There are simply not enough words to describe it. There are quite a lot of words here. But if you want to know what it is like to backpack in India… then read on.
31-07-07 Mumbai (Bombay)
“Would you like to buy a cow?”
This is not your usual hawker. Hashish or handbags, yes. Sandals or saris, yes. But a cow? The man’s dark eyes and mischievous smile radiate beneath the hood of his cagoule in the Mumbai monsoon rain. I tell him it won’t fit in my rucksack, and it will need a separate ticket for the plane.
“But with all these bombs on planes a cow is a safer way to travel,” he assures me. “You can sit on the cow and your wife can lead it along.”
I wonder what he is really selling.
“Actually that was a joke; I just say that to break the ice.” He asks about our stay in Mumbai, telling us that we should see the “hidden parts”, Mahalaxmi dhobi ghat (a place where clothes are washed) , where some 5000 men use open air toughs to beat the dirt out of the garments, the slum where several million people live, and so forth.
I wonder what he is selling. He asks when we are leaving, and having ascertained that we have a few hours to kill in Mumbai before our train south, offers his services as a guide to these amazing sights… so he wasn’t really selling a cow… At the train station a rat runs past my foot.
Mumbai Shopping Mall
People step forward gingerly. The security guards offer words of encouragement. They hesitate, some step back, losing confidence.
Others stride bravely without so much as a glance at the security guard.
The timid ones look back at their companions, a look of pride and achievement on their beaming faces.
They have made it. They are on the escalator.
Three days of trains from Mumbai to Panaji in Goa, where we stay a night, then to Allepey (Allapuza) in Kerala via Enakulam.
5-08-07 Sona Homestay Guest House, Allepey, Kerala
If you ask Joseph, the proprietor of the guesthouse, a simple question, like how long a backwater trip takes, he will regale you with half an hour’s worth of story telling. Stories of adventurers sailing back and forth between towns under the full moon (“I told my wife they would not be back that night”) or of people marooned up a tree on a snake-infested island (“I told him not to leave on that day”). Each tale is punctuated by the lively seventy three year old’s infectious giggle, at frequent intervals. He is a perfect host, something of a mystic and laughs through his tales of the people who have passed through Sona: pretenders to the French throne; BBC film crews and movie directors.
Sona is an idyll. Confusingly, Joseph’s son is also called Sona. Peace, calm and mosquitoes. To the chorus of night insects, you sleep in a four-poster bed under a mosquito net and wake up to a pot of fresh coffee and delicious banana pancakes on the “sit out”, your own private view of the beautiful garden here. Coconut palms, banana and durian trees tower over the brightly coloured flowers where by night fireflies pursue their erratic flight, by day dazzling birds and in the morning the bats come in from their nocturnal hunting to sleep in the branches. And Joseph always has a tale to tell. A happy, kind and hospitable character (“We like to treat people as guests in our house”) who seems to find everything very funny. Sona is a kilometre and a half from town, a pleasant meander along the canal side. If you want a backwater trip, Joseph knows the best one. If you want an Ayurvedic massage, Joseph knows where to go. But he is not touting like most others. He is concerned to give his guests the best experience. This romantic setting, and the genuine warmth, love and joyful zest for life that simply exude from this interesting man make this the perfect antidote to the madness of Mumbai. And the answer to my question about how long a backwater trip takes (after the half an hour of enthralling storytelling) I now know, and it is this: how long is a piece of string?
Joseph’s answer to the time of a Backwater Trip (which I can only summarise here):
“Well, you know we had this man staying here from Switzerland, David his name was. He stayed with us for three months, he would go away for a few days sometimes. He was always saying that he wanted to do a solo backwater trip, and one day he said this was the day. I tried to persuade him not to go. I told him that the first of June was no good and that he would be back, but he said he was strong, like a boar. Anyway, he went. I said to my wife that he would be back by the next evening. And he did come back, the following day. I could see he was in a terrible state and these men came after him carrying the engine and bits of the boat and all David’s things. ‘David,’ I said,’what happened?’
He said to me, ‘I cannot tell you now, now I must just sleep. When I wake up we will tell you the story.’
And he went to his room and slept all that day. I asked these men and they told me what happened. David had gone to an island, but all the local fishermen know that this island is infested with snakes, very poisonous snakes. Many, many snakes. It is where three rivers meet and the snakes, they come down the rivers.
David had gone up a tree and four snakes were coming up there after him. He spent all night, like this, praying the snakes would not get him. And him, strong like a boar! The fishermen found him the next morning. All of his things had drifted off.
‘Don’t worry,’ they said, ‘we know Sona. We will get your things and take you there.’ This is what they told me while he was asleep. But, you know, he made friends with the son of an Indian ambassador. He had been all over the world but he had this disease, when he was a child, and could not walk… how do you call this… ah yes, thank you… polio. He and David decided to do this trip to another village when the moon was big, and I said to my wife, ‘They will not be back tonight.’ And sure enough, at twelve o’clock, I got this phone call from David. “I will not be back tonight.” And do you know what they had done? They spent all night going just back and forward like this, just watching the moon on the water. When I was young we used to go out in a boat when the moon was big, and just sit there listening to fairy tales. It is very special when the moon is big. It makes this thing on the water. It is a phenomenon. So to answer your question, ‘How long does a backwater trip take?’… the answer is… I don’t know!” (Insert frequent giggles).
Joseph worked with Mother Theresa in Calcutta. He laughs as he tells us how stubborn she was. Once she had made up her mind there was no changing it. She wanted some land and insisted that as she was using it for God’s work it should be given for free. Joseph negotiated a deal so that she could get it for one rupee per acre, but still she was adamant that she would not pay for it, even when he explained that only the president could give land away and this could take months or even years, because it had to go through several government committees before going up to be passed by the full parliament. In the end Joseph paid the one rupee per acre and gave her the land to use.
“But,” he maintains, “I could tell she was a saint. When you touched her you could feel this electricity all up your arm, like this,” he says, wistfully patting his shoulder.
Kerala is known as “God’s Own Country”. After yesterday’s backwater trip I can see why (but please don’t tell any Yorkshiremen this!)
We just happened to be in town today when the colourful parade passed through to mark the opening of the Snake Boat Festival. I had an Ayurvedic treatment, where they drip oil onto your forehead to open your third eye. The two men chatted all they way through, then they spilt some oil into my first (left) eye. OUCH!
A man claiming to be a professor of Hindu mythology and a Brahmin invited us to eat at the temple where there would be Kathakali dancers and a parade of decorated elephants… but it turned out that he was just trying to trick us into buying him a few beers and take twice the price for them. He did not succeed. Tash had him worked out pretty quickly, but it took me until he said, “You must give me four hundred rupees for this beer.” We got up and left, despite his protests. Tash has inner voices of reason; I am sensitive when it comes to a question of beer!
We left the rucksacks at Sona and took small bags, two buses and an auto-rickshaw to Varkala, or Glastonbury-on-the-Malabar-coast, where the Funky Art Café serves a fantastic paneer cheese and cashew nut curry cooked in coconut milk and the waiters sell you hashish. I had a pair of trousers made. Very cool to sit on the cliffs watching the night roll in with the monsoon rains sweeping towards us from the sea, dry on the terrace of the rooftop restaurant.
11-08-07 The Nehru Trophy, Allepey
It is the Snake Boat Races today. Some of these impressive craft have one hundred and forty rowers and travel at quite a speed. “There is even one race where the boats are entirely manned by women” booms the lady who is doing the commentary in English before she is cut off by the even louder male who is doing the same job in Malayalam (the state’s language). He frequently interrupts her quaintly archaic observations throughout the day. It is VERY crowded, an interesting rather than pleasant experience. We went back to Sona, where the races are live on television and Sona the person, not Sona the Guest House, if you see what I mean, took pity on our heavy bags and arranged an auto-rickshaw. The man had to come the back way because the police had closed off the road due to the races. As it turned out the driver offered to take us the full sixty km to Kochi we had planned on getting a bus from town. Door to door service and no sweating under heavy bags amongst bus crowds. This has to be a bargain.
The Lonely Planet guide describes some of the service in the restaurants of Kochi as “indifferent”. But the Chariot Sea Front Restaurant (where I had a nice “quali flower” curry) rewrites the book. It is not so much a question of indifference as one of quite simply not being very good at service in restaurants. Things like forgetting some of the order, but rushing around a lot, or trying to take your food or drink off you while you are still eating or drinking, but still rushing around a lot. Covering one nostril with a finger so that you can snot into the street with the other one just before picking up the plates to take to diners is my personal favourite though.
The capital city of Rajasthan; Jaipur… how to describe Jaipur? A mad mosh pit of motorbikes, auto rickshaws, camel carts, more motorbikes, cars, ox carts, cows, goats, pigs, people, even more motorbikes, cycle rickshaws, buses, lorries and many more cows wondering amongst many more motorbikes, each with its volume set to full. Incessant noise. Crossing the road is to step into the carousel whirring at full speed. You could walk on the pavement and brave the filth, the hawkers and the homeless and have your path blocked in front of every shop by their owners, giving clever and persistent lines in hard sell.
The Palace of Winds is an oasis of calm, an island of tranquil beauty, where the maharajah’s wives would peer between the intricate lattice work and through the tiny windows on festival days so that they could see without being seen. The equally sublime City Palace is just as lovely. The clothes of one maharajah, who had an amazing one hundred and eight wives, was two metres tall and one point two metres wide have to be seen to be believed. At least there was plenty of him to go round all those wives, I suppose.
Step out of the palaces and you are back in the mayhem. Cycle rickshaw drivers follow you up the road asking where you are going and “no thank you” has to be repeated… and repeated…your way blocked in front of shops, children hassling for money, following, following. Then you are assaulted by the colours of Rajasthan. Jaipur, the Pink City,painted in the traditional colour of hospitality, the whole lot, under the orders of the Maharajah to welcome the future King Edward V111. The idea stuck and now any householder who paints their dwelling in a different colour within the city walls is fined five hundred rupees per day until they conform. The scale of poverty is astounding,
from the cycle rickshaw drivers who sleep on their vehicles to dusty, dusky souls living on traffic islands, next to the palaces, and everywhere else. And the noise of the car horns is incredible. Even in the tiny back streets you are dodging motorbikes.
Thank goodness for Mr Singh’s quiet two star hotel. The Pearl Palace lives up to its name and has been exquisitely furnished, with skill and a good deal of love. “Dear Staff, please treat our guests well, they keep us in business”, proclaims the notice at reception. The first hot shower since arriving in India, a cheap rooftop restaurant, laundry and room service as well as breakfast in bed at no extra cost, smiling, welcoming and hardworking staff. This is our own haven, our own palace. But how to reconcile this with the true insanity going on all around? Mayhem and calm, comfort and destitution. Love it, hate it. I’m really not sure.
15-08-07 A Four and a Half Bus Ride from Jaipur to Pushkar
Bus drivers out of Jaipur drive south with one hand on the wheel. The other hand is on the horn. You have to blast your way out of this city. Pushkar is on a lake up in the mountains. What a place! A pele-mele of sacred hindu temples and hotels, tourist shops and monks, cows, monkeys and motorbikes. But the hawkers are far less in your face than in Jaipur. This is the site of an annual camel fair and pilgrimage. It is a curious mix of spirituality, bhang lassi sellers, the sound of hindu chants or Indian trance music. If you like shopping this place is heaven! It is so good to tone down after the madness of Jaipur.
In the Rainbow café the music competes with the singing from the kitchen. It has floor cushions around low tables overlooking the magnificent lake. Steps, temples and washing ghats tumble down to the water. Pigeons, cows, dogs and monkeys compete for the food put down for them. The whole town is vegetarian and there is a list of rules for visitors. Tash and I got told off for walking with our shoes on where we shouldn’t have. You are not allowed to show signs of affection in public and there is to be no meat, alcohol or drugs (except for the surreptitiously named Baba Special Lassi). Tash and I share one and had a lovely evening in the brightly-painted Rainbow Café, playing cards and drinking coffee.
In the Rainbow Cafe
The spectacle of the old waiter in the loin cloth dancing to the Cheeky Girls’ “Touch my Bum”, his thin legs strutting rhythmically beneath his baggy lungi, while from the kitchen there comes a raucous, happy, but unconnected singing from the chefs, who seem to have been at the bhang lassi, huge ants everywhere and many other creatures hopping about on the floor cushions, big green lizards catching moths, their bright bodies standing out garishly against the purple, orange and yellow walls.
We got up for the sunrise over the lake. This was amazing, given that we were up in the middle of the night to change rooms once we discovered how many bugs we were sharing our bed with. The new room has a toilet that can only be described as shockingly disgraceful. As we walked to a café for breakfast (which was dismal – weak watery coffee) there was an incident; Tash got butted by a cow that she walked into while ambling along looking around but not where she was going. She maintains that she was charged and gored by a rampaging bull. On closer inspection some of the wondering cows are definitely bulls. In truth the beast hooked its horns under her top and she was unsure if it was one of those with long and very pointed horns and had cut her. Luckily it was only a bruise but she was quite shaken. Then we moved hotels, had a siesta and started the day again with a second breakfast, damn fine coffee and bhang lassi in the Baba Rooftop Restaurant.
The rest of the day we walked around the lake, to the quiet side away from the bustle of the shops ending up in the Sunset Restaurant, appropriately watching the sunset, the freaks and listening to the musicians on the street. The man who danced around to the amazing drummers looked as if he had blown into Pushkar in the sixties, had bhang lassi for breakfast every morning, then somewhere along the way had lost his marbles, given up washing, started going to temples, and decades later is still here.
It has been said that in some way people end up with the faces they deserve. Cruelty or bitterness can etch their own marks into the skin. Equally kindness can create benevolence, almost intangible, something in the lustre of the eyes. Some faces are lined by age, wisdom or experience, others, like the monk in the Jain temple at Ranakpur, somehow radiate peace, youth and purity, an inner peace which brings its own wisdom. In the Jain temple Tash and I are interviewed for national television about our views on photography in such sites. Ranakpur is a temple with one thousand four hundred and forty four white marble pillars, each one an individual, intricately carved column.
The overall effect is one of tranquillity and beauty. We had shard a taxi with an Australian student and a Swiss mountaineer to do the two hundred kilometre round trip to Ranakpur and the impressive Kumbalgarh Fort.
Our hotel room in Udaipur has three windows overlooking the lake. The Bond film “Octopussy” was shot here and plays in many restaurants every night! Udaipur is widely acknowledged as one of the world’s most beautiful cities. The bed is set into an alcove in such a way that one side is a window over the lake and the foot overlooks the dhobi ghat. It is certainly a nice view to wake up to. And in Udaipur I had a very smart, silk Nehru suit made, almost Roger Moore in its elegance… well with a bit of imagination, one can at least feel like Roger Moore… almost.
The Eidelweiss Café serves the best damn fine coffee in town. Sadly it also induces Tash to sing that awful song from “The Sound of Music”… repeatedly. The numerous motorbikes, sometimes carrying whole families, worry me even more since witnessing three people coming off their bikes in ones day. Tash is still wary of cows. I hope we never come across a cow on a motorbike.
8-09 Udaipur to Mumbai
There is a long wait at the bus station for the overdue bus. Thankgoodness for the bhang lassi we had first – it eases the tedium. And a very good thing came out of this wait. I have found a way to stop Tash from singing that dreadful Eidelweiss song, even though we went to the café for breakfast again. Tash is sitting there grimacing at the sound of a good, throaty hack from a rickshaw driver. She detests this. So all I have to do is to sing, “I’m too s(insert hack)exy for my phlegm, too s(insert hack)exy for my phlegm…” This is fantastic! And to cap it all we did actually see a cow on a motorbike. We didn’t really, I made that last bit up. Although this is a long wait I have found the song to end all songs. Maybe I will insert a hack into the word “phlegm” next time for added effect. On the bus I am woken up by the bumping to see Tash in mid-air having been launched there from the bed as we hit yet another pothole. The last night in Mumbai we enjoy a tasty thali and watch the sunset on Juhu Beach, where a man asks if he can take our photograph. Here the tourists have become the sights. It seems like an appropriately bizarre way to end the trip and the sunset is stunning.
The Malodourous Departure From India
The customs lady asks me to open my rucksack at the airport. But once she catches the scent of a month’s worth of clothes that, even though clean, have never quite dried in the humid air, she quickly and with great authority orders me to close the bag. Oh me! How to remember this experience in all it’s vivid liveliness? And do you know what? After this Indian trip I think I actually might know the answer: go and buy a cow.