Welcome to the blog for our round the world trip.

25 November 2007

30th Birthdays in Southern India

South tip of India - Kanyakumari
Originally uploaded by rtw2007.
Just a quick note to say that, after two and a half months in this crazy country (and fast approaching 8 months on the road), we have gone as far south as the road will let us.

We are in Kanyakumari, at the southern tip of India. From the headland we can see the meeting point of three seas: the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. We have just eaten a lunch of vegetarian thali (mixed curries) and rice served on a huge banana leaf and eaten in traditional Southern Indian style - no cutlery, but instead getting fully involved using not just the fingers to scoop up food but the whole hand!

We have had a busy few days with Helen's 30th birthday on Tuesday spent on a houseboat drifting down through the Keralan Backwaters (more to follow in next blog) and Michael's 30th birthday today to coincide with our arrival at India's version of Land's End. We now plan to spend a peaceful evening watching the sun go down from our camping spot right on the water's edge. Tomorrow, we will turn around and head up the east coast.

13 November 2007

Bollywood to Beaches; via Call Centre City

Agonda Beach sunset, Goa
Originally uploaded by rtw2007.
As I write this on the laptop, I am sitting outside the van at Agonda beach. Recommended to us as being the best Goan beach for overlanders, it turns out that the recommendation was not just based on Agonda being a beautiful, quiet bay. Agonda seems to be a renowned overlanding hub. Currently, we are one of four vehicles here, the other three (predictably) being German. The German vehicles are the start of a mass gathering that occurs here every winter: it seems that there is a mass exodus of people who come out at the end of the German summer, spend three months of the winter living on a beach in Goa, and then either drive home or go up to Nepal to avoid the monsoon season here. One couple told us yesterday that they drove from Berlin to India in just two weeks: they have done the trip several times before and have already seen everything they wanted to see along the way, so they just drove straight through. All of this makes our progress seem more than a little sedate! The whole thing is quite odd: having seen almost no overlanding vehicles until we got to India, this place is something of a surprise. A whole sub-culture of German overlanders on an Indian beach isn’t quite what we were expecting.

For us, life in Goa is an uncomplicated mix of beaches, cold beer and seafood. In front of me as I write this is one row of palm trees; then the sandy beach (currently inhabited by a herd of cows); and then the sea. Almost totally deserted, it’s a picture postcard view; we’re at the southern end of a curved sandy bay that must be 2 or 3 kilometres long. Our main debate during the day is which restaurant we should walk to for dinner. It all seems a world away from Bombay 10 days ago.

We really enjoyed Bombay, but the luxury of the Taj Mahal (the hotel, that is, not the monument), the Bollywood vibe (we saw quite a lot of filming whilst we were there and were approached on the streets a couple of times and asked if we would be extras in a Bollywood movie) and the cosmopolitan feel of the big city faded as soon as we made our way south down the coast. The weather was very hot and sticky when we left Mumbai, the last vestiges of the monsoon still refusing to budge. To avoid the heat and entertain ourselves on the way south, we headed inland and upland into the ‘up and coming’ city of Pune (pronounced Poona).

Pune was sold to us as being the centre of the new Indian technology boom and people we’ve met have spoken excitedly about how modern the whole place is. Most Brits will have spoken to someone there without necessarily realising it, because Pune is at the centre of the Indian call centre revolution. The city is home to huge numbers of call centres full of Indians with Anglicised names (“Roy” instead of “Rajesh” etc), who are taught mock-British accents and the spend their nights answering phones to callers who think that they are calling British Gas and the like to make enquiries about their bills. After negotiating a typically Indian town centre full of the standard traffic jams and suicidal auto-rickshaws, we found ourselves in the leafy northern suburb of Kurgaon Park. The place is rammed with colonial mansions dotted around the park, all with high hedges and large, unfriendly gates topped with barbed wire or broken glass: it all felt rather Beverly Hills. Kurgaon Park is also the location of the bizarre and rather exclusive OSHO meditation resort, based on the teachings of a slightly beardy-wierdy looking man known as OSHO. Anyone who feels able to have no surname and insist that their single name is written in capital letters is always going to be a little odd in our book. The mediation centre is described in our guidebook as the ‘Armani of Ashrams’ and the prices reflect that: we would never have imagined that you could charge people so much money to sit in silence in a stark room meditating for hours on end. The area is full of very serious looking (mainly Western) guests wandering around in their long flowing maroon robes and having earnest discussions with each other. After paying 10 rupees, we were allowed to take a short stroll around the grounds – as long as we stayed in strict crocodile lines and remained silent. The grounds are nice enough, very green with large areas for ‘expressing yourself’ (by dancing madly around the place, for example) and a huge obsidian pyramidal meditation hall. Needless to say we decided not to check-in for a week. I amused myself by trying to ask the guide pointed questions about why all the new visitors had to have an AIDS test before joining (sexual promiscuity within the meditation centre is our suspicion, but she wouldn’t admit that) and what would happen if they failed the test having flown all the way out to India.

South of Pune the road is excellent; the best continuous stretch of road we have come across in India. We made good progress down towards Goa, only hindered by the standard lack of road signage. After going 20km too far down the dual carriageway and performing the all too common U-turn at a toll-plaza, we drove down a winding road through kilometre after kilometre of tropical foliage towards Panaji, the state capital of Goa.

Goa used to be a Portuguese enclave. The Portuguese were the last to leave India, not being driven out until the 1960s when the Indian army finally got involved. We kicked off our visit by exploring Old Goa; a collection of huge, beautiful cathedrals located in the middle of the forest. These are relatively well kept and impressive buildings with huge lawns edged with palm trees; a real surprise in India and in complete contrast to what we have seen so far. We explored the buildings for as long as possible in the searing heat, including viewing the remains of St. Francis Xavier, who is apparently a Catholic big gun. The body is a major Catholic pilgrimage site, though the saint’s body is not actually all there. As soon as devout Christians realised shortly after his death that his body wasn’t decomposing as bodies usually do (due, apparently, to his big-gun status), every Catholic community wanted a piece of him, so various limbs ended up distributed around the world. Sensitively, he is now covered by a cloak so that you can’t make out what is actually left. From one of the nearby hills there is an excellent view over the area: the canopy layer, a mix of forest and jungle, is spattered with white cathedrals poking out into the sunshine. From Old Goa, we moved on to Panaji and wandered the quaint Mediterranean-style streets – houses nicely painted in bright pinks and blues with climbing plants across the walls. We enjoyed the excellent Goan sausages and prawn Xacuti (Goan curry), but resisted the temptation to join one of the many Indian party boats that spend the evening cruising the river, lit up in neon, providing a mobile disco and booze cruise experience.

From Panaji, National Highway 17 stretches all the way down the coast, so we have gradually made our way south, pulling off the Highway or the coast road to explore various beaches along the way. We spent a few nights in Colva, an old fishing village which still has lots of fishermen but now also has a fair number of package tourists (and an English themed sports bar, complete with full English breakfast) thrown into the mix. We stayed outside the main village near a beach bar with a fantastic sea view, cheap beer and Goan prawn curry; but from time to time we went into town, which got busier over the weekend as locals came to the coast to celebrate Diwali by letting off fire crackers and eating from various stalls set up along the beach. Another beach stop was at Palolem, a famous and very picturesque curved beach lined with dense palm trees, marred only by the huge numbers of beach huts which are erected each year to provide accommodation for the masses of tourists who descend between November and March. But we have plumped to spend most of our time here in Agonda, because there are no crowds, the bay is a beautiful place to swim and there is a lovely breeze to knock the edge off the (still searing) heat. Eventually, though, we will have to drag ourselves away and head down the coast to Kerala. We have a few more beers and prawn curries to fit in before then, though…..

02 November 2007

Bombay Dreams: Living like Kings

We were reluctant to leave Jaisalmer and the desert: we had both really enjoyed the change of scenery, the incredibly colourful dress and experiencing the local way of life. We hit the road east back towards Jodphur and then south towards the celebrated Jain Temples at Ranakpur.

Hidden away in a range of wooded hills in southern Rajasthan, Ranakpur is a really interesting complex of ornately carved white temples. The carvings include Buddah-like seated figures adorned with rather scary reflective eyes; big balloon-breasted dancers; stately elephants; and lots of intricate columns. The repeated patterns throughout the complex are particularly striking, with whole banks of the same carving repeated numerous times in a small area to great effect.

Deeper into the hills, we visited Kumbalgarh: a large sprawling fairy-tale stone fort perched on a high hilltop, proudly boasting a 36km surrounding wall. The views across the hazy surrounding area were impressive, and at an altitude of 1,100m we enjoyed the fresh breeze. The only slight downside was the presence of a group of riotous, whooping Indian school children who seemed to find European tourists far more interesting than the fort itself.

Our final stop in Rajasthan was the town of Udaipur, which is the home of a famous Lake Palace, now a luxury hotel. During our time in the town, we enjoyed a boat trip on the lake and a lovely meal on a terrace overlooking the lake and the stone City Palace façade. Udaipur boasts one of the largest of the Rajasthani palaces, but it was whilst walking around this that we realised we have now reached the limit of our palace appreciation skills and are suffering from Indian palace fatigue. We instead spent lots of time relaxing and bracing ourselves for the 800km journey south to Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay). On the downside, Udaipur is incredibly touristy and reams of cafes selling bad banana pancakes to appeal to streams of Lonely Planet readers isn’t really why we came to India. The Lake Palace is rather plain and the lake itself is pretty filthy and quite dried up, so somehow it seemed a little underwhelming. The sheer number of tickets that we were forced to buy to see anything in town (three to get into the palace, for example) helped to contribute to our ongoing underlying feeling that few people here are genuinely friendly. Their seemingly friendly conversations are usually just disguised sales pitches or demands for money. So different to so many of the countries where we have been earlier on this trip.

We set off bright and breezy from Udaipur towards Mumbai and in the end the journey south wasn’t too bad, helped in no small part by two stretches of new expressway. We managed 500km on the first day before collapsing exhausted in the van in an oh-so-glamorous service station car park, where they insisted on a playing (very loudly) a Hindi Bollywood movie on a big outdoor screen all night. The next day’s drive was slightly more frustrating. We tried to negotiate our way around Mumbai to the small ferry port of Mandwa, so as to avoid driving in the city centre. Unfortunately, following the signposts proved to be a mistake as they took us into heaps of traffic: at one point it took three hours to drive 35km (20 miles). Amazingly, though, we managed to hold off on opening our final pack of Haribo Tangfastics, our final supply of UK sweeties, which we are still saving for a real crisis moment.

When we eventually reached Mandwa’s sandy beach, it was the first time we had seen the sea since Ukraine. The next morning we took the early commuter ferry into the centre of Mumbai. We arrived into the city at the Gateway of India, a large stone monument on the waterfront which was built to commemorate the visit of King George V in 1911. All very dramatic. Mumbai is so different to anywhere else we have been in India. The city centre has a far more European feel, with pavements, vaguely orderly traffic and incredible colonial architecture. It seems really civilised and cosmopolitan. In the city centre, at least, there seems to be a lot more money kicking around than in your average Indian town or city (no doubt the huge slums on the way out to the airport tell a very different story, though). Our main activity has been wandering the streets and soaking up the atmosphere, occasionally dropping into an air conditioned coffee shop for a break from the searing, humid heat. A highlight was visiting the Oval Maiden, a large grassy meadow where the only activity allowed is playing cricket. Countless impromptu games take place in the sunshine in the imposing shadow of the impressive, gothic High Court and Bombay University buildings (the later has an 80m tall, Big Ben style clock tower). I developed a taste for fresh sugar cane juice, which appears to be the refresher of choice for cooling down the cricketers – at only six rupees (7.5p) for a half litre “Jombo” glass it was just the job.

For our final night in town we decided to bite the bullet, blow the budget and treat ourselves to an early joint 30th birthday present: a night at the luxury Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. The Taj is an amazing building located on the harbour right next to the Gateway of India. The whole place is steeped in history, with black and white photos of the Queen and all the other digantaries who have stayed here over the years. On arrival, we were greeted by a red carpet, photographers and a long row of smart black cars outside the hotel. Sadly this wasn’t all because they had heard that we were arriving: the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is staying on the same floor as us and the whole place is crawling with police and her enormous German bodyguards. We have spent the last 24 hours revelling in luxury: room service, films on demand, an enormous shower and a huge comfy bed, all with a beautiful view out over the Gateway and the harbour. It’s a tough life this travelling lark!! An amazing location in which to contemplate the prospect of reaching the grand old age of thirty…..