Three months in: the story so far…

So, astoundingly, we’ve passed the halfway mark of our trip; it’s crazy to think that we’ve been on the road for three whole months.

On the one hand, time seems to be rushing passed us this time, unlike 2013, when the landscape in front of us seemed endless, for so long. Everything was new then, every day a sensory overload, hour-by-hour to be savoured. It definitely is a different experience second time around.

But on the other hand, thinking back to the day we rolled into Colombo and the huge distance we’ve covered since, you realise just how much you’ve seen, and the sizeable bank of new experiences and memories that will remain visceral for quite some time.

We left New Zealand pretty exhausted and battleworn from what felt like a long, tough year. It’s nice to realise that we are ready to come back, refreshed and rejuvenated, with energy to start again, and yet we have three more months in front of us yet. Now that’s a feeling worth savouring…

Sri Lanka was the perfect starting point. We were originally going to start in India, and make our way down, but, in a stroke of genius insight, I guess, one night I suddenly had small palpitations about the thought of returning to India, tired, worn out, but fresh and green, and directly into the chaos of Kolkata. It just felt too much, too soon, and if Sri Lanka was going to be a less crazy version, then that is where it felt right to leap off from.

Sri Lanka in fact isn’t any kind of version of India at all. It’s somewhat related, true, but it is entirely unique. And boy did we love it.

In direct contrast to India, we found it one of the easiest countries to travel around. The train system is great, and we used it wherever we could. Where we couldn’t, the bus networks were vast, frequent, and easy to navigate, and everything was helped by the fact that people were, on the whole, super helpful and friendly.

And then there’s the food, glorious food, on which I’ve ruminated extensively elsewhere.

We started in capital Colombo, passing a pleasant three nights as we settled into and found our new rhythms. A lot of people bypass the city, but we found it worthy of exploration. It’s also undergoing massive and rapid change, so will be fascinating to see what it becomes in the near future.

Visitors usually head for the country’s south coast beaches, and rightfully so: it’s truly glorious (and we say that as people of the Pacific). We didn’t dally about for long though, spending just enough time for a beach day and another exploring the magnificent Galle fort, before heading inland for an elephant safari. A part of us wishes we did dally longer, so maybe that will have to be reason #1 for a second trip.

But it was towards the second key selling point that we needed to head, hill country, and we spent a fabulous week passing through Ella, Nuwara Eliya and onto Kandy. We strolled around hills and lakes, rode world famous train routes, saw giant Buddhas, vistas, and tea plantations, and witnessed devotional frenzy.

And then there was our epic overnight adventure and trek to the most holy site of them all: Adam’s Peak.

Sri Lanka’s fascinating ancient capitals were up next, and in quick succession we visited the breathtaking Sigiriya, the giant Lion Rock upon which a capital was constructed, the astonishing caves at Dambulla, full of ancient sculpture and paintings, and then the ruins at Polonnaruwa, full of temples, dagobas, monasteries and more.

The first, longest-lasting and most extensive of all the ruined capitals, at Anuradhapura, was one of the final places we visited, and presented another piece in the Pearl Isle’s fascinating historical puzzle.

From ancient hearts we headed to coastal breezes, and firstly towards our only misstep, but a charming one nonetheless: Batticoloa. There we found a strange emptiness that we attributed to the devastation wreaked by the 2004 tsunami, the evidence of which still remains distinctly evident. After that, the far north coast and Jaffna provided a truly fascinating insight into an area still emerging from decades of civil war. It’s a completely different side if Sri Lanka.

Our last couple of nights were spent north of Colombo, in the tourist-oriented Negombo, but even that we found charming, to be honest, and we left Sri Lanka totally enamoured.

In 2013, we spent six weeks travelling around India’s southern tip, from Goa to Chennai. This time we started in Chennai, hustling through the bustling megatropolis in 48 hours, before moving on to another energetic city, Hyderabad, before heading all the way west to a deliciously relaxing week in Goa. Goa is India’s must-do state; in fact, the whole of India’s south remains overall our favourite part.

We then headed north to finally do steamy Mumbai properly, and we loved it, again. The astonishing caves at Ellora and Ajanta, also in Maharashtra state, saw us at our intrepid best, and were all-of-India highlights.

From there it was an unplanned leftward turn, which became a joyous introduction to the state of Gujarat. We spent time in Vadodara, Pavagadh and cool capital Ahmedabad, soaking up its intoxicating forward-hustling energy.

Next up we returned to alluring Rajasthan, starting in the extreme western expanse of Jaisalmer and the Thar desert, before taking a southern loop to see India’s biggest fort, at Chittor, and the undiscovered cool of Bundi, with its dilapidated fort, palace and myriad of stepwells.

From there, it was on to the capital, Delhi, and this time, rather than being overwhelming, she purred like a kitten. Delhi is the face of a fascinatingly changing India, I wrote.

At this point, we were onto the home stretch of our subcontinental trek, with hugely rewarding but whistle stop trips to the infamous erotic temples of Khajuraho and a return to the sacred utopia of Varanasi.

Finally, just before returning to another of our favourite cities, Kolkata, we spent a most fascinating week exploring the hills of West Bengal, the towns of Kalimpong and Darjeeling, and the feeling of having left India for Asia while still being in India. It proved another trip highlight, simply because it was so unexpected.

And that, friends, brings us up to date, although, for a little culinary inspiration, there’s always my take on India’s gastronomic wonderland to read as well: part one and part two

Onto the second half: Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia and Hong Kong. It ain’t over yet…

Food in review II – India at an end

When last checked in on all matters culinary, we were at the end of our stay in the charming state of Gujarat. Needing to fill in quite a few hours on our last day, without getting sweaty (as we’d already checked out of our hotel), we spent an afternoon/evening in aircon heaven at the mall, eating ‘mall food’. You’d think it a heinous proposition, but nup: even food-court food in India is more than palatable. Even better, as we were at Ahmedabad’s biggest mall, it was pretty flash.

We started off local, with a pav bhaji off, buying Mumbai’s famous street-food staple from two competing eateries and then putting them through the rigours of in-depth analysis. Or we just ate them and threw shade at the loser. We then whiled away a couple of hours at a schmancy cafe, which truly delivered, with the best coffee I had in all of India (so good, I had to have two). Finishing up with a post-movie Maccas feed might seem a little declasse, but the chicken McSpicy McBody-slammed any of the tripe Ronald’s serving up at home, to be honest: spicy, succulent, fresh.

From there, it was off to ravishing Rajasthan. I have to say, magnificent forts and deserts and palaces (oh my) aside, the food didn’t quite ignite the superlative searching on thesaurus.com; however, this may have been more a mixture of illness (flu, what?), tiredness, plus the fact that the state is heavy on the tourist traps.

In Jaisalmer, the one true Insta-worthy meal went unphotographed due to fading light. It was at a stunning rooftop haveli restaurant, and was a real vege feast: a gorgeous, rich and creamy baigan (eggplant) bhaji; another new dal to add to the list, dhora dal, which has a wonderfully fragrant, roasted coriander seed flavour; and something completely new: Rajasthani gatta, dense, chickpea flour sausages, cut into chunks, and cooked in a spicy yoghurt and tomato gravy. Wow.

Otherwise, we mostly ate on the roof of our guesthouse; partly convenience, partly for the fort views, partly because the host was a real kool kat. It was also great for big pots of chai tea and milk coffee, which seemed to stretch forever in the small little chai cups favoured here. Bliss.

The hit-and-miss continued through our other two Rajasthan stops. I mentioned elsewhere how much we found the city of Chittorgarh a strange and unwelcoming place, so, yeah, we were more than happy with a couple of completely acceptable vege thalis!

Bundi, pretty Bundi, sadly derelict when it came to memorable eating, apart from one exceptional exception. Our guide’s sister ran a home kitchen from which she prepared fresh thalis for visitors that charismatic Jay had managed to convince they needed to try (but of course).

They were very expensive compared to all other thalis we ate, by some distance, including the epic Gujarati thalis I spoke about last time, but it’s pretty hard to beat freshly cooked curries and puris (gorgeous little puffy roti-type fried breads). She also made the most amazing tomato-chilli chutney that had us licking the bowl (it was oily so you know it was good!) . That stuff could be bottled and become the India’s version of Lao Gan Ma, seriously!

Delhi saw the dreaded illness return, and me either not hungry at all (say whut?) or needing/craving blandness (double whut?). The upshot, though, was that I finally got a good helping of luscious, organic peanut butter on suitably dense brown bread. Heaven!

Before the illness descended, there were two other great food memories. Randomly, we stumbled upon a Parsi restaurant that was very old school glamour. What was not old school, though, was the baby eggplants stuffed with coconut and peanut powder and served in a herbaceous spiky green gravy. Exceptional.

We also returned to the hipster enclave of Haus Kass, and a particularly memorable South Indian dosa. It was still as good as the first time around, and as a free gift with purchase, as we were eating early, we got to witness the maitre D perform his puja (prayer) for, I’m guessing, a profitable and successful night’s trade.

Onto Khajuraho, which, like Bundi, was pretty devoid of tourists. With food options a bit limited, we stuck to fairly mainstream tourist fare bar one memorable wander into a small local Jain place. I felt like eggplant, the owner recommended baigan nizami and told me to trust him, and I’m glad I did. A fried whole eggplant, split down the middle, and smothered in a richly spicy almost pastelike sauce arrived. It was duly mopped up with garlic naan.

I do also have to confess that I had been craving a proper beef burger for quite some time, and while Westerning it up, I had a lamb burger that really Hit. The. Spot. #dontjudgeme

Varanasi, and again more continental fare: eggs and more peanut butter and brown bread. Our one night meal was spent at an NGO where the Indian/French husband and wife owners appeared to be in the middle of a marriage breakdown. The tension clearly got into the food. Sad buzz.

At least, though, we did get back to the world-famous Blue Lassi shop, to pray at the altar of lassi. We tried a trio of orgasmic delights: pomegranate, coconut and chocolate, banana, coconut and chocolate, and saffron and dried fruit and nut. All were super stuffed with fillings, lusciously rich, and just glorious.

Lassi galore at the Blue Lassi Shop.

West Bengal’s Hill Country, and the towns of Kalimpong and Darjeeling, represented a dramatic shift. For the first time in three months we were cold, for multiple days in a row. It was equivalent to the middle of a New Zealand winter, with a cracking storm to go with it. So, we did what any humans would do in such a sudden and shocking climatic change: we carbed it up.

In Kalimpong, we momo’d ourselves into a frenzy, unable to restrain our desire for Tibetan dumplings any longer. We had them beef, we had them pork, we had them any way the lovely people wanted to give them to us. But it wasn’t all carbrageous sinning. There was the strange case of finding another example of Keralan chicken curry, which now has me convinced it is the source of Indo-Fijian chicken curry, and a pretty decent thali (served without breads!).

‘Keralan chicken curry’

In Darjeeling, though, the carbfest reached its zenith. It probably wasn’t helped by the fact that our guesthouse served us bolstering but gargantuan breakfasts every morning, including local Nepali cuisine that had us saying, where we do we sign up?

The first night we went to a famous colonial era place, Glenary’s; the kind where elites of yesteryear would come to hob their knobs. Now it’s international tourists and classy domestics who come to knob it up amongst period wood panelling. Perusing the menu, I saw the words baked macaroni cheese and I didn’t have to be told twice. The chinese-style fried rice and chilli chicken was also pretty magnificent.

Beyond that, it was a lot of eggs and cumin hash browns with chunky wholemeal toast, and a most amazing beef burger that tasted like the very best of homemade food. I hate to admit it, but it was all comfortingly sublime, despite the new layer on insulation I could feel growing around my middle. Eek.

But there was local too, with a rather magnificent experience at a wee family-owned place, where we were served a feast of momos and two types of Tibetan noodle soups, gyathuk and bhagthuk. Again, where do we sign up?

Our India odyssey came to an end in Kolkata, but was unfortunately again marred by the return of dreaded lurgies, which pretty much had me holed up in our hostel for the last three days. So disappointing.

It didn’t, however – and nothing would – stop me from living it up with Kolkata’s gift to the street food world: Kati rolls, a layered paratha bread, coated on one side in fried egg and then wrapped around usually mutton curry, chutney and red onions. So utterly sublime, and genius in its simplicity.

Kati roll.

We also felt the need for one last Biryani…and we chose well. The mutton was so soft it put up no fight to stay attached to its bones, and each grain of rice felt lovingly hugged by its subtly spiced cooking broth. We also added another new dish to the repertoire: vege banjara.

Banjara means cooked in the style of gypsies, which basically means that the dry spices that make the masala are more coarsely ground, it’s easy to make with ingredients to hand, and it generously wallows in plenty of ghee. It’s also got a pretty fierce chilli bite. Excellent.

Finally, for our last meal, it seemed fitting to go out with a bang, in a place called Oh! Calcutta. Our vege choices were for the memory books: okra cooked in mustard oil and served in a gravy of mango and caramelised red onion; baby potatoes in a creamy, tomatoey curry; and banana flower cooked in coconut and warming spices (cardamon, cinnamon, etc.). The paratha alongside was golden, crispy and layered to perfection.

Oh India, delicious, delicious India, how I’m missing you already…

A retrospective shout out to Kolkata

Kolkata, for centuries the capital of British India and lumbered with the cruel ‘black hole’ tag, is one of our favourite Indian cities. Like others we really enjoyed – Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore – it has size, scale, history, chaos, and plenty to see and experience. But it also has that somewhat hard to define special quality; an energy, a vibe, which casts its unique spell and draws you into its web. And thus begins a love affair with Bengal state’s independently-spirited capital…

Kolkata was the final stop on our India odyssey this time around. Just like last time, when Mumbai was the end point, it is hard to maintain the go-go-go, as we call it, in those final days, when you know a lengthy chapter is coming to a close. Further, the dreaded lurgy I’d been battling on and off for weeks decided to make a valiant last stand.

The result, unfortunately, is that I spent the majority of our three days inside our hostel; hardly the best way to enjoy a huge city. So, this is more like a retrospective shout out to the glamorous old dame, because if there’s one thing I did get from my limited interaction this time around, it’s that she’s lost none of her allure.

Kolkata has an interesting history that, I think anyway, explains much about its contemporary setting. Before the Brits showed up, from 1690, Kalikata was a rural settlement amidst jungle and swamp. Aside from the hugely significant temple dedicated to the goddess Kali (still standing today), there was little else. The Empire did not sack and colonise an existing ancient city, but built its grand mini-London from the ground up.

Further along, in the late-19th century, a huge cultural renaissance took place among the emergent educated Bengali middle classes, and the desire for an independent India, free from the shackles of Empire, began to ferment.

This movement was galvanised by a British misstep in 1905, when they partitioned the state of Bengal in two. They were forced to backtrack six years later, but the damage was done, and the Brits moved the capital of colonial India to the ‘less troublesome’ New Delhi as a result.

Post-independence, Kolkata suffered immeasurably, as it was forced to absorb massive waves of Hindu refugees escaping East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Approximately four million arrived following partition in 1948, with the second wave arriving in the aftermath of the 1971 India-Pakistan war.

These influxes created the slums and massive outbreaks of disease and starvation, which created the enduring imagery that the city is still so closely associated with. Adding to the pain, the city’s port-led economy suffered with the loss of most of its hinterland falling behind the closed doors of East Pakistan.

This history has created a politically-active population. The city has certainly seen its share of civil unrest in the past fifty of so years, as its economy tried to adapt to these significant shifts and disruptions. From 1970 until 2011, state politics was dominated by leftist, mostly outwardly Marxist parties, and protests and civil movements were a fairly common feature during these turbulent years. In Kolkata, citizens having an active voice and using it loudly is part of its fabric.

So the upshot of Kolkata is that it is home to a politically-engaged, fiercely-independent, and socially-progressive citizenry (in relative terms), living in undoubtedly India’s most stunning colonial-era city. Like elsewhere, though, the winds of more recent development are also blowing through, creating a fascinating landscape-in-flux.

No other major city in India – aside from maybe Mumbai – provides such a delicious walking environment. There are the grand monuments and buildings, such as the Victoria Memorial, St. Paul’s cathedral and numerous other examples. But then there is also simply walking around areas like BBD Bagh, taking in the historical feast as you look upwards while navigating the chaos at street level, where hundreds of years of growth have crowded what we’re once no doubt spacious old boulevards. There are remnants of many old churches to be found here, illustrating the sheer variety of places from where traders came to ply their wares.

Add to this the frenetic markets in and around New Market, a veritable wonderland of bazaars, a wander around the old Chinatown (little of China remains, but it remains a fascinating area to explore), and the people-watching Mecca of the Maiden and riverfront parks alongside the iconic Howrah Bridge, and you can easily see days just melt away, and you still haven’t left the central city!

As well as its revolutionary heritage, Kolkata is highly regarded as a centre for arts and culture; its pedigree across multiple artforms is impressive. From literature, to music and dance, theatre and especially the Bengali School of Art that arose in the mid-19th century, the city is well known for its ‘furious creative energy’. We enjoyed visiting several institutions, like the Academy of Fine Arts, but there are a whole bunch around South City that will just have to wait for visit #3!

Kolkata’s creative energy extends into the cuisine, which is famous and distinctive in its own right: an emphasis on fish, mustard oil as a key frying medium, spicy dishes, and a love of sweets are key characteristics. Bengalis love to eat, and are famous for being particular and finicky about their food: certain foods for certain occasions, dishes served in particular orders, and so on.

Part of me loves this, the idea of creating elaborate rituals that draw focus to the process of eating. On the other hand, I’m just as easily drawn to a much more casual approach to food. Mood-dependant, I guess.

There are a number of dining institutions around the city that combine this love of eating with strong ties to a colonial past. Places like Peter Cat and Flury’s have been serving up their respective specialties for generations, and while I would most certainly be lying if I proclaimed them eating India highlights, they undoubtedly have a certain nostalgic place in people’s hearts, evidently for both locals and returning tourists, and are glimpses into rapidly receding eras.

The glorious kati roll, Kolkata’s gift to the street food world!

On our first visit to Kolkata, we felt that residents, on the whole, gave an aura of being quite progressive by comparison to the rest of much more conservative India. It’s hard (even impossible) to quantify the truth of this, or not, but this observation was made primarily on the basis of two noticeable differences.

The first was the mere presence of women in everyday life, in far greater numbers than we’d seen elsewhere (up to that point). They were on the streets, taking lunch with their male colleagues, shopping, socialising, and were far more visually and vocally present than we were in general used to seeing (this was six years ago).

The second was more funny. All over India, walking through parks and temples complexes, we’d quite often spot young couples who, given the country’s social conservatism, were having to find secret and hidden corners to have private moments. It was like something out of an old Bollywood film, and it became something of a game to spot the deer-like glimpses.

Not so in Kolkata, where couples were cavorting much more openly, with no-one around seeming to be worried about the moral decline of the population. It wasn’t gross, but it was noticeable.

Other smaller observations added to this: young people dressed a little more daringly, wearing makeup and with hairstyles that again sometimes just seemed to be pushing the boundaries a little more. And lots of people smoking, including young women. A heinous habit for sure, but a behaviour that was again something quite noticeably different than other cities.

On this visit, our observations were supported by our roommate, a young Bangalorean on sabbatical. Getting ready to go out on the Saturday night, without prodding, he randomly commented that women in Kolkata are the most beautifully made up in India, but are hard to get close to; they aren’t easily impressed by the usual antics of men. Funnily enough, earlier that day I had been thinking to myself that you might say that women here are like the Romans of India, in how well dressed they often are.

It gives the impression that young women here are taught to be strong and independent, and to be proudly so; that the (still) usual notion of woman dowried to men, implying inferiority, is being rejected. And it leaves me to wonder if such a simple reason as gender politics helps to explain Kolkata’s unique culture?

India is a country where the role of women and gender-based violence (still) can leave you completely dumbfounded, aghast. You hear about things that seem completely unimaginable in a modern democracy.

Yet there are highly-educated pockets in many places across India.

So is it that Kolkata’s long history of valuing education, the arts, and political activism, and of doing so in a much more female-inclusive way, created a society that stands apart? Does the mere presence of women in public life create differences that ripples out into wider society and culture in profound and unimaginable ways? Should we be taking note?

In an era where this issue is ever increasingly being brought to the fore, and where it feels like democracies are so desperate for something new, something different than the bully boys who’ve been ruling the world since forever, it might just be enough to inspire hope. It may be a fool’s hope indeed, but I’d argue that all hope is a form of that, anyway.

I contemplated this as we caught our Uber to the overly-spacious, future-proofed airport.

Once out of that frenetic central concentration of energy, you hit the suburbs, where life is perhaps more mundane, a bit more conservative. However, racing through, along the elevated series of new flyovers, signs of that new change flooding into India are popping up all over.

Like nowhere else I’ve seen, India truly continues to live its past as it races at breakneck speed into its future. On the whole, the place has changed immeasurably in the six years between visits, and a lot of amazing progress has been made. Let’s hope it continues to manage the journey to come in a way that captures the best of where it’s come from, and for the benefit of all its many varied peoples.

Darjeeling and West Bengal’s hill country

Darjeeling offers a pretty romantic proposition: a ex-British hill station and summer retreat in tea plantation country, set along a hilly ridge and dramatically beneath a chain of Himalayan behemoths. Soak up the colonial era architecture as you walk around open-mouthed while gazing upwards, the brochures claim.

Oh the marketing slogan, always quick to make bold claims. What they forget to mention is that you need to read the fineprint; there’s an asterix at the end of that claim.

For the awe-inspiring views of said Himalayas are essentially limited to Summer, which it is not presently (Holi, the coming of Spring, was celebrated as we were leaving), or otherwise very small time-windows, with advice like ‘4am start’ in it. And that’s not a guarantee. At three months into our latest adventure, we needed a little more certainty to get us out of bed that early in what essentially feels like the middle of a New Zealand winter.

Also I wouldn’t position Darjeeling as a pretty, colonial relic, either.

But all of this is no mind, however. Although it is what drew us there, the chance of a close(ish) encounter with the mythical mountains in a colonial outpost, it is everything else we experienced in our six nights in Darjeeling and its much lesser-known sister-gurrl town, Kalimpong, that made it an unforgettable experience. Not only delightful, but fascinating and unquestionably one of the most intriguing places we’ve been to so far. It’s a completely different part of India; we had, in fact, felt like we’d pretty much left India.

And once you realise exactly where you are, and learn some of the history of the area, it all makes perfect sense.

Technically India, the hills of West Bengal are located in a funny little strip of land squeezed between the state of Sikkim (which used to be a kingdom) and Tibet to the north, Nepal to the west, Bhutan to the east, and even Bangladesh is not too far south.

Historically, Darjeeling and Kalimpong were part of the Sikkim kingdom, before being taken over by invading forces from Nepal and Bhutan respectively, and then eventually passing to the British. Kalimpong was once a hugely important conduit for trade and contact with Tibet, and both places have absorbed large numbers of Tibetan peoples post-Chinese annexation.

All of these influences are present to varying degrees.

We started in the quiet respite of Kalimpong, where they were few other international tourists present. Apart from one night, the large, deco-era lodge where we stayed, was empty.

Getting to Kalimpong, indeed Darjeeling or any of the other little hilly towns, requires you to first get to the pretty standard, dusty market town of Siligiri, and then locate and jump onboard a shared jeep.

It ended up being not too difficult, just requiring an (electronic!) tuk-tuk to a shared jeep stand, which of course was located nowhere near the train station (there were no shared jeeps from the NJP station, despite what the guidebook said – it may because we were a little out of season, perhaps?).

Our arrival into hill country unfortunately coincided with receiving news of the devastating terrorist attacks in Christchurch. Although we had planned to slow the pace considerably anyway, and just amble about, suddenly a huge amount of time and (emotional) energy was, of course, redirected, as we tried to watch/listen/read as much as possible to try to understand what had happened, and what was happening in response.

It was a strange and surreal experience to be so far away from home, and where daily lifewas continued with no knowledge of what was happening (at least that we could see). Of course, though, we can only imagine what the scale of the collective grief and questioning must have felt like (be feeling like) on the ground.

It certainly made us a little more circumspect, and grateful, as we visited two Tibetan monasteries. Kalimpong is (and has long been) an important centre of Buddhist education, and both monasteries hold precious and ancient texts that were smuggled out of Tibet post-1959.

At both monasteries, we were very fortunate to be shown inside by resident monks, who unlocked the doors for us (most domestic tourists, whizzing in and out in their tourist vehicles, click, click, click, completely missed out).

Both were privileged experiences, as neither of us had before seen Tibetan prayer rooms and, it turns out, they are quite distinct and different in style. It was lovely to be able to wander around in such peaceful, contemplative environments.

Aside from just enjoying the quietness of the town, especially post-8pm, the cooler climate, and wandering about its interesting but not especially pretty streets, the other key memories of Kalimpong are definitely food related.

We dined two out of three nights at what appeared to be one of the only hotel restaurants in town. We gorged on divine momos (Tibetan dumplings) and warming masala chai (sweet spicy tea). The restaurant had a real ‘ends-of-the-earth’ feel for me. As one of few ‘restaurant’ options (and serving alcohol), it seemed to be both a real local hangout and the place where you had to come if visiting (and wanted that environment to dine in). Although it wasn’t overly busy either night, it had an interesting mix of people hovering around its tables.

At the opposite end of the scale was an uber-cool cafe, serving all the usual suspects, decorated in eclectic fashion, and frequented by the super cool, young hipster crowd. It was fascinating to watch the kool kids, who looked, spoke, and were as connected as their mega city counterparts. The pizza and chai tea were also delushious.

Finally, on our way walking up to one of the monasteries, we wandered passed a rather picturesque golf course. We noted that the canteen was run by Keralans, and were offering ‘Keralan chicken curry’. Interest sufficiently piqued, we returned post-visit for lunch, and once again marvelled at the closeness with which it mirrors Fijian chicken curry. My continued academic interest in the origins of Indo-Fijian cuisine have a new direction to pursue…

Compared to Kalimpong, Darjeeling was bustling, and teeming with domestic tourists (and definitely a few internationals, too). Its altitude is considerably higher, though, so the weather was unfortunately more temperamental. By the time we were done with breakfast each morning, and ready to go, the clouds had pretty much descended, and the rest of the day would bring only intermittent patches of sun.

It didn’t entirely stop our intrepid wandering. We located some colonial era delights and took a walk out to the Japanese peace pagoda, a walk made quite a bit longer due to our walking down the wrong street, for quite some distance. We definitely got to see suburban Darjeeling too! It’s inevitable, though, that, as the end of a leg of travel approaches, you start to wind down and the prospect of just ambling about starts to lose its appeal.

So, inevitably, we spent most of the time relaxing, reading, and carbing it up (momos, baked delights and chunky toast, oh my). We were lucky enough to enjoy some true local Tibetan food as well, aside from the more well-known momos; both soups actually: the glorious chickpea, potato and nigella seed-infused chola (mopped up with fried dough bread oh yes!), and thukpa, a broth with such depth and noodles so freshly made, it was a rapturous experience.

At the end of the day, though, it is the people who were most fascinating: an eclectic mix of communities making it work in the far extremes of north-eastern India. Of course they looked eclectic and they were dressed eclectically, given their ancestral and religious diversity. But, moreover, in interactions, I found people to have quite a gentle nature, were friendly, warm and helpful, and it’s something that stands as a contrast from (some of) their fellow citizens.

On the street, I constantly noticed people stopping to chat with each other, catching up, laughing, shaking hands and otherwise embracing (not kissing and/or hugging, but touching in ways that suggested closeness). It suggests a community that is quite closely connected and interdependent; ‘we’re in this together’.

It made the researcher in me want to camp up for six months and get to know the community, to learn about the fascinating stories and histories, crossing paths and routes, that no doubt exist and explain the contemporary face of this most beguiling part of India.

We’re very grateful for having had our grey matter so stimulated!

Khajuraho and a return to the Ganges

Khajuraho is a village-town in the state of Madhya Pradesh, quite far removed from standard tourist routes, but famed for its legendary/controversial ‘erotic’, tantric temple carvings. Debauched scenes of animal husbandry, fellatio and elaborate orgies, the more hysterical voices scream, voices who probably haven’t visited I’d guess. The reality is not quite so dramatic.

Logistically, Khajuraho is not hugely easy to get to, unless you’re doing a more thorough/intrepid exploration of the state. A train, but only from and to a select few destinations, arriving early and leaving late, is among the few long-distance options. It makes for long, quite sleep-deprived days either side of a visit.

Coincidentally, though, it is this relative isolation that possibly helped preserve the temples so well, as Muslim invaders of past eras did not inflict on them the kind of destruction temples elsewhere faced. They were then reclaimed by nature and sat undisturbed for centuries, until the early 19th century.

The temples at Khajuraho are billed as overwhelming, a monumental experience. Everything I’d read conjured up images of a complex akin to something like Angkor Wat; an undertaking requiring multiple days of sustained attention. Both fortunately and unfortunately, it’s not. The whole complex, all three temple groups, are easily doable in a single day.

This could be unfortunate because of the chance that expectations become undeliverable. But, the reality of it being so manageable means you avoid the dreaded temple fatigue from taking hold, something that is inevitable as much as you don’t want to feel disrespectful by starting to find such important, sacred places a bit same-same, a bit boring. Luckily, for us, at this point in our trip, the temples being so manageable fell on the fortunate side.

An inevitable question arises, though, if coming from and leaving to such afar places: is it worth it, worth the effort?

For me, it’s a yes, despite arriving early Monday morning and leaving late the next night, meaning two out of three nights ‘sleeping’ on a train.

(My only thoughts, in retrospect, would be that it’s worth staying longer. Not because there’s a whole lot to do, because there isn’t really, although I was told by fellow travellers that exploring the surrounding countryside by bike was a nice way to while away a day. But moreso, just to give yourself a chance to chill out and relax, and the village was certainly quaint. Unfortunately, for us, the limitations of train timetables and availability, as well as the encroaching end of our time in India, dictated a rather mad in-and-out style visit.)

As for the temples, despite the fact that, by now, we’ve seen quite a lot of Hindu and Jain temples, these were indeed something extraordinary. They are said to represent some of the finest temple art in the world. For me, it is the style of their carvings that makes them stand apart.

Hindu temple art, indeed all temple art, has stylistic similarities; you start to recognise them, even if you can’t name them. The scenes of everyday life and religious devotion that adorn the freezes here are of a similar type, but are remarkably different at the same time.

I would describe the style as more fluid, indeed more sensual, although by that I do not necessarily mean sexual. Yes, there are the scenes of various kinds of copulation, featuring a variety of actors, but actually, these are only ittimitantly spread across a few of the temples. The vast majority of the art is nothing sexual at all.

What I really loved were the more realistic representations of people complemented with some slightly fantastical elements. Elsewhere, figures are taut, lean and have overly Parton-esque chests; here, there are curves and doughy little bellies, and the rhythm of movements depicted feel less constrained and controlled. The scenes of everyday life feel more varied and detailed, and a lot more joy and festivity appears present. Maybe these people had pretty carefree lives?!

Alongside this, you might see, for example, a row of elephants and humans depicted more or less to scale, but then right alongside that will be humans the size of elephants. And then there are the figures that are part human-part animal. It looks and feels a little playful, a little fantastical. It may not be this at all, but that was certainly my interpretation.

Probably most memorable, though, simply because it’s something I’ve never seen elsewhere, was the elaborate rendering of the God Vishnu represented as his boar avatar. Over a thousand years old, it’s covered in a veritable pantheon of carved deities in breathtaking (and probably painstaking) detail, and was truly a sight to behold.

Overall, Khajuraho was another tick off the lengthy experience India must-see list.

Varanasi

As for Varanasi, this was something of a forced stop on our way to Darjeeling. There was no way to get there direct and Varanasi was the most logical choice, from a logistical/transportation point of view; as I mentioned above, options out of Khajuraho are fairly limited.

But it was not a stop of forced labour. Indeed, I had wanted to return to Varanasi, time permitting. It was a chance to banish the demons that tarnished our first visit, in 2013. This was somewhat achieved.

Our first visit was marred not by the Ganges itself, but by a couple of bad experiences in and around the sacred waters, and by our experience of the old city overall: truly chaotic, incessantly noisy and gridlocked, and just scammy and unpleasant. It’s hands-down my least favourite urban space in India.

We’d been told about and made contact with a local, unofficial guide, who was lovely, but we made the mistake of leaving the itinerary in his hands and not being clear about what we wanted from our visit. We learnt from that.

We ended up staying smack bang in the middle of the seemingly endless and endlessly confusing tangle of lanes that sit between the old city and the ghats that line the river; we’d wanted the quieter southern end of the river.

We found ourselves being raced through a hugely sacred temple, at a truly frenetic pace, treated like VIPs and whizzed passed Hindus who would have been lining up and continued to wait for God knows how long to make their pilgrimage (a situation that always makes me unconformable and that I always try to avoid).

And we then found ourselves caught in the burning ghat scam, where, before you realise it’s happening, you’re being shown around, having its function and how it operates explained to you (a legitimately fascinating experience), but then taken away to a place where no one else is around and the process of an intimidating shakedown begins. I’d read about, was ready for it, but even I was initially caught unaware, realising too late what was happening.

It all added up to a profoundly unpleasant aftertaste.

But to experience the Ganges is also something quite profound; there is nowhere else of Earth I can think of like it. To be able to spend time simply walking up and down, sitting, watching and witnessing the variety of activities that take place in and around these most sacred of waters is a real privilege. You then take an early morning boat ride, and see the whole operation from a completely different angle.

This time, we wanted more of the latter, less of the former; by-and-large that is what we got. Because we’d been before, there was no rushing around trying to tick off experiences this time; it was more just a process of ‘being in space’ and enjoying that.

And this time, apart from a couple of trips for admin purposes, and of course getting to and from the river via the tuk-tuk mafia, we stayed well clear of the old city, spending our 36 hours around the ghats and the quieter and more spacious southern end (also more gentrified, but Lord knows, sometimes you just need that!).

Quite by chance, we did have another burning ghat experience. In spite of the scam the first time around, I did find the process of observing those final rites and seeing bodies wrapped in white being cremated not at all morbid or squeamish, but rather peaceful. In spite of the chaotic nature of ghats during busy times, the attention so focused on seeing a loved one sent into the next stage of life lent a calmness to the proceedings.

This time, we got a much more up close and personal view, as we just happened to be walking through a ghat when a body was being prepared to be placed onto the pyre. It was literally metres away from us, but no one at all tried to move us on, or any of the others who inevitable started rubbernecking (which I swear is an India-wide pastime!).

That’s probably one of the best things about experiencing the Ganges: so much happens, from funerals to daily puja (prayer) ceremonies to the Goddess Ganga, people coming to pray, bathe, wash clothes, spread ashes or otherwise just splash around, to all the sadhus/sadvis (Hindu monks) camping along the ghats, getting on the ganga, and offering all manner of spiritual enlightenment.

The possibilities are magically varied and endlessly fascinating, and what you see simply comes down to being in the right place and the right time.

One other place worth visiting, if in town, is to take a day trip out to Sarnath, which is the place where Buddha gave his first sermon. Razed multiple times over the centuries, it’s one of the four key Buddhist pilgrimage sites and attracts visitors from all over the world. A stupa marks the spot where the famous sermon happened, and other Buddhist nations have also constructed temples and gardens that you can visit, providing an interesting overview of different styles in one spot. It’s yet one more spiritually significant element in a visit to this most holy part of a rather holy country.

Delhi and the changing face of India

Delhi is a giant of a city. Not only in terms of population or sheer scale, as it continues to grow ever outward, consuming what were once distinctive villages in the onward march of development. But also in terms of the sheer bounty of things to see and do. With two visits under our belts now, totalling nine days, there are still pockets left unexplored, attractions unvisited. We gave it a good go, though…

There’s the historical, illustrating the city’s important place in empires ranging from the ancient Hindu, through the Mughal period, and of course the British. From the architectural wonder of the Qutb Minar, to the giant splendour of the Red Fort; from Jantar Mantar, the Mughal period observatory, to the colonial era Nicholson Cemetery. The pompous spectacle of Rajpath, the India Gate, the magnificent secretariat buildings and presidential palace straddle the transition into independence.

Alongside this is the everyday Delhi that maintains rhythms of daily life that connect directly to patterns of the past. Here I’m talking about the bazaars and industries most often viewed by tourists in old Delhi, around the famed Chandni Chowk. It’s chaotic, it’s frenetic, it’s overwhelming. It’s most likely the kinds of scenes you’ve never before witnessed (and certainly at such a scale). It’s a wild ride.

Of course there’s the religious, and particular way that monuments, shrines and the worshipping of/at are often woven into daily life. I include here the stunning tombs littered across the city, memorialising past rulers. The peaceful Lodi Gardens contain tombs that are simply and accessibly part the park itself.

But then there’s also the mosques, the Jain temples, the Hindu temples, and so on, offering so much variety, so many experiences. The visits we made to the Sikh Gurdwara Bangla Sahib, as well as Amritsar’s Golden Temple, both in 2013, remain for me profoundly moving memories of peaceful, welcoming ritual (and are, whether fair or not, compared to the colossal beauty but otherwise pretty scammy experience at Delhi’s giant Jama Masjid).

And then there’s the new, the Delhi that reflects India’s growing wealth, confidence, and social change. The wonderful art galleries, where we soaked up the country’s vibrant contemporary art scenes, the museum’s ranging from national scale institutions to the quirky, and plenty oriented around historical figures too (the Ghandis, the Nehrus, and so on). Girgaon, technically just outside the territorial limits of Delhi and agricultural villages mere decades ago, is now a throbbing pulse of hitech, finance and commerce, and all the associated development that comes along with it.

And it’s on the new that I wanted to muse.

Delhi represents the face of country that has been changing rapidly in recent years; indeed, we feel like India has changed dramatically in the five years between visits. Like elsewhere, this is most immediately visible through technological change.

In dramatic fashion, India is now a smartphone and social media-connected nation.  Everywhere we went in Delhi, people are as glued to their screens as the rest of us. And, like elsewhere, this is creating a population connected globally; to new ideas and globalised cultural flows, and the youth are increasingly agitating for change they want to see (Yuss!).

Rather wonderfully, though, at least for now, there is no sense that this represents any kind of cultural imperialism, of one culture being swamped by external forces and the local being somewhat drowned out by a sea of (primarily American) pop culture. This is resolutely still India. Bollywood (and its regional offshoots) and the prevalence of religious practice in everyday life, for example, still absolutely reign supreme and remain seemingly unshakeable.

Cable TV, for what contemporary relevance it still has, is beaming literally hundreds of channels across the land, in a range of languages. It brings together a plethora of options, of not only India’s media cultures, but of global platforms too. Programme formats have been adapted from elsewhere to suit local conditions too. A particular favourite has been watching the lifestyle/food programmes, even if they’ve been in Hindi, or Hinglish as we might call the peculiar but amazing way people language-switch with relative ease here.

And the government’s continued push to make India a digital economy, while making ATMs and cash a bit of a headache for us at-times these passed two months, is resulting in the rapid take up of e-commerce.

Long before Uber Eats and their ilk, India already had a long tradition of meal delivery, via the marvel of the tiffin tin lunch delivery service, especially in Mumbai. For over a century, this has allowed wives to be able to deliver their hard-working hubbies something fresh from their kitchens for lunch (I say with a certain amount of tongue-in-cheek, on multiple fronts).

In the digital age, this has now spiralled into a number of delivery services, chiefly Zomato and Swiggy. Their spread has been so great that our usual mantra of looking for food based on finding places busy with locals had to be extended to include places doing a roaring trade in takeaway deliveries (visible by the number of motorbikes zipping in and out of places). You can even order meals to be delivered to your train seat as you whiz into pretty much any town/city, right across the country!

And, at streetside level, you can pay for things using Q codes and, increasingly, mobile apps like PayTM.

For me, the ultimate symbol of all of this change is the Metro. All over India, in every major metropolis we visited, there exists a Metro system in the process of being built or, more often, expanded. Delhi’s Metro, less than twenty years old, is already one of the world’s largest, by both length and patronage. It is vast, and there wasn’t a single place in the city we wanted to get to, that we couldn’t access via its efficient, snaking paths.

This connectivity has completely transformed the way Delhiites move and live. It has made literally millions of people mobile, able to move about and work and socialise in much larger circles and manifestly different ways than previously possible. We rode with people commuting, families on day trips, young people out and about. And women, my gosh, we saw women, in groups, alone, young, old, outside. Remarkable.

I think this new mobility (freedom, really) is creating unprecedented social change; in ways it will take decades (and some choice social historians) to fully comprehend and explain.

But one small, curious way I think I observed this is in the rise of what I’d call ‘fixed-price culture’. Previously, unless at a shop like we understand them (retail malls, boutiques, supermarkets, etc.), by-and-large, shopping in India is the artform of negotiation (or, if simply buying food and drink, for example, from small roadside shops, stalls or markets, being told the price and knowing it was inflated over and above local prices, but not really caring…much). Indeed, it primarily still is.

But all across urban centres, more and more, I noted growing numbers of humble street-side stalls with price lists and signage (mostly in English). Some produce markets even had ‘per kilo’ prices. And market stalls are being transformed into fixed priced outlets, sitting right outside glittering new label shops.

Additionally, young entrepreneurs are taking the humble street stall and giving them hipster makeovers, creating all manner of little eateries that have been designed, interior decorated, and are digitally connected. They’re expanding what street/fast food is and looks like by making their spaces accessible (and Instagrammable) in this accessibility-enhanced age.

I noticed it on our first stop, in Chennai, and then to varying degrees in other cities.

Now, of course, the growing wealth of the middle classes, who are demanding things like shopping malls, department stores and supermarkets to satisfy their growing consumptive desires, are undoubtedly having a huge impact here. But I also wondered about the impacts of this new mobility.

If previously, your lifestyle was largely confined to a more limited area and range of options, then of course you got to know your local businesses, your local shopkeepers, and you knew local prices. It’s only tourists left completely baffled. But the rise of fixed-price culture is not about tourists, it’s about locals. And I wondered if it’s perhaps about increased mobility too, as people – especially young people – are moving about in much larger circles, consuming and purchasing in increasingly diverse ways and unfamiliar locations.

New India and its residents are demanding a certain level of transparency and certainty to their new lifestyle patterns, like the global influences they are so connected to and, to a certain degree, wish to ape. By-and-large, it seems, they are getting exactly what they want.

Watching this space, with continued fascination.

Return to ravishing Rajasthan II: Chittor and Bundi

For the first part of our trek through Rajasthan, taking in Jaisalmer and a trip to the desert, click here. Here is the second part, in which we took in more incredible fort experiences, temples, palaces and stepwells.

Chittor

I would like to, but I can’t say that I enjoyed Chittor (and am resisting using a low level profanity to make a play on its name!). We were there for two nights and found the place, well, just odd. Our conclusion was that people come to see its fort complex as a daytrip from elsewhere, probably the much more tourist-friendly Udaipur, which is only two hours away.

The result is that the town is not set up for tourists, and seems to have little to offer (aside from the obvious). It was hard to find its pulse, its heart, and it was woefully pedestrian unfriendly (which I’ve come to believe is hugely important to make an urban space welcoming for visitors). It didn’t help that we were made to feel quite unwelcome at our strange, eerily empty hotel, where there appeared to be nobody staying for most of the time.

However, weird vibes aside, we were there to see the fort, and it was quite something to behold. India’s largest, it sits atop a hill, on a 6km long plateau that falls away down sheer hillside to the plains below. Like Jaisalmer, and others we’ve previously seen in Rajasthan, it’s a dramatic and arresting sight.

Just like Jaisalmer too, though, it was also prone to attack, and jauhar (ritual suicide) was committed three times, in 1303, 1535, and 1568. At this point, a new capital of the Mewars was established in Udaipur and it was never resettled.

For our visit, we simply tuk-tuked to the entrance at the top, and then wandered around and then down the hill over the course of around six hours. After the somewhat emptiness of Jaisalmer, Chittor was bustling with visitors, although very obviously skewed towards the domestic (the selfie requests continued!). It was a welcome busyness, with large family groups, school groups, people with guides, lots of cars and tuk-tuks ferrying people about, and others like us just wandering around.

And Chittor is a wanderer’s delight. There are ruins of palaces, as well as temples and tanks and a remarkable ’tower of victory’, dating from the fiftenth century, all simply dotted about the place and waiting for your attention. The tower is in the area where the jauhar was carried out, with plinths and stones strewn across the ground the ghostly evidence of its heroically morbid (or is it morbidly heroic) past.

There are also extraordinary views from the top, back down and across the surrounding areas. They were views that had us continually reaching for our cameras, as changing light and angles presented new outlooks.

The highlights for me were the Jain temples and wandering over to the eastern gate, both for similar reasons. The Jain temples are extradorinarily beautiful and intricate and they were basically deserted, as everyone was at the Hindu temples, so we had them to ourselves. A rare treat.

Similarly, the eastern gate was far less populated, even though it was really only a matter of mere minutes walk away. It was deliciously peaceful and freeing, as you’re able to wander through the gate and down some of the deserted approach that once functioned as the main entrance. The views down into the cultivated valleys below are even better here, and back up top, there is also another tower to visit, this one beautifully Jain.

To end the day, we took a pleasant amble through the village at the top and then back down through all the gates, climbing on and off the fort wall, taking yet more photos, and returning all the friendly waves and hellos from people scooting passed on motorbikes. It was a lovely end to a really nice day out, making the awkwardness of the city below well worth the effort.

Bundi

Finally, Bundi, which is billed as the super-chilled, less-touristy cousin of Brahmin Blue-hued Jodhpur, with a decaying fort and palace to explore in a town full of stepwells. Something about it sounded appealing, although there was always the risk that it was being completely oversold (hello Batticoloa!)

However, this time, they are right on the money, and we were only sad we couldn’t have stayed for longer to chill out in its chill-inducing surrounds.

We felt its beguiling charm as soon Bundi came into view: a dramatic palace rising out of the hillside, an old town dotted around a small lake, and the blues, the purple-y blues, all fringed by hills topped with historic lookout posts.

It was, is, achingly beautiful. You could not but feel instantly charmed. Wandering around as night fell, it was clear that this wonderfully sleepy town was having the desired impact on our nervous systems (although, for a little bustle, a bazaar was only minutes walk away, through one of the old town’s gates).

The next day, to explore the fort and palace, we hired a guide, which is something we don’t usually do (we normally just amble about). However, I had read about this character online, Jay, and recognised him as soon as we approached the palace entrance (it’s all informal, of course).

I’m glad we did, though, as he really was as entertaining and funny and engaging as the reviews said, promising us multiple ‘super amazing surprises’, for which we could beat him with a stick if we weren’t suitably awed (we were). He brought the fort alive with the passion of a proud local, and also acted as protector from the red-faced monkeys, of which they were many.

There’s a high chance we wouldn’t have found all the spots that he showed us on our own, or not ventured in as far we did, as the monkeys really weren’t that friendly looking.

The fort is deserted, you see, accessed via a shackle-shingle path that runs up to the top of the hill behind the newer palace, and the whole complex is being slowly recaptured by nature. Jay showed us around the fort’s crumbling old palace and the three impressive stepwells that provided its community with water, the uppermost of which has ‘super amazing’ views down into the neighbouring valley and village, the place from which Kipling wrote his infamous Jungle Book.

The newer palace below is equally ruinous, with only a portion of it publicly open (the rest, supposedly, has been turned over to the bats). It’s (part) owned by the current Maharaja, who lives in Delhi and has shown little interest in investing the funds required to restore it and/or donate it to the Archeological Society of India, who do a truly stellar job of restoring and running most of the country’s major historical attractions, from the Taj on down.

For me, this palace housed a much more folorn vibe, like it was deliberately being left to fall apart by a disinterested owner. The older palace and fort at the top of the hill are already in a state of ruin, and, selfishly, there’s something very Indiana Jones about the adventure of walking up there to explore it. The newer palace needn’t necessarily be so.

However, in sayng this, there is always a certain amount of romance in decay, and compared to the restored splendour of the state’s other palaces, this is quite a different experience. It certainly had its own charm and appeal.

In one part, there is a gallery that was once used to receive/host guests, and it contains a quite unique and impressive gallery of murals and paintings that are still in remarkable condition. Below this, you can wander through palace’s main gate and into its courtyard (complete with horse/elephant stables), before walking up to an open-air hall from where the King could presumably survey proceedings below, and then onto what felt like a maybe queen’s private residence and courtyards.

I say presumably and maybe because, sadly, there isn’t any information to accompany you, and, as he was unofficial, Jay was not able to accompany us into this part of the complex, so we had to guesstimate what we were seeing based on the other palaces we have seen.

Like Jaisalmer, the rest of old Bundi is a tangle of lanes where history appears to come to life right in front of your eyes. It’s hard to not feel like you’re visiting something out of a middle ages fable, a tale of an era filled with glamourous sandstone-hued old haveli houses. I realise this denies its residents their contemporaneity, their 2019, but as I say, it’s hard to not feel at least a little hypnotised by the alluring spell Bundi casts.

The final ingredient of this potion is the city’s stepwells. There are a large number of them dotted around the town, and the public can freely wander about all but one of them. We only explored a small number of them in the end, but including what are probably the most impressive: a pair of twin wells that sit right in the middle of the bazaar. It was quite something to disappear beneath the hubbub of the marketplace and down into the myriad of angular staircases that are staggeringly deep. Quite surreal calm in the most unexpected of places!

Return to ravishing Rajasthan I: Jaisalmer and the Thar desert

On our first trip to India, Rajasthan was one of the last places we visited on our three month-long trek around the country. By this time, quite frankly, we were starting to expire; our patience for some of the more trying and tiring aspects the backpacking the Subcontinent were wearing paper thin. Also, we thought we’d pretty much ‘seen’ India by that stage.

We hadn’t.

Rajasthan was a glorious revelation: a state and a people so vibrant and alive, so colourful and charismatic; a pride in culture and history worn in elaborate detail. We were quite entranced. There seem to be two narratives at play here.

Rajasthan is part of the Golden triangle of India’s tourism offerings: fly into Delhi, head south to Agra for the Taj, and then east into Rajasthan. It’s a well worn path, long on the tourist trail, so the state is well versed in selling its story. This narrative centres around the fabled histories of Rajput kingdoms, full of stories of gallantry, bravery, incredible riches and jauhar, or ritual mass suicide in the face of conquest.

The other narrative explains that the vibrancy of Rajasthan and its culture(s) is in direct contrast to the often arid and sparse landscapes in which its people live (although there are also many lusciously irrigated agricultural lands and valleys). Here, this sometimes desolation provides a blank canvas onto which rich cultural tapestries have been woven across millenia.

Put these together, and you’ve got a pretty intoxicating recipe.

It may be (a little) trite, I don’t know, but it does feels like it does ring true: the people here are just that little bit more flamboyant, loud, and charismatic. And whether true characteristics, ones created as tourist product, or, more likely, somewhere in between, it works: Rajasthan is an India highlight.

As we did the state’s big hitters last time – Jaipur, Jodhpur, Pushkar and Udaipur – this time was about finishing what we missed first time around, Jaisalmer, on India’s far western extreme, as well as a couple of lesser known stops on our way up to Delhi: Chittor, home of India’s largest fort, and Bundi, the achingly pretty, low-key equivalent to the State’s bigger tickets.

Overall, they were good choices.

Jaisalmer

Jaisalmer sells a most romantic and heroic story: a 12th century fort rising like a mirage out of the Thar desert; a place where jauhar was carried out by its women and children multiple times rather than allow themselves to be enslaved, its men riding out to battle knowing they would be slaughtered in the process.

While those stories are absolutely real, the mirage is just that: a bit of a far-fetched reach. You do have to come here with realistic expectations. The fort is surrounded by a town that sprawls outwards from its base. The town is itself surrounded by a lot of no-go defence land and dotted all over the landscape are wind farms. Jaisalmer doesn’t suddenly appear like an apparition.

However, in saying this, the fort is dramatically impressive. You can sit on any number of rooftops (hopefully your own guesthouse) and stare at its magnificence for hours, jutting out of the rocky hill with that most beautiful honey-hued sandstone. It’s an arrestingly romantic visage.

Inside the fort, the tour of the palace, with requisite Audiocasters guide, further brings its history alive. So does wandering around its lanes; it is a living museum. Everywhere you turn feels like a page from a history book or adventure novel. Walking right around its 99 lower ramparts affords views looking out into the Thar desert. From all angles (apart from looking down at the rubbish!), it is quite breathtaking.

It’s also imbued with that unique vibe that seems to be present in places located in extreme geographies on extreme edges of nation states; there’s always something just a little wild west about border zones.

The downside is that the fort at least is totally dependent on tourism; it is its lifeblood. And, with not that many tourists around while we were in town, there were a lot of people hanging loose. All over India, as well as Sri Lanka, the story has been the same: this year has not been a great tourist season. The notion of dependency on such a fickle, fluctuating industry, is an uneasy thought to ruminate on.

Tourism is also, slowly but surely, destroying the fort. The pressure of all those guesthouses and their constant running water is slowly causing the fort to slide down the hill. This, and the visible signs of waste creation, is a real risk to brand Jaisalmer, which is why, if visiting, you should really try your hardest to not stay inside the fort.

The sense of the extreme saw us take to the desert on our final day, for a single day safari. We took the advice – and are glad we did – of a new Kiwi pal we met in Goa, who said a single day was quite enough.

For us, we wanted to wander about on a camel for a bit, explore some sand dunes, and get a glimpse into the life of desert people, as they call themselves. We got all of those things.

(For the record, riding a camel was not really that comfortable. Once you stop tensing so hard, believing you might slide right off the plodding meanderer, the rhythmic monotony becomes somewhat hypnotic, but I can’t say it ever becomes comfortable. The one-hour ride more than ticked that box for me.)

Excuse you, gurrrl…

As for desert life, it is always astounding to me when you get insights, even if only momentarily and fragmentary, into lives that seem so impossible, so very different from everything you can imagine human existence to be. It’s not a case of deficit comparison, of wondering how people live without screens, fridges and WiFi (lord forbid), but of simply a reality so far removed from all that you know, it’s just hard to conceive the how of life: what the practices, norms and rituals of daily life are.

(And, of course, I’m just as sure it operates the same way in reverse. At dinner, around the fire, one of our hosts told us we were sitting, effectively, in his backyard, and how he loves the quiet and how noisy Jaisalmer is. Imagining him in the middle of Mumbai, I’m certain he might wonder exactly the same: how does anyone do life in such chaotic, crowded, and noisy spaces!)

So we got to see little settlements and villages, built in both sandstone and older mud-brick styles. And indeed life happens here; schools, shops, labour associations, and so on. We were told that the wind turbines finally brought them electricity, about six years ago.  

One of the most arresting images, aside from a sadly almost bone-dry oasis, was standing in a fort above a town abandoned some centuries ago. They were both stark reminders of the extreme nature of the environment here.

And the sanddunes, of course, were beautiful. For the briefest moment, we got our Lawrence of Arabia moment (you do also need to be realistic about what the (edge of the) Thar actually can deliver on a limited-time safari; this is hardly a trek across the great Shah expanse).

Most memorable for me, though, will be the moments of silence; actual, complete, silence. I don’t know if I’ve ever been in such a vacuum before, such a total absence of sound, a total void. For moments there weren’t even insect sounds. The true sound of silence is indeed extraordinary.

To be continued…

Gujarat’s Hidden Treasures: Ahmedabad

After our surprisingly enjoyable half-week in Baroda, we moved on to the state’s biggest city, all six million souls of Ahmedabad. Our transfer turned into an adventurous expedition on its own!

We returned to the glitzy bus stand, expecting to stroll back to the state bus counter and ask for two tickets on the next bus. Instead, the glitz was barricaded, buses replaced by security guards. Turns out the state buses were on strike. Of course.

So, with no other option, we backtracked to the train station, where, in a slightly frazzled state, I bought two tickets for the first thing going to Ahmedabad. What we ended up with were two general class tickets that simply needed to be used on a train within the next three hours. But which one?

Fortunately, I knew there were multiple trains every hour, so, with tickets secured, we took the opportunity to sit for a few minutes, cool off, and recover the faculties!

And then it was off to match tickets to train. The absence of Roman script, which has presented such interesting challenges elsewhere, was present here again. Unless, of course, you were in the market for mobile phone accessories or whatever else it was that Bollywood figures and/or impossibly ‘fair and lovely’ maidens were trying to sell you.

Eventually, like some entitled baron, I simply strolled info the superintendent’s office, and asked there. Side note: very helpful, pointed in the right direction, and I also got to see the cool control room, all flashing track lights and switches (transport need alert!).

“I’m sure it’ll be fine, and hopefully we’ll get seats,” my ever hopeful cousin/brother/husband travel companion mused. I knew that our NZD$1 tickets were going to be nothing less than a total bun fight, but I decided to leave him to his hopeful naivety.

And sure enough it was.

The train turned up and all us general glass glamazons swarmed. The only choice you had, if you wanted on, was to join the current and ride the human wave as it lunged you forward to the door, completely unforgiving to those coming the other way who miss their three second window to exit.

Onboard, thoughts of sitting are completely abandoned. The most you can hope for is to find a space where you don’t stand on anyone, can somehow acrobat your way out of the way of the inevitable food and crap-wallahs that come strolling through (seriously, why would we want to buy wraparound sunglasses right at this moment?!?!), and try not to stand too close to raised armpits.

And so I stared at and became intimately familiar with an outdated Indian Railways menu, as we journeyed to Ahmedabad!

Our time in the city was less a tick list of sites and more a general, genial wander. The city is loosely divided by the rather pleasant Sabarmati River, which runs through its centre. Unlike too many waterways we’ve seen, this one was actually flowing and looked reasonably healthy as we wandered across a couple of its many bridges.

Along both sides runs amazing waterfront promenades, strangely underused and quite deserted though, as we discovered. I think it’s more a case of things being not quite completed yet, and the promenading habit not yet ingrained. Hopefully, because it’s all sitting there begging to be enjoyed.

West of the river is the city’s New: big roads lined with boutiques and shopping centres galore, and plenty of eateries for the post-shop graze. The university is over there too and there’s quite a big hub around it. You get the drift. On our first evening we strolled over and enjoyed soaking up the post-5pm buzz, and our final afternoon was spent chilling at the city’s largest mall, its gleaming food court, cafes and cinema. You get the drift. All very pleasant.

East of the river is Ahmedabad’s Old, and here we spent a day just strolling around its old neighbourhoods and taking a taste of its many flavours (for once I’m not talking about food). As we did in Mumbai, we simply plotted out the key points and then just ambled between them.

There are mosques and tombs and temples; bazaars, lanes and the humongous old city gate, which looks out over what is now the hugely vibrant main market (and you can freely climb to the top and wander around).

Two particular, very human, moments stand out.

We weren’t able to get into the central mosque, built by city founder Ahmed Shah in 1423, due to not wearing pants long enough. Fair enough, we should have been better prepared. We got a quick look inside, though. Very nice. Close by is the tomb of the Shah’s wife. Clearly no longer that important, it is literally surrounded by the bazaar. A bit of a fail. Third time lucky, the tomb of the man himself, along with his son and grandson.

Initially we were denied again, but, the small group of caretakers, who, by the looks of it live there also, motioned for us to wait while an elderly lady got us some sarongs. Suitably attired, we were then ushered into the tomb and left to wander about. It’s a stunning piece of architecture: a huge central domed cenotaph is surrounded by four other domes, which you can walk right around. Definitely atmospheric as we were completely alone. (Being such a sacred place, obviously photos were not allowed)

Obviously the donation plate was going to come out; we expect it to and gratefully contribute. But what was lovely was the genuine interaction; lots of head bowing and smiles expressing our thanks for their help in facilitating the visit, theirs in receiving our donation. I hope it bought them a substantive feed for their Friday dinner!

The most profound moment, though, came when we visited the first temple built by the Swaminarayan Hindu sect, in 1822 (scholars have drawn many parallels between the prophet Swaminarayan’s teachings and Gandhi’s work). Knowing nothing about it beforehand, there were nil expectations. We wandered through the gate and into the courtyard, marvelling at the gorgeous temple and its surrounding residences for visiting followers.

Indulge me.

Beginning our stroll around the temple, a man came up to us and started to talk to me. My suspicious antlers, of course, immediately go up and start looking for where the catch is going to be. Instead, he told me a bit about the sect and their key figures (Vishnu and Rama), and asked about New Zealand. As we got the farthest side, and sat down, he said it was nice to meet you and then left. Shame on you, Mackley-Crump.

After a bit, another man came and sat beside me and then indicated we had to go with him, ‘prasad, prasad’ he was saying. Antlers back up. He took us around to the other side, where a priest(ly figure) gave us a small palmful of grapes and melon. He indicated for us to eat it, and then back to the seat. Ok then, what’s the catch? (although it was funny that, walking through the market this morning, I had looked at the grapes and said how much I felt like a few…talk about speaking something into being…?!).

After a few minutes, we decided to leave, but the man indicated that, no no, we needed to stay. We presumed maybe a prayer was going to start (more and more people were arriving and circling the inner temple). We were right, and just before 4pm, the doors to the three shrines opened up and men gathered (women are at the back) and they started chanting.

With great excitement the man – who obviously speaks no English; this was all by gesture – guided us towards the shrines, one at a time (there is obviously a prescribed format to this). So we stood in amongst all the men while they chanted and prayed, while the monks were doing their thing. A little awkward, but no one seemed to care and it was fascinating, unlike any other religious practice we’ve seen.

Afterwards, our friend then gestured us towards the end of a line of men – now what’s going to happen; I’m still guarded – before pulling us out of the line and taking us to the front; exactly the kind of thing that makes me super uncomfortable (being privileged ahead of those to whom the practices actually belong).

At the front of the line, however, was the man who had talked to us first and, maybe sensing something on my face, told us that we were their guests (so why we were first), and were given another palmful of grapes and bananas as a symbolic gesture of nourishment.

And with that, the ceremony was over and we walked off the temple with the rest of the people. No scams, no sales, no offers of tuk-tuks or tours or cousin’s-brother’s guesthouse, nothing but host-guest hospitality.

As we walked back around to where our shoes were, we saw our second friend leaving, and were able to gesture our thanks to him, which was reciprocated. It was a rather extraordinary and pure experience, one that will remain long in the memory; the kind of unexpected interaction that makes you want to stop approaching so much here with guard up. We know, however, that you just can’t do that. In a positive sense, it makes the surprise of these experiences, when they do happen, all the more remarkable.

Our last day had one more unexpected surprise. Ahmedabad is home to the ashram of the state’s favourite son, Gandhi. It operated as his headquarters from 1917 to 1930, after which time he left on his famous Salt March and vowed not to return until India had gained her independence. It is now a truly remarkable public museum dedicated to his life and teachings, and you can also visit his (and his ever faithful wife’s) rather spartan living quarters, preserved intact.

What makes the museum so impactful is that the majority of the story is told through Gandhi’s own words, and you realise how much of a great orator and philosopher he really was. Despite the large crowds, the compound is huge and the atmosphere fairly reverential; there was plenty of space (physical and aural) for quiet contemplation and thought.  

Sadly, among the words of Gandhi’s I remember the most were those that, with reference to talk about partition (something he was vehemently against), suggested that a country born through an act of violence could never find peace. It was impossible to not consider how much he would be saddened by how true these words have been (and this was before the latest outbreak of India-Pakistan violence erupted).

A quintessential image of India for me, and one of the few photos I’ve taken that so visibly identifies someone anonymous (I try to avoid, if possible). It’s quintessential not because of the contrast, the apparent poverty or homelessness, but because here is a man asleep on a pavement surrounded by the buzz and noise of a city at night. As someone so hopelessly unable to sleep in all but the most controlled of situations, I’m constantly amazed how people here are seemingly able to nap whenever, wherever, to quote the great Shakira.

Gujarat’s Hidden Treasures: Baroda and Pavagadh

Gujarat was something of an unplanned stop between Maharashtra state (Mumbai, those caves), and our return to Rajasthan. We knew we had some time to burn, and we needed to stop somewhere along the way, so we decided to dip our toes into the state that was historically a key source of early Indian migrants to NZ. We had zero expectations, as knew little about what there was to see and do; all we knew was that Gujaratis like to eat and have a famous(ly sweet) cuisine. Good enough for me!

We were in the state for basically a week, split in half between the city of Vadodara (previously known as Baroda, as in Bank of…) and its biggest city, Ahmedabad. And, we have to say, apart from the traumatic exit (maybe I’ll write about that separately; maybe I’ll just continue to try and forget it), we really, really enjoyed our time there. It was so good, the original intention of covering the state in a single post will now definitely need to be a double header!

The cities were alive and bustling, the people warm and curious, and the food marvellous. Our week there was probably the biggest concentration of ‘hellos’, ‘which country you from?’, smiles, selfie requests, and also random conversations with locals, we’ve had in our trip so far. All-in-all it definitely gave us a contact high: not bad for a dry state!

After our less than warm feelings about Aurangabad, where we had just come from, Vadodara was quite the contrast. It felt alive without being overly chaotic, and there were loads of pedestrians and cyclists out and about, making it feel accessible. We felt the energy as soon as we stepped outside our hotel, that indefinable something that gives a city its own unique energy.

Vadodara is also home to the University of Baroda, which grew out of a college started in 1881, and named after the seemingly beloved Maharaja Sayajirao, who brought huge change to the city during his reign. It is the only state university whose sole medium of instruction is English, and its 35,000 students most definitely give the city elements of a ‘university town’ feel. Moreover, the face of the university to its city is the glorious humanities building (oh to have worked on a campus like that!); pleasingly, a lot of humanities are arts are among its offerings.

A Humanities building to really envy…

The two main reasons to visit, however, are its palace, Lukshmi Vilas, and the nearby UNESCO-plated Pavagadh. We did the palace first.

The palace, built by Maharaja Sayajirao in 1890, was, like a lot of magnificent architecture constructed during this era, built in the Indo-Saracenic revivalist style, which combined elements of Indo-Islamic architecture, sometimes Hindu temple architecture, and Gothic and Neo-Classical revivalist elements. Like many other palaces of its vintage, it’s both sublime and ridiculous.

Lukshmi Vilas is a perfect example of what can be achieved by combining luxurious globally-sourced materials and opulent styling when money is clearly not a concern. The tiles, the sculptures, the marble, the chandeliers; all clearly chosen to display an image of worldly class and refinement. I can’t imagine how much the kingdom’s residents and/or resources were taxed to pay for it all!

And this is always the slight tension I have visiting these kinds of places, for although they present a kind of narrative taken out of some fantastically aspirational Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, there is always a revisionist counter narrative possible. Is it not wasteful? What about those who are not spoken for here, those whose toil (slavery, perhaps) created the wealthy foundation upon which Maharaja’s descendents still sit today (they still reside in part of the palace)?

Anyway, problematics aside, it was still definitely a gorgeous sight to behold, even if the tour was quite restricted and heavily controlled (no photos inside, and only mobile cameras outside; ok then).

Pavagadh awaits…

The next day it was back to our intrepid best, in order to find our way to and from Pavagadh. I’m actually still not entirely sure if there are direct buses from Vadodara.

From the modern, gleaming Vadodara central bus stand, and its welcoming state ticket counter, it was easy enough to find out that platform we needed to at, and that we could just buy tickets onboard. So we did exactly that, and (re)confirmed, I thought, that said bus was going to Pavagadh.

It was actually going close to Pavagadh, a town called Halol. Fortunately, there, the conductor walked us to the right bus and told the new conductor where we were going (as if we’d be going anywhere else!). From Halol, it’s only a ten minute ride.

Basically the same thing occurred on the way back. At Pavagadh, I asked if there was a bus to Baroda, and the man said ten minutes. A bus turned up in five, we jumped on, and soon found ourselves back in Halol, where it then just a case of wandering about asking whoever was brave enough to make eye contact! However, ‘is this bus for Baroda?’ is not too hard to convey and we soon found ourselves wheeling our way back to base camp.

Whether direct buses, in both directions, would have turned up if we’d waited a bit longer, who knows. Either way, we made it there and back without any major difficulties, and as I said at the outset, people had an essence of Southern (India) hospitality about them.

The summit awaits…

Again the pay off made any awkwardness worth the effort. Pavagadh is actually two things: a sacred hill housing a number of temples, gates and an old mint (literally with mint growing outside it), and the ruins of Champagner, briefly Gujarat’s capital in the 15th century, and just long enough for some beautiful mosques to be constructed in and around its citadel. These mosques remain gloriously preserved, and provide excellent examples of the region’s unique style (a central dome surrounded by spiralled cupolas, as opposed to the more familiar minarets). We strode up the sacred hill first.

There are a number of ways to get to the summit. By far the majority, as we discovered, catch a bus or minivan to about the halfway point, where the road ends, and then either gondola or walk from there. We walked to the midway point, in glaring sunlight and full view of all the passing minivan and buses. Oh well.

We didn’t realise there were transport options – I thought it was supposed to something of a pilgrimage – and this way we did get to explore the gates, the mint, and an amazing lookout platform we would have otherwise missed. However, we’re not completely bonkers, so, holding my britches, we took the gondola the rest of the way up (gulp).

At both the midpoint and the top, the scene is typical temple-pilgrimage: rows and rows of stalls selling everything you could possible need to complete your offering – saffron powders, headbands, coconuts and sweets – and a lot more besides (bangles, materials, plastic crap, and so on). The steps all the way up are littered with red dots and swastikas. On the way back down, we saw why: a man, clearly in a trance state, was leading a group up the hill and someone (I assume they were taking turns) was placing red dots in front of every step he made. An exhausting enterprise.

Although there are a number of temples on the hill, it is the 10th/11th century ‘black goddess’ Kalikamata temple at its summit, dedicated to the goddess Kali, that is the focus of pilgrim attention. At the very end, there’s only one path up and down a step flight of steps, so we had no choice but to join the procession and file past Kali herself.

It was actually very pleasant, as it always is, when you can just quietly, without being intrusive, witness people carrying out an act of religious devotion that is obviously very important to them. Calmly, reflective, no cameras. From a purely tourist point of view, the views from the top, stretching far out into the hazy distance, were far-reaching and enlivening; a moment of nature’s immensity by comparison to us who merely have temporary residence here.

Britches released, I couldn’t stomach a second gondola ride back down the hill, so we threw caution (and our return tickets) to the wind, and took off on a casual stroll on the pilgrim path.

I’m glad we did – sites aplenty; achievement felt – although, again, were not completely bonkers, so bussed down from the midpoint, which turned up just as we were contemplating a smooshed shared jeep. Just in the nick of time, as the saying goes.

Champagner was really quite something. Aside from the extraordinarily well preserved ruins, it is still a functioning village. And, for all the times we’ve driven passed tiny, dusty outposts, dotted all across the country, and I’ve only been able to wonder about how life is sustained in such remote and quite extreme locations, well here it was up close and personal, right in front of our eyes.

Of course it is entirely sustainable, no different from tiny settlements in remote parts of New Zealand. It’s just the extreme appearance of the landscape that makes it seem so improbable, like desert stations in remote Australia, I guess. The insurmountable persistence and optimism of the human spirit, right? And, of course, truth be remembered, Champagner is not that far away from a city of 1.4 million residents! But still, does make you think about needs vs. wants, and creature comforts…

To be continued…

Visiting Ellora and Ajanta caves on a backpacker’s dime

The double-bill, heavy-hitters of Maharashtra state’s historic offerings are unquestionably the UNESCO world heritage sites at Ellora and Ajanta. Extraordinary is really the only word that can describe the experience of visiting them.

For our expedition here, which we thought would be a well-worn path, we based ourselves in the nearby city of Aurangabad, assuming it would be a sinch to negotiate; oh how wrong we were. Over the course of our weekend, we plied local buses, where Roman script was as foreign as we were, scrunched into a minivan where even the driver was double-bunked for a time, and stood in the middle of nowhere, in the naked afternoon heat, hoping that the instructions to just ‘wave the bus down’ were not going to result in our stranding.

Fortunately, across the same weekend, we also took in some of the most extraordinary and breathtaking sights we’ve seen on our trip so far. The payoff, in short, was well worth the anxious moments. So, if you’re heading this way, I well recommend a visit, and here’s how we did it.

Firstly though, Aurangabad, unfortunately, was not pleasant. We tried to like it, really we did; maybe we were staying in the wrong location? Either way, we just couldn’t find its redeeming features, its central heart.

It was just a dusty expanse centred around a main road that felt completely pedestrian unfriendly; chaotically busy but with no street life. We ended up leaving on the Sunday night, after the day trip to Ajanta, rather than staying a day longer. Positively, though, we were pretty close to the myriad transport options we utilised, so one silver lining!

Ellora

We day-tripped to Ellora first. In retrospect, I would probably do the visits the other way around, as Ellora is most immediately breathtaking; Ajanta unfurls itself in more subtle revelations.

The 34 caves comprise three groups, Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain, which were constructed concurrently over a period of around four-hundred years, from AD 600. It’s believed to represent the renaissance of Hinduism in India, the subsequent decline of Buddhism, and a brief resurgence of Jainism. The caves line a gentle slope about 2km long, and this allowed their architects to create elaborate courtyards in front of the caves, containing sometimes quite detailed sculptures too.

Jain temple

As this was the closer of the two sites, we didn’t race away at the crack of sparrows to get there, instead getting underway about 10am, which proved enough time. We made our way to the local bus stand, striding passed the bank of tuk-tuk jeeps, which congregate just across the road from where we stayed, and ply the same route. They don’t leave until full though, and, as there was clearly an imbalance of drivers to potential passengers, we gave it a miss.

The folly of our confidence was exposed when we arrived at the bus stand and discovered not a single incidence of familiar, comforting Roman script. Fortunately, our second attempt at asking a bus official resulted in a platform number (12/13) and, as we made our way in that general direction, a local furiously pointing at a departing bus and saying, ‘Ellora, Ellora’. We jumped aboard the quickly moving bus with the confidence of a local (it wasn’t moving that fast), confirmed the destination with the conductor, and, just like that, about 40mins later were at the entrance to Ellora.

The musically eerie chaitya

Exploring the complex is an extraordinary experience and worth savouring over many hours (we were there about six all up). Unfortunately you do enter at the Kailasa Temple, the centerpiece of its appeal, so everything afterwards is slightly less awe-inspiring. However, there are many great moments, from the beautifully intricate and interconnected Jain temples, to a Buddhist assembly hall and a truly atmospheric chaitya.

Chaitya were early versions of Buddhist shrines/prayer halls, and we were incredibly lucky to be in there when a French tour group were creating a drone-like chant, as a demonstration of the astounding acoustics created by its curved, ribbed roof (whether they may have been used for the purposes of music and/or chanting, I’ve not been able to ascertain; missed opportunity if they never realised the possibilities though!)

The extraordinary Kailasa Temple, where everything was sculptured out of a single granite hill

But there’s no getting around it: people are primarily here to see Kailasa, a Hindu temple of such extraordinary scope, ambition, and execution, it’s jaw-dropping once you realise what was achieved.

In one single, continuous sculpting, over a period of about 200 years, the side of an imposing granite hill was literally chiseled away by first creating three deep trenches, leaving more or less an oblong to work with. This was then masterfully woven into a full temple and courtyard surrounded by covered galleries full of sculptured panels. It was definitely one of the temple experiences of all of our travels.

Of the other Hindu caves, we had the fortunate experience to find ourselves momentarily alone in the vast cave #29. It’s the last of the Hindu caves and sits away from the rest of the group, no longer accessible along the path (you have to go around the road). It’s also a few hundred metres south of the Jain temples, so you get the feeling that not so many people bother to make the effort. Which is a shame, as it’s quite different than the rest, so not just another cave; it’s huge and airy, and to find yourself alone within it just adds a further eerie layer, which can’t help but enhance the overall impact.

Returning back to Aurangabad at the end of the day was a little confusing, as we stood out on the main road, surrounded by the throngs of people leaving, wondering where we needed go to find a bus. Before we had a chance to wonder for too long, we were offered seats in tuk-tuk jeep that was going our way and was essentially the same price as the bus (50inr each, as opposed to 40inr), so we enjoyed an interesting ride back with a family from Hyderabad. 

We were to gesture a few words, but otherwise just listened to their very lively conversation and tried to imagine what world-important news they were discussing (or perhaps just the price of the bananas at the market that day, who can tell).

Ajanta

Without doubt, Ajanta is certainly the more picturesque location, the caves running along a steep horseshoe-shaped bend above a river valley. As you walk around you get all sorts of great views, and you can also walk over to the opposite side to see them as the British first laid eyes on them, in 1819.

Ajanta is also much further away from Aurangabad, some 105km along some of the worst roads we’ve had the pleasure of riding (and boy was it a ride!). So, we were up and out the door by 7am, keen to avoid the tour bus groups that arrive around midday.

This time, all prepared for the bus stand, we didn’t even make it inside. Outside of the gate, a man was selling tickets in a proper minivan for 200inr each (NZD $4; not a whole lot more than the bus would have been), so we decided to flag operation ‘which bus to Ajanta please?’ and settle for the easier option. There was the inevitable wait for the van to first fill up, and then fill up some more, but it wasn’t too long before we were underway.

Of course there’s room!

Where I would have put maximum capacity at 18 – four rows of four, plus one in the front plus driver – we ended up squeezing in 20, and a comical game ensured whereby two Muslim ladies shared the front seat, and the driver and another man double-bunked the driver’s seat, making sure at all times to maintain the respectable space required between the genders (no touching, please). Hilarious!

In retrospect, this was a good decision though, as we were outside Ajanta by 10am, and the return bus was a far longer journey.

The Ajanta caves are far older than those at Ellora, with some dating to the second century BC, and it’s believed that the rise of Ellora was actually responsible for the abandonment of Ajanta (interestingly, it also appears that cannabis (well, hemp to be precise) was used in the mixture of plaster and lime at Ellora, which helped to repel insects and has preserved the caves there better too).

Like the Buddhist caves at Ellora, the caves here are temples and shrines, and there are also another couple of fine examples of chaitya. The real reason people visit, though, is to take in the stunning paintings that adorn the inside of many of the caves. There are few other examples of art from this time that are so well preserved, so its value is obvious.

The awe of Ajanta is therefore all about its historical magnitude. To walk around and realise that you are viewing artworks created so long ago is quite a profound feeling. And although there has certainly been degradation, there is also still a lot of beauty and wonderful detail to take in. Some of the caves are so richly detailed and ornate that time really slips away as you first take in the whole, and then explore the wealth of little details contained in the sculpture, architecture and paintings.

The bookends of the experience, caves #1, #2 and #26 were particularly impressive, especially the last, a chaitya, which contained extraordinary sculpture around its perimeter, and the most joyous drag queen-like dwarf/cherub frescoes, who appeared to be doing the heavy lifting, holding up the pillars.

Also of interest was one that was incomplete, containing elaborate pillars and an archway on the outside, but not a lot within. Although containing, therefore, little of artistic value, it was an interesting reminder that these brilliants artists and architects didn’t start their work with prepared canvases; they first had to work them, very hard, into existence.  

To get back to Aurangabad, what we had read online was totally true: you simply cross the road and wait opposite the T Junction, flag down a bus going in the right direction, confirm its destination is Aurangabad, and jump aboard. We didn’t have to wait for too long, but it was in the naked mid-afternoon heat, so if I were to do it again, I’d have a nice new bottle of cool water on hand!

Also, be prepared for the stares from astounded locals wondering why on earth you’re on a local bus and not a tour group like all the other foreigners! The bus back was over three hours of stops and bumps galore, but taking in the otherwordly sparse and arid countryside kept it bearable.

And this really sums up the weekend: Ellora and Ajanta are simply mesmerising experiences, and worth every single moment of awkwardness. Despite this, and the fact of being UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the logistics of getting there and away are not quite set up for self-directed tourists yet, not in a way that makes it truly easy anyway.

It does appear that visitors are by-and-large domestic tourists, foreigners using cars and guides, or people in big tour groups and buses. I guess it’s that thing of chicken or the egg: will demand lead to improved services, or will improved services help to drive increased demand?

Either way, it was by no means impossible to do, just a little bit intrepid, and I’d highly, highly recommend all of the experience, awkwardness and all!

Food in Review I – India so far

A few people have subtly suggested a slight sadness surrounding the lack of fabulous food fables featured on this blog (those same people should be well happy with that run of aimless yet astounding alliteration!).

Admittedly – especially given the name I gave it – I did intend to feature more tales of our giddy gastronomic feasts and adventures on this platform. As it has so far transpired, on the road, it’s been a more natural fit to ‘microblog’ this stuff on Instagram, on the regular, and you really should stalk me there if you’re not already. Like, really.

However, I thought it might be fun to start blogging regular review posts, as a way to collect the ‘best ofs’ together in lip-smacking, saliva-inducing recounts. At the very least, reliving meals past can only be almost as good as actually eating them again!

Since this past week and a bit has been a little unworthy, a little lacking in superlative-bringing gushes, I thought I’d start with a general muse on India thus far, five+ weeks in and – gasp – less than three weeks to go…

Gujarati dal bati (L) and bedai roti shak and shrikhand (R)

One thing definitely holds true of our last visit: there’s no bad meals. That may sound like a contradiction to my previous statement, but no. Even though recent eatings have only really contained one meal that made me gush, everything else is still always completely fine: tasty, filling, satiating. Even a vege pilau on Indian Railways, or a dinner of a roadside samosa on another interminable overnight bus, still tick the required boxes. Eating Indian in India is failsafe.

Train veg biryani

Last time, the only really bad meals I had were attempts at Western (pasta, a burger). I’ve not made the same mistake this time around. The worst I could say is that some places have not been Indian enough, clearly cooking for perceived foreign tastes (or maybe having been scarred by one too many goris/goras complaining about spicy food…oi vey!)

Wondrous dosa, smeared wth chilli (L) and pongal, a spiced, rice pudding, laced with cardamon and coconut-heavy (R).

People often comment about the quality of food in New Zealand, that it tastes more like it’s supposed to, more of itself. I feel the same about food here.

The okra (lady fingers) are local, full and plump, as opposed to imported, limp and sad; the aubergines all small and versatile. The tomatoes, red onions, and chillis; so alive with flavour. The spices, all those magical little jewels of intensity, are here just that much fresher, that much more intense. This makes the masalas they create roast just that little bit toastier, their essential oils released into a gravy that screams: you are eating at source (or close to).

And then there’s the ghee…

Everything is cooked in large batches, too, over proper fires, in proper kadais. It adds depth and smokiness you just can’t replicate in a suburban Auckland kitchen. Sadly.

Ok, I’m getting away with myself. But you get my drift.

Wonderfully, there’s been a number of new food discoveries; the cuisines still have surprises to share.

It started straight away, in Chennai, with tiffin meals containing vege curry heavy on the mint (which so works) and gobi chop (fried cauliflower patties swimming in a spicy gravy), and has continued right up to the recent discovery of gatta, spiced doughy dumplings made with chickpea flour, and a Rajasthani delight.

Gobi chop, and other luscious delights…

We absolutely indulged a full onslaught of its famed cuisine while in Hyderabad, even though, if I’m impartial, our qualitative survey was so limited as to be unreliable. What can I say, we couldn’t resist the magnetic pull of the Grand Hotel; what they did with spice and rice was the stuff of pure magic.

In Goa, I fell under the spell of its astonishingly good quality vegan cafes: the chocolate and mint ganache and that Snickers cheesecake I can still taste on my tongue. But there were new Goan dishes, too: chicken cafreal, a herby green concoction with roots deep in Africa, and balchao, with that characteristic blend of spice and vinegar. There was also THAT biryani experience.

Moving into Maharashtra, and Mumbai, repeated servings of handi, both vege and non-vege, got me hooked on its triple-shot whammy of creamy intensity. There was also the intriguing nachos-like kori rotti, with its crispy rice sheets, and our first definitive taste of Parsi food. Outside of Mumbai, darkly herby methi (fenugreek) chicken and okra stuffed with peanut powder and coconut (stop it!) were revelations.

Kori rotti

Finally, our brief foray into Gujarat opened up a whole new state to taste, although among the most memorable eatings were South Indian dosas and joyous fried potato balls, aloo bonda. However, there was that dal bati, served with crumbs/chunks of wheaten rolls, the spiced roti with local potato curry, and shrikhand, sweetened and spiced hung curd, so thick and luscious. All very, very good.

Speaking of dal, that is among the list of dishes that have been pure joys to be reacquainted with. Dal really is amazing, and we’ve added dal fry, dal tadka, and slightly-sweetened Gujarati dal, as specific new forms to want to recreate (and to say nothing of the coconut-infused Sri Lankan versions, too!). Dosas, in general too. There’ve been some stunners, and I cannot get enough of these rice pancake and curry combos. I must have a dosa pan and batter recipe when I get home, please.

DAL!

Chai has also been a real rediscovery this time around, and I now crave it on the daily (buh-bye coffee habit, for now). Chai is sometimes more peppery, sometimes more gingery, and sometimes laced with cardamon (my preference). It’s as varied and personal as those feverishly guarded masala recipes!

And there were the very specific experiences of that goat curry at Cenora, and that Gujarati thali fit for kings and queens at Samrat, both in Mumbai, that we just had to revisit.

EPIC Gujarati vege thalis!

A final reflection: India really shows you just how easy (and SO deliciously easy) vegetarianism can be. As I remember saying last time, I could happily be a vegetarian in India (and indeed, I am at least 90% so at the moment). It has really solidified a commitment to reducing our meat consumption once home.

The simple truth us, I feel better, lighter (meat sits around in your digestive system for a long time), and, a clincher: vegetarianism is SO much better for the environment. It may not have such a hugely detrimental impact here, but the West’s industrial meat production systems are a  true modern-day horror and a major contributor to climate change. There’s just no getting around it.

Best of all though, I’m feeling majorly inspired to re-establish a kitchen and get cooking! Hope you’re ready for me Wellington…

Postscript: There actually has been one disappointment. Last time we were here, every so often, when needing a little treat, I’d pick up a modest bar of Cadbury Silk chocolate, which had these gorgeous little flecks of candied orange peel throughout. I’m not a fan of orange-flavoured chocolate (those damn Terry’s chocolate oranges can take a flying leap…), but this was something else.

Sadly, while Cadbury Silk is still here, it appears India did not share my enthusiasm for the bar, as it’s obviously been discontinued. RIP Cadbury Orange Silk. My blood sugar levels do not mourn your passing…

NB: Bars are 60gms; this is not, I repeat NOT, a family sized affair…

On Mumbai and why we decided to do a ‘slum tour’.

Taking part in a so-called ‘slum tour’ is not the kind of tourist activity you simply stumble into, or at least it shouldn’t be. To get to the point of handing over money, you are forced to reckon with a pretty simple question, but one that can bring huge moral confliction.

We ummed and ahhed for ages over this decision, both times we’ve been in this captivating city. The first time, our sheer exhaustion and the monsoonal weather made the decision for us: it’s a no for you. This time, with nary a drop of rain on the horizon, and no exhaustion or Delhi belly apparent, we had to finally confront the question: to tour or not to tour.

The ‘slum’ is called Dharavi, a city-within-a-city of around a million residents living within less than a square mile. It’s the third largest ‘slum’ in the world, after having been ‘downgraded’ because the government’s attempts to build apartment blocks for its residents is starting to gain some real momentum.

Dharavi was made famous by the movie Slumdog Millionaire, which in turn created the demand for people wanting to visit in the first place. It has been both a blessing and a curse: a curse because it popularised the image of Dharavi as a ‘slum’ to a global audience (and let’s be honest, wanting to visit can certainly be considered a kind of ‘poverty porn’); but a blessing because, funneled correctly, the money paid for tours can be used to benefit its community members.

(BTW: I’ve put quotation marks around the word slum because, as we would come to learn, locals view Dharavi as simply another suburb, in a city where an estimated 60% of residents live in similar communities. For locals, the word slum conjures up images of suburbs controlled by violence, crime and Mafia-like gangs, which Dharavi is not.)

The emotive tooing and frooing of trying to make a decision strikes right at the heart of one of tourism’s most fundamental ethical quandaries: are these sorts of activities a legitimate experience, or simply the exploitation of people powerless and without voice in the process of commercialising their apparent poverty?

In the end, after a lot of reading, we decided to do a tour.

We decided to not because we felt like it would provide a kind of life-altering experience; that we would come away with some kind of profound and uplifting revelation about life and existence.

I don’t think I’m being too arrogant when I say that I think we were already pretty realistic about life in Dharavi; that, although obviously challenging, it is also a functioning community, where families are made, live, laugh and find joy. We’re not the type to fetishise other people’s realities. They are what they are, and for all the ways that societies differ, there are also universal human similarities. We weren’t trying to purchase any kind of smug moral satisfaction, either for us or on behalf of the residents of Dharavi.

We decided to do the tour primarily for two reasons. Firstly, the company, Mystical Mumbai, is a something of a social enterprise, putting money back into the community via education projects and hiring local college students as guides (they do all sorts of tours), allowing them to invest in their own futures. In addition, the company was started by two brothers, determined to support their family after their father had to have a bypass in his mid-40s, and they didn’t want him to return to work; a worthy cause within itself.

The clincher, however, was actually quite simple: no cameras are allowed, which means no photos, which means no Instagram selfie hunters. The company is happy to send you some photos afterwards, but this means, in turn, that they are able to exercise a degree of control over the imagery of Dharavi put into the public sphere. To me, this is a great mark of respect for the dignity of residents as well, so we were in…

I’m really glad we did it.

Certainly, as you stand on the train overpass about to enter, Dharavi is quite an imposing sight. You can’t not notice its scale, obvious density and informality. As expected, however, Dharavi is like the city that surrounds it: a bustling centre of industry supported by all the goods and services that cater to and add to this. Truth be told, in our sometimes random ambling about India, we’ve wandered into and through plenty of suburbs and lanes that didn’t feel a whole lot less informal than Dharavi.

Our guide, Nick, a ship navigator when not in town and helping out his brother with the business, was really very knowledgeable, as you would expect of a third generation resident (another myth dispelled: residents are not trying to ‘get out’; why would they want to leave their communities?). He was neither trying to present an overly rosy picture to overcompensate, nor trying to rouse first-world pity; it was quite matter of fact.

And the fact of the matter is that, inside Dharavi, quite astonishing things are happening.

We learnt about how plastics are brought in for recycling, cleaned and graded, transformed into raw materials (in Dharavi designed and made machines), and then turned into products like string and rope, and used in the construction of a range of luggage products, for example. Elsewhere, discarded cardboard boxes are imported from overseas, re-covered again and again for reuse, until they are thick enough to be covered in tarpaulin and used in housing construction. In a similar sense, large paint cans can be cleaned, stripped and reused nine times before being cut, flattened, and used to make wall panelling.

We saw many examples of human ingenuity. If necessity is the mother of all invention, then Dharavi has a thing or two it could teach people of the world about both!

Aside from re- and up-cycling initiatives, Dharavi is also famous for its pottery and leather work. The pottery is pretty straight forward – three grades of clay are imported, moulded into a range of products, fired and sent to market – while the leathering process more complex and the results unquestionably more stunning. The gorgeous range of bags, satchels, jackets, belts, shoes and so on are made in both Dharavi’s own brand as well as sold to other companies to be rebranded.

The result of all this industry is that Dharavi’s economic activity is worth an estimated 650 million-1 billion US dollars annually, a lucrative source of income and jobs and taxable activity.

Therefore, as Nick explained, far from the idea of a ‘slum’ lacking basic facilities, it is actually in the government’s interest to ensure Dharavi has regular and secure utilities. Power is consistent, as industry runs 24 hours a day, and while water is available for a few hours per day, residents know the time period they have to shower, wash and fill storage to last them. ‘If you don’t have something whenever you want it, you learn not to take it for granted,’ Nick said matter of factly.

Aside from all this industry, we wandered through its streets and markets, and were just in time to see school finish for the day, the streets becoming a rush of manic youthful energy accompanied by harried parents; as it is the world over.

Finally, Nick also showed us the ongoing government regeneration project that is slowly providing residents with a more secure form of property. It was started in the early 2000s and sees new apartment blocks built, which residents own outright and which provides them with significantly more space and obvious improvements especially in sanitation matters.

The hindrance has been that every single property owner must agree to be rehoused before the land can be cleared and building begins (and these are property owners, with ownership rights over their lands). It’s fair to say that it’s taken time to build up the trust required; that residents can trust that they are not going to be evicted and left stranded (residents are housed in quality temporary apartment blocks, close by, while construction takes place).

With more and more new blocks being completed now, and improvements to residents’ quality of life so clearly visible, the barriers are slowly coming down and construction ramping up. Nick and his whanau (family) are hopeful that, soon enough, their time will come.

Let’s hope so.

(endnote: it should be pointed out that the rehousing policy, and the degree to which the future of Dharavi’s residents are being centred in the process, as opposed to other actors, i.e. private developers eyeing up a hugely lucrative block of Mumbai’s scarce land supply, is most definitely up for debate.)

(with obvious thanks to Mystical Mumbai for the pictures that accompany this post)

Four nights in shimmering Mumbai

Mumbai is India’s most alluring, most intoxicating city, where upwards of twenty million people are crowded onto an island at a rate of 21,000 people per sq/km (or 53,000 per sq/mile). It’s the place where the country’s richest live, and also some of its most destitute. And whether Bollywood superstar, industrial mega barron, of the emerging middle classes and comfortably enjoying the city’s preeminent role as financial hub, or hustling merely to survive (and perhaps not), it feels like the city and its residents have a relentless energy and industrious nature that is unavoidable.

You do not come here if you’re looking for a quiet or easy life; this is not a current you can swim against. You either jump in and get stroking, or Mumbai will swallow you whole. Despite this, like all global cities, people keep on coming, drawn in my the lure of possibility; many spat out in the churn…

But Mumbai has been attracting people from all over India, and beyond, for a long, long time. During the days of Empire, it was transformed into the centre of British East India on the west coast, and became a major international trading port.

As a result, Mumbai looks diverse, its people a representation of India’s true ethnic diversity (and the rather whimsical but still fascinating clay figure displays of Mumbai’s residents at the City of Mumbai museum show just how much of a people magnet the city has been over time).

Also during the days of Empire, Mumbai was transformed physically. I knew that Mumbai was originally seven islands and that, through a process of land reclamation, they had been merged into one. But, again through the City of Mumbai museum, I learnt just how distinct those islands had originally been, containing multiple European settlements, and just how much reclamation had to take place from the late-18th century to create the form familiar to us today (although this wasn’t finally achieved until early last century, when further reclamation created the very distinctive Victorian vs. Deco era shorelines that are part of its appeal).

Mumbai is the only place I’ve visited in India, apart from maybe Bangalore, maybe Kolkata, where I’ve felt I could realistically – as opposed to romantically/fancifully – live. I thought this the first time I visited, in 2013, and I thought this again when we recently visited for four nights.

There is a growing sense of international cosmopolitanism here, and it is changing rapidly, yet it is still very definitely India at its best (and worst). It is both the country’s future, yet its past remains ever present. In short, as I said at the outset, there is something undeniably alluring about Mumbai’s unique mix of people, architecture, history and culture.

Here’s what we got up to during our four-day stay…

Historic walking tour

We started our first day with a half-day, self-directed walking tour around the areas of Fort/Churchgate/Colaba, Mumbai’s colonial heart. We started at the waterfront, famous India Gate and Taj Hotel, and then wound our way through streets with eyes wide open and heads up, as there is a lot to see.

Essentially there are three major themes: some of the most gorgeous colonial architecture of anywhere we’ve visited, concentrated into a small area on what was the original shoreline; a likewise concentration of Deco-era architecture, most of which are in its rows of apartment buildings that were constructed after the 1920s reclamation; and the visible manifestations of present day Mumbai’s new cosmopolitanism, as galleries, cafes and eateries, bars and boutiques fill the old and renovated buildings around its grand old financial institutions.

This is the city’s hip, young face, and it was interesting to see it rubbing right up against the older, more stereotypical scenes of streetwalas, street food vendors, and literal hole-in-the-wall shops. I suspect this collision won’t be permanent, with the old eventually giving way for the new (or being pushed out in the inevitable process of gentrification that is clearly taking place; I don’t know that India is that unique to achieve a different outcome to everywhere else this has taken/is taking place).

Markets and bazaars

Mumbai has a particularly vibrant market and bazaar district, a few hundred metres north of the grand Victoria CSMT terminus. The district houses the famous Crawford Market, built in 1869, which is home to a dizzying array of goods, from fresh grocery items, meat, and even a giant pet store. It’s fairly labyrinthine, especially inside, where the imported goods, spices, cosmetics and other household goods stalls are all lined up, gleaming and glistening, and vying for your attention (and rupees).

I, of course, was particularly drawn to the spices, nuts and dried fruits, and the ludicrous displays of imported chocolates, in seemingly every flavour, colour and from every continent!

The crazed hub of commerce only continued across the road, as we disappeared into the truly labyrinthine tangle of bazaars, the place to come for fine silks and materials, among every other possible need or want (or so it felt like).

There is something quite otherworldly about the Indian bazaar; there’s no retail experience you’ve grown up with (if presumably from the West) that comes anywhere close to quite the same look and feel. The further in you go, the more and more the lanes tighten and the building loom overhead, like menacing waves threatening to topple in and take you down. It is quite exhilarating, especially if busy, which it was just coming into as we made our early evening escape.

Marine Drive

One of Mumbai’s jewels, the result of the 1920s reclamation, Marine Drive is super popular with locals, who promenade, exercise, socialise, and take selfies in droves every night along its expansive arc, which leads all the way to Chowpatty Beach. Adding to the atmosphere of watching the sun set over its horizon, it’s lined with gorgeously faded chic, Deco-era apartment buildings.

The whole experience is a calming balm for frazzled big city souls. We were there wandering two nights in a row at about the same time, and, astoundingly, recognised some familiar faces (older retired couples with distinctive dogs, some runners, a particularly flamboyantly dressed local gent, and a middle-aged, executive-looking type, out for his evening walk, who said ‘good evening’ to us both nights). How lovely it would be, I thought, to become one of the Marine Drive ‘locals’!

Girgaon and surrounds

At the far end of Marine Drive is Chowpatty Beach, which is where the district of Girgaon is located. Originally sparsely populated, with people living by agricultural means, it developed rapidly in the 19th century, as it became integrated into Bombay itself (connected via roads and, eventually, rail), and witnessed a huge influx of people.

The result was a hugely diverse population, with each community (from different states/kingdoms, followers of different religions) occupying a different ‘wadi’ and maintaining their own cultural practices.

One of the most famous ‘wadi’ (for tourists, anyway) is Khotachiwadi, a small enclave famed for its Portuguese-style wooden architecture and a little pocket of remaining Catholic Mumbai. We managed to find it, with Lonely Planet’s instructions bang on, thankfully: find St. Theresa’s Church, head down the road immediately opposite, and take the third lane to the left; a most Indian set of location instructions, as places here are usually identified by what landmark they are close to.

It’s pretty small, but we enjoyed wandering about its lanes and the whole area. What was particularly noticeable is how these wadi are now set right up against the encroaching march of skyscrapers (these are particularly desirable locales). Again, Mumbai’s past and future are clashing in the present; a desire to maintain face-to-face with the need to future-proof. It’s an interesting battle we’ve seen play out in many places we’ve visited.

For a bit of contrast to the tightly packed throng of humanity, we wandered up to and around the Malabar Hill district, one of the city’s most prestigious neighbourhoods. Time prevented us from getting right up in this area’s grill, but the contrast was pretty apparent.

Sitting in the borderlands between Girgaon and Malabar Hill sits the world’s most expensive private residential ‘house’, Antilla, which is actually a 27-level building, and a garish temple to obscene wealth in a city where the contrast could not be more extreme. I actually thought the building, ugly in what it symbolises, was pretty ugly in appearance too; the nicest thing I could say was the green foliage that clings to its lower levels is rather pretty. I hope the 600+ staff that help to maintain it are paid well, at least.

Up in Malabar, we took in some gloriously sweeping views of the city stretching back south, and walked passed the eerie Parsi/Zoroastrian compound. Non-Zoroastrians are never allowed to enter these buildings and I’m quite amazed we were able to freely walk passed, although it was deathly deserted. In saying that, we were certainly unable to get anywhere near the mysterious Tower of Silence, where followers are laid out to be eaten by vultures, as part of their death rituals. That it is so inaccessible to outsiders, of course, only makes it all the more intriguing, to me anyway.

The city’s biggest washing machine

North of the main tourist areas sits Dobi Ghat, which is known as the city’s largest human-powered washing machine; how poetic. It’s quite a sight, though: rows and rows and rows of clothes and linens, billowing in the breeze; industrial-sized quantities of washing being aired and sun-dried (I assume it is hotels and so on sending loads of laundry here, as opposed to locals dropping off a bag of smalls).

Beneath the lines is where the washing takes place, in giant vats and tumbling machines being manned by people who must be among the cleanest in the world, swimming in suds all day.

It’s easily accessed on a trip to the City of Mumbai museum (catch the train to essentially outside the museum’s entrance, or Uber there, as we did), walk across to the Ghat (a 10-15 min stroll; you view it from a rail overbridge), walk back and jump on the train back to CSMT (outside of peak times, the train is actually not that packed, there’s no clinging to the sides necessary here!). Easy.

Galleries and museums

Speaking of museums, there’s an avalanche of cultural institutions here! The unfathomably large, grand main museum – it’s known by a couple of names – is no doubt worth your time. We decided against it, as we’ve been to many a museum here now, and this seemed to be more collections and galleries of what which we have already repeatedly experienced.

Instead, we prioritised the City of Mumbai Museum, and I’m so glad we did. It’s housed in a glorious Victorian era building, built after the 1851 World Exhibition to be Bombay’s museum, and was modelled after London’s mesmerising V&A Museum.

The curation is pretty interesting: a lot of its narrative is told visually (lots of dioramas), and at first I thought I wasn’t getting a lot out of it. But I realised that I had absorbed a lot about the city’s history this way – its peoples, its industries, its almost unbelievable geographical change – without the usual panels of facts and figures and photos, and so on.

Even better, there was a fantastic art exhibition woven through the museum, in which contemporary artists were asked to produce work that considered textiles, and their complicated history with notions of art, trade, culture, and colonisation. There was a lot of thought-provoking and beautiful work.

And on art, we spent hours soaking up some of India’s finest contemporary art and artists. The DAG Modern, an offshoot of the institution started in Delhi in 1993 and sitting right in the middle of Mumbai’s new cosmopolitanism, and the older Jehangir Art Gallery, were both showing incredible retrospectives; the former national in scale, the latter focused solely on local art and artists. And if that’s not enough, the National Gallery of Modern Art is within the neighbourhood too. Unfortunately, it was all but closed, with only one not particularly interesting looking exhibition showing, so we have it a miss.

Dharavi – the ‘slum’ tour

Finally, apart from all the other just wandering about, soaking up the visual, aural feast, and eating food glorious food, meal after meal, the other activity we did while in town, was to take in a tour of Dharavi, the so-called slum, but I’ve got a separate post about that, coming shortly.

Why Goa is India’s must-do state…

India’s smallest state – by far – is curiously wonderful; a literal island I would argue, surrounded by sea on one side and foreign states on all others. Goa is the result of a unique history that stretches back millennia, but in a contemporary sense certainly back to the moment Portuguese navigator Vasco de Gama stepped ashore in India, in 1498. de Gama came in search of trade relationships, namely spices, but his opening up of a sea route to Asia set in motion a course that forever changed, well, not only Goa, but the world really.

We’ve visited Goa twice; the first time in 2013, where we took in its Northern and Central zones, while just recently we spent a relaxing week in the South. In my mind, this is a logical way to view Goa, as offering three quite distinct coastal experiences. The North and South offer different beach atmospheres, while the centre is where its fascinating historic heart lies.

That the attraction and memories of Goa remain so strong after five years is an illustration of just how affecting it was; the recent visit only compounding and extending the allure. You can believe the hype this time: it’s well deserved. I can understand why northern hemisphere types return again and again, establishing almost familial relationships with some of Goa’s charismatic locals.

With both visits I’ve come away thinking that locals see themselves as Goan first, Indian second.

Postcolonial identities are complex and it’s dangerous to generalise, but you do get the sense that the state having never fallen to the British, remaining Portuguese until well after independence (it officially joined the union only in 1961), is a fact that Goans can point to as a point of difference. For better or worse, 400 years as a Portuguese colony created a vastly different culture and society than 200 years as part of the British Empire.

Secretly, I reckon that at least some Goans consider it for the better, something held apart from ‘India’ as a matter of pride. After all, pork, to a lesser extent beef, and certainly alcohol, are markers of Goan-ness that stand in stark contrast to (most of) the rest of the nation.

The people are different, Goa feels different, it looks different. Leaving on a late Sunday afternoon, driving up admittedly chaotic roads, I still noticed people sitting on their verandahs, chatting to visitors, enjoying a long Sunday lunch perhaps. And I wondered whether, like the other southern states in some respects, people here take a bit more time to enjoy each other and just being, rather than the seemingly relentless focus on the hustle that seems to characterise their northern country folk. There’s a bit more a feel of island time here, hence the characterisation of Goa as an island.

I could be, of course, am likely to be, simply romanticising, over-simplifying, and being offensive to the actual complexity of present day Goa. Evidently, the notion of what constitutes a Goan identity certainly attracts a lot of attention and discussion. But put that to one side, if you must, and trust me on the three zones thing…

The North is the Goa you’ve most likely heard about. It’s the Goa that has the reputation as mixing beautiful beaches with hedonistic partying, where you come to drop out for a bit, take acid and rave to Goan trance (yes, it’s its own genre). In addition, there’s remnants of its hippie history, and of course it draws in the yoga retreatests.

We actually never saw this, arriving well outside international tourist season (May!), and from what we understand, the ‘scene’ has been somewhat quashed in recent years. However, it is certainly the most hip and happening part of the state, where you come to beach during the day, socialise by night.

It’s centred around Baga and Calangute, and essentially, the further you spiral out and away from this centre, the quieter and more chillaxed its beaches and atmosphere becomes.

We started in Baga/Calangute, enjoying the buzzy vibe of coastal India in full domestic tourism season (school holidays), its beaches and streets lined and primed for everything you could need to fulfill your holiday desires. Long languid days at the beach, rotating between swimming and sunning on loungers with a drink, ending with a likely generic but actually still pretty tasty dinner, at any one of many identical-looking internationalised restaurants, and you’ve got yourself a pretty failsafe rinse and repeat holiday diary.

We did make time in this busy schedule though, for an afternoon’s walk up to the giant Fort Aguada at the southern end of the Baga/Calangute stretch.

Anjuna market

We then moved north to Anjuna, original home of the hippies and the infamous Wednesday flea market. It’s still a worthy spot, even if it’s a bit more hippy chic nowadays. Because it was literally the end of the season – Anjuna was already very quiet – we didn’t bother moving north again, but explored other beaches – Vagator and Chapora – on a long day trip, bookending our Northern stay with a second fort at the northern tip of Chapora.

Speaking of day trips, the North is serviced by the town of Mapusa, and we enjoyed a day trip there as a beach reprieve, taking in its bustling Friday market, full of seafood, Goan sausages, and uniquely Goan baked delights, as well as the usual market action.

Goan sausages, and the fierce market laydeez…
Panjim. Gorgeous.

Whether going North, South, or both, a stay in Central Goa and its historic heart is a must. Panjim is a wonderfully easy breezy state capital; by far India’s most relaxed. We spent a truly pleasant few days there, ambling about and soaking up its achingly beautiful streets and pousadas, rich in colour and history.

From here you can also visit old Goa, the original capital of Portuguese India. Once a thriving city of 200,000 (larger than both London and Lisbon at the time), it is now nothing more than its astonishing collection of churches and cathedrals in a sea of palm trees. It gives you a hint of just how important and wealthy it was, before repeated malaria and cholera epidemics saw the capital shift to Panjim. It’s a completely unique experience, and a fascinating outing.

Old Goa in a sea of palm.

Southern Goa, where we’ve just been, really struck a chord. As ‘mature’ tourists, no longer necessarily looking for the party, it’s hands down the place we would most return to in the future. In a state that is, comparatively speaking, pretty chillaxed anyway, the South takes it one step further off the throttle (probably a few steps); the place where Goans go to escape their own rat race!

Like the North, the South is serviced by a market town, Margao, a main stop on the Konkan rail line (we first arrived here from Delhi, and boarded the train to Mumbai here too). Sadly, we only drove through on the bus; arriving into Panjim on an overnight from Hyderabad, we local bussed it to Margao then onto Palolem. But it looked like an appealing place to while away half a day, exploring its historic colonial remnants – old mansions, churches and municipal buildings – while seeing to some life admin.

Further mirroring the North, Southern beach activity is centred in Palolem and again becomes further chilled as you spiral outwards. We spent four glorious days in Palolem, alternating between relaxing in our villa, situated in a quiet coconut grove, relaxing on the beach, swimming, and eating and drinking its astonishingly good range of offerings, from excellent local cuisine to its growing number of lush vegan hangouts, and I say that as someone usually adverse to places that are this-free, that-free. Some of the best eatings were had there. We explored neighbouring beaches Patnem and Rajbag as well; respectively more family-oriented and almost gloriously deserted by comparison.

This daily pattern simply continued for a further three nights in Agonda, which makes Palolem look like a bustling metropolis. We ambled about just that little bit slower, we breathed just that little bit slower, we cared about the world’s problems just that little bit less. It was a glorious end to a week’s much needed wind down, before winding right back up to hit India’s most enigmatic city: Mumbai.

To be continued…

 

Unexpected surprises in India’s southern megatropoli*: Hyderabad

We rattled into Hyderabad’s Deccan train station right on time at 8.30am, having just had our first Indian Railways experience of the trip. It was pleasant; we travelled in pseudo style: AC 2-tier, which means your carriage is fully air-conditioned, you’re seated in curtained compartments comprising two benches that transform into two bunks (hence the two tier), and you’re very much travelling with India’s middle classes. It does not, however, guarantee a clean toilet by morning; nothing ever does. That’s just a bonus, if it happens.

We shared our compartment with two young people, who it appeared were travelling for work. It may have also been their first time travelling AC 2-tier, such was the novelty value they were seemingly getting from the experience. There was little interaction between us, though, and an early night led to a surprisingly good night’s sleep (surprising because I usually lie awake for an age worrying that each bump & rattle might be the train careening off a bridge or some other such unlikely, overly-Hollywood scenario!).

Decamping from our sea blue and dark blue liveried bubbles, Hyderabad was immediately unexpected. The platform was clean and empty, almost eerily so. It was also cold; locals were buttoned up like they were in the mountains. Out onto the street, we expected hustle, we expected bustle, we expected to find somewhere where we could hang out for a bit and have breakfast, while waiting to check in at 10.30am. Instead, by India standards anyway, the streets were deserted, shops mostly closed. Had we stepped into a parallel dimension?

Fortunately, as in Chennai, food set all in order, as we stumbled across a place buzzing with locals, which turned out to be a bit of an institution and serving up deliciousness since the 1930s. It was our first taste of Hyderabad’s famed cuisine, its rice, biryanis and curries so sublimely fragrant, fused with an inexplicable je ne sais quoi, that we returned not once, but every night we were in town.

There are two other key impressions that Hyderabad imprinted in us. Its Islamic-ness came first, unsurprisingly, having undergone a succession of Muslim rulers since the 14th century. Under the last of those rulers, the Asaf Jahis, made hugely and fabulously wealthy from a bounty of precious resources, the state of Hyderabad rose to become the centre of Islamic India’s cultural, educational and artistic development, and although effectively under British control, retained nominal and proud independence right the way through to 1947.

This history is imprinted on the city’s landscape, from historic architecture to contemporary architecture, from the names of businesses lit brightly, to its people and their dress. There feels an absence of the Hindu nationalist narrative here, minimal Hindu templage, and I sensed this was not a mere coincidental quirk, but rather more deliberately planned. As you might expect.

On our first day, we headed west to the incredibly impressive tombs of the Qutb Shahis, the third-to-last of the Muslim dynasties. The 21 tombs and mosques (and a few tanks/water channels) are currently in the process of being renovated and transformed into an historical park. If done right, it could be one of Hyderabad’s major attractions of the future (if not India’s), and it felt quite a privilege to wander about and see the transformation in motion; some before, some after.

Adding to the possibility of its future popularity, the tombs sit only two kms north of the Colconda Fort, the remains of a giant citadel atop a granite hill, built by the Qutb Shahis in the 16th century. From the top, you look down on its crumbling old palace walls, mighty ramparts, and further fortifications that ring around it for 11kms. You also get sweeping views of Hyderabad, the Deccan hills and the nearby tombs. The crazy degree of Insta-selfie-ing going on was somewhat understandable given its breathtaking panorama.

Day two added to the first, as we took in the old city around Charminar. The giant landmark from which its name comes, was built in 1591, by one of the Qutb Shahs, to commemorate the founding of Hyderabad, and the end of water shortage-induced epidemics that had undermined Golconda’s continued existence.

All around it, the city’s Islamic past-present continues, in its lanes and bazaars, 10,000 worshipper mecca masjid (mosque), and the Chowmahalla Palace, from where the city’s final Muslim dynasty were evidently quite fabulous!

If Hyderabad’s mighty Islamic independence represents one face of the city, then its more recent emergence as an IT super-centre is its other. On our last full day, we headed northwest, not to see a Karkrashian, but to HITEC City (its actual name, an acronym for Hyderabad’s Information Technology and Engineering Consultancy).

It was probably not as gleaming glass towers as I was expecting, but the scale of the existing IT ‘campuses’, as well as all the industry and services surrounding them, and the scale of ongoing construction, was pretty mind-blowing (so wild that we just had to stop at the equally gigantic IKEA for sadly only the normal-sized famous meatballs, done Indian-style). At ground level, it was still urban India, but rising everywhere are concrete and glass behemoths, indicators of where new dynasties are being formed.

It’s no surprise, then, that the scale of wealth being created is super vast, enormous, completely eclipsing what we were expecting to see in Cyberabad, as its become known. Most tellingly, and illustrating its creep, it’s visible in the seemingly endless procession of malls, giant boutiques, car dealers, and all the other ‘experience industries’ that have popped up to soak up disposable income, which followed us along the under-construction and equally vast metro system, all the way to the edge of the city, as we left on our overnight, beach-seeking bus…

* I’m aware that megatropolis comes from metropolis, and metropolis in plural form is metropoles. Megatropoles doesn’t work for me and, since this my party, megatropoli it is, so don’t @ me, ‘mmmkay?!

Unexpected surprises in India’s southern megatropoli*: Chennai

Unexpected is the perfect word to describe our reasonably quick jaunts through India’s southern urban powerhouses: Chennai and Hyderabad. Our first time on the subcontinent, we’d spent a single night transferring through Chennai, on our way to Kolkata; Hyderabad we could only wave at from a great distance, as the train took us north. So both were new, and both great baptisms by fire for our much anticipated return to India.

They both contained versions of India we weren’t quite expecting to see, although in retrospect both were exactly what we should have anticipated: remnants of Empires in Chennai, and the dual (possibly contradictory forces) of IT and Islam’s great historical imprint in Hyderabad.

We noticed it our first night walking around Egmore: old churches; a few of them. I guess it shouldn’t have been too surprising. Madras, as it was known, was the key British port of colonial India’s southwest coast, and its close proximity to the French-occupied territory made it strategically important to keep bolstered and strong in appearance. Our proximity to the centre of colonial Madras made it obvious that this was once the home of a great many colonists.

I contemplated this – the long, long tail of European colonialism – as we sat in a church, watching Christian Indians worship in a way we are more used to seeing in temples. Their worship, although still reverentially silent, is much more physical, though, touching shrines and idols as prayers are offered.

The next day we continued our history tour, taking in the Government Museum, the old city and the fort. The museum is in Egmore, housed in the sprawling British-built Pantheon complex. The architecture of its collection of buildings alone makes it a worthy meander, but the oddball collections also make it appealing (the Brits did lurve their taxidermy, and it’s on full display here, that’s all I’m saying).

The fort, by contrast, was not entirely worth the effort: it was hard to find, hard to get into, and, given that it houses much of Tamil Nadu’s state government offices – hence the security – didn’t offer a whole lot of exploration. There was no walking on fort walls here.

However, it does hold St. Mary’s church. Completed in 1680, it’s the oldest surviving British church in India. It was stunning inside, reeking of its history, and replete with plaques noting the colonial elites who served mother Britain. Similarly, the gravestone-plaques outside on the ground, offer a more immediately accessible record of people who passed even earlier than 1680!

The centre of old Madras still contains some stunning examples of colonial-era architecture: grand symbols of former power. They still sit relatively unobscured, even as bustling street-level Chennai is being transformed by its subway system, making them appear almost monumental. Sadly, the Madras High Court, reputedly the biggest justice building in the world – it stretches for blocks – is hidden behind walls and trees, with only its minaret-like, deep-red spires poking up into the sky.

George Town is the pulsating tangle of bazaars that, like all old colonial centres here, rubs right up against its former power centre. And like all bazaars, it’s a pleasantly chaotic experience wandering aimlessly through its electronics lane, its produce lane, its wedding card street. So long as you stay out people’s way, no one seems to really mind the strange people ambling about their neighbourhood.

But amongst this freneticism, we found an unexpected place of temporary reprieve. In 2013, we’d found a similar place, in the tangle of old bazaars in Kolkata, so we at least knew that there was a history of Armenians who came to colonial-era India. But there, in the middle of a marketplace, a ramshackle gate announed an Armenian church; we decided to investigate.

The gate was obscured almost invisible behind the volume and movement of the street; we could have easily missed it. But nonetheless we found ourselves in the middle of a perfectly preserved Armenian church, courtyard, and the same gravestone-plaques we’d seen at St. Mary’s; evidence of those who made the crazily brave voyage.

There was a maintenance man there to show us around – there always is – and he said it is still used, but there are only a few Armenian families left now, so what exactly it’s used for, I have no idea. But it was a fascinating and unexpected find, and, since they are all but gone now, an honest glimpse into something truly past.

On our second day we went south to Mylapore, which is the actual old city, and existed for hundreds of years before the Portuguese arrived. There, we finally had a Hindu temple experience. Kapaleeshwarar, dedicated to Shiva, was built after the Portuguese destroyed the original seaside temple in 1566. In contrast to other Hindu temple experiences, which can be overly bewildering and chaotic, this was a relatively calming wander about.

Frighteningly, though, the huge tank next door – temple tanks apparently acting as good barometers of overall storage health – laid very bare Chennai’s alarmingly dropping water table (all over the city we’d seen water trucks making deliveries; water has become a private enterprise it seems).

Coincidentally, from 1523, the Portuguese constructed a giant Roman Catholic cathedral on the seaside, where, apparently, St. Thomas the Apostle, he who brought Christanity to India, died in AD72 (there is a relic of his nose bone in a tomb below, so it is an important pilgrimage spot). It was rebuilt in neo-Gothic style in 1896 and remains a strikingly dominant feature of the south part of Marina Beach.

But the best find was our last. Inland from Mylapore sits the Luz Church, which, built in 1516, is Chennai’s oldest remaining European building. It’s a lovely wee church, stonewashed white and blue and Baroque in style. The story goes that a Portuguese ship was returning from Malacca, in 1500, and was tossed into a hurricane. Lost, disoriented, they suddenly they see a light, which they follow to land, and then onwards, through thick jungle, until it disappears in the spot the church now stands. Luz Church (luz=light) commemorates this miraculous occurrence.

Up next: Hyderabad’s glorious Islamic past-present and its IT-led future.

* I’m aware that megatropolis comes from metropolis, and metropolis in plural form is metropoles. Megatropoles doesn’t work for me and, since this my party, megatropoli it is, so don’t @ me, ‘mmmkay?!

On the re-turn towards India

We’ve been in India for about a week and a half now, and what’s been surprising is how quickly we’ve (re)adapted to the patterns of daily life here. It’s like we’ve picked up exactly where we left off; well, except minus the fatigue, frustration and sheer exhaustion that had us racing aboard our decontaminated Swiss Air flight that late Mumbai night in July 2013, after three months here.

I guess it’s true what they say: time has a way of layering rose-tinted glasses over our memories, smoothing out the roughest of edges so only dreamy nostalgia remains at the surface. Dig deeper, however…

Our flight from Sri Lanka was a short hop. Getting into and out of the respective airports on both sides took far, far longer than the 1hr 20m flight. The flight was, though, long enough to unleash waves of both excitement and anxiety coursing through my electro-impulses: excitement because I knew the contact high that was awaiting us, its intoxicating masala; anxiety because I equally knew all the ways that the next two months were going to test every fibre of patience in my being, of having to accept that things would not necessarily pan out in ways you would expect.

The flabbergastingly bureaucratic and illogical check-out of Sri Lanka and check-in to India were thus a great early lesson in patience and just taking life as it is here. At least that’s what I told myself.

The upshot, though, was rather than an afternoon of leisurely acclimatisation before hitting the ground running for a two-day race through Chennai, it was nearer 6pm by the time we rode the city’s impressive new Metro to Egmore, where we were staying, checked in to our accommodation, and were finally ready to get intoxicated.

Food is a great way to make everything all right with the world (conversely, for me, a bad meal while travelling tends to make me mourn a missed opportunity). So, making all right with the world became priority numero uno. Fortunately, I had already thought ahead – I must have known – and managed to work out that a Chennai institution, Hotel Saravana Bhavan, now located in many global cities, was mere minutes walk away.

And oh what a reintroduction: the cauliflower patty smothered in tangy tomato-y curry, the thick lentil sambar, the creamy coconut sambal, the vege curry with mint, the doughy paratha to swoop it all up; all the flavours and nuances that you just don’t get anywhere but here, in close proximity to the ingredient sources.

Afterwards, walking around the streets, I noticed that both excitement and anxiety had evaporated, replaced instead with a reassuring kind of familiarity: we were back in urban India, and I know this place, I know how it works.

I know how to navigate footpaths that are part missing concrete blocks, part broken concrete blocks, part darting around piles of dirt and/or rubbish, and part walking on the road itself. I know how to cross roads that don’t have actual lanes, but are instead comprised of manically weaving motorbikes, cars, tuk-tuks, buses, and trucks, all beeping incessantly to let you know both that they’re there and that they see you.

The stares? Meh, hardly even register them anymore, although the first few requests for photos did catch me off guard. I’d forgotten about the apparent novelty appeal of selfies with goris (white people) for some young men here. I wonder if I’ve gone viral without me knowing?

And, beyond navigation, this sense of familiarity and confidence extended to the sights and smells, both good and bad. The wonderfully chaotic marketplaces that come alive at night, where street food walas hustle alongside piles of fruit and vegetables and stalls selling all manner of small household items, jewellery, and phone accessories, outside of shops selling the same service clustered together, so you go to this street for fabrics, and this street for photo frames and gaudy neon-lit Hindu deities (that I low-key love).

The eateries fronted by men hotplating rotis, or stretching out naan dough, the food, the incense, the jasmine, the urine, the pungent smell of slightly rotting food, the stagnant water that contains some kind of fecal matter, the marginalised people who you know probably have literally nothing, the beggars, the children being used as props for begging, whether truthfully or not…

They’re all ingredients of life in contemporary India, and when you come here as a backpacker, you sign up for it (you can, of course, sign up for a completely different kind of India experience, avoiding all of this reality, a kind of Narnia India, if you really wanted to).

A wise woman once told me, upon her coming to India almost overwhelming her, that to survive here, you cannot try to change it, nor impose a Western (or outsider’s) judgements, moral or otherwise. You can spend your money wisely, of course, or otherwise make a good impact through your choices and behaviour, but you just have to accept life as it is. And if you cannot, then you need to go somewhere else, because it will consume you and you will drown.

I remember the first time we came to India, on our second or third day in Delhi, we’d gone to the train reservation office to book some tickets (the real one, not the fake one(s)). Inside, a poor American lass, travelling solo, was having a meltdown. She’d been duped by the many and varied con artists that swarm around the Old Delhi train station, ground zero hunting grounds for fresh meat tourists.

In between her sobs and dramatics, she was saying such ludicrous things as, “I came to India with an open heart”, and “how can people treat me like this?”. You poor, stupid bitch, we thought. I know that probably sounds harsh, but really, you come to India with that sort of unrealistic attitude, you kinda deserve it.

India is not a mystical, mythical utopian wonderland, lying in wait for you to come and discover, do some yoga, make some temple offerings, give yourself freely to the grateful natives, and find enlightenment. It’s a colossal giant of nation: 1.36 billion people of multiple cultures, multiple religions, multiple castes, creeds and belief systems; a collection of separate and vastly different states thrust together as the British made a hasty and ill-informed exit, and somehow shunted into being as the world’s largest democracy.

India is infinitely complex, with nuances and social structures I doubt you could ever learn, no matter how long you lived here. On top of this, life is hard for many. You hustle; you hustle hard. If you don’t, you don’t eat. Simple as that. For many staying afloat is success; achieving social mobility beyond the edge of reason. People don’t have time for your Eat, Pray, Love-isms; they’re busy with their own lives.

I’m reading a book at the moment, about one journalist’s attempt to live here and learn to speak Hindi. In it, she talks about India having a circular conception of time, something I’ve written about in a completely different context. Unlike a Western linear sense, the past lying behind us as we move ever forward along future’s line, in one sense, there is no past and no future here, only an all encompassing now that contains all (remembering that a belief in reincarnation means life is infinitely circular; it also might explain why, in a Western sense, the past is always so present here).

I’m grossly oversimplifying, of course, but perhaps it is this sense of the now that gives India its unique ceaseless, restless, industrious energy. If there is only the now, then the now must be lived.

No India is not for the faint-hearted, or the open-hearted. You come here with your A-game ready! (or you buy a package tour)

To be continued…

(where I’ll start talking about all the truly magical things that make India so colossally fascinating and wonderful, as well as frustrating and anguishing, all at the same time!)