May 16th 2016 – Goa to Mumbai, Mumbai to Heathrow, Heathrow to Belper

I woke at four and went downstairs. The concierge was snoring loudly with his feet on the desk, and didn’t take kindly to me waking him up to ask where my taxi was. He phoned the taxi driver, who had either forgotten that I’d booked him or was still in bed, but I had plenty of time to catch the flight so I wasn’t worried. I walked out to the front of the hotel to wait but quickly decided against it as a pack of stray dogs began growling – this was cleary their patch.  

The taxi and the flight to Mumbai were uneventful, other than to note that this was the first time I’d ever flown on my own – a given for most adults, but a fairly big deal for me considering that I spent ten years being unable to to go near a plane without hyperventilating.

And so it was that I sat on the Mumbai to Heathrow flight with my head pressed against the glass of the window, staring at the squiggling mirages thrown up by the heat of the tarmac. My hands gripped the arms of the chair either side of me, and the harness was strapped so tightly around my stomach that the last of the nervous farts had finally been squeezed out of my system. The man sat next to me gave me a look of disgust, which I ignored because he was wearing a stale shirt which stunk worse than I did. My thumb flicked through the music selection for something comforting or relevant to my situation. I located Bowie – Brilliant, recently deceased Bowie. As the engines powered up to that crescendo of impending doom, I pumped the volume up and up to try and block out the fear inside of me. The aircraft began that familiar, ridiculous stampede down the runway – that never-ending, bollocking charge of madness that I always assume is going to end in disaster, in spite of the statistics. Just as I’d resigned myself to the inevitability of death, the nose tilted skywards and I felt that second of almost reassuring weightlessness, before my stomach fell through the floor of the plane and I began practicing my breathing exercises. As I looked back over the airport I could see the tiny corrugated roofs that make up the slums of Mumbai, twinkling in the afternoon sun – each one a monument to the millions of people who live there, clinging improbably to life. Bowie screamed “We can be heroes!” into my ear in one of those perfect moments of real life cinema. A few minutes later I’d have a beer in my hand and a tray of curry in front of me at 37,000 feet above the Arabian Sea. My first world problems seemed so petty and ridiculous next to the plight of all those people down on the ground, and I made a little promise to myself to try not to be afraid of anything ever again that it’s not logical to be afraid of.

The three weeks I spent in India blew my mind just as South-East Asia had done. Now that I’m home I can’t wait to go back and enjoy the warmth, ingenuity and madness of the Indian people. I remain convinced that whilst there are places that exist that are so utterly out of my comfort zone, I will always be itching to get back on the road.

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May 15th – Goa

Nothing hurts like losing 4-0 at home to Hull City. Especially when you’re trying to convince an Indian waiter that Derby County are the English team that he should support – not Man United or Chelsea! An opportunity to form an Indian fanbase in Goa was lost last night, and I imagine after his shift was over he went straight out to buy one of the fake Man United or Chelsea shirts that are abundant here, having been convinced by the Rams utterly abject performance that there really are only two teams from England worth supporting.

One from the train journey of the previous day – money being exchanged for all-important chai


A commiseratory breakfast was held in a roadside cafe near the bus station. This went down a treat – we ate idli, a kind of steamed rice bun which is dipped in dahl, and vada – a deep-fried, savoury donut kind of thing filled with mild spices. This was washed down with a lassi each, and we quickly forgot about the indignity of the night before. We then boarded a bus which took us to the state capital, Panjim. 

A very brief history lesson. Goa was colonised by the Portuguese in 1510 and incredibly, they didn’t leave until as late as 1961, when the Indian army kicked them out. As a consequence a lot of the architecture, culture and religion in Goa has a distinctly Portuguese flavour to it. The old town of Panjim is probably the best example of this – we wandered round through streets full of balconied houses with colourful walls and whitewashed doorways. We visited a large basilica called Nossa Senhora da Immaculada Conceicao, or Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception. This was quite a cool church but we spent limited time in here because an over-officious warden kept “shushing” us if we so much as breathed. 

These buildings couldn’t be more authentically Portuguese if you wrote “Nando’s” on the side of them.


We moved on, taking another bus which took us along a narrow road surrounded on both sides by mangrove swamps. We disembarked outside the walls of the old city. There were more western tourists here than anywhere else that we’d been on our trip – a testament to Goa’s popularity as a holiday spot. As we entered the front gate, a woman sat with her back against the wall. She was missing her nose and lips, her teeth set in a perpetual grimace that she had no power to stop. I’d read that leprosy was still an issue in India, but this was the first time we’d encountered anybody with the disease. I remember Blue Peter running a campaign to help kids with leprosy in the 1990s – even back then it seemed ridiculous to me that such a disease could still exist.   

Old Goa was once home to 200,000 people, but malaria and plagues took their toll over the centuries, to the point that it was more or less abandoned in favour of Panjim. What remains is a collection of cathedrals and basilicas dotted around an area of about a square mile. Some are grander than others, and each have their own stories, but there are too many to tell and I don’t want to bore you. The one story that did stand out though, was that of the Tomb of St Francis Xavier. 

The cathedral of Bom Jesus

St Francis Xavier is entombed in the Bom Jesus cathedral – a stunning baroque building which was my favourite to look at. St Francis was a Roman Catholic missionary who pottered about India, Japan and China converting the locals to his own religion. He died on a voyage to China, and was originally buried there. Somebody then decided that he’d be better off buried in Goa, dug Francis up and had him shipped back. At some point during this time somebody took a peek into his casket and discovered that Francis’ body was “Incorruptible” (Which means it hadn’t gone mouldy). This was taken as a sign of his sacredness. Now, what is the natural thing to do with the incorruptible body of a sacred man? If your answer to this question is “Chop bits off him and put them in other churches” then you’d be correct. They chopped his arms off and took them to other churches in the area, perhaps thinking that this would make the other churches holy too – because what says “This is a Holy place” better than an ornamental box containing the severed hand of a dead man? The main bit of what’s left of poor Francis is encased in an impressive silver casket in the Bom Jesus cathedral. 32 silver plates around the casket depict scenes from some of the deeds that he allegedly performed during his life. My favourite of the 32 is the one where St Francis drops his crucifix in the sea, only to have it returned to him by a friendly crab – a story which surely could only have been dreamt up by someone who had taken acid then watched The Little Mermaid.

The elaborate tomb that houses all the bits that are left of Saint Francis Xavier


After looking around the various cathedrals we walked up a hill to the ruins of the Church of St Augustine. This was built at around the same time as the Bom Jesus cathedral, but whereas the Bom Jesus has been looked after, the church of St Augustine was allowed to fall into disrepair. Over the last 150 years it has gradually fallen to bits, which makes it all the more interesting to look at in my opinion. I don’t know if there’s something wrong with me, but the more trashed and abandoned something is, the more it appeals to me. I found the same when Hollie and I were in Cambodia looking at the Angkor temples – the overgrown, dangerous looking ones always captivated me more than the ones that had been looked after. 

  1. The church of Saint Augustine – about as intact as St Francis Xavier.

We descended the hill and took the bus back to Panjim. We walked the half mile or so from the bus stand where we’d been dropped off to the main terminus. As we were crossing a bridge over a putrid stream we glanced a kingfisher sweeping over the water – always a treat for the eyes. We took a connecting bus back to Margao. Upon arriving went in search of food and the alcoholic variety of kingfisher which has been less rare during our trip. As this was my last supper in India I was determined to find something exquisite. 
We found a restaurant near the hotel which advertised a speciality of “Goan crab masala”. It sounded like exactly the kind of rustic local dish drawing on local produce that would go down a treat with me. When it arrived though, it looked like there had been some kind of crab genocide. The shell-clad corpses of around five crabs bobbed around lifelessly in a maroon masala sauce. I don’t know what I’d expected for 100 rupees, but when I’d ordered the meal I had envisioned that the crab would be removed from its shell so that I could lazily spoon it into my mouth. As I stared at the monstrosity in front of me I imagined a crab emerging from the depths of the sauce wielding a crucifix for me, in much the same way that one of it’s ancestors must have done for St Francis Xavier.

It’s impossible to eat crustacean with cutlery, so I spent a lame ten minutes picking bits up out of the sauce and attempting to extract the meat. By the time Luke had finished his meal, I was still hungry and my hands were stained with the masala sauce. I gave it up as a bad job. We returned to the hotel and I spent half an hour attempting to wash the sauce off my hands, before giving up and accepting that for the next few days my fingers would look like I’d poked them up a cow’s arse. 
The next day I would be flying home.

Didn’t go on the beach. But this is what it looks like

May 12th – Hampi

Ayup.
I confess (not for the first time) to having made a slight financial misjudgement on our first day in Hampi. In our eagerness to get to Hampi Bazaar and source some accomodation, we’d neglected to get some more cash out. As the designated carrier of money I’d looked at the wad of notes in our possession as we left Hoispet the previous morning and decided that it was adequate. After paying for three night’s accomodation and three meals on our first day, we were down to the bare bones by the next morning. Hampi Bazaar is such a remote backwater that it does not possess the luxury of an ATM. We convened for crisis talks over breakfast (using 300 of our last 600 rupees to pay). The conversation went something along the lines of “We need to get some money or we’re buggered”. After much deliberation we hatched a plan to rent a couple of pushbikes and cycle to the nearby town of Kamalapura – a measly 3 kilometre ride away. We rented two bikes for fifty rupees each and set off along the road, which climbs the biggest bloody hill in the area. Determined to show no weakness to our usual audience of lithe, athletic Indians, we puffed and panted our way up the hill, freewheeling down the slope on the other side. Flanked by banana trees and with the breeze on our faces we were in high spirits, in spite even of the farm trucks and buses that blared their horns as they came past us. Then we hit the flat. The sun beat down from above and the tarmac reflected it back at us to give us a double whammy of heat. On top of this – and I know you shouldn’t grumble for fifty rupees – but this bike’s gears were inadequate for the task at hand. We took a ten minute pit stop during which we each drank about a litre of water, before soldiering on into the town.
It didn’t take us long to find what we were looking for – two ATM machines side by side, completely incongruous to the ancient stone buildings that surrounded. We had two cards each with which we could withdraw money – none of them worked. We repeated the process three or four times, and an error message appeared each time. This was more than a little concerning – we had 200 rupees remaining. It was agreed that one of us would have to use the last of our cash to take a rickshaw back to the bigger town of Hoispet, whilst the other waited with the bikes. We propped the bikes up against the wall and I sat down next to them whilst Luke went off to find a rickshaw.

No sooner had I sat down than I was accosted by about twenty kids, who seemed to be fascinated by my presence on their turf (metaphorical turf that is – it was actually just a dusty roadside). They asked me questions in broken English, stared at my pallid legs gleaming in the sun, and giggled as they gaggled away to each other in Hindi. I shook each of their hands individually, saying “My name is Tom, how do you do?” to each one in a very ostentatious British accent, whilst they told me their own names. They were all very keen that I should take their photo, which I obliged. The boys posed like Usain Bolt and the girls ran away shyly, and we all had a thoroughly good time. A couple of Dads emerged from their houses to see what the commotion was. They spoke sternly to their kids, I imagine to tell them off for bothering me, but I was quite enjoying the banter so I smiled and nodded at the adults who then seemed satisfied that I wasn’t being unduly harassed. The bravest lad out of the group grabbed one of the bikes that had slid down the wall and propped it up in a better position for me. I thanked him for this and he immediately said “Ten rupees please, sir.” I admired his entrepenuerial spirit but for the first time on the trip I was completely honest when I told him I was completely skint. Luke returned quickly, and the kid’s attention turned to a pen he was holding in his hand. They repeated “Schoolpen sir, schoolpen!” Until he caved to their demands and handed them the pen. I don’t want to sound patronising, but it was a real pleasure just to meet these kids and see how friendly and honest in their curiosity they were. These are the kind of random encounters that can sound hopelessly cheesy when you try to describe them to people afterwards, but I’ve learned quickly that chance meetings with strangers can be the highlight of you travels.

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Whilst I’d been chatting and chilling in the shade, Luke had gotten into a dispute with his rickshaw driver, who had driven him all of 200 yards down the road to the next cashpoint and demanded 200 rupees off him for the priveledge. Two quid for a 200 yard journey is extortionate even by British standards, but at least he’d managed to extract a wad of notes. We mounted our bicycles and rode off in the direction of the closest ruins, followed by the kid of the previous paragraph who continued to shout “Ten rupees please sir!” until we left the village.
We left the road and cycled onto an enormous arid plain. Ruins of various stature were situated for as far as the eye can see. We bought ice lollies and re-stocked on water from a vendor who was sat with what must have been his entire extended family under a tree. Feeling suitably replenished, we commenced an onslaught of temple exploration under the taxing heat of the mid-day sun. There were temples, towers and aqueducts, bathing pools and fortifications. Of particular interest to us was a gigantic building within the Zenana Enclosure that stretched about the length of two football pitches. It contained eleven domed chambers with huge arched entrances – these were the elephant stables. This building remained remarkably intact and it didn’t require much imagination to picture these beautiful behemoths being herded under the arches after a hard day’s work, mournfully trumpeting their protests and dropping steaming piles of dung all over the place. In front of the stables was a large field which had apparently been a parade ground for troops of the Vijayanagara empire, but was now being cultivated for crops by a local farmer. The architecture in this area of the ancient city seems to have more of an Islamic influence, which is ironic considering the Vijayanagara spent most of the time fighting off one Muslim empire or another.

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The Elephant Stables

After two or three hours of exploration in which we’d sweated enough to fill the ancient baths back up, we biked it back to Hampi Bazaar. I’d been dreading the ascent of the hill back into Hampi but it turned out okay – neither of us suffered the ultimate amateur cyclist’s shame of having to dismount and push our bikes up the hill. We chilled in the hostel for a while before setting out again for the Vittala Temple – in my opinion not the most photogenic, but certainly the most photographed of all Hampi’s landmarks. The main feature of this temple is a stone sculpture of a chariot called a ratha. The preservation of this monument is remarkable and until the recent past the wheels of the chariot could be spun by hand.

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Towards the back of the open temple complex is a roofed building held up by hollow pillars that when tapped emit sounds of various pitches, each one representing a different musical instrument. Luke and I walked around tapping them all but we couldn’t get a tune out of them, and we were distracted in our efforts by yet more curious tourists who insisted on shaking our hands, taking selfies with us and pointing us out to their various family members. The attention and the heat got a little too much and we returned to Hampi Bazaar for tea.

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Tomorrow is our last full day in Hampi. We feel that we’ve achieved a lot in our two days here so, so tomorrow we can afford to take it a bit slower and just enjoy the vibe of being in this other-wordly location.
Have a great day, whatever your endeavour.

Tommy and Lukey

May 11th Night train to Hoispet then Hoispet to Hampi by Rickshaw

We woke at five. The train was about two hours behind schedule but we didn’t want to tempt fate by falling back to sleep. There are no announcements when you pull into a station – no tannoy and no conductor. Luke had the foresight to print out a station schedule for our journey, so we could tick off the stations one by one and ensure we didn’t miss our stop. As we stepped off the train we were descended upon by the usual gaggle of rickshaw drivers. I imagine these drivers live by the station timetable, muttering the details of incoming trains in their sleep, for there can surely be no better source of income to the tuk tuk driver than an unwitting tourist arriving from a foreign land. We stuck to our policy of not selecting a driver until we’d left the station and checked that there was no pre-paid taxi rank – usually this offers a more competitive fair than that of the freelance drivers. With no sign of a better alternative we decided to go with one of the drivers who’d met us off the train, who turned out to be a really nice bloke – it’s sometimes nigh on impossible to tell a friend from a fiend without taking the plunge.
The drive to Hampi got steadily more spectacular as we left the sporadic concrete mish mash of Hoispet. It was light, but the sun was still low in the sky and cast everything we looked upon in indigo. At each junction in the road we seemed to be taking the road less travelled, and for the first time on our trip I felt that we were heading into remote, rural India.  The terrain changed from lush fields full of banana trees to dusty, rocky outcrops that towered ever higher over the rickshaw. The area around Hampi is a geologist’s dream – all kinds of bizarrely balanced boulders perch improbably on top of each other. I don’t think I exagerate when I say the landscape is similar to the kind that Wiley Coyote chases Roadrunner through in the cartoons.
We came over the brow of the hill and caught our first view of Hampi Bazaar, the tiny village in which we would stay. A whole host of ruins stretched out along the sides and bottom of a dusty valley, with a lush river snaking through the bottom. The focal point of Hampi Bazaar itself is the huge ancient tower of the Virupaksha Temple. It’s a steep, vaguely triangular structure which put me in mind of some of the Aztec temples you see in Mexico. As we got closer we could see that it was covered in Gargoyle-like figures carved out of stone. At a glance you could be forgiven for thinking that some of these statues had come alive, but on closer inspection you’ll find that there are scores of monkeys larking around among the architecture.

Me in front of the Virupaksha Temple. Am I the first tourist to ever visit wearing a Derby County away shirt from the 99-00 season? Ever the trendsetter...

Me in front of the Virupaksha Temple. Am I the first tourist to ever visit Hampi wearing a Derby County away shirt from the 99-00 season? Ever the trendsetter…

Our driver took us through the bazaar itself, claiming that he knew a good place for us to stay. We halted at a collection of little huts just outside the village, where chickens chattered in the yard. A very friendly old chap welcomed us into his home and offered us chai, which we rejected incase we felt inclined to stay at his place even if it was substandard. He showed us our potential accomodation. It was basically a giant upturned whicker basket, about the size of a transit van, with a concrete shower cubicle in the corner. It was quaint and rustic, but you could see daylight through the gaps in the woven walls and we decided it’d be too hot and too exposed to mosquitoes to bother with. We made our excuses and the man accepted our decision with a broad grin, inviting us to return to his restaurant at some point during our stay. Our rickshaw driver dropped us back in the village and we gave him 200 rupees for his trouble.
We struck lucky with our accomodation, rocking up at the Shambhu guesthouse – the first we saw in the village. It had all of the basics (roof, walls, running water) as well as the twin jewells of aircon and wifi. In his pitch to try and seal the deal with us, our host explained that whilst most places in Hampi suffer from regular powercuts lasting several hours, his guesthouse had it’s own supply of electricity which prevented us from having to suffer this inconvenience. To prove his claim he gave an affectionate pat to a large lorry battery with wires coming out of it that occupied the corridor just outside our room – we were sold.
Hampi and the surrounding areas are stuffed full of ruins of the ancient city of Vijayanagar. Vijayanagar was the capital of the Vijayanagara empire which had it’s heyday between the 14th and 16th centuries. Apparently at it’s peak the city was home to 500,000 people, making it the second largest city in the world at the time behind Beijing. Mighty as it was, it all went to pot for them in 1565 when a rival empire called the Deccan Sultanate wiped the floor with the Vijayanagara in battle and completely ransacked the city. Since then the place has been largely deserted except for farmers, hoteliers and monkeys.
After a first shower in 24 hours we headed out to explore some of the ruins. We walked out along a wide thoroughfare of about half a mile. On each side of this open space there were continuous stone columns, some supporting roofs, that must have at one time supported buzzing market stores. We climbed a set of ancient steps, followed by a mangey stray dog who seemed to want to make friends with us. We wandered through a desert of cactus and boulders before coming upon the temples of Achutaraya, Varaha and Hastagiri Ranganatha. These temples are dwarfed on all sides by red hills that look like a Martian landscape. At random intervals all around Hampi there are oases of lush vegetation that spring up invitingly out of the dry rock that surrounds them. After about an hour of exploring we were parched in the mid-day sun. We sat down in the shade under a huge tree which looked out over the river, sipping from fresh coconuts. Taking on liquid made us realise that we were suddenly famished, and we made haste back to Hampi Bazaar to eat a thali at the Mango Tree restaurant. Many places in India offer a free refill service on thalis, and the Mango Tree was no exception. Restaurants in Britain could learn something from this level of service and hospitality – in Britain you probably couldn’t buy a sandwich for the same price as a freshly cooked, all you can eat buffet service in India!
We ventured down to the river, where children were swimming and women were scrubbing and soaking clothes, before slapping them with all their might against sun-scorched rocks. We paid the five rupee toll to take the ferry across the river, where we scrambled over rocks and boulders up the hillside until we’d gained a good vantage point over the valley below. I’ve honestly never been anywehre like Hampi – where lunar landscapes meet lush fields of crops and man-made ruins compete with the randomness of nature to provide unparalelled levels of beauty.

Our fellow passengers on the ferry crossing

Our fellow passengers on the ferry crossing


The monarch of all I survey

The monarch of all I survey

We made our way back down, avoiding death-defying drops and any piles of leaves that looked like they’d make the ideal home for a snake.  It turned out that we’d missed the last ferry across the river, and we had to make the choice between swimming across or taking a more traditional craft across the river.  We opted for the latter, and crossed back in style in a handmade coracle for fifty rupees.

Ahooooy!

Ahooooy young Partridge!

It had been a long day, and we finished it off with our first of several visits to Gopi rooftop restaurant. I had a jaipuri with momos on the side – a random combination but one which worked beautifully for me! If my memory serves me correctly Luke had another thali, which he reported to be of excellent quality. No two thalis are the same, and if you want to check out a diverse range of dishes in a restaurant, it’s a great way to sample a bit of everything.  Owing to it’s religious significance to Hindus, Hampi Bazaar is a dry town. We were gasping for a beer and we looked longingly at four cans of Carlsberg that were stored in the fridge. (The fact that we were willing to drink Carlsberg indicates our level of desperation). We enquired with the waiter in hushed tones as to whether the cans were for sale, but alas, they belonged to one of the lodgers in the guesthouse downstairs. Just as we’d finished up our meals a great commotion could be heard in the street below. We poked our heads over the balcony to witness a group of musicians in elaborate dress who were playing a very ancient sounding melody, followed by an elephant whose face had been painted with bright dye. This was Lakshmi, the temple mascot, and a beautiful one at that.

We paid the bill and gave chase to the procession, which sauntered through the streets before heading under the ancient archway into the Virupaksha Temple. Following the spectacle into a large stone courtyard, we watched in amusement as Lakshmi accepted coins from members of the public in her trunk, handed them to her keeper and then blessed the coin-giver by placing her trunk on the crown of their head.

The Virupaksha temple is apparently unchanged in centuries, and but for the cameras and phones being brandished by tourists we could well believe that we were in the heyday of the Vijayanagara empire. When the ceremony began to wind down, we walked back in the moonlight to the guesthouse for a well-earned night’s kip.

Have a great day, whatever your endeavour.

Tommy and Lukey

May 9th and 10th – Mumbai to Bengaluru, then boarding the night train to Hoispet

Song of the day: Dedicated Follower of Fashion by The Kinks
We breakfasted on dhosas and idli at Sai Samrat for the final time, before taxiing it to the airport. This time the flight was relaxed, comfortable, and at no point during the journey did we feel like we were going to die, which was nice. We arrived in Bengaluru at about half past two. The temperature here was up from Mumbai – about 38 degrees – but somehow felt less oppressive.

You might know Bengaluru as Bangalore – like many cities in India it’s name was altered in the early noughties to a more phonetically correct spelling. It’s one of many cities in India which has changed it’s name back from the one that was bestowed on it by the British, who were unable to wrap their tongues around the native pronunciation.  Apparently the name of the city means “Town of Boiled Beans”.
We were driven down a smooth highway by a metered taxi – the lack of room for negotiation made us feel uncomfortable after a fortnight of haggling for every journey. Owing to a bizarre one way system the taxi dropped us a few hundred meters from our hotel and we walked the rest of the way. The Sheetal Residency cost six quid a night and provided a level of luxury that could not hitherto have dreamed of. It contained aircon, clean sheets, a functioning shower and a widescreen TV. After the scurrying of rats, soiled sheets and non-flushing bog of Central Residency in Mumbai, the sight of this luxury gaf was almost tear-inducing. By the time we’d both made use of the plush facilities it had dropped dark and there was no sightseeing to be done. There was nothing else for it but to head for a Kingfisher, followed by a curry in a vegetarian restaurant. After our experience in Balti Towers in Mumbai, we thought that the level of staring, pointing and excessive servitude had reached it’s peak. Again, the waiters at this particular joint managed to crank it up a notch. The food was superb, but whilst we feasted upon Jaipuri, pakoras and parathas, no less than five waiters feasted upon us with their eyes whilst leaning against a wall no more than four feet away from our table. Each time we went to spoon more curry onto our plates, a swarm of waiters would flutter around the table like moths to a flame, elaborately lavishing curry and rice onto our plates. So intense was the level of attention we recieved that I decided to snap a couple of selfies with these gentlemen in the background.

We paid the bill and returned to the privacy of our posh hotel room to watch the evening’s helping of 20/20 action.
The next day we woke late and got going even later. Noon was fast approaching and the sun was high in the sky by the time we began our journey through the dusty streets of Bengaluru to a market called Krishnarajendra. On the way we passed an ox with multi-coloured rainbow horns, and a row of shops, each containing sack upon sack of dried chillis. We smelt the market before we saw it. An aroma – no – an assault of coriander perforated our nostrils. Had somebody come and shoved a sprig up each nostril I don’t think it could have been more pungent. Amongst general scenes of vehicular and bovine pandemomium, Huge carpets of the green herb were being watched over by market traders sat on their haunches. We gravitated through an infinity of vegetables toward a large multi-storey building which looked as if it had been abandoned long ago in a zombie apocalypse. Here we climbed the dingy stairs and walked through an area of hardware shops before coming to a balcony which rewarded us with a view over the flower market a few stories below. As with Mulikghat in Kolkata, the rainbow of colour that greeted us was sensational – I know of nothing like this in the UK, both for scale and variety of flowers. After a few minutes of looking down from our vantage point, we descended into the market itself and allowed ourselves to be dragged around as fascinated flotsam, bobbing along in the river of people that rushed around the various stores. Eventually we made our way out of the building and picked our way through the outskirts of the market.

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After finding our bearings, we walked to Bengaluru fort. What remains of the fort is impressive, but apparently it represents the tip of the iceberg compared to the defences that stood here in the past. Once inside the walls the din of the traffic on the street was barely audible owing to the thickness of the towers surrounding us, and it was nice to spend a few minutes relaxing and looking around the Middle-Eastern architecture which contrasted with most of the buildings we’d seen so far.
Following this we got a bit lost and ended up starving hungry in the grounds of a hospital. It seems that this place was oversubscribed with patients and long queues of bored looking people snaked out from the doorways of the grand looking old buildings. We took the decision to go to the hospital canteen for lunch and took and consumed daal, chapatis and chai with an elderly couple who seemed puzzled as to why we were sitting in the public dining room with them, rather than in the room marked “Doctors Only” beyond the canteen.

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Bengaluru Fort

We walked past the Tipu Sultan’s Palace, which was architecturally impressive but closed to visitors on the day that we visited, before taking a long trek in the heat to the Lalbagh Botanical Gardens. Although there was evidence of British influence, it was a geezer called Hyder Ali and his son, the aforementioned Tipu Sultan, who commissioned and built them in the 18th century. Ali and Tipu were leaders of the Kingdom of Mysore which ruled the roost around these parts before the Brits got involved. We spent an hour or so wandering around the vast expanses of the park, checking out all kinds of gigantic trees, ornamental greenhouses and cute, striped squirrels that looked a bit like chipmunks and seem to be as common in India as grey squirrels are in Britain. I was greeted by a young Indian gentleman of exquisite taste who pointed at me and said “Nice t-shirt bro!” before we we became embroiled in a multiple selfie-taking session with another group of lads. For the record I was wearing a tatty green shirt which I’ve owned since I was sixteen which says “Northern Soul – Keep The Faith” on it. Perhaps it’s not the t-shirt, but the effortless chic of the wearer, which makes an outfit…
At this stage we were pretty hot and sweaty and wanted to make use of the shower in the room. We were due to catch a night train to Hoispet at 10:00 that night and couldn’t be sure of our next opportunity to get clean. We hailed a rickshaw and went back to the hotel before heading down to the station early to get some food. The process of ordering at the station canteen was extremely confusing and involved paying for your food and collecting a ticket with the names of your desired dishes on them, which you would then wave under the nose of one of the chefs behind the food counter. This meant elbowing people out of the way and enduring with British politeness the several queue-jumpers who got their orders in first. The train was an hour late, and in the meantime we lay in the station concourse with a few hundred other people. There always seem to be scores of people lounging around on the floor around Indian railways stations – some homeless, some with time to kill between trains. I kind of like that everybody sits on the floor – there’s a kind of democracy to it, with the destitute and the merely delayed sharing the same space as equals.

image.jpegEventually our train appeared on the arrivals board and we stood on the platform as it began it’s slow-motion approach into the station. The length of Indian trains mean that they take an aeon to stop, and by the time the train comes to a complete halt half of the passengers have already jumped on or off. We found our beds and ignored the attentions of the chaiwallers, preferring to go straight to sleep. It seems to be an inevitability here that your train is going to be delayed by a good hour or two. But then when you look at the distance these services cover, the volume of passengers they carry and the amount of stations they stop at, it’s a wonder that they’re not even more delayed. However, the two best night’s sleep I’ve ever had on sleeper trains were had in India, and I was out like a light from eleven until about five in the morning.

It’s a pity that we’ve had such limited time in some places, but Bengaluru was really a stepping stone on our road to Hampi rather than a destination we’d identified that we wanted to go to.  Like everywhere in India, there’s plenty to fascinate the curious traveller, and we leave knowing that we may only have scratched the surface of what there is to discover here.  Bengaluru is known as a very modern, up and coming city.  We didn’t see that much evidence of this but I think this was more down to our limited time here.  I must say, I regret that we weren’t able to visit the Kingfisher Brewery and sample this nectar straight from it’s source!

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Tomorrow we arrive in Hoispet, where we will take a rickshaw to Hampi.

Have a loverly day, whatever your endeavour.

Tommy and Lukey

 

 

 

May 8th – Mumbai

Song of the day: Stretch Out and Wait by The Smiths “Amidst concrete and clay and general decay, nature must still find a way”

Our final full day in Mumbai. We took the train north from Mumbai Central to Mahim Junction. We climbed a footbridge over the tracks and from that elevated viewpoint we were able to see the undulating patchwork of corrugated roofs that make up the Dharavi Slum. Squeezed in amongst skyscrapers, flyovers and train tracks, Dharavi is a place where a million people live on top of each other within a square mile of the city. It featured heavily in the film Slumdog Millionaire, although now that we’ve been to Dharavi and seen for ourselves, I think that film paints a pretty bleak picture of a place that was in fact in a bizarre way, almost uplifting to visit.
When Luke suggested that we visit one of Mumbai’s infamous slums I was a bit apprehensive – I don’t mind being out of my comfort zone or I wouldn’t have come to India in the first place – but I was a bit worried that we’d be so alien to everything that was around us that we’d be chased away, or attacked, or robbed, or something else bad. Now that we’ve been I feel guilty for having held such a low opinion of the people who live here. My other concern was that we were going to the slum just to go on “Poverty Safari” as it’s described in the Lonely Planet. I don’t know, maybe we were, but Luke shares my curiosity for this kind of thing and I do believe that seeing places like this makes you a better rounded person.

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The slum housing of Dharavi alongside the railway tracks

We came down the steps and passed a huge open wasteground where barefooted kids were playing cricket in the dust. We turned onto a long tarmac road which was lined either side with tiny two storey huts built of random materials. Many of these huts even have satellite dishes poking out of the top – not everybody living here is completely destitute, but they lack alternative housing options. The street throbbed with the usual hustle and bustle of everyday Indian life. Goats and cows of similar stature roamed as they pleased. Beautiful children with mucky faces beamed up at us, occasionally daring to offer an English greeting before running off giggling into the shadows. Some of the huts were entirely open to the street as the owners ran their businesses out of them. Cobblers, tailors, Chaiwallers, butchers, restaurants revealed not only the extent of their craftsmanship, but also the spaces where they and their families eat, sleep and pass the time of day. It’s a humbling sight to be able to fix a family of five and all of their worldly possessions with a swift glance out of the corner of your eye.

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Some of the more “permanent” houses we walked past

At the end of the paved road the slum stretched itself out into dusty, unadopted side streets that existed more out of necessity than design. Thin slivers of dry mud are the corridors that seperate the serpentine rows of makeshift housing, and a million different people tramp the dirt flat as they make their way from one improbable location to another. We saw handshakes and shaking fists, smiles and sneers, laughter and tears. All of human life is here, existing and thriving in conditions that couldn’t be dreamt up in the grimmest of nightmares. If you want a monument to human endeavour – our ability to survive and endure against all odds – don’t look for it in skyscrapers or palaces or parks. Come to Dharavi.
We walked back to the station and took the train south to Mahalaxmi. Here we stood overlooking a little circle of houses, in the middle of which 1026 washing pools are situated. Hundreds of women stood soaking, rinsing, wringing and beating clothes in each of the segregated stone basins. It was one of the first times on our travels in India that the air felt sweet, fresh and clean. Clothes hung everywhere on rooftops and outside windows. On one roof a dozen or so police uniforms swayed in the mid-afternoon breeze, and I wondered how easy it’d be for a crook to pinch one and get up to all kinds of mischief dressed in the attire of the law. Owing to the lack of laundry services we’ve found on our travels, Luke and I have been handwashing our clothes using a bucket of water and a bar of detergent, with which we scrub the clothes. It’s hard work, I can tell you! Usually I’ve washed my clothes just before going for a shower myself, because the process of washing them is that intense in these hot conditions that you end up drenched in sweat. Wringing clothes out is a particularly arduous task which has left me with callouses on my fragile, unworked hands – I never thought I’d be in a position to appreciate the mangle as an invention! Our hats must go off to the ladies of Mumbai who keep the city’s laundry fresh and clean without drawing upon the luxury of a washing machine – an invention which I take all too much for granted back home.

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Beyond the corrugated roofs, hundreds of washing basins at Mahalaxmi

We returned to the hostel to pack up for the following day’s transit to Bengaluru, before returning to Girgaum Chowpatty beach for a a final Bhelpuri and people-watching session. Mumbai was a bit of a slow-burner for us.  That first morning we wondered what all the fuss was about, but as we’ve explored and soaked up the atmosphere here we’ve begun to appreciate the city’s importance to India. There’s no doubt that Mumbai is a city on the move – you’ve only to look at the skyline, which far outstrips London for skyscrapers. There’s also the inevitable poverty which blights such an overpopulated country, and in Mumbai the contrast between rich and poor is made all the more stark by the fact that the different classes live on top of each other – sometimes literally. Here more than anywhere else we’ve been though, you get the impression that even the destitute are on the lookout for a way to break out of that perpetual cycle of poverty. What’s that Oscar Wilde quote? “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars”.
Tomorrow we fly to Bengaluru.
Have a great day, whatever your endeavour
Tommy and Lukey

May 7th – Mumbai

We got up and had a dhosa at Sai Samrat, creatures of habit that we are. We walked to the nearby Mumbai Central Railway Station, and bought a ticket to Churchgate – the final, most southerly stop on the line. The journey cost us five rupees – or five pence – each. From Churchgate Station we walked through a very grand, Victorian-looking part of Mumbai. On our left the gothic High Court of Mumbai building towered over us, and to our right a long strip of park. We peered through the railings to watch overs of various cricket matches that were going off. It was a saturday morning and I suppose what we were watching was an equivalent of pub football in England. There must have been a dozen cricket matches going off at once, each on a full sized pitch. As we walked further along, two bare-footed young boys stood beneath a tree with open carrier bags. In the branches of a tree overhanging the road, their mate was picking mangoes and dropping them into the bags. They looked to have already bagged themselves a good haul, and we wondered whether they might take them to the nearby Crawford market and flog them to a shopkeeper.
Eventually we made it to the southernmost part of Mumbai, where the land meets the sea and a huge ornamental stone arch, known as the “Gateway to India” is situated. The gateway was built by the British Empire to commemorate Queen Victoria’s visit to Bombay. When India gained it’s independence in 1947, the last British soldiers to leave Indian soil marched under the arch and onto their troopships – an iconic moment in this country’s history. Needless to say, we were bombarded with the usual requests to pose for photographs by some Indian lads. They were friendly and polite, and got very excited when I said that I wanted to take a selfie with all of them – they chanted the word “Selfie, selfie, selfie” over and over like some kind of primitive tribe.
We boarded a boat to Elephanta Island. A mile or two out from Mumbai’s busy harbour, a small mound of land juts out of the water, where ancient Hindus carved a network of caves into the rock. Boat journeys are quite cool and novel for the first ten minutes, but in my experience they tend to make time feel as if it’s passing by very slowly. I can’t imagine how I’d have got on in the olden days when it took months by sailing ship to get anywhere – I think I’d have ended up walking the plank out of boredom. Luckily, the tedium of this particular voyage was loudly and spectacuarly interupted by a man throwing up over the side. His wife patted him on the back as he jettisoned his breakfast in several gut-wenching heaves onto the side of the boat, whilst the seagulls provided a mocking chorus of laughter. We passed menacing looking ships belonging to the Indian Navy and an oil tanker the size of a stadium, before eventually arriving at a stone jetty that jutted out a few hundred feet from the island.

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We walked along this causeway, passing up the opportunity to take the miniature train that runs along it’s length because it looked dreadful and had to pause for several minutes whilst a cow was shoed off the line. As we walked along the causeway the waves lapped gently in to shore, bearing upon them all kinds of household junk that had been thrown into the sea. A layer of rubbish about two metres wide seperates open sea from solid ground, like mouldy cornflakes bobbing around in a sea of curdled milk. Elephanta Island itself is beautiful – a rocky outcrop covered in jungle vegetation and patrolled by monkeys – more on these treacherous rogues later. We climbed a set of steps which seemed to wind on into the heavens, though climbing them felt as hot as hell. At the top we posed for more photos with a random Indian family – they told us to say “Cheese!” but Luke substituted this for the word “Paneer”, which apparently provided the family with the most hilarious joke they’d ever heard. We paid our “Foreigner’s Entrance Fee” and explored the impressive cave complex.

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The most impressive thing when studying the length and depth of these caves, is to acknowledge that they were carved out of solid rock. Many hands and many years came together to create something as special as this, and in our age of instant communication and internet, where a million distractions are available at the touch of a button, it’s hard to imagine any civilization having the time and inclination to create something like this ever again. Perhaps in another thousand years we’ll marvel at ancient wall carvings of selfie-stick wielding tourists, but I doubt it.
Statues of Shiva as destroyer and creator stand at the rear of the main cave, holding various ceremonial items in multiple sets of arms. Multiple limbs are a feature of most Hindu Gods, and often if a child is born here with some kind of birth defect which provides it with an extra arm or leg or something, it is seen to be an incarnation of a God. We walked around the other caves that form the Elephanta network. Some of these caves contain large blocks of stone with a kind of trough around them – altars upon which living things were sacrificed to the Gods. There are an alarming number of these blocks scattered around various ancient Hindu buildings we’ve visited, and I wonder just how many animals (or even humans!?) were sacrificed on a daily basis in ancient times.
We sat resting in the sun for a while after completing our tour of the caves. An Indian man came up to us and said: “I am curious, why do you sit in the sun? the shade is much cooler.” We explained that in our own country, we didn’t get much chance to sit in the sun. However, after standing up and looking at the sweaty patches of where we’d been seated, I concede that the man probably had a point. As we walked back we pointed and laughed at a group of monkeys that had surrounded a lady and snatched her water bottle. When I was young my Grandma had a saying: “Don’t laugh at others, because you may be struck comical yourself one day.” How right she was, as instant karma came to bite me in the arse, almost literally. A monkey came sprinting out of the undergrowth and blocked our path. I greeted it with a cheerful “Hello!” the way I would any other sentient being. It hissed and raised it’s chin – a sign of masculine challenge, as I learned in Cambodia – then went for my bottle. At this point I metaphorically (and almost literally) shat myself, and ran as fast as I could away from the creature in question. The word “RABIES, RABIES, RABIES!” screamed an indelible mark into my consciousness like a World War Two air raid siren. After setting a personal best time for the hundred metres, I allowed myself to look over my shoulder. No monkeys were in view – just Luke, doubled up in hysterical fits of laughter. I took a long swig from the coveted water bottle to replace the fluid I’d lost in the sprint, and we continued down the hill to the boat.

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The journey back was unremarkable until we reached the jetty at Mumbai. Owing to the short length of the platform, our boat was forced to moor up against another boat, which was in turn moored up to two identical boats. This meant that in order to reach dry land, we had to hop the gap over to the next boat, and so on until we reached the safety of the jetty. As I have alluded to before in this blog, Indians have a very different attitude to queueing – ie: they don’t do it. Luke and I stepped back and allowed fifty to a hundred odd people to cram onto the starboard side of the boat, pushing and shoving as one person at a time hopped onto the next boat in the sequence. There are times in this country when you can picture yourself being the subject of a rolling news headline passing along the bottom of the screen on BBC News 24 – something along the lines of “Twelve people crushed in boating accident in Mumbai Harbour” – this was one of those times. Fortunately, the entire party was safely transferred to shore and we returned to dry land to continue our adventures.
There is a legendary book called Shanteram, which is set almost entirely in Mumbai. It’s the true story of an Australian man who escaped from prison where he was serving a sentence for armed robbery, came to Mumbai to hide out and ended up falling in love, becoming a kind of doctor for people in the slums, and generally living an extraordinary life. Luke has read it and I’m now in the process of doing the same, so our next stop was a bar called Leopolds, which features heavily in the book. Leopolds was established in 1871 and became a hangout for the seedier characters of Mumbai. These days, due to the popularity of Shanteram the place is a lot more touristy, but it still made for a really atmospheric place to have a beer and some food. In a break from curry, I had a buffalo burger (no beef on the menu in India, remember) and it went down a treat.
Our final destination for the day was the Chhatraparti Shivarti Terminal (formerly known as the Victoria Terminal) – another example of respledent Victorian architecture, with turrets, towers and stained-glass windows in abundance. It is still the main railway station in Mumbai, and officially the busiest railway station in Asia – which is some claim to fame, I can tell you. Anybody who’s seen the film Slumdog Millionaire will be familiar with scenes that were shot in and around the station area. Sadly it might also ring a bell in people’s minds because of the terrorist attacks that occurred here and a few other sights in Mumbai in 2008, when 163 people were killed. There is a large armed presence in most of the places we have been to in India, as well as metal detectors in every railway station. This being my first trip I have no basis for comparison, but I imagine security has been tightened a lot since before 2008.

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We returned to the hostel for a bit before going to a restaraunt round the corner for tea. Here we witnessed the most bizarre excesses of Indian hospitality yet. Our waiter was short and smartly dressed with a pencil moustache. Both in looks and latterly in mannerisms, he could well have played Manuel in a Bollywood version of Fawlty Towers, or if you’ll indulge me… Balti Towers. Firstly, I got as far as ordering my own food before he abruptly buggered off, having taken only half our order. He disappeared for five minutes and then returned. We attempted to explain that Luke wanted to order his food too, which was lost on him. In the end a bloke who spoke good English at the next table had to translate for us. Even at this point, Manuel suddenly walked off halfway through Luke’s order. When he returned, he had a jug of water, pouring a glass for each of us. Luke completed his order and eventually the food came out together, which was a minor miracle. Many Indian waiters have a tendency to spoon your curry out onto the plate for you, and Manuel was no exception. He also topped up our water and poured two fresh glasses for us, in spite of the fact that we hadn’t touched the first two.  By now the table was getting quite crowded. He retreated to the end of the room and watched us like a hawk, returning at random intervals to spoon various bits of food onto our plates, in spite of our looks of bafflement. Towards the end of the meal, when I thought the coast was clear, I picked up the spoon to scoop the last of my Jaipuri onto my plate. From out of nowhere Manuel materialised, snatched the spoon out of my hand and proceeded to do what I could have done for myself. He was too wierd and whimsical to get annoyed with, and at the end of the meal he recieved a large tip for the entertainment value that he’d provided. As we were about to pay he poured us each a third glass of water, which needless to say remained untouched.

The deference shown by some waiters in India has made us somewhat uncomfortable – though amusing at times, I can’t help thinking that this excessive desire to please might be borne out of the Caste system, or even represents a hangover from the days of the British Empire. After Episode one of “Balti Towers”, we went back to the Central Guesthouse to sleep after another successful day.

Have a great day, whatever your endeavour.

Tommy and Lukey

6th May – Mumbai

Song of the Day: Jai Ho! (You Are My Destiny) by A.R.Rahman and the Pussycat Dolls. Why? It reminds me of the film Slumdog Millionaire (Luke would like to point out that he does not like this song, but reluctantly agrees that it is a good choice because of it’s connections with Mumbai.)
My first night’s kip at the Mumbai Central Guesthouse wasn’t good. Perhaps it was the whirring of the fan, or the distant sound of traffic horns, or the too-close-for-comfort squeaking and scrabbling of rats in the roof above. Luke managed to get a full night’s kip, and it seems to have been a feature of this trip that one of us sleeps like a log, and the other lies awake for hours. We lay in for once and had a kind of brunch at the Sai Samrat restaurant, which was next door to our lodgings. The dhosas were divine and the chai – well, I’ve had one bad cup in the whole time we’ve been out here – it rarely fails to revive and revitalise.
On first appearance, this city is more orderly and affluent than previous destinations. This is an illusion – after all, this is India. Apparently, 60% of the population of Mumbai live in slums. For every skyscraper, gated community and speedboat in the harbour, there are a thousand people living in poverty. It sounds grim, but, many of these people have migrated from elsewhere in India to be here. There are jobs to be had and money to be made, and relatively speaking, many of these people would rather be here than anywhere else. The term “slum” is in some ways quite degrading, and does a diservice to a large portion of these resourceful people, who in the absence of proper housing have built their own shelters out of whatever materials they can find. They operate trades out of their little corrugted shacks – tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, butchers, you name it. Theyre all here, earning a relatively honest rupee from providing a service to their makeshift communities.

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We spent the early afternoon walking around, getting quite hot and bothered and not seeing all that much. Though the temperature is a bit cooler than Varanasi and Kolkata  – 35 instead of 40, the heat here seems to suffocate you in exactly the same way. In spite of the heat we covered some serious ground and came to our first sight of the day – the impressive Crawford Market. This grand colonial building of a slightly gothic look was purpose-built to house the market by none other than Rudyard Kipling’s Dad, Lockwood Kipling. The dimly-lit market that the building was constructed for is quite opposite to the orderly, pompous regime who built it. It’s a pungent, humid, throbbing throng of hard bargaining. Mangoes piled as high as people teeter in impossible piles, whilst watermelons as big as beach balls are hacked into managable portions by murderous-looking machete men. A menagerie of caged animals barked, scratched, squawked, and croaked at each other from opposite sides of the narrow gangway between two shops. This is something I don’t get about Indian businesses – instead of setting up shop in a unique area which might require the services of that particular business, it seems that tradesmen selling the same wares will congregate together. Surely there would be more money to be made from finding your own patch, instead of becoming the fifteenth pet shop in the same square mile of Mumbai? A peculiar habit.

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After another hour of hot, sweaty walking the huge, looming presence of the Wankhede Stadium (no sniggering) came into view. The Wankhede Stadium is Mumbai’s main cricket ground – host to the odd international test match, and home of the Mumbai Indians, the city’s IPL team. As soon as we knew we were coming to Mumbai we got excited at the prospect of watching a 20/20 game. We checked the fixtures and discovered that there was a home game on the Sunday – our last night in Mumbai. Armed with this information we set out for the stadium with the intention of booking tickets. We walked along a glorious sun-baked promenade that overlooked the Arabian Sea, and attempted to enter the ground to buy tickets. Several security personell blocked our way and said “It is not possible. There is no game here.” Then something that we’d read weeks ago suddenly dawned on us! Because of the intense heatwave and drought that parts of India are currently suffering, the Mumbai Indians were banned from playing at their home ground because it would drain precious water supplies from the city in order to keep the pitch in a playable condition. The “home game” that was advertised was due to be played in Jaipur, some 900 odd kilometres away! This, along with the fog which obscured the mountains in Darjeeling, is the second time that the weather has denied us. For all the cricket matches in England that are called off due to rain, we came all the way to India to have the opposite issue.

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We went back to the hotel to cool down and rehydrate before one last foray into the unknown. The beach at Girgaum Chowpatty is an incredibly popular location, and we thought it’d be a great place to watch the sunset. Crawling with holidaymakers, chaiwallers and nine to fivers looking to relax after a hard day at the office, Chowpatty is a great place to spend a few hours peoplewatching. Up until this point, we’d gotten used to seeing the everyday people of India with their nose to the grindstone. Whether driving, selling, crafting, building, begging, hustling or farming, we had seen people occupied in the act of getting by. How nice it was to see kids playing, couples courting and families united in having a good time. We sat down at a beach cafe and each had one of Mumbai’s legendary Belhapuris. A belhapuri is a mound of puffed rice, dough, chutney, onion, tomato, chilli, coriander and anything else the chef can think of. The puffed rice gives it the same audible “snap crackle and pop” as rice crispies, and the chutney and chilli make it a slightly spicy sweet and sour treat. We rounded the evening off with a couple of Kingfisher strong and a curry in one of Mumbai’s very trendy, up and coming bars.
That’s all for today.
Have a good day, whatever your endeavour
Tommy and Lukey

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5th May – Varanasi to Mumbai

Luke’s alarm struck at half four, and it was difficult to overcome the initial fatigue that comes with being on the road without the appropriate level of shut-eye. These early starts have been a battle, but at the end of the day not once have I regretted getting out of bed. We headed for the Brown Bread Bakery, which was completely covered in metal shutters. We found ourselves in a pitch black alley in the company of half a dozen stray dogs, a cow and various piles of rubbish. After a while a bloke walked up to us and said “Brown Bread? I am your boat man”. We gave him our voucher and followed him down to the riverbank, where he immediately delegated a small boy to the task of rowing us out onto the river. We had inadvertently become employers of a child labourer without having any say in the matter whatsoever. The young lad bumped into several boats as he struggled to get us away from the ramshackle flotilla that was moored up to the bank. When finally we broke free from the other boats, a man called to him from the bank, and the boy started rowing towards him for all he was worth. For a short while we were concerned that we were going to be boarded by a barbaric pirate of the Ganges, but our fears were shortlived.

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The man swapped places with the young boy, who scurried off into the town. The man rowed us towards the Manikarnika Ghat of yesterday. Even at this early hour, the pyres were burning and families were surrounding their dearly departed. From the other side of the river, through a clutch of cloud, the sun began to rise on a new day. Each bank of the river offered a different perspective – on one side death, and the past. The other offered life, the present and the future. As I always do at moments such as these, I’d like to point out that you don’t need to be religious to appreciate the power of these moments. The boat ride lasted an hour and to anybody who wants to go to Varanasi, I would recommend a thousand times the sunrise boat trip along the river.

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We returned to the and pottered about a bit before taking a tuk tuk to the railway station. The plan was to fly to Mumbai, but we wanted to take advantage of the pre-paid taxi stands that operate at most major stations in India. We bagged a rickshaw from the station to the airport for 450 rupees – an excellent price considering the journey was some 35 kilometres. We got to the airport four hours before our flight, and spent the meantime bored, pottering about in the thankfully air-conditioned terminus. Of course, our Spicejet flight was delayed by forty minutes – on the screen it claimed that the reason was “Security”.
Our flight took off at ten past eight, and the next two and half hours held nothing but anxiety for me – not so for Luke, who somehow managed to bury his head in his jacket and go to sleep. We hit turbulence and flew through a storm during which I could see the lightning flashing in the distance. The seatbelt sign was on for almost an hour after takeoff, then, bizarrely, the Captain of the plane came out and began serving food and drink to the passengers! I’m glad he had confidence in his copilot, but in my mind I had visions of the spotty work experience kid flying the plane, whilst the pilot ensured the passengers were well fed and hydrated. As we were about to land he finally buggered off back to his cockpit to start earning his money. We flew in over a moonlit sea, over hills covered in slums, and finally touched down onto the tarmac at Mumbai.
We purchased a pre-paid taxi journey to our hotel, although our driver clearly had no idea where it was. As we attempted to engage him in conversation about the directions, he said “No English” and put his foot down. We drove past legions of skyscrapers – far more than the London skyline has to offer. Our driver wound the window down a couple of times to ask fellow taxi drivers for directions, before finally coming to rest outside our hostel.

On the pavement in front of us two portly, ageing police officers were standing over a drunk who had fallen into the gutter. They both held bamboo canes in their hands and in the absencce of any better ideas, they were applying gentle whacks to his legs and arms in order to get him on his feet. To be fair to them, their hearts clearly weren’t into police brutality. I don’t think it would matter if they beat him black and blue right in front of us, the guy was too hammered to even sit up straight, and we left the spectacle outside in order to climb the stairs up to our guesthouse. The Central Hotel is a grotty, tired kind of place which passed it’s sell by date about forty years ago, but we didn’t care – we just needed to sleep.
That’s all for today – a day of travel and not much else.
Have a good day, whatever your endeavour.
Tommy and Lukey

4th May – Mughal Sarai to Varanasi

Song of the day: The Beatles – Tomorrow Never Knows “Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream – it is not dying… it is not dying…”

Luke’s alarm woke us at five, and we had a couple of chais from the vendor as he came past. From talking to my mate from the evening before, we discovered that the train was now running two hours behind. We sat playing cards and watching the world go by for a couple of hours until we arrived in Mughal Sarai station. My new friend asked me for my e-mail address so we could communicate as I had some “Good ideas”. I’m not sure what he meant by this, but I gave him my e-mail all the same as he seemed like a nice geezer. He shook our hands several times before we excused ourselves and hopped off the train.
We were immediately confronted by three men who followed us along the platform, quoting prices at us for a rickshaw journey to Varanasi. The disadvantage to being an obvious tourist is that touts and dodgy salespeople see you coming a mile off. We looked for a pre-paid taxi meter, all the while ignoring the attention of three seperate blokes quoting prices and asking us where we were from. When finally our patience was exhausted, we asked one of the blokes how much it’d cost to Varanasi. “100 rupees” he said, and smiled, exposing a gap in his teeth. In the absence of a better option we took him up on it. When we’d loaded our bags into his tuk tuk he asked us where we were staying. We told him the Hare Rama guesthouse and he let out a sigh and shook his head. “Main bridge is closed so we will have to drive many kilometres round. 400 rupees for the extra journey.” To be honest readers, we couldn’t be arsed to argue. The amount was nominal – four quid instead of one quid for a 15 kilometre journey. But it’s often the principal you find yourself arguing over, rather than the actual amount you’re being overcharged. We accepted the quadruple hike and buzzed along into Varanasi. Predictably, he zoomed straight over the bridge which he had claimed to be closed. We paid him the money and stepped out of the tuk tuk into pandemomium.

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Scooters, cars, cows, holy men, beggars, tourists, market traders, cycle rickshaws and dogs contrived to make walking in a straight line completely impossible. We made our way as best we could down a “pedestrianised” street which hung heavy with the exhaust fumes of tuk tuks. We walked through a market where traders had assembled fine arrays of vegetables on sheets of linen. There were cows everywhere, strolling around as if they owned the place, which to all intents and purposes, they do.

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Following the map in our Lonely Planet guide, we walked towards the river and were rewarded with our first view of the Ganges. With backpacks front and back we had little time to enjoy it, as the immediate concern was that of finding shelter from this absolute insanity. I confess to having one of those rare moments on the road where you think “What the hell have I done, why am I doing this to myself?” But then a ray of light came, in the form of a toothless simpleton. He approached us barefoot, in a filthy open shirt and asked us where we were going. We told him the “Hare Rama Guesthouse” and he said that he knew the place. A Chinese girl who had been trying to help us read our map shrugged her shoulders to suggest that this was our best option. Against our better judgement – especially after the tuk tuk incident – we followed him as he hopped and weaved his way up some backstreets, singing the Hindu mantra “Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama. Rama Rama, Hare hare, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna….”
A bunch of lads were preparing the most gigantic vat of curry I’ve ever laid eyes on as bhangra music pounded out from an ancient speaker. Possibly the fattest cow I have ever seen leaned against the wall of the narrow backstreet, reducing the passing space to about 25% of what it should be. Normally it would cause me a great degree of trepidation to pass such potentially unruly beast, but the cows of Varanasi are a particularly pampered breed – they want for nothing and they’re not on the menu, so they don’t appear to have the same unpredictable temperament as their British brethren. We continued to follow the toothless simpleton until he stopped outside a dark, filthy alleyway leading off from the larger backstreet. “Hare Rama this way!” he beamed, then dashed off up ahead singing his mantra. We followed through the dark, filthy passage, breathing through our mouths and trying to ignore the squelch of whatever was underfoot. He took us to a door and stood there, proud as punch before beckoning us to go in. I had no other money to hand so I gave him ten rupees for his troubles – he was indeed toothless, but simple he was not. He bowed deeply before melting away into the morning chaos.
In spite of the filthy approach, the hostel was good. A huge old house on four storeys owned by a Hindu family who occupied the ground floor. The room numbers were creepily painted onto each door with red paint that had run to look like blood, but the room was big and airy, with aircon and wifi – and all for 3 quid each a night. As I showered a perverse lizard clung horizontally to the wall and stared down at me – I’m not used to having an audience, but it seemed fairly content to remain where it was. After taking an hour to gather ourselves we ventured back out into the city.

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“She’s well acquainted with the touch of a velvet hand, like a lizard on a window pane!”

Our first mission was to locate a little shop called “Brown Bread Bakery”, who as a sideline provide reputable boatmen to take tourists on a sunrise trip up the river. The labyrinth of back streets and alleyways in this town are more than a little confusing, but we recieved help in the form of a well-spoken young English gent who appeared to have “gone local”. Fascinating as this place is, I can’t imagine ever living here – the cultural void would be too great a gap to leap after a few weeks. Following his directions as best we could, we managed to locate the bakery and book a tour for the next morning, which set us back 150 rupees each. This was infinitely preferable than negotiating with the oarsmen by the river, who apparently enjoy the trick of saying “The price is 100” and then waiting until you’re literally up the creek without a paddle before they say “100 US dollars”.
Varanasi is the holiest city in India – integral to the Hindu faith. Millions of Hindus make the pilgrimage here to wash away their sins in the sacred river Ganges – although I have to say you wouldn’t see me dipping so much as a toe in there. To die in Varanasi is thought to be a particularly good use of your time, as it provides you with Moksha – liberation from the cycle of reincarnation that forms a central part of Hindu ideology. Families from all over India will come to Varanasi to have their dearly departed cremated on the banks of the river – a very moving ceremonial process, which we were priveledged to witness.
We walked past our hostel and down to the river. Varanasi really hasn’t changed much in hundreds, maybe thousands of years. Various invasions have lead to the destruction and rebuilding of the town, but culturally it seems that things are pretty much as they have been for a loooong time. For almost the entire length of the city, the bank of the river is paved with steps leading down to the water – these are the ghats. Some ghats are used for cremation, some are used for washing clothes, and some are purely to allow access to the water. We made our way north, walking along the riverfront which even at this early hour was thronging with orange-clad holy men, goats, cows and touts. The touts are desperate to flog you something, anything, and this is evident in their line of questioning. “You wanna boat trip?” “No.” “You wanna tour guide? “No.” “You wanna see my Uncle’s shop?” “No.” “You wanna buy hash?” “NO!” Some are more persistent than others and they can make standing and admiring the view very difficult. The saddest thing about this is that so many people in India are genuinely friendly and like to help you or just pass the time of day with you. The more annoying touts you meet in a day, the less inclined you are to stop to chat with somebody who might be genuinely just be being nice.

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We made our way north along the bank, ignoring the attentions of men lying in the bottom of their rowing boats, trying to make a sale. We passed a dozen water buffaloes that were being supervised in their morning ablutions by a string bean of a man. As we approached the Manikarnika Ghat, the smell of smoke began to hang heavy in the air. We rounded the corner, and touts advised us that no photos were to be taken beyond this point as it was a holy place, before using this piece of advice as a stepping stone in the process of asking us to buy stuff off them. We climbed some steps and found ourselves standing over a muddy bank of the river. Three pyres of wood burned the same shade of orange as the robes of the holy men who gathered at the banks. A body wrapped completely in brightly-coloured cloth and borne on a bamboo stretcher, was lowered into the Ganges before being placed atop another pyre. Family members huddled around, praying and singing and chanting.

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Credit to Luke Partridge for this photo!

Though all of this was a strange and sobering sight, we felt hugely pr to witness this ceremonial end to a person’s journey upon the Earth. There was nothing really disturbing or macabre about the process – this is how it’s been done, right here, for more than a millennium. We lingered a few minutes before climbing a set of stairs that took us onto the backstreets. Piles of wood, twenty foot high, dwarf the people who pass by beneath them. This is the wood used in the cremations – a big business in Varanasi. Sets of cast-iron scales are loaded with logs and counter-balanced with weights to establish how much wood is needed to completely cremate each body. Different kinds of wood seem to have become a bit of a status symbol, with sandalwood being one of the most expensive woods on offer to those who can afford it. The sun was intense as ever, and the heat from the pyres even from fifty feet away had taken it out of us. We decided to go back to the hostel and sit out the hottest part of the day.

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After another shower and chill-out – may I remind you it was 40 odd degrees celsius! We walked south down the banks and investigated the various ghats. The touts were less frequent here and the general lack of people made our meander a bit more soothing. More water buffaloes were being washed and kids played cricket using bins or painted bits of wall as a wicket. 20/20 is understandably massive in India with the advent of the Indian Premier League, and as a result kids seem to enjoy smashing the ball as far as possible and dreaming of making the big time. No boundaries are marked out here, but if your tennis ball lands without bouncing in the putrid filth of the Ganges, among the weed-ridden boat ropes, you can be sure you’ve hit a six. A man approached us and pointed to the middle of the river, where a big metal boat appeared to be dredging the bottom of the river. “It’s to make the river clean.” “Oh. I think they’ll need more boats.” (A pause.) “You wanna boat ride?” “No”.
We were again defeated by the sun, but I think we’d seen all that we needed to see of the southern ghats. At almost the furthest part of our walk a pyre had been erected but not yet lit – a youngish looking man lay on his back on top of the pyre, his eyes now forever closed to the majesty and madness of the world that he left behind. Behind us twenty-odd blokes busied themselves at various points along a spindly bamboo scaffolding that was perhaps thirty feet high. Surely no other place in the world can be so full of death and life, intertwined to the point that the lines are almost blurred into one. Varanasi is a city that perfectly illustrates the cycle of life and death – the perpetual wheel of existence that we’re all a part of.
We ate at a restaurant just up from the main Dashashwamedh Ghat, before heading down there with a couple of thousand pilgrims to watch the nightly Ganga Aarti (river worship) ceremony. The ceremony was due to start at seven and we managed to book a good seat overlooking the whole ceremony a good half hour before it started. Unfortuantely a load of Hindu ladies came to sit behind us and shooed us to the side because they couldn’t see past us. I didn’t know the Hindi for “We were here first” so we moved without making a scene. The ceremony consisted of a lot of exotic Indian music, a singer/chanter of hypnotic mantras, and the lighting of various candles, incense burners and torches by five men dressed in robes, who sat on platforms and performed co-ordinated acts of worship towards the river. The ceremony lasted about an hour and although incredible, I must admit I didn’t have a clue what was going on and my arse was incredibly numb from being sat on the same concrete floor the whole time.
When the ceremony was over, we walked along the river and realised that there had been another copycat ceremony just round the corner from where we were. Of course, the touts were out in force and we were blessed by a small child who rubbed red dye into our foreheads, before placing a mix of orange flowers and petals in our hands. We sensed the oncoming attempt to extort money, but we went with the flow because the kid was quite harmless and cute. He lead us down to the river where he began uttering various cantations in his own language. To be fair, he could have just been swearing at us and we woudn’t have had a clue, but we’d gone past the point of no return. He got us to repeat a series of blessings for our family, before throwing a handful of petals into the river. It went something a bit like this:
BOY: Say Shiva…
US: Shiva…
BOY: Krishna…
US: Krishna…
BOY: Mother’s name…
US: Mother’s name…
BOY: No, Say your Mother’s names!
ME: Joy…
LUKE: Rosie…
BOY: Joyce and Posie… Ohm!
US: Ohm!
BOY: Now throw your petals into the river…
(We do so. Repeat the above process about fifty times, adding Father’s name as well.)
BOY: Now, for this blessing to work you must pay me either 5000 or 10000 rupees, whichever you prefer.
US: Are you having a laugh!? Is he having a laugh!?
We fled the scene, all the time being pursued by the young hustler. I felt like explaining to him that he had a lot to learn, and that if he was going to fleece people, he should do it for a sensible amount. In the end I gave him twenty rupees, which he snatched off me then wheeled away to find another victim. I turned round to see Luke stood there with a frown on his face, whilst a filthy man was holding his arm and pressing it in various locations. “Luke, what the hell is going on!?” “Arm massage sir! for tips only – free service!” That was the final straw. After Luke had liberated his arm from this no doubt unqualified street masseuse, we beat a hasty retreat to the hostel.
There is no way for me to convey the absolutely baffling nature of Varanasi to you without you going for yourself, but the words above are my best attempt. In well under 24 hours Luke and I felt that we had seen as much as we had in three days in Kolkata and Darjeeling.
Sorry it’s been such a long one – I’ll do my best not to ramble on next time!
Have a great day, whatever your endeavour.
Tommy and Lukey