A Travellerspoint blog

Western India

Hello from India once again, hope you're enjoying the Summer!

When I flew back into India I had to take a 32hr train to Mumbai which eventually became 42hrs but it was alright as it turned up in the morning rather than at midnight. Whilst I think getting onto a busy train shows Indians at their very worst with all the fighting and inhumanity of it, once you're onboard I think it bizarrely shows them at their courteous most hospitable best. Traveling by train is my favorite mode of transport and India it's been a wonderful experience. Unlike buses they're comfortable and unlike planes they really help knit the landscape together giving you a real feel for how you move across the country geographically. India would also have to rank as the best country I've ever been to for land transport, whilst planes are surprisingly expensive overland travel here is insanely cheap- the train to Mumbai cost me just $10 for a 2nd class sleeper ticket. On top of that the combination of a large densely settled population of whom few have cars means that transport is always plentiful and I can rarely remember having to wait more than an hr or two to go anywhere. What isn't quite so easy is actually buying tickets; India is of course notoriously bureaucratic and inefficient and the process of buying a train ticket can often take more than 2hrs and involve having to speak to 4 different people. They're not really at the stage of computerized bookings let alone card payments and everything is very 'labour intensive'. As with many other things in India it also involves lots of annoying rules and regulations which can be another frustrating aspect of the country. The country is a stickler for unnecessary rules and dealing with low level clerks or security guards can be an absolute nightmare, like you're in a nation of Gareth Keenans. Several times I've got into ludicrous arguments with people over things like where you're allowed to stand on a train platform or waiting 2 minutes til a temple is officially opened etc. Of course you can always bribe them as this is India after all (as the Delhi Commonwealth games scandal is currently showing) but I'm not generally too keen on that..

When I arrived in the worlds 4th biggest city I instantly felt 'wow'! Mumbai is a phenomenal city and by some distance the hardest to describe that I've been to on this trip; at the same time it feels both very Indian and un-Indian in lots of ways and on every level I just found it a fascinating place to be. In fact so much so that I've written so much about it I'll need to send another email in a few weeks- sorry!
The Portuguese named it the good bay (bom bahia) and the city originally made up of islands has got a fantastic geography to it. Through tetrapods they've reclaimed enough land to connect the different islands of the bay and you're treated with wonderful vistas of skyscrapers looking out over the Arabian Sea along a series of curves reminiscent of Rio.
It's long been the most financially successful city in India and for over 100 years has attracted people from all over the place looking to seek their fortune.
In the early 1990's the then Finance minister and now PM Manoman Singh opened the Indian economy from a previous more finacncially regulated system. Since then India has been growing fairly rapidly as an economy and nowhere more so than Mumbai; home to the stock market and one of the worlds most important harbors it's growing wealth has created a fascinating cultural mix and it's definitely ground zero of the 'New India'.
It's a bit of a vague concept but to me it seems to mainly entail the swelling ranks of the middle and upper classes behaving and acting ever more Western and ever less Indian. They dress in Jeans and T-shirts, snobbishly refuse to speak anything but English and in Mumbai I saw things I've not seen anywhere else in the country; fat people, glamorous people, American cars and even a McDonalds and at times it feels not so much one but a few steps ahead of the rest of the country- or perhaps aside would be a better description.
It's very multicultural with a big Arabic presence as well as Europeans, Africans and others from all over Asia but I found the Indian diversity more striking to look at. Over 200 languages are spoken in the city and at times it feels like a microcosm of the country as a whole as years of attracting 5,000+ new inhabitants per week have given the city a striking breakdown of the different fashions, foods and languages of the different states but also one of the biggest rich-poor gaps you'll see anywhere in the world.

Whilst the likes of Brazil and South Africa are famous for it I believe India as a country and Mumbai as a city has perhaps now overtaken them all as the place where you see so many people with so much, but so many with almost literally nothing. Due to the more liberal market regulations introduced in the early 1990s, the sheer size of the population in India has meant that the number of entrepreneurs who've become millionaires in India has been skyrocketing in recent years to nearly 100,000. In Mumbai there are signs of this everywhere from the luxury apartments in the plum locations to some of the most expensive restaurants you'll see almost anywhere in the developing world, though the most extreme thing I saw was the incredible sight a Lamborghini flying along Marine Drive one day.
But at the same time 1/3rd of India's population still live on less than a dollar a day- you're never far from a bustee (shantytown) in Mumbai and many have much less than a roof over their heads. Even in some of the most prominent spots in the city (beneath the national bank, on the central Cowpatty beach etc) you see destitute refugee families huddled under makeshift tents or without even that level of luxury and I found nocturnal walks would have to be on the roads as most of the pavements are taken as beds for the homeless numbering in 6 figures. The monsoon in Mumbai is absolutely vicious and whilst the rains which can gut entire days out won't kill you, if you don't have a roof above your head it really would be a terrible and presumably fairly short life.
Like many quick growing developing economies a narrowing of the rich poor gap is high on the list of things India needs to improve on but it's a hard balance to pick. Much of their growth is based on lower taxes for companies and the rich but as you've probably heard the army has been fighting an ultra left wing peasant army called the Naxalites in the poorer states for some years now and trying to make sure everyone's quality of life improves over the coming years is not easy.

But it's not all about making money in Mumbai; it's also the undoubted cultural capital of the country and the entire subcontinent. Whilst it has a strong literary and arts scene it is of course most famous for Bollywood (or should it be renamed Mullywood?).
Over the last few years the films are generally agreed to have greatly improved with different plots from the overblown love stories and historical epics and a cut from the 3hr+ running times. But they still have the worst choreographed action sequences in the world, a laughably strict censorship (they cut away at 'you may now kiss the bride moments in wedding scenes' and go blank with health warnings when alcohol is shown being drunk) and the surreal leaps into expansive song and dance numbers so I've found myself surprisingly entertained by the films. India has an obsession with celebrities unlike anywhere I've seen before; if people rightly moan about the overdoses of Heat, Pop Idol etc we get in Western countries then put it this way- there is no Hindi word for 'overexposure'. If you took the 10 most famous English celebrities and counted how many times you saw their face in various media I estimate you'd count 1-3 times per day, but in India I'd put the 10 biggest celebs (say 8 Bollywood stars and the 2 biggest cricketers) at nearer double figures. They advertise absolutely anything and everything and whilst it's amusing to see 'hardman' actors plugging air fresheners I find it quite sad seeing Sachin Tendulkar fronting ads for cement companies. Without taking any particular interest in the film industry, through the sheer ubiquity of their images I found I could very quickly tell Katrina Kaif from Kareena Kapoor and one thing became very apparent. If you want to be a star in Bollywood unless you really are one of the 'beautiful people' just forget about it. Whilst there are normally a few comic roles and moustache toting baddies who don't need to look great it's fair to say 'not many' Indian men look like Salman or Shahrukh Khan but for the women it's much harsher. There are far fewer female roles and they're often nothing more than 'the love interest', whilst Hollywood is rightly criticised for overglamourising at times (eg Angelina Jolie in Changeling) it's nothing compared to Bollywood. Actresses who I'd consider as no more than quite good looking (eg Maggie Gylenhaal, Kirsten Dunst etc) would have to be content with little more than back up dancing roles here. Meanwhile actresses who are successful in Hollywood because they're very good at acting eg Hilary Swank or Toni Collette would be simply laughed out the casting agents door as the always perfect looking Pryti Zinta, Bipasa Basu and Ashwarya Rai (who actually was Miss World!) simply glide into all the best roles. The public seem to very much want fantasy and as a friend of mine who lived here a while put it cruelly (but fairly) "Nowhere in the world is the gap between the looks of people who you see on screen and on the street so wide".

One of the things I find surprising about Bollywood's enduring popularity is that the films are in Hindi but India is made up of so many different languages. Traveling around the different states one of the standard questions you get asked is 'Can you speak Malayam/Tamil/Gujarati'? etc or whatever the local language may be. Hindi is spoken in the so called 'cow belt' in the North and acts as the main language of the country but isn't spoken by everyone, particularly in the South. Therefore English is often used as the default 'national language' but that position is very controversial; Hindu nationalists in particular believe that Hindi should assume this role and be the 'Indian national language' and the country should ditch the colonial past. However India has an extremely English literary heritage boasting authors like Rushdie, Naipaul and Seth and I don't think it should drop English too much. One of the easiest things about travelling in India is that unless you're really in the sticks at least someone will speak pretty good English, the promotion of English in schools and the ability of most of the middle class to speak it fairly fluently is an advantage over the likes of China that the country shouldn't squander in attracting business and it's ability to communicate with the rest of the world generally.

After leaving Mumbai I went to the state of Gujarat; where half of Leicester originally comes from (it's where the Patels come from you see, and everyone seems to think London is the capital of Leicester) both culturally and geographically it's one of the most diverse states in the country, and I even fulfilled an odd ambition of mine in sleeping on the roof of a church in the former Portuguese colony of Diu :-).
The area of Saurashtra is one of the few places the British never conquered in the subcontinent and is also the last remaining refuge of Asiatic lions. Considering they were down to just 12 in the 1870's the current tally of over 300 represents a remarkable comeback, in their national park they're easy to spot. They don't quite have the looks of their African brothers as a huge bald spot and less luxuriant mane means they resemble Scar rather than Simba but in a country with the land pressures of India it's impressive to see they're still surviving. I also headed out to 'India's Wild West' in an area called the Kutch; towards the Pakistan border it's an extremely dry and infertile landscape but great to explore. Aside from the odd looking Siddi people (mixture of Indians and descendants of African slaves brought over by the Portuguese Gujarat is home to some of the most colourful adivasis (tribal peoples) in the country where I uncharacteristically felt out of my depth in my lack of tattoos and piercings. Many women have tattoos on every visible part of their bodies or carrying the familys' wealth around with bangles covering their entire arms though my favourite guy I saw had 42 facial piercings- it didn't look so good.

Gujarat is also the home state of Gandhi which any of my family can confirm is one of my all time heroes. Whenever I see a statue of the great man I have to have my photo taken with him and it's a sign of how lucky I've been in terms of where I've gone in recent years that some of my most prized photos are me with him locations as diverse at the source of the Nile in Uganda, on Central Avenue in Panama City and Gorky Park in Moscow. In India very quickly I had to ditch this photo fixation as the man is absolutely everywhere; whilst Nehru was India's first Prime Minister for a whopping 17 years, it's definitely Gandhi who's seen as the Father of the nation. Every medium sized city and up will have a big statue of him, the main street named after him and he regally appears on all the bank notes.
His achievements were wide-ranging, from philosophies on how to live a better life to more practical issues like improving education and healthcare but his achievements went deeper too with many great political figures (Luther King, Mandela etc) using his examples even now. His influence on India is profound but if there's one particular area I'd pick out of his achievements it would be beginning to give the most marginalized members of Indian society, the so-called Untouchable castes a sense of respect far beyond where they'd ever been before.
Whilst he eventually led the campaign for the the British to leave India he actually spent most of his life agreeing with the British occupation, he felt the British were a civilizing influence and crucially didn't understand the caste system and wouldn't pay any attention to it, this he felt was the future Hinduism needed to embrace. Whilst Americans don't understand how I can use 6 words to describe my 'class' the Indian system is way more complicated than England, there are 4 main groups but there are believed over 2000 sub castes and so complicated you could easily do a degree course in it. Unlike race or religion it's very difficult to 'spot' the differences yet it still plays a huge role in everyday Indian life. When independence came Gandhi made sure they had the vote, quotas in state jobs and parliament and technically removed the 'untouchables' designation altogether. However, many higher caste will refuse to drink from the same fountains, eat at the same restaurants etc in fear of 'ritual pollution' and a quick glance at the hilarious personal ads in the papers show phrases like 'social suitability' (ie of the right caste) to be the most important factor in deciding marriage.

One of the most insidious consequences of the caste discrimination is the so called honor killings where members of mismatched castes fall in love only to be shortly afterwards killed by the family of the higher caste partner. There are around 7000 of these killings every year and it's very hard for a non-Hindu to understand. The complex details which decide who can marry who also gives rise to the problem of dowries as women are seen as more or less the property of the family she is marrying into. This means the grooms family traditionally requires a payment to take her in (normally gold, jewellery etc.) and one of the biggest compliments you can pay someone in Hindi is "May you have 100 sons and no daughters" whilst one of the favorite curses is "May you have 10 daughters and they all marry well". Gandhi worked tirelessly to remove these outdated social practices but unfortunately they're still alive and well, particularly in the poorer countryside. Unsurprisingly with women so obviously second preference there are almost 10 men for every 9 women in the country and it's another huge challenge the nation faces as it tries to modernize.

I ended my time in Gujarat with a couple of adventurous (ie slightly reckless) days out when hunting the huge splendidly named Great Rann of Kutch salt marsh. When I got back to the nearest town someone asked me where I'd been and when I told him he gave me a shocked look and said it was deeply illegal and I could have got in a lot of legal trouble cos it was past the last town before the Pakistan border. I can't say I cared much as they were wicked days. I couldn't get any English out of the locals so ended doing a tortuous 3hr walk through these horrible huge weeds called gavel bandos or 'crazy thorn bushes' (which are decimating the landscape) in sandals before finally gloriously finding it. I waded in as far as my shins and took some photos of the endless horizon where something that appears to be 200m turns out to take 15mins before coming out. Some locals nearby were a bit shocked to see me but gave me a cup of chai and tried speaking to me in their local dialect, I worked out they were trying to ask where I was from but 'England' didn't seem to mean much to them. They started guessing other local states in India before one of them ejaculated 'Nepal'! and all the others congratulated him on getting the answer 'right'- I didn't really know what to say but it's one of those moments when I realised I'm both a long way from home and the world is really quite a big place.
Only to have that theory slammed back down the next day. A local told me about a temple in the middle of nowhere so I got a local bus for about 2hours and then walking a few km before finding it. There was very little there but hung around with the caretaker for a bit until I needed to head back, b4 I left he got me to sign his notebook which many Indians have. It was a few years old and there were a couple of other foreigners listed who'd obviously passed by before; whilst the name won't mean anything to most people on this list to those who it will you can understand quite how spooked I was when I saw the name Giora Moss and a Nigerian address given. It's a small world after all I guess.

I'm now in Rajahstan and will be slowly heading North for the next few weeks.
From Udaipur,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 13:38 Archived in India Comments (0)

Sri Lanka and the Maldives

On my first morning in the Maldives I was chatting to the 21 yr old son of the family I was staying with:
Me: "I hear there's quite a big drug problem here?"
Him: "Yeah.... I actually used to be an addict. I also did quite a lot of dealing too and only got out quite recently".
Me: "Of prison?
Him: "Yeah, I had a 6yr sentence but got released after 1 year".
Me: "1 year! How?"
Him: "Well, when the government changed I used to deal for one of the new ministers that came in so he pulled some strings and got me released".

Justice in The Maldives- that's what happens when you bring in democracy you see...

But before that I first spent a few weeks in the island formerly known as Ceylon. I first went to the beaches on the south coast, though after having recently been in Goa I was not impressed. Sri Lanka had been slowly building up a European package industry until the deadly 2004 tsunami destroyed much of the tourist infrastructure.
Since then they've rebuilt but in a display of unforgivable greed and unbelievable stupidity on virtually every beach the hotel owners have had a competition to see who can rebuild closest to the sea. Some have made doubly sure by building literally in the surf and unsurprisingly the beaches are fast getting washed away so I wouldn't recommend the South coast for a beach holiday.

After leaving Colombo and the South I headed towards the more Tamil dominated areas in the North. I'm sure you're aware this was the main area of last years' war between the Sri Lankan army and the Tamil Tigers revolutionary group who were fighting for a Tamil homeland in the North of the island. The roots of the conflict offer a slightly different view of Buddhism as always being peace and light. There's been a Hindu Tamil community on the island for a long time and the British increased their numbers by bringing them in from India to work the tea plantations here but they've never been accepted by the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and there have always been tensions.
Sri Lanka was on the Buddha's itinerary on his wanderings and became one of the first places in the world where Buddhism became entrenched as a national religion. They've always practiced the most conservative form of Theravada Buddhism and even today the Sri Lankan Sangha (group of elite monks) hold huge power both socially and politically within Sri Lanka while the rest of the Buddhist world still looks to them for theological guidance.
Most Sinhalese would never tolerate another state on the island where another religion was practiced and it's sadly ironic that the only leader who showed a friendlier approach to the Tamils SWRD Bandaranaike (husband of the more famous Mrs.) was assassinated by a Buddhist monk.

Tensions between the 2 communities increased until the civil war began about 30 years ago and the story of the Tigers is a fascinating one as they changed the face of world terrorism during their existence. For some years they were the de facto (border points, customs etc.) rulers of large areas of the North and led by the utterly ruthless Velupillai Prabhakaran they successfully pulled off a number of huge attacks including destroying almost the entire Sri Lankan airforce in one night and even assassinating Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 after they felt he meddled too much in the conflict. They became the first terrorist force to form naval and even air forces but their most memorable legacy was in being the first group to use suicide bombers anywhere in the world.
The 2 sides had been fighting for some time with no real breakthroughs but then the Tigers made a huge tactical mistake in forcing the Tamil community to boycott the presidential election in 2005 and allow Mahinda Rajapaksa to become president. He's a charismatic figure with an ego not much smaller than the island itself (his picture is up everywhere and he even put himself on the bank notes) and he instructed the army to go on an all out offensive to finally put an end to the conflict. This was very controversial as after kicking all foreign observers out of the area, various human rights abuses by the army are alleged to have taken place including over 7000 civilian deaths. The UN has launched an investigation into these allegations but the refusal by Sri Lanka to co-operate or give visas to UN officials, even at the expense of losing lucrative trading agreements with the EU/USA indicate that they have plenty to hide.
I tried to go the Tamil heartlands around Jaffna but was told I'd need to apply for a special permit from the Ministry of Defence which I probably wouldn't get because of my EU passport so had to go to another of the coastal areas nearby. Things were much quieter than I imagined with little visible war damage and absolutely everyone I spoke to about it thinks the alleged human rights stuff isn't that important, as after 30 years the country is now at peace. Unfortunately the President sees this as justification to slowly turn the island into his fiefdom. He has appointed his brother and even 23yr old son as ministers and is changing the constitution so he can lead indefinitely. Most Sri Lankans are not impressed after finally being at peace and he's so far done little to change the inequalities and lack of opportunities for the Tamils that were the cause of the conflict in the first place. Most people are very optimistic about the next few years but the lack of Tamil progress means a conflict may start up again in a few years.

Despite the relative peace, security is still very high and in Colombo especially it's not unusual to wander down a normal looking street only for a soldier to appear and say 'Sorry this is a high security area'. As in Myanmar however, unlike the moody glares you get from soldiers in most places in Sri Lanka they'd greet you with a smile and a chat as bored rigid in the middle of a 12hr watch shift any diversion was gratefully received.
I found Lankans to be incredibly friendly and easily talkative all the time, after spending most of the last 4 months in Bangladesh and India I didn't realize how much I'd appreciate the gentler, almost village pace of Sri Lanka. Even in Colombo things are much more relaxed than the clogging crowds of India and conversations were noticeably less invasive than across the Gulf of Mannar. In a relatively small area there's a fantastic variety of things to do with beaches, colonial cities, some ancient culture and the wonderful hill country it's a great place for a 2-3 week holiday. The only real criticism I'd have of the island was that it's hard to escape the feeling that you're viewed as something of a cash cow by the government.
Whilst local products (food, transport etc) are very cheap, as a foreigner you have to pay spurious taxes and surcharges on things like hotel rooms but the decision a couple of years ago to put up the price of tourist attractions 400% means you mainly just don't do them. Whilst I drank the Kool-Aid in paying the $50 entry for the ancient cities they did at least occupy a few days but I balked at the price of nearly everything else with the $20-30 entry fees for any of the national parks feeling particularly excessive as you're only allowed in for 2hrs anyway.

I took 3 of the best train journeys I've ever taken in Sri Lanka, one down the West coast with constant views of the ocean, one across the tea plantations in the mountains and one through the jungle to the 2nd city of Kandy. Here I had a fantastic experience staying with a Sri Lankan family- whilst it was great staying in the jungle and speaking to them etc I'll most fondly remember it for the Mum's cooking. Sri Lankan cuisine must be one of the most underrated in the world- trust me, dig out a Sri Lankan restaurant and you won't regret it. At times it felt like I was walking round in an epicurean wonderland as I found myself constantly gorging on the cinnamon and coconut heavy curries and some of the best fruits in the world (soursops, durians etc) which are just impossibly expensive to get in Europe.

The food in the hill country is regarded as probably the best in Sri Lanka and I think it was my favourite part of the country. Sri Lanka is the world's 3rd largest producer of tea and pretty much anywhere the Brits could build a railway and grow tea, they did so. Tea cultivation is one of the most aesthetically pleasing forms of agriculture and the hiking in and around the plantations was phenomenal. Amidst the bushes looking down on the 'toytown settlements' below they felt almost like Northern mining villages. Despite their poor wages and terrible work burdens they have an incredibly strong sense of community and the almost exclusively female pickers were uber-friendly and helpful as I frequently got lost on the hillsides.
The island also plays a significant geographical role in various religions legends; Adam's Bridge, the group of islands that connects India to Sri Lanka plays a big role in the Ramyana (the most important Hindu story) but probably my favourite thing I did on the island was climbing Adam's Peak. It's one of the most holy mountains in the world as Buddhists believe it's where Lord Buddha stopped and mediated before spreading the word in Sri Lanka but it's also long played a role in Christian mythology and Marco Polo wrote about it extensively in his travels. The story goes that when God ejected Adam out of heaven into the Garden of Eden this is where he dropped him; after a pre-dawn ascent I found it easy to put myself in Adams shoes (well he didn't have shoes actually but you get the idea) at the beginning of the world 6,000 years ago. With my ribs starting to itch as Eve was forming, looking out over the beautiful green landscape below I couldn't help but think "Nice one God, you picked a great spot". And it's the lush, fecund landscapes of the island that I'll definitely remember most positively about Sri Lanka.

When you read 'The Maldives' in the subject I can imagine most people thinking 'how the blazes can he afford to go there?' well the answer is The Maldives are pretty close to Sri Lanka and India so easy to get to and if you stay with a local family rather than in a 5 star resort it actually came out OK in terms of costs. As you can probably predict, the Maldivian image that is most vivid to me is of the sharpness of the blues and the whites i.e. the sea and the sand. The Maldives are made up of a series of atolls (ring shaped series of coral islands enclosing a lagoon) so the sand is of a coral white that isn't found in big quantities in many other places and as the water's so shallow, the warm sea is always a glorious shade of aquamarine. If you want to 'relax' on a beach there are few better, more aesthetically pleasing places in the world and the tourist board markets the place as 'the holiday of a lifetime' which is unusual in that there's a great deal of truth to it.
I certainly did a lot of sunbathing, swimming in the cobalt blue and snorkeling at night (incredibly exciting but definitely a bit scary too) but the place is actually a lot more culturally interesting than most resort visitors have any idea of.

Before the first resorts started opening up in the early 1970's by all accounts life in The Maldives was pretty tough, being a loosely connected group of island fishing communities with few prospects beyond a week to week existence. However, in the space of little more than a generation the country has been transformed through tourism to the richest country in South Asia and even the remotest islands now have 24hr water and electricity and through cable TV and the internet are relatively well connected to the world.
The government pretty smartly aimed only at top end tourism but have found it difficult to manage the high rolling tourists alongside the local population. The Maldives is a fiercely devout Muslim country, indeed it's impossible under the constitution to be both Maldivian and a non-Muslim and tourism has created a slightly schizophrenic feel to the country. Whilst on the resort islands most things are allowed (booze, swimwear, unmarried couples and even Israelis!) for the locals life is much stricter with the smaller islands in particular having a cultural and legal conservatism a world away from martinis and bikinis. In order to maintain this strict you might say hypocritical stance the dictatorship that ran the country for 30yrs effectively banned foreigners from leaving their resorts and visiting other islands. In order to actually see the country you needed invitation letters and permits which were unlikely to be granted as they were determined not to interfere with the traditional Islamic culture.
Whilst the arrival of democracy a couple of years has removed much of this system, over time the influence of the tourists has been felt and the islands have definitely developed social problems.

The rapid change in the wealth of the people has now created a somewhat disaffected generation compared to their parents and grandparents. Like many countries which have rapidly acquired wealth most Maldivian youths all but refuse to do menial jobs anymore; whilst 'front' jobs like resort barmen and receptionists will be taken by locals almost all the cleaning, cooking jobs etc are done by Bangladeshi immigrants (many illegal) who now make up a staggering 30% of the population. So whilst the impoverished Bangladeshis are breaking their backs sending money home the young Maldivian population now just look and act bored much of the time. Whilst a country like the Maldives looks incredible and is extremely luxurious etc for a few weeks, living here as a young person would be much harder. There are few professional level jobs and since they're wealthy enough to avoid doing lower level jobs many people turn to drugs for something to do. The Maldives are believed to have one of the biggest drug problems in the world per head of population as unfortunately the drug of choice here is a cheap and nasty version of heroin called 'brown sugar'. With my St Francis of Assisi build and insistence on wearing sunglasses during all daylight hours I fitted in pretty well with the packs of youths which haunt even the smallest islands and whilst they omit to mention it in the tourist brochures it's a huge problem the country faces.

Another strong feeling about the country I had was how precarious life there felt and how their destiny is largely out of their own hands, both metaphorically in how the country survives financially but literally in regard to their environment.
The economy is now almost totally reliant on tourism with 90% of tax revenues coming through it, a workforce entirely dependent on it and few other long term options to generate income. They've focused exclusively on top end tourism with virtually 0 accommodation options below 4* and a stay in a resort will cost a bare minimum of $100 per day, but if you want to you can easily spend $5000 per day in The Maldives. This is probably a shrewd decision bearing in mind how reliant the tax system is on tourism revenues but this also makes the economy and therefore national quality of life extremely susceptible to downturns in the market. The global economic downturn cost the economy an estimated 5% in 2009 and the Icelandic volcanic ash incident of earlier this year looks set to cost the economy 2% in cancelled holidays etc.
In a country this strictly Muslim the government are absolutely paranoid about the threat of Islamic extremism as just 1 bomb or killing of a tourist here could seriously destabilize the economy and consequently the country for many years.

Probably the more serious long-term threat though is the survival of life in the islands at all. The highest point in the Maldives is a laughable 2.4m but the atolls support nearly 400,000 people. Through the use of tetrapods and other ingenious land reclamation schemes islands have been expanded and put to specific uses (e.g. the airport island or my favorite 'rubbish island') but on staying on a smaller island I got a view of how peoples homes here are quite fragile. Most atolls have a small reef offshore which acts as a breaker to the waves but one morning I woke up to find a few stronger waves were flowing over the reef... and they kept on coming. They flowed right into the low lying island swamping the streets and carrying various bits of debris with them. These didn't look or feel at all like big waves but the sheer lack of relief in the islands means if the reef is broken there's little they can do to stop the waves ie you can't get to or build on higher ground. The 2004 tsunami led to the abandonment of 13 islands and the President made headlines round the world in 2008 when he announced the creation of a 'rainy day fund'. The idea is that if sea levels continue to rise and life eventually gets untenable on the Maldives then they would buy a new homeland in probably India or Sri Lanka and give themselves a new start. It's pretty smart thinking as probably no other country on the planet is most at risk from sea level change.

I really enjoyed staying with locals and outside from the hectic capital Male which has over 100,000 people in just a few square km, life is wonderfully tranquil and just feels very easy. There are string easy chairs everywhere on the islands and sitting out by moonlight smoking endless cigarettes and listening to the enjoyably vague philosophies of someone who's lost half their brain cells I definitely realized how lucky I am to be able to come to places like The Maldives and see how other people live. In my last couple of days the son of the family went missing as apparently the police ordered him to go to detox, (well he only weighed about 90lbs) but I was lucky enough to see the Independence Day celebrations. Seeing the street dancing and flags everywhere was a wonderful way to end my time in these beautiful islands and as I flew over the great big holes in the sea that pass for islands I felt darn upset to be leaving.

So after Buddhist Sri Lanka and the Muslim Maldives I'm now back in the land of the Hindus, Hindustan which over time became shortened to India. I'm off to Mumbai tomorrow from where I'll head to the West of the country.

From Trivandrum,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 13:34 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (0)

Southern India

Hi I hope you're enjoying the Summer and the Rojiblancos storming World Cup run. I'm writing from Mamallapuram just South of Chennai and it's been a few weeks similar to the last in that having seen barely any foreigners anywhere I've now got to a beach resort and there's a lot around. I've been pretty shocked in India how most visitors seem to be content with a few of the biggest sights and staying at the beach- for a country with so much diversity and different aspects of the culture to enjoy I'm just shocked how unambitious most backpackers are here.

After leaving Goa I headed to the 2nd biggest mountain range in the country called the Western Ghats. It was nice getting into the highlands cooler temperatures but the 2 hill stations I went to provided very different glimpses of India. The Koorg region was lovely, quiet and covered with coffee and vanilla plantations as well as Tibetan refugee communities it was a great area to hike around in, and for the first time since Sikkim in the North have anything like some tranquility in this hectic country. Ooty on the other hand was a bit different; Indians understandably seem to like to go to relaxing rather than 'interesting' places on holiday and the old English station of Ooty located near the 2 giant sweatboxes of Chennai and Bangalore makes it an obvious draw. Whilst the area has a pleasant climate and surrounding vegetation it was almost like they lifted a normal, polluted, crowded and insufferably busy Indian town of 100,000 people and put it 2200m up in the hills. It's probably the worst place I've been to in India in just how ruined the area has become and I spent my first day there ensuring a horse got put down after it had been abandoned following an accident and then happily left the next day.

After Ooty I went to the Southern state of Kerala which is without doubt one of the most interesting in India. Geographically it's made up of wide rivers, spice, cashew, red banana plantations and a beautiful palm fringed coastline which attracted traders from all over the world. The Chinese, Dutch, Portuguese, Arabs and even Jews all left a varied religious legacy including Catholicism and Syrians Christians; they also created cosmopolitan coastal trading cities resembling those on the Malacca straights in Malaysia or even across the Indian Ocean on the Swahili coast of Africa making it a fascinating place to be for a while.
The interior of the state is covered in waterways which are still a very popular way to get around, aside from the relaxing waterborne serenity it's also a great way to see why for the poor Kerala is probably the best place to live in India.
India has a political system somewhat similar to the USA in that each state has it's own Parliament and elects its own government. In 1957 Kerala became the first place in the world to democratically elect a Communist government and (sorry Fidel) it's probably been the worlds most successful attempt at it.
The people are really proud of the tradition and you see big marches and the hammer and sickle symbol up everywhere, many people even have names like Lenin and Stalin. It's really noticeable how even the poorest villagers are much better educated and have a decent home as well as plenty of access to schools and clinics unlike in some of the Northern states like Bihar or Uttar Pradesh where if you're born poor your life chances are very limited.
The Communists achievements here are many, from female emancipation to infrastructural growth and a life expectancy of 75, fully 10 years higher than the Indian average. To focus on one thing however, Kerala has achieved a literacy rate of 94% one of the highest in the developing world and I've found education in India a fascinating thing to look at on my travels here.

Any Indian will proudly tell you their extremely capable Prime Minister Manoman Singh is the best educated leader in the world and the importance placed on education here is one of the things I've find myself most admiring compared to other developing countries. Whilst ensuring your kids are educated doesn't guarantee them a better life it certainly gives them more chance.
One of the single most common things you see in India are posters advertising schools or extra tuition classes with the qualifications of the tutors and their schools plastered everywhere. Most of the time its for Maths, Physics etc though I'm still weighing up whether to get some of the 'Personality Development' classes offered too. The focus on education undoubtedly shows the diaspora community in a good light; in the UK Indians rank only behind the Chinese in all ethnic groups results and in the States an Indian girl has just become the 8th Indian-American winner in 11 years of the American National spelling bee. The importance placed on education is definitely based on an imperfect system though, firstly in quite how judgmental Indians are about people according to their level of education. In part due to the caste system (the highest Brahmin caste are traditionally teachers) you seem to be completely marked down if you're not educated and where access to education is so uneven it's not exactly an equitable system.
Indian parents are notoriously competitive over their children (the mothers in Goodness Gracious Me was about right) and success in education seems to take on an almost obsessional tone which can be good but can also border on being slightly unpleasant at times. Exams seem to be over-competitive here to the point of being unpleasant, normally on the advertising posters for schools kids as young as 11 or 12 are made into mini celebrities. Their photos and details of their successful results are used to sell tuition classes in posters or in ads in the newspapers rather than the pass grade of the school as a whole like schools might use in England. When kids do really well e.g.at a national level then they can expect to be in the first few pages of the national newspapers along with several hundred word articles about them, which just for kids school results feels both well over the top and surely not what education should be about.

Critics of the system in Kerala like to point out that due to its higher taxes the state has been far less successful than others in attracting overseas investment and it triggers quite an interesting debate about education in India and other developing countries generally. India like most other developing countries is arguably too top heavy on education spending; whilst it annually churns out millions of university graduates in Engineering and IT fields etc it simultaneously has an appalling literacy rate of just 61% overall. In contrast somewhere like The Philippines has a fantastic rate of 92% yet doesn't produce enough high quality graduates. Consequently India has a large body of qualified workers who form the 'engine' to its fast economic growth whereas The Philippines has consistently struggled in this area, but is definitely a 'fairer' system to begin with. For countries with limited budgets for education and the impact it has on the wider society deciding where to spend the money is a hard one to manage and it's interesting both to debate and to see the differing approaches relative success.

In true Socialist fashion Kerala is also the only state in India with a visible drinking scene, or problem depending on which way you look at it. Many states like Gujarat and some in the NorthEast are completely dry and in most other states drinking out is both heavily taxed and not a very attractive option. Outside from the big cities with Western style bars (with prices to match) generally booze is only available at either bottle shops where you're given it in a paper bag by a man behind bars or at 'permit rooms'. These are incredibly depressing places where middle aged men escape from their wives to drink around dimly lit tables and as in most drinking establishments in Asia there are no women anywhere near the premises.
Therefore outside of Goa I've barely drunk but Kerala's great as dotted around the landscape are 'Toddy (palm beer) shops' which are reminiscent of the rum shacks in the Caribbean for their awesome prices and enjoyable ubiquity. I liked them of course but alcoholism and the probably related high level of mental health problems and suicide rates is becoming a serious problem which is largely unknown in the rest of the country.

Aside from the lack of booze Indians are pretty healthy in other ways, out of respect to the various religions you virtually never see pork or beef on a menu and I've been pretty amazed at how few Indians smoke. Having said that many men chew pan (sort of chewing tobacco) or betel nuts which do very bad things to your teeth and whilst they get up surprisingly late the lifestyle is generally pretty healthy.
An area where health isn't so good is sanitation; nearly 100 years ago Gandhi wrote that the lack of sanitation was 'the shame of India' and things haven't changed nearly enough.
Another of the most common 'Indian sights' are blokes pissing anywhere and everywhere and it's unusual to see Indians covering their mouths when they cough or sneeze. Much more seriously though is the 'toilet problem' the country faces. To much public hand wringing about the direction of the country, the number of mobile phones recently overtook the number of toilets and in most of the countryside a shocking 1 in 4 households actually have toilets. If you're wondering where do they go? well the answer is they take a small pot of water out and simply pick a spot they like the look of. Unsurprisingly Indian villages are often really unpleasant places to be as with the wandering cows everywhere too you're never far from the smell or sight of excreta.
At certain times such as on a train first thing in the morning you're 'treated' to the disgusting sight of seeing up to 20 or 30 people simultaneously squatting by the tracks. When you bear in mind this is a country that eats with its right hand and you have much of the answer for why India's found eradicating certain diseases so hard.
The consequences of this lack of sanitation can be seen everywhere in the country; the sheer number of beggars in the country is of course one of the things India is famous for ans astound most visitors. They vary considerably, the so-called beggar families are everywhere where parents will send out their often very young kids to guilt trip you into giving money and when you realise that they've probably been begging for generations and probably don't know any better than taking their kids out of school it's darn depressing.
Less forgivable are when ordinary seemingly solvent people ask you for money, the most memorable examples I've had of this were chatting for 20minutes with a guy who claimed to be a retired MIT professor (and talked the talk) about whether global warming exists only for him then to turn round and ask to 'borrow' some money. In Bihar at a Hindu shrine for hopefully the only time in my life I told a shotgun wielding police officer to piss off after he asked for 'baksheesh' for absolutely no reason.
However, without a doubt it's the polio sufferers/beggars I've felt most sorry for. Polio is transmitted via the 'fecal-oral route' and whilst it's been wiped out virtually everywhere else, in India it's still fairly prevalent. I'm too young to remember any cases in England but seeing it here it's a horrible disease that to differing extents leaves sufferers essentially with withered up limbs that don't work. Therefore everywhere you see beggars who are mentally fine but are unable to do virtually anything with their legs and arms; whilst better access to vaccines amongst the poor etc would undoubtedly help, just having better basic hygiene practices would certainly cut down on the number of cases.
After leaving Kerala I went to India's southern most state of Tamil Nadu where aside from seeing where the subcontinent ends to look out over where the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal meet the Indian Ocean at Cape Cormorin, some of India's finest Hindu temples are located. There are many things I really like about Hinduism; aside from the beautiful multicoloured temples it has by some distance the most visually interesting worship rites of the major religions. I think the fortunes of the C of E would be revived overnight if every medium sized church and up had their own resident elephant to bless you and the elaborate music and dance rituals the ubiquitous pilgrims perform are always entertaining. On a more philosophical note the lack of proselytizing and (certainly that I've seen) tolerance of other religions put the Abrahamic faiths to shame.
However, one area of the religion I'm really struggling to respect is the role of the Sadhus (holy ones) or so called 'God Men'. Almost every temple will have a few who'll uninvited mumble a few words to 'bless you' then demand exhorbitant (e.g. $10) 'donations'. With an unsettling glint in their eyes and a deeply unpleasant, almost lascivious aura about them they remind me very strongly of when I met Michael Howard several years ago.
But these are the unsuccessful ones; a key part of Hinduism is the belief that in order to show you the 'right path to enlightenment' you need a Guru (teacher) in order to point you the right way. Therefore India has a simply huge industry of God men (it's very rarely women, although you may have heard of Amma the 'Hugging Mother') where a man claims to have found the secret to 'a pure life' etc. If you can convince enough people that you've discovered 'the way' then you can become very, very (as in multimillionaire) rich. They remind me of American mega- preachers like Joel Osteen or Billy Graham Jr both in how often you see them on posters or TV but also in the degree of power they have over so many people.
The Beatles gave up on the Indian dream in the Mahesh Yogi Ashram when after a while they realised that the yogi spent more time asking for money and trying to sleep with the female guests than he did actually being 'holy'.
And that's a fairly neat summary of how they come across to me too; almost every week since I've been here there's been a big scandal involving a God man always involving money and sex. The influence they build up is incredible however, when one of the highest profile of the God men was arrested a few weeks ago with a truly appalling charge sheet including sex with minors, pimping, kidnapping, extortion and people trafficking by the next morning the former head judge of the High Court had gathered a group of celebrity backers to protest his innocence in all the newspapers- because he was their guru. As Louis Theroux felt when he did a programme on them, I find it incredible how a person can claim to have attained spiritual enlightenment and then firstly to use said enlightenment so blatantly to make themselves rich and famous - and that people actually believe it. Whilst it's a situation where I'm obviously at least partly wrong as they give a degree of spiritual wellbeing to so many people, it's definitely something I've struggled to accept here.

So with my visa running out I headed up the coast to the incongruous spot of Pondicherry. I remember it well from tedious French lessons at school and is basically a town the British for some reason allowed the French to keep on the East coast. The French part of the town feels nothing like the rest of India and it felt surreal to wander along tree lined avenues eating baguettes and seeing the odd tricolor. It's where Life of Pi is partly set if you've read it and whilst the more modern Indian influences make it look a bit ragged in places it was definitely a nice spot to watch Englands heroic draw against Algeria.

Tomorrow I fly to Sri Lanka which I'm both excited and quite anxious about as due to visa issues I'm not sure what's gonna happen when I get there. Hopefully I'll be there for a few weeks and whilst I'd like to look forward to getting a break from not so much the love affair as the all consuming white hot passion Indian drivers have for their car horns I think my eardrums will take a similar battering in Sri Lanka.
Whilst the only things I really miss from home are my dog and watching the Os having now been away for over a year it feels my life has little connection with England, like all my thought processes are wrapped up here so I hope you're able to still get through the emails!

From Mamallapuram,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 01:57 Archived in India Tagged mountains beaches Comments (0)

South Central India

Hello from Goa after another cracking few weeks in India.

The monsoon is due to start in about 10 days and whilst Ive been for the most part very lucky with the weather, as the sky turns blueygrey there's a 'closing down' feel to the place. Most hotels and restaurants close up for the season and there aren't that many tourists around. Although after having gone a full month without even speaking to a foreigner it still feels fairly busy to me. So with no-one to talk to about football or the British election I've been getting a bit closer to Indians- for good but sometimes bad. I've been up to plenty more great sightseeing; central India has definitely been a bit more interesting to look at than the Northern plains with a bit of relief in the landscape and various journeys to some isolated places have been really rewarding.

After avoiding radiation sickness in Bhopal I did a long journey to the former Afghan empire capital in Mandu. As its so far from anywhere its gets virtually 0 tourists but they left a brilliantly picturesque set of mosques and palaces which you can climb all over. They're much more Middle Eastern in architectural style with my favorite bits being the endless staircases which don't go anywhere making you feel like you're in an Escher piece. Another great landscape was provided in Hampi which whilst home to the biggest ancient Hindu kingdom it was more memorable for its truly unique landscape, imagine a very big hand picking up a handful of gravel and sprinkling it all over a 30km radius. The result is that you're surrounded by huge boulders in the most unusual places everywhere around you and cycling round the vicinity and climbing a few peaks for the views has def been a highlight of India so far. I also got to stay with a family that I'd met a few weeks earlier on holiday in the Sundarbans in the (admittedly very large) Mumbai satellite of Pune. It was really interesting being in an Indian household for a few days and as its not a remotely touristy city I was quite a novelty and they introduced me to loads of their friends and neighbours- to which I could never think of anything to say beyond 'Hi'. Aside from being a great place to watch Englands T20 World Cup triumph :-) they insisted on feeding me loads of cracking food and it was really interesting talking to them about certain aspects of Indian culture. Indian weddings are famous for their size in England but due to the size of any given castes community the guest list is likely to be limited to 'only' 600 or so. Here however they get to quite incredible proportions, the oldest daughters wedding was about 1400 but they said one of their cousins had a guest list of 4000! Rather than sending out invitations +1 like we tend to do in England, an invitation means an extended family so feeling compelled to invite an unloved work colleague or acquaintance takes on extra significance here. It is of course potentially ruinously expensive trying to feed and entertain so many people but with no alcohol served it does redress the balance sheet somewhat. The middle daughter was about 5yrs older than me and still wasn't married so her parents were getting quite worried, so she told me the near hilarious story of how they took active steps to get her paired off. In the last 2yrs she reckoned she'd been on between 80-100 dates, a lot under any circumstances but when she described an Indian date I couldn't help but feel quite sorry for her. The parents and potential groom get dressed up and go to the girls house on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. Then she described an excruciating few hours whereby the 2 sets of parents basically ask questions about the other childs career and life plans trying to work out their career, income prospects etc. If there's obvious agreement the parents will contact each other and go on to arrange another 'date' then eventually even a private one with just the potential husband and wife by themselves. Not very romantic. I did find it hard not to laugh as she told me the story though she more than got her own back on me when after asking a few questions about my 'career plans' she said in a grave voice "I don't think any Indian parent would ever agree to you".

With my marriage prospects looking bleaker than Charles Clarke's Prime Ministerial ambitions I unfortunately started feeling really quite sick whilst I was there and for about 24 hours (30 motions, too weak to stand etc) I thought I might have to take an unwelcome trip to a hospital. I did however make an enjoyably quick recovery but in a round about way, the manner in which the family treated me I found quite hard to deal with. When I'm ill I just like to be left alone, unmedicated in a darkened room to sweat it out but despite hinting at that as strongly as I could they just couldn't get it. They insisted on opening the windows, curtains and door of the room, did all kinds of irritating tasks around my struggling corpse like body and incessantly tried to ply me with food and medicines which I really didn't want. This process of friendliness leading to over-attention and eventually irritation sums up one of the worst sides to traveling in India From taxi drivers in Kuala Lumpur and especially the low end tailors in Thailand my dealings with Indians in Asia haven't been great. In fact I would have to rate them as one of the most irritating nationality's I've encountered. In the touristy areas you get hassled incessantly, normally rickshaw drivers and handicrap sellers but it can be dodgier, aside from the creepy men offering massages I got offered drugs 43 times in 1 day in Varanasi. But in the non-touristy areas it's almost as bad in a different way; instead of talking about neutral subjects (weather, sports results etc.) with most strangers, conversations with Indians feel more like Q & A sessions. Regardless of what you're doing or where you are people come up to you and just ask the same 5 or 6 questions literally around 20-30 times a day. Some things like your nationality and name are understandable but you quickly realise they're just being a bit nosey trying to suss out your social/economic status (Job? Qualification? Fathers or even siblings jobs?). Whilst I've not met anyone I could remotely describe as malicious or even intentionally unpleasant no matter how patient you are your resolve to be friendly gets severely weakened here after a while. Normal tactics like putting you head in a book don't work (if anything people become even more curious) and I've developed a hatred for cameras on mobile phones, though I do always pose for them as its easier than answering questions. If I'm not in the mood to speak I've got to the stage where I normally just say I'm from Paraguay to stop any further questions.

Much of the problem is that expectations of behavior are really different here; Indians virtually live on top of each other and have a dramatically different sense of personal space to Europeans. Whilst we have instinctive bubbles around people according to how well we know them (e.g. strangers, friends, people you're intimate with etc.) they just don't really have that here and straight away they might do stuff like put an affectionate hand on your back or sit right next to you when there are plenty of other free seats. One of the questions you get asked most frequently not just in India but all over Asia is "You've come alone?" with a surprised tone to the question. Definitely one of the biggest cultural differences I've noticed in Asia has been how they 'do things' in groups in comparison to Europe where the individual operates a lot more independently. Asians are always found in often fairly large groups in pretty much everything they do, whether it be kids doing homework or doing fun stuff like the cinema or going to a restaurant. Even in the mornings in coffee shops in Vietnam or reading the papers at tea stalls here the blokes will generally be in groups or 3 or 4 and it's actually quite unusual to see someone by themselves. The idea of living by yourself is near unheard of and someone in my position traveling alone for several months just makes no sense to them. When Asians go on holiday it can be huge groups of 15 or 20 people which most Europeans would think completely unworkable and whilst it can be quite nice seeing them socialise together and seeing the strength of the family and friends unit you can also see that slightly more introverted characters have much more limited opportunities to make themselves heard in such large groups and perhaps find it harder to 'make their own way'. They also have a really different sense of privacy in India, questions I wouldn't ask my closest friends about their salary or sex life will often come up within minutes of a conversation starting. Whilst you quickly have to learn to just block out people staring at you whilst you're eating or similar, when you're in an internet cafe and are having to repeatedly ask people to stop reading the emails on your screen it feels just rude- to them it isn't but it's an aspect every foreigner struggles with Indians. Oh and after several months of the shy friendliness of the gorgeous kids in SE Asia they really need a 'stranger danger' programme here as the seemingly always dirty Indian kids invariably straight away ask for money or sweets which I'm finding difficult to deal with. So normally I just hit them and then I feel better ;-)

On leaving Pune as I was sick I couldn't reserve a sleeping berth on the 14hr night train to Hyderabad so I had to go 3rd class in one of the most memorable train journeys I've ever taken. Forming queues and being generally courteous to your fellow passengers is something Britain does better than almost anyone- Indians on the other hand would look up with awe and wonder to how we manage it. When a train or bus pulls up there is an almighty scrum with no preference given to the old or infirm and children are generally handed in through windows. Everybody starts arguing like crazy amidst the pulling and pushing and unsurprisingly this system doesn't work very well, I've already twice seen the frankly pathetic sight of 2 full grown adults getting into a physical fight simply over the boarding of a train. To say this train was overcrowded would fall well short of quite how stressful it was, I reckoned there were about 150 people in a space which on an English train would hold 40 seats plus maybe 20-30 standing. Whilst I looked at it and thought 'This just isn't worth it' I didn't really have any choice as the next train wasn't for another 7 hours, simply to get on 6ft inside the train took about 15mins in the scrum, everyone around me was pushing and pulling other people and I was being constantly slapped on the back of the head by an old woman behind me for not pushing hard enough. I had my 20kgs worth of luggage on me and still feeling pretty bad in the heat I got quite close to fainting as everyone else just laughed at me. I only got 'saved' by a guy lifting up my bag and then me onto a 6ft by 2ft wooden 'upper seat' above the actual seats which I shared with 4 other blokes (women and kids sit on the floor) for the journey. But then it turned out he was seemingly drunk or at least damned annoying, I ignored him and so he soon started on another bloke who did respond and they got into a fairly violent grappling match falling off the seat sending the kids on the floor scattering like pins. Eventually it calmed down and got sorted before I got my first sight of an Indian gay. In most countries where the closet door isn't opening men just stay inside or turn tricks or whatever and live on the fringes of society. In India an estimated 2million have taken the unlikely step of becoming, well, basically transvestite 'gangsters'. The way they make money is by coming onto trains fully bejeweled and in beautiful saris etc trying to extort money from the male passengers. They do this in a variety of ways, some simply try and embarrass them e.g. dance provocatively or often they'll annoy them into handing money over e.g. shaking a tambourine or clapping right in their faces. The first one came in was extremely camp and seeing I was a foreigner gave me a lot of attention which I just didn't respond to...until he tried (but failed) to grope me at which point I launched into the most abusefully aggressive 20 second rant I'll probably ever produce as the locals held me back and it ran out of the carriage to the shocked looks of the locals (they're used to it you see). A couple of hours later however, a couple of much bigger, more physically intimidating ones (even dressed in pink and purple saris) came in and started just slapping and hitting people who didn't pay up. I thought 'Oh dear, there could be trouble ahead but when they got to my compartment all the women around me started obviously imploring them to carry on and leave me alone and thankfully they did, so the earlier outburst worked! It's a huge racket with groups of them going up and down the trains all day and night, the police don't do anything about it (they get a cut of course) provided they don't go into the upper class carriages: this is India after all. It's pretty disgraceful they're allowed to make a living this way as it's set up like a proper mafia with different ranks of bosses in different areas etc.

Whilst I resolved never to travel without my own berth I've not been able to get one tonight on the train (rather than the plane) to Mangalore and right now I'm starting to feel a bit queasy at the prospect of the night ahead. I can remember few journeys I'd been happier to finish but thankfully Hyderabad was a nice place to finish it in. One of the biggest 'Muslim' areas of the country it has an extremely rich history with the Nizam of Hyderabad famed as the richest and most senior Indian Prince, he had such power that even the British left him to rule an area the size of Greece independently. As it was majority Muslim the Nizam came very close to joining Pakistan at partition (South Pakistan?) but the Indians didn't really fancy that so sent in the army to take charge. Whilst the Nizams left a legacy of palaces and Islamic monuments (along with Pune) its the first place where I've seen the so called New India. It's a bit of a vague concept but seems to involve the country becoming richer and more Westernised and this is predominantly through IT/ call centers etc (Hyderabad has earned the nickname of Cyberabad) . Whilst I'll write more about it in Mumbai the most pleasing aspect of it was being able walk around in a lot more comfort because much of the city has pavements. It's perhaps not something you think of in regards to improving urban quality of life but I do think it's something which really sets developed (especially European) cities aside from the developing world. The price of vehicles especially motorbikes has really come down in recent years and has given most Asians a real mobility boost. Only the very poorest have no access to personal transport and subsequently all over the continent people look down on walking. Women especially seem to prefer to take a taxi to go distances I wouldn't even blink at e.g. <500m and I remember visiting a national park near Bangkok where out of the roughly 4,000 Thais staying in the park I saw less than a dozen actually doing any walking -they just sat around drinking and eating BBQs instead! In India walking around cities is really hard work as because there's no pavements you're both walking in the rubbish filled dust on the side of the road and having to constantly watch for the scary traffic. Subsequently your ability to absorb and enjoy cities is vastly reduced and seeing pavements as signs of more comfortable wealth was a pretty welcome sight.

Finally I came to Goa which aside from the Taj Mahal is probably India's biggest tourist attraction- and for good reason. Portugal are Britain's oldest ally and despite the Brits running the subcontinent for so long they let Goa (and another spot called Diu further up the coast) stay in Portuguese hands. The Portuguese did their usual colonial schtick of absolutely refusing to leave (they had to be kicked out by the Indian army as late as 1961) and leaving a strong Catholic heritage which the Indians have transformed into a wonderfully colorful version of the church. Whilst the people looked at me blankly when I tried out some Portuguese on them aside from the religion and Portugues names there are plenty of stunning old churches of the colonial era as well as cities filled with pastel coloured villas dotted around so it's been a relaxing change from the clogging crowds elsewhere in the country. Aside from the unique culture and beautiful beaches its also unfortunately developed a slightly seedy reputation (mainly through the drugs trade) and acts as a bit of a magnet for ne'er do wells from all over India but also some from further afield. Various cases including Nigerian rapists, Israeli super drug dealers and illegal immigration into the state have filled the papers and its success means it has a fair sized task to keep its idyllic within an 'Indian' context. As it was close to the end of the season ie near empty the restaurant and hotel owners had plenty of time and were only to happy to sit and talk about the behavior of certain groups of visitors. I did sit there partly thinking said visitors pay your wages but they understandably seemed to relish laying into certain tourists. Whilst they agreed the always friendly European hippies were generally OK the ever loathsome Israelis got plenty of criticism, mainly for their 'post army service' antics turning certain beaches into open air drug dens. But definitely the most criticized group were the waves of Russian package tourists which have started arriving in the last few years. They had a long rap sheet of cultural insensitivities but definitely top amongst these was the irrational insistence of the women to sunbathe topless. To be fair I didn't see it but apparently during high season it's a very common sight for Russian women to strip off then soon afterwards Indian male holidaymakers (not the locals- they're used to it) will take a pew on the sand as little as 10 or even 8ft away..and simply stare. Consequently many pf them get quite hacked off and end up hating Goa and whilst you can easily criticize the Indians for the lack of respect etc it's quite easy to see why it happens. Indian women wear their normal saris even in the water and in over 2 months I've yet to see any Indian woman in the flesh flashing any skin at all.

Although that's definitely not what you see on TV; different forms of media show Bollywood starlets in differing degrees of undress with adverts in particular seemingly filmed in a parallel India where beautiful women wander round in strapless tops, heels and short skirts and no-one bats an eyelid. But interestingly this seems to be having a positive effect on womens quality of life generally. The effects of TV on society have revealed some very interesting sociological studies around the world and in India the spread of cable TV seems to be having a surprisingly positive effect. In almost all countries TV is very much aspirational, most programmes feature unrealistically good looking people living fairly easy lives in pleasant surroundings. In the USA during 1950-65 and in most of Latin America between 1975-1995 the effect of the roll out of TV to poorer areas is seen to have led to a surge in migration from the poorer rural areas to the cities but also had a terrible effect on crime rates. The theory is that as poorer people saw these images on TV it triggered jealous feelings and a desire to improve their lives fast. India is no exception to having aspirational TV, in fact the images presented here are probably more divorced from reality than 90% of places (everyone is rich and seems to live in airconditioned condos) , cable TV has slowly been rolled out in the countryside during the last 10yrs and so its effects have been relatively easy to track. The most noticeably positive effect has been on young women; the quality of life for young wives in India is often terrible especially in poorer communities. Aside from being given heavy workloads they're often heavily physically and mentally abused not just by their husbands but also members of his family (who she's moved into). It's one of the biggest (but least discussed) social problems in India and the suicide rate amongst young Indian women is shockingly high here; but the spread of TV seems to be reversing the problem somewhat. However unrealistic the images in soaps and dramas may be, the theory is that as women are seeing other women dressing and acting more independently and working to earn their own money its having a motivational effect on more marginalised women in the countryside. Scholarship applications to go and study in the cities have shot up and there's been a noticeable dip in the birth rate once television has arrived in an area. The classic power struggle in any Indian household (as is repeatedly shown in the plot of all the soaps here) between the wife and the mother in law for the running of the household seems to be turning too and whilst suicide rates are going down the number of convictions for abuse cases is going up (rather than being left to suffer in silence). It could well just be that everyone else in the family is also watching telly but either way it's another Inidan hypocrisy that's been quite strange to observe for a visitor as the 'fantasy' images of TV and films seem to be having a subtly positive effect on the reality for many people.

From here I head South and with the world cup just about to start it only remains for me to wish Roque and the boys the best of luck. You can do it lads.

From Margao,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 13:25 Archived in India Comments (0)

North Central India

Hello from a very hot India, I'm writing this from a place called Khajuraho which aside from being 5 hours from anywhere is home to the 'Karma Sutra' temples- they're educating. Rereading my journal last night I've seen and done some great stuff this month including some very important religious spots, some amazing architecture and seeing why Britain deserved its prefix once upon a time. Oh and if you're a bit squeamish I advise skipping the last paragraph.

But before all that my Mum made the incomprehensible decision to leave our gorgeous dog for a couple of weeks and come out to visit her other, rather less attractive male dependent. Before Bhutan we met up in the lovely hill station of Darjeeling, which is part Victorian holiday resort part tea growing centre straddling a ridge 2200m up in the Himalayas. It's an amazing journey up from the plains below, the thing that most hits you about the Himalayas is just how steep they are, the altitude goes from just 100m to 8500m in little more than 30km as the crow flies. Unsurprisingly Darjeelings greatest attraction is its stupendous mountain vistas with Kanchenjunga the third highest mountain in the world dominating the horizon. Unfortunately we were never to see it as permanent cloud cover persistently blocked our view, however the cloud did add a beautiful and at times eerie quality to the scenery and isolated monasteries we visited. Up in the Himalayas it feels incredibly peaceful but it's actually quite a volatile area, there are loads of asylum seekers from Tibet and Myanmar who've been here so long they have their own recognised communities but the indigenous Gorkha people also want their own state within India so there are police everywhere. Residents of this area, mainly Nepali speaking Gorkhas have long sought a separate state for themselves to improve their socioeconomic conditions and seemingly every building is draped in 'self-autonomy' graffiti. They also have weekly demonstrations and my Mum inadvertently found herself in the middle of a demonstration through the town before somewhat surreally being featured in the first item on the news one evening.

After two nights in Darjeeling we crossed into Sikkim and headed to Pelling. Sikkim is a tiny, beautiful state lying to the south of Tibet and sandwiched between Nepal to the West and Bhutan to the East. It was, until the early 1960s an isolated, independent Buddhist kingdom but annexed by India it is now a predominately Hindu, fully fledged Indian state. Utterly serene in atmosphere this part of India felt an absolute world away from the chaos of the plains below and despite a couple of fairly tiring weeks at altitude answering incessant questions about Leyton Orient and the state of Peter Andre's career Mum was happy to have finished her holiday in this environment, oh and pleased to see the back of me for a while.

On coming back from Bhutan I went on a water safari to the Sundarbans- one of the tigers last main refuges. The Sundarbans are a huge area of mangrove swamp forest straddling the Bangladesh/India border and are home to some 500 Royal Bengal tigers. The only way to access them properly is via boat and it was an extremely peaceful few days watching the birds etc, whilst I was never likely to spot a tiger plenty of people living nearby do. Due to the swampy nature of the land there's little man can do with it and so the tigers appear to be relatively safe there, in fact the one major industry that can take place is the high quality honey collecting from the bees that live there. If management consultancy or similar feels a bit 'flat' as a job then I recommend becoming a honey collector in the Sundarbans. It really is a spectacularly dangerous job, on the Bangladesh side alone about 120 people a year are taken by tigers (or one every three days) and indeed our guide told the stories of how 2 of his uncles copped it from the super cats in this way.

On going back to Kolkata I was plunged into a city of colonial splendour mixed with abject poverty. It was the capital city in colonial times and regardless of your views on the empire etc you can't help but be amazed at what Britain achieved in India. The city was very much the administrative and economic centre although it has quite an odd visual feel to it. After many Communist governments there are loads of nationalist symbols and plenty of memorials to Chandra Bose, a sort of pro violence anti Ghandian figure in the independence movement, but also lots of decaying mansions. The British left an incredible architectural legacy of handsome 4 storey buildings for homes and administrative offices, thankfully the offices have been kept in use and maintained so really wouldn't look out of place in South Kensington. For the residential building though the Communists brought in rent control policies so that rents could not be legally increased dating back to the '70's and so you have the crazy situation of people paying as little as 5 cents a month to live in a gorgeous crumbling mansion as the landlords understandably refuse to repair or maintain the properties. Topped by the magnificent Victoria Monument it's the sort of place which shows why Britain was once so economically powerful; elsewhere I've seen loads evidence of Britain's former military might and how it maintained control of such a vast, sprawling area. The almighty but beautiful 12km fort perched 100m above the town at Gwalior was incredibly photogenic though my favourite military sight was in Lucknow. Ranking only behind Rourkes Drift in 1879 and Cardiff in June 2009 in the finest defensive actions against upstarts within the empire, the Residency there held out for an insane 5 months under constant shelling during the Indian uprising of 1857 before being eventually relieved and defeating the local rebels. Whilst it's somewhat delusionally called the First War of Independence here, the uprising has a fascinating history and the stories of what Britain held onto despite being vastly outnumbered and often out gunned have been awesome to hear and see.
On any trip to Asia religion will always be a key part of what's going on around you and Jerusalem excepted perhaps nowhere is more important in world religion than India. Home to 2 of the 'big 4' (Hinduism and Buddhism) it's also home to Sikhism, Parsis and Jainism plus plenty of Muslims and thanks to the British even has a fair few Christians. Whilst I've known for many years that my one true faith is based in the E10 postcode (the latest miracle took place on 13/4/2010) you can't help but enjoy learning how other people live and seeing how important their faith is in the most spiritual continent.
In Kolkata I saw the extremely moving Mother Teresa Mission and then spent a week in the very poor, untouristy state of Bihar seeing the most important Buddhist sites in the world. Whilst Lord Buddha was born across the border in Nepal I visited the other 3 major pilgrimage sites where he became enlightened, preached his first sermon and the very sad reclining statue marking where he died in Kushinagar. Each of the small villages around these sites have monasteries from around the world and aside from getting to stay in them for next t nothing I received the proud mental confirmation that after several months in Buddhist countries I can tell the nationality of a Buddhist temple at 50 paces just by its design. Impressive eh?

I also went to a few Jain holy sights; Jainism is an offshoot (sort of) of Hinduism and the Jain community draws a lot of praise from pretty much everyone else in India. Due to their perceived honest piety Jains have been extremely successful in business and constitute one of the wealthiest communities in India.They're also famed for living one of the most ascetic, pure lives of any religion and whilst in England they're most famous for wearing grilles over their mouths (so no bugs fly in) many of the worshipers here carry a brush and sweep b4 every single step they take so unsurprisingly they've never had any marathon runners. Whilst the temples were beautiful I found I couldn't really enjoy the insides much as the walls are festooned with pictures of ugly naked men (faithful monks in their 'purest form'). What I enjoyed a lot more was the free food they gave you just for visiting them :-)
It was during this period that the temperature was at its hottest, India tends to get its hottest weather before the monsoonal rains in the Summer and most days it was getting into the mid 40's by 9am, but of course being English I'd still spend all day outside doing stuff.
Whilst I'm lucky to have a body which seems to cope pretty well regardless of the weather the main way I got through it was by just chugging 8-10L of water every day. The heat does have quite an odd effect on your body though as I found despite all the water I was only going to the loo once a day in the morning and my torso was covered with blotches like a baby's milk spots caused by the heat. Sleeping could also be terrible as India has a surprisingly big problem with power outs and when the fan stopped working or I was staying somewhere which didn't even have a fan 4 or 5 cold showers a night had only a limited effect.
So I took a bath instead, of course 80%+ of the country are Hindus and I greatly enjoyed visiting a few of the holy cities on the banks of the Ganges. The Kumbh Mela takes place every 4 years and is the largest gathering of humanity anywhere in the world. An astonishing 100m people converge on the counter-intuitively named city of Allahabad to take communal baths and make offerings in the 'Holy Mother' (Ganges). I wasn't around for that unfortunately but saw plenty of others making their offerings and seeing them all definitely filled me with a sense of wonder at their strength of faith in a religion so old and yet so powerful in the collective consciousness of so many people.
Whilst I took a plunge in Allahabad I couldn't bring myself to do it in the holiest city of Varanasi. It's an incredible place where 3000 yr old alleys and cloisters lead towards a set of ghats (bathing steps) flanked by huge palaces on the river. To take a 'sin clearing' dip in the water is the most important pilgrimage site in Hinduism and it's where everyone dreams of dying. Around 70,000 people do it every early morning and evening and it's quite an incredible sight as the pilgrims make their various offerings but I couldn't bring myself to do it. And that was because the water was absolutely disgusting beyond belief. It's really easy to tell where the fish are because they're all gulping oxygen at the surface, this is due to the water being officially classed as 'septic' (no dissolved oxygen). There are 30 huge sewers running into the river and whilst most Hindus are ceremonially burnt before having their ashes scattered, there are quite a few exceptions to this (children, pregnant women, lepers etc.) and their bodies are weighted down and dumped in the river. All this means that the water has a harmful bacteria content of 1.5m per 100m litres of water, for water safe to bath in in the EU it must number less than 500. So both simultaneously 'purifying' and a fast track to cholera.
Neatly continuing the religious theme I've also seen plenty of the Islamic influence in this, the worlds most multifaceted country. India was ruled for several centuries by the Mughals from Iran and Afghanistan and aside from their economic and other cultural legacies they left behind some of the finest architecture in the world. From incredible palaces and famous forts built by the atrociously nicknamed Akbar the Great (Akbar means great in Arabic) to the awesome tombs which are dotted around I seem to have seen something amazing virtually every day in the last few weeks. Chief amongst these is of course the Taj Mahal; whilst best known as the name of seemingly half of the Indian restaurants in England it is actually a very important historical monument as the Taj provided the backdrop for the definitive image of the Charles and Diana divorce when she sat alone in front of it in 1992.
That was quite ironic as it's often been called 'the worlds most beautiful monument to love', built by Shah Jehan in the 17th century as a tribute to his dead wife I couldn't help but agree with that view. After his 2nd wife had just died during the labor of her 14th pregnancy it really must have been love as he could have built the Taj for any one of his 20 something other wives. Or any member of his 5,000 (why would you need 5,000??) strong harem for that matter.
Now I'm at the Karma Sutra temples where I've continued to learn about 'love'; the carvings of women with chests that would put Simona Halep to shame show an incredible degree of artistry and are of course petty graphic. Historians aren't really sure why the obsession with sex but the most common explanation is that the Chandelas (ruling class who built the temples) thought that it was purifying and a way of transcending evil to achieve enlightenment. Personally I prefer the view that it's simply a way of representing love in its most natural and arguably most honest form. And if that form of 'love' requires 3 other people and a horse to achieve, then so be it.
So from here I head south into Central India, enjoy the election and nce again the final paragraph isn't very nice so be warned.
When you're in India you very quickly realise that you don't so much visit the county as absorb and experience it. I've already seen quite a few things about which Indians seem to be very hypocritical; whilst I'm sure I'll say more in the emails ahead one of them is their claim to treat animals so much better. A few times already I've got into conversations where a local has started lecturing me on why we don't treat animals well in England and India is much more humane, but despite being in the socially dubious category of a vegetarian myself I found myself arguing back quite vehemently. Yes, the cow is sacred here and has right of way but I don't think allowing them to roam around motorway reservations and the like supplementing their inadequate food supply by eating plastic bags and other bits of rubbish is better than feeding them grass in a fenced field. Similarly they won't put stray or ill dogs down and so you have the sad sight of ill or wounded dogs desperately begging for scraps everywhere. Therefore I find myself strongly disagreeing with the first part of the phrase "In India all life is sacred- except human life".
The second part of the phrase however was neatly illuminated by an incident on a ghat in Varanasi, whilst sitting in the shade I noticed a dog dragging a doll by its lining, only I looked a bit closer and it wasn't a doll- it was the top half of a baby with its arms and head still attached and the 'lining' were its guts and lungs spilling out. I've no idea where it came from or how the dog got it but needless to say I was bit shocked. I didn't have a phone so asked a few passers by to call the police, the first 2 just said "Why? it's already dead", the 3rd guy then actually made a joke and said "It looks like a monkey" b4 a 12yr old lad corrected him and said "No, that's not a monkey - it's a baby" and they both strolled off.
As the succinct tourist board slogan aptly puts it: Incredible !ndia.

From Khajuraho,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 13:17 Archived in India Comments (0)

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