Monthly Archives: January 2012

Ajanta, at last

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The next day is Tuesday, and Ajanta is open to the public again. It’s a little more than rickshaw-distance, at 100km from Aurangabad, but (surprise surprise) Aman knows a guy with a car, so for INR1850 Alizé and I are collected to be collected from our respective hotels at 8:30am to begin the journey.

I’d had a useful discussion with the waiter in the hotel cafe at breakfast the day before about transport options and timing and so on, and he’d been teasing me for going with the safe breakfast option of a masala omelette (omelette with green chillies and red peppers). I’d promised to try the Indian breakfast the next day so, with a wide smile, this morning he serves up a large plate of poha, pre-cooked, pounded rice that has been reheated and mixed with spices and roasted peanuts – flavoursome but mild enough not to shock my western palate too early in the morning.

Breakfast over, I have a brief “discussion” with the young kid on reception who is unwilling to let me go without paying for my room, despite my assurance that I’ve paid in advance. We compromise: I leave my luggage hostage and promise to return after Ajanta if he will let me use a shower when I come back, and I call on the ever-helpful Aaliyah at India Someday, who promises to have the matter sorted by the time I return – which she does. They have sometimes been slow to respond prior to the trip, but since my arrival in India we have been in regular contact and nothing is too much trouble. As a trip booking service they are well worth the small fee for their in-country support. Here endeth the endorsement.

There is no sign of Aman this morning, but he has sent his cousin (brother, colleague, partner in crime – who knows!), a man called Samir. His English is not as good as Aman’s, but he knows this route well and points out sights along the way.

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It is the first time that I have seen cotton fields, and Samir stops the car so that we can take a closer look. Two young boys, maybe 12 years old at most, come running up, eager to show us the flowers on the cotton plants, and some tiny buds on the mango tree nearby (doomed never to make it into mangoes since, in their enthusiasm, they pull out a small scythe and cut them from the tree to present to us). The boys ham it up for the camera, pretending to attack each other with the little scythes, like boys of their age anywhere, except that these two are field workers, and will go back to picking cotton when we are gone.

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There are other workers in the nearby fields, cotton, corn, wheat and sugarcane, and further along we see makeshift tents, some with rope and tarpaulin, others using sticks and cornstalks. They are the camps of itinerant workers, who travel from farm to farm and camp in the fields where they work. Later in the day we pass such a group in a train of rickety wooden ox-carts. The animals hauling the carts seem immune to the faster traffic rushing close by them.

About 20km before Ajanta we stop at a roadside cafe for chai and pakoras (or coke for me, I still can’t be dealing with that milky tea). Our Nepalese friends from the day before are at the next table, and we nod and smile in recognition. Our driver Samir introduces us to a couple of friends of his, one who runs a small Indian restaurant in Frankfurt but travels back to India for the winter months, and another, who calls himself Jack, and says he is a businessman, with a small shop at the shopping complex at Ajanta.

We talk about the caves, and Jack mentions the alternative entrance – would we like to go that way? He would be happy to be our guide (you can see what’s coming here, right?)….

As it happens, the alternative route is exactly the one I was hoping to take. Ajanta means ‘forgotten’ or ‘lost’ and, after they were abandoned by the Buddhist monks who built them, the caves were indeed forgotten for centuries, until a group of Englishmen happened to be out hunting for tigers one day, and spotted the caves from a nearby ridge. They alerted the local Nawab, and the caves eventually became a tourist attraction – right down to the recently-built government shopping complex at the main entrance, a short bus ride from the caves themselves, which, Jack tells us, has been funded by the Japanese.

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The original point where John Smith rediscovered the caves is one of only a couple of viewpoints where the entire horse-shoe of the caves can be seen, and it’s a steep climb up from the caves themselves. Instead, we take a narrow country road through a poor village (in the midst of which, bizarrely, is a tin fairground carousel), and Samir drops us at the top of the hill, at the official lookout point which marks the place of discovery.

Jack leads us down the side of the cliff along a narrow path. We veer off the path to see a waterfall – or what would be a truly impressive waterfall post-monsoon, if any of the seven descending pools carved out of the stone had enough water to overflow. This is a popular (but dangerous) swimming spot for the locals. Just as we are about to return to the path, there is movement under a nearby cactus, and a family of monkeys emerge, glance at us scathingly, and move on.

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At the entry to the caves below, Jack offers to wait for us – we assure him that won’t be necessary. We have agreed to visit his shop after we leave the caves, warning him in advance that we have no money (yep, I saw it coming too, but I’m fairly confident in my ability to stick to window shopping, and I’m quietly enjoying watching the Great Indian Scam attempt to unfold – it’s all part of the experience!). On the way down the cliff path he has told us all about the years he spent in Goa, and his English girlfriend of two years, who returned to Manchester and won’t take his calls. He blames her mother, who clearly didn’t like him. I suspect the discovery that he has a wife and children may have been more of a clincher. We make sympathetic noises and then change the subject.

There is a short, steep ascent from the ticket gate to the caves, and a few portly tourists are availing themselves of the chair wallahs, who carry them up the slope on a chair slung between two poles. They seem bemused that we’d prefer to walk. Perhaps then we would like to sit for just a moment, for a photo? For an appropriately small fee, of course…

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At last we reach the first cave. The Ajanta caves are entirely Buddhist, and the main difference between these and their counterparts in Ellora is the elaborate cave paintings that have been preserved here. After yesterday I am determined to hire a guide so that I understand a little better what I am looking at. He takes us to 8 of the 32 caves (a number are closed for restoration, others have very little inside, are identical to the others, or are shallow enough to be seen from the main path without further explanation) – we can wander through the rest at our leisure.

The detail of the paintings is amazing (the guide has a superpowered torch that puts my little headlamp to shame), and the clothing, jewellery and tools depicted give an insight into Indian society at the time.

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Our guide shows us a painting of a woman doctor, attending to a queen, and a depiction of a princess who is clearly pregnant. There are princes and dancers, musicians and fishermen. And did you know that rugby socks are an Indian invention?*

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The rest of the caves contain sculptures, including a giant reclining Buddha, and a cathedral with arched beams carved from the stone. The stone is volcanic, and in one cave the original ceiling has fallen away, revealing the frozen lava flow above. I’m again amazed that all of this has been accomplished with the use of hand tools – it’s not surprising that it took hundreds of years to complete, but to have created all of this only to abandon it again (our guide speculates that the occupants moved north with the decline of Buddhism in India – which may go to explain the Nepalese pilgrims).

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We at last emerge and pay our 12 rupees for the air conditioned bus to take us the 15 minute drive to the main exit, where our driver is waiting (well worth the extra 5 rupees over the non-aircon version). And sure enough there is Jack, with his shop, which turns out to be full of crystals and sculptures of Buddha – he is only mildly offended when I suggest they have been imported from China. In a fit of generosity I pay a third of the original asking price for a tiny basalt carved Buddha, which I would likely have bought from another shop anyway – it’s easy enough to refuse anything else, it simply won’t fit in my pack! Most effective shopping deterrent ever.

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Samir has one last attempt at the hard sell – this area is famous for its silk and cotton weaving (himroo and paithan), would we like to see a museum? The museum becomes a factory, and then a showroom, and ultimately turns out to be a shop, run by a fellow who looks an awful lot like Samir. We profess our complete disinterest, but he is very keen for us to go in – “just looking is ok”. So we just look, and 2 minutes later are back in the car again, much to Samir’s surprise – there are no more attempts at further stops!

On reaching the hotel, we decide to have dinner together before I catch my train. The hotel restaurant is closed, and directs us instead to an “Italian” place down the road, but before we leave Samir runs up and asks us to wait, as Aman is on his way. We had arranged for him to drop me at the station a little later on, so we can’t work out why Samir is so insistent, until Aman finally pulls up – in his Sunday finest, and riding a shiny Royal Enfield motorbike. Classic. It seems rude not to, so we invite him to join us for dinner (an odd Indian version of Italian, with extra spice, and a whole separate “Chinese” menu which includes gyoza) and Alizé is delighted when he agrees to drop her back to her hotel on the back of the bike (and promptly decides to spend her remaining day in Aurangabad sightseeing by motorbike).

Aman returns with his rickshaw to drop me at the station for my first overnight train journey. But you’ve heard about that already (see my tired rant a couple of posts back).

So. On to Goa!

*ok, I might have made that one up. But there was a set of Auckland rugby socks up there, honest!

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The Ellora caves or, Adventures by rickshaw

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I first came across the Ajanta caves when I was seventeen, living with a somewhat difficult host family in a large town north of Tokyo. My days were spent at an all-girls school, nominally Catholic, though few of its attendees actually were. In an effort to avoid science and maths (which I had dropped in NZ), I convinced my sensei that I needed extra time to study kanji, and thus spent several hours a week unsupervised in the school’s library. At the rear of the library was a tiny storeroom, which contained a treasure trove of faded English-language novels (this being pre-internet, any English print was a rare treat). Among the complete sets of Sherlock Holmes and Shakespeare abandoned by the foreign missionaries who had formerly run the school was a book of poetry which included a poem by the American wartime poet, Muriel Ruykeyser, called “Ajanta”. I was going through a phase of being obsessed with the music of The Doors, and the poem was of a similarly trippy vein – all “I came alone to the midnight caves”, very mysterious and portentous.

Anyway. I grew up and got over myself (mostly), but something about the Ajanta caves stuck, and when I discovered that they were a mere 8 hour train ride from Mumbai (in a country where a decent train journey could take 36 hours and still not reach the end), I decided I had to see them for myself.

Unfortunately, India being India, the Ajanta caves are closed on the day I arrive in Aurangabad, so I have to settle first for the “alternative” caves at Ellora instead.

Between my English version of Lonely Planet and Alizé’s French one, it looks as though Ellora, only 30km from Aurangabad, could be reached by rickshaw, significantly cheaper than a taxi or rented car, and considerably more comfortable (and more fun!) than the government bus, which was overcrowded and underventilated. As luck would have it, the rickshaw driver who brings Alizé from her hotel to mine the next morning speaks pretty good English, and is only too happy to take us to Ellora for the day, for about the price that my car from the train station had cost the night before. For a total of 750INR, he will wait as long as we want, and take us anywhere else we want to go for the day. I suspect we could have bargained harder, but might have found ourselves making a few more unwanted diversions to local “sights” where he could reclaim some of the fare by way of commission.

Aman turns out to be a bit of a character, and keeps us entertained with a running commentary all the way to the caves, weaving in and out of traffic and making liberal use of a large bronze horn on the side of the rickshaw that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

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We dodge herds of goats, garishly decorated trucks, little white Tata nanos (the cheapest new car in the world, a mere £1000 new, but only available in India), bicycles and innumerable motorbikes, most with a male driver and a female pillion passenger perched sidesaddle behind, carrying bags, babies or both. Aman informs us that the traffic has grown considerably worse in the last five years as more people are able to afford motorbikes – and the traffic in Aurangabad is noticeably worse than Mumbai – with a haze of pollution to match. I’d be interested to know what the rates of respiratory disease are, I’m pretty sure I have lost a year or two of my life just driving around for two days.

An hour later we arrive at Ellora, pay the “foreigner price” for our tickets (250INR, vs 10INR – which, given the relative income discrepancy, seems not unfair), and fend off the postcard, map, jewellery and crystal vendors to make our way to the entrance.

In many ways the Ellora caves are more impressive than Ajanta (of which, more in the next post). There are three sets of caves, nearly all containing sculptures. The oldest are the Buddhist caves (dating back to 200 years BCE), the most elaborate are the Hindu caves, while the Jain caves are the least visited, being a bit further removed (and remained unvisited by us, I’m afraid to say, from sheer exhaustion).

We begin with the Buddhist caves, where we discover several groups of pilgrims – Buddhist monks in red robes, and two groups who have travelled down from Nepal by bus, and are fully kitted out in their warmest national dress (this, supposedly, being winter – a mere 30 degrees).

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What is amazing about the caves is that they and the sculptures within them are monolithic, carved from the side of the cliff from top to bottom and from front to back in a single piece – with little room for error, and with only hammers and chisels for tools (the chisel marks still clearly visible in some of the caves).

The caves were originally designed as retreats for use during the monsoon, some plain meditation rooms surrounded by tiny cells, 7′ by 7′, and others containing huge statues of Buddha. I am admonished in one cave by the guard for setting up my little tripod – apparently a special permit is needed (you need one for video cameras too, though not for still – the IAS apparently not having caught up with the fact that most cameras these days can shoot video too). He taps his nose and leads me to a corner – I can use the tripod but if his supervisor comes, must say I didn’t understand when he’d told me not to. He then takes us on an unofficial tour of the cave, explaining the two main types of Buddhism – according to our guide, for the first few hundred years, there were no images of Buddha, his teaching being that one should aim for one’s own enlightenment, and not worship Buddha himself. Then there was a split, and Mahayana Buddhists now worship statues of Buddha while Himayana Buddhists don’t, but use stupas instead. Or something along those lines. Our guide waits for the cave to clear, before demonstrating the amazing harmonic echoes in the cave by chanting directly into one of the columns. The effect is eerie.

Coming out of the cave, we are drawn to another a little further along, from which a low murmur can be heard. Removing our shoes and slipping inside, we come across one of the Nepali groups seated in front of a large statue of Buddha (i guess they are Mahayana, then), as a monk leads them through the sutras. As I watch, it is easy to imagine the caves as they had been when occupied by their original inhabitants a few hundred years ago.

The spell is broken by two young boys, also dressed in monkish garb, for whom the chanting has clearly gone on long enough. They are escorted outside, and I later find one of the older monks helping them to blow off steam in the time-honoured way, by timing them as they race up a long stone staircase.

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By the time we emerge from the last of the Buddhist caves, the sun is high and hot, and we agree to continue to explore after lunch. There is a dingy little official restaurant to one side, almost deserted. The site by now is swarming with bus loads of Indian tourists, most of whom have brought picnics. For about 80INR I order a veg thali, a tray with two non-descript veg curries, raita, a sharp lime pickle and a couple of chapatti. Another 30INR secures a fresh lime soda, my new favourite drink – fresh lime juice squeezed into a glass, served with a glass bottle of soda water which the waiter opens at the table. It comes sweet (with sugar syrup on the side), salty or plain, and is utterly delicious. I think I’m beginning to get the hang of eating right-handed, though I still have to practically sit on my left hand so I don’t use it by mistake.

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Duly refreshed, we start on the second leg. The Kailasa temple is one of the most magnificent sights at Ellora, a giant temple carved from the rock, replete with elephants and dancing figures, and the ever present shiva linga. The temple itself is still used for worship, and the scent of incense lingers in some of the dark caverns, so I’m surprised to turn a corner and find bright spotlights and ladders set up, while a man in overalls is busy vacuum cleaning the crevices of a pillar – restoration, Indian Archaeological Survey-style.

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The temple is crammed with tourists and pilgrims, and after a while we tire of the requests for “one photo, one photo!” – I suggest to one that the first photo is free, but after that I charge 10 rupees. A little more weird (and occasionally creepy) are the guys who try to take sneaky pics with their mobiles.

The best view of the temple is from above, so we escape the crowds and climb the path to one side and up the cliff behind, to look down on the complex. No safety rails (health and safety remains largely a foreign concept), but an intrepid jewellery-seller does his best to encourage us to take the safest paths, in the hope that he might make a sale, continuing even when we assure him in no uncertain terms that we don’t need any today, thanks. At the top, coming around the steepest part we meet the Nepalese pilgrims again. We are hot, sweaty and tired – they are wearing wool and look like they’re just taking a little stroll.

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After Kailasa, the rest of the caves pale in comparison. There are a series of caves with shiva linga but, frankly, if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all (with due adjustments for size, obviously)…

It’s late in the afternoon now, so we decide to skip the Jain caves so that we’ll have time to make one last stop on the return trip to Aurangabad. We passed the Daulatabad Fort on the way this morning, high on a solitary hilltop, and it looks like it’s worth further investigation.

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The story of Daulatabad fort is an interesting one. Settled in the 6th century, it was used in the 1100s by the kings who created the Kailash temple, and named Deogiri. In 1327 the sultan of Delhi (one Mohammed bin Tughluq) took a liking to the place, and decided to make it his new capital. He renamed it Daulatabad Fort and forced the entire population of Delhi to march there. Not a man to bother with small details like due diligence, it soon turned out that he had overlooked the small fact that Daulatabad did not have a sufficient water supply for its new population. A couple of years after they arrived, his long-suffering subjects were marched right back to Delhi. Or so the story goes.

We arrive an hour before closing time, and everyone else is walking down the old flagstoned road towards the exit. The road reminds me of the roman roads at Pompeii. The fort itself is now a ruin, save for a single tall tower and some ramparts – it could be a ruined castle in any part of Europe, save for the distinctive Mughal-style arches, and a distinct lack of safety barriers.

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The peak of the fort is reached through the Andheri passage, a twisting, convoluted passage with false turns leading directly to the moat (down which boiling oil could be poured if the fort were under attack), and a large population of bats. When we arrive, a group of young Indian men are daring each other to enter – I think they are slightly taken aback when we walk directly past them, as they quickly band together, summon their courage and run giggling and screaming past us. I have a head torch, Alizé has the light of her mobile – but from the volume of guano on the ground and the high pitched tweets not very far above our heads, I think the less we can see the better.

The path is steep but not very long, and we emerge into the sun again to find a group or women in elaborate saris gathered to ask us for “one photo” at the top – they have taken the “tourist route”, a set of steps recently added for those not inclined to brave the batcave. We stand as close to the crumbling edge as we dare, then make our way down to our patient rickshaw driver as the sun begins to set.

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We arrive back in Aurangabad in a cloud of exhaust fumes and take Aman’s recommendation of a local tandoori place – which, we discover on arrival, is clearly aimed at tourists – but it’s cheap, and the food is good (Alizé checks carefully to make sure the chicken is cooked right through). Tomorrow we will make another attempt on Ajanta.

I’ll post some pictures on smugmug just as soon as I have enough broadband (I’m finding it easy enough to transfer photos to my iPad, but uploading them to smugmug via iPad requires the smugshot app, which frankly ain’t the fastest, so bear with me).

Run, Mumbai, Run

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15 January 2012

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The newspaper under my door in the morning is an interesting read. It is a Hindu paper (the Hindustan Times) but in English, and appears to contain as much spin as it does news, though the pages devoted to arranged marriage ads is diverting – owning a house or having the right to settle abroad appears to be a bonus, there is a separate section for divorcees and even an ad from a couple in New Zealand seeking a wife for their son, who has a good job in Sydney.

Of more interest is the map on the back page, for today is the day of the great Mumbai marathon!

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I can’t say I’ve noticed anyone out jogging since I’ve been here – the heat and pollution would be enough to put off most mortals – but the newspaper has photos of the Ethiopian team training in their track suits, and a map of the route which, conveniently, runs directly past my hotel. There are regular updates on TV (the run began at 6am, though there are shorter publicity runs for celebrities and fundraising groups later in the morning), and Bollywood stars pop up with soundbites about their love of running and their support for various charities. The marathon is sponsored by Kingfisher – whether the beer or the budget airline is unclear, though given the latter’s financial difficulties the former seems most likely. They’re both owned by the same family, in any case.

I wander out along D. N. Road after breakfast, following the route for a kilometre or so. It’s not quite the London marathon, with only 38,000 participants this year, but the event is only a few years old, and it’s growing. As well as the regular runners, there are unlikely groups of elderly Indians waving banners, who seem to be walking a much shorter course, and a few brave souls in fancy dress.

20120126-234851.jpg This guy was loving it.

Along the way, I pass the marker for the final 1km. A few girls in jeans carrying pompoms stand in a row on a small stage, giving the pompoms an occasional hesitant shake, as though not really sure why they are there and not really wanting to bring attention to themselves. Next to them a man with big hair and the unmistakeable tones of a radio DJ does his best to drum up excitement in the small crowd of spectators lining the route.

By midday, when it is time to catch a taxi to the station, the roads have reopened, and the last stragglers must compete with regular Saturday traffic as well as their own exhaustion for the final stretch.

I’m looking forward to my first long-distance train journey, an 8 hour stretch to Aurangabad, near the northern border of Maharashtra. Despite my fears, the station is crowded and the correct platform and carriage stop are easily found. As I look for a place to perch with my pack, another traveller comes up to me and asks if I’m heading to Aurangabad. I can’t quite place her accent, which turns out to be French Canadian. Alizé is part way through a year away from home, and fresh from a stint on the Christmas markets in France. By happy coincidence we are on the same carriage, and arrange a sneaky seat-swap so that we can sit together.

AC chair class is a pretty comfortable way to travel. It’s still pretty cheap, but the seats are like airline seats, with a lot more legroom. Even with AC the carriage is reasonably warm. Unfortunately the windows are tinted, so the countryside all the way to Aurangabad takes on a blue tinge.

The landscape, once we escape the city, is rocky and desert-like. We pass dry rice-paddies, cornfields reduced to rows of husky stumps, the plants themselves stacked in high pyramids to dry. There is the occasional ravine with a trickle of water at the bottom, and anywhere there is a trickle of water there is also an array of colourful washing drying in the sun. People walk along the tracks next to the train, some with huge loads on their heads. A man on a bicycle is nearly invisible in between a huge pile of sugarcanes. There are small clusters of houses, more of mud huts with tin or thatch on the roof. Then, unexpectedly, a row of shiny wind turbines appear on a ridge up ahead.

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Inside the train, the aisles are a stream of attendants and a random assortment of vendors. There is the chaiwallah, the coffee wallah (I try one – it is Nescafé, which I expected – but it comes in only one variation: milky and sickly sweet), there is a boy of about 14 hawking small plastic helicopters (his double appears later selling “magic” wipe-off plastic books), the official train attendant selling bottled water and frooti, and the official in-house catering service, which comes in veg or non-veg. We opt for the veg, which turns out to be greasy fried rice. Still, there is plenty of it and it’s cheap – about 100 INR for the meal and the coffee (about $2).

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At Igatpuri the train stops, and vendors on the platform swing into action, hoisting huge bowls of samosas and pakoras onto their shoulders and winding through as many carriages as they can manage before the train engine revs again. Each vendor has a distinct cry – one, who seems to be selling sweets, roams the train calling “cheekywallah, cheeky cheeky”.

As dusk begins to fall, just past Nasik Road, I notice two small boys flying kites from a roof top. Then another, and another – for the next few hundred metres there must be a hundred kites. Leftovers from Makar Sankranti?

We finally pull into Aurangabad station, to be greeted by chaos. The train terminates here, so it’s everybody off, and pushing and shoving to find the entrance. My hotel has sent a car to meet me, and we cause the young driver no end of confusion trying to get him to drop Alizé at her hotel first. He just wants to “chello hotel!”, but eventually we sort it out. I’m a little disconcerted to be kept waiting 30 minutes or so when I arrive – it’s 10pm and all I want is sleep, surely they knew I was coming! But after a brief sense-of-humour failure I’m finally allocated a room and collapse gratefully into sleep.

A tale of two tours, part 2: Mumbai by day

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14 January 2012

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There is no shortage of tour options for day trips around Mumbai, and it’s easy enough to negotiate the city by taxi and foot. One tour with a difference is run by Mumbai Magic, which (among other tours) provides tourism training to underprivileged young people who take guests on a day trip around the city using local transport (trains, rickshaws). The concept appealed to me, but in the end I chose Urban Adventures (an offshoot of Intrepid Travel which links travellers to local guides in a growing number of cities around the world) on the basis that I would be more likely to meet other travellers. Like most Intrepid ventures, groups are limited to no more than 12 people. The price is less friendly, at about US$60, but I decided it was worth it since I have such a short time in Mumbai.

Sana, the guide, calls the hotel in the morning to confirm our meeting point: CST terminus, opposite the Times of India building. Finding the station again is easy, but where is the Times of India building? By this time running late, I stop to ask a group of policemen, who all point in exactly the opposite direction from where I thought I was headed. Thank god for google maps (and the local sim card) – two minutes later I am racing back past the policemen, keeping an eye out for Sana in her red jacket, and for the rest of the tour group.

Surprise number two: once again I have the exclusive services of my guide, as the sole guest on the tour. This turns out to be ideal, particularly as the tour uses local transport (taxis, train, rickshaws and a reasonable amount of walking) – much easier for the two of us to negotiate crowds. Sana greets me with a cheerful “Happy Makar Sankranti!”, and explains the origins of the festival (it marks the transition of the sun into Capricorn, the turning point of winter, a day to honour Saraswati the goddess of knowledge, and any number of regional variations).

We wander through Fort and into Colaba, past mouldering Victorian buildings (the shaded verandahs of which shelter all kinds of market stalls – given India’s prudish reputation I’m amused to see an array of vibrators on one stall!). Near the Flora Fountain we pass the Rajabai clocktower, built by a Parsi gentleman for his blind mother. A tenet of Parsi belief is that food may not be eaten after sunset, so the clocktower was an extravagant way to ensure that she knew when it was time for tea.

Sana points out a particularly dilapidated old building. In British colonial times, this was Watson’s hotel, a glamorous 5 star hotel for Europeans only. Another wealthy Parsi gentleman by the name of Tata, incensed at being refused entry, had his revenge by building his own hotel, superior in every way to Watson’s – not least, these days, in that it remains the best hotel in Mumbai, while Watson’s is a barely-recognisable wreck.

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Watson’s Hotel as it is now – follow this link for a glimpse of the glory days
And Mr Tata’s Taj Mahal…

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We pass the Taj Mahal, on the way to another of the main Mumbai monuments, the India Gate. Built to commemorate the visit of George V in 1927, it was the archway under which the last of Britain’s troops marched when they departed India forever in 1947. Here I have my first encounter with Indian tourists themselves intent on snapping a picture with a key Mumbai attraction – the foreign tourist. It’s good to have Sana on hand to intervene – by the fifth request it is getting a little old. I’m wondering how they explain these pictures to their friends at home: “you’ll never guess what we saw in Mumbai!”

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Leaping into a taxi, we head for Babulnath Mandir, a temple dedicated to Shiva, where we take a lift to the top (!), abandon our shoes, and wander inside. A vat of milk (for purity) is dripping steadily onto a Shiva lingam (basically a stone phallus) next to a statue of a cow with unnaturally shiny horns. As I watch, a succession of worshippers touch the horns with forefinger and little finger, and lean forward to kiss the statue.

Outside, we dodge the vendors selling garlands of marigolds, and stop into a tiny tea shop where I am introduced to idli, a South Indian breakfast snack that looks like a steamed cake of couscous, served with spicy sambhar and a coconut and yogurt dip.

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We return to Banganga, which by day looks entirely different – women are setting out freshly-washed saris to dry in the sun, and there are young men swimming in the reservoir while ducks float along the edges (ash with a touch of giardia, anyone?). Kites are for sale at the stalls lining the entrance.

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Our next stop is the waterfront, for a glimpse of Haji Ali, a mosque that seems to floating the harbour at the end of its long causeway, then across the subway and into another cab, past the racecourse (where a helicopter is landing), to Dhobi ghat – the biggest laundry in Mumbai. It’s an incredible sight – rows of concrete vats, industrial machines, and colour coded washing. Everything has a section and (like the city’s famous tiffin-wallahs) nothing is misplaced. Men push heavy carts loaded with sacks of dirty washing to the ghat, and return at the end of the day with the same sacks full of freshly laundered clothes.

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By now it is nearly lunch time. We take a ladies-only carriage on the local train to Matunga Road – my neighbour on the train informs me that these carriages become unisex after 10pm, another reason why less women travel at night. The doors to each carriage stay open except during the monsoon, and when it’s busy it’s best to position yourself nearby, as the train stops for only a few minutes at each platform where more passengers are waiting to force their way inside. Today, the second Saturday of the month, many offices have a day off, and we’re travelling off peak, so the carriage is nearly empty.

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20120122-042438.jpg Blending in with the locals at Matunga Road

At Matunga we find our way to Ram Ashraya, which Sana describes as the best South Indian restaurant in an area heavily populated by Sth Indian migrants. There is quite a queue, but Sana is a regular visitor and when he sees her the manager waives us straight in – “she is a guest, you cannot be waiting”. I am the only non-local in the place, and there is no menu – everyone knows what is on offer. Sana orders for me, a divine Mysore masala dosa (crispy rice pancake lined with spicy sauce and a potato mash) and to follow some dahiwada, delicious sweet dumplings in fresh yogurt. I have fun trying to eat the dosa with my right hand (eating with your left hand is horribly offensive apparently, that hand being reserved for matters toilet. So basically I am doomed to mortally offend the locals sooner or later. Oh well…).

After lunch we wander along the flower market, where double-decker huts serve as shops, and men crouch inside stringing together wreaths of blossom, each colour and flower for its own particular occasion.

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The last area we visit, by autorickshaw this time, is the trendy Bandra district. We pause at Mount Mary, where you can buy a candle in any shape you like (no, I didn’t test them on that) to light inside the large Catholic church perched on the top of the hill. Inside it is cool and peaceful, the walls lined with paintings of bible stories depicting the Virgin Mary, who looks distinctly Indian.

Down the hill, lined with the palatial homes of Mumbai’s rich and famous, we pause to watch the crowd gathered hopefully outside the home of Shahrukh Khan, the current king of Bollywood. He’s been known to go jogging along the waterfront here, trailed by an unofficial entourage. No sign of him this time, but here’s the house (including the apartment block behind that he built for his friends – nice work if you can get it):

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And here’s what all the fuss is about, “King Khan” – no, I don’t get it either.

By the time we take one last taxi over the Bandra Worli Sealink bridge and back to the hotel, I am exhausted. A quiet night in has never looked so good. I bid farewell to Sana and retreat to my room, room service (navratan korma, not quite the way it looked on Wikipedia, with a lot of cream and paneer) and the unique delights of Indian TV. Things are heating up in the local elections, with the leader of the Dalit (untouchable) party crying foul over an official decision to cover the statues she has erected of herself, as well as any statues of elephants (the party symbol) until after the election. In a country where a large proportion of the electorate is illiterate, a party’s symbol becomes all-important but, given the ubiquity of Ganesha statues, it would be a miracle if they manage to cover them all. I give up on the news and settle for a cheesy Tom Cruise movie which I’m guessing went straight to DVD. The English subtitles throughout provide unintentional amusement – not so much as the hint of a swear word, even “kiss my arse” becomes “kiss my behind”, and other four letter words have been deleted altogether. My favourite advert is for a new Nestlé product, aimed at converting a nation of chai-drinkers with the assistance of the gorgeous Aishwarya Rai (actress and former Miss India). It’s called “My First Cup”, and the tag line reads, “isn’t it time you started?”. Well, quite.

More Mumbai pics at Smugmug

A tale of two tours, part 1: Mumbai by night

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13 January 2012

With only a couple of days in Mumbai, I wanted to see as much as I could of the different facets that together make the city. As a solo woman traveller in a country where women don’t generally venture out alone at night, it seemed like a good idea to sign up for some kind of tour where I might meet a few fellow travellers as well as getting the kind of insight into Mumbai that only a local could provide.

With this in mind, I got in touch with Reality Tours, a local Mumbai outfit which is best known for its educational tours of Dharavi, the massive slum which will be familiar to anyone who has read Shantaram. The tours operate a strictly no-photo policy, and focus on the positive aspects of Dharavi life, the small businesses and examples of the entrepreneurial spirit required to survive there. All profits are put to work running a community centre within Dharavi, and because of this the locals are more receptive to tourist visitors than might otherwise be the case. I didn’t have time to do the Dharavi tour, but they have recently started a “Mumbai by night” tour, which promised to show the main tourist sights as well as some less well-known places.

After some delicious chana masala and a beer or two with the English/Sth African couple from the hotel, I set off to the meeting point for the tour. My first surprise was that I was the only one on the tour – so I had an “exclusive” tour for only INR850! As I was the only customer, we took a series of local taxis rather than the usual rented car. My guide was a young Hindu man who had grown up in Dharavi. We’ll call him J, mainly because I failed to write down his full name at the time… We meet at the Regal cinema, a British relic in 1920s style, then navigate our way across the lanes of traffic (I say lanes, they are more of a guideline) to the first taxi, a black and yellow special.

Our first stop is Chowpatty Beach, where the snack stands are in full swing and small children weave in and out of the crowd while families picnic and couples try to find privacy in the shadows.

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We drive along the parade and climb Malabar Hill, pausing at the hanging gardens (and dodging the morality police, who stop J – apparently they are known to inform parents of unmarried couples they come across, and to impose fines on anyone acting “inappropriately”. Satisfied that J is a tour guide, they allow us into the park). From the gardens there is a stunning view back along the bay, with a string of street lights picking out the Queen’s Necklace below. One building in particular glows brightly – not the famous Taj Mahal hotel, but what my guide calls the “Indian Taj”, a Muslim-run hospital which is lit up only on special occasions. This weekend is Makar Sankranti, a festival celebrated by flying kites with lethally sharp strings, and he speculates that this is the reason for the lights.

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Leaving the gardens, we pass by a Tower of Silence, the site where Parsi take their dead to be laid out to decompose (macabre, I’m sorry – and more so that vultures hover at the site). According to J around 50% of the land in South Mumbai is Parsi-owned. I’ve noticed a few compounds in the city already which are signposted “Parsi only”. Stopping at a Jain temple, we peek inside – tourists were once allowed inside, but after too many covert photographs we are now confined to the courtyard.

A highlight of the tour is a trip to Banganga, reputedly the site where Lakshman, on having his request for fresh water refused as the locals themselves had none, shot an arrow (ban) into the ground, causing a freshwater spring to flow. Locals believe that the spring is connected to the river Ganges (ganga), and the terraced reservoir provides a local alternative for those who cannot make the trip far north to cast the ashes of their loved ones into the river. When we arrive, the air is hazy and the lights give off an eery glow. We enter through the courtyard of a shrine, which feels more like somebody’s backyard – a woman is changing a baby’s nappy, and small children stare up at me – but J assures me this is the priest’s family, that in fact the shacks along the edge of Banganga are mostly inhabited by priests and their families. The reservoir itself is deserted and still – its hard to believe we are in one of the world’s most populous cities.

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Returning to the clamour of the city, we drive through night markets and then turn along Grant Road. This is the city’s red light district. J says “no photos here”, but my camera is already packed away. According to J, few years ago there were as many as 60,000 sex workers in this area. Girls are sold to pimps by their families or conned into servitude, their meagre earnings never quite enough to buy their freedom. Now, apparently, official records list a mere 8,000 – not that there are fewer, more that they have been dispersed across the city. Prostitution is illegal, but J says the police turn a blind eye, and run patrols along the street for the safety of the girls (the cynic in me is less sure of their motives). Many of the girls I see are heartbreakingly young, and I am glad when we reach the end of the road and move on. I have seen real poverty here, but this is the first moment that Mumbai really reaches out and seizes me, and I feel so much anger towards the men who create a market for this. It is a relief to move on (but I am intensely aware of how lucky I am to be able to do so).

The tour comes to an end at Chhatrapati Shivaji terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus), a Gothic Revival masterpiece and one of the busiest stations in Mumbai. It’s also conveniently close to my hotel, the Fort Residency, so (after checking with J that it’s safe to do so) I set out on foot for the sanctuary of my hotel room.

If you’d like to see the rest of my Mumbai photos, they’ll be available here.

It’s a long way to Goa, it’s a long way to go….

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So. Just arrived back in Mumbai on an all-night train from Aurangabad. I shared a sleeper compartment with 5 middle aged Indian males, which basically means a lot of burping, hoicking and farting, several rounds of the “where are you from” game, and not a hell of a lot of sleep. It was pitch black when I arrived in Mumbai, so I took a taxi straight to the airport. Armed with my newfound knowledge that the going rate for a prepay taxi, no aircon, is 450 rupees, I managed to find an aircon minivan for 500 INR – things are looking up! Left Aurangabad at 10pm last night, and now have mere 5 hours to wait til my flight to Goa. Then another hour in the car to Palolem. But THEN I will have 5 days lying on the beach doing nothing, so it’s swings and roundabouts, I’m sure you’ll agree.

The wifi in Aurangabad was non-existent but I have high hopes for Goa – stay tuned for a proper post on everything I’ve been up to for the last few days! In the mean time, here is a teaser…..

Glorious Mumbai day…

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Local transport:

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And the view from above Kailash temple, carved from the rock at Ellora caves:

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Mumbai!

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13 January 2012

I am here! Arrived at Mumbai airport at 2am, a mere 30 hours after my journey began at 2:30am in Auckland. The flight was long, with stopovers in Brisbane and Singapore, but not exactly a hardship (I managed to blag my way into the Air NZ lounge during the Brisbane stop, despite traveling with a rival carrier and having no right to be there, and in Singapore had time for a shiatsu massage to iron out some of the cattle-class kinks in my back). But after months of dreaming, planning and negotiating the tortuous visa application process, I have finally made it to India.

Just to reinforce that life now operates on Indian time, the bus from the plane crawled to the terminal at slightly less than walking speed, taking a full 20 minutes to move about 1000 metres (we were passed by a tractor! Actually, in hindsight I’m not sure what the tractor was doing on the runway in the first place…). To amuse themselves the ground staff waited til we were all crammed around the designated luggage belt before arbitrarily changing the belt number, causing a stampede of luggage trolleys and sharp-elbowed passengers guarding their patch. I’m sure it was funny the first time…

Luggage eventually secured and, after the horror stories I had heard about huge crowds and pushy taxi touts, it was almost disconcertingly simple to to change a few USD into INR and pick up a pre-paid taxi voucher. The promised crowds outside the terminal were almost disappointingly tame, and even locating my taxi driver (number 7988) was easier than I’d expected, though when I saw the state of the cab (which looked suspiciously like a little black and yellow Trabant) I wondered if I’d made a mistake choosing the bargain non-aircon option (only 450 rupees!). 

It looked a little like this...

The driver emerged from under the open bonnet, I squashed in the back with my bags (the car boot was jammed, naturally), and off we puttered.  And what a ride! I soon discovered that I was sharing the back seat with a small cloud of mosquitoes, but with my deet buried in my pack all I could do was pull my scarf around me and hope for the best. I was a little disconcerted when the driver pulled into a tiny petrol station and popped the bonnet again – to my relief, it turns out that’s just where the gas tank lives. Off again, and my Indian newbie bingo card was filling rapidly – stray dogs, stray people, someone camping on the motorway (complete with campfire), ancient havelis hemmed in by tenements, gleaming new office buildings hard against the motorway overpass that we were picking our way underneath, ragpickers squatting by the roadside sorting through piles of rags, roadside shrines and even a token sacred cow, all emerging eerily from the hazy gloom.  The driver continued to inspire confidence by asking me for directions – turns out he couldn’t read, and the map I had didn’t seem to be helping much either. We settled for the train station nearest the hotel, and eventually he stopped to ask a local.

We finally pulled up outside the Hotel Residency at 4am, by which time all I could think about was a shower and bed – but India had other ideas.  The advance notice of my arrival time had been overlooked, and there were no beds to be had. A young English couple were scrolling through confirmation emails from the hotel’s reservation desk in an effort to prove that they too had a confirmed bed, with similarly futile results. Eventually the concierge conceded that rooms might be available at 8am, so we picked our way past the mattress on the lobby floor and the pipes hanging down from a hole in the ceiling, and settled down on sofas in the lounge to try to get some sleep until then.

Everything looks better in the morning. We were woken by the delightful sound of phlegmy hoicking from the next room, as the occupant of the mattress made his morning ablutions, and a staff member came in to make sure we were up and awake before the rest of the guests came down for breakfast. Nothing like a bunch of scruffy backpackers to lower the tone. It turned out that the hotel (which came highly recommended) is undergoing renovations, and the hole in the ceiling was a temporary glitch – when we emerged into the lobby it was swarming with contractors looking busily at the hole and the protruding pipes.  

But things were looking up when I was shown to the penthouse suite (it was on the roof, at least) which was at the top of its own set of narrow stairs (well, I say stairs, maybe more of a fire escape…). 

It even had a view… Well, kinda….

The only thing it didn’t have was wifi…but it turns out that the hotel has a new wing next door which is freshly renovated and does have wifi, so I reluctantly said goodbye to the view and moved next door, where I appear to have the whole shiny new building to myself. Life is good! 

A shower, a nana nap, and I was feeling just about human again – time to venture out into Mumbai for a few essentials: a sim card from a hole in the wall shop around the back of the hotel (thanks to the terrorist activity here, this requires a passport photo and a copy of your passport, as well as proof of your hotel booking, verified by the hotel – they sent a porter with me to make sure it all went smoothly), and a few bits and pieces from the gorgeous FabIndia emporium. And now, it’s most definitely gin o’clock, so I’m off to meet up with the English couple from earlier this morning, and check out Mumbai by night. Wish me luck!