Southern Sunshine

Got to get away from the alliterative titles but I just can’t seem to help myself! We enjoyed a good few days in Mumbai, including my birthday – thanks for all of the messages! That day (Jan 12th) was our last day in the city and we basically spent the day wandering around from cafe, to bar, to street food stall, to bar, to cafe…you get the idea. Starting off in The Pantry, we had an excellent breakfast of waffles with tea and coffee. What sticks in my memory however, is the the toilet in this cafe – it was pristine! A spacious room decorated in pastel shades, with a western style toilet, clean, florally fragranced, amusing toilet humour (literally) art on the walls and … toilet paper! What a luxury. I came out of the toilet – after indulging myself in the environment for some time – and said to Hels, ‘You have to go! You just HAVE to!’ There’s nothing like travelling to make you appreciate a good quality toilet, and this was one of the best.

Our wandering tour of eateries took us on into Colaba where I stepped into a barber’s for a birthday shave. This turned out to be quite an extended affair as I succumbed to the offer of an Ayurvedic face treatment… (Helena has photos) I’m not really sure what came over me, but it may have had something to do with the persuasive nature of the guy with the cut-throat razor in his hand. Suffice to say, it was actually a very pleasurable, if slightly bizarre, experience and one that I would highly recommend! I came out with a freshly trimmed beard, a smoothly shaven neck and the softest cheeks known to any man in India and beyond!

We then also indulged ourselves by stepping into the Taj Mahal Palace hotel for a drink in their Harbour View bar. A Cosmopolitan for Helena and a small beer for me cost significantly more than most of the full meals we’d had anywhere in India…but the table snacks were to die for. They had these crisps and cashews in a stand and we (I say ‘we’, but I really mean ‘I’) cleared them out. And then the guy brought another stand full!! WIN!

The Taj Mahal palace hotel opposite The Gateway to
The Taj Mahal palace hotel, the most expensive hotel in Mumbai!

The inside of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel is absolutely stunning and although we only got to see the ground floor, we got a good impression of the grandeur of the place. There are a myriad of super high end luxury stores on the ground floor (you’ll need to ask Helena for the brand names because I don’t have the sort of brain that would remember those kinds of things) but safe to say that it’s the kind of place that makes men shudder in fear as their better halves go into some kind of glossy eyed trance, bewitched by the polished floors, the plush carpets and the pristine, spaciously laid out stores that look altogether too inviting. We made a swift exit (!)

The hotel, having been inside, does seem strange however. You step straight back out onto the street that is lined with touts, street traders and beggars. Two worlds that will not mix.

We wandered on and within two minutes were skirting the sides of the slums that make up a large part of the southern tip of Colaba. We stopped off in another bar for coffee, before hot-footing it back to Cafe Mondegar for a second helping of their Tandoori chicken. And then, all too soon, we were picking up our bags in our little hotel and going off to find our bus.

We loved Cafe Mondegar with its vibrant atmosphere, friendly waiters and great food.  And beer!  Can you spot Hels..?
We loved Cafe Mondegar with its vibrant atmosphere, friendly waiters and great food. And beer! Can you spot Hels..?

Mumbai marked the end of our train travel for a few weeks, although we didn’t know it at the time, and since then we’ve been firmly rooted (and route-d?) on the roads. We had bought bus tickets to Goa, mainly because they were significantly cheaper than train tickets. This was an overnight bus – what they call a ‘semi-sleeper’ – but what should probably be called a ‘there’s not a hope in hell of you getting a wink of sleep-er’. And here’s a tip for all of you travellers out there – DO NOT GET ON AN A/C BUS IN JANUARY – they FREEZE you!!

But, long story short, we made it to Goa the following morning and to the beach!! It was so good to feel the sand under our feet, the sun on our faces, the sea lapping waves around our ankles and to hear the rhythmic thumping of psychedelic trance music pumping out onto the beach. It was 8am.

Anjuna is indeed the party capital of Goa, although we were more in the mood for chilling than clubbing. So we spent a good couple of days wandering along the beach, lounging around on the sun beds, reading books, browsing the markets, trying various restaurants and enjoying a few Kingfishers while watching the sun go down. Goa has the cheapest beer we’ve found anywhere in India!

Helena got to choose her fish in Anjuna before having it cooked in the Tandoor!  Mmmmmm
Helena got to choose her fish in Anjuna before having it cooked in the Tandoor! Mmmmmm

At this point, we were already beginning to wonder about how best to spend our remaining two weeks in India – how could we only have two weeks left?! We’d have to prioritise, and fast!

So we prioritised going to another beach. This time, Om beach, near Gokarna in Karnataka. We hadn’t planned any transport for this trip, and neither had we booked any accommodation for when we arrived …we were getting into this travelling lark, clearly. The owner of our guest house in Goa said, with confidence, that we’d be able to get a bus to Gokarna from Mapusa, a 20 min bus ride away from Anjuna. We figured we’d be there about lunch time, maybe early afternoon. So we just jumped on a bus at about 09:45, the guy said it was going to Mapusa, and about an hour later, it got there. ‘Can we get a bus from here to Gokarna?’ we asked the man at the enquiry desk? ‘Gokarna?’ he replied, ‘Not from here, you’ll have to go to Panjim.’ Panjim, (or Panaji) is another big town in Goa, about 45mins from Mapusa, but the buses go regularly so we hopped on and off we went.

When we pulled into Panjim, we scanned around for buses that said ‘Gokarna’ on the front, didn’t find any, so found the enquiry desk instead. The familiar question was asked, ‘Can we get a bus from here to Gokarna?’ ‘No, no, not from here,’ the man replied, ‘You’ll have to go to Margao.’ ‘Ok, thank you!’ I replied happily, through gritted teeth, knowing that I’d have gone back to our guest house and had words with the woman about her false bus information … if it wasn’t two bus rides away already! The feeling was compounded by the fact that the bus we had just got off was now trundling out of the station on its way to Margao. We got the next one, which turned out to be the slowest bus in the history of buses. It crept along and stopped. at. every. single. stop.

Happily, there was actually a bus from Margao to Gokarna. It left at 1pm and took four hours – so much for getting there at lunch time! To be honest though, we didn’t really mind – after all, we’d come travelling to travel, and explore, and experience. It’s part of the charm, right?

For us, that day, it was actually charming. We found equal amounts of challenge and humour in fumbling our way from one bus to the next, and the bus ride down the coast from Margao to Gokarna was beautiful. The bus clattered along noisily, shaking and rattling its way down the road, but as the road unraveled before us, so did the landscape. We caught glimpses of the sea, crossed rivers, rolled along through small villages and settlements, all the while enjoying the warmth of the wind rushing in through the mercifully wide open windows on either side of us. We listened to music together and enjoyed the moment. Yes, so the bus did break down at one point (rather predictably), and the driver got out, wrenched off an eight foot long rear section of the exhaust, carried it onto the bus with the conductor and laid it on the floor of the aisle before tying it to the legs of the seats and getting back into the driver’s seat and carrying on… but that’s India. Puts a smile on my face just thinking about it.

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The road ahead, a metaphor for our year perhaps?

We made it to Gokarna shortly after five, and needed a rickshaw to get to the beach so it was pushing six by the time we hit the beach. We’d heard good things about this place, and it didn’t disappoint: way more chilled than Anjuna, beach hut style accommodation that fronted straight onto the beach itself, no gauntlet of shops and stalls and sellers to run to make it down to the beach (as there was at Anjuna) and altogether just a nice vibe. We stayed for two nights but got two more whole days of beach time as we didn’t leave until 8 on the last day. We went running, I got a couple of sea swims in and even did some yoga on the beach.

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We loved Om beach!

The next week involved three overnight trips taking us to Hampi, on to Mysore and then over the Western Ghats to Cochin in Kerala. We loved Hampi but hated arriving there – an armada of rickshaws chased us into the town and the hassle was extreme. We just had to walk away as best we could and figure out where we were and where we were going. A cup of tea sorted it and once we had somewhere to stay we enjoyed wandering around the ruins and the crazy boulder covered landscape, climbing hills for panoramic views and even crossing the river in a coracle!

I love this photo!  Helena on top of the world in Hampi x
I love this photo! Helena on top of the world in Hampi x

We’d put Mysore on the list of places to visit because it is the home of Ashtanga yoga – the practice that Helena introduced me to on my move to Birmingham in 2009. She’d been going to classes with her friend Becky. I’ve kept up the practice on and off since then, thanks going to my teacher Jon Moult – highly recommended! – and I was keen to see if we could get into a class somewhere during our stay. As it happened, we met a girl on the bus who was meeting a tour guide in Mysore who looked after rooms in a house attached to a yoga school. It seems the Stars had aligned at this moment and, after chatting on the journey, we took her up on her offer of a lift to the place and the promise of a room.

Tanya was as good as her word and the guide, Saeed, did indeed pick us up in a white Ambassador no less! I was so excited! I’d experienced a bit of a dearth of Ambassador-based experiences – it was the one thing I thought I knew about India before we arrived! He drove us to the house, stopping off on the way for a Chai, and by 7:45am we were settled into our room. The yoga school was attached to the building and Saeed took us in to see some of the early morning classes going on. It looked a bit stern if I’m honest but I said I’d enquire about a class a bit later. So we went back to the room to relax and figure out our plan for the day.

When we returned, we met Christian, a Moldovian who was one of the resident students. We chatted briefly and then he said, ‘I’m just on my way to my morning Ashtanga class. Would you like to come? It’s at 8:15.’ I looked at my watch – it was 8:10. I looked at Helena expecting her to say it wasn’t a good idea, but she had an excited look on her face and just said, ‘You want to go…?’

So literally minutes later I walked into the Ashtanga class with Christian and one of the other students. The teacher, Rameshji, welcomed me and asked if I’d studied the practice before. I said I wasn’t a beginner but I was by no means expert. He was happy for me to join and so the class began.

It was the same practice as I had been taught by Jon but Rameshji’s version was like Ashtanga on speed. I could barely keep up with the pace of the sun salutations. Unlike a lot of perceptions of yoga, Ashtanga is a very dynamic practice. I knew that of course, but this was something else! Having survived the sun salutations, we went into the standing sequence and that’s when Rameshji began adjusting my postures. Everything was stretched further, squeezed tighter, twisted, pulled, pushed, squashed…this guy wasn’t pulling any punches. I thought he might go easy on me as I was a newcomer. Not so!

The class lasted about 90 mins. By the end, I was a sweaty, horrible mess – a broken man! But I loved it! And made an endorphin-fuelled promise that I’d return at 6:30 that night for the ‘adjustment class’.

I must confess that I didn’t make it to the adjustment class. But I did go back for another class again the next morning and this time… I took Helena with me (cue evil laugh ha ha ha). The class was slightly different to the previous morning but the essence was the same. We both had a great time and thanked Rameshji for making us feel so welcome.

We toured a bit of the Mysore markets, a place where they make incense and oils, and the stunning palace before making our way (on another overnight bus) to Kerala to experience the famously tranquil backwaters.

Would you look at that, almost up to date!

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The Ambassador!
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They paint their cows in Mysore it seems!
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Mumbai Magic

So I know it’s been a while since my last post – we were in Udaipur at the time and it seems like a world away now – but we’ve been super busy!  Seriously!  In the last two weeks we’ve visited Mumbai, Anjuna beach in Goa, Om beach in Gokarna, Hampi, Mysore and have now just made it to Kerala, getting an overnight bus to Kochi and then an early morning bus to Aleppey (Alappuzha) which is where we are now!  Needless to say, this amount of travel has involved quite a bit of logistical planning and much of our ‘chill out’ time has been spent figuring out how we can get to the next place on our itinerary and still make it back to Dehli in time to fly on the 30th!  I posted on my Facebook status yesterday that I was interested to see how far we had come (by the time we reached Mysore), and at that point, we were a two day/two night train ride away from Delhi.  We’re now a good few hours further south – Kerala is on the South Western tip of India…Helena’s booking a flight back north as I type.

Well, that’s the logistics out of the way, now to the interesting stuff…although there’s far too much to write here…

Mumbai – We arrived into Bandra Terminus, the end of the main line into Mumbai, which was helpfully nowhere near Colaba, our preferred destination.  After fending off the usual barrage of offers for rickshaws and taxis, and repeated assurances that ‘There are no more train stations in Mumbai, sir.  You must take a taxi’, we made it to the local Bandra terminus which meant that we could catch a local train to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (once named Victoria Terminus after Queen Victoria).  The super friendly and helpful ticket guy smiled, shook my hand and sold me a pair of ten-rupee tickets to VT.  ‘Platform seven’, he said.  We were pretty pleased with ourselves for saving a few hundred rupees of potential taxi fair but… could we find platform seven..?  Not a chance!  There were clearly labelled platforms one to six…. but as for seven, nowhere to be seen!  Until another helpful guy pointed down some stairs, along a platform, up and over another footbridge to platform seven.  It could have been platform 9 3/4 it was that hard to find!

And so we sat, waiting patiently, as the crowds built steadily around us and there was no train.  Another traveller, a girl from Brazil whose name escapes me, approached us and asked if we were getting the same train, which we were, so we waited in trepidation as the crowds continued to grow.  And then the train arrived.  There was a full on scrum to get on, nothing unusual in India, but as three westerners with heavy bags, it looked like we had no chance.  I was about to give up hope when I spotted a carriage in the crowds that seemed quieter than all the rest.  A merciful break in the pack!  ‘There’, I pointed (and shouted), and ran towards the carriage.  I just about made it on as the train began to pull away.  The Brazilian girl had one hand on the post inside the carriage and was jogging alongside the train.  I pulled her on board and realised that Helena was still on the platform… running alongside the train as it was picking up speed!   ‘Run!!’ I shouted, knowing that we had little or no chance of finding each other if we became separated.  And fair play to her, she caught up with the train and jumped on (it didn’t have any ‘doors’ as such, just open gaps on the side of the carriages that were never closed, a health and safety nightmare in the UK!).  I was so relieved.  I can’t remember if we high-fived our great success or just looked at each other with relief.  But we were on the train, we were sorted.  It was only at that point that the reason for the quieter carriage entry became apparent.  It was a ‘women-only’ carriage.  Every single other occupant was female.  And they were all staring at me.  I almost jumped right back off again!  I rectified the situation at the next platform but running down a carriage, but it was an amusing sequence of events nonetheless!

Wow – need to condense this account, we’re not even in Mumbai yet!

We’d heard about a blog called ‘Mumbai Magic’ and looked it up while we were in Udaipur.  We found a tour called ‘Mumbai Local’ which was about getting local transport and seeing the more down-to-earth side of Mumbai and the guides were young students who were learning English.  It sounded awesome and lived up to expectations.   Pranali and Renu met us on the steps of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Monument (they name a lot of stuff after this guy!) opposite the Gateway to India – not to be confused with India Gate which is in Delhi.

They were a really well spoken, enthusiastic and helpful pair of girls who took us on a walking, talking, bus-taking, train-catching, taxi-riding, snack-eating tour of Mumbai.  It was well worth it and a great way to get around and see a bit of the city.  One of the highlights for me was a park that we visited next to the University.  It was an elongated oval shaped park and everywhere you looked there was cricket.  The Indians are cricket MAD!  This park was big enough to comfortably house probably 6-8 games of cricket, at a push.  However, there were probably 70-80 games of cricket going on simultaneously.  Each set of stumps was merely yards from another set and the pitches all overlapped each other over and over.  How each batsman knew which fielders he was trying to avoid I have no idea, but by some cosmic force of organisation it all seemed to work.  And it was great to see.

So many overlapping games of cricket - this photo doensn't come close to doing it justice!
So many overlapping games of cricket – this photo doensn’t come close to doing it justice!

In the Colaba district and surrounding areas, Mumbai feels like a much more cosmopolitan city than Delhi.  I mean, they have pavements, traffic lights, and even some roundabouts – which people drive around in the correct direction – not something to be sniffed at I can tell you!  Having finished Shantaram, we did indeed find Leopold’s and had a drink, and Cafe Mondegar where we had the most incredible chicken tandoori ever!  We were sat there eating it on our first day, Kingfisher in hand, and somebody walked over to the jukebox and put on Hotel California.  I can’t remember why, but I’d been listening to it just before we left for India (thinking that The Reggaelators should add it to the set probably).  It has just such a chilled out but rhythmic groove to it that it fitted the moment perfectly.  Despite the clash of cultures, we were loving the moment right there, right then.

I’m going to have to sign off this blog now as it’s getting to be a bit on the long side…!   I’ll add some selected shots from my camera when we’re back at our guest house.  I’m yet to finish Mumbai and get on to the rest of the places…!!!   And we haven’t even had time really to write in our handwritten diary either.  We have both been reading voraciously though and it’s good to get back into the habit.  I’m currently on Engleby by Sebastian Faulks (picked up from a shelf in Gokarna) while Hels tackles Shantaram.

Just as a final point, I’ve been thinking about how to write this blog and have been constructing some ‘thematic’ blog posts in my head rather than the kind of ‘diary-entry’ posts I’ve done so far.  You can look forward to ‘Chris and Helena’s Top Ten Indian Observations’.  We’ve been making a list … we’re up to about 30… I’ll condense 😉

 

Mumbai snacks
This is Sav Puri – little crispy balls of stuff, filled with some other stuff, and covered in yoghurt type stuff.  Bloody amazing!   You have to eat each one in a single mouthful.
Mumbai local train
A slightly calmer Helena on a local train – notably without backpack or having had to run to catch it!
Mumbai market
One of the features of the tour was a trip down a street market.  This kind of market is pretty typical in India; lots of fresh produce is traded on the streets.
Tour guides
Our two tour guides at our final stop – I´m looking a bit severe in this photo but it´s the only one I´ve got!  I was smiling, honest!

 

Trains, taxis and tuk tuks.

I’m not sure how often it is appropriate to post in this blog. Write too often and you risk annoying your audience; too infrequently and you may lose them altogether.  (I guess!) Since my last post, we’ve come a long way; physically and emotionally. From Delhi, we’ve taken trains to Agra – to see the Taj Mahal, Jaipur – the pink city, and Udaipur – the city of lakes. We’re booked on an overnight train to Mumbai tonight – our first experience of the sleeper train. Delhi proved to be an unrelenting assault on the senses which took its toll in the four short days we were there.  In the first blog post from Boxing Day I wrote that we were looking forward to catching up on sleep, and although we did to a certain extent, the experience itself wore us down in a totally different way.  Travelling’s supposed to be relaxing, right? Feeling like we should take in some of Delhi’s cultural sights we bought ourselves metro day tickets and jumped on board.  Connaught Place is the centre of New Delhi and is probably the most westernised environment we encountered in the whole place.  The huge Flag of India stands proudly in the perfectly circular, peaceful park in the centre of the place – we sat under it and I had a little snooze.  (No surprises there!)  We caught the metro to Chandni Chowk to visit the Red Fort, a huge and imposing structure next to the famous Jama Masjid mosque.  Both are worth a visit, although we were thrown out of the mosque for reasons we could not figure out.

Hels will hate me for attaching this photo but I'm going to do it before she gets a chance to edit it out..!
Hels will hate me for attaching this photo but I’m going to do it before she gets a chance to edit it out..!

Shortly after this photo, we got lost in the back streets of Old Delhi – semi on purpose really, and enjoyed the array of tiny shops and stalls, the intense and ever changing smells – sweet bread, strong garlic, incense – as we carved out our own little passage through the chaos.  As as we were ‘sight-seeing’, however, we realised that we were also a ‘sight to be seen’ – a feature of our trip that has become quite a regular occurrence. It’s not the locals who do it, it’s the other Indian tourists – so it only really happens at or near famous monuments, and there are some more subtle than others.  Some are simply brazen and blatant.  Catching your eye, they tilt their head, camera in hand and ask, ‘One photo? Please?’ The first time it happened was in the Red Fort.  Helena was off taking a photo of some inlaid marble, and I was sitting minding my own business when a rather fashionably dressed young Indian wearing Aviators came up and asked, ‘Can I take a photo of you?’  I was mildly shocked at the request (and confused), but I figured there was no harm in it so I consented happily.  Cue a 5min photo shoot!  Two of his friends joined me and, as I remained as I was, they proceeded to take a variety of shots, mocking up multiple poses around me.  When I thought we were done, the camera man motioned that he wanted to be in the shots as well, so he swapped with his friend and the whole process started again.  I looked around to see Helena standing some way off, giggling to herself and taking photos of people taking photos of me..! When they had finished, we shook hands and they went happily on their way.  We didn’t know at the time, however, that that was merely the first of many times this would process would take place – we’d been accosted a further five or six times before we even left the Red Fort.  Then again on the steps of Jama Masjid, in Lodi Gardens (South Delhi), Agra Fort (where a real crazy woman latched herself firstly onto my arm, then around Helena’s shoulders all the while getting increasingly more annoyed with her husband because he refused to remove his hat and smile), Amer Fort (Jaipur) and various other places around Delhi, Jaipur and Udaipur. Interestingly, one of the places where we didn’t seem to be a major attraction was at the Taj Mahal, in Agra.  That, perhaps, needs little or no explanation. Every local who spoke to us in Delhi told us that four days were too many – they were probably right.  After celebrating New Year with beers in a roof garden, we left almost more tired than we’d arrived, although we do look back on Delhi affectionately, especially Pahar Ganj. And then we went to Agra.

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This picture does little to convey the magnificence of this place which just became more haunting the longer we stayed.

Arriving in the early morning, we got the benefit of a quieter environment around the Taj Mahal and we enjoyed the peaceful nature of the place even though the Taj herself seemed determined to keep her full majesty hidden behind a veil of mist and modesty.  I must admit that I had, for a short time, a similar feeling as when I visited Machu Picchu in 2009 – that I’d paid my money, gone through the tourist turnstile to see exactly what I expected to see.  It does, after all, look the same as in the photos and on the postcards.  Can you be underwhelmed?  Is it allowed? And yet, as we spent more time there, the mist partly cleared, we went inside to see the tombs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan side by side, and inevitably, we realised that this place was indeed something special.  I’m not sure I’ve figured out why yet.  Is it the intricate architecture?  The story behind its construction?  The feeling of the marble under your feet and fingertips as you hush your way around the mausoleum with the single light suspended from the ceiling inside?  Maybe it’s the whole complex, the buildings surrounding the Taj, pure and perfect symmetry. As we sat and reflected near the spot where the famous photograph of Princess Diana was taken, we realised that it was not about ‘seeing’ the Taj, or taking the ‘perfect blue sky picture’; I’m still not sure how to describe the feeling but it was something else.  Something special. This blog-writing is a new challenge…I’m not short of content, quite the opposite, and have to try to filter the stuff worth reading..!  We had a good day on a tour around Jaipur – met some interesting characters: Hassan and Eileen, young Bangladeshi newly-weds on honeymoon – they were obsessed with their selfie stick(!); and Prabaker and his wife – most interesting because Prabaker is the name of the main character’s guide in ‘Shantaram’, the novel set in Bombay that Phil Warren recommended to me – thanks mate!  And Udaipur has saved us in the last three days – rooftop cafes, boat rides and a wicked cycle tour.  We almost feel ready for Mumbai…and we will definitely be having a drink in Leopold’s.

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Our tour group in Jaipur at one of the many, many tombs we visited!
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A picture of the entrance archway up close – check out the inlaid marble flowers and the calligraphy at the top.
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Our first view of Lake Pichola from our guest house rooftop in Udaipur.  We arrived here at about half past two on Monday, that´s 9am UK time… on Monday morning … on the first day of term… Missing work?  Ahem!