A Travellerspoint blog

Siquijor and Bohol

Philippines photos

The final two islands I visited on my journey through the Philippines were Siquijor and Bohol in the Western Visayas. Despite their relative proximity and similar naturalistic compositions, Siquijor and Bohol are emblematic of how each Philippine island boasts a unique culture and identity. Siquijor has a population dispersed in several small towns around the island and a relaxed traveller scene. Meanwhile, Bohol is plagued by mass tourism and its tropical island vibes are interrupted by the fumes of the major urban centre of Tagbilaran City. I was somewhat disappointed by Bohol, which is overhyped as one of the premier destinations in the Philippines because of the Chocolate Hills and tarsiers. The “undiscovered” island of Siquijor however was among my favourite destinations in the
archipelago.

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Blindingly bright blue skies eminently helped with my impressions of Siquijor. After several days of solid rain and utter saturation in Dumaguete and Apo Island, I was desperate to bake in the sun and finally have my foul smelling shoes and socks dry. I was delighted on the ferry to Siquijor and in the subsequent days by the clear weather and its transformative impact on my enjoyment of this coastal destination. Siquijor is a small and sparsely populated island, with minimal public transport and yet a surprisingly well maintained road network. The island is therefore ideally explored by motorcycle, although I maintained my reluctance to engage in such a mode and instead opted to walk after the initial tuk-tuk ride. Most tourists stay at hostels and guesthouses strung along the island’s circulation road either side of San Juan in Siquijor’s south-west. I stayed in a quirky hostel up a hill from the road and nestled within thick vegetation, which was owned by a German guy and his Filipino partner. The couple operated a very relaxed, open-air hostel with a homely vibe and pack of obedient dogs protective of guests. I would soon discover that numerous expats live on Siquijor, attracted to the island’s sedentary pace and away from the tourist hordes.

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Siquijor was one of the few destinations I travelled to in the Philippines where beautiful beaches and coral gardens could be accessed without needing to hire a boat or join a tour. The southern part of the island is completely fringed by powdery sand beaches that are absent of pollution or crowds and idyllic for loitering. I spent ample time snorkelling through pristine water and above clusters of colourful corals and beds of seagrass while stalking schools of fish. I decided not to burden myself with the obligations of an itinerary to see all of Siquijor, and instead spent three blissful days enjoying the beaches exclusively in the south. I even attempted a few morning runs, though the searing humidity quickly hindered those ambitions.

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I caught the ferry to Bohol’s main port in Tagbilaran City and immediately continued into the island’s hinterland. I stayed at a lovely rural hostel on a property perched beside the slow-moving Loboc River. The showers and toilets were among the most impressive bathing facilities I have ever seen: private, outdoor “rooms” with bamboo piping and tropical landscaping. The quaint riverside town of Loboc features the shell of an historic Spanish-era church and a road bridge that leads to nowhere. I went hiking in the forested hills surrounding the town to reach a sequence of monumental crucifixes on the ridge lines. On some of the trails, it seemed as though I was the first person to hike them in months as the vegetation occasionally obscured the trails and cobwebs were regularly walked into head first. The views from the top were surprisingly comprehensive as I could see most of the southern part of Bohol including Tagbilaran City.

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From Loboc, I used the local bus network to visit Bohol’s two iconic attractions. The bus rides were rather pleasant, as the road bisected a “man-made”rainforest and we passed paddy fields, small villages and the river. We eventually reached the bizarre landscape of the Chocolate Hills at the centre of the island. As far as the eye can see, the otherwise flat and forested landscape is interspersed by perfectly shaped conical hills with brownish hues. While the scenery is intriguing, its not really an interactive attraction and 20 minutes at the view point therefore suffices. I then visited the Tarsier Sanctuary to view the world’s smallest primates, which are only found on Bohol. Tarsiers are nocturnal creatures the size of a clenched fist and with disproportionately large eyes. The wrap their elongated fingers and toes around slender branches and sleep in this position. When I went to the sanctuary I saw about half a dozen tarsiers, along with thousands of obnoxious Chinese tourists.

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With minimal culinary options beyond the expensive and opportunistic hostel, I left the serenity of Loboc early and spend 1 night in the polluted capital, Tagbilaran City. Although Tagbilaran was just as underwhelming as expected, I did enjoy my best hostel experience in the Philippines. The hostel occupies arguably the city’s most beautiful and historic building; a 1950s mansion set within a tropical garden in the centre of Tagbilaran City. The Filipino owner grew up in the house and inherited it from her father. After living in the US for decades, she and her American husband decided to return to Bohol for their son to be surrounded by family, as he has a disability. Last year, they decided to repurpose the house and have since created an incredible (and very affordable) “home-away-from-home” vibe for weary travellers. The idea occurred to them after joyfully hosting a random American backpacker in their regular house and realised there was an intriguing opportunity. The hostel owners are eminently suited to their roles; they love indulging in long and passionate conversations and embrace all of their guests like family. I only stayed for one night but the farewell was emotional and full of overtures for assistance to reach my next destination. My impressions are that the hostel is essentially operated as a not-for-profit organisation (they own other businesses for their income), allowing them to be surrounded by young, international people and breath new life into the old house.

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Panglao is a small island located just off Tagbilaran City. The island is the constituent hub of tourist activity in Bohol, with visitors staying at tropical beaches around the island. I stayed at a mellow hostel on an organic farm in the hinterland of the island and away from the main tourist drag. While the hostel’s peacefulness and spaciousness were appealing, the 60 minute walk / 25 minute run in the blazing sun / 15 minute helmet-less motorcycle taxi ride (I tried all of the above!) was rather irritating. Nevertheless, the nearby beach was spectacular with its pristine water and white, powdery sands. I went swimming there on my last day on Bohol but quickly spotted what I thought could be a box jellyfish and escaped immediately.

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While staying on Panglao, I went on my second diving excursion of the Philippines. Just like in Coron, I surprised myself with how adept I seemed to be at the basics of diving, particularly with respect to maintaining my buoyancy. However, I still need to focus on slower breathing, as my tank depleted of oxygen faster than my dive partners’. We dived at 3 sites around the reef walls of Balicasag and observed a brilliant array of corals. On the first two dives, we saw 5 huge turtles gliding through the water – one of the great sights of the natural world. On the third dive, we were surrounded by a profusion of fish, including a vast school of trevally moving as a 15m column. Just like my experience shipwreck diving in Coron, the dive tour left me with a thrilling buzz and keenness to dive on every overseas adventure.

The Philippines is a vast and geographically complex country, so 1 month was grossly inadequate to experience everything the archipelago of 7,000 islands has to offer. The Philippines rivals Indonesia as the most naturally spectacular country in East Asia, the country’s culture, architecture and cuisine pales in comparison to its neighbours. Consequently, I’ve had mixed impressions reflecting on the Philippines, although diving, snorkelling, lazying on pristine beaches and canyoning certainly made visiting worthwhile.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 13:52 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Cebu and Dumaguete

Draft

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Palawan

Philippines photos

When travellers think of the Philippines, they conjure images of paradisiacal islands of white beaches, enigmatic karst formations, verdant interiors and turquoise waters. The archipelago is certainly peppered with such places, although Palawan is cited as the archetypal example. Consequently, while backpacking itineraries are unusually varied in the Philippines due to its unique geography, an absolute staple destination is the spear shaped island located in the far west of the primary island groups. The tourist hordes flock to Palawan to experience the perceived exquisite majesty of its nature, flying or ferrying into the diminutive and physically constrained township of El Nido. Yet with inadequate infrastructure provisions and environmental mismanagement, the island’s former serenity has been compromised by the crowds. Personally, I would argue Palawan needn’t be considered an “unmissable” Philippine destination, especially considering the inconvenience of travelling there.

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El Nido certainly occupies a sublime location, as the town is sandwiched between sheer karst mountains and the coastline. Unfortunately though, the settlement is bereft of cultural authenticity as it is purely defined by the tourism industry it exists to serve. Furthermore, excessive and rapid development in recent years has polluted the beaches and rendered the immediate off-shore waters to be unsafe for swimming. Despite the intensity of touristic activity, infrastructure and services in El Nido are astonishingly poor. Electrical blackouts are common, Wifi is either non-existent or extremely slow, and the only ATM in town is unreliable. I find the last point particularly mind-boggling considering El Nido’s extreme isolation and its utter dependence on tourism financially – surely it would be logical to prioritise the facilitation of cash withdrawal by foreigners in order for them to spend!

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El Nido’s incessant growth in popularity is due to the surrounding archipelago, which constitutes perhaps the most impressive scenery in the country. A melange of small karst islands are scattered off the northern Palawan coast and are easily accessible by boat from El Nido. I went on two boat tours to explore the area and was definitely impressed by the beautiful scenery. The photos were somewhat compromised though by my camera malfunctioning and the cavalcade of tourists following identical itineraries. While most tourists were visually defined by their capitulation to wearing bright orange lifesaver vests, I was fairly confident of my swimming abilities in the still and crystalline waters and instead developed a vivid red back. The stops on each day included pristine, powdery sand beaches, views of dramatic, spiky karst formations and swimming into lagoons almost fully enclosed by karst rock walls. The highlights though were snorkelling above magnificent coral gardens and along reef walls with incredible water clarity. I saw a potpourri of tropical fish, including swarms of (harmless) jellyfish around unsuspecting tourists and numerous lionfish.

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People often ask me why I like to travel on my own. Surely it would be a lonesome ordeal, bereft of conversation and companionship? Invariably I’ve found the opposite is true. By backpacking independently and staying in dormitories, you’re presented to other travellers as approachable and in need of company. Consequently, you meet new people from around the world every day. This is usually a brilliant outcome and a constituent reason as to why I travel – although sometimes it can be irritating. I actually quite enjoy a degree of solitude, if for no other reason than to write this burdensome blog. No doubt readers will be shocked to discover these entries do not magically materialise themselves, but rather take an inexorable amount of time to produce. So there’s nothing worse than checking-in after a long day, desiring only to eat dinner, write and crash, and meeting a chatty clinger in the dormitory.

A perfect example of this painful situation occurred when I arrived at my hostel in El Nido. Lurking on the bunk bed below mine in search of social prey was a Swedish guy I would soon find terribly annoying. While I desperately needed to attend the lavatory and take a shower, he began rambling incessantly about his trip and plans for the evening, which I was suddenly a part of. An hour later I managed to sneak out of the hostel, only to bump into him around the corner. My heart sank in that moment as I foresaw the loss of my evening. He asked if he could join me for dinner, which I begrudgingly accepted. We ate at a street-side falafel stand and met a lovely British couple. He invited them for a drink at a bar him and I were apparently bound for, although I had no recollection of agreeing to this. He attempted to purchase the first round and thereby rope us into a lengthy evening, although the British couple deftly avoided this predicament by claiming they had insufficient funds to partake in rounds. When the British couple departed at 9:30pm, the Swede exalted that he avoids “investing” in couples as they always depart hours earlier than he would deem satisfactory. He emphasised, with a somewhat manic expression, how social “investments” are incredibly important to him while backpacking. Chillingly, I realised I was the “investment” that evening. Purely out of sympathy, I decided to have one more round with him and then disappear. After suffering through a story about how he had apparently confronted an angry bear in the wild and his claim that bears don’t actually kill people, he connected us to a large French group and immediately initiated drinking games. My participation was only fleeting as I used the proceedings to extricate myself from his company.

Port Barton was easily my preferred destination in Palawan. To think I nearly listened to the Swede who moaned there was nothing to do. Indeed, Port Barton is a sleepy hollow absent of the WOW-factor scenery, snorkelling and nightlife of El Nido. But it boasts a beautiful sand beach, jungly backdrop, cheap accommodation, excellent eateries and a very friendly village. Port Barton is therefore ideal for reading, writing and playing cards, the simple pleasures in life, which is exactly what I wanted after 6 consecutive days of 6 hours or more on boats. Port Barton is one of those rare destinations that possesses tourist facilities and an international vibe, without being stifled by commercialisation and the masses. The village consists of a spacious, grid-like layout with dirt (muddy) roads and colourful, airy buildings nestled within thick vegetation. The palm fringed beaches harbours a fleet of bright wooden longboats locals use for fishing. In Port Barton, I rendezvoused with German Eric and Canadian Emily whom I had met in El Nido. After recounting weird Swedish man stories, we explored Port Barton’s nightlife. A night market manifested near the village centre, which notably consisted of half a dozen gambling tables. Along with crowds of other tourists, we watched the locals engage intensely in the games. There was also a table for children (smaller buy-in), where we watched one kid amass a small fortune of notes. Many villagers also congregated at the basketball stadium to watch the local teams play. Basketball courts in Philippine villagers are often concrete and undercover (though open-air) and serve as key community spaces, as basketball is one of the national sports. The other national sport is cock fighting, which was evident in Port Barton by the plethora of roosters leashed in front yards.

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Aside from impressive feasts concocted at the back of the tiny tour boats, the food I ate in El Nido was routinely lacklustre. Not so in Port Barton, where the restaurants were cheaper and substantially better. At my guesthouse, I sampled a rare Filipino vegetarian dish I had yet to encounter that combined two of my favourite ingredients: egg and eggplant! The delectable eggplant omelette consisted of a long, slender eggplant butterflied and cooked in eggs. At a nearby guesthouse, I had fish served in a superb curry sauce (heavy on the turmeric, light on the chilli), which was definitely the best fish I ate in the Philippines. Port Barton though was especially distinguished for its international food scene. Sean would be pleased to read I ate at a vegetarian establishment not once but twice (!). I enjoyed a smashing veggie burger made from chickpeas and ubay (purple sweet potato) with real bread, real cheese and salty roasted potatoes; homemade green tea ice-cream latte (I have finally discovered a palatable coffee drink); and a generous portion of shakshuka (not quite as moorish as my rendition though) with ciabatta and a big salad (great Seinfeld episode – although aren’t they all?). Eric, Emily and I went to an atmospheric pizza restaurant (also vegetarian) that featured an open-aired kitchen, wood-fired oven, stockpiles of quality ingredients, outdoor dining and gargantuan thin-crust pizzas. The restaurant could easily have been located in the Italian countryside. The only two hours I spent in Puerta Princesa, the island’s largest city and transportation hub, I devoted exhaustingly to discover a noodle soup variant supposedly unique to the city – which proved to be disappointing endeavour.

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Palawan is relatively difficult and expensive to travel to and inadequately equipped to cater for its number of visitors. While the beaches and attractions near El Nido are spectacular, more accessible destinations in the Philippines offer similar allures. Devoting as much time as possible to exploring the myriad islands of the Visayas would be a more rewarding use of limited time in the Philippines.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Philippines photos

Posted by Liamps 00:16 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Coron

Philippines photos

While heinous weather inundated most of the Philippine archipelago in the new year, I was fortunate enough to be “stuck” on seemingly the only island unaffected: Busuanga. I did endure a spattering of rain and inconveniently a cancelled boat trip due to the coast guard’s concerns about treacherous waves, but I was pleased not to be marooned to the confines of my guesthouse as tourists were elsewhere in the country. Busuanga is located in the west of the Philippines near Palawan and is commonly, though incorrectly, referred to as Coron. Coron is actually the name of the major town on Busuanga and also, confusingly, a protected island just off the coast. Most tourists stay in Coron Town and use it as a base to explore the interior of Busuanga, neighbouring islands in the Calamian Group and subaqueous attractions such as Japanese shipwrecks and coral reefs.

I flew to Busuanga on New Year’s Day and spent five nights on the island. The flight from Manila consisted of games and prizes for the passengers (the cabin crew were far too excited - it was a total snoozefest) and arrived half an hour early; slightly too punctual for the integrity of the schedule not to be questioned. I sat next to Frenchman Léo on the minivan into town, although it was one of those awkward situations where neither of us had the audacity to initiate conversation and we sat in silence. When I arrived in Coron Town, I inspected two hostels constructed on wooden stilts above the seawater. Despite romanticisms about such an arrangement in the tropics, the repugnant smell from the tepid water was grossly off-putting and I quickly opted for a guesthouse on land. In the afternoon, I climbed to the top of a viewpoint above Coron Town and again crossed paths with Léo, only on this occasion we properly met. Léo was holidaying from the tiresome and hierarchical realm of Japanese commerce in Tokyo and was also 26 – the first of what seemed like an eternity of backpackers I would met in the Philippines sharing the same age.

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The coast guard cautiously cancelled all maritime journeys the following day as a typhoon raged across the south of the Philippines. With our island-hopping tour postponed, I resolved to explore the interior of Busuanga. I decided to attempt to hike to the summit of the island’s highest mountain, which I estimated could be achieved just prior to sunset. Within 10 minutes of walking out of the town centre, I was in a verdant countryside of lush pastures, palm trees, thick vegetation, muddy dirt roads and decaying houses. I had easily escaped the tourists hordes of Coron Town and only saw two other Westerners for three hours. I passed tiny villages with quaint Catholic churches and numerous smiling locals surprised to see a tourist travelling through on foot. I nearly missed the inconspicuous turn-off for the mountain, though fortunately a bunch of friendly children guided me in the right direction. However, I abandoned my plans near the base as a rain clouds suddenly obscured the peak, which would have rendered the ascent worthless. I continued walking to a beach frequented by Filipino families, but was unimpressed by the lack of sand and murky waters. En route, I was stopped by a group of boys playing basketball. Initially gobsmacked by my height, my stature was quickly superseded for their attention by the athleticism of an Israeli guy who could dunk. In the late afternoon, I rejuvenated my weary body at a thermal hot spring adjacent to the coast (alongside hundreds of other patrons). A statue of the Virgin Mary domineered over the main bathing area, which I thought was a rather intriguing sight since such settings in Southeast Asia would often feature a giant buddha.

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Léo and I rendezvoused and joined a group tour of Coron Island by bangka, a Filipino wooden fishing vessel. Léo noted that aside from ourselves and two children, the rest of the group was entirely composed of Caucasian male and Filipina couples; an observation I was distressed to realise I was totally oblivious to. Not that there’s anything bizarre or inherently wrong about this type of dynamic, indeed all of the couples onboard seemed to be in happy and equal relationships with compatible ages. But the Philippines are brimming with unattractive middle-aged (or older) Caucasian males and their multi-decade younger Filipina girlfriends or wives, which is slightly difficult to understand. I suppose I shouldn’t judge though, I’m sure its all for love. With a flotilla of other bangkas, populated more so with tourists than travellers (I’m such a snob), plying the same route and adhering to the same schedule, the tour was characteristic somewhat of a theme park. Nevertheless, the attractions were very beautiful, and our guide was pleasingly a comical larrikin. Coron Island appears to be an impenetrable natural fortress, with imposing walls of charcoal limestone rising dramatically from the water. Narrow steps through the limestone pinnacles lead to two pristine aqua lakes. While we were permitted to “swim” in the lakes, we were required to wear life jackets. The incompetency of a few fools now compels everyone to wear those restrictive vests and be debilitated from swimming properly, which was very irritating. We next ventured to the Blue Lagoon, a spectacular turquoise lagoon surrounded completely by limestone walls aside from two narrow entry points. Contrary to our captain’s advice, the snorkelling in the lagoon was decent, with clusters of coral clinging to the deep limestone walls – especially in the areas absent of the orange tourist brigades. For lunch, the crew cooked an incredibly tasty and generous lunch on open-air grills at the back of the cramped boat. In the afternoon, we snorkelled in three locations off small islands between Busuanga and Coron, with reefs of varying qualities.

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Léo pressured me into signing up for diving the next day, which was exactly the motivation I required. While I travelled to the Philippines with the intention of diving, I was still reluctant because of my concerns about controlling my buoyancy (which I certainly did not master when I did an Open-Water PADI course nearly 5 years ago in Egypt). Confidence quickly restored after a refresher dive with an excellent and attentive instructor, as I surprisingly had no difficulties with buoyancy and recollected the safety protocols. Léo, and Austrian Marie, both unlicensed “discovery” divers, had a slightly more negligent instructor who regularly failed to monitor their locations and led them to depths far beyond what PADI would recommend. No deaths or injuries at least. Along with German Ireen and a Uruguayan couple, we went on a full-day boat trip featuring three dives, including two at Japanese shipwrecks. Almost two dozen Japanese war vessels were sunk by US air strikes in September 1944 and now rest in Coron Bay. The first shipwreck we dived at is one of the largest in the area and covered in interesting corals and sea anemones. It was a surreal experience to swim around a vast decaying structure symbolic of death and destruction that is simultaneously a facilitator for new life. At the second shipwreck, we were surprisingly led inside the vessel by our guides, through the hollow passages and cargo holds. This experience was peaceful and serene, rather than dark and foreboding as initially anticipated. We dived to depths of around 20-23 metres and passed large schools of fish, seahorses, parrotfish and puffer fish. Diving provides a unique and humbling ability to move in literally every direction, so after a brilliant day underwater I was unsure why I had taken so long to return to the sport.

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Léo, Marie, Ireen and I hired a bangka the next day and went on another boat tour of the islands near Busuanga in magnificent sunny weather. My time in Busuanga was the beginning of the longest consecutive period I can remember spending in coastal areas, so I was determined to develop a comprehensive tan. Unfortunately, my torso’s lily white Irish skin and lackadaisical application of sunscreen were no match for the unforgiving Filipino sun, resulting in the rapid transformation of my back into a gnarly crimson canvas. I snorkelled in an area just off Coron Island carpeted with sea urchins and fragments of coral (obviously with a life jacket on). We next returned to the Blue Lagoon, where the colours were even more vivid than the previous day with the penetration of sun rays. We spent most of the afternoon on a small island in Coron Bay and enjoyed almost exclusive solitude on a pristine beach and wood-fired pizzas bought from an Italian-owned pizzeria in Coron Town.

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The only genuinely WOW-factor dish I tasted in the Philippines was at a restaurant in Coron Town that was stilted above (not exactly pristine) seawater. Kinilaw consists of raw fish (typically tuna) marinated in vinegar, chilli, garlic, ginger, onions and pepper. Similar to ceviche, it provides a rare burst of flavour in the otherwise bland Filipino culinary repertoire. In Coron, I began dabbling with the traditional Filipino breakfast of garlic rice and fried egg with longganiza (sweet Chinese sausage), fried corned beef or fried milk fish, though was quickly tired of waking up to such greasiness. Nothing however compares on the greasiness scale to sisig, one of the most popular dishes in the country. Sisig is a sizzling plate of diced pork (more fat than flesh) served with sweet mayonnaise, calamansi (a local citrus fruit smaller than a lime) and a raw egg on top. Delicious, but definitely a contender for the most unhealthy dish on earth I have tried. Slightly more suitable to the hot, humid and coastal environment is inihaw na pusit, which is squid stuffed with a sweet onion mixture and barbecued.

I was exceedingly fortunate to arrive in Busuanga precisely when the rest of the Philippines endured harrowing weather and Busuanga avoided most of it. Shipwreck diving was definitely the highlight of my visit, although I also really enjoyed island hopping with an interesting bunch of people.

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That’s all for now,

Liam

Philippines photos

Posted by Liamps 17:08 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

The Cordillera

Philippines photos

The Cordillera is a mountain range in the north of Luzon, featuring unique tribal cultures and distinctive landscapes. The people of the Cordillera are referred to collectively as the Igorot and successfully resisted subjugation during the three-century occupation of the Philippines by the Spanish. Consequently, the languages and traditions of the region were less affected than areas of the lowlands. The Igorot were eventually pacified by the Americans, and such the area is an isolated bastion of Protestantism within a staunchly Catholic nation. While most Igorot today live in towns and villages, many are still members of hill tribes that engage in (often fatal) skirmishes. Prior to spending nearly four weeks on beaches and hopping between the Philippines’ paradisiacal islands, I decided to loop north from Manila through the Cordillera, specifically to Banaue and Sagada. Banaue is internationally renowned for its rice terraces (touted by the Philippines’ tourism bureau as the “eighth wonder of the world”), while Sagada is used as a base to explore the caves, mountains and valleys located nearby.

When you’re forced to dive into a book with an opening line of, “It was Miss Somers’ turn to make the tea.”, your day has clearly not gone to plan. Perhaps that’s a tad unfair. Agatha Christie’s famed A Pocket Full of Rye, featuring master sleuth Miss Marple, is certainly an addictive read. In fact, I was so absorbed into the plot and fascinated by Marple’s interminable cunning that I finished the novel in a day. Not that I had much alternative. When I arrived in Banaue after a 10 hour overnight bus trip, it was drizzling lightly and the valley was completely obscured by fog. The weather remained unchanged throughout the day, effectively confining me to the guesthouse balcony and dining room. I was not in a position to complain though; the weather was comparatively pleasant in Banaue as a typhoon raged through the southern and central islands of the Philippines. But I was prevented from viewing the fabled rice terraces of the Cordillera, which represent an impressive feet of engineering constructed nearly 2,000 years ago on the slopes of precipitous mountains. The most spectacular reputedly surround the village of Batad, where I originally intended to stay. But since accessing Batad requires a 30 minute hike after a jeepney ride, I decided not to travel further than Banaue in the forecasted thunderstorms. I later regretted this decision, as I discovered other travellers had enjoyed mesmerising, if momentary, views of the wondrous landscape. Banaue, the primary centre in the area, is strung along a narrow highway that winds down a valley. Most of the guesthouses and restaurants therefore boast expansive views of the landscape. I ventured out for a brief amble through the town, hoping to sight the rice terraces. The fog parted briefly and I photographed a handful of terraces, though I was hardly treated to enthralling vistas. At least I had Miss Marple for entertainment.

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I awoke the next morning to find the valley traipsed with the same depressingly wet blanket of clouds and quickly determined the imperative of my immediate departure. I chased the amiable weather forecasted for Sagada, on the other side of the mountain range, and was pleasantly greeted with a few rays of sunlight. I met Filipino Clint from Manila on the minivan to Sagada and his translating skills were particularly valuable in the town. Sagada’s layout is defined by a market square at the top of a valley, from which a steep main road of guesthouses and restaurants plunges down a slope. The constituent attraction of Sagada itself is Echo Valley, which features the intriguingly named “hanging coffins”. In order to visit Echo Valley, we were required to engage a tour guide, though this basically entailed leading us down a 500 metre path and noting a handful of historical points easily deciphered from a guidebook. I soon discovered that visiting virtually every attraction in the Philippines requires an associated tour, and as such the country is comparatively more expensive than others in Southeast Asia. Despite its provocative name, the hanging coffins were less enthralling than anticipated. I thought I would view a myriad of coffins spookily suspended and dangling from trees and cliffs, but instead about a dozen were secured to cantilevered beams and lying horizontally. The spectacle should more appropriately be referred to as the “shelved coffins”. Through a mixture of protestant and animist traditions, locals believe that resting the coffins in the air rather than the earth expedites the process for spirits to access heaven (its quite possible I have unintentionally fabricated that explanation). While throngs of people, myself included, were photographing the coffins, our guide remarked that the most recent shelving occurred in 2010. It made me ponder, how much time must elapse until it is acceptable to treat a grave, tomb or in this case exposed coffin as a desensitised tourist attraction? One year, 5 years, 10 years? The pyramids are effectively the most famous mausoleums on earth (we think), yet no one grieves for those buried inside. So at what point do we forget the dead and gawk merely at the structures they continue to occupy?

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Spelunking is apparently the thing to do while in Sagada. Caves, however, are not exactly my favourite landscape to explore, especially those that are very narrow, very deep and very dark. I therefore compromised and visited apparently the most cavernous in the area, Sumaging, with its cauliflower-like ceiling. The entrance to Sumaging is somewhat hidden within forest and bramble and not indicative of the depth and beauty of the cave. For the first 10 minutes, visitors descend a moonscape of derelict stalagmites and stalactites and clusters of bats. The majesty of the cave commences when flowing water is encountered. For the next 30 minutes, visitors scramble down the smooth, milky surfaces of intriguing limestone formations formed from hydraulic action. Water sweeps across the rock and trickles into pristine pools on four different levels. Limestone plunges into the pools with the curves and irregularities suggestive of waterfalls frozen into stone. I soon realised that despite the “ecological tax” charged at every natural attraction, safety and environmental standards are quite different in the Philippines than Australia. Absolutely no safety equipment was provided and there seemed to be no limit to the number of tourists permitted to tour Sumaging, which was quite dangerous since there was only one access point and the paths were slippery and steep to navigate. I never felt particularly claustrophobic in Sumaging, though when we reached the bottom platform I was certainly ready to escape.

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The highlight of my time in the Cordilleras was a canyoning expedition I did just outside of Sagada. The tour was led by an affable American who had operated in the area for over a decade (and, naturally, had established a second family). Confident in the knowledge that Western standards of safety would be enforced, I had surprisingly no inhibitions about rappelling and jumping down 10-20 metre waterfalls throughout our 7 hour trip. Due to the remoteness and technicality of the route, our group of 5 tourists and 3 guides were the only people in the canyon all day. To access the canyon, we hiked through forest and small villages until we reached the first waterfall. By this point, I had already managed to slip and graze my leg, indicative of what was to come. The first waterfall was effectively a training run at rappelling and everyone descended without difficulty. The next waterfall required us to descend a slippery wall of 15 metres into the pool below. I soon realised how amazingly easier it is to deal with heights when you’re forced not to focus on the stomach-churning void, but at a tangible rock-face directly in front of you. I therefore found the most challenging aspect of rappelling was not at the highest point, but rather at the bottom trying to land on two feet. As the day progressed, we became progressively colder as it was only 18 degrees and we were required to jump into cold water with little more than a rash vest. My shivering was uncontrollable by lunch that a Belgian lady started dotting on me and became known as my “canyoning mum”. On several occasions, we were required to jump from the top of a waterfall into pools hidden from view at the bottom. On each occasion, I managed to stumble and hurt myself, the worst of which was jumping from a 12 metre ledge and landing on the side of my face. I had concentrated so much on nailing the run up that I had neglected to apply a bomb formation once airborne and suffered the consequent pain. At the end of the adventure, I was achingly cold and had cuts and bruises all over my body, but the thrill was well worth the trauma.

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The food in the Cordillera was definitely better than in Manila, probably because of the presence of fresh vegetables. Pancit bihon quickly became my regular comfort-food order, a simple dish of stir-fried glass noodles, vegetables and chicken or pork. I sampled one of the few Filipino vegetable dishes (albeit with shrimp paste), pinakbet, which consists of pumpkin, okra and beans cooked in tomatoes, garlic, ginger, coconut milk and shrimp paste. Unfortunately the presence of the okra made the dish unpalatable for me. The owner of the guesthouse I was staying at generously invited me to attend a feast she had prepared for her grandson. The traditional spread consisted of winter melon soup, papaya salad, roast chicken, mussels, homemade spring rolls, a stir-fried pork dish, kare-kare and a centrepiece of pasta bolognese (classic Filipino!). Kare-kare is one of the signature dishes of the Philippines, with oxtail and vegetables cooked in peanut sauce served with a less appetising dollop of shrimp paste. Aside from the enormous hunks of pork fat that I kept mistaking for eggplant, the dish was indeed rather moorish.

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After spending 4 days in the Cordillera, I decided to rush back to Manila to spend New Year’s Eve in a major city. Departing my guesthouse wearily but healthily at 6:00am, I did not anticipate to arrive at my hostel in Manila at 10:00pm with a cold likely acquired from canyoning and ulcers in my mouth caused by an extremely sour green mango. Nevertheless, the early hours of the return journey were spectacular, as the weather finally improved and we were afforded astonishing views of deep valleys, villages clinging to steep slopes and rice terraces.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Philippines photos

Posted by Liamps 17:14 Archived in Philippines Comments (1)

Manila

After enduring the tiresome gruel of the proverbial “real world” for (almost) the entirety of one year, I have finally returned to the mystical realm of indulgent backpackingism. Unfortunately though, the scale of my current journey is reflective of the dramatically changed lifestyle full-time employment creates. Indeed, henceforth my trips will not be defined by months, but rather weeks or even (horrifically) days. Required to take annual leave while the office closed and thereby forfeit being in Melbourne for the festive season (since I take a strictly geographic interpretation to the concept of leave), I chose to travel to the Philippines for 5 weeks during supposedly the best month to visit. Prior to departure, several ignorant souls remarked incredulously, “You’re travelling to JUST the Philippines for 5 weeks?!”, suggesting they thought 35 days in the world’s second largest archipelago of 7,107 islands was a tad excessive. With slightly more awareness for the scale and complexity of the country, I decided to limit my itinerary to 3 regions: North Luzon, Palawan and the Eastern Visayas. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to also visit the national capital of Manila, despite its maligned reputation.

Manila is located on the northern island of Luzon, one of the country’s largest islands and easily its most populous and important. In a country of more than 100 million residents, Manila is intriguingly the only large city in the archipelago – although roughly one-fifth of Filipinos call Metro Manila home. Manila was established in the sixteenth century by the Spanish to serve as the capital of their East Indies possessions (the modern-day Philippines). It was the first time in history the ethnically and linguistically diverse Philippine islands were administrated by a centralised government, as previously the archipelago was divided into petty kingdoms and chiefdoms. The Philippines as a nation-state is essentially a colonial construct and the country’s offical language is the mother tongue of only Luzon and surrounding islands. However, the Spanish successfully established a binding and enduring identity for the archipelago: the dominance of Christianity, or more specifically Catholicism, with roughly 83% of contemporary Filipinos subservient to the Bishop of Rome. The notable exception is the southern island of Mindanao, which has a sizeable Muslim community. Manila however is staunchly Catholic, and when I arrived in the city at 11:00pm on Christmas Eve, local families were preparing for the biggest celebration of the year – the midnight feast (I assume this ungodly hour for food consumption is another vestige of Spanish influence!).

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Chinatown

In somewhat of a rarity for me, my flight journey from Melbourne to Manila was not disrupted by irksome passengers leaning their seats back or kneeing my seat excessively. Early trip horrors instead commenced on the ground in Manila. After checking-in to my hostel exhausted at midnight, I was annoyed to find random belongings and foot marks on my allocated bed. I moved the items and attempted to sleep, but was awoken by an accusatorial Brit in the wee hours of the morning. He eventually conceded that his allocated bed was also taken when he arrived, so he chose the course of anarchy and randomly selected an unoccupied bed. Thank goodness for my arrival to reestablish civility to the dormitory. The following day, I felt nauseous throughout and struggled in the Manila heat and fumes, either because of a poorly timed bug courtesy of my nephew or the limited sleep overnight. I was so debilitated that I only managed to eat half a bowl of mediocre wanton noodle soup and had to retire at 8:00pm – on Christmas Day!

Manila was once lauded as the “Pearl of the Orient”, bequeathed with a stunning ensemble of colonial edifices the legacy of Spanish occupation of the Philippines. The city controlled a monopoly on trade between Asia and Spanish possessions in Latin America, exploiting its location on a deep bay, and the cityscape exhibited Manila’s consequent significance and wealth. The Spanish constructed a colossal cathedral (destroyed on several occasions by earthquakes – the current incarnation fashions a neo-Romanesque façade), plethora of churches, grand civic buildings in European architectural styles and a grid-based layout, totally contradicting the traditional urban form of Filipino communities. Even after the collapse of Spanish colonial rule in the New World in the early nineteenth century, Manila thrived on the booming Filipino sugar and tobacco industries. This was reflected in the numerous stately mansions constructed for merchants during this period. Manila also flourished on the opium trade with China, and as with virtually every other trading centre in South-East Asia, a large Chinese community evolved (again, as with most other South-East Asian countries, the ethnic Chinese have achieved disproportionate economic clout in the modern-day Philippines). Manila was thus a cosmopolitan, prosperous and opulent maritime centre by the early twentieth century. Unfortunately, the splendour of Manila was entirely destroyed by Allied bombing in World War Two, as imperial Japanese forces were reluctant to abandoned the conquered and strategically important city. The destruction of Manila was so comprehensive that many argue the city has failed to properly recover since. Indeed, the partially restored historic core, known as Intramuros, is a shadow of past glories. There is at least an Iberian vibe with cobblestone streets, small plazas, colourful townhouses, ruins of the old fort and relief from Metro Manila’s clutter. But the area has the sad aura of irrelevance and neglect, forgotten and swallowed by megalopolis’ rampant sprawl.

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Despite its lost beauty and prestige, Manila has exploded into one of the largest metropolises on the planet. The city of Manila itself is actually just one of 19 within the monstrous conurbation of Metro Manila, which is characterised by heaving traffic, crowds and pollution. Metro Manila lacks a comprehensive commuter-rail network and is therefore almost entirely dependent on its tangle of reputedly ever-congested roads. The flotillas of kamikaze motorcyclists synonymous with South Asian cities are strangely absent from Manila, as locals seem to have a preference (and presumably financial mean) for cars. Jeepneys are the constituent form of public transport and are uniquely Filipino. The iconic and colourfully painted vehicles feature open-air compartments at the back with two wooden benches, allowing for 14 people to cram inside. Unfortunately, navigating Manila by jeepney is an extremely difficult task for first time visitors, as they all have different routes and destinations. Three rail lines exist and collectively form a rough ring around the central areas. While the rail lines were not particularly convenient for me (40 minute walk from my hostel to the nearest station), I used them several times to avoid commuting by taxi everywhere. The carriages are were overcrowded and the platforms dangerously narrow, but I found the trains (built by the Czechs, strangely) to be fast, reliable and clean. I was rather fortunate not to experience the full extent of Manila’s notorious traffic, presumably because activity was reduced over the Christmas holidays.

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Jeepney

I stayed in the city of Makati, which functions as the financial heart of the country. Makati is characterised by corporate towers, shopping centres, ornamental gardens and relative cleanliness and order. However, the existence of a strip of seedy bars catering to silver-haired Western gentlemen seeking love in the tropics kind of dampens Makati’s sophisticated front. Hidden behind Makati’s glitz are pleasant Filipino neighbourhoods, which I ambled through on New Years Eve to soak in the local atmosphere. Groups of Filipino families and friends congregated at the front of their houses for street parties, with makeshift karaoke setups de rigueur.

The Philippines were controlled by another colonial power that left an indelible mark on the country’s culture: the United States of America. After the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, the Philippines were “acquired” by the US for $20 million. Imperialism was a highly contentious political issue in the US, as many believed the concept contravened the country’s founding principles. Imperialists argued that advanced countries had a responsibility to educate and develop “uncivilised” societies and therefore colonialism was justified, although no doubt American ambitions for a foothold in Asia was another motivating factor for control of the Philippines. Nevertheless and unlike the Spanish, the Americans demonstrated their commitment to improving the lives of the Filipino population by investing in infrastructure and the education system. The modern-day outcome is that English is spoken widely throughout the islands and more so than in neighbouring countries. The Americans granted independence to the Philippines in 1935, although the republic has remained a close US ally with an oddly fervent passion for American culture ever since (or perhaps anti-culture is the more apt term). Basketball is the national sport, fast food joints are depressingly omnipresent and shopping malls are the favourite haunt for Filipinos to hang. Manila boasts some of the largest malls in the world, with all the Western brands available - at Western prices. The reality is though, the overwhelming majority of Filipinos cannot afford to shop at malls, so the prevailing extreme income inequality in the Philippines is perhaps another undesirable legacy of American influence.

At the hostel, I met a middle-aged woman on her own from Angola; representing just about the last demographic I would ever expect to met at such an establishment. Upon discovering my nationality, she quickly attempted to rope me into her application for a visa to Australia and insist I act as her reference. I soon discovered she had been in Manila for 2 months applying for the visa, only to be continuously rebuffed because she required an Australian contact. Naturally I was completely unprepared for this situation (at breakfast!) as I was distrustful of her motives and unsure of the legal responsibilities I would hypothetically incur. Cowardly, I slithered out of the conversation and hostel, and avoided it thereafter. I am still rather conflicted about what the morally just solution to that dilemma was. If she is genuinely a tourist, its grossly unfair she cannot enter our country without a contact (how can she be expected to know an Australian?) when we can easily travel to her country. Yet I sensed she wasn’t telling me the full story, and my philosophy when travelling is of course don’t listen to your head or heart, but listen to your gut.

Sometimes countries that are not internationally famous for their food have surprisingly delectable culinary scenes (Tunisia, Latvia and Indonesia come to mind). The same cannot be said of the Philippines. Despite its proximate location to China, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia, Filipino cuisine is generally characterised by blandness, fattiness, meatiness and monotony. Pork is ubiquitously consumed, fresh produce is conspicuously absent, while vegetarians have few options beyond steamed rice thrice a day. The national dish adobo is actually quite nice, although every rendition is quite different. Adobo is basically pork or chicken cooked in a mixture of soy sauce and vinegar – the ratio of which is essentially what varies between kitchens. In Manila, I also sampled lumpia, which is an inferior version of the Chinese spring roll. Lumpia consists of a soft wrap stuffed with stewed vegetables (possibly turnip) and a not-so-pleasant sauce. As previously mentioned, Filipinos are alarmingly obsessed by fast food. Manila’s cityscape is blighted by countless franchises of international icons like McDonalds and KFC, as well as local institutions like Jollibees. Jollibees is probably the most beloved fast food brand in the country, with a signature dish of fried chicken, rice and Filipino spaghetti. I have yet to summon the courage to sample this blatant insult to food. Filipinos are strangely enamoured by pasta, while noodles are less readily available. Spaghetti bolognese (sickeningly sweet and probably with pork), carbonara and marinara are constituent components of Filipino menus. Occasionally, the pasta actually looks vaguely authentic, although I stress occasionally. Prepared for the reality of food in the Philippines, I decided not to enforce my normally strict efforts to eat local dishes and I have instead dabbled in a more palatable international diet.

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Chicken adobo

I never anticipated Manila would be a pleasant city, so I at least wasn’t disappointed. For travelling purposes, Manila is really just a transit point to other more interesting places in the Philippines.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 17:15 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Kerala

India photos

The final stanza of my 11 week trip to “Incredible India” (incredible for positive and negative reasons equally!) was spent in Kerala, located at the south-western tip of the Subcontinent. Locals proudly refer to their state as “God’s Own Country”, an apt moniker for a land of palm-fringed beaches, enchanting backwaters, shimmering paddy fields, lush rainforests, cool hill stations and emerald-green tea plantations. With a relatively small population of 35 million, Kerala has comparatively minimal crowds, hassling, traffic and pollution and enjoys a higher standard of living than elsewhere in the country. Its no wonder then that so many long-term travellers to India chose to end their journey in Kerala. I met up with British Hermione, another backpacking refugee fleeing the chaos of India’s North for the serenity of the South, and travelled with her for about a week, completing the typical circuit through the state.

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To think I nearly wrote 14 entries about India without once mentioning my train journeys; probably the quintessential (shout-out to Andrew) travel experience of any trip to India! Blasphemy! Riding India’s huge railway network, a legacy of the British Raj, is easily the cheapest, safest (at least from a functional perspective) and most convenient way of traversing the long distances between Indian cities. And despite preconceived notions, travelling by train in India does not necessarily involve boarding overcrowded carriages with passengers hanging from the rooftops. Such infamous images are relevant only to Bombay’s suburban trains, which unfortunately I was unable to experience. That’s not to suggest travelling by train is by any means a relaxed and orderly affair; far from it! From booking tickets to navigating stations, every stage of a train journey features the classic frustrations of India.

Since travelling by trains is extremely popular, reserving seats or beds can be rather difficult. A seamless online booking system for Indian Railways does not exist (surprise surprise), so tourists must face the ordeal of queuing up for an hour, aggressively blocking queue-jumpers and dealing with intransigent ticket officers who are always terribly irritated you don’t know the 50 digit number of the train you want to board. Finding the right train on the day of travel is the next challenge. I was always sure to arrive at stations with ample time to spare, in order to comprehend their breathtakingly chaotic layouts and find as many officials as possible to confirm where I needed to be (you always want a second opinion on directional advice in India). Once the train arrives, you then need to quickly find the correct carriage (the trains are very, very long) to board, without being overwhelmed by the sudden pandemonium. Locating your seat or bed, usually in the absence of light and with a tinge of fear that it might be occupied, is the next hassle; though that should be the last obstacle. However, you definitely want a device that allows Google Maps to track your rough location offline (iPads seemed to be more effective than phones), because otherwise you’re clueless as to how far the train is from your station… there’s certainly no helpful announcements!

Trains in India are composed of a series of classes. The lower classes feature wooden benches and are virtually free. They’re totally fine for short journeys. The “sleeper” class consists of open planned 8-bed compartments (3 and 3 perpendicular to the train, with 2 parallel on the other side of the aisle), which are also ridiculously cheap. The first time I rode in sleeper class, a benevolent Indian warned me about the dangers of theft on that route (Gwalior – Varanasi) and emphasised I needed to keep my belongings very close. Unfortunately I had booked an upper side bed, which are only 5’5” and boxed in. After a very uncomfortable night squished into my limited space with 25kg of luggage, I learnt my lesson and avoided booking such cramped berths in future. The next class up, 3AC, has the exact same layout as the sleeper class, but provides pillows, sheets, blankets and unnecessary cooling and charges 5-10 times for the privileges. Since it was still cheap for my budget, I preferred to book this class as I felt my valuables were more secure in the absence of lower-income Indians! Such an awful mindset, in retrospect! The incessant staring though does get somewhat tiresome on those delayed, 16+ hour journeys. I generally slept very well on the trains, until the ritualistic alarm started ringing at around 6:00AM on every train; “Chaiii, chaiii… chaiii, chaiii… CHAIII, CHAIII!!!” While I never appreciated the nasal delivery of their advertising, one of the beautiful aspects of train travel in India is the profusion of vendors boarding the carriages to sell chai, samosas, pakoras, fruit, drinks and even full meals at the stations. Also regularly boarding the trains were beggars, often with disabilities, or women with babies, which could be quite confronting and awkward. Overall, I preferred trains to buses, because of the onboard space and to avoid travelling on India’s notorious roads.

Appropriately, I travelled to Kerala from Gokarna by train and arrived in the state’s largest metropolis, Kochi. Known as the “Queen of the Arabian Sea”, Kochi’s location in the Kerala Backwaters enabled it to serve as a major centre in the spice trade for centuries, with Roman, Greek, Arab, Persian and Chinese merchants known to frequent its port. In the fifteenth century, Jews fleeing from persecution during the Spanish Inquisition migrated to Kochi and formed a community that still exists (the “white Keralans”). The Portuguese established the Subcontinent's first colonial settlement at Kochi in 1500, on the northern tip of a peninsula parallel to the mainland. Fort Kochi was subsequently controlled by the Dutch and later the British. Lonely Planet goaded me into expecting a mystical melting-pot of South Indian, European and Chinese cultural influences. Yet Fort Kochi is only moderately interesting and the architectural legacy of European colonialists thoroughly underwhelming. I photographed some of the austere, dilapidated stone edifices, such as churches (Portuguese and Dutch influence) and townhouses, though more out of obligation than awe. I actually thought the most visually stimulating aspect of Fort Kochi was the astonishingly large trees shading the wide streets, though no other traveller agreed with this regularly expressed observation! I spent a day and a half wandering around Fort Kochi’s peaceful streets, soaking up the tropical, small-town ambience in absence of attractions. Aside from the food and reuniting with Hermione, the most enthralling event to occur in Kochi was the discovery of a queue-less ATM that allowed me to withdraw 1,900 rupees ($38) in 100 rupees notes several times over! The cash crisis in India was still very much persisting, so encountering such a facility was an unthinkable dream. Sure, I probably depleted the ATM’s reserve of 100 rupees notes (I was avoiding the dreaded 2,000 rupees notes), but by that stage of my trip in India I had adopted a dog-eat-dog attitude!

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Large canopies of Kochi

Hermione and I attended a performance exhibiting the traditional Keralan dance-style, Kathakali. Unlike the puppetry and dancing we witnessed in Udaipur, the show was unquestionably one of the least impressive cultural experiences I have ever had the privilege of viewing. We were advised to arrive 30 minutes before the commencement of the play, to watch makeup being applied to the faces of the performers – apparently a unique and fascinating insight into the preparation of their bombastic appearances. I soon deduced though that “before and after” photographs would have sufficed. The play itself could hardly be described as any more riveting. Kathakali is a rather idiosyncratic dancing style, characterised by the performers’ dependence on excessive facial expressions to convey a storyline. The performers do little else, other than prancing around the stage incoherently and making animalistic grunts (instead of words). Hermione, an actor by trade, was visually aghast at the ineptitude of the production, which initiated my uncontrollable hysterics and requisite early departure.

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Hermione and I next travelled up to the hill station of Munnar, leaving the humidity of the coast for the coolness of the Western Ghats (an extensive mountain range in South India). We were greeted by overcast and rainy conditions, remarkably the first time I had encountered such weather after 10 weeks in India (if we ignore the unexpected snowstorm I endured while recklessly trekking alone in the Himalayas!). I was rather apathetic about the virtues of travelling to Munnar as I had already experienced tea plantation landscapes in Malaysia and Sri Lanka, which were spectacular yet essentially identical. Indeed, the tea plantations surrounding the town were comparatively dull, especially in the inclement weather. As with any hill station in South Asia, Munnar is overrun with kitsch tourist shops, nurseries, “gourmet” food factories, gimmicky attractions and utter rip-offs. We hired a tuk-tuk to complete the conventional loop of such attractions and were thoroughly underwhelmed. Indeed, Hermione was actually rather unwell part-way through the trip, requiring us to abandon our efforts of squinting through the fog from Top Station to view the state of Tamil Nadu and descend back to Munnar. Fortunately, the weather cleared the following morning, allowing us to view the plantations in brilliant sunlight. In the absence of dedicated trails (no doubt a local effort to prevent independent and therefore cost-free activity for visitors), I decided to forge my own pathway through the tea bushes and eventually untamed bramble to a peak for panoramic views of the area.

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View from the peak

We next travelled to Alleppey, located on the coast and surrounded by waterways, to visit the Keralan Backwaters. On the bus to Alleppey, I sat next to a local who thought our 5 minute conversation was sufficient justification for us to become Facebook friends. I begrudgingly accepted his request, though I deleted him promptly after the daily and needless enquiries about the progress of my trip. This certainly wasn’t the only occasion I encountered harmless and understandable hyper-excitement from Indians. On the first night, we stayed in a wooden bungalow outside of town adjacent to a major canal. Unimpressed by the legions of cockroaches in the room and the host’s persistent encouragement for us to drink spirits immediately after arriving from an exhaustive journey, we resolved to depart the next day. It was somewhat of a shame, because my early morning walk revealed a spectacular local environment. I ambled along ochre-coloured dirt tracks between rice fields, dense vegetation and thatched houses on one side and wide canals of placid and lily-covered waters on the other. I watched locals ply their long, narrow canoes used for fishing and transporting goods as large, wooden houseboats cruised by. I was confronted on my walk by a territorial male turkey. After a brief stand-off, I had to concede defeat as it launched a full-on attack at my legs – the turkey was definitely not bluffing. We relocated to Artpackers.life, situated much closer to the centre of Alleppey and near the beach. The hostel was opened only a month prior to our arrival by a pair of young, entrepreneurial South Indians who had travelled extensively and therefore possessed an advantage over other locals in the industry – awareness for what the discerning backpacker is after. They had converted an historic but derelict building formerly occupied by a local radio station and created a hostel I literally could not fault. They had even painted the imposing stone walls white to encourage guests to paint and imprint their own artwork on the building. The surrounding area was very peaceful, with wide streets, verdant trees, tropical vegetation and buildings pleasantly decayed from the humid climate; an atypical Indian neighbourhood. The beach wasn’t particularly beautiful, but it did provide opportune relief from the incessant heat. However, while thousands of Indians in their colourful saris congregated on the beach to watch the sunset, I was the only person in the water. Presumably, most Indians there were tourists and may never have swam, and therefore were wise not to challenge the very strong current without the requisite skills.

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Canal near our first guesthouse

We joined a group tour of the Kerala Backwaters and were transported by motor boat from central Alleppey to a rural house adjacent the waterfront to begin our journey. While many tourists choose to stay on a houseboat to explore the backwaters, we opted for a tour that employed the more traditional form of vessel: long, wooden canoes moved by levering bamboo poles into the surface of the canals. The canoes are advantageous because of their petiteness and dynamism, which allows them to traverse the maze of narrow canals (roughly 5-10 metres in width) between the major canals where the houseboats cannot access. The scenery within the maze is intoxicatingly green, with palm trees and banana trees densely clumped between paddy fields and the lily-pad covered waters of the canals. The interminable greenery was broken only by thatch houses perched beside the canals and vibrantly coloured clothing drying on crescent shaped bridges and rafters, creating patchworks of rainbows amid the foliage. The men wore traditional Keralan garments with bandana-like headpieces and white cloth skirts, while women fashioned vibrant saris. We were isolated in the tranquility from other tour groups, due to the enormity and complexity of the canal network. Our group concluded the day at the beach in Alleppey to watch a wonderful Indian Ocean sunset.

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My final destination in Kerala and indeed all of India was Varkala, a beautiful beachside town evoking, albeit slightly, a Byron Bay-esque vibe. Varkala is famed for its red cliffs that separate golden-sand beaches from rows of guesthouses and restaurants. Like Gokarna, I was pleasantly surprised by how clean the beaches and inconspicuous the touristic developments are, as the buildings blend in nicely with the jungly environment. The cliff-top walks offer spectacular views over the Indian Ocean and the tepid swells rolling into the coast. In the mornings, I ambled on the beach and was recruited by local fishermen to help pull in the ropes for their massive fishing nets. Despite the oppressive heat and beautiful blue waters, strangely few people were tempted to swim in the beaches. That was because the water was plagued with jellyfish, some of which (I am seriously not kidding) were nearly a metre in diameter!!! However, only frigid conditions will prevent Liam from charging into a surf beach, especially after months bereft of opportunities to swim. I first swam at around midday for about 30 minutes without suffering too many stings. When I returned to the water at sunset though, I was continuously stung and received some properly painful zaps that instigated my hasty evacuation! I fashioned a rather impressive mark on my neck after the ordeal that lasted for nearly a month!

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Locals pulling their catch in

Gorging on South Indian food was undoubtedly our favourite pastime in Kerala. As always, the best dishes were eaten at local establishments with cheap, large portioned and spicy meals rather than tourist restaurants. Hermione in particular was utterly obsessed by dosas and we ordered at least one just about every time they were available. Dosas are enormous, wafer-thin pancakes, spongy-like on one side and crispy on the rather. Usually eaten in the morning, dosas are stuffed with a filling (masala dosa is the most common order – potatoes or vegetables mashed with ample spices) and served with coconut chutney (occasionally ruined with the addition of coriander), sambar (lentil broth) and a spicy, tomato and onion-based chutney. Dosas are absolutely delicious, completely addictive and sorely absent from Melbourne’s culinary scene! Other popular snacks in South India, all served with the same condiments, include vadas (fried, doughnut-shaped, spiced cake), uttayapam (like a hybrid crumpet and pizza base, with onion and tomato imbedded into the dough) and idlis (bland, sponge-like rice cakes). The speciality bread of Kerala is pakoda, which is basically the moorish, buttery roti available in Sri Lanka and Malaysia. It contrasts substantially with the dry, cardboard-like roti preferred in North India. We enjoyed several superb all-you-can-eat thalis in Kerala, with the usual South Indian spread of rice, sambar, light vegetable curries, red onions soaked in yoghurt and green chillies, coconut chutney, pappadums, pickled lemons and cardamom-infused rice pudding. Differentiating Keralan thalis were the jugs of thin-curries provided to slop over your rice; one of which, a tangy, yellow, yoghurt-based broth, was truly divine! Similarly to Andhra cuisine, meat “side dishes” could also be ordered, which usually consisted of beef, mutton or chicken prepared in spicy, dry curries. I sampled the ubiquitous and intriguingly named chicken/mutton/gobi-65, which featured bite-size pieces of battered meat or cauliflower fried in chillies and curry leaves. Despite repeatedly ordering seafood, the only particularly memorable fish dish I ate in Kerala was the first. The sweet, white-fleshed fish was served in a complex red sauce, where the spice was magnificently complemented by sour green mango. On that, it was thrilling to finally be able to eat tropical fruits again with guava, passionfruit and pomelo abundantly available.

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Masala dosa

Thus finally concludes my series of entries about India 2016, more than 12 months after I departed Thiruvananthapuram (try saying that 5 times successively!) International Airport (mind you, I could write another paragraph ranting about my processing experience their, but I’ll just say it was typical India right to the end!). What an absolute rollercoaster 11 week trip to the Subcontinent it was! On so many occasions, I felt desperate to leave and never return, worn out from the countless unbearably frustrating aspects of India. Yet I persevered and consequently enjoyed some of the best experiences of my travelling life. With sufficient time for reflection, I can now say categorically that India is by far the most memorable country I have travelled to, somewhere I think everybody should endeavour to visit at least once. I have no doubt I will return to India, eager to explore regions I didn’t even touch (such as Bombay, Tamil Nadu, Calcutta, Sikkim and the Andaman Islands).

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That’s all for now,

Liam

India photos

Posted by Liamps 19:15 Archived in India Comments (0)

Hampi

India photos

Hampi was by far the most inconveniently located destination I travelled to in India. Yet rerouting my itinerary to incorporate this remote backpacker haven delivered one of the absolute highlights of my trip (rivalling the Spiti Valley). And to think originally I had no intentions of visiting! Hampi is famed for its vast collection of ancient Hindu monuments strewn across a beguiling landscape of boulders, scrub and paddy fields. The traffic and pollution free environs of the area exude peacefulness and rural tranquility; qualities sorely absent throughout India. Utterly exhausted by Indian cities, I was lured into stretching an intended two day stop into a five day stay in Hampi; a refreshing “holiday from a holiday”.

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Before arriving at my paradisiacal destination, predictably I had to suffer through a series of frustrating and classic India experiences. Immediately after disembarking my train in Hospete, I was swarmed by taxi drivers eager to secure my business for a 100 rupees ($2) ride to Hampi. Most of them backed off when I insisted I was taking the 15 rupees bus to Hampi (mainly because I can't stand taxi drivers, not because I'm a stinge!). However, one turdcake stalked me for 10 minutes in his taxi as I walked to the bus stand, begging I hop in for continuously reducing rates. He eventually concluded I was a lost cause and drove up to an Irish guy 50 metres ahead, proceeding to harass him with equal earnest. When the two of us arrived at the bus stand, a teenage boy (usually the most annoying demographic of hasslers) pestered us for the duration of our 30 minute wait. With immense satisfaction, I outlasted the nagging and boarded the Hampi bound bus!

Onboard I met Australian Cody and American Gabriel, who were on break from volunteering at an organisation supporting the Sufi (Muslim) community in Delhi. Cody expressed moderate antipathy towards his homeland (with agreeable justifications), partly explaining his 3.5 years absence with no imminent plans of returning. Meanwhile, Gabriel, an affable native of Florida and insufferable patriot, overtly admonished the supposedly unsurpassed virtues of his homeland. Obviously though, Gabriel was exhibiting rather superb self-deprecating humour, because no one with a modicum of intelligence could believe in the greatness of a country ravished with guns, without universal healthcare, and that elects a xenophobic, misogynistic and imbecilic clown to be their leader. Oh... I suppose Australia dabbled with the latter in 2013... but I digress!

Like most other backpackers, the three of us planned to stay on the other side of the river from Hampi village. Since there are no bridges nearby, we were required to cross by boat. The extortionate boatman demanded we pay more than twice the regular rate for the 30 second journey, because he deemed it to be "early morning" (9:15AM – perhaps indicative as to why the economic development of India is a long way behind China's). Along with Israeli Orr, we chose to wait until 10:00AM when the regular price of 20 rupees kicked in, saving us 30 rupees. We bided our time by spending 30 rupees on breakfast and chai masala, and watching a holy elephant named Laxmi bath in the river.

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Considering the ordeal with the boatman, staying on the opposite side of the river from the famed temples of Hampi seemed somewhat illogical. But my doubts immediately evaporated when we ascended the river banks and arrived in Virupapur Gadde. The one-road village features a long row of humble guesthouses and restaurants, which overlook the river on one side and emerald green paddy fields shaded by palm trees on the other. The village’s tropical setting is contrasted sharply by enormous mounds of ochre boulders that rise bizarrely from the otherwise flat landscape. We chose to stay just outside Virupapur Gadde at the Goan Corner, a beautiful precinct of thatched huts and spacious outdoor communal areas with surprisingly good food for a hostel (it even had a wood-fired pizza oven and tandoori oven (unusual in South India)). The charismatic owner opened the hostel 17 years ago after migrating from Goa, where she had divorced her first husband (very controversial still in India). Goan Corner is now easily Hampi’s most popular backpacker hangout, despite no website, no presence on Hostelworld or Booking.com and no listing in Lonely Planet. The owner cheekily announced she trades purely on word-of-mouth, which clearly works; I was recommended Goan Corner by several people throughout India.

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Unfortunately, Goan Corner and every other guesthouse and restaurant in Virupapur Gadde will be obliterated by the corrupt state government within the next year. The government has announced that the land within a five kilometre radius of the main cluster of temples is now forms an “archaeological zone”. Consequently, the guesthouses and restaurants of Virupapur Gadde, mostly operated by low-income families, will be demolished as they occupy illegal structures. The government’s intention is supposedly to protect the World Heritage listed edifices; but such a noble gesture would be completely out of character for Indian bureaucracy. The government’s disdain for backpacker tourism, which they consider “cheap” and “dirty”, and lust for the financial windfall of luxury tourism more likely explains their actions. Many locals believe that several years after the demolitions occur, suddenly five-star hotels and exclusive shops will pop up where Virupapur Gadde once existed, filling the Minister of Planning’s coffers while rendering the villagers homeless and their businesses crushed. Bloody India.

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After checking in at Goan Corner, Cody, Gabriel and I opted to explore the surrounding area on foot. What was supposed to be a short and pleasant amble to a lake soon became an arduous and seemingly endless expedition under the blazing South Indian sun, thanks to the deception of unofficial signs and Google Maps. While Cody and Gabriel engaged in a riveting conversation about the merits of accountancy, I absorbed the thoroughly unIndian-like serenity of the countryside. We passed herds of goats and water buffalo grazing in the paddy fields, some of which were vividly green while others were parched or completely burnt. We walked through tiny villages where the children ran out to the road, asked for photographs and begged for pens and chocolate (because apparently that’s what white people always carry with them, even in 35 degrees heat!). We briefly stopped at an isolated restaurant and chatted with a dreadlocked Brit. For the past 20 years, he had returned to Hampi annually for six months, utterly captivated by the boulder landscape. For weeks at a time, he would tramp through the wilderness on his own and scale boulders; he contended the only thing necessary to survive is a reliable water source. True hippy, such a rare breed. We eventually arrived at the lake, which was actually just a reservoir, and were confronted with unlikely warning signs about the presence of crocodiles (bullshit). By this stage though, we were more concerned with reaching a recommended guesthouse for lunch. Although virtually in the middle of no where, we encountered a couple of Indian men chillin’ randomly beside some boulders. Obviously they just happened to have a boat we could hire to get to our intended target. Politely declining, we continued on our way, expecting to arrive by foot any minute. An hour later, we finally arrived at the guesthouse and, unimpressed, walked straight past to the next one. After a very late lunch, we were faced with the same, exhausting journey back since very few vehicles passed us throughout the day. Yet just at our moment of need, a Swiss hippy (authentic- two in a day!) pulled up and gave us a ride back to Goan Corner.

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The following day, I returned to the south side of the river to explore Hampi’s iconic monuments. Hampi was formerly the capital of the Hindu Vijayanagara Empire, which dominated South India in the 14th-16th centuries. The city supported a population of more 500,000 at its peak, making it the second largest in the world after Beijing. The city was sacked by a confederation of Muslim Sultanates in 1565, terminating the glory years of the empire and leaving the city in ruins. The surviving fragments of this medieval metropolis are now populated by monkeys and scattered throughout a vast, naturalistic area of boulder mounds, dry scrub and paddy fields. The constituent attractions are located several kilometres apart, which made for a very long day of crisscrossing Hampi in stifling weather. I first visited the Virupaksha Temple in Hampi’s bazaar area, which is easily the most accessible and distinguishing building. The temple complex features three entrance towers (the highest of which is over 50 metres) that lead to a series of courtyards and an inner sanctuary brimming with sculpture of Hindu mythology. I then walked east along the river for 45 minutes, stopping occasionally to admire small temples on its banks and the quirky, half-spherical boats made from reeds that plied its waters. I eventually arrived at Vittala Temple, Hampi’s most famous attraction. The Vijayanagara’s mastery of Hindu sculpture is exhibited in the highly ornate halls within the temple complex, which are decorated with depictions of gods, warriors and animals. The focal point of Vittala Temple is the magnificent stone chariot in the courtyard of the complex, which is dedicated to Garuda (a humanoid bird that serves as Lord Vishnu’s mount). I visited several other structures throughout the day with an unsolicited companion, including the former royal elephant stables and palatial enclosures. I have to admit, I was somewhat underwhelmed by Hampi’s monuments and glad I condensed exploring them into one day. I guess I was expecting Angkor Wat-scale grandeur, but it fell markedly short.

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The next day I ventured aimlessly into the remarkable boulder-strewn landscape with Australian Erin and British Dave. With two Melbournians present, conversation was obviously dominated by food for the duration of the day, to the chagrin of Dave (not that you could expect a Brit to engage passionately in a culinary conversation). Since there were no tracks, we simply ambled across, over and around the boulder mounds, hoping to conquer a summit. We weren’t entirely successful in such endeavours, because thick, thorny bushes usually blocked our paths just before reaching the mounds’ zeniths. We hoped to spot the elusive leopards or other intriguing creatures that inhabit the area (the landscape reminded me very much of Spitzkoppe in Namibia actually, where I spotted an African wildcat), but instead only encountered tourists with mattresses on their back. Hampi is reputedly the best place in the world for bouldering, a sport I had never heard of, and thus attracts aficionados from all of the world who come to scale its innumerable boulders. The mattresses are obviously intended to provide a safe landing if they fall (in the right place).

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We attempted to discover a crossing of the river to circumvent the widely loathed boatman. We found the remains of an ancient bridge, with just the pillars used to support the upper deck surviving. Nevertheless, for the next half hour we crossed the reed-filled river by hopping from one crashed pillar to the next. Upon reaching solid, dry ground, we thought the mission was accomplished. But just like George W Bush, our assessment was premature. We climbed up a slight rise in the landscape and noticed one final, fast-flowing channel, with a width of ten metres and no fallen pillars. We cautiously began crossing the river, but sheepishly opted not to risk our precious electronics and turned back dejected!

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Since Goan Corner was inundated by American tourists (an uncommon occurrence on the backpacker circuit) on the fourth Thursday of November, celebrating their cherished Thanksgiving holiday was an obligatory experience. Australian Cody thoughtfully arranged for the hostel to prepare a shared banquet that all guests, regardless of nationality, could participate in. Apparently adhering to a Thanksgiving tradition, New Yorker Marieke traced hand-turkeys for every attendee. We were required to decorate the turkeys, write down what we’re thankful for and then share our thoughts with the group. Predictably, the 30 plus Americans and Europeans took the activity very seriously and described heartfelt messages of gratitude (with the exception of Gabriel, who brashly venerated the capitalism, freedom and liberty of his country), while the handful of Australians simply took the piss out of it.

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A mass exodus from Goan Corner occurred on my last day in Hampi as we all travelled in different directions within the state of Karnataka. I boarded an overnight bus for Gokarna, a small town by the Arabian Sea which is touted as a quieter alternative to Goa further north. I was dropped off at 4:30AM in the poorly-lit, ghost-like town because I refused to pay an extra 100 rupees ($2) to be driven 6 kilometres further to the beachside guesthouses. I was the only person not to cave-in to the bus company’s disgusting extortion (it was already an expensive ticket and they only announced the extra surcharge once we had boarded), which I’m rather proud of. However, for 15 minutes of walking aimlessly in the darkness, I was concerned made an unwise and unsafe decision. However, I soon discovered a bustling tea house near the bus stand (which is not where I was dropped off!) and retreated there for the next few hours. My experiences that morning were basically the most enthralling aspect of my time in Gokarna. The beach I stayed at (Om Beach) was pleasant enough; clean (rare for Asia) with unassuming guesthouses set amid tropical gardens and free of the neon-lit, overdevelopment that usually define South Asian beaches. But the atmosphere was rather dull (mainly couples and big Israeli groups) and the water unremarkable (appropriate for neither surfing nor snorkelling). The beach is festooned with signs warning against swimming because of treacherous currents and they feature explicit photographs of people that drowned in the water. Two people died at a neighbouring beach during my stay. Yet from my Australian perspective, the water was very tame. I think the high fatality rate must be because most Indian tourists have never seen the sea and don’t know how to swim properly in the sea.

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While I wasn’t particularly enthralled by its constituent attraction, the ruins of the Vijayanagara Empire’s capital, Hampi was nevertheless one of my favourite destinations in India. A combination of an excellent hostel, great company, intriguing landscape and perhaps above all, the reprieve from Indian traffic, hassling and pollution, made for a lovely five days in this soon-to-vanish paradise.

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That’s all for now,

Liam

India photos

Posted by Liamps 16:58 Archived in India Comments (0)

Bangalore and Mysore

India photos

The moment I spotted a beef sandwich outside the arrival hall of Bangalore International Airport, I knew I was going to enjoy my three weeks in South India. While I wasn’t craving beef exactly, the sandwich represented my unequivocal departure (escape) from the backwardness of North India. No more would I be subjected to the region’s stifling restrictions and intransigence based on obsolete cultural attitudes (and in this case selective compassion); I was now in a society of relatively modern, laid-back and liberal values. [Admittedly, the slaughter and consumption of cattle for pleasure isn’t exactly the most progressive or humane practice, but its certainly more civilised than leaving such idiotic creatures to wander around crowded city streets in search of plastic rubbish and dung for sustenance]. Indeed, I soon discovered that South India is extraordinarily different to North India, as contrasting as the Mediterranean countries are to Scandinavia.

South India constitutes the five states at the tip of the Subcontinent’s “V” where Dravidian cultures and languages dominate. The state boundaries are loosely defined by the geographic coverages of each of the four major Dravidian languages: Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada, which are relatively similar to each other (like French, Italian and Spanish). Crucially, absolutely no correlations exist between the Dravidian languages of South India and the Indo-Aryan languages (which includes Hindi, Punjabi and Bengali) of North India. To appreciate this insane dichotomy, imagine living in a city where English is the common tongue, but the national language is different. Not a related or familiar language, like German, but something utterly alien and indecipherable, like Chinese. That’s the reality of India, where native speakers of the minority Dravidian languages usually cannot understand the language of the federal government. The term “minority” though is grossly misleading, since each Dravidian language boasts 50-80 million speakers! The linguistic diversity of India is incomprehensible and totally incomparable to any other country.

I’m flabbergasted to declare this in relation to India, but I consider Bangalore to be a “liveable city” even for a pampered Western gentleman such as myself. While I’m not suggesting any intentions of a permanent relocation, if I was forced into choosing a new home in India, Bangalore would definitely be my target. Bangalore reminded me somewhat of Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur: oases of modernity in Asia where Oriental exoticisms and tropical conditions fuse magnificently with the comforts of Westernisation. Bangalore is a megapolis of more than 10 million people, yet the overwhelming crowds, hassling, rubbish and lawless driving endemic in North Indian cities are thankfully absent. Pedestrians are afforded the luxury of footpaths, while motorists even slow down to allow people to cross the road safely! The streets are pleasantly shaded by trees with glorious canopies, and green spaces with manicured lawns and gardens breath life into the dense neighbourhoods. Bangalore is a hive of Western consumeristic activity where credit cards are widely accepted (a god-send during the cash crisis) and iconic elite brands such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Giorgio Armani provide familiar and strangely reassuring aesthetics to the streetscapes (despite not being stores I would typically frequent!).

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Bangalore is a magnet for India’s brightest and most ambitious talent, drawn to the so-called “Silicon Valley of India” to engage in the country’s booming tech industry. Consequently, the city rivals Bombay as India’s most progressive and cosmopolitan centre and its enthralling culinary scene and nightlife reflect this reality. While in Rajasthan, I was advised by two Bangaloreans that the only worthwhile touristic pursuits in the city are eating and drinking. The former is obviously my favourite pastime, while the later was rarely attended to in North India (unintentional). I caught up with Bhagya on my first night in Bangalore and ventured to one of the city’s celebrated microbreweries, along with several of her lovely and very generous friends. I was amazed to find myself in a chic industrial pub serving quality German beers on tap, as if I had just stepped into a Melbourne, London or New York establishment. Toit brewpub was absolutely packed with Indians drinking pints of weiss beer and pale ale, which was most unusual after the standard scene in North India of locals swigging whisky outside a grungy “English Beer and Wine Shop” (I never deduced the reason for the name). I visited more gastropubs the next day, enjoying the break from bland Kingfisher lager and sampling trendy dishes (rustic classics with modern twists, like panko-crumbed fish and chips with sirarcha infused aioli) for the novelty of it in India.

Something I love about contemporary Asian cities like Bangalore are the hidden pockets of traditional culture surviving within jungles of concrete and modern commercialism. Bangalore’s Krishna Rajendra Market certainly fits this bill. The market thrives with locals shopping for tropical fruits, vegetables, Indian cookware and, most notably, flowers. The basement level of the market complex is completely devoted to the wholesale trade of flowers and banana leaves. The unsuspecting tourist is blinded by the resultantly vivid cacophony of colours emanating from this glorious space existing in the shadows of a gritty metropolis. Many vendors feature piles and piles of a single variety of flower strewn on their raised, tile storefronts. Customers buy the flowers literally by the shovel load. The flowers are used for devotional purposes at (usually Hindu) temples and elsewhere. Several aisles sell exclusively flower garlands, which are assembled every day by remarkably skilful and hard-working men (I never spotted a woman undertaking this task, which would be construed as “feminine” in the West). Exploring this basement maze of flower shops was incredibly enjoyable, apparently for both the vendors and I. Most people were genuinely beaming at my presence and were eager to chat and have their photographs taken. One elderly gentleman even gave me one of his roses. It was a completely useless present that obviously ended up in the bin very quickly; but it’s always the thought that counts!

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I travelled to the nearby city of Mysore, yet another amiable South Indian destination. While Bangalore represents the modern, aspirational face of India, Mysore is regarded as the cultural capital of their shared state of Karnataka. Mysore was ruled by the Hindu Wodeyar dynasty for more than six centuries and developed into the region’s foremost city. The dynasty's eventual alliance with the British Empire transformed its urban layout and architectural composition. The colonial legacy is easily identifiable in the city’s atypical Indian character: wide boulevards, footpaths (!), roundabouts with ornamental rotundas and statues, Victorian-era buildings, and above all, a profound sense of space. Consequently, Mysore has the vibe of a provincial town rather than a city of more than a million people; perhaps somewhat like Adelaide. The city’s solitary attraction of notoriety is Mysore Palace, a Word Heritage listed edifice which fuses South Indian, Mughal and Victorian-era architectural styles (an example of Orientalism). The enormous building was constructed at the turn of the century and externally looks somewhat like a European palace, aside from its open-air nature (catering to the tropical climate) and Oriental decorative motifs. Inside though, the building features a series of whimsically designed halls and rooms, with gold and teal dominating as the colours of choice. On Sunday evening for 45 minutes every week, Mysore Palace is magnificently illuminated by 97,000 light bulbs. It was at this rare spectacle that I bumped into British Hattie and Susanna, who I met in Udaipur. This would commence an almost daily occurrence in South India of encountering people I met earlier in my trip.

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In a country of more than a billion people, one must expect tremendous variation between regional cuisines. While this is indeed true for India, generally every culinary offering in the country falls into two umbrella categories: North Indian and South Indian. In North India, dairy products like ghee, butter, cream and butter milk are employed liberally in the preparation of thick gravy curries and heavy accompanying breads. In South India though, coconut oil is preferred for food preparation and rice, rather than bread, is the foremost staple. South Indian curries are lighter, runnier and probably healthier than their Northern counterparts; I certainly thought they were easier to stomach multiple times a day long-term. Andhra cuisine is particularly popular throughout South India; the food hailing from the region’s least tourist state but culinary epicentre. Andhra restaurants typically specialise in banana leaf thalis (hence the demand for banana leaves at the market) and biriyani. The all-you-can-eat thalis ($2-3) feature mounds of rice piled onto banana leaves and served with 3-4 simple vegetable curries, sambar (lentil-based broth), raita (yoghurt dip), rasam (a broth made from tamarind juice and spices), pickled lime, papadums and cardamom-infused rice pudding. A selection of chilli condiments are always available on the table, including fried chillies, chilli paste and a spicy peanut crumb, which added much needed spice (I found food in India was surprisingly not that spicy). Patrons can then order meat or fish “side dishes” to the meal, as South Indians are thankfully more liberal about eating animal flesh than their Northern counterparts. Biriyani is long-grained rice cooked in meat broth and served with meat and vegetables. A “vegetarian” Biriyani is an oxymoron, so never order one because it will taste shit.

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Bangalore and Mysore totally reinvigorated my enthusiasm for travelling in India, which made me somewhat disappointed in the realisation I had less than three weeks to explore the Deep South. However, I think if I visited Bangalore at the start of my trip, I would have been underwhelmed and eager to move on to the “real India”. But for those who have spent an extended period in India, Bangalore is fascinating to visit to see the modern face of the country; as much a part of “real India” as any other city.

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That’s all for now,

Liam

India photos

Posted by Liamps 20:16 Archived in India Comments (0)

Varanasi

India photos

Fear not readership! The barrages of negativity plaguing recent blog entries about India, which prompted some Globo Trip aficionados to blasphemously question my ongoing passion for travel, have concluded! My last four weeks in the country were overwhelmingly positive, almost entirely absent of the travails characterising early stages of the trip. Perhaps I became desensitised to India’s problems, or simply amused by its ridiculousness, though escaping to the country’s deep south was most likely the primary impetus for my improved mood. First however I travelled to Varanasi, inconveniently located in the north-east but an absolute must-visit for any self-respecting itinerary in India. Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world, the holiest city in Hinduism and India’s crematory capital. Varanasi is essentially an experiential destination, a place to observe the continuing customs of India’s rich culture rather than gawk at historical monuments; which is probably why I preferred Varanasi to Agra and any Rajasthani city.

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Varanasi has a notorious reputation on the backpacker circuit as a love-it-or-hate-it destination, admired for its fascinating cultural and religious heritage while simultaneously scorned for its abhorrent pollution, suffocating traffic and intolerable hassling. While each of these characterisations are partially true of Varanasi, I thought the city’s undesirable qualities were rather tame by Indian standards. I was perhaps fortunate to arrive in the immediate aftermath of a major annual festival, which had instigated a massive cleanup of the city. Consequently, I had a rather pleasant time in Varanasi, soaking up its distinctly unique charm and ambiance in the absence of rampant filth. I also stayed at one of my favourite hostels of the trip (Stops Hostel), a factor which always had a major impact on my enjoyment of an Indian destination (more so than in other countries).

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Varanasi has formed haphazardly for several kilometres along the Ganges, India’s mightiest river and the focal point of Varanasi life. On the western bank of the Ganges is the old city, while directly opposite on the eastern bank is a totally undeveloped floodplain of pastures and grazing water buffalo. This bizarre contrast is best appreciated from Varanasi’s iconic ghats, which are embankments of stone steps aligning the Ganges where locals socialise, perform rituals and wash clothes. The urban layout of the old city is rather similar to the Gold Coast: a long, thin stretch of densely compacted buildings sandwiched between a waterfront and a primary road of literally standstill traffic. The key difference though is the old city’s almost unnavigable maze of infinitesimally narrow and atmospheric alleys, which hide pocket-sized cult-favourites like Blue Lassi (pomegranate pistachio anyone?) and numerous establishments owned by Western expats (I recognised an American woman I saw on television 10 years ago!). Unfortunately, the architectural composition of the old city is rather disappointing; a ramshackle mismatch of dilapidated buildings from recent centuries, which belies the momentous historical and cultural significance of Varanasi.

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The identity of Varanasi is explicitly intwined with the River Ganges, the lifeblood of North India. The Ganges begins its 2,525 kilometre journey in the Indian Himalaya and subsequently crosses the northern Gangetic Plain. It finally empties into the Bay of Bengal with the third largest discharge of any river in the world. The Ganges and its associated river system are critically important for the agriculture that sustains hundreds of millions of people. Unsurprisingly, the Ganges is considered sacred by Hindus and worshipped as the goddess Ganga. Throughout the river’s length, Hindus bath in its waters as they believe the Ganges will purify them of sin (reminds me of the Christian cop-out of Penance). In Varanasi every evening, elaborate prayer ceremonies occur on the ghats where performers garbed in orange and gold twirl fire to rather irritating music. Devotees light candles and place them on the water of the Ganges to float peacefully away in the evening darkness. Despite its auspicious status, the Ganges is one of the most polluted and degraded rivers in the world; demonstrative of the hypocrisy of Indian culture.

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Varanasi is internationally famous for the cremations that are conducted openly at Marnikarnika Ghat and Harishchandra Ghat. Hindus believe that if their ashes are scattered into the Ganges at Varanasi within 24 hours of dying, salvation from the perpetual cycles of reincarnation will be achieved instantly. Consequently, numerous hospices align the Ganges accommodating those with terminal illnesses (like palliative care). For those who die away from Varanasi, relatives must transport the body to the city within 24 hours of dying, or cremate the body elsewhere and scatter the ashes in the Ganges at a later point in time (although the chances of salvation are reduced). “Untouchables” (people who are lower than the lowest caste in India’s social structure) are responsible for the dirty work of performing the cremations. They carry bodies embalmed in cloth through the narrow alleys of the old city (quite a galling sight!) to the Ganges, where they are placed on pyres. The “chief mourner” (usually the eldest son) dressed in white circumambulates the body five times to represent the five elements, sprinkles Ganges water over the body and then sets the pyre alight. Around 360 kilograms of wood is required to burn a body, which is prohibitively expensive for poorer families. It takes more than three hours for a body to burn, although the hip and rib bones do not completely decompose. The Untouchable gather the remnant bones and ashes and scatter them in the Ganges. Since cremations are conducted continuously 24/7, these ghats are rather filthy and attract hordes of scavanger goats, cows and dogs.

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One delightful surprise I had in Varanasi was the realisation I could fly directly to South India and skip the taxing journey to the megalopolis of Calcutta. Booking said flight probably heightened my mood in Varanasi in the knowledge I would be leaving stressful North India imminently for an entirely new region. Despite my complaints, travelling in North India was a wild rollercoaster ride thoroughly worth boarding. After all, I can now say I have seen the Himalayas, the Ganges, the Taj Mahal, the Golden Temple, Pakistan, a temple devoted to rats and a cow pissing in the middle of a Hindu ceremony.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 22:48 Archived in India Comments (0)

Agra and Gwalior

India photos

I have to be honest, India is undoubtedly the most exhausting and difficult country I have ever travelled to. I’ve never felt such a burning desire to escape a country I was visiting, nor developed such antipathy for its society. Its really quite an extraordinary state of mind to be in, considering every second day in India delivers a remarkable experience. The needlessly relentless honking, the complete absence of footpaths, the total disregard for pedestrian safety, the stenches of urine, the animal cruelty (aside from the bizarre veneration of cows), the piles of rubbish and shit (mainly from the cows), the haggling for tips and donations by priests and monks, the outrageous injustices of the caste system, the bureaucracy of buying train tickets and the unnavigable stations, the incessant staring, the hands that go suspiciously astray, the generally unhelpful locals (not all) and the constant calls of “hello my friend!” from random hawkers; they all add up to an overwhelming sense of frustration. But two things in particular irritate me about India: the treatment of tourists and the stupid money crisis gripping the entire country and ruining many people’s holidays!

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Since foreigners take significant risk in travelling to India and plough huge amounts of money into the economy, I don’t think its too much to ask for the government to provide easy-to-find, objective tourist information offices at key transport junctions. When such offices do exist, they are usually hidden on station platforms or down side streets, while fake tourist offices designed purely to trick and rip-off tourists are permitted to operate nearby. The lack of English signage in touristic areas (like major train stations!) is extremely insensitive to our vulnerability and incomprehensible in a country where English is actually widely understood by the general populace. At train stations, ticket officers expect us to somehow discern the bewilderingly complex boards written in Hindi to determine the name, number and time of the train we desire. While they may offer some assistance, we’re still required to fill out a form while they recite the details to us; a needlessly convoluted layer of bureaucracy symptomatic of Indian society. I’ve found Indians in general (I must strongly emphasis “in general”) to be rather unhelpful and gruff, often brushing off my pleas for assistance dismissively as if I have outrageously interrupted their demanding work endeavours of sitting and staring into the abyss. India has the potential to become a tourism powerhouse, yet the intransigence of governmental services and the (general) unfriendliness of the locals means the country is clearly out-performed by its Southeast Asian competitors.

The ninth of November 2016 will forever be remembered as the day Western civilisation trashed its principles of liberty, equality, fraternity and democracy with Donald Trump’s despicable “win” (despite millions more people voting for Hillary). For those of us in India that day, it will also be remembered vividly as the start of a ludicrous cash crisis. Overnight, the Indian government announced that all 500 rupees ($10) and 1,000 rupees ($20) notes were no longer useable, invalidating 85% of currency in circulation instantly. India has severe problems with fake currency and collecting taxation in a cash-dominated society, which this dramatic course of action was intended to address. Personally though, I did not give a shit about these issues and was instead aggrieved by the immense inconvenience the decree caused. The government announced that banks would close for two days while ATMs were stocked with new 500 rupees and 2,000 rupees notes. But this is a country where the literal translation of its national name is incompetency. Predictably, the smattering of ATMs that did open over the next few days only dispensed old 100 rupees notes, which quickly dried up by mobs of desperate locals and tourists. Queues lasting for one hour were considered fortuitously short… to withdraw just 2,000 rupees ($40). I was incensed that foreigners could only withdraw the same amount as locals, even though our cost-of-living is so much higher. We don’t own houses in India, kitchens to prepare food in, local knowledge of fare prices in the markets or private vehicles; we must pay for accommodation, restaurant food and transport daily and almost always in cash. Like most other backpackers, for about a week I was forced to roughly halve my daily calorie intake, walk for several kilometres with heavy luggage on chaotic Indian roads (rather than pay a dollar for a tuk-tuk) and forego visiting places in the simple absence of cash. Insultingly, we were still charged foreign entrance fees to major attractions, sometimes TWENTY times what locals paid and up to half our daily ATM allowance!

After about eight days, the tremendously inconvenient 2,000 rupees notes starting trickling into circulation, which relieved the queues somewhat. The cash crisis is ongoing and approaching one month as I write this entry, though unofficial word on the street is that it will take seven months to completely resolve. The government was grossly unprepared for their plan, having failed to print and distribute sufficient currency. Astonishingly though, the Indian public have overwhelmingly supported the policy and Prime Minister Nahendra Modi, who seems to enjoy blind adulation from his people. In advanced countries like Australia, Germany, Great Britain and the US, such tremendous incompetency would surely precipitate the downfall of a government.

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While not the absolute worst place to endure the cash crisis, Agra was still a terrible city to travel to in the absence of money. The sole purpose of visiting this industrial hub was to see the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, which have the two most expensive entrance tickets of all historical attractions throughout India. Depressingly, I sacrificed almost all my precious cash on entrance tickets and skipped meals as I focused specifically on the reason for my visit. It was probably helpful I had food poisoning on my first night in Agra, because the experience certainly dampened my subsequent appetite. While I disagreed with the usual characterisation of Agra as a wretched city of rampant poverty, squalor and pollution, it was certainly a rather boring and ugly destination in the absence of heritage buildings and colourful bazaars.

Agra Fort is virtually the only component of the functional old city still in existence, though its certainly a fabulous compound of structures. The Fort was constructed by the Mughals, a clan originating from Afghanistan, and became the capital of an empire that dominated the entire Subcontinent. The Mughals were the first dynasty to achieve hegemonic rule over India in nearly 2,000 years, largely because of its policy for religious tolerance. Since Agra Fort was an imperial and Islamic capital, its architecture is quite different to Rajasthani forts, which were the seats of mere Hindu kings. The symmetry of its opulent palatial buildings and beautifully manicured Persian gardens are characteristic of the Fort, as is its immense red sandstone walls.

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The Taj Mahal thoroughly deserves its status as the most famous singular building on the face of the Earth – yet I was rather nonplussed. I think lifelong overexposure to images of the Taj Mahal (combined with a foul mood!) muted my ability to be amazed by the wonder. While the Taj is staggeringly beautiful in its perfect proportions, immensity and exquisite details, the building’s appearance was of course exactly as I expected. And viewing the Taj with countless hordes of other tourists obviously stifled the intended romanticism of Shahjahan’s masterpiece. The Mughal emperor constructed the white marble mausoleum in honour of his favourite wife, after she died giving birth to their fourteenth child. The Taj Mahal is therefore perhaps the ultimate expression of love, which from my perspective is a fairly boring justification for its construction (certainly in comparison with the Great Wall’s purpose of protecting China from marauding Mongols and the Coliseum satisfying the blood-thirsty Roman need for gladiatorial battles). I visited the Taj in the late afternoon and was rewarded with brilliant blue skies and a pleasant sunset. Coinciding my trip to Agra with the full moon, I also purchased an additional ticket for a special night viewing of the Taj under moonlight. While the scene was somewhat underwhelming, it was still pleasant to view the Taj with only 20 other people in the compound.

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The difficulty of obtaining tickets on the incredibly popular Agra to Varanasi train route compelled me to travel to Gwalior first in order to reach Hinduism’s holiest city. I arrived in the late morning, permitting ample time to visit the city’s World Heritage listed fort (yet another) before my evening departure. After feasting on tandoori chicken, naan and lassi at a hotel that joyfully accepted credit card, ending an 18 hour fast, I walked the length of Gwalior to reach the fort. Shaped similar to a spear, Gwalior Fort occupies a narrow ridge that spans several kilometres and its fortification walls provide spectacular views over the colourful neighbourhoods. It was here that hordes of locals requested photographs with this tall, strange looking white specimen. Throughout India, foreigners are made to feel like celebrities as locals desperately try to take selfies with them. Admirably, I usually grant their wishes; though it depends on my patience. The people seemed to be especially inquisitive in Gwalior, so I assume the city is unfrequented by tourists. Gwalior Fort’s most distinguishing structure is a palatial complex oddly festooned with yellow and blue tiles depicting ducks in water on the facades. At this point, I was most certainly unable to afford the lofty foreigner entrance ticket, so I was left to admire the ducks as locals walked passed and inside the building. I also observed two remarkably beautiful stone Hindu temples from their perimeters and may have angrily ranted to some of the security guards about the unfairness of the situation.

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I should clarify that this negatively toned entry was predominately written while I was still travelling in North India; at the height of the cash crisis, in the aftermath of an episode of food-poisoning and while I was simply exhausted from incessant traffic, hassling and pollution. I’m now travelling in South India, which I’m exonerating from all aforementioned criticisms because its an unutterably different region to the North. But there’s still Varanasi to discuss before we venture southward...

That’s all for now,

Liam

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Posted by Liamps 13:49 Archived in India Comments (0)

Jaipur and Pushkar

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I concluded my Rajasthani tour in probably the state’s two most touristic destinations: Jaipur and Pushkar. Jaipur is one corner of the overhyped “Golden Triangle”, a triumvirate of charmless, dusty and congested cities that harbour some of India’s most iconic buildings. While considered to be the gateway of Rajasthan, Jaipur is often derisively scorned by backpackers as wholly underwhelming and entirely skippable. Alas, I visited Jaipur purely because I was biding time for the Pushkar Camel Fair... and to attend the city’s famed Lassiwala. Pushkar, a small town even by Australian standards, was brimming with tourists attending the Camel Fair. My imaginations of a festival of exotic splendour were sadly misplaced, as rampant animal cruelty was instead the defining attribute. Fortunately though, the company of British Hermione in Jaipur and British Lotti in Pushkar facilitated an enjoyable final week in the Land of Kings.

Hermione pretentiously opted to skip the backpacker scene and stay in a luxurious hotel in Jaipur, replete with its own silver and silk shops. Rather than meet in a more convenient location (like my hostel), I was routinely summoned to her aristocratic abode before venturing into the mayhem of Jaipur. Nevertheless, this bubble of Western comfort was a pleasant refuge from Jaipur’s hellish streets choking from interminable traffic and stenches of urine (characteristic of all Indian cities but particularly noticeable in Jaipur). Jaipur is a sprawling mass of concrete urbanity within the merciless aridity of the North Indian plains. The centre is also frustratingly expansive, with the hotel cluster and transport hubs located several kilometres from the “Pink City” (historic zone). Utterly incomparable with the charm of other grand Rajasthani centres, the Pink City is simply a grid of sterile, monotonous buildings painted in a colour more similar to ochre than pink. While the crowds of tourists and touts creates a lively atmosphere, the presence of heavy, flowing traffic (enabled by the grid layout) prevents the area from feeling like a typically enchanting bazaar district. Nevertheless, Jaipur is probably the best shopping destination for purchasing traditional Indian textiles and handicrafts; shame that’s not my thing.

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Jaipur’s constituent attraction is actually located in a separate village 11 kilometres to the north. Predating Jaipur by centuries, Amer Fort was the original centre of regional power and remains one of Rajasthan’s most visually arresting sights long after its strategic importance faded. Defended by several robust fortification walls, Amer sprawls imposingly across a steep slope and evokes the golden-brownish hues of the surrounding landscape. The interior architecture is a fusion of Rajasthani and Mughal (Islamic) influences, the latter of which is particularly evident in the symmetrical Persian gardens.

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The entrance ticket of 500 rupees adheres to the Indian government’s policy of ripping foreigners off, so Hermione intended to forego entering the fort. However, I decided to try purchasing two student tickets at the more reasonable cost of 100 rupees each with just my student card. My first attempt was unsuccessful, as the turd-cake behind the counter gesticulated angrily that I specifically needed two cards for the privilege of paying 5 times the local price rather than 25 times. Incensed by his rudeness, I chose to spite him and join the queue for his adjacent colleague. After indicating I needed two cards, the man accepted my excuse that Hermione and her (nonexistent) card were not nearby and sold me two tickets. It was tremendously gratifying to finally reverse the roles and rip India off for a change!

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Jaipur was established in the early 18th century by the Raja of Amer, Jai Singh II, to accommodate the population growth and increasing water scarcity of his existing capital. The relative modernity of Jaipur and the scientific approach Jai Singh adopted for the design thus explains why the Pink City has a noticeably unIndian formation: planned, rigid and with a dearth of intriguing, organic architecture. To honour the visit of Edward VII (as Crown Prince) in 1876, the entire city was painted pink; the colour denoting hospitality in Hindu culture. Buildings in the historic zone have maintained the pink colour (compelled by law), no doubt to achieve a semblance of pleasantness in the city. The Hawa Mahal is easily the most beautiful structure in the Pink City, a multi-level building formerly used by the women of the court to safely view the street life of Jaipur. The Hawa Mahal features terraces on each level and a unique honeycomb façade. Neighbouring Jantar Mantar is a World Heritage precinct of megalithic instruments that were used to take astronomical measurements (using now debunked methods). The precinct’s purpose reflects the importance of cosmology to Hinduism and the value Jai Singh placed in scientific endeavour. Unfortunately, comprehending how each instrument actually functioned required listening to an audio-guide with overly complicated narration scattered with lame jokes; severely challenging my attention span.

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Pushkar is considered to be one of the seven holy cities of India and certainly the epicentre of Hinduism in the state of Rajasthan. Despite its auspicious status, the town is astonishingly small with only 15,000 inhabitants. Its neighbourhoods are clustered around Pushkar Lake, the focal point for religious activity in the town. The lake is completely surrounded by “ghats”, which are concrete steps that lead down to the water’s edge of holy lakes or rivers. Photography is prohibited around Pushkar Lake, which is strictly enforced during the day (although I managed to sneak a couple – I decided not to bother respecting such rules since Indians were shamelessly photographing me all the time) but strangely ignored from dusk onwards when puja (prayers) occur on the ghats. The puja ceremonies basically featured chubby men dressed in bright orange garb chanting the same nasal tune for an hour and waving a large candleholder above the water. The highlight of the first puja I watched was the totally random and sudden appearance of a cow galloping toward the group of priests. The cow stopped very close to the group and, right at the climax of the ceremony, begin pissing on the ghats. Classic. That cow really has superb timing on stage.

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The layout of Pushkar is defined by one primary thoroughfare tracing the circumference of the lake. The thoroughfare is somewhat pedestrianised (although occasional murderous motorcyclists do blaze through the crowds) and lined with innumerable textiles and handicraft stores. The hassling is surprisingly and thankfully restrained, giving Pushkar a much more enjoyable vibe than Jaipur. Pushkar is dotted with dozens of Hindu temples, which in North India are rather disappointing architecturally. The temple compounds usually feature small, omni-coloured sanctuaries housing orange-painted and tinfoil-decorated depictions of the deity the temples are dedicated to. My dormitory in Pushkar was an open-air rooftop garden, completely exposed to the evening coldness and noises from the festival. Yet somehow I slept remarkably well in the circumstances.

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The opportunity to witness mystics, snake-charmers, horse dancing and particularly a sea of 50,000 camels compelled me to attend the Pushkar Camel Fair in early November, which was the only set date I committed to on my trip to India. Unfortunately though, the Fair was also the greatest disappointment of my trip to India. There just wasn’t much to see or do. Once you’ve seen one grassless paddock crammed with camels, you’ve seen them all. And once you’ve seen hundreds of camels treated viciously by their owners, its quite difficult to return in the knowledge there is nothing you can do to change their habits. Lotti admirably questioned the need for their cruelty, and also the sexist nature of some of the Fair’s events, but it always fell on deaf ears. We saw countless camels standing on just three legs, because one of their front legs were tied up to prevent them from moving. We saw camels with their two front legs tied together and whipped mercilessly by their owners as they trained the camels to walk on their two front knees. We saw horses forced by their owners to perform graceless “dances” in stunned terror of the crowds mobbing them. And repeatedly we saw camels with decrepit scars from the abuse they endured. I think many Western tourists were shocked and ashamed at what we witnessed. The locals attempt to hide the gruesome reality of their treatment by festooning their animals in colourful Rajasthani garb, and I suppose that must be sufficient to placate the Indian tourists. Meanwhile, Pushkar is a strictly vegetarian city. What a bunch of hypocrites.

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Indians have a knack for intensifying the unhealthiness of dishes already detrimental to human well-being. For example, adding thick dollops of butter to the top of creamy lassis, scrambling paneer in more butter than the cheese itself and soaking buttery roti in even more butter are probably not recommended by conventional nutritionists. The Indian obsession for snacking on fried goods also exemplifies their disregard for nutritional eating. On virtually every corner throughout North India, men deep-fry samosas and pakoras over piping-hot cauldrons of oil. Pakoras are basically just slices of vegetables or a chickpea flour mixture coated in a masala batter and fried until crispy. In Rajasthan, kachoris are also available. Kachoris are basically disc-shaped pies filled with a rich onion mixture and fried not once, not twice, but three times to maximise the crunch of the batter.

Jaipur poorly reflects the majesty of Rajasthan and its status as one of India’s premium tourist destinations is utterly undeserved. While Amer Fort is impressive, I personally don’t believe it matches the stunning location of Jaisalmer Fort, domineering presence of Mehrangarh Fort or interior opulence of Agra Fort. While the Camel Fair didn’t exactly meet expectations (although I did see a cobra charmed!), Pushkar is still a lovely small town with fascinating religious customs.

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That’s all for now,

Liam

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Posted by Liamps 15:09 Archived in India Comments (0)

Udaipur

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Never mock the value of a holiday from a holiday, especially while travelling in a country such as India. As everyone knows, backpacking is obviously one of the most physically, mentally and emotionally draining lifestyles in existence, so a dose of ‘R n R’ is a necessary antidote to traveller’s fatigue. Reflecting this principle, I broke my typically demanding sightseeing routine and spent four days chilling out in Udaipur, a veritable oasis of calm and tranquility within a land of chaos and pollution. The White City is dreamily free of the dust, dilapidation and destitution endemic in other North Indian cities, while the hassling, traffic and honking are relatively tame. While touristy, Udaipur was certainly my favourite of Rajasthan’s colourful royal capitals.

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I stayed at Bunkyard Hostel in Udaipur, which was my favourite accommodation in North India. The hostel featured lovely open balconies on each of its five levels overlooking Udaipur’s iconic Pichola Lake. The terraced rooftop was my favourite hangout, as it boasted surely the most spectacular view in the city. I met a fantastic bunch of people at Bunkyard, including British Hermione who I later travelled with in Kerala. Before you ask, her last name is not Granger (I’d like to congratulate myself for not trifling her with this inane question).

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The serenity of Udaipur’s lakes and the beauty of its waterfront villas and palaces are reminiscent more so of the Mediterranean than North India. Clustered around the lakes are winding streets of whitewashed buildings with almost Venetian-style facades bordering the water. Udaipur’s City Palace is one of India’s largest and contradictory to other Rajasthani forts for emphasising opulence rather than defence. Along with other palaces converted into uber expensive hotels, it directly fronts Pichola Lake and dominates Udaipur’s skyline. The city is refreshingly green, heavily vegetated and surrounded by hills, a distinctly unRajasthani appearance. Udaipur doesn’t boast a staggering ensemble of tourist attractions, its just a pleasant city to amble around.

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I intentionally coincided my visit to Udaipur with the biggest event on the Hindu calendar, Diwali. The Festival of Lights is the Indian equivalent of New Year’s Eve, celebrated for five days around the darkest night of the new moon between mid-October and mid-November. Diwali signifies the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance and hope over despair. In the led up to Diwali, Indians begin festooning their homes and businesses with candles, flowers and tinsel. Firecrackers become increasingly more prevalent, culminating in a near constant barrage of explosions on Diwali itself. After sunset on Diwali, Udaipur glowed ethereally from hundreds of thousands of tiny candles alighting entranceways, benches and walls throughout the city. I spent the evening on the rooftop of Bunkyard watching the spectacle unfold. We lit lanterns and released them into the air, nearly burning down the neighbouring restaurant in the process. Unfortunately there was no planned firework displays, just thousands of fireworks individually bursting from different parts of the city all night. The day after Diwali, strange configurations of people made from cow dung decorated with flowers marked the entrance to every building.

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For a taste of Rajasthani culture, I attended a traditional dance and puppetry show in a beautiful, candle-lit outdoor theatre. The show was composed of several performances that demonstrated routines originating from different regions of Rajasthan. The opening sequence featured women in multicoloured saris and dresses pirouetting at incredible speeds while urns of fire balanced on their heads. We watched a bizarre performance depicting benevolent and malevolent gods battling for supremacy, which constituted excessively garbed men prancing around on stage, arrogantly staring into the sky and engaging in a very soft form of combat. A puppetry master revealed his extraordinary skills by performing curtainless, permitting us to see how his subtle hand movements instigate the incredible acrobatics of the puppet. The highlight of the show was saved for last, when a middle-aged women performed a solo dance act while balancing terracotta pots on her head. She started with one pot, which increased to three, then six and eventually a dozen. While appearing to be disconcertingly nervous throughout, she successfully accomplished her dance routine each time a new batch of pots were added to the tower on her head, which was up to one-and-half times her height by the conclusion.

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In Udaipur, I enrolled into an activity I had inexplicably never participated in before: a cooking class! Together with British Hermione, German Emi, Israeli Mickey and an American couple gobsmacked by the concept of travelling for more than three weeks, we were taught how to prepare a dozen North Indian dishes by a Rajasthani widow named Shanshi. She started the cooking classes five years ago without any English and has since become fluent in the language purely through interacting with foreign tourists. She taught us how to make chai masala, pakora, naan, parantha, chapati, several curries and pulao during the five hour class. Perhaps the most intriguing insight was that virtually all North Indian curries use exactly the same base. Onions, garlic and ginger are fried until golden, when seven spices (chilli powder, cumin seeds, turmeric, aniseed, ground coriander, salt and garam masala) and chopped tomatoes are added. The mixture can then be stored for up to a week before being used for various curries. The constituent ingredients of the curries (like lentils, cauliflower and potato, spinach and paneer, potato and peas) are cooked in the base, possibly with the addition of other spices, fresh chilli, cream or nuts. Shanshi provided us with booklets of her easy-to-follow recipes, which are thankfully free of the excessive quantities of sugar, ghee and butter synonymous with North Indian cuisine.

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While lacking outstanding natural, architectural, religious or culinary wonders, Udaipur was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my trip to India. The city’s relaxed and cosmopolitan vibe was a welcome relief in the typically frenetic and traditional state of Rajasthan.

That’s all for now,

Liam

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Posted by Liamps 21:34 Archived in India Comments (0)

The Blue Cities of Rajasthan

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One of Rajasthan’s most evocative allures is to see the “Blue City”… though few people know there are two cities that covet this label. Of the two, Jodhpur is the internationally famed destination, renowned for its staggering fortress as much as the blueness of its old city. Located at the geographical heart of Rajasthan, Jodhpur is invariably included on itineraries through North India and consequently the traffic-choked city is rather touristic. Few people though venture to the comparative hamlet of Bundi, a serene escape from the big cities of India. I travelled to both Jodhpur and Bundi, though visited Udaipur in between (next entry).

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After five days of relative peace in Jaisalmer and the Thar Desert, I was rudely brought back to the reality of Indian cities upon arrival at Jodhpur. I was approached on the train platform by supposedly benevolent locals, who claimed the old city was in the exact opposite direction to its actual location. However, these conniving tuk-tuk drivers were no match for a man with such an impeccable sense of direction… or at least 21st century technology in the form of Google Maps. The streets of Jodhpur were heaving with traffic, occasionally preventing any movement whatsoever for vehicles and pedestrians alike in the compact old city. Maniacal motorcyclists blared their horns so loudly and unnecessarily that I could literally feel my ear drums being damaged. I hopped between murderous motorists, enormous cattle, vicious dogs, beggars, excrement of various descriptions and endless piles of garbage to reach my guesthouse. I was beginning to question the worth of visiting this gritty, overcrowded city. But my doubts immediately evaporated when I ascended to the rooftop terrace of my guesthouse and viewed the colossal Mehrangarh Fort.

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Mehrangarh Fort rises magnificently above the Blue City of Jodhpur in a similarly dramatic and imposing fashion to Edinburgh Castle, though on a larger scale. The fortress walls are literally carved from the rock of the hill it occupies, creating a virtually impenetrable barrier for invading armies. Indeed, the maharajas of Marwar can proudly boast their stronghold was never conquered until the proliferation of foreign tour groups. Within the robust defences of the fortress is a sumptuous palace festooned with delicate Rajasthani carvings on the facades and elaborately decorated Indo-European rooms inside. Like most historical attractions in India, unfortunately visiting the fortress is prohibitively expensive for many backpackers. The entrance ticket is roughly the equivalent of Western prices and grossly disproportionate to other costs in India (and the infinitesimal local fee). This extortionate behaviour is demonstrative of the contempt India systematically has for “cheap” tourism (in comparison to competitors like Thailand and Vietnam). The government can charge whatever they fancy for the Taj Mahal because of its international fame. But I would bet that anyone reading this entry who has not travelled to Rajasthan has never heard of Mehrangarh Fort, despite its World Heritage status. Consequently, many backpackers struggle to justify paying these ludicrous fees repeatedly since India is littered with fortresses.

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The central bazaar area of Jodhpur, while colourful from the merchandise and women’s clothing, is certainly not recognisable as “the Blue City”. Perhaps only one in five of the old, crumbling townhouses are actually painted blue, leaving many tourists disappointed. But if you venture further into the narrow residential areas that surrounded the vertical slopes of Mehrangarh Fort, the streetscape gradually becomes more vibrantly blue. Indeed, in the oldest neighbourhood tragically unfrequented by tourists, almost every dwelling is painted different shades of blue. The houses are like miniature compounds, with only charismatic wooden doors and small windows breaking the monolithic blue stone walls.

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While ambling aimlessly through such areas, one local attempted to usher me back to the touristic zone by suggesting I follow an alley leading to a traditional spice market. Aware that he was trying to stooge me, I still decided to walk in that direction in curiosity. Five minutes later, I noticed that he had been stalking me and was making phone calls. When I arrived at a busy junction, I was approached by a man who claimed to be the cook at my guesthouse (I had foolishly mentioned the name to the first chap)! Amazed at the audacity of their lies, I sarcastically complimented his preparation of a delicious lunch (it actually was rather good). He quickly redirected conversation to the enthralling spice market around the corner that I simply had to visit right at that moment (5:30pm on a Sunday night). I then noticed the original turd-cake was failing miserably to watch our conversation discreetly from a corner shop. I thanked the fake cook for his advice and said I may visit the following day, but in irritation he warned me the market would be very busy then (as if visiting an empty market was a preferable alternative). I giddily exclaimed that would be perfect and scurried off, though loitered at a distance to catch the fake cook gesticulating with the original turd-cake about my departure. I walked past the fake cook again the next day and he denied ever claiming to work in my guesthouse while trying to lure me into his souvenir shop.

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My journey to Bundi was certainly a hellish bus trip. Two bus trips actually, because contrary to the advice I received at the bus station the day before travelling, there were no direct buses to Bundi due to Diwali celebrations. Instead, the same duffus I had spoken to suggested I take a bus to a town I had never heard of and then transfer to a bus bound for Bundi. My initial expectation of a five hour journey ballooned out to eleven hours overall. Nevertheless, the first bus was uneventful and the transfer relatively smooth thanks to an English speaking benefactor at the terminal. It was the second bus that was particularly unpleasant. I was squished with my 18kg rucksack and 6kg day-bag into one place in the very back corner, completely deprived of leg-room (or an escape). As the bus became overcrowded, a group of about ten men, both seated and standing, began staring at me, chatting in Hindi and laughing about me. Something I loathe about Indian culture is their propensity to stare endlessly but never to return a smile. After the usual mundane question of “where are you from?”, they disconcertingly inquired about whether we use dollars and what the exchange rate is. One of the men, fascinated by the appearance of a tall, white man on this rural, government bus, managed to slip in beside me and proceeded to creep me out for the next 90 minutes. With no command of the English language, all his communication was through pointing and poking. First, he noticed a fresh scar on my knee and poked it with his filthy fingers, forcing me to wrap my jacket around my legs. He made a bizarre comparison between my stubble and leg hair, attempted to hand-fed me a lolly I had given him, seemed to stroke my leg not accidentally and insisted I take a selfie on my phone with him. It was the first time in more than two years of backpacking I felt genuinely uncomfortable on public transport, though I was eternally grateful not to be a single woman in that situation. The strange man’s departure was an enormous relief and I was ecstatic when we finally arrived in Bundi, albeit after dark.

I really, really liked Bundi, the hidden jewel of Rajasthan. The city’s fame pales in comparison to Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur and Jaisalmer, but Bundi is arguably more beautiful than the lot of them. Despite a relatively small population of 100,000, Bundi boasts a surprisingly expansive old city which is excellently preserved and radiantly blue and golden. The “Blue City” moniker is certainly more apt for Bundi than its rival Jodhpur. Countless Hindu temples with honeycombed rooftops dot the winding alleys of the old city, while grand Mughal gateways align the fortified walls and main thoroughfare. Situated on a thickly vegetated slope directly north of the old city is Bundi Palace, an enchanting structure that has been left to crumble, decay and be conquered by bats and monkeys. The slope on the opposite side of the valley affords magnificent views of the old city and palace. The most pleasant aspect of Bundi is that extraordinary Rajasthani architectural heritage can be enjoyed the incessant traffic and honking of other cities. I stayed in a centuries-old haveli (traditional Rajasthani upper class abode) beside an ornamental lake bordered by frangipani, lawns and crumbling ruins. Astonishingly, for just $6 I had a double room featuring period furniture and decoration and with three stainless glass windows overlooking the lake.

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The people of Bundi were especially friendly… or perhaps just a little bit too friendly. Every shop owner and tuk-tuk driver seemed to want to have a genuine chat – beyond the usual sales pitch. But since walking around Bundi required passing through one major thoroughfare, I found myself passing the same people several times a day. Their ceaseless efforts to engage in small talk became rather tedious and irritating, especially when I needed to attended a lavatory. While ambling around the colourful backstreets of Bundi, children would spot me and gleefully pounce at the opportunity to have their photograph taken. Their mothers would often request I send them copies, though unfortunately when they always wrote down a postal rather than e-mail address, so they shouldn’t get their hopes up!

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Indira Gandhi’s progressive governments of the 1960s and 1970s attempted to liberate the masses by officially abolishing the caste system. Yet to my surprise, the caste system stills defines India’s social structure, especially in conservative and rural areas (like Rajasthan). Hindu society is generally divided into four castes: Brahmin (priestly caste), Kshatriya (warrior and administrative caste), Vaishya (merchant caste) and Shudra (labour caste). Below the castes are the “Untouchables”, who work menial jobs like cleaning India’s incomprehensibly wretched drains, live on the fringes and must avoid all physical contact with members of the higher castes. Outside of the cosmopolitan mega-cities, marital unions between people of different castes are totally unacceptable; and honour killings can be a disgraceful response to such occurrences. Castes are not completely analogous to classes, because they are defined not by socio-economic factors but by religion. Nevertheless, the caste system is simply another manifestation of an elite minority ingeniously subjugating a marginalised majority. The Brahmins have successfully coerced the Hindu populace into believing in reincarnation, and that the form someone reincarnates into is determined by the fulfilment of their moral duties (defined by their caste). Hinduism is thus a mechanism to avert the rebelliousness of the lower castes and preserve the status quo advantageously for the Brahmins. I suppose its not too dissimilar to Christian clergymen hypocritically babbling on about sin and the commandments while indulging in a gluttonous and, for some of them, contemptible lifestyle.

The Brahmins are easily the wealthiest, healthiest and most educated in Indian society. Their houses are easily discernible in traditional areas because they’re typically painted blue. When I walked around the “Blue Cities” of Jodhpur and Bundi, children would often run out of their large, beautiful residences begging me for rupees, pens or chocolate – in plain view of their disinterested parents. I found this particularly galling, because much poorer parents in other countries I have travelled to usually have the dignity to scold their children for hassling tourists. Evidently, traditional Brahmins shamelessly believe they are entitled to privilege. An example of the privileges Brahmins enjoy is their dominance of professional cricket in India. I’ve often wondered why a country of 1.2 billion people totally obsessed with cricket cannot produce an utterly unbeatable team. The caste-system is the simple explanation. Only the Brahmins can afford coaching, only Brahmins occupy important administrative positions and therefore only Brahmins and members of the highest castes are selected for the national team. Indeed, almost every star Indian cricketer in history is a Brahmin. Interestingly, Brahmins traditionally don’t do physical occupations, which may explain why Indian cricket teams are notoriously mediocre at fast bowling, fielding and running between the wicket; the athletic components of cricket.

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If you can learn the English translation of twelve Hindi words, you can basically decode any North Indian menu. Aloo = potato, baigan = eggplant, chana = chickpeas, dal = lentils, gobhi = cauliflower, kofta = balls of food, korma = nut-based sauce, malai = creamy, masala = spicy sauce, mattar = peas, palak = spinach and paneer = cottage cheese. Virtually every vegetarian curry in North India (meat is hard to come by outside of Sikh and Muslim neighbourhoods) is simply a combination of two of the aforementioned words. Needless to say, after a while they begin to taste rather similar. My favourite curries are palak paneer, chana masala, aloo gobhi and malai kofta. Palak paneer features cubes of cottage cheese cooked in a tantalisingly rich gravy of pureed spinach, tomato, spices and ghee. Chana masala is a wet curry of chickpeas served in a spicy gravy. Aloo gobhi is a dry curry consisting of chunks of potatoes and cauliflower shallow fried in spices. Malai kofta, which I found to be very hit and miss, is usually balls of mash potato and cottage cheese served in a creamy tomato gravy. However, one of the best curries I ate in North India was a humble, delicately spiced dry pumpkin curry in Bundi. Unfortunately, Indians typically destroy their curry concoctions by adding putrid coriander leaves; it was always tremendously upsetting when I neglected to request “no coriander” and the meal arrived smothered in the poisonous leaves.

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Rajasthan’s Blue Cities of Jodhpur and Bundi were both intriguing cities to visit. However, Jodhpur is only a “must-see” destination because of Megrangarh Fort; Bundi has a much more pleasant and colourful old city vibe.

That’s all for now,

Liam

India photos

Posted by Liamps 22:45 Archived in India Comments (1)

Thar Desert

Rajasthan, which literally means “the land of kings”, is often cited by Indians as the place where the “real India” continues to thrive. I assume Indians are referring romantically to things like the continuation of regal Rajput traditions, the prevalent use of camels, the elaborate turbans the men fashion and the famed Rajasthani handcrafted textiles, rather than less pleasant aspects of the state like the high levels of poverty and illiteracy and the resilient strength of the archaic caste system. So ignoring these inconvenient truths, Rajasthan is celebrated as India’s most touristic regions, with evocatively labelled attractions such as the Pink City, Blue City and City of the Lakes. Rajasthan reminded me somewhat of Morocco, with its colour-coded cities, enthralling bazaars and edge-of-the desert atmosphere. The culturally defining Thar Desert sprawls across the north and west of Rajasthan and into Pakistan. I spent the first week of my loop around Rajasthan in the Thar Desert, visiting the cities of Bikaner and Jaisalmer.

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Rajasthan is the homeland of the Rajputs, warrior clans that were renowned for their unparalleled bravery and honour. The Rajputs established more than a dozen principalities in the region and constructed magnificent fortresses as their capitals. The Rajputs continuously fought between each other for pride and independence. Tradition demanded that when defeat in battle was inevitable, a ritual mass suicide was required. The warriors would ride out to battle in saffron garb and face certain death, while the women and children would burn in the flames of a funeral pyre. Due to the disunity of the Rajputs, the principalities were eventually absorbed into the Mughal and then British colonial empires. However, the militancy of their unique culture enabled them to preserve some autonomous powers. After Independence, the Government of India was forced to pay allowances to the Maharajas for their allegiance to the newly formed country, though this and their titles were officially abolished by Indira Ghandi in the 1970s. The maharajas still retain property, wealth and influence in their home cities.

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Bikaner is basically a microcosm of all that is inherently wrong with Indian society (I could ramble on for days on this subject). Despite a relatively moderate population of 700,000, Bikaner is swarming with horrendous traffic, particularly moronic Indians on motorcycles – my pet hate. Like elsewhere in Asia, Indian motorcyclists drive recklessly fast and give no indication what direction they are travelling in (other than at you!). But the most galling aspect about Indian motorcyclists is their penchant to honk ALL THE TIME, usually needlessly and often without taking their hands off the horn. I seriously think my ear drums are damaged just from dodging traffic on the roads (remember, no footpaths in India!) of Indian cities. Bikaner doesn’t boast the burgeoning tourism sectors of other Rajasthani cities, yet the locals have certainly mastered the art of hassling. One guy managed to find me thrice in the same day in different parts of the city, determined to book my train ticket. I stayed at Vinayak Guesthouse, where the owner tried to coerce me into changing my travel plans to Jaisalmer to join his camel safari, wanted me to upgrade rooms because he was clearly irritated by the price I paid online and pressed me to write a positive review on Tripadvisor in gratitude for the bargain. Instead, I’m writing this in annoyance at being encouraged to leave in the morning with all my luggage when I had a late evening train to catch. The locals demonstrate total disregard for their environment with rubbish and shit (mainly from cows) strewn everywhere. Bikaner does have some redeeming qualities, like the grandiose red sandstone Junagarh fort, home of the former Rajas of Bikaner, and the mysterious winding streets in the old town with colourful houses and some intricately detailed facades. Overall though, Bikaner is a dusty, gritty and unpleasant city, absent of the magic and charm of other Rajasthani centres.

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I travelled to Bikaner specifically to visit a very unusual attraction in the nearby village of Deshnok: Karni Mata, or the Temple of Rats. The temple is indeed swarming with thousands of rats, with the residents of Deshnok believing that the holy rodents are the reincarnated forms of their ancestors. Despite general open-mindedness to foreign cultures, clearly we all have limits; the Temple of Rats was undoubtedly the most repulsive, barbaric, insane and disgusting thing I had ever witnessed – until the shameful election of Donald Trump. The temple appears to be relatively harmless from the outside, with kitsch pink walls separating a clean public space from the horrors lurking inside. Visitors are required to dispense of their shoes before entering the temple, though thankfully tourists can wear a (flimsy) feet cover. Indians believe that if a rat runs across your feet or perhaps even takes a nibble, its especially good fortune, though I obviously had no intentions of allowing that to happen. Passing through the entrance gate immediately commences an unforgettable nightmare. Every nook and cranny is literally filled with rats, which scurry quickly and unpredictably in all directions. Indians amble around the temple grounds oblivious to the squalor, sometimes feeding the rats and sitting beside clusters of them nonchalantly. Like other Western tourists though, I was mortified by the sights and smells. The occupants of the temple are particularly decrepit rodents, partially hairless and rather gaunt, which is surprising considering their auspicious statuses and diets. With each step I needed to summon the courage to proceed further into the compound, petrified of the rats but fascinated by this ridiculous “religious” site. I discovered that the rats never scurried into the sunlight, fortunately providing me with a refuge when things became too overwhelming. That was certainly the case when I delved into the inner sanctuary, which had such a high concentration of rats that I couldn’t last more than a minute or two at a time. However, one thing was completely inescapable: the uniquely putrid stench emanating from the combined excrement of the rats and flocks of pigeons that also inhabit the temple. Probably the most horrific scene I witnessed in the 40 minutes I could tolerate in the temple was dozens of rats drinking simultaneously from a large bowl of milk.

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Jaisalmer was an appropriate antidote to my previous five days in chaotic Indian cities. I wouldn’t say “perfect”, because the murderous motorcyclists were still prevalent, but at only 90,000 people Jaisalmer is a comparative hamlet in this humungous country. A hamlet defined by a stupendous fortress literally rising from the interminable flatness of the desert (analogous perhaps to Uluru) and resembling a life-size sand castle. The 850 year old Jaisalmer Fort is preserved well cosmetically, though its foundations are severely threatened by the unregulated use of water for touristic purposes. The fortress features an imposing stone wall of 99 fairy-tale like watchtowers and an opulent palace, the former abode of Jaisalmer’s maharajas. Hidden within the winding streets of the fort are souvenir shops attempting to rip you off and Jain temples with priests attempting to rip you off. I haven’t had the time or botherance to learn anything about Jainism, other than 1% of India’s population subscribe to the religion, they control a disproportionately large amount of wealth while rejecting the caste system, and cosmology is rather central to their beliefs. Jain temples are distinguished for their incredibly detailed designs, with all internal and external surfaces covered in intricate carved sculpture or painting. The temples are thus somewhat overwhelming artistically, yet still refined unlike gaudy Hindu temples. The atmosphere is kind of spoiled by the stalking behaviour of the priests, who guide visitors to donation boxes and give unsolicited descriptions of the temples – playing for tips (and not receiving any from me!). The sandstone buildings of the old town that surround the fort radiate a beautiful yellowish colour, giving Jaisalmer the apt moniker of the Golden City.

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I joined a Norwegian couple for a three day camel safari into the Thar Desert, led by the self-proclaimed “Real Camel Man” (replete with a purple turban and grey Rajasthani moustache) and his nephew. The Real Camel Man offered an obscenely cheap price for his services, as he cut out the middleman (all accommodation and travel agents in Jaisalmer gleefully arrange camel safaris) to the chagrin of my guesthouse. Despite some apprehension about the quality considering the price, the safari was actually rather good, though the Real Camel Man did have an irritating preponderance to redirect conversation back to his financial plight. I have no doubt his intentions were to incite sympathy and perhaps earn some donations from these generous, golden-hearted Westerners, but of course he was barking up the wrong trees. Norwegians are notoriously frugal people despite their unfathomable wealth, while I'm desensitised to crying-poor stories coming from people living relatively comfortably for their context.

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The Thar Desert is regarded as the most “lived in” desert in the world, which is certainly understandable since we passed villages, herds of livestock and wind turbine farms with unexpected regularity. The desert is almost blanketed with dry shrubbery and even trees, with only splotches of rolling sand dunes interrupting the greenery. It therefore doesn’t quite provide the quintessential desert experience of utter nothingness, aridity and isolation, though it was still a welcome escape into nature from the crowds, noise and pollution of Indian cities. It was also exciting to be riding camels once more, easily the most impressive, fascinating and graceful creatures on the planet. Riding the camels was not as painful as my ordeal in Morocco, as my legs did not chaff or cramp in agony. I needed to hold on vigorously though when the camels stood up or sat down; they’re very sudden and jerky movements. We rode the camels for a couple hours at a time, rested in the heat of the day and slept on the sand dunes under the stars. Fortunately the Real Camel Man seemed to treat his camels with respect and care; they were only required to work for four hours a day lugging us around and were then released to graze in the desert. I was amazed how the Real Camel Man’s nephew was able to track down the animals each morning after they had wandered more than four kilometres away overnight.

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Indians typically eat a thali for lunch or dinner, which is a multi-dish meal consisting of 2-3 vegetarian curries, dhal, raita, pickled lemons, salad, roti, papadum, rice and sometimes a sweet. Each state of India features its own variations of the thali, usually with different vegetarian curries served. I sampled several traditional Rajasthani curries in humungous thalis including a curry of chickpea flour balls served in a rich gravy and a dry curry of vegetables similar to green beans and grown in the desert. The only notable street food I had in Bikaner or Jaisalmer was aloo tikki, which are patties of mashed potatoes mixed with chana masala (chickpea curry) and chilli sauce, fried on a hot plate and topped with crispy bits.

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Thus ended the first stanza of my Rajasthani tour!

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 17:20 Archived in India Comments (0)

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