Saturday, January 02, 2010

Mumbai: Extreme Cricket and a Bollywood Balls Up









As mentioned, Mumbai has been a place I've been especially looking forward to, not in as much that I love exploring cosmopolitan cities but more the fact that I'd finished the 1,00 page fine print beast of a book that is Shantaram only minutes before touching down on the tarmac.

Without trying to rehash the story, the book itself centres around the city and the first few hours wandering the place felt more like a nostalgic trip rather than seeing things for the first time.

The mixture of colonial architecture combined with modern and ancient parts of the city gives it a pretty unique feel and I find myself (along with many others) feeling what a poor relation Delhi is in comparison with the place and understand why so many dislike it.

It's not all wonderful though, and like most places I've seen on this trip you're only a footstep away from another world: whether it's walking near a slum and turning the corner to face a multinational company HQ or stepping out of an up market bar or club to be faced with the scores of people who make the pavements and alleyways their home during the night.

Such a stark contrast can be difficult to take and can understand why many aren't comfortable being one of the 'haves' (as opposed to the 'have nots') in a city like this.

After being in Rajasthan which is rural by comparison, there are of course the inevitable 'city prices' that you come to expect in Mumbai which do give the wallet a bit of a pounding, but its hard to find many things that I honestly dislike about the place.

I did manage to find a unique way to overcome the exorbitant hotel prices in the city though. When people usually describe their home or area as a building site it's often an exaggeration - not in this case.

In exchange for a more favourable rate, the owners of this hotel allowed guests to stay in the semi complete building in the top floor of the block (its common to have many different hotels in one building in India) whilst the grinding, sawing, plastering and general noise making continued throughout the day until the late evening.

Despite everything being covered in a fine layer of plaster dust (despite the best attempts of a guy employed solely to eradicate this) it was actually pretty good and through the paint speckled, poorly hung door of my and beyond the bamboo scaffolding was an amazing view of the harbour that only the best rooms in town can boast.

The rest of the time here has been a mixture of ambling through the streets by day and discovering the various drinking holes by night, with only a couple of notable exceptions.

In the same way that the Indians have invented a more dangerous version of Badminton in Agra, they have also created a new, far more dangerous version of cricket. Quite some achievement in a sport where you have to wear a box, a helmet and a solid leather ball travels at 90mph.

Sunday, like that in other civilised countries that play the sport is cricket day. In England this would usually be a sedate game on a village green, overseen by local enthusiasts and those with nothing better to do.

In Australia it would be perhaps drinking in the sun and and sledging the under 12 team with a torrent of abuse, smashing my civilised country theory for six.

The dense population and limited park space in Mumbai means a different approach is required. Rather than a village green or city oval the foot traffic and general chaos more closely resembles Heathrow terminal 5 that it does a sporting venue.

In the midst of all this are DOZENS of cricket game all going on at once, all pitches with hugely overlapping boundaries and frequent trespassers in the form of dogs, stray children and those with a death wish. Never has the phrase 'having eyes in the back of your head' been more appropriate.

Whilst the cricket itself and their passion for the game was entertaining enough, it was just fascinating watching it all work together. The thought (and thankfully not the ball) struck me that whilst I was loving all this and concentrating through the viewfinder of my camera I was only about 10m from the batsmen.

A couple of enthusiastically hit boundaries meant I went for cover and let them get on with it, amazed that on surveying the ground no one anywhere was lying unconscious besides a cricket ball.

The other notable exception was a missed opportunity as much as it was an SBE. In Mumbai there are lots of thing for sale: everything is everywhere.

As most people that have been anywhere overseas will know, in order not to succumb to tourist rage or lose your sanity you develop a pre-built "no thank you" to anything on offer unless you are on a deliberate shopping spree - at which point the bargaining games begins with good intentions.

So, upon stepping out of my hotel dressed smarter than the average, ready for a night of smarter than average watering holes I had the pre-built phrases as always. offers for drugs, women and of course wooden carving were all turned down as were many others.

I was only 50m down the street en route to dinner that I actually replayed one which was along the lines of' hello sir, I'm looking for 2 western male extras for a Bollywood move tomorrow if you're interested".

This was an opportunity to a) do something cool and b) get paid. So being 100m away from the guy at this point I decided that hunger was a first priority and that I'd see him when I came out. Alas he was gone, as was the opportunity to get my gormless face on DVD for a nanosecond and secure my immortality in B Grade Bollywood.

So, my potential new career shattered and having finished with temples, forts etc. for this trip Goa is the next stop where both the agenda and the contents of my brain are to be as empty as possible. The only exception being a cheeky NYE celebration, minus the trance music.

Friday, January 01, 2010

PICS ADDED

Due to much slackness on my part and the internet being powered by 2 leads into a potato, photo uploading has been difficult to achieve.

After some perseverance pics from the last 3 places have now been added though.

Happy new year!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

UDAIPUR






In between bouts of screeching brakes grinding to a halt, crazed kids running and screaming up the aisles and pot holes that appear to have their own gravitational force, inspiration struck me: why be a backpacker when you can be a flash-packer?

My bus, pre-booked in Delhi was a 'luxury' sleeper, consisting of 2 rows of seats running down the centre, above which are boxes which can only be described as transparent coffins, only tall enough for people to lay down or at best lean back on your elbows.

Thankfully getting the long straw and having the chair it was with some guilty amusement that I watched into the glass, with the people and their possessions swooshing around like the contents of a washing machine on spin cycle, especially when the gravitational pot holes strike.

This was a mild comfort to a less than mild hangover until said inspiration struck.

It was then with much delight, after checking into my hotel room complete with big Tv and 4 poster bed, I punched in my cerdit card details to confirm my flights for the remainder of the trip, with not a train in sight. Flash-packing at its best.

I guess I won't really be a backpacker again unless the big bad GFC catches up with me or I request a P45 and have to count each and every Rupee.

It was a serene time discovering Udaipur with the nagging horror of the trains out of mind, even the ridiculous traffic and street sellers didn't seem to get to me. The place itself boasts the lake palace used for the Bond film Octopussy.

Being quick on the uptake, 20-30% of the places have some kind of reference to the movie whether it be 007, James Bond these are plastered across guest houses, hotels and restaurants all the hope of securing custom through this loose association.

No one has really riffed on the title of the movie itself which is a surprise, or perhaps my childish sense of humour with what you could call such a place doesn't work with the locals.

So, departure lounges, reasonable coffee and people calling me sir await at the airport en route to Mumbai. A nice change from arctic winds, dodging projectiles and a constant feeling of confusion and panic that I'm on the wrong train.

I've been looking forward to Mumbai as much as anywhere on this trip so I'm hoping the mix of modern India and the colonial version live up to expectations.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

JODPHUR




Just as the other cities in Rajasthan have their associated colours, Jodphur is known as the blue city and on first impression its the colour of the place that is most striking and impressive.

Resisting too many comparisons with the sky blue train carriage to Jaisalmer, the blue paint business seems a lucrative one ion these parts given that each house has exactly the same shade and that it is also EXACTLY the same as the aforementioned wind tunnels disguised as train carriages that got me to the desert.

Again like most cities of the region, Jodphur has it's fort as the main attraction. Most of these are now getting quite similar, and only after a few visits to the armoury of these can I be impressed with the unique and inventive ways that people of the past came up with to kill and mame in the name of progress.

The Jodphur fort itself is the same in many respects although it's elevated position above the city does really highlight how good they've done with the emulsion, rollers and paint brushes above.

So having covered enough of the main attraction and satisfied that I've seen it thoroughly the rest of the time here was devoted to the purchasing of knick nacks: a task that can sustain me for as long as any or fort (bars excluded).

This was also good time to try and rectify my horrifying discovery that my train tickets out of Rajasthan to Mumbai consisted of 'wait-list' tickets, which give you no actual seats whilst relieving you of the full cost of them anyway.

Some friendly help in the station revealed that 35 others were also 'waiting' for a ticket, although given that people cram into these things like they're the last train from the apocalypse means my chances were slim to anorexic of getting on board.

My new friend in the station kindly pointed out that what you see on the screen and what can happen are 2 different things.

An Rs 300 payment to the local 'fixer' (outside the station away from view) meant that within 30 mins I had myself a seat, albeit in the dreaded third tier, meaning two twelve hour journeys back to back. It was with mixed feelings then that I took some exhilaration from my first 'unofficial' transaction in India, and some regret that it may well have cost someone their seat.

My two helpers as part of a brief conversation, as always in India became friends for the next 24 hours and I found myself in the company of one guy that is a musician who tours India with his band (he plays hardcore sitar apparently).

The other guy was the self proclaimed 'fixer' who used to street box (and had some nasty scars to prove it) but now is also in the 'gem trade' which sounds equally short lived and illegal to me. But nonetheless they were good value for company and wit their help I discovered the sharp end of a hangover when drinking 8% beer (it has the EXACT same bottle as the 5% stuff!) for the night.

A sore head, and still a sore arse from the camel 'race' in Jaisalmer boarded the bus (a nice change perhaps?) to Udaipur for the day, although the thought of the 24hrs on trains is starting to fill with with occasional and momentary panic.

Friday, December 25, 2009

JAISALMER










I'll admit that whilst I am more than fine with roughing it and staying in less that opulent surroundings when travelling that rail travel so far has been a mixture of the best and middle classes on offer in India: I have been enjoying tea and toast whilst chugging along in the best classes and more than comfortable in the mid range sleepers on the longer journeys where bling class wasn't available.

So then I was a touch apprehensive in Bikaner when examining my ticket to reveal that I was in the basement 'sleeper' class and that the financial expenditure for this 7 hour trip was $3 compared to several multiples of that I've paid so far. It's all good this is what travelling is all about though, right?

Whilst some journeys I've been on here have been an oasis of calm, others resembling a rolling detention cell for troublesome toddlers, the carriage and the train itself looked like a mental ward or prisoner relocation carriage.

Not so much as a result of the antics of the occupants, but more the d├ęcor. Someone, at some stage in the last 10 years has seen the fading state of the train carriages and decided that the best way to brighten things is a coat of blue paint: on everything.

Nothing has escaped the swipes of the brush it seems, with plug sockets, plastic handles and everything besides the floor and ceiling either deliberately or accidentally covered in layers upon layers of it.

Painting over rusting parts is only ever a short term look and the results from the pale blue frenzy is a flaking, rusting, dusty carriage that feels like said institutions.

To be fair this is actually fine and no worse than some of the hovels called 'rooms' I've stayed in previously, and considering the cost of the ticket I consider this a minor victory for thrift.

However the feeling of victory was short lived and I began to realise exactly where my 145 Rupees had gone (or not gone) once an old man came to sit on the bunk opposite. Like most people in India he clearly wasn't a wealthy man, meaning that usually in such circumstances you normally purchase only what is required with little luxuries.

So it was a slight surprise perhaps, as we started to roll out of the station that the older man started to pull at contents from his impossibly small bag and begin setting up something that looked like Everest base camp on the opposite bunk. After digging out sleeping bags, cushions, pillows, hats and scarves etc. He gave me a little smile and settled himself in, no doubt looking forward to the morning fry up he'd be knocking up on his stove the concealed further within his bag.

So after 6 hours staring blankly at the ceiling, fidgeting to stay warm and shivering from the cold I must have looked like a was vibrating, it was time to leave and find some accommodation - 5.45 am.
At this stage I was in hostile mood but too tired to fight and after inadvertantly being ripped off on my room I went straight to bed, and the numb feet never left me until mid day the next day - after the conclusion 0f what I was hoping would be my second sleep.

As it turns out I also got ripped off in spectacular fashion on my Camel trek, but all in all the 3 days in Jaisalmer were a welcome break from the monotony of cities and the long frozen detour west from the rest of Rajasthan was well worth it.

Jodphur next, and another carriage awaits - although day time hours guarantee a different experience to the one that got me here, which I am genuinely thrilled about.
BIKANER

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. And in hindsight I was perhaps a touch harsh on Pushkar given that the city of Bikaner deserves its rightful place as a city best forgotten, for me at least.

Needless to say that myself, tattooed palm (drawing amused gazes from locals and confused ones from linen clad hippies) and all weren't impressed with yet another bustling city, this time with no real stand out attractions to see other than it providing a way to break up the journey to Jaiselmer west of here.

The best way for me to avoid getting pissed off with it all and trying to eke out an entertaining day of it is to hire a driver for the day - this at least means you see other places whizzing buy from a rickshaw and rely on someone else's local knowledge to put together an interesting day rather than the much maligned and over relied upon Lonely Planet.

The usual score of temples, cemeteries and random ornate objects on roundabouts (was the roundabout there first or the object?) was pleasant enough, as was my driver but having seen to much of the same thing but on a grander scales dulls the senses somewhat and it was through forced gestures that I try to covey genuine enthusiasm when the drivers and locals ask me what I make of their wonderful home city and its attractions.

However it's not all hum drum and repetition here: the fact that Bikaner is an outpost before the Thar desert and that tourists will buy anything means that camels and camel safaris are all the go, especially for those not heading to Jaiselmer.

So then, camel sit is another projectile to add to the list of things to keep an eye out for and avoid: not quite as deadly as the traffic or as nasty as a freshly laid cow surprise but still one to think about when wearing flip flops.

That being said, whilst the camel has an impressive and deafening spit action, it's the local guys that probably pose a more realistic threat to clean feet and clothes.

Whilst you don't see too many smoking in the cities here, it did take me a little while to see that the little sachets on sale practically everywhere are spiced chewing tobacco pouches rather than popping candy sherbet or any other kind of old school sweets, meaning you are never more than 50m away at any time, should you need a quick fix and some bright red teeth.

The end result on the streets is that people are constantly talking with a mouthful of the stuff, talking with a mouthful of liquid and spitting it pretty much any time they're awake...the result is a lovely decoration on the streets that looks like it's been raining jellyfish or a poor job by a mop up crew shortly after a bloody battle had taken place. Grim.

So no camel safari for me here as Jaisalmer beckons where I will have a ride out for a day, in between the spitting and hacking of guide and beast of course...

Tuesday, December 22, 2009



AJMER & PUSHKAR


So after not exactly brimming with enthusiasm with being here, it was better than I expected and to be fair the sights and offers of Ajmer would have been more than average had I not seen some of the best in Rajahstan prior and perhaps the fact that people come here midways between amazing things is why it'll never be more than average in most peoples eyes.


Besides the array of temples, mosques etc. to see the city itself is the same as most others, the mix of traffic, pollution and livestock that India has been so far - and although not wishing the rest of my trip away the thought of a secluded spot on the beach in Goa does sound like heaven!


I also branched out the extra 15kms around the mountains that separates Ajmer from Pushkar, which is the site of the Holy Lake and Ghat where Gandhi's ashes have been scattered.Given the dry winter season the lake itself is more of a puddle at the centre of the surrounding shrines but nonetheless full on linen-clad hippies and the part time holidaying equivalent flock their in their droves owing to the fact that surrounding the lake is a haven for all the sorts of things in a bazaar that the stereotypes would crave.


So, as I was walking through the markets in combats, t shirt and sunnies (as you do) I couldn't have felt more out of place as if I were wearing a tuxedo, scuba gear or nothing at all.


At this point I must admit although I was the one that stood out I was quite pleased not to get caught up in a whirlwind of such things. So you can imagine my horror, when upon chatting to a couple of local girls (who inevitably want something when they invite you to take their picture) that one asks for my hand and then begins to scrawl on my palm with what looks like a small wrapper with a dark coloured goop.


The horror became realised when they kindly let me know that this was henna and that they were offering me a free tattoo on my palm! By this point the girl in question was scribbling frantically and at this stage I was in too deep and thought that something finished wou0ld at least be better than a forcibly abandoned effort. Not so much perhaps, as the result looks like the creation of a sugar crazed toddler let loose with an orange felt tip pen.


If these hippies are onto something and karma does exist, I certainly got mine.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

JAIPUR: A Tale of 2 Salims and an Underpants Malfunction

So as alluded to, the first 12 hours here have been bizarre, thought provoking and thoroughly embarrassing: a fine effort when 9 of those hours are spent sleeping.

So first to the bizarre and thought provoking. In an attempt to string together something along the lines of a plan I'd phoned ahead and reserved my hotel for the next 2 nights (with free transfers) in order to avoid the constant pressure from tuk tuk drivers that threatens to break my patience in the coming days and weeks.

So as per the plan, I called them once I'd arrived, and my designated guy was on his way, armed with my name and my description of what I looked like.

The usual deal here is that the other drivers leave you alone once they realise you're betrothed to another hotel (and of course driver) and they look for some other lost souls who are too tired to argue and just want their beds as quickly as possible after a long train journey and late arrival.

All was pretty much following this formula although one guy (let's say Salim #1 to make things simple) keeps the banter going and is straining to do so beyond the usual pleasantries (where from, how long staying etc. etc.). He's offered to take me back himself should my ride turn up, mentioned a dance festival that night, a wedding in his village tomorrow night and of course the obligatory full day city tour prior.

After much resistance on my part, and partly to cease the repetition of his offers I agree to meet him outside my hotel at 11.00 to discuss what may transpire rather than any specific commitments.

Enter stage left Salim #2 fresh from the hotel, who after much searching realises that the ones he's looking for is at the centre of a 10 man circle.

He gets my name roughly right but the hotel spot on which is good enough for me as Salim #1 is starting to get beyond niceties and is ushering me toward using his form of transport instead, which I wasn't overly comfortable with at that point.

The conversation that followed on the way back to the hotel was roughly along the lines of:

Salim #2: "Do you know that man"

Ian: "Kind of, he's Salim as well, talking to me about (various offers repeated here)"

Salim #2: "He is not a tuk tuk driver. Please Mr Ian, to be staying away from this man, I live in Jaipur all my life and know lots of men, this is man is one of the mans I am afraid of"

Ian: "What do you mean?"

Salim #2: "I have many, many stories about this man, which you would not believe me about if I tell them to you"

At this point I'm slightly more awake and to be honest just intrigued to find out.

Ian: "Come on, what stories are you talking about?"

Salim #2: "I am frightened even talking about it in cases peoples hear us"

My interest fades at this point and just put it down to something fairly elaborate to pitch an inevitable day's city tour once arrived at the hotel. Obviously not having packed my poker face, Salim sees this and darts us off the road to a quiet alley (if there is such a thing in India) and explains:

Salim #2: "OK, I am telling you this as my new friend but afterwards we don't be talking about this and Salim any more (silent nod of the heard from me). That Salim is a man many bad people in Jaipur know, he is in the business of selling people - any people!"

Ian: "Selling people?"

Salim #2: "Yes he is selling people, all kinds of people, he takes them and he passes them to others who never get seen again. Please, please listen to the deep and honest advice I give you and don't meet this man again. Please promise me you will do this, I am not caring whether you take any other tuk tuk driver or me or anyone else, please take my words."

At this point I agree and once we're back to the hotel I agree again without mentioning the back story and Salim gives me a hug to thank me for being so open to advice. I check with the hotel and describe Salim #1, which draws a fairly blank expression from the owner, although Salim #2is one of their few trusted drivers as he's a small business man with a few tuk tuks rather than driving for other owners like most.

Strange ay?!?

After getting some sleep once the thoughts of what might/might not or never would have been I woke up still feeling less than perfect from the previous day where I'd suffered from 'Gastrobics' (Gastro-aerobics, you heard it here first!) most of the day. I did however make short work of my plain omlette and plain toast at breakfast in the main dining area. It was on comtemplating what a poor choice this was given that it was the omlette on the train that may have done me over when I got up to leave for the day.

The breeze passing through the open dining area felt particularly chilling around the back of my shorts and upon subtle, but closer inspection by turning around I had indeed soiled myself at some point during breakfast - marvellous.

By my heart was beating 10 times faster, I tried to coolly and calmly gather my belongings and head back to my room for a slight detour instead of the day trip. I'm glad to say that inspiration struck, and my John Wayne style walk of shame was all that bit easier thanks to the hoody tied around the wait: a classic manoeuvre that has been saving disgraced toddlers for years that comes to the rescue of a man who should know better - or for that matter should just know!

No matter how well you cover your tracks (pun intended) when facing an embarrassing error the paranoia that everybody knows anyway never quite leaves you.

After a day#2 sightseeing, wearing pair of shorts and underpants #2 for the day I decided to eat elsewhere than the hotel that evening, safe in the knowledge that laughter from other tables was most likely not directed at me and my underpants malfunction.

Ajmer next, and hopefully by that point I won't be petrified to pass wind.

ps - pics will follow, of Jaipur that is.

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