Saturday 29 November 2008

Red sand and the evil rock of destiny

Stayed in Pune (Poona) for about 3 days I think, narrowly missing the attacks in Mumbai. Stayed with Bunny and Amit from an Indian motorcycle magazine, BIKE India, who fed me, got me drunk and introduced me to a few unusual Indian delacesies (Phaan, it's kinda a chewing tabacco with a bunch of other stuff wrapped in a leaf. very strange.) I stayed there enjoying the free wifi and air conditioning at their office and making trips to the local backpackers coffee bar to do some work on my book (3 characters and a plot so far). Also got to ride one of their bikes the Honda 125. They asked me what I thought and I had to be honest. It was like riding a toy in comparison to my bike. In a way that was good, it was nice to ride without any responsibility for a while.

Headed down to Goa yesterday. It was about 500km from Pune and took about 8 hours but for some reason it was really difficult. The roads were good most of the way and the bike was fine but I just wasn't upto it. That's the second ride now where I felt that it was too much effort. The previous one was on the way to Pune. Strange. ANyway, tried to stop at the side of the road for some sleep and every time I stopped I got mobbed so gave up and pushed on to Panaji. Stayed in the only hotel I could find which cost me a small fortune but had AC so was worth it. It is hot here. Like tropical hot and sweaty. Who knew there could be so many types of hot weather? Beaches are beautiful, completely picturesque which is why I will upload some pictures rather than describing it. For now think "tropical beach" and you pretty much have the right idea.

midway, at the moment, between Panaji and Arambol. I found a beach to play on and got a bit over excited. Whizzing round up and over small hills and over the dunes making alot of noise and probably showing off a little too. Saw a small rock I thought I could climb. I couldn't. The bike grounded on it about halfway up and fell over to the left. Pride before a fall? Wont stop me though. Me and the bike both need a real off-road challenge for a bit so we'll have some fun.

Anyway, gotta go reach my hotel so I will catch up later.

Monday 24 November 2008

Ring of Fire and the Bollywood Extra

Since my last post I have traveled south through Jaipur and Udaipur down to Mumbai. Leaving Delhi was surprisingly easy. Another motorcyclist lead me to the main road leading south and sent me on my way before he turned around to carry on with his business. The road was pretty good. 3 and 2 lane highway for most of the ride to Jaipur. Not much to say about Jaipur, it was nice, had a nice fort and the hotel had a good spot for my bike. Almost forgot. Had the bike fully serviced in Delhi. Sparks, oil change, oil filter, new brake pads, new brake fluid, skimmed the rear disk, fixed all the electrics, put a switch in for my front light (FINALLY!!!), took all the body work off and replaced all the rubber mounting points so no more rattles and a new front tyre. The ride down was beautiful. The bike never felt so smooth and the brakes worked properly for probably the first time in 12k miles and as a final relief.... People stopped waving at me telling me my light was on! Happy days.

So I spent 2 nights in Jaipur before I got bored and headed to Udaipur. Again, good roads all the way. No potholes, no roadworks just traffic dodging. I'm getting a taste for undertaking and overtaking. Something primal, I think, like the thrill of the chase. Two lanes of traffic and a hard (is it soft when it is just mud?) shoulder gives plenty of opportunity to time a quick burst of power as you blast between two trucks or leave a cloud of dust behind you as you undertake a lorry and a car at the same time on the shoulder. 450Km later I was just outside Udaipur and it was dark. Why do I always arrive after dark? The streets around my hostel are a labyrinth but the Lonely Planet just shows one road. Eventually I find the hotel and ride into the courtyard. I get a room for 150Rs a night which is just a box with a bed, a fan and a mosquito net in it. Luxury!

I unpacked (threw a few things in my room) and went to the balcony which overlooks the lake. A few others were sitting down smoking and drinking so I joined them and tried too explain why I looked like I did but the explanation wasn't good enough. I was a mess and I am pretty sure I had developed a twitch in my left eye. Fortunately it was dark and my appearance was soon forgotten and we passed the night away in a haze of beer occasionally looking out over the lake and to the hotel in its center. It was beautiful, the white building lit up with yellow lights and reflecting off the black surface of the water and the sound of music playing quietly from the other side of the bridge.

In the morning I checked the view again. The hotel was still magnificent but there was a nasty smell I hadn't noticed the previous night and the water was green... Completely green! The growth was so thick it looked like you could walk on it. Over the course of the next day or two I noticed peddle boats getting completely stuck in it and that it harbored an incredible amount of plastic bottles and other rubbish. I will try to remember it by its night view but the smell wont ever go away! Crazy thing was we saw someone swimming in it and decided it had to be some suicide ritual. That water was completely stagnant.

I met with.... (aww dammit, I am crap at remembering names. Please don't be insulted if you are reading this. I'd forget my own name if it wasn't written on my bike!) Anyway, we had heard about a temple built entirely of marble and the guy who was telling us about it had plenty of good things to say (and I mean plenty) so after a breakfast of fried eggs on toast and a Banana Lassi (NOT a banana flavored dog but a rather delicious yogurt type drink which is slightly sour) we headed off in search of a taxi to take us to the Rankpur Jain temple. A bit of haggling and we were on our way, 1000Rs return trip, for a two hour trip into the country. When we arrived we headed straight for the canteen. 20Rs for all you can eat Thali. We ate. A lot. With nothing but our hands. Something really satisfying about grabbing a handful of rice in your hand, dipping it in curry and shovelling it down your throat. Giving cutlery the middle finger.

Some details on the temple. 1444 columns support the roof over 29 chambers. Each column is unique and carved entirely from milk white marble. The detail is incredible, they go so far as to carve eyes that are maybe a millimeter or two across. Everything about this place screams devotion. Built in the 1400s it is impossible to think how they erected such a building

Inside, each column is unique and it is obvious the craftsmen found it difficult to make 1444 unique columns. On some the only difference is the figures face in a different direction but the closer and longer you look you see the detail and the love that went into it. In one chamber there is a pyramid with elephants, lions and figures which tower up above you.

I wasn't allowed to take photos of the idols but they were crafted from the most perfect marble I have ever seen. One colour (does that make sense with marble?) and perfectly smooth sitting there with a content smile on his face. They were surrounded by the best carvings in the whole place.

This just shows you the detail of the work involved. It must have taken months or years just for that piece alone.

Outside the temple there was a smaller one which the local monkey population had taken over. I wanted to get real close for a photo but when I asked a guide if it was safe he said “yeah go as close as you like” I started walking “but it's your responsibility” I stopped walking.

They look and act very human. It's quite creepy. The older ones seem to sit around talking about the weather while the younger ones play in the trees and chase each other. We watched for a while and got as close as we dared before heading back to the taxi.

On the ride back we stopped for a drink and .... fell asleep. It was too bumpy for me so I watched the landscape change and took in the sites I would normally miss on the bike. I do try to prioritise looking at the road when I ride.

That night we met Claire (I remember a girls name, funny that.) who was staying in Udaipur for one month working as a volunteer at an animal sanctuary. Seems an odd way to spend time in India. She wasn't going to visit anywhere else but loved what she was doing. We also met up with Juilian who had been waiting for over a week for his laptop to arrive from France. We went to a rooftop restaurant called Ganesh and tried the local speciality “Bhang Lassi” which is supposed to be an alternative to weed but which tasted exactly like it (disgusting) and had no effect on any of us so we carried on drinking beer. I tried to remove the preservative glycerol (it gives you a crazy hangover from even 1 beer) from my beer using a trick in the LP which only went slightly wrong and I did avoid a headache so it was all good. And I met my first openly gay Indian, Dupak. He spoke the queens English and was, for India, very camp. He was also very obviously trying not to be Indian.

The next day was spent getting lost in town, reading, chatting and eating. I considered cleaning my bike and conveniently forgot about it. I was up early the following morning. Said my good-byes to everyone and hit the road for a gruelling 800km ride to Mumbai.

On rides that long different things go through my head. The first hour is wasted trying to get out of the city and the second hour is wasted trying to work out a schedule for the whole ride and it is a very complicated equation I run through to work it out but all that really matters is average speed and how often I will need to stop. Two hours in I had my first cig break. Around Ahmedabad (250km) the road turned into Indias first National Expressway. A long perfect stretch of tarmac heading south. I turned off the road I was on to the NE, reached the toll booth and got turned around by the guards. NO BIKES ALLOWED was the message. He told me to go on the road I had been on previously but that headed in the wrong direction. The toll booth had grass around the side of it and no fence so I went about 100 yards back and just blasted my way around. The worst he could do was call ahead and I doubted he would bother. The road was empty and I piled along at about 80 to make up for lost time. At this rate I would be in Mumbai an hour before darkness.

About 350km from Mumbai the road turned into a 350km long construction site and tailback. I rode until sunset and then further until it was dark and still further until it was outright dangerous so I gave up and found a hotel. I had been riding for over 12 hours and was still almost 200km from Mumbai. It was devastating and it made me realise how tight my schedule in India really is. As of today I have 3 weeks to get to Nepal and there is so much left to see. The hotel shower didn't work, the bed was hard and the mosquitoes got in. It was not a good nights sleep.

My plan to reach Mumbai in one day had been stupid. I didn't reach my hotel until 3pm the next day. This city is long. Really long and the tourist hotels are right at the bottom of the peninsula. 55% of Mumbai's population lives in the slums. One slum (the biggest in Asia) contains 1 million people in 1 square mile. I spent the day cleaning up and getting orientated in the city. The next day was spent buying a netbook (ASUS Eee PC 1000h) and playing with previously mentioned netbook. On the way back from the cafe a guy approached me and asked me if I wanted to be a Bollywood extra. I figured it was probably a con but he said there would be other Westerners so I agreed to meet him at 8am the next day.

So film making is really REALLY boring. It was a film about some guy who had killed his son in law or something like that. The scene we were filming he was standing on a podium giving a speech when he breaks down and admits it. Basically we sat in a conference room for hours on end while they filmed us. Occasionally they would pick one of us to stare at a spot next to the camera or give a reaction for a close up. My big scene was staring at a spot next to the camera and not move. The guy whispered in my ear what I had too do and then Vicky sitting behind me started kicking my chair asking what I had been told to do. All in all it was pretty boring and I had to wear a suit! It made me so happy I don't work in the film industry. They shoot one scene, move a plant pot slightly, shoot the scene again, move a chair an inch to the left and shoot it again and again and again.

They did feed us though (A spicy Thali) and I got 500Rs out of the deal. We even had our own assistant to goto the shops and buy anything we needed. After I got back to the hotel I planned to meet some of the other extras but I think I got the wrong restaurant and so ordered a Dum Aloo Punjabi (more spicy food) drank a beer and headed back to the hotel.

And this morning I am a first hand witness to the “Ring of fire” effect.

I am off to Pune tomorrow to meet the guys from BIKEindia before I head down to Goa to try and find Graham or Tino. I wont stay long. I have Lions to go see in the north of India and a plane to catch in Nepal. And as usual I have written way too much.

Tuesday 11 November 2008

Olivers Indo-English dictionary

Ok well I am in Delhi now. I arrived a few day ago and yeterday I took the train to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. Apart from being alone at the greatest monument to love ever built all I really want to say about the Taj is it is better to see it from a distance. I saw it from the fort, stunning. I saw it from the other side of the river where I sat for an hour, stunning. I saw it from the usual tourist photo perspective, stunning. I saw it up close full of all the cracks and damage that any man made item inevitably gets over time and the magic was lost a little. From a distance it is perfect!

Now for my new fangled dictionary which this post is really about:

Not being able to look into a small child's eyes when I tell him to go away, that I have no money for him. Reverting to ignoring him completely as he paws at my hand and clothes pointing at the food stand near by.

Riding a motorcycle that, if sold, would easily feed this child for life or could pay for an education. Spending enough money in one year, on a completely selfish thing, to seriously improve the lives of a small community which has nothing. There is no such thing as Karma in this world. Not one ounce of it because if there was I wouldn't be able to go on this trip and this child would know where his next meal is coming from.

Anger and self loathing:
Anger at parents who purposefully cripple their children so they will be able to beg for life. Anger at a world that would let this happen, anger that it is completely impotent and can't change a thing.
Self loathing because some of that anger was felt towards a kid who through his persistence dragged me kicking and screaming out of my blissful ignorance.

On the train ride to Agra I saw something I haven't seen before. At first the city of Delhi flashed by as all cities do. The sky scrapers followed by the odd historic monument, the inner city, the parkland, the suburbs and then it changed. Instead of fields there were slums. Miles and miles of slums lining the railway lines. House with bamboo supports and plastic roofs. When nature called children just stopped where they were and squatted in the middle of the road and when they finished they just carried on walking. They had no clothes on to worry about dirtying.

40% of India's population lives below the poverty line. Thats over 500,000,000 people. I knew about it but have never seen it before. Never thought how bad it really is.

Now to something different. I got conned the day before going to Agra. Or it feels like I did. Someone offered to help me with something, he helped and in the end it cost me about 1500Rs ($30). It was by someone who I would consider rich by Indian standards. It annoyed me because I fell for it but I don't mind because it taught me a valuable lesson. Then in Agra I met a rickshaw driver who offered to take me around the sites. I agreed and he took me on the grand tour. He kept on trying to get me to go into shops so he could earn commission and it was beginning to annoy me. When it came to paying I asked how much and he said "as you please" and he also said that previous english travelers had paid him $50 (which is a blatant lie) So I checked the LP and an AC taxi costs about 650 for 8 hours, a motor rickshaw about 400 for 8 hours so I offered, for the cycle rickshaw, 250 ($5) for about 5 hours. He looked really upset and said 1000Rs and we went back and forth like this to 400Rs which he agreed on.

It reminds me now of a quote from the Kite Runner (good book, read it) to paraphrase: There are two types of extortion. The first type is used to buy a rich man a new yacht. The second type is used to feed a poor mans family.

So what am I to do? I knew the rickshaw driver was ripping me off but I was arguing over a dollar or two and he was arguing over the money which would feed his family for a day or two. If I go round handing out rupees to every kid who begs (40 or 50 a day) and I don't argue when people overcharge me then I am going to go over budget and probably make the problem worse for the next travelers through. If I do argue with the taxi driver and I ignore the kids I am going to find it hard to sleep at night.

It's a really messed up world and it is making me emotional. I don't like emotions, being a cold hearted bastard is easier and is far less work.

Monday 3 November 2008

A view across the Ganges

Ok, they say a picture paints a thousand words but I am going to try a different angle today.

Imagine walking into a building built of bamboo. Thick struts make up the supports and thin leaves are weaved to make the walls. As you walk in two smells instantly assault your senses. The smell of freshly cooked Indian food with its sweet spices hits you first followed by the faint, fresh and slightly choking smell of marijuana. Opposite from where you stand you see the source of the second smell. The DJ sits in his corner playing a selection of ambient trance, a thin line of smoke rising from the joint in his mouth. The music is a gentle and flowing symphony of stringed instruments and highlights the muted chatter of people deep in conversation. As you look around the room you realise there are no chairs only cushions on a carpeted floor so you take off your shoes and move into the middle of the room. Paper lampshades cast reds, greens and blues through the smoke that swirls in the almost still air. It is slightly too warm from the evening sun coming through the large empty windows and there is a thin sheen of sweat on your skin. You find a seat in the corner and order a lemon mint iced drink. It's refreshing in the hot sun and wakens your senses. Looking out of the window you stare across the river Ganges passed the long thin pedestrian bridge to the bank on the opposite side. The sun is sitting just a few degrees above the hills.

You sit talking about life, remembering home and occasionally your eye is drawn back to the river. The sun is now setting, it is sitting right on the rooftops of the buildings and is turning the sky from a deep blue into oranges and yellows. The bridge is now just a silhouette with dark figures in robes crossing occasionally lit by a motorbike trying to squeeze through. A monkey sits on the suspension wires completely still. It has now cooled down, the river has turned orange and seems to have slowed down matching the pace of the music. As you sit staring into this scene something happens, you can't say what or when, but there is a moment when the sun hits a certain spot or the monkey turns slightly and you realise you are staring into a perfect moment in time every detail absorbed into your memory but as a whole, single thing that no camera could capture.

I met another welshman yesterday. We have lived within 5 minutes of each other back home and never met. It is one of those things that life kinda throws your way when you least expect it but definitely need it. He knows many people from my year in school and we have been talking about rugby, football, pubs n clubs. It seems just when I needed it someone came along and reminded me of life back home. Of friends I am missing, Sunday roast and of course the weather! The scene above is a small hut right on the river Ganges which he has visited several times in a town called Rishikesh. It is where (Rishikesh, not the hut) the Beatles wrote their album 'white album' and is an incredibly spiritual place. The self styled yoga capital of the world. Backpackers come here to meditate and rest after long journeys and it is an opportunity to throw yourself deep into a spiritual world not of gods and afterlives but individuality and personal enlightenment. There are many backpackers here. All attempting to find some kind of truth but also all returning to the backpacker havens at night. There is something about this place and I don't know if it is because the place is spiritual or if it is because the people make it so but it is there. In the way people walk and greet you, the beauty of the surrounding area. I can't pinpoint it but give me a few days and I will. I was certainly enlightened to something on my way here. Riding alone and off-road is far less fun than riding with others off-road. Especially when it is 85km!