onto our bus.

Thankfully the drive on the bus to Dharamsala was at night. The great thing about this ride was we were in a deluxe coach…….. however, no matter what it says on the outside you will still be woken up ever time you nod off by sudden breaking and sharp steering to avoid the cows and rickshaws. Ten hours later we arrived……..

The only people still left on the bus

We woke up and vacated the bus to the sound of the drivers feet behind us in anticipation to close the doors. In a cloud of dust it was off down the road……….

Wait!!!! My sleeping bag!!!!!! Rachel shouts. I knew it was time to rub the crusty sleep from my eyes. I shot off down the road after it, trying to avoid the pack of dogs still roaming around. Luckily the bus driver heard me and stopped.

Sleeping bag back in our possession we go a taxi cab at 5 in the morning to take us up the hill to McLeod Ganj.

This was the first time we’d arrived before the hotels open so found ourselves walking arround looking for somewhere to stay. We manage to find a lovely place called Ladies Venture which we were very grateful for as all the other places were full. The best we could do was a dormitory, but it was cheap.

McLeod Ganj was a really nice place. Very peaceful and had a large number of Buddist monks walking around. The shops seemed to sell high quality goods and also didn’t pressure sell. It was bliss. The food also was good and there was a load of restaurants with alternative foods to curry.

Andy in McLeod Ganj

We did a little sight seeing, a lake up the hill but wasn’t impressed as it had no water in it. Unusual as it rained pretty hard that night. The next day we got up early to go and see the teachings from the Dalai Lama at his residence.

The security was a little high as we couldn’t take bags, cameras, of even knives……. Rachel has to return the Swiss Army back to the store room. We were hopeful that he might walk through to his preaching box (Inside) but he’d already gone through before we arrived. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see him but just being there felt special. He reminds me of a cuddly Mr Meagee.

After, we went to see a beautiful waterfall with our new friends Louisa and El who were from London and full of good advice which we used later. In the Evening we had a bit of drinking (Apple wine) and a few card games.

Haha... waterfall photo shoot with Indian Honeymoon couple

The next day we started it extremely well with a simultaneous full body massage for the sum of 450 rupees each (7 pounds). It was obvious that after 3 weeks of carrying a bag full of Rachel’s toiletries had taken its toll on my shoulders. We did a nice bit of browsing in the shops but didn’t buy anything due to the weight we’d be carrying although the stuff looked very nice. Then we went to see a film about the Tibet/China issue. I think we must have been quite naive before we went in. It was a very hard hitting film and a real emotional pull on the heart strings.

To help give ourselves a good send off from Mcleod Ganj, (Probably our favourite town so far) we called into a bar to have a few drinks with El. There was a Tibetan Open mike night on too. Bonus, some interesting music to help wash the beer down………put it this way, it was entertaining. Not sure what was going on when two guys got up, one guy danced like he had a knife stuck in his back and was trying to get it out and the other was singing into a mobile phone. I ended up having a play on one of the guitars and seemed to go down well. It took some tuning up first though…

Dharamsala to Amritsar was a nice journey. Up at 3.30am to get our taxi to the bus station. Even at this time the place has people milling around. No deluxe bus this time, just a shit one with no porter to put the bags on the roof…… Well, I ended up doing it. I made sure that the locks were on in case of severe road bumping or monkey stealing was going to take place.

Our arrival in Amritsar was a rude awakening… much hotter and smellier than we have become used to! The touts swarmed on us when we arrived but we made it to our hotel ok. Headed off with new found friends to the border closing ceremony with Pakistan! Now nothing can prepare you for this weird spectacle! The players on each side face off and try to out shout and our silly walk each other – to the tune of massive crowds! The warm up was various indian songs plus Jai Ho from Slumdog Millionaire, whilst loads of kids danced around…. it was totally weird but very funny!

The border closing cermony

Next day we headed to the famous golden temple of Amritsar… a beautiful place that is free to enter… in the spirit of Sikhism… as it was the Guru’s birthday, the place was packed! The sounds of the Sikh priests singing were very soothing… but the place was boiling hot as it is made of marble…. so we ducked into the back streets for some shade and found some tasty grub in a grubby looking place…. they always have the best food… cost us about 15 rupees each… that’s less than 30 pence!

The Golden Temple at Amritsar

There were some other sights to see in Amritsar but we were running out of time so just headed to our overnight train. First ever sleeper (or pauper class) train was eventful…. about 2 hours into the journey a Eunuch got on and demanded 40 rupees from Andy…. that went down like a lead balloon…. and Eunuchs are really scary!

So we arrived in Jaipur… the Pink City…. very pink I tell you! It was painted pink to welcome Prince Albert in the 1800’s and he liked it so much that the whole place went pink. Jaipur is a BIG city and has the usual traffic and smell problems, but seemed to be a bit more easy to be in. It was SERIOUSLY hot though so sightseeing nearly killed us. We saw the observatory (which my Dad recommended and was ace) and the Palace of the Wind, which was built for the royal ladies to spy on the city! We then took a night tour of the city which was supposed to be in an air conditions bus… but in true India style, was actually a jeep! good food though on the night tour!

Our second and last night in Jaipur, we had delicious lassi’s and snacks and then went to the Raj Mandir cinema… the most famous cinema in India. The building looks like a cake… but the movie was terrible… very modern and supposed to be based in Australia, but full of bad american actors!

The Raj Mandir Cinema

So off we head now on a 10 day tour of Rajasthan… the desert state… it is hot and sandy and fabulous…. so we decided to go in style… in an air conditioned taxi!…. well we can’t rough it all the time!

The View from the Top

So, when last we wrote, we had refreshed ourselves in the clean city  of Chandigahr, ready for a trip into the hills. We took the toy train to Shimla in the mountains… famous for being the most popular hill station for the British during the days of the Raj. The journey took 5 hours and meandered up through mountains with spectacular views… stopping at small stations for hot cups of Chai and photo taking. Andy struck up a game of Gin Rummy with some Indian Tourists… which became very serious.

all aboard........the toy train

On arrival in Shimla, we were very confused… surrounded by snow capped mountains and very European looking buildings, this was a world away from the India we had experienced thus far. Slightly out of season the hotel rooms are cheap as chips as well and we paid 400 rupees for a room [about 6 squid] with a stunning view of the Himachal Pradesh sunset. Definitely glad we brought sleeping bags and warm clothes… as it is significantly colder at 2200 metres.  We spent a pleasant couple of day in Shimla taking in the local hikes [believe me hikes is the right word… there is no flat land here!] and eating good food. We even found time to check out our first Bollywood film in the local Ritz cinema… which was just hilarious… both the cinema and the film…. we worked out the plot despite the language barrier and the seats in the cinema even reclined!

Andy and school children

So then we decided to take a 5 day tour with a local operator run by Kashmiri guys…. really knowledgable and friendly and quite persuasive! So off we headed for 5 days into the Sangla Valley with tours guide Zahour and driver Vihendra.

Now when we were told we would be travelling by Taxi/Mini Jeep… we didn’t expect a Suzuki Alto to pull up outside our hotel… I mean how the hell is that going to get us up mountain passes?

mimi jeep??

not to worry though as we were on our way… after a brief encounter with a Monkey who decided to enter our room via the balcony and try to steal our snacks!

First day was spent meandering through some of the most stunning scenery we had ever seen… snow capped mountains, plunging valleys and huge rivers… some of the roads were beyond hair-raising. We spent the evening in Sarahan visiting the very holy Bimakali temple where ANdy and I recieved a Hindu blessing and ate some prashad [blessed food]. We had a meal of Tibetan Momos [or dumplings] then played a game of carrom with the local family who ran the hotel.

I win, I win......ooops. In off the black.

Up early on day 2 we had a long walk and Andy had a race with the guide to see who could cover 100 metres the quickest [male bravado…hey…] Andy lost by a small amount… mostly due to his footwear [he says]. Again very scary roads were navigated and we saw some HUGE hydroelecric projects, which sadly ruined the landscape… but are a necessity for the state. We stopped and had thali for lunch at a tiny roadside shack where the owner just keeps filling the plats up with rice, chappati and daal… totally delish! At this point in the journey we headed up to over 3000 metres on what can only be described as a dirt track with a sheer drop to the bottom of the valley… all I could think was how awful coming back down was going to be.

the view

The people in the villages were so beautiful and friendly…. little kids running up to us to have their photos taken [with no asking for cash] and giving us apples, which are the most famous export from this corner of the world. By the time we got to our hotel in Raackcham we were feeling serene and chilled and another gorgeous view awaiting on our balcony.

Day 3 dawned and a BIG walk was planned… so 5 hours hiking up into the valley by the side of meltwater streams… sitting amongst donkeys and cows and snacking on masala crisps… a stunning day in a stunning place.

Hard times require hard rocks

We then drove up an even WORSE road to the last village in India called Chitkul… a mere 30 km from the Tibet border and a very simple small place. We stayed the night in a local family guest house and it was FREEEEEEEEZING. Sleeping fully clothed was the order of the day and lots of hot chai to keep us warm. The local hotel had the most bizarre menu ever… luckily we were not hungry as I am not sure what Babeen Tost, Pog Eg or Veg Wine Sized Soup were!

Awaking in the shadow of the Himalayas was an experience to remember and we walked within view of the army base guarding from potential invasion from China. Then it was back down the hill to our next location of Kalpa…. well at least that’s what we thought, until we discovered that the road we had come up on was no longer passable… a rock slide had taken a portion of it out… and that was the only road down!….so we had to sit out the afternoon waiting for news… which wasn’t good… we were stuck until at least the morning! Next morning we headed down with our fingers crossed and were told it should open but if not we could walk over the hills and get a bus…looking at the road it did not look like it was any where near passable… just none existent and queues of traffic of both sides of the gap! In India when you are told it’ll be 30 minutes… that can mean anything up to 6 hours, which is how long it took for the road to be ready. And when I say ready… it looked just wide enough for us to pass… Our driver careered over the road in 8th position and Andy and I held hands and closed our eyes…. we made it! and to celebrate the driver proceeded to race down the road at about 50km per hour… absolutely and totally terrifying!

Leaving the Sangla valley so late meant that we faced night driving on seriously scary roads… but we just had to go with it. As it turns out the journey was marred with more issues… including a broken down flatbed lorry and a stuck bus! finally arrived back in Shimla at 10.3pm…really ready for bed!

So next stop is Dharamsala to visit the Dalai Lama! 10 hour bus journey tonight in the dark… at least we won’t be able to see the roads!