Monday, 28 March 2011

India - The first really, really crazy man

March 24-25

Hello everyone!

I neglected to mention last time that I became rather fragile whilst in Mysore. It was something I ate on that Holi day in Bangalore. Lots of bananas and Imodium carried me through Mysore, as well as the knowledge that I always had a nice, Western toilet nearby at my guesthouse.

This reassurance vanished when I reached Gokarna, a small collection of beaches in between Goa and Kerala on the West coast. As usual, my method of washing was a bucket and jug job – I haven’t had a ‘shower’ since Mumbai – but, aside from once on a train, I hadn’t had to face down one of the demons of this trip. The squatter toilet.

My respect for women has risen to immeasurable levels after this realisation that female toilets in much of Asia will be limited to these holes in the floor. Sure, I’ve used them to pee numerous times – but I could stand. And at most places to stay, I usually had my backup, my safety net.

Not this time. This is the price you pay when your bed is Rs100 – less than £1.50 – a night, and on the beach. A quiet, beautiful beach. Eerily quiet at times, as this one, called Om Beach as it is in the shape of that symbol, was apparently the hub of backpacker and social activity. All I found were crazy Indians jumping into the strong waves, and hippies.

So many hippies. The infamous drum sellers should come here for a quick rupee. It’s a crowd that, with my background as a politics graduate, I struggle to assimilate into smoothly. Luckily I met an English guy on the horrific thirteen-hour bus up to Gokarna from Mysore, so I hung out with him and his friends. All of them are on a gap year before starting university. What a place to spend it in. I could not have travelled India at 18, simple as that.

I was due to meet these four guys, and an English girl called Rachel who they also collected, for dinner on the first night. One problem needed to be negotiated. I mentioned earlier that Gokarna is made up of an assortment of beaches. Each beach is roughly two kilometres apart, separated by imperious, jagged, dangerous cliff face. The others had told me that there was a trail connecting Om Beach to the town, where they were staying. It was the path that they had taken to find me on Om, and they stated proudly that it took between thirty and forty-five minutes.

With this knowledge I tried to locate this trail at 6pm, an hour before sunset, to use the internet before meeting folks at 8. It is fair to say that I completely missed it. I’m sure – and it was later verified for me after I had dragged my exhausted body into town – that the trail does not involve climbing those same cliffs aforementioned. I know I have a tendency to exaggerate at time for dramatic effect, but I was becoming increasingly scared as darkness covered the cliffs in a thick, black blanket. I guess you could say that it was lucky I had used the squatter earlier in the day.

Clambering over razor-sharp edges with broken flip-flops in the dark, with only the glow of my iPod dimly lighting the way, is not a fun experience. I got to the stage where I was considering finding cover amongst the rock to sleep. To survive. I was hungry – a spinach and mushroom burger (we had to know what it looked like, let alone for the taste) only takes you so far over the crevasse. Yet I eventually, somehow, dragged myself onto Kudle Beach, and then gave up to take a rickshaw – the easy, sensible way to commute between beaches – to town, where I greeted the others half an hour late. I was greeted with concern. Then laughter at my idiocy.

I also failed to locate the trail when I went to hang out with Rachel the next morning: instead, I ended up walking along the blazing road in those broken flip-flops for ninety minutes. Still, a personal best by almost an hour. Whilst planning our travels, an older man with slicked-back greyish hair, a wispy beard and googly eyes asked us if we wanted any tips. We said yes.

Two and a half hours later, with Rachel wearily resting her head on her palm and me slumped in my chair, our man was ranting on about spirituality being practicality, the need to find our various forms of yogi, and demanding that we find clarity. He was, bluntly, a mentalist.

Not that yogi! I have to stress that he was a fascinating gentleman. A man with such power in those googly eyes that you feel a sense of intimidation and also inner strength. I listened to him intently. The problem is, when someone talks at you for such a long period of time, your memory becomes rather selective. What stuck with me were not the numerous philosophical ideas I often agreed with, but the few statements that I took issue with, or was stunned into shock by. Here are three examples:

1) He told me that I had come here to give and receive, and that I should be selfish and not do as others want me to. Fair point, except that he stated I had not come here for the cricket, and that I should not watch cricket anymore as ‘It is not India’ and I am merely ‘following the masses’. Wrong on all counts, brother.

2) He told me that, when I return home, I should kneel down and touch the feet of my parents, to show that I love and cherish them. No. Firstly, my Dad would probably kick me if I attempted this. But seriously, my parents love me and would move heaven and earth for me, and it is a mutual feeling. It is why I’m considering shortening this trip to return so I can help them move house. I don’t need a futile gesture or gift to prove to someone that I love them.

3) He referred to Kristina constantly as ‘my wife’. Why? It is because I ‘seem like a man who will not rent a girl, but buy one and keep one forever’. I took great pleasure in telling her this, choking back the laughter all the while. Who knows about the future, but the M word is not something that crosses my mind at this young stage of my life!

A passionate, intelligent and genteel man, I like him. I respected him, and he often was gushing in his praise for us throughout his lecture. Yet, in spite of his wishes, I didn’t stay away from ‘harmful substances’ later that day, and did not stay in Gokarna longer than that night. It’s strange writing such a long blog about a place where I seemingly accomplished so little. But I met good people, was victorious over my toilet concerns, and was able to relax. I even saw a cow eat someone’s book. But this place will be, for me, forever associated with two C’s – the cliffs and the crazy.

Love you all


India - The first Indian palace

March 21-23

Hello everyone!

Following two megacities, I decided to return south. I boarded a train and, after a delightful conversation with Bassapa, a local who worked in Singapore, I disembarked in Mysore. Mysore, the backwater and home of a mere 800,000 people.

I met many of the indigenous population, and many interesting characters. I spent some time in the Devaraja Market, which was awash with colour and crackling with the screeches of salesmen and women. A young boy caught my attention, and I followed him to his father’s perfume shop. I spent over half an hour chatting to him, drinking chai as his son demonstrated the art attached to the creation of incense sticks.

Another man later conversed with me in a futile attempt to lure me into his perfume shop by asking where I was from. And then telling me he liked Geordies. ‘Wye aye, man’. I told him he could also say ‘pet’ instead of ‘man’. Still a teacher at heart. He dealt his final hand by offering me the special price. The discount price. The ASDA price. He didn’t slap his pocket, though – if he had, he would have had a sale.

Other locals were less amiable. One, who alerted me by name-checking the Stereophonics as I walked by, soon offered to take me somewhere. A coffee house. But not one of those places where you go to…you know…drink coffee. I knew about this scam, but found it particularly funny that he claimed it was legal to carry a gram in Mysore, whilst offering me ten times that figure.

This wasn’t the only grandiose claim from a local, either. I got into a heated argument with a rickshaw driver who wanted to convince me that the palace was in excess of two kilometres away. My Bible stated it was 400m. It was slightly unnerving that, when I reached the entrance after a stroll totalling a figure somewhere in between our two extravagant claims, he was stood at the gate, wanting to mock me. I resisted the temptation to wave the money I’d preserved in his face, and proceeded into the palace.

Aah, the palace. I have thus far abstained from talking about one of the beautiful palatial structures I have ever laid my chocolate-brown eyes upon…and will continue to do so for a little while longer. As grand as it may be, there are other sights here. After a delightful conversation with some cheeky college students – one of whom claimed, in spite of his youthful appearance and demeanour, that he was completing a PhD, a claim which brought roars of laughter from all sides – I boarded a bus that scaled the imperious Chatmundi Hill. Looming over the bustling city below, it possesses a quiet air of elegance. As well a temple and a bull.

OK, back to the main event. Mysore Palace, also known as Maharaja’s Palace, was the old seat of the prestigious Wodeyar family. The grounds have a similarity to those of Buckingham Palace, yet the actual building seems to possess more flamboyance and character. Also, I would stake some limbs on Queen Liz’s house not having a shop selling copper cups that cure fatness, mental weakness and ‘monthly ladies problem’.

Cameras are not allowed to be used inside the building – I saw a young man have his phone confiscated, and amongst the chatter I heard ‘police station, two days’. But its beauty, ranging from the skill of the artistry in the military oil paintings, through the serene, cool blue plaza, and to the power and mastery of the Durbar Hall, filled with columns and decorated with wreaths and artwork of mythical creatures. From here, you can see the entrance, and the long, plain approach to the palace itself. Majestic.

Mysore was a good place to visit. Many people opt to visit Hampi instead, which regrettably I will fail to do, but those travellers miss out on the charm and eagerness of the wonderful people that live in this place. All living in the shadow of a large hill, and one of the most regal and stunning palaces I have had the pleasure of seeing.

Love you all


Saturday, 26 March 2011

India - The first Holi festival

March 18-21

Hello everyone!

After the hustle and bustle of Mumbai, many people would head to a more secluded area of India to recharge and reflect. Well, as secluded as possible considering the one-billion-plus population. But not me. From Mumbai I headed back south, but also inland, to India’s very own silicon valley – Bangalore.

A friend I worked with in the casino, Kev, is from this city. It is smaller than Mumbai, but a population of almost 6 million people allows Bangalore – which means ‘Town of Boiled Beans’ – is a giant in its own right. It doesn’t really fit into any stereotypes that could be associated with the places I have been to in India thus far…it’s all a bit Western, here…

Not as Western as other places in Asia – step forward Singapore – but a bit of a surprise. Bangalore is one of the more affluent cities in India, yet manages to maintain a down-to-earth charm. The city itself is very green, with the Lalbagh Botanical Gardens eerily quiet, save for the chirping of the birds in the trees. That peace is violently crushed just outside the greenery, however. It was at this gate that a cyclist who was cycling the wrong way down a one-way street opted to smash into me. At least it wasn’t a motorbike, eh.

The people, as ever, were very friendly. An elderly man on the crowded, sweat-infused bus insisted I sit next to him and listen to him declare his unhappiness at the United States. Men in restaurants would debate the World Cup. Various people aided me in finding my coach on the train I took to leave the city, on which a man who used to live in Singapore chatted with me enthusiastically before buying me chai, flatly refused my attempts to pay for it. Kids on the street shouted ‘India! India!’ in my direction as I strolled slowly along the streets in my Indian cricket top. These occurrences are making this trip so enjoyable and fulfilling.

It also keeps me sociable. Travelling alone is harder in India than in many other places I have ventured to. A combination of a lack of hostels and a lack of common meeting points – bars – renders it difficult to meet other travellers. So any social contact I experience is good, even though it has been nice just to sit in my room – complete with water bucket as shower – and watch the cricket on TV, drifting away from the cacophonic roars of the outside world.

There was one particularly social day that occurred whilst I was in Bangalore. Hindus have numerous festivals, but to my unknowing mind there was only one which I figured was truly important – Diwali. Of course, there are many more, and I was in Bangalore for a fiesta known as Holi. I don’t know the story behind it – go on Wiki if you’re desperate – but the main theme of this day is to be showered with coloured powder that then refuses to wash off.

It was a riotous day. I extended my tight budget to go to a Holi event in the grounds of a hotel. Free food and alcohol – can’t go wrong! There were a few Westerners milling around who I spoke to – many of them work in the city’s infamous IT sector. I entered with three middle-aged men from Chesire, and we were immediately offered bhang milk, which has a very mellowing effect on the body.

The scorching sun beat down on the grounds of the hotel as locals piled in and raced to small circular tables, each holding colourful, vibrant powders. The idea is that you bless the other person by putting powder on them. In reality, you have a few beers and then launch it at each other. Getting the beer to relax your mind sufficiently to throw potentially poisonous powder into another person’s eyes was a tall order, however, as you can see from the outstretched hands below.

If you got too hot, there was a dancefloor near to the entrance where you could cool off. That sounds contradictory, I know. But when the dancefloor has four hoses lightly spraying cool water onto its revellers, it is a refreshing and joyous experience. Even when one of the final songs they played was ‘Summer of 69’. Gets everywhere, that Bryan Adams.

It was a fantastic day, a wonderful occasion filled with smiles of unrivalled joy and happiness. Such a festival would be a disaster in the UK – I can imagine the headlines in the Daily Mail already – but it was a great experience, and arguably my best day in India thus far. As a result, I leave Bangalore with fond memories…and purple powder stained into my head which I just cannot wash off. Happy Holi!

Love you all


Friday, 25 March 2011

India - The first Bollywood movie set

March 16

Hello everyone!

I forgot to mention last time that I changed hostels. I was initially staying in the Salvation Army hostel. I then saw the room, and decided to move after our sightseeing. When we returned from the Taj hotel, the security guard at the Salvation Army beckoned me over, and then asked me a question. ‘You want Bollywood?’

Now normally I would be hesitant in agreeing to anything a strange old man asked me, but I had been told about this. To fill in those who are clueless, Bollywood is the home of India’s burgeoning film industry. There are numerous rival companies, very much like its American equivalent. Unlike Hollywood, however, the Indian companies need Western actors to use in the background as extras and, well, there aren’t as many here as there are in L.A. So what they do is they scout the Colaba area of Mumbai looking for white people, who they will pay Rs500 for a day’s work.

I was told that I would be picked up at 8 the following morning. At 8.15, a large man drove up to the side and leant his frame out of the window to tell me that I would be picked up at 10.30. I walked around the area, and saw a prettier side of Mumbai to what I had expected before my arrival, and then returned for the stated time.

This time a different man approached me, and led me around the corner onto a main street, where a rickety bus was waiting. The tension gripping my body eased when I saw that there were lots of other foreigners on the bus. After driving around for another half an hour, during which time they picked up the Aussie guy I had talked to in the hostel the previous night, and then we were off to Bollywood!

Well, to a studio of a Bollywood company, at least. Mehboob Studios. Yes, it’s an interesting name. As was the name of the film we were to be involved in – Double Dhamaal. No idea what it means, but apparently it will be an ‘action comedy’ when released, starring those pictured below. With all of the Bollywood singing and dancing, of course. At this point I will apologise for the poor quality of the photos – you weren’t supposed to take any, so it was difficult to get good ones.

We spent the first hour or so watching the stars and dancers performing a routine. Lots of colour and choreography, complete with diva star in the middle. Apparently the female lead is a former Miss Universe. The lads agreed: the girls just commented on how irritating she was. Both ideas were true. There was a moment when we took a break – one of many, it turned out – and people sat down on the floor. Except for her. She got a chair. Which she then turned to face away from everybody in the room. Diva with a capital D.

The setting she had refused to look towards was a Hong Kong casino. As a result, everybody had to be dressed to be seen as fit for purpose. The costumes were the first thing that we were involved in. The girls were in interesting dresses, and the boys were in suits. Some suits were jazzier than others, and most agreed that I had unfortunately won the gold medal for that particular competition. Just look at the suit they had picked out for me! I do wish I could have taken it home and worn it out just the once, just to see how people react to an all-peach number. Very well, I have no doubt.

So lots of Westerners (and Russians, who we were trying to decide if they count as Western or not) were on the floor of this lavish set, waiting for orders. Waiting was a common theme of the day. Waiting for the diva to have the curly thing taken out of her hair. Waiting for the dancers to get the moves just right. Waiting to be given a role which was then often changed on the next take, resulting in someone being on the other side of the room. It didn’t seem particularly organised.

My role was initially on one of the side blackjack tables. One which didn’t have a dealer, a fact that they didn’t spot until they did a practice run. After a massive reshuffle, I was urged elsewhere. Into the middle. Seemingly in line with the camera. We couldn’t work out whether we would actually be in shot, but the excitement rushed through the four of us who were selected to dance inbetween the camera and the stars.

This excitement turned to weariness and irritation when they kept on doing a take of the same dance. On another break – which was for the diva’s stunt double, who turned out to be English, to do the daring act of…the hula hoop – we opted to play roulette for an hour. And also to comment on another, larger choreographer in a very immature way. I will never be able to eat a chapatti when Fatman Scoop is on the TV, and I am glad that only one other person will understand why. I stayed awake though, unlike some...

We were provided with food, chai, water and, when they decided to give up as the male dancers just could not get the moves right, our money. We finished at around 9pm, and after reluctantly (ha) giving back the suit I had sweated through all day, and the shoes I had worn with no socks which seemingly had swimming pools inside, we were returning to our respective hostels. A tiring but wonderful experience, in which I met lots of fascinating people and got an insight into a phenomenon of an industry. And potentially became a star, whenever that movie gets released.

Love you all