Friday, 24 April 2015


Greetings from the town of Kanyakumari at the southern tip of India.  It’s here that my journey south will turn around and begin north toward my final destination of Bangalore.  So much to come but also so much that I’ve already seen…

After the familiar stopover in Kuala Lumpur, my trip proper started in the huge city of Chennai.  This is the capital of the Tamil Nadu province and boasts a population near 7 million people.  My guidebook indicates that it’s difficult to find much to gush about with ‘oppressively hot weather, air heavy with smog and sights uncooperatively thin on the ground’.  Many people don’t hang around but I took the time to stay a couple of nights and explore some of the attractions.

Shiva Kapaleeshwarar Temple

It’s true that the sights are a long way apart in this sprawling 70 square kilometre city but the rail system makes it easy and cheap to get around.  Absurdly cheap in fact.  To take a local bus or train in any city costs between 8 and 20 cents!  My visa on arrival at the airport may have cost me $60 but things start to balance out pretty quickly here. 

In south Chennai is the ancient Shiva Kapaleeshwarar Temple, which is an arrangement typical of what I’d find in many Tamil Nadu cities.  It is constructed in Dravidian style with a brightly coloured gateway tower known as a gopuram and pavilions in front of the inner shrine called mandapams.  There is usually a bewildering array of Hindu deities carved into the stonework of these things.  The temple complex sits beside a large square lake which is called a tank which is also common in temples of this era.  

Ramakrisha Mutt Temple

As a change of pace I visited the leafy grounds of the Ramakrisha Mutt temple.  This was a pleasant respite from the traffic chaos outside.  Monks wearing orange robes glide around in blissful silence and it has a distinctly reverential feel to it.  The temple itself is a beautiful pink building that pays homage of all India’s major religions.  Accordingly, it’s open to followers of any faith for meditation, prayer and contemplation. 
Not far away is the Roman Catholic San Thome Cathedral.  This beautiful white church is a very special place because it is one of only three churches in the world that is built over the tomb of a disciple of Jesus Christ.  St Peters Basilica in Rome and Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela built over the tomb of St. James in Spain are the other two.  After visiting the church itself, I went downstairs to see the tomb of Saint Thomas who it is said brought Christianity to the subcontinent in the 1st century.

San Thome Cathedral

I finished my day with a stroll along Marina Beach which was obviously the place to be when the heat of the day is gone.  I passed impromptu cricket matches, people flying kites, fortune tellers, rides and games for children and many market stalls.  There were even a number of horses on the beach offering rides along the sand.  Sadly, this beach was hit hard by the 2004 tsunami with about 200 people losing their lives, many of them children.  


Friday, 17 April 2015

India...reflections of a land and its people

I don't know how many kilometres I'd travelled around India and Nepal but I calculated that I'd spent about 220 hours doing it.  Anyone who has travelled in the sub-continent will realise this is a very long time to spend on the buses and trains!  Altogether and including the trek I stayed in over 50 different hotels or guest houses.  These ranged from a small room resembling a gaol cell to a luxury hotel with cable television, private bathroom and a revolving restaurant on the top.  I left a trail of about 150 empty plastic water bottles behind me and contributed to their problem of waste management.

Unfortunately India really has no idea (and probably no financial resources) to efficiently dispose of rubbish.  Numerous times I found myself with rubbish or an empty bottle in my hand with nowhere to put it.  The country needs about a million rubbish bins.  But the question would then be who would empty them and where would it all go?  Landfills don't seem to exist and more often than not it simply ends up in the street where the cows pick through and find something to eat.  I often wondered about the health of these bovine creatures and was quietly thankful that beef was never on the menu!

Except if you are a cow...

I reflected on the countless number of people I'd met and their extraordinary fascination of me.  By now I am probably in numerous photo albums and perhaps even mantelpieces.  I'd shaken more hands than I care to remember and even signed a lot of 'autographs'.  The most common questions I was asked were 'what's your name?' (often 'what's your good name sir?') and 'which country are you from?'.  This was often closely followed by whether I am married and the inevitable surprise when I offered my negative response.

The Indian culture can be very endearing or very annoying depending on the situation and how you're feeling at the time.  There is no doubt they always mean well and were often extremely helpful.  Often when I was unsure about something or needed some help I merely had to stand looking a bit confused or get my guidebook out.  Within minutes someone would be beside me asking if they can help.  The flip side of all this was the shopkeepers, rickshaw drivers and hotel touts inability to accept 'no' as an answer.  In an odd way, these two contrasts seemed to balance each other and preserved my sanity.

The cutest little shop in Delhi
Indians have some wonderful idiosyncrasies which are unique and sometimes amusing.  Perhaps the best of these is the head wobble that makes them look like a puppet that is about to fall apart.  It's a simultaneous nod and shake of the head that I never quite knew the meaning of.  I'd often get it in response to a question and I decided in the end that it meant 'yes, you can do that but I'm not entirely happy about it'... or something like that!

The food in India will not be one of my favourite memories and I'll often associate it with the health problems I encountered.  The result of them was that I lost about 12kg down various toilets and some days had very limited energy.  The general standard of food hygiene was often very poor but to be honest I think my body just didn't really agree with the diet.  Most dishes seemed to be too spicy and many food items were either deep fried or sickly sweet.  The first thing I had back here was a fresh salad and crisp apple!

More colorful and tasty Indian food

Being in an essentially vegetarian country I think I probably developed an iron deficiency.  For three months I didn't have red meat or fresh green vegetables.  One good thing though was bananas.  They were sold in abundance and only cost about 50 cents a kilogram.  Better than the $12 when I left Australia!  I gave up buying apples because no matter how good they looked, one bite made me realise they'd been sitting too long in a warm temperature.  Despite their odd unripe appearance oranges were easy to peel, sweet and juicy.

India is a very spiritual place.  Over 80% of Indians are Hindu and everywhere you go there are reminders of how sacred the religion is to them.  There are temples in every town and city where various rituals are practiced daily.  These involve strings of orange marigold flowers, red dye, incense, rice and perfumes.  There is a huge and bewildering array of different Gods that they worship, some of which are reincarnations of others.  I read my guidebook one day in an attempt to gain a better understanding of it all but ended up more confused than before!  I'll leave it to them if it makes them happy...

Snake charmer at work, Jaipur

So, it was with all those thoughts and memories that I boarded my flight for Kuala Lumpur after what will probably be the least festive Christmas Day of my life.  With such a vast Hindu population this Christian celebration doesn't mean much to most Indians.  Riding from the airport to the city in Kuala Lumpur, it was wonderful to relax in a quiet air conditioned bus with only half the seats occupied.  When I looked out the window I saw footpaths at the edge of the street instead of dust and rubbish.  I enjoyed my couple of days there before returning to Australia.

When I arrived in Brisbane without my luggage so had a couple of days with only one set of clothes and no toiletries but it finally turned up.  The joys of travel are many and varied…  Despite the frustrations and huge physical demands, overall I've had a wonderful experience.  It's been a great trip and I'm pleasantly surprised that I was able to follow my intended itinerary so closely.  I thought the logistical difficulties may prevent me from doing so.  For all I've seen and done, it's huge country with so much more to see and experience.  Until then, thanks so much for sharing the adventure with me!


Friday, 10 April 2015

Pushkar and Jaipur

The last week of my travels took me to the small town of Pushkar, Jaipur and finally back to New Delhi.  Pushkar is a lovely town set beside a lake which is considered holy in the same way as the River Ganges in Varanasi.  So, it is surrounded by ghats that are used for bathing, especially early in the morning.  I loved my few days there for a few reasons.  There wasn't a lot to do and it was a wonderful chance to relax, chat to other tourists and wander around the shops. 

What really made it fun though was an extraordinary coincidence that happened the day I arrived.  While looking for a guesthouse, I met Ben who was a friend of mine from Darwin.  I had no idea he was in India!  So, after nearly three months of travelling solo it was great to have someone to hang out with and exchange a few travel stories.

Steps of a bathing ghat, Pushkar
One thing we loved about Pushkar is the buffet meals.  For 50 INR (about $1.50) restaurants offered all you can eat breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Of course it's not something you could do three times a day but it was fantastic value once or twice.   The breakfast was especially good and offered cereal, muesli, porridge, toast, fruit, pancakes, tea and coffee.  Nothing deep fried, gooey sweet or spicy :-)

Ben changed his plans slightly and we travelled on to Jaipur together.  While Jodhpur is the 'Blue city', Jaipur is India's 'Pink city'.  To be perfectly honest though I think it's a misnomer.  It's not really pink, even when viewed from the fort overlooking the city.  The buildings of the old city are various other colours and perhaps there are a few pink among them but I was generally disappointed.  That aside though, it's an interesting city with a lot of history.

Palace of the Winds, Jaipur
One of the major tourist attractions is the Palace of the Winds which is an intriguing building.  It is five stories of beautifully carved red sandstone but is essentially just a facade.  The building behind isn't anywhere near as attractive as the front.  Adjacent to the palace is an observatory that contains various sundials, one of which is 27 metres high.  The shadow moves across it at 4 metres per hour so as long as it's sunny you get an accurate time of day. 

I also visited the City Palace which contains the two largest silver vessels in the world.  They contain 900 litres of liquid each and the story of their origin is an amusing one.  The Marharaja of the day ordered them to be made before a trip to England.  They were then filled with water from the River Ganges because he didn't trust the English water!  Perhaps the Ganges wasn't quite so polluted back then...

Majestic Indian elephant, Tiger Fort
We took a walk up to the Tiger Fort overlooking the city but it didn't compare to the huge fort and palace that we visited the following day in Amber.  This village is 11km from Jaipur and made a perfect day trip from the bustling city.  It was built in 1592, in distinctly Rajput architecture with the usual royal extravagance and today is a major attraction for Indians and tourists alike.  If you had a spare 400 rupees you could even take an elephant ride up the hill.     
Ben was going to fly to Goa for Xmas/New Year but when he realised the cost of an air ticket was almost double at that time he decided to go back to Pushkar!  I suggested Diu if he wanted to relax on the beach but he couldn't face the overland travel to get there.  Can't really blame him!  Pushkar is a holy place where meat, eggs and alcohol are banned.  So, when I said goodbye to him at the bus station he had two bottles of rum packed very discreetly into his pack.  I'm not sure exactly who was going to catch him...the alcohol police?  The egg police on a quiet day...?

View of Amber from Tiger Fort
Anyway while he left on his smuggling run back to Pushkar I headed in the opposite direction to Delhi.  My final Indian bus trip will be remembered for getting a puncture and once it was replaced having to share my seat with the old tyre.  In fact I decided to stand rather than have the dirty old thing roll into me every time the bus veered left.  To make my day I took what must be the most crowded bus in the whole of Delhi...number 729 that runs from the bus terminal to the railway station.  I don't think I was able to exhale properly until I got off the bloody thing!

I stayed in shopping area called Main Bazaar (Market).  There is a good selection of cheap hotels and after checking a few I realised that they were all of a very average standard.  I chose the best what I could find, ignored the couple of cockroaches crawling across the concrete floor and lay back on the very firm mattress.  As my feet dangled ungracefully off the end I began to reflect on the three months just past...

Friday, 3 April 2015

Thar Desert camel safari

The Thar Desert is also known as the Great Indian Desert.  It is a large, arid region in the northwest part of India and forms a natural sandy boundary between India and Pakistan.  Taking a camel safari into this desert is a popular excursion from Jaisalmer and there are many companies vying aggressively for the tourist dollar.   

Unfortunately the company I booked with was managed by a disorganised idiot.  His name was Ashit...really, it was but I'll just call him Ash.  After completing my booking, he told me there would be other people in my group but I arrived in the morning to find I was alone.  Apparently the vegetables he had for me were eaten by a cow so we had to stop along the way to buy more.  As he was doing this, a policeman was writing him a ticket for illegal parking of the jeep!  I honestly wondered what the next few days had in store for me...   

Packed and ready to go

I was disappointed not to have others with me and I was surprised that we only had one camel between us.  But apparently this is the usual practice and while I rode my guide would walk ahead leading the camel.  Fortunately, once we started I had the services of a very good guide. He was happy and would often sing as we made our way through the desert.  He really did a great job making sure I was comfortable, happy and enjoying the experience. 

I admired his energy and organisation.  Whenever we stopped and unpacked the camel it wasn't long before we had a fire going and tea brewing.  While I enjoyed my hot tea, he would prepare the meal.  Both lunch and dinner were similar and consisted of mixed vegetables, chapati (flat Indian bread) and rice in the evening.  For a meal made over a small fire out in a desert it was great food and I appreciated all he did.  He also knew the camel well and we didn't have any problems with him along the way. 

My desert guide preparing lunch

Another big consolation was that we met up with other groups each night.  (It seems the 'non-tourist' trail is starting to get well worn)  So, after we'd had dinner we walked across a couple of sand dunes and joined them.  The second night was great because they had a nice big campfire and one of the guys had a guitar.  We even got to sample some genuine desert whiskey.  I was a little apprehensive about how cold it would be in the desert at night.  I didn't need to worry because I took my sleeping bag and the guide had four blankets between us.  Sure it was chilly but I was quite warm and slept okay. 

Now...I guess you're curious about what it's like to ride a camel for three days.  Well, to be honest it's not the most comfortable experience!  The saddle had plenty of padding because of the pillows and blankets we carried so no problem there.  But having my legs stretched in opposite directions for a couple of hours at a time was interesting.  The inside of my thighs hurt and when I dismounted I could hardly walk for a few minutes!  But I'm happy to say that it did get easier and I did things a little more gracefully as we went along.

Gypsy camp out in the desert

We were supposed to meet our friend from the agency at 4pm on the final day but not surprisingly he was late.  When he finally arrived it was on a motorcycle because apparently the 'jeep had a problem'.  So I jumped on the back of his motorcycle and we only rode for a few minutes before he stopped by the side of the road.  We had a puncture.  This guy just amazed me...everything he did seemed to go wrong!  He waved down a truck and asked them to drop me into the city.  As I left him, he offered me accommodation for the night which I quickly declined.  The place would probably have a fire and burn down!

So, there we camel safari experience.  Although it wasn't quite what I imagined, I'd have to say I enjoyed it.  There is something unique and special about riding a camel through the desert.  The silence was sometimes only broken by my guide singing or the distant tinkling of bells on goats as they walked.  We visited villages made from mud huts with thatched roofs and watched as boys herded goats or black-faced sheep.  I listened to a desert legend and we slept beside a campfire in sand dunes.  I'll remember it fondly...