Tuesday, 30 June 2009

My India Top 5

As a round off to my India month, here are my favourite things that I did while traveled through India's North East. In no particular order, and with nothing but frivolity behind the suggestions, I hope you have enjoyed reading about my travels through this great land!

---

5) Meet the Khasi's.

Up in the hills of Meghalaya state, enjoy the cooling breezer wafting in over from the Bay of Bengal. Dominated by the very cool Khasi people, Shillong is a laid back city, nestled away off the beaten track. Fun and chilled out a place as any.


4) Hop on the train.

Fun, cheap and a great way to see the countryside. Quite rightly famed as one of the best ways to see the country, the Indian Railway system is a must for any visitor to the country.


3) Cross a bamboo bridge.

They are shaky, oh what the hell, they are plain dangerous. But a little bit of bamboo will put some hairs on your chest. And if they can support my weight, they will probably support yours.




2) Catch a flick.

Head to the cinema, get your ticket and take your place in the cinema hall. Raucous, noisy affairs, so join in, whoop when there is a hint of love, boo the bad guy and tap your toes to the music. Fantastic fun, and a great way of watching movies and an interesting take on the local culture!


1) Eat well.

India is a country filled with fantastic food. One billion palettes make for some serious variety in the cuisine! Try something new, all the time, everyday. You will not regret it! Be adventurous...

---

Thank you India for the memories. All of them. I hope to return to your fair shores very soon...

Monday, 29 June 2009

Leaving India

On leaving India, I was lucky enough not to get stopped in my tracks by Cyclone Aila which battered the region. The Shillong Plateau turned this devastating storm into a mere bit of wild weather, but for many others it was devastating to their lives. Such is the need to keep an eye out for the wet and wild when traveling, had I been 200 miles south, I would have at the least been badly delayed, and even worse, killed, such was the ferocity of Aila.

To leave India, I was going to have a 19 hour layover in Delhi, stretching my journey to a full 36 hours. As I did not know how transit worked in India, I did not book a hotel in Delhi before I left. Because of that, I bunked the night in Delhi airport before leaving the next day. In essence, it was one rough night of traveling, but something I am pretty used to.

Anyhow, you can experience some of the comedy of my leaving of India by clicking on the vid. Enjoy!

Sunday, 28 June 2009

India, a look back

As you may have gathered, I had one incredible time in Incredible India, and for once, I might just have to agree with the advertising slogan. However, let us get this straight. India is no simple walk in the park. It is a hard country to travel around, filled with incompetence on every turn as well as being crowded with bugs, filth and people. I may have enjoyed India, but I am under no illusions about the country. It is incredible, but it will also wear you out.

India is a lot like marmite. You either love it or hate it; there is no in-between with that country. Personally, I love India, I still do, and a month later, I miss it like crazy. It seems a different world away, but I did have an incredible time there, and I hope to get back as soon as possible. When will I return? Who knows, and I am not even sure where I will go to next. But surely, the North East of India will remain a place which I must revisit sometime, especially the magical state of Assam.

My recommendation to all is that you must visit India, at least once in your lifetime, if only to experience a uniquely magical land. There are a lot of travelers who cannot cope with India. And yes, it is an assault to your senses. But if there is one thing that you might gain from visiting India, it is the sense of being alive. India is a country filled with life and its people, more than anythin else, made this country a wonderful experience for me.

To paraphrase the first quote that kickstarted this travel-special month:

I am stunned by the richness of the land, by its lush beauty, by its ability to overload the senses. It was as if all my life I had been living in a 2-D black & white world. When brought face to face with India, everything was re-rendered in 3-D technicolour. For that, thank you and let me state it again, just in case you might have missed it. Despite all the hardships, and all the many problems that this country faces, I really do love India.

---

Just as a side note, I have booked a short break to Istanbul for a few days this winter ;)

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Welcome to da movies!

India as you will all know (and if you don't, here's an education for you) is the world's largest film maker and film market. Bollywood is famed throughout the West for its lavish sets and wonderful dance routines. Rajinikanth is India's biggest star and has made inroads into markets far beyond India. There are even actors who have made it into the political scene of India. So, of course, being a film maker myself, I had to actually go to the movies while in India...

So it was, while wandering around Shillong, when I saw this poster, everywhere!



Who said advertising never worked? Pretty chicks on the poster, I can read the title of the film and more importantly, the venue is plastered on the poster. So off I went to the pictures to see the Khasi film, 'Dashisha'.

I love going to the movies, especially in a foreign clime. If I get to see a local film, I get an insight into the culture of that particular area. A film shows the hopes and dreams of the local populace, what they aspire too, what is glamorous for them, what they want to achieve. I also get to see the reaction of the audience, an important thing to see what they like and dislike. A cinema is a great social leveler. No matter how rich or poor you are, a cinema is one of these things that everyone goes to. No matter what your social status is, you sit in the same seats, surrounded by left over snacks and (outside the UK) wafting cigarette smoke. Simple things like local customs and dress can also be ascertained by going to the cinema In fact, if you want to educate yourself about a people and their culture, then chick away the books and head to the picture house. Especially in a country like India, with its vibrant, localised film industries, a window will open to another world.

So what did I think of 'Dashisha'? Of course I did not understand the movie's language, although the movie was simple enough for me to understand the story, always a plus point. While a foreigner cannot hope to understand every twist and turn in the plot, a good movie transcends linguistic boundaries, which this was able to do.

I did not like the main characters themselves, I thought they were a bit wishy-washy, and I wish that there was more focus on the 'bad guys', as they were far more interesting while on the screen. I loved the songs, I thought they were great (in fact, I bought the album!) and really enjoyed seeing aspects of Khasi cuture that were only read about/inferred, such as their matriarchal customs and seeing their traditional dress. It was also interesting to see the inside of Khasi homes, as the director obviously used real locations rather than a studio.

Overall, I was happy to see the film. While the story did not resonate with me, the experience was fantastic, and I really can appreciate the effort this director put into the film. It is not easy making a feature length flick, and you can see the passion that was needed to bring this together. The director managed to wangle some fantastic locations and using his limited resources managed to theatrically release this film, with very little official backing. It was also a a fascinating insight into the culture of the Khasi people, far more educational than a dusty book sitting on some library shelf or some dull anthropologist's lecture.

Movies, an experience for the mind as well as the soul ;)

Friday, 26 June 2009

Shillong (2)



There are two sides to Shillong. First, the Bengali/Indian side of the city. The city where you can get dhal, the city of temples and mosques. The part of the city where there are men.

Then there is the Khasi side of the city. The city where there are churches. Where fish is the staple. The part of the city where women dominate.

Shillong is most definitely dominated by the Khasi people. Therefore, Shillong is a city of women!

More to the point, Shillong is great fun! The people of Shillong are unlike any other people of the North East. They are too cool for school. Look, these guys chill out with Bob Dylan concerts, they are the epitome of cool. They have their own film industry and, well, they are cool.

What is there not to like about Shillong. Great food, fun people, stunning women.

Did I mention that the Khasi people are matriarchal?

---

Traveling in a matriarchal place is always entertaining for me, more so as I am fascinated just how everything functions so well. Trust me on this, matriarchies are so much more in tune with nature. The people are more relaxed (really chilled), there is less violence on the streets (actually, there is not much violence in NE India anyhow) and it is a lot more beautiful (better to see women than men in my opinion).

Travling in Shillong however was a surprise. Because I did not expect to see the city, I did no research on it, and so was completely bowled over by what I saw. I also spent quite a it of time actually in the city itself, chatting with people and experiencing the city. The Khasi are not the only people of Meghalaya state, but as they are the majority of the population of Shillong, they are the most urbanised of the Meghalayans and the most east to come in contact with. In fact, out of all the North East, only Assam is easier to travel in, and even then, there are parts of Assam which have difficulties.

Meghalaya does not have any of those problems, so if you find yourself with a few days to spare, then head over to Shillong, up in the hills. It is cool, in many respects, a mellow place to just sit back and soak up the atmosphere...

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Shillong (1)



The capital of Meghalaya state, home to the matriarchal Khasi people and former hill station cum garrison town of the British, Shillong lies on top of the Shillong Plateau. To the north lies the valley floor of the Brahmaputra River and to the south Bangladesh and the Bay of Bengal. Shillong is at the cross roads of the monsoonal weather system as well as at a crossroads of North East Asian Culture. Add to this the heavy British influence which exists to this day, and you have a very funky town in terms of its natural and human setting. To put it simply, Shillong could well be my favourite part of India in my travels to the North East...

Shillong is a city of churches. One of three Christian majority states in India (the other two being Mizoram and Nagaland, also in the North East), you cannot walk around the city without coming across a church. This also means that Sundays really is shut down day here in Shillong and much of Meghalaya Do not expect much in the way of life, the universe and everything on Sunday shuts down as the town goes to church. Really. Until mass is over, most places will not be open. However, once church is finished, most of the locals head to to the ice cream stalls. Bizarre as this is one of the coldest places that I visited while in Indaia!



One thing that you will find out on your travels in Meghalaya is that Hindi is a useless language to converse in. The locals in Shillong either speak Khasi or Bengali. As they are mutually intelligible, plus the state government's adoptation of English as an official language (a throwback to the importance of the British here) means that getting around Shillong is dead easy for the English speaker. Everyone speaks English and all that Hindi that you might have picked up while traveling in other parts of the country is quickly forgotten.



What surprised me about Shillong is how un-Indian its people are. Not only do they speak English, but they dress western. And more tellingly, they listen to American music. You will not hear the faint sound of Bollywood on the air, but Tupac, the Black Eyed Peas, and even Bob Dylan, on the car stereos of the locals. This is one groovy town, if you are not into Bollywood, and it is also a very musical town. Many people seem to be quite handy with the guitar. Not since Mexico have I witnessed so many musicians.



---

Getting there and away:

Like most places in the North East, Shillong is best reached via Guwahati (frequent buses and shared taxis ride the road) or Bangladesh (frequent shared taxis head to the border). It is also possible to hire a taxi to take you direct to and from Guwahati Airport, and current prices are Rs1200, for the whole taxi, one way.

Staying:

This will be the only other time I recommend a place to stay. At Rs1500 (£20) a night, it is expensive for India, but I absolutely loved this place. The Highwinds Guest House to the south of the city centre (close to the Pine Mount School) is situated by the tiny Crinoline Waterfall and set in an immaculately kept garden. Definitely a favourite of mine and was well worth the splurge! There are plenty of dirt cheap places located in the city centre too.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Wild Weather



It rains a lot in the North East of India. With the Bay of Bengal acting as a funnel for all the heat and moisture of the Indian Ocean, plus the fact that it was the onset of monsoon season, on the days that it was not blisteringly hot, it was bucketing down with rain. There is no way you can escape from the weather and depending where you are in the North East, it either rains a lot or it rains a hell of a lot...

There's not really much that you can do when it begins to bucket down. There is no point in an umbrella, it is going to turn inside out in the wind. You cannot really waterproof yourself, as the rain gets everywhere. And it is so heavy that even shelter by a shop front is not that practical. However, the best thing is to follow what the locals do. 'Deal with it'.



My travels through the tropics means that I know what to expect when the rain breaks out. It will not be a light sprinkling of showers like the UK, but a fully torrential shower with the added bonus of dramatically cooling down the temperatures of the day. It will also slow you down. No matter how much of a nut case I am, I still take cover whenever the rain breaks. Enjoy!

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Adverts

You can tell a lot about the country you are in by the adverts on billboards and by the adverts on TV. The adverts on billboards appeal to those with very little time. They must be able to communicate their product in an instant in order to gauge the attention of the busy public. However, the advert on TV has no need for such simplistic methods of communication and can rely on fear and loathing in order to sell their product. After all, their audience is far too lazy to switch channels, so they are the most gullible.

For instance, in the UK. Billboards wax lyrical about new mobile phone deals with pretty young women holding those said phones or highlight some fashionable piece of clothing, while TV tells you to make your life better you must do this (buy this skin product, worm out of debt, etc.). Sex always sells...

On India, the billboards tell you about the latest mobile phone deals with pretty young women holding those said phones or highlight some fashionable piece of clothing, while TV tells you to make your life better (buy this skin product, worm out of your mobile phone contract). Sex always sells, no matter what...



But some adverts are distinctly local. In Shillong, the town (like many others in India) are plastered with ads, but as English (not Hindi) is the official language of Meghalaya state, I am able to read so much more of the adverts and so partake in the great capitalist adventure...



I like billboards as they give a keen insight into the workings of a society. Sex is the universal salesman, no matter what part of the world you are in, there is always a pretty woman advocating you to part with your cash in order to make your life more successful (and so by association) get into bed with her/become like her. But there are other things I like to see. What is being advertised is what is indicative of what society wants or what society currently oversupplies. Like chatting to a local person about the ups and downs of life, a billboard is an important window into the soul of a country.



But sometimes, no matter where you go in this world, the adverts are exactly the same. After all this is one world that we are living in, and so what else but a single brand can unify the whole of humanity in happiness and love (with the assistance of a lot of cash). And that ad will always be the same. 'Happy'. 'Smiling'. 'Joyous'. 'Youthful'. 'Sickly Sweet'.



(Please note that there is no way in hell that I endorse any of the above products, except for the purposes of sheer comedy! Beacause I really want that mobile phone...)

Monday, 22 June 2009

'Mama's Place' - Visiting Matriarchal Societies - Meghalaya State

I noticed something was up as I was in the jeep being driven through the Khasi Hills district. Nay, I tell a lie, it was a week earlier as I was traveling down to Tripura. The coach had stopped off for dinner at about 10pm. I was not hungry, but I decided to stock up. We were in the Janita Hills and I went to the local shop, nothing more than a small hut by the restaurant. It was a husband and wife team. But it was the husband scurrying around in the back, getting the goods, while the wife was dealing with the cash. At the time I did not register anything unusual, but it was the first time in India that a woman had handled my cash.

---

So yes, I was in a jeep being driven through the Khasi Hills district, when suddenly I noticed women, everywhere. Yes, women do come out in India, this is not a repressed society. But in the Khasi Hills, women were really everywhere, working, on their own, in groups. There were mothers everywhere, working, not going out with pushchairs taking up a whole pavement, but with their babies on their backs. This was not a coffee morning, but they were doing everything that made society move.



Still, it did not click in my mind that I was traveling through a solidly matriarchal society, I just thought it was a more 'westernised' part of India. Ha! I could not be more wrong...before I had hit India, I was not planning to see Meghalaya. Maybe an overnight jobbie, that was about it. However, the heat of Tripura, plus a realisation that Shillong was on a plateau meant that I decided to spend a few days up in the cooling hills. Unfortunately, I did not do any research on Meghalaya, so I walked into the state completely ignorant of the surroundings.



After finding a hotel I went down the hill and found a place by the river selling fish and rice. Yeah baby...anyhoo, I sat down and nibbled away, watching the women do their thing. Running a restaurant. Again, it did not register with me that I was watching a matriarchy at work, I was far more enthused by plain tea - yes! Tea, without milk or sugar - the way I actually like my tea!

You really can see, that despite the high fluted subject matter of this blog, when it comes to basics all I think of when traveling is good food and great tea.

So when did I realise I was in the middle of a matriarchal society. Nope, I did not read up about it until later on, I did not get told by anyone until later on. I realised when I was wandering round the market place. Just a stroll mind you, minding my own business, taking pictures, when I heard a wolf whistle. I stopped, and looked round. There she was, in her sixties, winking at me. A bit taken aback, she gave another wolf whistle and a wink. I winked back and called out 'all right babes'.

And then it dawned on me. Welcome to Mama's Place...

Sunday, 21 June 2009

'Mama's Place' - Visiting Matriarchal Societies

Most of the world is patriarchal. Men dominate the social and business spheres of life. Men are in charge of the politics, they are in charge of the business, you see them as police officers, they are in the army, they run the businesses. In essence we live in a male dominated world. India is a male dominated country. In virtually all of the country, you will only be having contact with men. Men run the businesses, so in restaurants and hotels, it is all men that you are talking too. Also India is a conservative society when compared with other Western countries, hell, even other Asian countries. Women are not so much repressed or hidden away, just, well, not as prolific as men.

Asia as a whole has a very male orientated view of society, and let us be honest, a very male orientated society. So it comes as a great surprise that I have encountered a matriarchy twice. Once in China and once in India, two of the more male dominated countries on Earth.

Now, we in the UK have quite a comical view of matriarchal societies (the link is the classic 'Two Ronnies' sketch). A wishy-washy place where the locals flee whenever spider turns up, and where everything is squeaky clean but nothing ever works properly. You know what I mean, 'the birds have ruined it'.

Well, my experience of matriarchal societies are quite different. They are, well, firstly, they are interesting. Interesting as it can be a shock to the senses to see women out and about in society, usually after so long traveling in male dominated areas. Refreshing too, as it is nice to see women on the streets. Come on, they are far more beautiful than men. Also, there is a chance to talk to women. Not in a 'pick-up' way, but just normally, like you would talk to women in the UK. In fact, there is less hassle than even talking to women in the UK. Matriarchies are, well they are pretty relaxed places.

---

My first matriarchy was in Xinjiang, in the North West of China. I kind of got an inkling of how women dominated the area when I saw one woman belt a man (presumably her husband) with her shoe while traveling on a bus. I saw more evidence of husband battery on the streets of Xinjiang during my travels to this area. It was clear to see that other men passing by, did not interfere and the man getting beaten did not even put up a fight.

Women did not just dominate the boxing bouts, but more visibly, dominated the businesses. Everywhere you went, women were running the businesses, particularly in the countryside, which was entirely female dominated. The men were nowhere to be seen. No joke, it was the men that were hidden away. More importantly, it was women who handled the cash. In a restaurant, if there were both men and women working, it was the woman dealing with the finances, while men were running about like headless chickens. By the way, the Uighurs of Xinjiang are Muslim.
---

But anyway, my second cliche buster happened in Meghalaya...who ever said that India was a male dominated society...

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Colours!



India. It is filled with colours. Not a little sprinkled about here and there like the top of an ice cream cone, but fully filled with eye bursting beauty. This is not a country for the colour blind, you need your senses fully functioning for this country. Everywhere you turn, there is an assault on the eyes, as breathtaking as as an early morning dive. You can see exactly why Bollywood, Kollywood and every other film industry has a trademark style of vibrancy - it surrounds you as you wander through India! Even the mundane is vibrant to the eye!



Coming from the UK, we are used to grey, drab, uniform, corporate, boring. A single identity, one size fits all. In India, yes there is very much a 'corporate side', the country is one capitalist belt. But this is definitely not a 'one size fits all' kind of a land. You cannot have such a concept, the country is too big, the people are too diverse, and simplification of India is a concept that borders of futility!



I have never made a pretence to try and understand India (nor any other place I have travelled to) and to claim such a mastery after three short weeks traveling in one part of the country would be a huge arrogance on my part. But one thing that I can firmly say, despite my short time in this country, is that the eclectic nature of India is well and truly an established fact. Be warned someone who tries to pigeon hole this country. That goes too for modern-day Bollywood, much of their stuff becoming samey and uniform (unlike the Telegu or Tamil film industries, which continue to show signs of a pulse). India is a country that continues to thrive, despite the devastating effect of the ruling classes. And the reason for its success both present and future is and will be its commitment to its own diversity. On my travels, I have been to many lands. In the Gulf States, there was an Arab feel to the place (unfortunate, as it is not that great). On my travels to China, another vast land, except for Xinjiang and Tibet, the country feels Chinese despite its vast size. Traveling in North East India was different. This area is Indian and yet not Indian. Each state has massive differences with the next, and while there is an Indian identity and feel, there is also such a strong sense of individuality within India. In other words, India is a land of colour!

Friday, 19 June 2009

What to pack...

Always the great conundrum whenever going abroad - what should be taken and how it should be taken. My own mantra is 'as little as possible', but this may not be practical if going on a specialised holiday such as hiking etc. However, for the casual traveler, it is pretty easy to 'live off the land', so to speak. Unless you are heading to North Korea, most things are easily bought in much of the world. Asia in particular is an easy place to pick up exactly the same consumables as you can in the West. But there are a few things that you should never leave home without...

1) A sense of humour.

It is very easy to get frustrated when traveling abroad. the language is different, the water is dodgy and cockroaches are huge. Added to that the fact that many times you are getting ripped off and trying to get a bus/train ticket is an exercise in sheer patience. Therefore, remember, you are on holiday, have fun and enjoy the experience. Chucking lit bottles at rats can be fun!


2) A good ear.

If you are an imbecile with languages, then pack a phrasebook. Before I go abroad, I like to know the basics - 'Hi', Bye', 'How much?', 'Thanks', 'Okay'. Oh and 1-10 in the language also helps. After that, I just go with the flow. My ears begin to pick up the rest and pretty soon, while I may not fully understand what is being said, I do get the gist. Listen, and all shall be revealed...


3) Condoms.

The women are fit outside the UK.


4) Matches/a lighter/a torch.

Surprisingly, I forgot my lighter this time round.


5) Pens and paper.

You can never bring enough pens. Paper is also pretty useful.


6) 'Time'.

It is surprisingly easy to loose track of the days. A diary helps. So does a cheap watch or a dodgy alarm clock.


7) A sense of history and culture.

Do some research on the area you are visiting before you visit. You will chat to a lot of people and having some local knowledge about their culture really opens a lot of doors for you. It puts your surroundings into context.

8) A knife.

If you love fruit as much as I do, you will love that knife.


9) A towel.


'A towel, is about the most useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have...'


10) A smile.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Crossings of the Brahmaputra River (1) - The Guwahati Ferry

Last year, I went on journey up to Scotland, and broke up my journeys along the Thames by going nuts on the Forth Bridge. Not only did the Forth Bridge mark my furthest point north, but it was also my first break in my series of Crossings along the River Thames since I started that project 25 months ago. And while the Forth Bridge could not be crossed by foot, I had to include it, due to the spectacular nature of the bridge.

---

Well, I bring the series abroad, and as part of this blog's India month, as well as an experience in itself that I had to partake in, I crossed the mighty Brahmaputra while I stayed in Guwahati.


(The Guwahati Ferry along with the Saraighat Bridge behind it)

The Brahmaputra is a mighty river that starts in the Tibetan Plateau. It makes a sharp right and then enters India at its north eastern tip in Arunachal before dominating the state of Assam. In effect, Assam is the valley floor of the Brahmaputra, and is one of the reasons why this state is so fertile. Assam is one large deposit of Himalayan silt. Washed down over millions of years, this fertile land, thanks to deposits made by the Bramaputra makes Assam India's largest tea and timber exporter as well as a state that quite happily sends food to the outside world. After Assam, the river makes a large left, joins with the Ganges and forms what is known today as Bangladesh.


(The Brahmaputra's silty deposits in North Guwahati)

You will not find North Guwahati in any tourist brochure nor will the ferry crossing feature as one of Assam's 'to do' list. However, for the intrepid traveller as well as the mildly curious, the chance to cross the mighty Brahmaputra is something that cannot be passed up. It is a river steeped in history, both mythological/religious and factual. It has a name that resonates with exotica and exploration. An unknown. Mighty and yet strangely silent when compared with other parts of the world. Partly as it is caught up in the web of intrigue that surrounds Sino-Indian relations as well as the course of the river beginning close to the legendary Mount Kalish and flowing through to the Sunderbans. The Brahmaputra takes in some of the most imaginative parts of the world. And so, you can now see why I wanted to cross this mighty river, when the next chance to see this water course could lie many moons ahead of me...


(The 'unofficial' ferry crossing)

There are three was of crossing the Brahmaputra in Guwahati. The most stable crossing is the Saraighat bridge, a road/rail bridge to the west of the city. The next is the official ferry, that runs about every hour or so between the Guwahati City and North Guwahati village. The official ferry is a large, cumbersome object, filled with tetanus welds and bored workers. Then there are the 'unofficial ferries' that whip across the river whenever full between North Guwahati and the main city. Both ferries carry motorbikes and cycles as well as pedestrians who for a mere Rs5 can cross this mighty river in style if not exactly in comfort.


(The 'official' ferry)

Although this was one of those unplanned holiday events, it shows you a little in what interests me when traveling. Not the river crossing in itself (uneventful) but taking in the scenery (spectacular), talking with the local people (fascinating), seeing sights that few other travelers know of (curiosity satisfied) and partaking in a sense of achievement. Man, this is the Brahmaputra River, a sense of perspective is needed here! Along with the Mekong, the Kaveri, the Indus, the Tigris and Euphrates, these are rivers that have not so much been defined by their natural beauty or their length, but by their significance to humanity. And I have crossed one of them. There is a whole lot more of this river left to explore, but at least I have taken that first 'step' and have actually seen the mighty Brahmaputra...

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

A Close Shave...

Simple. I do not like hair on my face. Or on my head. Handily for the latter, I am loosing quite a fair bit up top. For the former, I have rapid growth, and should really shave on a daily basis. However, in the UK I am a notoriously scruffy person. However, in India (in fact in much of the world) it is relatively cheap enough where the casual tourist can dispense with the razor blade and soap and instead head to a barbershop.

Just like few sane travelers carry a packed lunch with them, so it is with shaving and myself when on holiday. Why carry the whole kit of razor blade and clippers for the hair, when instead I can head to the barbers, pay a few pennies and get the works done for me in about fifteen minutes. No need for me to spend time tirelessly watching myself in front of the mirror and more importantly, it makes by pack that little bit lighter – always a plus for the casual traveller such as myself...

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Still in travel mode until the end of the month...

Halfway through June, and still I am wax lyrical about North East India. Thank you to all my readers who are still here on this blog, and I promise that normal service will be resumed shortly, in about 15 days or so, when this becomes a blog about the great and good of my own life in 'Sunny London', rather than 'Sunny India'.

Holidays for me are really about getting that breath of fresh air. Everything in the UK is so hermetically sealed. Although safe and certain, the whole country is limp and lifeless, without risk. As soon as you leave these shores, everywhere you see people alive, having fun and uncramped by the whims of solicitors looking to gain a fast buck. We unfortunately became Americanised by the creeping in of lawyers into our everyday lives, but without any of the gung-ho qualities that the American's posses. In other words, we Brits are pretty pathetic.

So on traveling to India, it was that breath of fresh air that hit the senses. On one of my recent vlogs for vlogsup, I snuck in a clip of one of my rail journeys, and it was interesting to see that the comments concentrated on the fact that I was standing on the edge. Maybe it is because I have been on many trains like this in my travels through Sri Lanka and Malaysia/Thailand. But the bottom line is that do not worry. I have been on far worse journeys, and the video was not done for 'shock value' but to show the beauty of the passing landscape. This was the reason why I stood at these vantage points along the open doors.

And so for the rest of this month, I will continue to talk about India, plus the joys of travelling round such an evocative country. India was filled with trials but there were also a few comic moments to savour. Most of all, I just simply enjoyed myself and had a thoroughly pleasurable time while in India. I really cannot describe the sheer epiphany moment (or 're-epiphany') that this holiday has brought on. For those that do not know me, I no longer drink/do drugs, smoke etc. This is not due to some puritanical zeal, it is simply due to the fact that I have a low attention span. It is also the reason why (thankfully) I have never got into gambling. I get bored very easily. Really, maybe I have some problem in my head, but concentrating on minute tasks is killer. So going out, drinking every Friday, at the pub, week after week, year after year is not my idea of a social life, just a self-imposed hell. Ditto for playing poker – what is the appeal in that bloody game?

Travelling, like film making and food, fulfils my inherently short attention span. It is very hard to get bored while on the road. Everyday is a new challenge, often a new language, a different set of customs, new and exciting food to taste as well as simple things like crossing the road are major thrills for me. Even watching the countryside pass by is something that I simply adore. I love observing the passing environment from a train, and have often liked the look of a place enough to simply hop outside and see what is going on in the surrounding area. 'Bunny Hopping' I like to call it, or simply wandering, without a real purpose, from settlement to settlement, living locally and while not seeing many big touristic sights, just having a great time going local. Doing something new. Satisfying my innate curiosity.

And hopefully, that is what keeps this blog a little bit unpredictable too. Like my mind, it twists and changes, and even though this is a holiday special this month, still expect the unexpected...

Monday, 15 June 2009

3am

Nope, not the column in a British National newspaper, but the scheduled arrival time of far too many bus and train services throughout the world. Arriving at 3am is not a pleasant thought, and in a foreign land it can be a daunting prospect. Apart from being dark and fairly cold, finding a hotel where you can wake up the night staff is an exercise in futility. Plus you will have to pay for the full night in that said hotel, so you are getting ripped off by quite a few hours.

I have doen the '3am Ritual' far too many times, so here are some tips to help you get through the prospect of a 3am arrival time in a new and strange town:

1) Break the journey.

Tricky if arriving on the one scheduled flight of the day. But if coming in by land transport, try breaking up the journey by stopping in a town beforehand, and continuing the journey the following day. While direct buses and trains are criminal in their scheduling, local services in between towns usually traverse during the day. Also, you will probably get to spend some time in a backwater that few tourists visit, due to their mad rush to arrive at their destination at 3am...

(I avoided 3am arrival time during my exit from Tripura state by breaking up the journey into three stages)

2) Eat and Drink.

If you are going to arrive at 3am, then do not do so on an empty stomach. There is nothing worse than arriving in a new place and having a severe attack of the munchies. Not only does a bite to eat keep you focused, you also have a little bit of confidence with which to face your new location. While your bus or tran will drop you in the most godforsaken part of a new town at 3am, there is a good chance that there is a stall serving something nearby. Of course, you can always take your own food...

(Usually I carry some fruit and a bottle of water in my pack for all but the shortest of journeys)

3) Stick it out at the station.

A toss up in terms of comfort and safety, but depending on the country and town you are in, it might be a good idea to rough it for a few hours at the said rail or bus station. In the developing world, this is actually a viable option, with plenty of locals doing the same. Doss down and have a kip, you will feel better when the sun comes up. There might even be a waiting room if you are lucky. In the 'developed' world, you have to look out for the rampaging youths.

(Basically, do not sleep rough in England. You will get your head kicked in by scum. Every other part of the world is civilised enough to make sleeping rough a safe option)

4) Go for a wander.

Do you have good bearings? If so, then go for a wander. You might even be lucky enough to witness a sunrise. I have done that a couple of times in places that are known tourist sopts, and a sunrise can be quite nice here.

(Rotorua in NZ, my favourite 3am wander)

5) Phone a friend.

Due to the time difference between many parts of the world and your home country, this could be a good time to make those catch-up phone calls.

So there you are, my five top tips for keeping yourself happy during the dreaded 3am appointment time with your destination. Handy tips for the road...

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Travels in tiny Tripura (5) - A round-up

I visited quite a few places in tiny Tripura, parts of India that I never knew existed. From water palaces to little villages, I trekked and bussed my way through this rough and ready state. Tripura is a gorgeous part of India, but it is not n easy place to travel in. Its isolation and the state government's general incompetence makes Tripura a challenge for the casual tourist. However, it has ben a long time since I have engaged myself in such travel methods and so I was delighted to dip my toes again into the real tremors of 'the road'.



Because I decided to 'rough it', I saw a part of India, and it was a beautiful part that is rapidly changing for the better, but nonetheless is changing. I was a witness to the passing of history, the way that the landscape was changing, how the country was developing, even in this remote corner. And I felt privileged to be able to witness such changes. I probably will never return to Tripura, yet I was glad to have travelled here, as I was witness to history in the making, however small it may have been. For it is in places like Tripura that you can feel the presence of this nation...



But the road was taking me north, into a new state, a new part of the world and despite the short distance in the journey, a different world altogether. I took three days to journey out of Tripura, partly as I wanted to break up the journey into manageable stages, but also as I wanted to see that little bit more. I wanted not just to see the grandiose sites of Tripura, the temples and the palaces, but also the small towns, the part of the state not on any tourist brochure. For it is in these rural areas that the bulk of India's population live, not the heady metro centres of world renown.

And that was what I loved about Tripura, the people. It was fun to meet the local people of Tripura, who were really kind to me the humble visitor. I am no being idyllic, there were plenty of tossers here as well. But the majority of people I met, were reflective of my experience of North East India. Kind, warm and welcoming, proud of their state and country and damn surprised that I made it that far to see their homeland. Travels in tiny Tripura, a tiny state, but with a big heart and some of the most gorgeous scenery i have ever seen on this tiny rock called Earth ;)

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Travels in tiny Tripura (4) - Flirting with the Bangladeshi Border...

No matter where you go in Tripura, Bangladesh is everywhere. From the main road leading in from Assam, to the state capital and beyond, the physical space of the state is constrained by the partition line drawn up at India's independence.


(The Agartala border post)

Tripura's links with the area now called Bangladesh are historically very strong. The Western part of the state that borders the country is the most urbanised, has the largest number of people and is almost totally Bengali. It is the Eastern parts of the state, that border India that are more rural, have more Native peoples and to be frank, have very few people living there. It is evident in the price of goods (slightly more expensive), the convenience of getting a morning paper (in the evening) and in the language spoken (almost all Bengali) that shows the strong links to the part of the world that is now Bangladesh.


(The jackfruits are in India. The rice is in Bangladesh)

I do not know what the situation is like on India's North Western border, and I am aware of the serious tension that (unfortunately) exist between Pakistan and India. But, between Bangladesh and India, this tension does not seem to exist. I am not going to pretend that there are no problems in this part of the world, there are plenty, some of which I have briefly touched upon in thisblog, and many more that I do not know about. What I write on this blog are my own observations from my travels. And the feeling I got while flirting with the Bangladesh/Indian border in Tripura was a sense of pointlessness.


(Right foot in Bangladesh, left foot in India)

I do not know what the feeling is on the Bangladesh side, but on the Indian side of this border, there does not seem to be any animosity towards the people in Bangladesh. Even the border guards, as accommodating as they were to me the humble tourist, looked bemused at their situation. Patrolling a border when they share a common culture and language (and in many cases religion) with those on the other side of the fence. It is a sense of politics, and a politics of a different era that absolutely dominate this area. And the North East has suffered from partition. Maybe the story of Partition was not told from the point of view of the Bengali's as the more famous rift in the North West of the sub-continent, but this area did suffer and suffers still from those lines in the silt. From the remoteness of the North East, to the economic development of the area. Its own inter-communal tensions and lack of progress made since independence. All of these could have been reduced had there been physical links with the rest of India.

Anyway, I am no politician, and I am certainly no local. Ultimately it is none of my business what happens in this part of the world. But one thought that I want to leave you with. The main railway line in Bangladesh runs a stone's throw away from the border. Every time a train passed by on the Bangladeshi side, people stopped what they were doing and stared across at the border. Yes there was curiosity in the eyes of many, but also a great deal of sadness. There really is no animosity on this side of the border towards the people of Bangladesh, just a great longing...


(A kilometre and a whole world away - the train in Bangladesh)

Friday, 12 June 2009

Travels in tiny Tripua (3) - The Neermehal Water Palace



There are many examples of water palaces/castles round the world. But despite the fact that some even exist here in the UK, it was my travels in tiny Tripura that took me to my first Water Palace a mere jeep/bus ride to the south of Agartala.

Now, before I continue, there are two things you must realise about Neermehal. First of all, like many historic places in India, the upkeep is not that great. In fact, it is quite tardy. And second, this is not some ancient construction of a great Mughal, but the fantasy palais a 1930's Raja who ruled over this former Princely State. But sod it - this is a water palace, and more importantly, MY FIRST WATER PALACE!



This is one of those few times that pictures speak louder than words. Whatever I say here cannot be justified. Needless to say, I absolutely loved this place! In every way, this palace is simply gorgeous. With wonderful gardens inside the palace's walls along with turrets looking over the lake itself. Oh go on, here's another pic!



Like most of India, there is a refreshing lack of health and safety on offer which means you are FREE to explore the palace. Every nook and cranny can be scrabbled around along with every possible turret and foundation supported on the lake bed that can be reached can be ventured too! Don't forget to join the wildlife by the lake as well as inside the palace!



So go on, find your inner child! Make your way to a tiny market town outside of Agartala and head to the waterside! You will not regret it! Yey! Come on guys, a little bit of excitement, it's a water palace!!! You will not see anything like this in London!



---

Getting there and away:

A bus or jeep will take you from Agatarla to a place called Malaga (or Melaga). Yeah, like the Spanish city. Then you can walk the 1km up to the lakeside or hop in an auto.

To get to the actual palace, there are one of two things you must do. Swim. Or get a boat.



The latter costs Rs150. They will wait for you for 45 mins at the palace. If you want them for longer, pay an extra Rs75 as a flat rate. Two hours is ample time to explore the palace. Once you have paid up your extra Rs75 negotiate with your boatman for him to pick you up. He will be late, but that gives you more time to see the palace! There is a ticket booth by the lakeshore, so you are not getting gouged, these are the prices you pay. There is an entry fee to the palace that you pay on entering. It was one of the few times i was charged the local price of only Rs3. I do not know if there was a foreigner surcharge, but I certainly did not volunteer.

Take water and snacks with you, as there is no where to buy anything in the palace itself. Please take your litter away, the place is already dirty enough without a careless visitor chucking their crap in the lake! Like many attractions in India, go early to avoid the crowds and the sun! Most of all, enjoy Neermehal. After all, it is water palace!

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Travels in tiny Tripura (2) - Matabari Temple

Although getting into Agartala is a pain, once in Tripura, travel to the major population centres of the state remains a breeze! And so it was one very hot and sunny day that I decided to head to the south of the state and visit the famed Matabari Temple near the old capital of Udaipur and one of the 51 Pithas located in and around India. Click those links and educate yourselves!

As for me, I decided to head out to the temple. Although I have visited temples before in Jaffna it was always special going to one in India, and also one held in such high regard by worshippers themselves.



One thing that you will observe very quickly when visiting a Nporth Eastern temple are the ceremonial pools that lie outside each complex. Inviting, cool and filled with other bathers, the pools give a harmony to the crowds that usually throng the temples themselves.



I liked Matabari, not for the temple itself (although I appreciated its importance and architectural content), but for the people. I was able to talk to many people both pilgrims to the temple who were surprised to see a foreigner making it this far out, as well as the locals in and around Udaipur. Wow. That was the highlight of the trip. As I had decided to walk the 4 sweltering km's to the temple from Udaipur, I decided to stop at virtually every tea stop and sweet house on the road. This is India, there is always food and chai, and where there is chai, there is conversation. As I have always said, half the time it is the journey as well as the destination that makes travel worthwhile. And if it is not for the people, then it would not matter where I went, the surroundings would not be as beautiful.



---

Getting there and away:

Udaipur city is a two hour bus/shared taxi ride from Agartala. You can walk the 3-4km from Udaipur city centre/bus stand to Matabari or hop in an auto. There is a state run resthouse at the Matabari temple, by thre ceremonial lake. Like most things run by the Tripura State Government, the service is truly third world, but thankfully, so are the prices. Cheap food can be had surrounding the temple and there is a lively night market too in which to sample the local delights.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Travels in tiny Tripura (1) - Agartarla

Tripura is a tiny state and it represents India in miniature. Nestled in a corner of the North East of the country, it is surrounded on three sides by Bangladesh. A former princely state, Tripura is lush and green but away from the tourist brochure description, it is also an incredibly difficult state to travel around, partly due to the severed links with what is now Bangladesh but also as the state department seems to treat tourists as some sort of bother rather than the obvious cash cow that we normally are. Tripura is a fascinating place, but it is also a truly difficult part of India in which to travel around. Due to local insurgencies travel is made even more arduous, with circuitous routes round the state being the norm. As a result, almost every road in Tripura has to pass through the state capital, Agartarla, nestled in the far west of the state. So, as almost every person visiting Tripura will have to visit the seat of the local legislature at some point, why don't I introduce you to the city of Agartarla itself!


(The hype for Agartarla begins far beyond the city's limits)

Agartala is easy enough to walk on foot and for those in a lazy mood, there are plenty of rickshaws plying their trade, both of the auto form and the cycled form. The city is dominated by two large pieces of history. The first is the Ujjayanta Palace or Tripura's state assembly. It is a gorgeous building set amongst two huge ceremonial lakes. It is currently off limits to most visitors, but you can never get lost in the city, as long a you know where 'Palace Compound' is, you will always be able to find your way. I actually stayed at a hotel in the Palace Compound (which is a cluster of buildings surrounding Ujjayanta) and this is one of the few times I will recommend place to stay, so impressed I was by the quality of the rooms and service recieved. The 'Palace Inn', at just under Rs700 a night (less than a tenner) gives clean, well furnished rooms, well maintained toilets, a balcony (make sure you ask for the balcony room) and if you feel like the cold, an Air Con unit (ugh). The staff are knowledgeable and their fantastic command of English makes a mockery of my attempts of Bengali.


(The Ujjayanta Palace from the south east corner, in the rain)

The second feature that dominates the city is Bangladesh. Agartala is not just the capital of Tripura but is also a border town. Like all border towns, there is a funky feel to the air. Languages and business collide with impunity, there is a rush in the air that is quite unmatched in much of the North East, but at the same time the city's small size, plus the friendly relations between India and Bangladesh means that there is little tension here in the city that comes with many other border crossings. Plus around 80% of the city is Bengali, so in essence it feels more like a family get-together, than the 'edge of the world' feeling that I have had at other border posts.


(Lines in the Silt - a local leaving India with style)

Agartala is a weird place in many ways. The morning paper arrives in the afternoon, on the flight from Calcutta. Everything is slightly more expensive due to the enforced isolation of the city from the rest of the world. People like to eat Chow Mein, and infact, it is a great dish to sample while in the city. Some of the best street food can be had along Central Avenue (to the South of the palace's South Gate) on a Sunday evening. Surprising for such a small city. And there is bamboo everywhere, even the bridges are made of the stuff!



I am no anthropologist, nor have I extensively travelled in India or South East Asia to gain a true picture of the area. My knowledge of local history is minimal. But, there is definitely an element of fusion in the air when walking down the streets of Agartala. Although the city is overwhelmingly Bengali, there are many things which seem very 'un-Bengali'. Yes, highbrow culture is here (the amount of bookstores in Agartala is simply astonishing) a huge piece of evidence of the Bengali influence in the state. But the food, the dress, the people, the buildings seem distinctly mixed up. As if Thailand took a wrong tuning, or a piece of Sichuan floated by. I am not saying that this region is a melting pot, but more like a freshly tossed salad. Dominated by greens, but with elements of something else, a little more funky in the flavour. There is even a little bit of the UK influence in some of the buildings from colonial times. Doubtless there are people who are far more knowledgeable that myself, but for now, until someone can point me in the right direction, I will continue to mumble along in my descriptions of this fascinating state, tiny Tripura...


(Evening falls on Tripura, and the hunt for dinner begins...)

---

Getting there and away:

In a word, don't. You need time and patience to get to Agartala. And the local tourist board will not be of any use to you. Thankfully, the local people will more than make up for the official incompetence that you will encounter.

Ironically, the easiest way to reach Agartala (and Tripura itself) is via Bangladesh. The border is a 3-4km walk from the centre of town. Alternatively, plenty of rickshaws line up to give you (and your wallet) a ride:



There is a train line from just across the border that runs to Dhaka. There are also plenty of buses to Bangladesh's capital on the Bengali side. If you need a Bangladesh visa, then you can pick one up at the consulate in town (the only diplomatic representation in North East India).

If coming in from India, it is slightly more difficult. The most common way to come is via a hellish bus ride from Guwahati or Shillong. Or there is the possibility of a train from Guwahati (change at Lumding), and while it may take longer, it would be infinitely more pleasurable, if the service ran. It is subject to cancellation due to insurgencies in the southern part of Assam, so, like all good bits of advice, check before you travel. Tripura is not an easy state to wander around ;)

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

The Bus Journey from Hell (2)



Throughout the night, the bus tore its way through the streets of Mehalaya state. Up and down, jolting away, only stopping for a brief snack somewhere in the hills. For the first time in that journey I put on a jacket and shivered my way through the night as the bus ripped through the countryside, every jolt being felt by every passenger. Dawn arrived and I sleepily gazed out of the window. Outside, there was lush forests as we had begun out descent back into the southern part of Assam. Suddenly there was a halt and everything stopped. Passengers started to wake up and then the engine switched off. Curiously, everyone got up, and some decided to get out of the bus, in order to see what the matter was...



The rest of the bus journey from Hell - on video - CLICK!

Simple to say that during this journey the bus broke down. Trying to make up for lost time after the landslip, the bus driver hurtled along the track until a crunch was heard and he basically smacked up the gearbox and clutch. After that we were basically scrambling around on every available bit of transport to get to Tripura state. Hanging onto the back of an Auto, then a shared taxi for a bus load of passengers. 'Pooja' then realised that they could not fit everyone on board one van, so they had to get a second shared taxi.

There were checkpoints to negotiate, due to insurgency and kidnapping in the hills of Tripura. If you could missed the army convoy, then you were sent back. Yes, we were sent back. In the end, the journey from Jorhat to Agatarla took 50 hours. It was an adventure to say the least...

One passenger on the trip asked me why I did not fly to Agartarla. Yes, I could have bought a ticket, but for me, travel, wherever I go is not about flying overhead in a sealed vessel, watching the landscape below like some grand Lord of the Skies. I enjoy ground level transport. Sure, when the need arises, I will take to the skies. But I had the time to travel to Tripura state by land. And also, I wanted to see the countryside. It was a journey from hell, that thoroughly exhausted me. However, I got to see sights that no normal tourist would see.

I met refugees from Mizoram and saw the communists celebrate their winning of Tripura. The town of Ambassa was more than a blip on the map and the warmth and comradary shared with my fellow travelers could never be repeated on a 45 minute plane journey. Plus flying wrecks the environment.

I cannot pretend that I understood what I saw, or who I met. I never realised there was inter-ethnic clashes in Mizoram state. I have no clue what the Left-Front stands for and much of the time my passengers spoke Bengali, a very difficult language for the foreign ear to interpret. But I experienced a time that will be remembered into my sunset years. I saw a part of the world that will change beyond recognition in the coming generation. I saw a way of life that was both fascinating and sad to witness. More importantly, I lived a life a little less ordinary. Yes, bus journey in India are hellishly uncomfortable, inconvenient and relatively expensive. But these are small prices to pay compared to the experiences that I gained. When I travel, the destination is the primary motive. But the journey is most definitely half the fun...