Thursday, 22 August 2013


I've been relaxing in Goa for a few days now, growing out my beard and drinking lassis, all the while intending to write another blog post. I thought, 'hey, monsoonal rains in Goa. The perfect place to kick back and do some writing'. The thing about Goa though, is the food is so amazing and the booze is so cheap that all I seemed to do is eat and drink. But enough of that, I'm motivated and I have a cold, so a break from drinking has begun.

I will start with Bombay. I touched on it briefly last post. The city itself I found to be quite modern and clean comparatively to other major Indian cities. The best thing to do when landing in Mumbai airport is to go straight to the prepaid taxi box because the drivers will try to con you out of those few precious extra rupees you would have spent on food or beer. The trip in to colaba wasn't too long. Maybe 45 minutes. It gave me time to check out the city. Modern vehicles and seaside views make for a refreshing change from delhi. I don't think I saw more than 5 auto rickshaws in Mumbai. After staying a night at the salvos I was convinced I was being eaten alive by bed bugs. I would get up at 6 or 7am and hop in a cold shower and make my way to Starbucks to use their wi fi. My morning ritual consisted of a small snack like a samosa or potato dumpling and a filthy bucks coffee. The black coffee is the money as far as caffeine goes.

Well prepared and shot up with caffeine, I would make my way down one of the main roads stretching through colaba. From memory it was m.Gandhi rd but I can't be sure. Lots of markets and bars, this main road is jam packed with tourists. When I got to Leopold's (the bar featured in shantaram), I was a little disappointed to see it resembled more of a la porchetta, family restaurant vibe then the seedy smokey bar I had imagined. None the less I scoped the bar for gangster types. The best i could come up with was an eastern European looking girl who was burning a hole in the back of toms head with a stare that lasted a whole pitcher of kingfisher. I love how they serve beer at Leopold's. They bring out a small red bowl like dish with kingfisher advertising all over it. 5 minutes later, a huge pitcher of beer arrives and is placed on the bowl. The whole contraption acts as a sort of makeshift beer tap. I dug it very much.

The next day in Bombay we went to a Bollywood film. We saw a film called b.a pass and another one called once upon in Mumbai, again. I urge you to YouTube both films. Halfway through once upon a time, I lent over and asked the man next to me what was happening. Apparently it was a love story where the women couldn't decide who I she really loved. There were gratuitous sex scenes in the back of tuk tuk but no on-screen kissing, of course.

Bombay is an interesting city. Completely diverse in its class and caste system even today. One story I was told that stuck with me was about the taj mahal hotel in colaba. Tata is a very famous Muslim Indian company. They produced tea originally but moved on to automobiles amongst a whole range of other products. The Indian people embraced tata and they went on to become probably the most successful and profitable company in India. So, the story goes, the owners of tata were in Bombay on business and wanted to stay at a posh hotel. They chose the most expensive and grande hotel available. The hotel was European owned and was made for rich tourists and business men. When the tata owners entered the lobby they were instantly dismissed on the grounds they were poor locals. The owners were disgusted and out of spite, built a hotel even grander than the one they were denied from. The taj mahal hotel was built and did so well that it put the other hotel out of business.

To get from Bombay to Goa, there are a few options. I decided on a sleeper bus. It seemed to me that it was a good mix of comfort and affordability. The funny thing was, the man I bought my tickets from stressed the importance of being at the bus depot with plenty of time. Time got away from me of course and I was at the bus depot with five minutes to spare. A pack of giggling locals said my bus wouldn't be running today and I should hop on his bus that will take me to the real sleeper bus. Sounds totally legitimate right? I decided to go with the toothless man with the limps advice and hop on 'his' bus. Everything turned out alright. There were a few bombayites who had the same kind of ticket as me and I actually made friends with a chatty young chap by the name of ashok. He told us a few goan dishes that we must try and gave me a brief run down of Goa and where we might like to stay.

Goa is not at all a large area. With enough time you could easily explore the states beaches, nature and culture. I found their bus system to be very effective, hassle free and super cheap. I rode one bus that blasted out hits from chennai express, the latest Bollywood film. Very generally, Goa can be split into three distinct regions : north south and central. I'm writing this now from the south where I am struggling to find WiFi. Things slow down in the south. The beaches seem quieter and appear to cater for an older calmer crowd. A good place to sit back, unwind and read a book. One of the most interesting things for me about Goa is the architecture. The Portuguese arrived in Goa in 1510 seeking control of the regions spice routes by way of Goas wide natural waterways. Soon after, Portuguese rule and religion spread throughout the state, sometimes by force and it was not until 1961 when the Indian army marched into Goa, that almost five centuries of Portuguese occupation finally came to an end.

The Portuguese architecture is immediately apparent in panaji (the capital), with yellow houses with purple doors and cats lying in front of push bikes parked beneath oyster-shell windows. Numerous times tom and I would look at each other and comment that we could be in Portugal or another completely different location. We visited many of the churches littered throughout old Goa but none of them struck a chord with me. I think after being to massive Hindu and Sikh temples, the churches had lost much of their appeal to me.

Today when I was making my way down to the little shop about 2km away from my guesthouse, I saw a girl I was traveling with and tom both with great big grins on their faces. Turns out they had just rented three scooters and needed me to help them drive the bikes to buy fuel. I didn't feel too comfortable but what the heck, when in India right? So I asked the man who rents the bikes how to turn the bike on and he half rolled his eyes and lent over me and flicked the ignition. I felt like he was used to dumb white tourists doing silly things like rent a scooter without a bike license. Not even 30 seconds down the road I see Tom take a corner too wide, ricochet off another stationary scooter and accelerate head first into a nearby hat shop. Hats went flying, dust kicked up and a group of Indian men huddled around giggling and pointing. You couldn't have written better comedy. I was obviously immediately concerned for the safety of young Thomas, but after I could see there was no real injury, I relaxed. Tom saw the humour in it to, wiping the dust from his shorts and shaking his head in a mixture of disbelief and embarrassment. We all agreed it could have been a lot worse and that maybe the scooter idea wasn't the greatest. The incident was tidied up quicker then anticipated with a pat on the back and a bill for a bunch of rupees.

Tip of the day - just because its called a sleeper bus doesn't mean you actually get any sleep.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Dont let the bed bugs bite.

My plane had hit the tarmac just as soon as I had read the last page of Norwegian wood. This isn't relevant though. What IS relevant, is that I was reading shantaram previously. Mumbai... Or Bombay, as a lot of Indians seem to prefer to call it is great at first impressions. Flying over the slums just meters from the airport grounds. A city of its own covered in tarps, street signs and just about anything else that could be used as makeshift fortifications for a family home.

But I mustn't skip too far ahead in my adventures! I had spent just under a week in rishikesh where the Beatles found their inspiration for the white album. I'm a little hazy on the details but I think the story tells of how a Beatle or two stayed at an ashram practicing meditation and yoga with some kind of guru. After a while, John Lennon decided it was all just a money making scam. He wrote a song about his experience. 'You've made a fool of everyone'. John chickened out and decided to call the song sexy Sadie rather then the name of the guru.

Rishikesh is relaxing mostly. A completely dry town. No bars or pubs or beer in restaurants. I could smell hash almost constantly, though. The town is divided by 2 rope bridges populated by cheeky monkeys. One day a couple of girls had bought a bag of mangos only to have them snatched sneakily from behind. Some yoga, felafel, shopping, momos and a head butt from a cow and I was pretty satisfied with my experience of rishikesh and ready to move on.

Delhi has mostly served as a central hub in order to catch trains and buses to other destinations and this time we were catching a plane to Bombay so back to Delhi we went. Not much to report on my third time in Delhi. I got one of the girls to buy me nose rings because only gay people and women wear nose rings and I couldn't be bothered trying to explain that I wasn't gay to a man in a cloth. For dinner we ate at a restaurant with a line out front. Probably the best food so far. Had a thali to sample the different curries and followed it up with a south Indian coffee. One of the best coffees I've ever had. A man came and transfered the coffee from one cup to the other as an elaborate method of mixing in the sugar. The next morning we hired a van to take us to the airport. The driver pulled the old 'OK, you want to go to terminal 3? That's ages away, extra.' We saw right through it though and we continued. Just outside the airport we were pulled over by traffic police for having one too many passengers in the van. A complete joke seeing as some of the cars held over 10 Indians and nothing was said. A quick 'fine' (bribe), and we were on our way.

Now as I said I had just finished reading shantaram. It's a book about an escaped Australian prisoner who arrives in Bombay to live out the rest of his life here. He visits a bar call Leopold's where he starts his new life of crime in India. I am unshowered, dirty, sweaty, wet and itchy after staying a night at the salvation army dorms. I am thinking Leopold's might just be the perfect antidote.

Tip of the day - just because its free doesn't make it good. Also, nothing is free.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Pants and scarfs

Nainital is a popular holiday destination for a lot of Indians coming from the larger cities to escape the heat. The journey here wasn't at all pleasant. I hopped on a bus that left Lucknow and traveled 3 to 4 hours over a very rocky dusty road. Some managed to sleep. I have no idea how. I found myself wondering when the bus was last serviced as it had more resemblance to a garbage bin than a bus.

After a bumpy few hours, I got off the bus in a large busy city and hired a jeep that would take us up the Himalayan mountain side. The journey up the mountain, even at night was absolutely beautiful. The whole way up I was thinking what it would be like to climb it on my bike. Certainly puts Arthur's seat to shame!

The temperature lowered as we climbed in altitude and it was certainly welcomed. By this stage I was completely over sweating through shirts as soon as I left my lodgings. Arriving in town was anti climactic. I fully expected a breathtaking view but what we hadn't taken in to account is how long it takes to climb to the top of the mountain. The day had escaped us and the town was quiet and blanketed in darkness. We somehow managed to find a 5 person room and convinced the owner to allow us to put a mattress on the floor for a sixth person.

In the morning our breath was certainly taken. A deep green lake surrounded by enormous mountains littered with holiday houses and statues of Shiva and ganesh. As we explored the many shops, cafes and the Tibetan markets I found my pockets becoming lighter as realized that I totally needed that picture of a teddy bear riding a camel attached to a rolled up cabbage and I couldn't leave that tee shirt with a slogan that made no sense in English. But in all honesty, there were some great things on offer and plenty of presents were purchased.

I sampled some momos. They are basically glorified Nepalese dumplings that can be served in a soup or as is. Pretty damn scrumptious, so I ordered 12. Completely satisfied with our momo feast we rode boats on the lake and took the cable car higher to get an even more outrageous view. At the top there is an opening which seems sort of like an amusement park. I fired a rifle at the shooting range and hit a few targets. The indian bloke looked pleased but maybe he was just surprised that I hit something with the wonky sight and misshapen barrel. It started raining so we ran all the way back to our place.

Our clothes were soaked through. I bought some beers, they rolled some cigarettes and we sat and played cards as our clothes dried. I was looking forward to kicking back at this little paradise in the sky.

Tip of the day - when eating 12 momos, remember to breathe between mouthfuls.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Zero fucking stars...

This one will be short and sweet. In order to get up close to the Himalayan mountains we first have to go through Lucknow. 8 hours on the train. Not such a bad trip. Caught up on some arrested development, ate some samosas and ipod'd my way through the journey. By the time we were in Lucknow I was pretty hungry. The only thing Lucknow is really famous for is their mutton kebabs, even though its the capital of the state.

Went to a hotel we were interested in but was a little out of our price range. Found another one called moon star hotel or something like that. Bartered the Sikh at reception down to 200 a night. The room I got is probably the biggest piece of shit I have ever been in. Actually, saying it is a piece of shit is being generous. Piss stained mattresses, stale air, bottom floor next to a kitchen, no shower and a mouse to keep us company. Zero fucking stars. I apologize for my language but I am not a happy man.

Moving on...

The kebabs were shit but cheap, the traffic is chaotic and more disorderly than the much more dense Delhi traffic, we don't think the locals like white people and did I mention anything about the hotel?

Summing up, avoid Lucknow. I would rather eat my own esophagus than visit this town again.

Tip of the day - visit lucknow, try the esophagus. :-)

Take no prisoners

Blindingly colorful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet place on earth. Welcome to Varanasi. Also known to some as the city of life.  One of the worlds oldest inhabited cities and is regarded as one of Hinduism's' seven holy cities. Hindus come from all over India to die in Varanasi. They say if you die here and your body goes through the process of burning and then being dumped in the river that you will be liberated from the cycle of birth and death and be transported to heaven or Nirvana. That is, as long as you aren't pregnant, a leper or have a cobra bite.

Throughout my stay in Varanasi I counted the bodies being carried through the streets and eventually lost count and became desensitized. Varanasi dates back to 1200bc although it really rose to prominence in 8th century ad, when a guy called shankaracharya, a reformer of Hinduism, established Shiva worship as the major sect. The city was later destroyed in 1300ac and rebuilt again. Unfortunately a lot of the original temples were looted and destroyed by the afghans.

There is a lot more to offer than just antique buildings, spiritual activities and in your face culture. One of the highlights was a lassi shop called blue lassi. Definitely the undisputed best lassi in town. A tiny hole in the wall where they have been churning out lassi for over 70 years. I had a fruit mix one and a mango one. They top the creamy lassi with a mountain of fruit. Absolutely perfect sipping on one of these under a fan watching the color stroll through the alley ways. If you are not such a fan of fruit there are special lassi which are said to give you Shiva power. (Its actually just a lassi with a very healthy dose of marijuana). I had one of these and it completely floored me. I now realize why the man only drinks them on Sunday!

Winding alley ways, maze like streets and general craziness makes Varanasi one of my favorite destinations so far. The food we ate was the cheapest so far with banquets made for 6 people only paying 150rs each! The shopping was much the same. Cheap, interesting and much more variety.

Time to hop on a train and head towards the mountains.

Tip of the day - train carriage no. 8 obviously means you have to get on carriage no. 1