Archive for the 'India 2009/10' Category

Dear Chaps, Chicas and Chai Wallahs

The rumors are true… I am leaving India. My number is up and the time is right to ride with the next wave of opportunity. This has sincerely been the most incredible, intense and intoxicating nine months of my little life thus far.

In no particular order and from the very top of my head; I have been thrown out of trains, bitten by giant ants, slapped in the face by bus conductors, witnessed bike accidents, fallen asleep on pillions, forged documents, bribed ticket men and officials of the high commission, got trapped in a guarded airport, lost in the Himalayas, been an illegal immigrant for a month and relinquished bodily waste from both ends at the same time (twice on the morning before a flight). All this and I somehow managed to refrain myself from getting into a fight with a rickshaw wallah or cabbie.

In India I found a slice of heaven in a piece of hell. A paradise of people in place and time. And of the most important lessons I learned, that time is finite and place is indefinite. It’s the people that I strive, to seek, to find. Love you and miss you.

See you in the global village

An Indian Finale

Friday 23rd April 15:01

I settled on ending my Indian journey with a weekend in Jaipur, a weekend in Varanassi and endless partying and chillaxing with my favourite peeps in between. India had other plans. I came quickly to the conclusion that I couldn’t leave without a proper goodbye. So I quit work last Wednesday and left a fortnight gap for anything and everything that constitutes a proper goodbye.

Tuesday night I took dinner in Machan with Ale. Wednesday was my final day in office so I ran around getting bureaucratic forms signed and pretending I would miss the monotony. Wednesday night was my last ladies night, so we hit UP and Capitol, me, Karol, Ira, Diana and Ale, with the usual antics. As India would have it, I developed a migraine the following day and fell ill for the rest of the week. Thursday, Friday and Saturday I was pretty much bed bound. Plans for Jaipur thwarted. I managed a film on Saturday with Kez, Mimi and Ale but by Saturday night I was worried and rushed a visit to Max Hospital. With a temperature of 101, the doctor gave me a jab that temporarily made things right and I left with a bag full of pills. The antibiotics and pain killers seemed to do the trick, though there were hell-raising moments when they wore off. The tests came back from the hospital all clear but they wouldn’t give me a clue what it might be; Typhoid, Heat Stroke? Anyway, I spent the week recovering and now I am back to full strength, if a little thinner for it. Not how I had the week planned, but then I couldn’t have flown home earlier even if I wanted with the polluted European airspace. Clearly, India has its own finale in store for me.

By Wednesday night I was on my last batch of antibiotics and fit enough for Ira Mam’s birthday dinner in Machan. Thursday Night we hosted “Farewell of the Century,” hiring out Cafe Morrison for an open bar night. Combined farewells for me, Ira, Mari and Karol with a few birthdays thrown into the mix. It made for one hell of a farewell party and we packed the place with friends of friends. This weekend was supposed to be Varanassi, but a few last minute dropouts prompted me to hop off the bandwagon. My last weekend in India, I would rather invest the time in the company of my closest of friends than a 15 hour train.

Monday 26th April 14:10

How time passes by when you least expect or desire it. An idle fortnight at Kapoors and I still haven’t come to terms with my leaving, I don’t quite believe it yet. At least, I have been striving to make the most of my last few days. Friday night Kez, Ale, Hafdis, Mimi and I went to Kuki for Arabian nights, followed by a short stint at a house party in Hauz Khas. Saturday I accompanied Kez and Mimi to Khan market in Delhi, stopping by Lodi Gardens for a little rest and relax in the evening. Gurgaon again for dinner before we took off with Ale and Hafdis to meet Ira and Mari in Three Floors. The club closed early so we finished the night chilling at Hex Tax. Sunday was more relaxed, a movie in Ambi and dinner at Mocha. Later in the evening an experimental electronic band did a live set with the IPL Cricket Final in the background. Kez, Mimi and I relaxed with a hookah enjoying the spirited vibe of chirpy Indians, live music and a cricket final. A long rickshaw ride home and a movie at Kapoors. Today I am beginning to think about washing and packing. Doesn’t seem real but I should get down to it, only two days remain!

Wednesday 28th April 12:31

Sitting in India Ghandi Airport, perhaps for the last time in a long while. Still refuse to believe I am leaving my home for the past nine months, I don’t suppose it will hit until the dreary welcoming of Heathrow Airport. Nine months can be a long time when you make yourself at home.

The finale continued Monday evening with a visit to Big Bazaar to buy food for my last family dinner at the Kapoors. I met Mimi in Ambi and in the midst the shopping hustle my flip flops broke and I was forced to walk the distance to the supermarket bare foot, quite the entertainment for the locals. Family dinner at home and a film in true Mimine Kapoor style. Yesterday began with an early wakeup call and a cab into Delhi with Mari and Ira. Ira dropped into a visa centre while I took a coffee with Mari. Then we headed to Janpath market to hunt out some last minute gifts. On the way to Dili Hut the driver tried to clock up some extra km by taking a long route, by which time we were sufficiently hot and tired to give up and turn back for Gurgaon. In this heat, it is difficult to tolerate such Indian frivolity. Back at Kapoors late afternoon, I made my last cash withdrawal and opted for an afternoon nap rather than to begin packing. An early rise and a morning in Delhi is enough to exhaust me.

I woke in time for the first visitor of my final gathering at the Kapoors as I bid my goodbyes and prepare for leaving. Enough people stopped by to remind me of how much | am leaving behind. Of course, it wouldn’t have been a true Indian finale without a bit of drama. Yasmine developed a sudden pain and was whisked of to Max hospital for a few hours, seems we have both served time in this place of late. Suffice to say she will be fine and was fit enough to accompany me to the airport this morning. Mimi helped wake me at 6:30AM to commence packing, I was never in the mood for it before. Goodbyes to Anna, Kez and Jacek on their way to work and a final Mazaar drink at the airport before checking in. It rained last night and this morning, first time in so many months. India is mourning for me.

Friday 30th April 11:25 BST

This quiet is erie, the sound of chirping birds and the wind in the trees. The sun is glaring through the French windows but the temperature is a chilly 16 versus 40. I am donning trousers and a jumper and my feet have never been so clean. I am back in Swanage, my home town and personal retreat when life necessitates such transitions. The flight was smooth, no volcanic dust or Indian delays. Jet Airways were satisfactory. The jet lag is not so bad and nothing tangible has changed. I recall the first sighting of mainland as we descended over the Thames estuary and London came into view. So starkly different from a landing in Delhi, beautiful crisp green and blue with organised little conurbations and tarmac roads. What a difference nine hours on a plane can make. This is not the real world, at least for billions of others. It’s barely real enough for me. A day and a half to unpack and unwind, already I am feeling restless and lost. My mind is relating to distant sounds; the sound of the water filter beeping, the pump in the back yard, the bell of rickshaws and the honk of cars. In India I felt alive. No regrets, timing was impeccable and there was never a debate about leaving Guragon. Yet the inevitable longing for noise and life and yearning for missed friends will haunt the ensuing weeks while I gather strength for the next step. And before I know it, I shall be back on that plane again headed for pastures new.

Gallivanting again

Monday afternoon, back in the regime. Dhal and japati sit weightily in my stomach post company lunch with Kez. A cappuccino courtesy of the Cafe Coffee Day machine sweetens the aftertaste, my fingernails are stained yellow. However, the regime is different now. Alex hopped off on his travels last week leaving me relegated to a seat behind a new wave of trainees that have commandeered our usual workspace. A sense of change in the air, I feel like mother India is done with me, chewed, chundered and spat me out, and I don’t much feel like outstaying my welcome. It has not long been like this, but its been a long time coming.

The fortnight after Amritsar I didn’t travel, I guess the downtime with our 6th Kapoor was entertainment enough. I recall an Fbar night somewhere in there, Mimi’s first night back in the city, a Saturday night house party in Gurgaon, standard ladies night in UP, Machan meal on Friday with a couple of Sri Lankan guys and on to Mo’s Reggae Raja at Cafe Morrison before retreating to Hex Tax. A Delhi house party on Saturday and a double movie marathon to recover on Sunday. Kapoors business as usual. Then along came Monday and Alex’s final family dinner turned into extended family. And that was it. Alex fled on Tuesday morning and I disappeared a few hours later.

I have been gallivanting again. Another impulse decision on the strength of a weak job prospect, I packed off to Singapore on a whim, the second time in almost as many months. This is how it went.

Wednesday 23:27 Touched down 6:30 in the morning. Not much sleep on the flight but Kingfisher were as accommodating as always. Booked into the familiar Frankel Hostel and took a much needed power nap. Awoke to a potbellied American sealing duck tape around the gaps of an unused door. The eccentric says he is an ex-navy officer come property developer who now resides in Jakarta married to the queen of Indonesia. She has five mansions in Jakarta and he lives in the third biggest. It’s impossible to take the guy seriously, especially given he is staying in a hostel, but he does have a rather conspicuous Jade ring on his right hand. Late morning I had breakfast at the corner restaurant and took off to find the offices where I will be interviewed tomorrow and Friday. A brief stopover at City Hall to see the harbour, then back to the hostel. Jas canceled plans for ladies night so I took dinner at a hawkers in Bedok market and sat watching a Mandarin flick over a beer.

This trip was always a risk taking venture. I’m not on holiday, I’m shopping for a job and there’s a good chance I’ll come back without one. Even so, it won’t be wasted. The second time I’ve passed through the city this year, I feel very acquainted. That’s what I enjoy the most about my travels, really getting to know a place and it’s people. It’s another dot on the map where I know I can safely retreat, another pocket of familiarity in the global village.

Friday 15:53 The interviews took place yesterday and today. Yesterday was more of a “warm up,” a company I’m not so interested in but a prospect worth pursuing all the same. I spent the first part of the morning, breakfast at the bakery outside Kembangan MRT and straight to the company’s office. The remainder of the morning and early afternoon I spent looking around a Buddhist museum on the top floor of a temple and lunch in China Town. Back to the hostel to cool down in the comfort of the AC. Early evening I ventured into Little India, a place avoided on the previous excursion for obvious reasons. Yet I needed something to do and this seemed like an option.
 
Little India was exactly that. How curious it is that a culture so strong can be pristinely preserved in a bubble inside another. Indians, mostly guys, anywhere and everywhere loitering in the street and lying on the pavement. Bollywood movies and Hindi music splurging out of smoke filled corners, cars ruling the road with their horns and people walking right at you. Of particular note, the mass of men jostling for attention outside Western Union. A handful of security guards are prudently placed to retain some force of order, this is Singapore after all.
 
A brief snack in a vaguely Indian mall and I’d had enough of all things India. Back to China Town, where I can breathe. A spot of shopping and perusing while I wait for Jas to cop off work and meet her at the hawkers close to her place for a midnight drink and a natter.
 
This morning was a similar routine. Breakfast at the bakery and a 10:30 interview. This time I am much more interested and the interview goes well. They have asked for an answer today so I took a few hours to mull it over. I grabbed a cab to meet Jas for her lunch break before coming back to the hostel. I’ve decided already, will call in the next hour. The details are yet to be worked out, so it’s still tentative. But it looks likely I’ll be setting up shop here in June. This evening, dinner and a few celebratory drinks with Jas. I think I’ve got what I came for.

Monday 15:27 Saturday morning we both took it easy with a lie-in. Walking around in the humidity of this city just seems to destroy you. Early afternoon Jas picked me up and we met an old friend of hers for lunch in a local hawkers and a beer in a “British” pub. Afterwards Jas and I head to China Town to pick up some Chinese tea, souvenirs that I never got around to procuring last time. Then we catch a film, Clash of the Titans. After dinner in a Thai restaurant we finish the night over a beer in Red Dot, our first evening outing when I last came with Alex.

Sunday afternoon in Singapore

Sunday we took lunch in a mall by the esplanade, a brisk walk until the humidity got too much and contemplation over an iced tea by the Merlion statue. Time got away from us and soon it was 3pm, back to the airport via the hostel. The flight plan was less than convenient this time around, arriving in Mumbai 20:55 local and leaving for Delhi 6:05 the next morning. With nowhere to spread I snoozed in my seat until the gate opened at 4, boarding at 5. I slept the two hours to Delhi and now I am exhausted. The pre-paid taxi from the airport was the same old, driving in all manner of rage when I refused to pay the toll charge included in the fare (as always). So exasperated by the traffic he squeezed motorcyclists off the road and catalyzed a minor accident knocking one guy off his bike. He went off in Hindi when he realised I wouldn’t tip him extra, but soon figured it was useless and drove off in a storm. The usual rude awakening back in India, I don’t see myself doing this many times more.

It’s convenient for me that things feel like they are wrapping up here now, nine months is aplenty for me. I need a month of downtime with the family before I move onward, leaving a fortnight to bid goodbye to my family here. What a journey it’s been, I’m simply at a loss how best to end it.

The India I Love

And it’s back. The India I reminisced of in the winter days of January. After returning from Spore the weather was palpably warmer than a fortnight before; t-shirts and flip flops, noisy fans and the vengeful return of mozzies and cockroaches. It was perfect for a while, clearer skies, bright warm mornings and long cool evenings. Then the temperature raced through the 30’s in a matter of days and now I’m recalling the sweat bath of August last year, before we’ve even got to April. The power cuts are back too, now Delhi is on AC and battling with its perpetual power deficit. But this is not the only revival of a reminiscent part of India. After three months of visa battling in Paris, Yasmine is back and the Kapoors are finally six again.

My reluctant return to Mother India after a fortnight away was met by the most incessant and vivid of a welcome home ceremony I could have imagined. I had underestimated the significance of Holi, the festival of colors that erupts on 1st March. For one day India explodes into a disarray of uninhibited celebration, partying in the street and painting the town in coloured powder. For one day India relinquishes her long held inhibitions and for one day India is one. Less than 12 hours in the country and I awake to the arrival of friends, coloured powder and beer in hand, water cannons to the ready. We march off to Delhi to a farmhouse party called “Holy Cow” for a crazy day of party and folly. This is India at its most forthright and unapologetic and its nice to be back in the malaise with the best from Gurgaon.

Holi Festival

Tuesday resumes the normal, back to work and the usual. Change again on Tuesday night as Bea readies to end her Indian experience. Dinner in Machan and we wave goodbye at the airport. Such is the roller-coaster fabric of life in expat India. Somehow we manage to trap ourselves in the airport by faking tickets for entry but omitting an exit plan. Some diplomatic negotiation and flattering sees us on our way, thanks only to Ira. Thursday night we make another visit to TLR in Hauz Khas and Saturday night a jazz concert in AI and a private party in City Walk.

The following weekend we pay a visit to the most popular Sikh pilgrimage site in India, the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Alex, Mari, Kelly, Ira, Hafdis and I leave on Friday night, the usual rush to the station as Gurgaon traffic grinds to a halt, and take the overnight train to arrive first thing on Saturday morning. We hired a cab for the day and took breakfast at a greasy spoons before heading to the temple. Situated in the middle of a man-made lake known as the Amritsar, the temple is smaller than expected but impressive all the same, clothed in gold. In the heat Alex and I strip and take a dip in the holy water after a guard advises that Sikhism is all embracing of other religions.

Swim anyone?

The whole complex is strangely at peace, despite the fact it is bursting to life with Indian tourists and pilgrims. The sacred music in the background is soothing and there is a reverent aura to the place. Though the idea of worshiping an object as opulent and extravagant as a temple made of gold is foreign to my Christian roots, I feel like I am in a holy place. We have lunch at a mass-eatery where you are served food like a school canteen and told to sit on the carpet in single file lines. The meal is free, a sign of the overwhelming generosity of the Sikhs and the philosophy of helping others to help the collective.

In the afternoon our driver took us to nearby temple and the girls got a henna. Later, we drove out of Amritsar to Wagah, the only road border crossing between India and Pakistan. Tata trucks line the road waiting to take their freight across the border. There is a daily sunset ceremony of the “lowering of the flags” by the Indian Border Security Force and the Pakistani Rangers, attracting hundreds of tourists mostly on the Indian side. Once a day they let spectators into a seated area, heavily guarded next to the ceremonial border. Hindi music plays and the BSF get the crowd rivaled up with patriotic chants and cries. Indians run up and down the street bearing the national flag and women burst out of their seats to dance to the Hindi tunes. Indian guards compete with the Pakistani guards to see how long they can shout in one breath and then there is the hilarious spectacle the guards marching furiously up and down in an attempt to intimidate their neighbors. A few times the gates open and the guards cross sides to shake hands aggressively before lowering the flags. All the while people are shouting and screaming support for their country in the face of their counterparts. According to Wikipedia, the happenings at this border post are a barometer of Indo-Pak relations and the ceremony has become a lot less aggressive than in previous decades on both sides. The entire spectacle is both ridiculous and hilarious.

Wagah Border

Later in the evening we head to the temple where there is a large courtyard that is opened up to visitors who can sleep on the floor free of charge. When we ask if there is a place we can stay we are shown to a series of rooms where only foreigners are permitted; beds, blankets and pillows provided. Again, the generosity of the Sikhs is noteworthy. Dinner in town and another peruse of the temple complex, the gold shimmering in the water with the echoing sound of the Guru reciting prayers from inside. We have a brief browse around the inside of the temple and chill by the side of the lake. When it gets late we prepare to shuffle up in whatever space is left in the beds provided whilst hundreds of Sikhs are already asleep in the courtyard outside. When I wake on Sunday morning the courtyard is empty, the floor has been washed down, the Sikhs have finished their morning prayers and are having breakfast at the mass-eatery. It is an incredible operation.

Sleeping Pilgrims

When we find our morning train delayed we jump on a rickshaw to grab a decent breakfast at a nearby restaurant and depart later in the morning. We return Sunday night to greet Mimine who is fresh back from Paris and everything is right with the world again. This week we were back at Urban Pind on Wednesday, the usual crowd and foray. On Saturday I went on a Delhi “food walk” with Alex, Mimi, Ale and Jacek, really an excuse to get into Delhi before meeting a friend for dinner in TLR and on to Capitol. Yesterday we chilled at Kapoors, leaving the house only for dinner in Ambi and a movie at home.

Now I know my weeks in India are numbered. Every day I am still overwhelmed by the frustrations and aggravations of life here. The taxi driver getting angry when we refuse to be ripped off, the power outage at the very time we need to pump water, the creepy guys who call the house just to hear a girl’s voice. But if every day wasn’t such a challenge then honestly I don’t know why I’d be here. This is the India I love.

Golden Temple by night

From Manali to S’pore & KL

Here I am again. Gate four of the domestic departure lounge in Mumbai airport, following a five hour flight and a convoluted transfer process from the international airport. My flight for Delhi departs in a couple of hours. A grandmother is sitting with her family in the row in front. She is settled now, but was busy burying her brow in a debate some moments before. I have observed this as a popular Indian pastime, to search for a point of contention in regular discourse and dispute it fervidly. Now the family are standing, most likely an expression of their earnest intention of being first in line to board the plane.

The coach that herded us to the domestic airport afforded me with a view of the mud and rubble that litters the ground in the intervening spaces between the tarmac runways. We passed a street of ramshackle houses the outer-side of a ring fence that encloses the airport; the usual hotch-potch of timber, corrugated iron and everything else that supports the makeshift construction of a slum. These are the univocal signs that I am back on the subcontinent, a world away from my departure point at 10:15 this morning, in the opulent metropolis of Singapore.

It’s a strange kind of “welcome ceremony” I am growing accustomed to on my travels in and outside of India, that the burgeoning features of the most populous, cultural and fast advancing of society I know should strike me so hard at the moment of arrival. Then again, a fortnight abroad in the most diverse, affluent and advanced of societies should be sufficient contrast to throw things into perspective. Now I am being moved to gate six.

Winding it back a moment, I arrived fresh from Jaisalmer and Jodhpur on Tuesday morning three weeks ago and took off for Manali on the Thursday evening with Alex, Mari, Kelly and Ira. There was the usual rush to get a cab into Delhi in time to catch the bus. This time me and Alex were the delay, sitting in our room ardently trying to book a flight to Singapore the coming Monday. Mari packed a bag for me and the cab waited outside while we got it booked. A few things had come together at the last minute; my visa problems finally sorted, a job prospect and the opportunity to pay a surprise visit to Jas, our friend in Singapore, for Chinese New Year and her birthday. Anyway, flights booked we took off for a weekend in Manali, a famous hill station in Northern Himachal Pradesh. We found the bus, late, still loading up baggage.

Fourteen hours later I awoke to crispy white snow caps and rocky mountain passes of the Himalaya, welcoming us to Indian honeymoon paradise. The coach was full of overt Indian newly weds despite it being out of season (since the stars don’t line up). I can see why, a hill station 2,000 meters high with a towering Himmalaya backdrop, covered in a think blanket of pure white snow (Kelly’s first experience thereof). For us, it was the perfect weekend getaway. We caught a cab from the bus station up the hill towards the old part of town, but were soon grounded by faltering traffic caught out by the snow and ice. So we left the cab and walked the remainder into town for breakfast.

After breakfast we meandered our way through the town past yaks and street hawkers and up the hill towards Old Manali. Feet soaking from deep prints in the snow, we found the old town empty and deserted with no guest houses open owing to the low season. So we backtracked a short distance and found an affable lady who offered us a cosy two floor apartment at the same rate of an ordinary room. She said she liked the way she saw Ira walking up the hill. A warming afternoon with a chai in front of a log fire, a walk up the hill to the local temple and back into town for dinner. That was when we discovered Mountain View, our favored eating spot which we frequented every meal of the day thereafter.

On Saturday we made our way to the other side of the town to bath in the local hot springs. Walking back down the hill after the springs I was warmed enough not to need a coat or gloves until we reached the bottom. All the while there were stunning views of the sun glistening in the snow and bouncing off the mountains that encircled us. Late afternoon we waved Kelly and Ira off as they were returning a day early, and flitted about the town before evening came. Dinner in the usual spot. Sunday was more of the same, and since the snow was thick enough to rule out any major hiking routes we just chilled in the town and made the most of the peaceful milieu. Back on the bus Sunday afternoon, returning to Gurgaon early on Monday morning. Alex hopped off to work for a few hours and I stayed at home to pack and prepare for the next holiday. Ah, the life.

Armed with eight bags of Lay’s Tangy Tomato Chips (Jas’ favorite Indian snack), me and Alex took a cab to the airport on Monday afternoon. We arrived in S’pore, via Mumbai, early on Monday morning. As if a new world had presented itself to us, we took the super efficient MRT subway a few stops and alighted. We ambled down the road in the 27° heat and found our hostel. Basic but adequate, the hostel was located on a street not far from the airport and Jas’ place. It was evidently a well-to-do area, with luxurious houses stretching all the way down the road, Beamers, Porsche and Mercs parked in the showcase driveways. A shower and a few hours to recover. A meal at a local eatery, where I attempted both Mandarin and Cantonese with the waitress but the language was still foreign. Jas later advised it was probably Hokkien, a dialect of southern China, but then it could have been Malay or Tamil or any of the other dialects and languages that amalgamate in this cocktail of a city.

Later in the day we paid a surprise visit to Jas. Having jotted down rough directions from google maps, we tracked down her condo and knocked on the door. He mother answered and we dutifully explained that we were friends from India. Jas wearily appeared from bed when we stood in her doorway and she was sufficiently surprised. For the remainder of the afternoon we chilled in the comfort of Jas’ air conditioned room while her neighbors called to wish her family a happy Chinese New Year. Then in the evening Jas took us and a college friend to another friend’s place in the north of the city. We spent the evening talking and munching on traditional snacks for the New Year. We were even given a couple of red packets (envelopes of money given by elders). A drink at a bar, Red Dot, in town.

On Wednesday Jas took us for traditional Dim Sum Cantonese in the city and showed Alex some of the rich residential areas while I was occupied with an interview. After they picked me up we drove to Arab Street where we chilled with a hookah. Later, Jas took us to one of her favorite hawker places for Malay food and we went back to hers for some drinks. Time for a quick skype call with Mimine, back in Paris, and we headed out for ladies night at a club called Butter Factory. First sight of the Singapore skyline, an impressive backdrop for a night out. The night scene in Singers is every bit as expensive London, if not more, with cover charges and drinks selling at a premium owing to the so-called “sin tax.” One thing is clear, entertainment in this city is expensive.

Thursday Jas was pre-occupied with her first day in a new job so we spent the morning sorting out flights to Kuala Lumpar and explored the neighborhood. In the early evening we headed back to Jas’ condo, chilled in the pool and read for while we waited for her to come home. Although she lives in a relatively small apartment, the complex looks like something from a holiday brochure with a large communal pool, tennis courts and gym. I could get used to this. When Jas got back we took a shower and met the girls for a seafood dinner of crab at a place called Jumbos along a the promenade of the river. An expensive meal, but so is everything. We finished the night with some cocktails at an elaborate bar/club called Indochine.

On Friday Alex and I occupied ourselves by getting the MRT to China Town and wondering around the street markets decorated festively for the New Year. We took brunch in China Town and got sidetracked by the electronics shops, since I was in need of a new camera. Next stop, as per Jas’ recommendation, we staked out an electronics mall called Sim Lim Square. It didn’t take long to find the bottom price for what I wanted. No sales job or haggling here, Singaporeans do their research before they leave the house so there’s never a hard sell or much negotiation when it comes to buying on the high street. Later we took a stroll to the waterfront and chilled out looking over the cityscape. When Jas was done with work we met her for dinner and a couple more of her friends for drinks in town. After some overpriced beers, they took us for a bite of frog soup, famously served in the red light district of the city, though there wasn’t much to show for it.

Saturday Jas took us to Sentosa, an island resort a short drive from the mainland. We relaxed on the beach in the sun, if a little commercial (it was an artificial beach) it was a beach at least. In the afternoon we hired bikes and explored the island further afield. On the far side, beyond a new casino complex that is being built we found a “super town” for the über rich and famous. This was a real eye opener into the extent of the affluence here. Though the whole area was still in the midst of the boom of construction, the houses looked like they had been lifted straight from the cardboard set of a Hollywood movie. I can’t imagine anyone who could amass such wealth in one lifetime to afford an address in this district. Yet it was the cars in the driveway that were the real giveaway. Never before have I seen so many luxury cars in one vicinity, or yachts for that matter. On our rented cycles we passed driveway after driveway, a Bentley and a Ferrari, a Rolls Royce, another Bentley. Here is the mark of the third wealthiest country in the world by GDP per capita. After an insightful view into the bourgeois of Spore Jas took us by her favorite spot for Chicken rice (while Alex crashed in the car). We picked up some beers to sip by the pool and finished off some Chinese snacks and a bite of the infamously smelly durian fruit back at Jas’ condo.

Early Sunday morning Alex and I took off for Kuala Lumpur. With Jas busy at work during the week, and running out of options for things to do in Spore, we decided to check out the neighbors. We touched down late morning and found our way into the city centre from the low budget terminal a bus and a train out of the city. Finding our hostel with relative ease, a big backpackers place that slept eight per room, we ditched our bags and headed out for a day of sightseeing. Some time wondering the streets of China Town and another market and we hit the main attraction, the Petronas Towers. We were fortunate to arrive at the booking desk for the skybridge the same time as a cancellation and were let into the next group to walk across the bridge that adjoins the two buildings on the 42nd floor. The tallest building in a world before Taipei 101, an impressive construction. After the towers we went looking for the central park to chill for a while. When we reached it started raining heavily. Exhausted, we collapsed under a pagoda to wait for the rain to stop, and drifted off for a power nap.

Keen to explore the night scene in KL, we headed back to backpackers central for a meal of fired mee noodles and took some drinks back to the hostel. The great thing about hostels is that you can meet some real characters on the travelers circuit. On the far bunk, there was the 38 year old Swedish psychiatric nurse / bouncer who travelled eight months a year and could put our knowledge of India to shame. He had spent time in India every year of his life since he was 17. Then there was the endless nomad traveller, Chinese-of-origin he-she, dressed in a scanty sarong. The young Japanese who thought he could speak German, but couldn’t. The quiet Italian guy in the corner whose comic accent reminded us infinitely of our Italian friend in Gurgaon.

After some entertaining drinks in the hostel we made for town, aiming for a club named Zouk. However, on discovering it was closed we found a bar district a block away and paid the cover charge for the busiest looking venue, the Beach Club. Upon entering, it didn’t take long to figure out that every girl there was a hooker. But then the same was true of every other club on the street. Fortunately, once you get over the seediness of the place, there were some good venues and we had a good time exploring the scene.

On Monday we booked a tour that took us to a couple of tourist traps in the city, the kind of place where the tour guide gets commission for dropping us, namely a local arts centre and a pewter factory. Nevertheless, the latter was vaguely interesting and when we were done we visited a temple in some caves and a large waterfall that had seven sections with man-made plunge pools at the bottom where we could swim. A couple of hours exploring the waterfall and relaxing in the water and we called it a day. In the evening we tried a different drinking district, but when all we found were empty bars we headed back to the seedy district of the night before. In a bar across the road we met some interesting characters, a hot shot who claimed he was in “immigration” and an Iraqi entrepreneur in textiles who drove us home. An entertaining night observing the night life of KL at work.

Tuesday, our final day in KL and we stormed the city centre on foot. Not a great deal more to see, save for the shopping malls and eateries. We went on a mission to find a Cantonese film we have been looking for a while, amongst the various shopping complexes and high streets. Sunday morning we flew back to Spore, a welcome four hours sleep. I nodded off the instant I took my seat on my plane, not even stirring for takeoff. Alex fell asleep looking out of the window, book still in hand.

Back home in Spore we had to shift hostels a few minutes down the road, and made the most of the opportunity to steal a few more hours of recovery sleep. Later, we got a bus to Bedock market to procure a birthday present for Jas. In the specialist liquor section of a supermarket we were struck by the familiar sight of Old Monk, an Indian rum that is the staple liquor back in Gurgaon. Despite the fact it was six times as expensive as it is in India, posing as a premium liquor in Singapore, we felt obliged to buy it for Jas for old time’s sake. Dinner in the hawkers place just around the corner from Jas’ place while we waited for her. Then the three of us headed back to the hostel for pre-drinks. Wednesday night is Ladies Night in Spore, just as it is in Gurgaon, and we were armed with our “old friend” from Gurgaon. We met a couple of friends of Jas and headed to Zouk.

Thursday we took a genteel afternoon walk along the South Ridges Walk and Henderson Waves, a park close to the city centre. We stopped by Harbour Front and the National Geographic Shop on the way to Brass Basah. Walking along the street we suddenly became aware of a loud sound equivalent to that of a helicopter or jet overhead, but looking around we couldn’t find the source. Then we spotted it, a Lamborghini idling it’s engine in front of the traffic lights, Singaporean style. That evening was a quiet one since Alex was flying back the following morning to meet his parents in Delhi. So we chilled as Jas’ place watching the Cantonese classic we acquired in KL.

Early morning on Friday Alex left and I took on the rest of the city by foot. Starting at Marina Bay, I walked to China Town for brunch. Then I took the MRT back to City Hall and walked the entire stretch of Orchard Road, the shopping artery of Spore, all the way to the botanical gardens. It took the best part of half a day and when I got to the gardens I crashed under a pagoda while I waited for the sudden outburst of rain to subside. Back to Marina Bay to admire the cityscape as evening arrived, a shower at the hostel and Jas picked me up for drinks with a couple of friends in Arab Street.

On my last day, Saturday, Jas and I rented bikes and explored the East Coast. It is a pleasant stretch of beach and palm trees and tracks for cycling and rollerblading. The sight of Indians celebrating Holi on the beach and the unmistakable aroma of Indian food was a sharp remainder of what I would go back to in a couple of days. We spent most of the day there and meandered back towards Jas’ place on foot. The walk was longer than Jas had anticipated and a couple hours in the heat of the sun took its toll, such that I had to stop for a traditional Chinese rehydration remedy drink. Back to the condo for an hour, where I recovered in the pool while Jas visited her grandmother with her family.

After showering and borrowing a clean shirt from Jas’ dad, the family picked me up and took me to her Auntie’s place for a family gathering on the final day of Chinese New Year. I was very grateful that her family could extend such hospitality, and when we arrived everyone was very receptive to my presence. The uncle even brought out a large collection of whisky for the occasion and invited me to drink with him. Later in the evening Jas and I excused ourselves and we went to meet a couple of friends for drinks before calling it a night.

Early on Sunday morning Jas drove me to the airport. We had a traditional Chinese breakfast of egg yoke and bread before I bid my goodbyes and made for the departure lounge. Mixed emotions, it was the smoothest holiday from India I could have asked for. More than a holiday, I feel an affinity with the people and the place already. Jas and her friends and family were the best of hosts. Spore is another one of those unique states, a few million migrants living together in a blend of cultures and customs and languages, in one of the most advanced and harmonious societies I have thus experienced. I can see why it is branded a sibling of Hong Kong; a city that shouldn’t exist but somehow does, and it works.

Another Asian Tiger ticked off the list. Another Asian city I could actually live in. But now I need to focus, the ever-present bedlam and pandemonium of India is home for now. Patient but relentless, she is waiting for me.

Little Tibet and the Desert

A month has passed since my last escapades in the South. Most of it is a smeary white blur in my memory, much like the fog that engulfed the city during the four coldest weeks of the winter. For a couple of weekends we were captive in Gurgaon. I remember the chilly rickshaw rides and hitchhikes between Kapoors and Hex Tax, desperately trying to make something of the weekend but never managing much more than a film and a takeaway huddled up under a blanket. On weekday nights we hit Delhi harder than ever. I thought perhaps the girls departure and the lack in numbers would deter us from partying so often. On the contrary, the stillness of the house marked by their absence was all the more motivation to go out, but it was never the same. Without the girls we couldn’t get into our favoured spots and most nights finished with a cluster of people staring at each other on the dance floor of AI or Urban Pind.

On a few occasions the fog got so bad at night we couldn’t see a foot in front of us when driving back from Delhi. One night was particularly bad, I recall our driver easing along hugging the side rail of the highway because it was the only visible guide to the whereabouts of the road in the white abyss. We somehow found our way to Sector 43 to drop Ale at Hex Tax South but ended up driving in circles trying to find the complex. Eventually a sign appeared at the passenger window announcing we had arrived at Hex Tax. We didn’t waste any more time looking for Kapoors.

Three weeks of this was sufficient to drive our collective resolve to escape the city once again, planning a weekend in Varanassi. But when the weekend arrived the train was cancelled due to the fog and we were captive again. A vague attempt at some festivities on Republic Day ended up with lunch in a mall in Gurgaon, because nothing was open in Delhi and attempts to catch a glimpse of the parade would have been futile. In the last weekend of January the train was cancelled for a second time. Now, another weekend of the Gurgaon blues was out of the question, so we took the cab we had booked for the train station to find a bus north to Dharamshalah. Lucky for us, there were five empty seats on the next bus out of Delhi that Friday night. Me, Alex, Mari, Bea and Jacek.

A weekend in the mountains was just what was needed to heal the senses and find some respite. After a rocky overnight ride I awoke to the early morning light and fresh mountain breeze of the highlands of Himachal Pradesh. We took a cab through the city of McLeod Ganj and up the hill to the town of Dharamkot. It was early and out of season, so at first glance all the guest houses were closed. However, a brisk walk down the thin path that snaked its away along the mountain edge took us past a lady who directed us to a small guest house that was open for business. After we had settled down our bags and enjoyed a Tibetan Chai looking out over the valley and vertiginous mountainside, we started for the Mountaineering Institute that was recommended in the guidebook. A breakfast of pancakes at the chai shop on the way.

After discovering the Mountaineering Institute was closed for holidays and a brief explore of the forest we decided to head down into the city for Bea to find a hospital to administer her rabies jab (she was bitten by a dog one night recently on the way into U block in the fog). While she was busy with this we took some time to explore the residence of the Dalai Lama, the exiled leader of Tibet. He wasn’t home, but suffice to say his temple kept us occupied for a while. A small museum took us through the fascinating but saddening story of the Tibetan exile and the plight of a dying civilisation. We spent the afternoon ambling through the markets, stopping for Momo snacks and cake and coffee in rooftop restaurants along the shopping strip. At midday the sun was basking down on our backs and for a while it was warm enough to shed the winter jumpers and catch a tan.

When we were full up on cake and had exhausted the market we bought some food supplies for the planned trek the next day and made our way back up the hill to Dharamkot. Time for a card game and a shot of rum to warm up while the sun was retreating. When we went in search of dinner a villager pointed me towards a pizzeria a 10 minute walk down the track. In the darkness and cold we fumbled and foiled down the dimly lit path, to find the pizzeria closed, the only food outlet in the upper part of the town. Hungry and fatigued we made our way back down the hill to McLeod in search of dinner. We found it in another pizza place along the shopping strip. After dinner we meandered our way back up the hill to get some rest for an early rise the following morning.

Sunday morning we were up by 6:30. We had arranged for the chai shop to open at 7 to fuel us with pancakes and porridge for the day’s hike. But we forgot to allow for Indian time, which has no time, and we were already well into our supplies of bread and spread cheese before the chai man showed up. Nonetheless, when he came we treated ourselves to a warm chai in front of a fire he lit for us before setting out on the footpath. The path into the highland was well trodden but this early in the day free from western hippies and Indian tourists. It was a half day trek to the top where we met the snow line and spent a couple of hours admiring the view, crunching in the snow, eating maggie and sipping chai. A couple of Indian chaps offered a cap of apple vodka to keep warm. Save for them and the chai wala, we were the only people on the mountain top.

By evening we were back in Dharamkot. A good day’s walk left us destroyed, but a shower and a snickers bar provided the requisite boost to pack up and make for the city to book a bus home. At the bottom of the hill we entered the first travel agency we could find. The volvo buses were fully booked but there were three seats left on a bum numbing private bus, two in the drivers cabin, all the way to the Tibetan quarters of Delhi. Half an hour to find dinner, we sidled into the nearest restaurant. Of course, we were waiting for our food right up to the last minute and had to ask for the food to be packed. However, we managed to catch the bus, takeaway momos in our hands, to an audience of depleted faces who had been waiting for us. I was squished at the back with my legs protruding into the isle or my knees resting on the head rest of the chair in front, next to a fat Tibetan whose heavy arms clamped down on my chest whenever he snoozed. I had to shuffle around considerably to get him to move and there was a fowl smell every so often that I can only deduce he was responsible for. Sleep deprived and in desperate need of a shower, we arrived on the outskirts of Delhi around 7 on Monday morning, got a cab home and went to work.

That week saw a changing tide at the Kapoors. On Monday morning the fog was notably absent, I could see colour in the sky and for the first time in a while I didn’t fear the cold getting out of bed. It felt like the temperature shifted ten degrees in a matter of days. Moreover, the Kapoors family gained one. Anna, our new recruit from Iceland, arrived on Sunday night. Suddenly Gurgaon was tolerable again.

Last weekend I skipped off work early afternoon on Friday for a trip to Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. We were a group of seven; Steven (Atlanta), Michi (Germany), Aline (Brazil), Helen (Germany), Etelka (Hungry) and Salome (France). In the rush to get to the train station some confusion led to the driver taking us to New Delhi only after I discovered the tickets were for Old Delhi. We saved the day by hopping on the metro to Chandi Chowk and jumping on the train a couple of minutes before it left. It is always like this. No matter how you plan things there is always a last minute rush or panic.

Despite my experience of travel in India I am still yet to become accustomed to the busy, sweaty, noisy interior of an Indian train at the beginning of its journey. I found my seat and tried to claim as much of it as possible, but people would come and go and I grew tired of stretching my legs to reserve my space. However, after a couple of hours and a dozen stops, the melee of bustle and scurry subsided and there was just a group of overexcited guys playing cards to contend with. When I grew tired of reading I staked out my bed and woke the following morning to views of the Rajasthani desert.

We alighted in Jaisalmer Saturday afternoon and found our pickup to take us into town. We spent an hour or so negotiating the price of a two day camel safari with the various agents, ensuring they would take us off the beaten track and away from the other tourists. After we agreed on a package and a price, we took lunch in a restaurant and readied ourselves for two days in the desert. A jeep took us and our gear an hour out of town to meet our camels and guides. I volunteered to take a disconcertingly noisy camel who went by the name of Visra, since no one else was willing to brave him.

Once we got going Visra settled down and we spent the rest of the day getting acquainted with our camels and admiring the desert scenery. One of the guides, Achu, dedicated me with the name Eurie (I never asked why), and so it went that Eurie and Visra and nine other camels and riders rode alone in the desert and the basking sun. There was not much more to it than that, passing through a couple of villages on our way and stopping before sunset to setup camp on a sand dune. I wandered down to a nearby village with it in mind that we might procure a goat or sheep for dinner, but Achu assured me he could find better quality the following day. After dinner we sat around a camp fire bantering back and forth with Achu and Karim and the other guides, on anything and everything that came to mind. In spite of the warmth of the day, it was chilly in the night so we wrapped up warm and slept under a starry, unpolluted night sky.

I woke on Sunday morning with a chai in hand and a view of the desert sun rise. Porridge and scrambled egg, masala style for breakfast, while we waited for the guides to gather the camels that had scattered about the vicinity of our camp during the night. The rest of the day was more of the same, stopping off at villages as we rode and getting more acquainted with our camels. Me and Visra did some bonding and by midday I learned how to get him trotting faster with a kick and some encouraging noises. There were all kinds of tut-tuts and assorted noises as we tried to take command of our camels and imitate the guides. At the lunch spot one of the guides turned up with a goat for our dinner and we watched it being slaughtered halal style and prepared for cooking in the evening.

Before sunset that evening we pitched up in a large sand june with smoothly crafted hills rising and falling without a single footprint. We then spent the rest of the daylight running around in the sand and spoiling that very image. I walked the perimeter of the junes and observed a lone straw house in the distance while we waited for the sun to sink behind the yellow horizon and for dinner to be served. All the goat broth we could handle and Japati. After dinner around the camp fire a man from a nearby village came to play us some music. The guides got a bit excited and started dancing and singing around the fire while we cheered them on. I was a too jaded to join them, but it was a jovial specticle. This night the cloud cover was thick and there wasn’t a star or moon in sight. The only light came from the fire and when that burned out the desert became a bottomless pitch black.

Monday morning marked the end of the safari as we packed up and waited for the jeep to arrive. Time running away with us, we piled in the jeep when it appeared and watched the guides count their tips and mount their camels for the next ride. We were too late to catch the bus we had booked for Jodhpur, but Chandra the benevolent agent was able to book us on a bus an hour later. This gave us time to wander the streets of Jaisalmer, exploring some back alleys and stocking up on food from the market.

The bus rolled up in Jodhpur around 4:30 and we caught a couple of autos to the main market. We wandered through the bustling streets and found the route up to the infamous fort. A ten minute walk up the winding road and we discovered the fort was closed. We were an hour or two behind schedule because of the late pickup in the desert, but determined to make use of what little time we had. The guards were good enough to let us a little way into the fort where we could look down on the “blue city,” so called because of the indigo colour every other house is decorated. It made for a pleasant few hours, sufficient to absorb the fray of flurry around the Mehrangarh fort. Then back on the rickshaw and the train home. Another clash with time as we waited for our cheese toasties a street away from the station, but time was on our side in the end. New Delhi Station arrived early Tuesday morning, back to Gurgaon in a cab and off to work we go.

Back at Kapoors our newest addition was present. I greeted Kelly from Colombia over breakfast and we caught up on the rickshaw ride to work. Finally, there are some girls about the house again. A three day week at work for me and off to Manali on Thursday night. Friday is another I-don’t-know-what religious festival, so thank you Hinduism for the day off. The FRRO finally came through with my visa extension and I am legal again, four and a half months in the making. The Kapoors are alive and the travel spirit is back. I am complete!

Mishaps in the South

This morning I woke to the symphony of 9AM traffic. Gurgaon, Sector 43. Laying in bed, I could distinguish every car and it’s driver from the tone of it’s obnoxious honking. It was a sobering wakeup to the morning after. This time yesterday I was ordering breakfast on the merry beach of Mamallapundram. This morning I have the hangover of Gurgaon and a date with work, which I am late for. Last night I slept at Hex Tax for the simple reason that there is no food in the fridge at Kapoors, and perhaps I don’t like the thought of coming home to an empty house.

The smog is hanging lower in the sky, clinging to the office blocks as it descends in parallel with the temperature. It’s much colder now and visibility is next to none. My feet are numb from the walk home in flip flops. In the harsh transition from warm south to cold north, I remembered I might need a jumper but forgot about my feet. Bea’s boss dropped me at Infinity Towers and I walked the remainder to U block. Now I am sitting on my bed, listening to Punam as she comforts her baby while she should be cleaning. This morning I can forgive her, because its the first day back at work for both of us and she is the only one on time, and because there is no light or power for her to do her job properly. Come to think of it, there isn’t anything keeping me from the office. There is no hot shower waiting, no internet to dither on or check my mails and no point in waiting for Punam to produce the clean, ironed shirt I am short of, because there is no power. All I can do is to shave my Crusoe beard in the unlit mirror (assuming there is any water), and trundle late into work. Oh, by the way, there is no water.

So I spent Christmas and New Years in the South, taking leave from work because Christian festivals are less celebrated in the North and you only get Christmas Day as holiday. Me and Alex gave ourselves ten days, leaving work after lunch on Christmas Eve, returning yesterday ready for the new week. Of course, as is normal with our Indian escapades, it was not without mishap.

Thursday 24th, early afternoon at the office. In an effort to make an inconspicuous exit I email my team the final version of the report I am leaving them to finish and make briskly for the exit. Sid spots me on the way and just as I am bidding him well wishes for new year festivity the CEO passes and catches my eye, not the discreet escape I had envisaged. Nevertheless, we have lunch with Bea and Mari, who join us in Mumbai a couple of days later, and head home to pack. I throw a bundle of clothes into my bag and hop in the cab. Bad timing, rush hour on xmas eve, the road to the highway was blocked and we got stuck in a jam for an hour or more just getting out of Gurgaon. Nevertheless, our frustration lapsed into fatigue and we nodded off, coming round at the airport still on track to catch our flight. We touched down in Mumbai late evening and took a pre-paid cab to our hotel where Dasha checked in that morning. Drinks and a late walk around the district, feeling a little closer to the festive spirit than Gurgaon.

Pre-trip foot massage in the airport

Christmas Day and we wake for a day of sightseeing in Mumbai. Breakfast at a greasy spoons where the omelets were eggless and spicy as hell, compensated by a fresh black grape juice. We were staying in Khan West, a convenient minute walk from the station, so we jumped on the train south bound for sightseeing central. That’s when the first mishap befell (and last for Alex). In the holiday spirit and a little lapse on sensical thinking, Alex trailed his arm outside the door while the train was moving and in a second it collided with a metal pole with a high pitched “clang.” Understandably in pain, he barely muttered a word for the next hour. Yet we procured some pain killers from the station shop and Alex resolved to continue with the day’s itinerary (Dahsa has it all planned out), a red mark and a slight dent in his arm. Nothing undeserved, but it didn’t seem like a deal breaker at the time.

The three of us persist with the sightseeing. A statue of some significance, the train station that featured in Slumdog Millionaire, some colonial buildings, an art gallery, the Gateway to India and an hour ferry across the harbor to Elephanta Island, prized for its carved 17th century caves. Dasha flutters her eyelids and the ticket man drops the extortionate tourist price. The last boat back was at 6 so we hurry to the jetty, and everyone else does the same. With the sun setting and the cityscape faint on the horizon, we wait with a thousand other Indian tourists for the return boat. I hate that Indian’s can’t respect the decency of personal space, or the sense in waiting patiently without jabbing the person in front to get an inch closer.

After the boat back we stop by the Taj Palace, the hotel devastated by the 2008 bombings, and venture down Marine Drive to admire the glow of the city lights reflecting in the water. A much-needed dinner in a Chinese and we meander back to the station. On the way back we stop for a drink at a Hard Rock Cafe, though it took several stops for directions and following a man down a dark back alley to find it.

I like Mumbai. It’s a progressive and forward thinking city, I can tell from the buzz of the people. There is a trace of organisation, a sense of identity and the sign of a well functioning economy (where the consumer sets the price as opposed to the ignorant price fixing rickshaw wallahs). This is quite unlike the slow moving, backward looking political hub that is Delhi. No, unlike Delhi I really could live here.

Saturday morning, fresh juice and spicy pancakes again for breakfast, anticipation of another day sightseeing. Alex’s arm is still giving him grief, so we determine to pay a visit to a local hospital to check it isn’t broken, just for peace of mind. After a while waiting in a dirty reception the x-ray comes back. He has broken it, severely. Next step, consultation with a private doctor. We find his office but it is closed, so an elderly neighbor says to knock on his door at the top of the apartment block. His son opens (who happens to be a top 60 tennis player) and calls his dad to make special arrangements for us. When he comes the news is not so good. We had thought, worst case, a plaster and an extra day in Mumbai, but the break was so bad it required an operation to fit a metal plate, and it had to happen within four days. One more thing, sixty thousand rupees please sir. So the rest of my day was spent running around with Alex, fixing up appointments with surgeons and calling insurance companies. We find a way for his parents to send the money with a bit of help from Western Union and make the necessary arrangements. When we are done it is evening and Mari and Bea arrive at the airport. We meet them in a bar an auto ride away with Lavina, an acquaintance from our Goa trip.

Saturday night the six of us hit the club next to Hard Rock, followed by a whimsical visit to Marine Drive. Finally we crash in our cell of a hotel room, five to a bed. The morning brings one final breakfast of spicy omelet and grape juice. The waiters are intolerably slow and despite our protests, or perhaps in spite of, it takes half an hour just to get a menu. More troops arrive, Wendel and Helen find us waiting for our food. Finally the food comes; the first to order but the last to arrive, me and Bea scoff our breakfast with the departure time of our train looming. By now it is apparent we cannot all four pursue the trip we had planned. Mari volunteers to stay in Mumbai while Alex has his op, I carry on with Bea. Suffice to say Alex had the op the next day with the added complication of a floating a piece of bone that the surgeon had to figure out what to do with. They flew to Delhi the following Sunday, shared a cab from the airport with us and now Alex is resting up with his personal nurses in Hex Tax.

After breakfast we rush to find a rickshaw to take us to the station. In my haste, I leave half my luggage in the hotel room. The station is further out than we thought, Mumbai is a big city. We finally arrive a couple of minutes late and a rush of cabbies around us so kindly inform that the train has left, we are late and that is the end of world. Ironic, the first time an Indian train leaves on time we are two minutes late. We check the board to be sure we are not being scammed, then we are flooded with offers from cab drivers to take us to the next station to meet the train there. One man proffers “if you don’t catch it you don’t pay,” so we take him up. We failed to establish that the next station was 45 minutes out of the city and the guy wanted double the fare for the return journey. So, after we were safely on the platform waiting for the train, heated bargaining ensued. The kind of exchange I had hoped to avoid but inevitable on a trip like this. An expensive mistake, but we were out of options.

Relief from catching the train wears thin within a couple of hours as the hassling begins and the proximity of people, packed into a small space, grinds me down. One man sitting opposite is determined to be my friend but his arrogant persona and pushy commands only serve to aggravate me more. I’m happy enough to be lumbered with less pushy “friends” whilst waiting for my phone to charge in the connecting part of the train; one chap works for the air force, another is from Gurgaon. Yet before long everyone knows my name, even a passer by I have never spoken to, and enough people get in my face to make me want to jump out the window. A couple of hours down, twenty nine to go.

I slept soundly that night on the bottom bunk, despite several times awaking to find a man sitting on my feet. I would simply fall back to sleep, making sure that I kicked and shuffled enough that when I woke again he was gone. Another morning and afternoon floated by, nothing to do but read and gaze, nothing to eat but banana chips and veg biryani. Absorbing the view from the carriage door (making sure all body parts were safely inside), I watched rice paddies and green transition to palm trees and sand. It’s amazing how much the sight of a palm tree against a setting sun can lift your mood.

We got off a few hours early, altering our plans slightly to spend a day in Allepe where Angie and Steve were shacking up later. We bypassed the town and headed straight for the hotels on the beach. We found a good deal for a place a minute from the beach, enough space to accommodate the four of us. First thing’s first, a swim and a jog. The beach was deserted bar a few fishermen repairing their nets and some kids playing cricket. Wherever in the world I am I always feel at home by the sea.

On the backwaters

Early evening we set off to meet Angie and Steve for a boat cruise along the backwaters to see the sun set behind palm tree forests, a pleasant way to spend the evening. Then we headed back to the hotel and found a restaurant to eat. Again, the service was painstakingly slow and the menu wasn’t quite as abound with sea food as I had hoped, but the company was good and I was content to be by the sea and not on a train. After dinner we walked past a large stage on the beach, a local festival with Indian music, and took a stroll along the shore before retreating to bed.

Tuesday, Angie and Steve take off for Cochin and Goa. We hang back, review our plans over breakfast and make the most of the beach. In the afternoon we head back to the station to catch a train a few hours south to Varkala. All the rickshaws are on strike but a couple of the guys working at the hotel have bikes so we hitch a last minute ride. By evening we were in the bubble that is Varkala. We shared a cab with a couple of Swedish backpackers, bypassing the town and heading straight for the beach. Varkala is a tourist trap, a busy beach perched below a cliff top along which spans a strip of massage parlors, souvenir shops and seafood restaurants. For us it was paradise; fewer hagglers to deal with, sand and sea and all the seafood we could desire. Red, white and black snapper, barracuda, pomfret and calamari. That evening I got the meal I had been so looking forward to, red snapper in banana leaf with Keralan rice and real Tandoori.

Wednesday morning we setup for breakfast on the strip and met a couple from the AIESEC Chennai crowd. We ate breakfast and wondered along the beach to find a quiet spot while they picked up the rest of the group. The afternoon was spent sipping beers on the beach (disguised in coffee mugs because none of the restaurants are licensed) and a seafood lunch. The Chennai group depart after lunch to catch a train to Cochin, leaving us to enjoy food (apple crumble and cheese cake) and beach until sunset. Another beer and another seafood dinner. By now we have settled on a second night.

Paradise in Varkala

The following morning we pitch up on the main beach for a last bit of reading and tanning before the afternoon train. A man sidles up to Bea and asks to take a photo. She politely refuses, tired of creepy men asking for photos with foreign women. He doesn’t understand my aggravation over his manner and lingers for a while. Eventually he gives up and I look on to see a group of his friends staring at a girl getting changed in her towel. As if reading my mind, a man in uniform arrives with a stick and prods the drunks until they are safely down the beach and away from the “nice white people.” It looks like he is herding cattle back to their pen. There is the conflict, of willing the locals to be herded away with a cattle prod, whilst not wanting to invade their holiday on their own beach and in their own country.

Next stop, Cochin. The train drops us early evening in Ernakulam and we get a prepaid cab, a boat and a rickshaw to Fort Cochin, where Team Chennai have us a hotel room. Its late and we rush through the shower before joining them in a restaurant down the road. We order around 10 but the place is busy and the kitchen is tiny and we are many. I take leave with a lively Brazilian to pickup beers, but the food is still absent on our return. Plans are made for a party at an island resort a free cab ride away, but midnight arrives before the food and we call the new year in with our plates full of fish curry and nan. In the early hours we make our way by cab and then boat, picking up Italians en route and disturbing lone fishermen on an quiet backwater, to an old-school dance rave with fresh pineapple vodka and trippy lights. It’s meant to be an island resort but really it’s just a house on an island with a bunch of inebriated Indians and backpackers. When we’ve had enough we wait on the jetty, and the jetty almost sails off on it’s own. Finally we get a boat to the other side, but the cabbies are all drunk at the party. So we wait.

Boat to the Rave

New years day, 7:30 in the morning and a couple of hours after finding my bed, a man knocks on the door with a breakfast we didn’t order. Never one to pass an offer of food, I sit down for fresh water melon, soggy toast and eggs. In the afternoon me and Bea explore Fort Cochin, starting on the seafront alongside giant Chinese fishing nets, stopping for a colonial church and fresh watermelon. We pick out a fish from the market and take it to the nearest restaurant to cook for lunch. As if it is a Keralan fashion, we were presented with our food no less than two hours later.

Lunch anyone?

Back to the hotel to collect our bags and take a shower before the next marathon train. We discover our train tickets have not made it onto the “confirmed” list and were therefore invalid. I hate the way they do the train bookings here, sticking you on a wait list a month in advance and not telling you if you have a place until the day of departure. Anticipating problems but lacking alternatives, we made our way to the station anyway. Rickshaw-boat-rickshaw-foot. It took much longer than we had allowed for, but the train was a delayed a few hours so there was no need for the rush. After much consulting with the guard and some friendly passengers we determined the best option would be to buy a “general” ticket that permits admission to the train but does not entitle you to a seat. In other words, you either sit on the floor or convince someone to share their seat. Problem was, it was possibly the busiest time of the year to catch a train. When it finally arrived we took one look at the crowded sleeper class and made our way directly to the more privileged AC class. Our ticket does not entitle us to be here, but it is worth the risk to avoid the mess in the lower class carriages. I sense it is going to be a long night.

A few stops down and my fears are realised as a ticket man arrives and kicks us off the train. He is clearly not willing to negotiate and enjoys wielding the power he holds over a couple of foreign travelers. He brashly advises that there is another train stopping at the next station and we should alight and see if there is any space on that one. We oblige and hop off, only to discover that the train does not stop at this station and we have to catch a further train to a station where it does stop.

Onboard the next train to Thrissur we found a cabin in which the occupants were willing to squash to make room for us, as if they weren’t already squashed enough. As I sat with my book I could feel the heavy aura of hundreds of bodies, the smell of their sweaty flesh and the taste of the expired air from their filthy lungs. What was supposed to be a one-stop half hour journey turned out to be a living hell, purgatory perhaps? I buried myself in my book and tried to go somewhere else in my head, but I couldn’t escape the glares from the gentleman sitting next to me. He said hello and I politely returned the greeting, rapidly retreating back to my book. He had demonstrated great generosity in saving us from standing room next to the noxious smell of the squatter toilets so I felt compelled to humor his curiosity, but I all I wanted to do was to burry my face in my book and never speak to a soul again. I could sense his eyes boring into me as he investigated my face, and then came the second attempt. “So basickallaly… you are from the US.” When we finally reached Thrissur we clambered between body parts of women sprawled over the soiled floor and past children stacked on top of eachother on precarious beds, to find the exit to the platform. Safe again.

At Thirssur I make for the information desk to get details on the next train to Chennai. The chap was pretty unhelpful, but Bea manages to attract the attention of an official who advises that the train is full, unless we be willing to pay a little more? A small bribe and the guy is on the phone to the conductor to ask if he could find a couple of places in AC sleeper class for the right price. Armed with a piece of paper with the conductor’s name on it, we wait for the train to arrive. When it pulls in the conductor stands by the door to welcome us and show us to our beds. He even organizes a wakeup call for us. No smell, no bodies on the floor, no irritating neighbors. I settle down to finish my book and then make the most of the four hours to sleep. A chubby face appears between my curtains, the conductor wants his money. That is how the system works here and I admit to playing along as long as that is what it takes.

India is both power and money hungry and those two faces of greed can be represented in the railway ticket men. First there is the scrawny, unrelenting conductor who takes pleasure in asserting his authority and ditching us at the wrong station. He is not vulnerable to the bribing sort because he gets too much pleasure from demonstrating his power. Then there is the paunchy, nonchalant chap whose oversized belly indicates a diet paid for by “tip money” from his obliging customers, people like us who were willing to milk the system for a few hours of extra comfort.

Rather than riding the train all the way to Chennai, another balmy city of dust and fumes, we got off a little earlier and took an early morning bus to Pondicherry. This quaint relic of French colonialism kept us busy for the afternoon, wondering along the promenade and exploring winding back alleys with French road signs and tranquil architecture. In a fine little restaurant we even found a French speaking Indian family, imagine that. After a rest in the park we took an auto back through the furious Indian quarters of the city to find a bus to the coastal town of Mamallapuram, a couple of hours south of Chennai.

Mamallapuram

A last minute dash to make the most of the beach, we figured a night spent close to the sea would be favorable over a day of sightseeing in Chennai. It was a serene little town, if a little seedy with the tourist trail. We took a room in a guest house right above the beach amidst a bustle of ramshackle houses catering to backpackers. With the buzz of peak season there was plenty of activity, even a traditional dance festival that we skipped for a swim and a quiet dinner. Not quite the serenity of Kerala, the sea was stormy and there was a gusty wind. Nevertheless, the sun showed its face the following morning and the sea breeze worked its magic before we gave in to Gurgaon’s calling. One final seafood lunch, Calamari and just enough spare rupees for a fruit juice, before we hopped on the final bus into Chennai. From the city centre a long auto ride took us to the airport, long enough to get a feel for the city, at least we can say. Everything felt a notch slower, more gentrified than the Delhi suburbs. Palm trees, grass, greenery, sea and warmth, I’d consider the merit of packing up Gurgaon for here. And then we waited in the strangest looking airport before a brief flight back to the cold smog that we call home. Ah, Gurgaon.


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