Bodh Gaya – The Buddhist Theme Park

SAM_1366

There are four places which are important and the ultimate pilgrimages for Buddhists. There is his birthplace which is Lumbini in Nepal, his death place at Kushinigar, India, his first sermon at Sarnath, Varanasi (more about this in later blog) and the place where he sat under a tree for a bit, as steady as a tampon, before attaining enlightenment at Bodh Gaya in the lawless state of Bihar. (lawless today that is). The exact spot where he did this is now a shrine to Buddhists and spiritual seekers worldwide wanting to visit the tree where he battled off Mara. It of course is not the original tree but a descendant of it, but the spot is still the spot.

1798659_4003120574340_2176400011704067204_n

Scholars have often debated what Mara is. It is commonly known as a demon who came to tempt Buddha back into worldly attachments, copied some 500 years later by Bible writers when their own version of Mara, S*tan, similarly tempted Jesus in the wilderness. The difference in these stories is that the Buddhist one is known and understood to be symbolic. Well the spot at Bodh Gaya is where that all happened though I think Mara was not the worst thing for Mr B, it must have been the mosquitoes because they seem to like it here better than anywhere else in India. One can only assume that the Buddha, when he eventually got up, was rather spotty.

SAM_1388

It’s not an easy place to get to, Bodh Gaya. We had to grab an internal flight to Patna which at first experience reminded me of Philip Pullman’s description of Hell in ‘His Dark Materials’. We stayed overnight at one of Patna’s better hotels – comparable to a bad Travelodge that has been taken over by a biker gang. We were on the top floor but luckily we were still able to hear, as if it was happening in the en-siute bathroom, the Indian rave going on in the function room three floors below. And this was a Wednesday!

Leaving in the morning, we tested our patience at the railway station to try to get a train to Gaya, 5 hours away. We had two hours to wait and became a curiosity to all other travellers because one guy could speak English and wanted to know everything about us.  Our answers were translated to the 600 people circling us at a distance of 6 inches. When the train came in, some kids ran in and jumped on to seats and said they were for us – and a pleasurable journey was had.
SAM_1304

Once at Gaya though, things got a bit scary. We needed to find a tuk tuk to take us the remaining 12 miles to Bodh Gaya itself and it was then that three young lads, doing a credible impression of a pack of hyenas, began stalking Alison, right on her tail. I nodded to my son James that we have a problem and we turned and faced them off. I gave them my best show of teeth and emitted a little growl and they backed off. This was noticed by approximately 10,000 other locals and then I remembered, from all the travel guides, that the state of Bihar should be avoided, if at all possible. I have learned, in my life, three tactics to ward off violence – the most drastic and risky being an actual teeth bearing growl. The other two are to either suddenly become very gay and very camp (people say I’m *too* good at this) or to cock one’s head, point randomly into the sky and begin slobbering. It is my experience that guys don’t generally hit you if you adopt one of these.

However, this incident marred our arrival into Bodh Gaya – which was met by a guy riding alongside our tuk tuk on a motorbike offering accommodation for only £3.50 a room per night. In exhaustion we instructed the tt driver to follow him and so began what would turn out to be the worst sleep or more accurately wake I’ve ever had. Apart from the room being bereft of air conditioning – just a wobbly ceiling fan -our bedrooms were a meeting place, if not the meeting place for mosquitoes, the likes of which I’ve never seen, the new mattresses were bedecked with plastic sheets, so when the power goes out, which is about every hour, the ceiling fan stops, the 90 degree heat mingles with the plastic sheet and the mozzies come out to play, and as there is no power,  you can only hear them, and hear them everywhere – and when the power does eventually come back on you catch yourself in the mirror, soaked with sweat doing a wonderful impersonation of a lunatic with rickets repeating words like ‘for fucks sake’ and ‘bastard’s at an unacceptable volume.

The next morning, bleary eyed, wandering around the town it becomes very obvious that Bodh Gaya is a Buddhist theme park. Each country has it’s own monastery, even China, vying to be the most impressive.

SAM_1330

SAM_1344

SAM_1340

It was so much like the Epcot Centre only with added cows and stray dogs. The Tibetans are currently constructing one which rivals a football stadium.

SAM_1310

We visited several and marveled at the architecture and artifacts, we visited the Big Buddha statue before going to the Mahabodhi Temple, where the tree is.

SAM_1317

Security was tight as there had been a bomb explode not too long ago but once inside the grounds, it was all very impressive. Shoes off, we headed for the tree. Fenced off, overhanging a courtyard in front of the temple, there it was, or there the spot was, and we sat with many others contemplating the significance of the spot and watching monks trying to out-monk each other with the best meditation posture, and then it happened – a gust of wind! And so began the best entertainment so far.  Each gust dislodged a few leaves, and fortuitously one fell near my feet, but looking up, I witnessed Buddhist mayhem. When the leaves came to the ground the monks didn’t actually fight, but ‘withdrew’, when another had beaten them to a leaf.  It was akin to a rock idol throwing plectrums into a crowd.  One tattooed Burmese monk had a whole bag.
I think they were learning about attachment.

SAM_1381

SAM_1396

SAM_1390

10256240_4003120974350_5717924297210476573_n

There was also a meditation garden which you had to pay admission to enter if you didn’t intend to meditate but it was free if you were to meditate or, I guess, pretend to. The irony of this was not lost on me.

That evening on the street we met some lovely teenagers who spoke good English who walked with us for an hour or so and couldn’t grasp that most English people can’t stand cricket. They asked me to buy them a football and I did and they are now facebook friends (Hi guys!)
SAM_1415

But it was time to arrange transport to get to Varanasi – the jewel in India’s crown and on inquiring I was whisked away on the back of a motorbike to a man who knows a man who can – and Varanasi is a whole new story

10254997_4003122934399_3677154705361824480_n

all posts from this trip – ‘North India in 23 Days’ can be found at
https://kevollier.com/category/north-india-in-23-days/

and for other Yoga and Buddhist related posts as well as general randomness see
kevollier.com/

Still My Guitar Gently Weeps

following on from https://kevollier.com/2014/07/25/rishikesh/

kevollier.com Rishikesh. The Beatles

Rishikesh before the arrival of The Beatles in 1968 was pretty much unknown to Westerners but there is no doubting that it was indeed this visit by the Fab Four that put Rishikesh, Meditation and Yoga onto the current mainstream map.

The Beatles, simply put, is why Rishikesh is what it is today – the yoga capital of the world – and the number 1 spiritual backpacking destination on the planet – but – you wouldn’t know this when there. There are no shops selling Beatles memorabilia, and their songs from the White Album, which was mostly written in this town along with other of their tunes, are not blaring from every shop and coffee stop. There is a Beatles Cafe hidden away in an underground blaze of buildings outside of he main tourist zone but that’s it.

The greatest monument to The Beatles is not the Cavern Club in Liverpool nor is it the National Trust owned childhood homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and neither is it Penny Lane or the zebra crossing in Abbey Road. It is the crumbling ashram that The Beatles briefly lived in with the Maharishi in Rishikesh. That’s the spot where the Beatles opened their hearts and minds and in the case of Harrison and Lennon, were never closed again. It is the must visit antiquity for any fan of the Beatles but it has to be done soon because in 5 years it will be likely be gone as the jungle is taking it over – and fast.

In the mid-1960s, the Beatles became interested in Indian culture after using drugs in an effort to expand their consciousness and in 1966 Harrison visited India for 6 weeks and took sitar lessons from Ravi Shankar.
The band’s visit was one of the their most productive periods. Their interest in the Maharishi changed Western attitudes about Indian spirituality and encouraged the study of Transcendental Meditation to the rest of the world. They first met the Maharishi in London in August 1967 and then attended a seminar in Bangor Wales. They had planned to attend the entire 10-day session, but their stay was cut short by the death of their manager, Brian Epstein. Wanting to learn more, they kept in contact with the Maharishi and made arrangements to spend time with him at his teaching center located in Rishikesh.

Along with their wives, girlfriends, assistants and numerous reporters, the Beatles arrived in India in February 1968, and joined the group of 60 people who were training to be TM teachers including musicians Donovan and Mike Love of The Beach Boys.

So today was an exciting day for me. We were going to find the ashram. Brought up on The Beatles – my mother tells me when I was born, and subsequently taken back to the ward, the first song I ever heard was ‘She Loves You’ as that was playing on the hospital ‘wireless’. I was even born on September 19th, the same day as Brian Epstein (and Twiggy as it happens but that has no relevance) and I have known every word of every song, verbatim, since I was 7.

We had to ask where the ashram was, as it isn’t signed or mentioned anywhere yet every resident knows where it is. It is a mile down from the Swarg Ashram village, within Rishikesh, beyond where the path ends and forays into the edge of the jungle, or actually where the jungle forays towards town. Even 100 yards away, we had to ask some westerners where it was..

SAM_1172
The Ashram entrance

We were met at the gate by a local guide who was recommended by a departing scouse Indian couple. Then there was an entrance fee, of 5op each. The guide was invaluable. The first thing we learnt was that there were 121 two storey meditation pods circumnavigating the huge ashram where people were left to lose their minds. The Beatles had, wait for it….pod number 9 (explains a lot doesn’t it?)

SAM_1174
Number 9

We were taken to the levitation hall which looks like it was made from Chesil Beach and our guide assured us that levitation was a regular occurrence

SAM_1205

Taken on to the roof of a mediation room

SAM_1210

SAM_1208

SAM_1206

and into the collapsing and fascinating Yoga Hall which has been left to the graffiti artists and apparently the odd visiting Tiger…

SAM_1182

SAM_1183

SAM_1185

SAM_1186

SAM_1188

SAM_1189

SAM_1192

SAM_1193

SAM_1194

SAM_1195

The weird thing was that if anywhere had a lingering spirit or ghost of the past then this was the place. The whole atmosphere of the ashram was haunting, a crumbling statue in time of the minds of people who were desperately  trying to get out of them and although I debated why it was that the local tourist trade were missing a trick by not opening this up and publicising, what is, such a culturally historic place, the part of the Earth where the Beatles went in search of God/Love/ Self, I also got the beautiful impermanence of it all, the earth itself grabbing back what is its from the footsteps of the greatest celebrities to have ever walked its soil.

Then going to the accommodation building which was that of the Beatles, and of course Prudence who simply wouldn’t come out to play, added a spine shiver. I swear if you were still enough, you could get back and be there, maybe, to where you once belonged

if you look carefully, you might see Lennon peeping out
SAM_1218

SAM_1219

 

SAM_1220

 

SAM_1187

all posts from this trip – ‘North India in 23 Days’ can be found at
https://kevollier.com/category/north-india-in-23-days/

and for other Yoga and Buddhist related posts as well as general randomness see
kevollier.com/

Rishikesh! Yoga capital of the world

following on from https://kevollier.com/2014/07/02/beggars/

yoga rishikesh

The bus from hell pulled in at Dehra Dun at 5 in the morning and still being 10 miles from Rishikesh allowed taxi drivers to take advantage, or try to at least. They should understand that after the last 14 hours my inner yogi had gone awry and I was left with a strong case of the fuck it attitude. The greedy smiles of the drivers saying that ‘there is no other choice than to take our taxi as the first bus is 5 hours away’  found my yogi free body waving a finger at my face and saying ‘do I look bothered ?’ which was lost on them as I can’t imagine they knew who Vicky Pollard was. In fact, nobody we asked, and we asked a few after the shock of the first blank face, had ever even heard of Madonna, so Vicky had no chance.
Standing our ground the fare halved when all the other passengers had gone on their way and soon we arrived at our hotel in Rishikesh, waking the receptionist asleep on the floor behind the counter who, bless him, rounded up some sleepy staff and got our rooms ready.

SAM_1133

A few hours later we were up and out and immediately the senses were assaulted by more yoga posters than you could ever imagine. I confidently think that you could stay in Rishikesh a whole year going to a different yoga class each day without repeating one. The yoga posters though had stiff competition from the meditation posters. And it is a honey pot for westerners – most on month long courses and nearly all on a long term world hippy travel adventure – and of all ages – in fact the over 50’s were as abundant as the under 30’s.

We wandered down the narrow alleys to the first cafe – a chilled cushion seated affair called the Happy Buddha Cafe which afforded the first views of the Ganges. It maybe only a river in the same way the Himalayas are only a mountain range but breath is stripped from your body just the same.

SAM_1160

SAM_1116

I struck up a conversation with an English threesome who were at the back end of a Sivananda yoga course, one I’ve never tried but their recommendation to do so will be acted upon. They told us of a circular walk that takes in all of Rishikesh so that’s what we decided to do. Heading off we soon came to the defining Lakshman Jhula pedestrian suspension bridge but spotting, what truly has to be, one of the best sited people watching cafes in the world, the Devraj Coffee Corner and Bookshop hovering above it, we decided to have another rest – this time a Honey Lemon Ginger tea was the order of the moment to watch the constant drama unfold below.

SAM_1127

 

SAM_1124

To say this is a pedestrian bridge is pushing it to say the least. The only thing not allowed on it, and only because it isn’t wide enough, are cars and trucks.  Motorbikes and scooters cross it and it seems as long as you ‘peep’ it’s ok to kill a pedestrian. I assume a death resulting from no peeping results in prosecution.  But ‘peep’ doesn’t adequately describe the murder inducing sound that is emitted. Along with the motorbikes and scooters, also jostling to cross are cows, buffalos, dogs, the odd donkey and every sort of human alive, and constantly, the very naughty monkeys, who, looking all cute at first glance, are jumping down on to the bridge and then literally stalking and then grabbing and ripping any bags not held against a chest. There is no movie worth watching that is as enthralling and dramatic as the live action of Lakshman Jhula bridge.

lakshman-jhula-suspension

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

SAM_1125

 

SAM_1162

Once one runs the gauntlet of this crossing you come into the area that is itself Lakshman Jhula. To picture this imagine the Green Fields’ cafes of Glastonbury Festival crossed with the High Street of Glastonbury town with a splattering of ashrams to a backdrop of Himalayan foothills and a turbulent Ganges running through it all, accompanied by scents of Patchouli, Sandalwood and Hashish with yoga and meditation being the main stay of business.
One word.
Go!

 

1495540_4003107454012_2986470173641590383_n

more posts on Rishikesh to follow…..

all posts from this trip – ‘North India in 23 Days’ can be found at
https://kevollier.com/category/north-india-in-23-days/

and for other Yoga and Buddhist related posts as well as general randomness see
kevollier.com/

 

The Karma of Gay Abandon

Before this India trip a neighbour informed me that he’d never get on to a bus in India where the driver believes in reincarnation. I recalled this statement less than one hour in.

The day had started with a tad of tension which as the day and night went by descended further.
We’d taken a taxi from McLeod Ganj down to Dharmasala bus station where we were to pick up the 14 hour overnight deluxe coach to Rishikesh. 
Leaving McLeod was slightly throat aching, reminiscent of those past holidays where you say goodbye to a place where a great time was had.

We had an hour to spare at the station and the first thing I did was to go to the ticket office and pointlessly ask what platform our coach was to depart from. They never tell you unless waving their hand in a dismissive manner is a signal.

The small station shop was selling pop and water and so I went to get some refreshments and it was then that I made the mistake I never thought I’d make. As I removed my wallet a small kid of about 4 years old ran over with his hand outstretched. He found me in a moment of compassion, having just been surrounded by Buddhist monks for 4 days, and as the note was out, I gave it to him – 50 rupees (50p). Before I’d had time to put my wallet away an army of very small children surrounded me, hung to my legs, gripped my shirt and made me the amusement of the whole station and so I took them to meet my family and we all started repeating the word ‘No’ verbatim with accompanying head shakes, that, on reflection, may have made us look like an odd cult.

The families they were with were camped out on the station floor and only admonished their child beggars when they went back empty handed it seemed. Amongst all this, a beautiful puppy was looking for safety from the kids who were doing their very best to terrorise it. It chose well in picking under our chairs to take refuge and he was loved and cuddled and how I wished we could take him with us.

1901676_4003082093378_5521724464904907102_n

I was taken away from this puppy reverie by an elderly member of staff telling me that our bus was in. I turned to follow his pointing finger and then turned back to explain that we actually have a deluxe coach and this isn’t our bus. He assured me in a rather vengeful manner that it was our bus, so I showed him our ticket and he brushed it off and said ‘your bus’.  As the bus to Rishikesh was to leave in less than 10 minutes I went back to the ticket office ‘allowing’ three people to barge in front, before spreading myself across the ticket window. I carefully explained that we have a deluxe coach. He replied, whilst pointing at the same vehicle the other guy had and said ‘your bus, deluxe’. I had to assume that this wasn’t his first day and he’d know what a deluxe bus looked like but on this occasion he was mistaken. He replied to this suggestion, and rather too gleefully for my liking, ‘deluxe, deluxe, only bus to Rishikesh until tomorrow’. I had to accept that as the bus route and the destination and the time of departure all matched that on the ticket that I’d booked 3 months previously, that this was indeed our 14 hour overnight bus. I informed the other two members of my family of this and I think the exact words my son used were ‘you fucked up this time dad’ – and he was right.

This was the sort of bus that was running, woefully, in Manchester in the fifties.  Air con was supplied by the windows that had an automatic slide mechanism which worked by them sliding forwards only to slam shut on every brake of the bus and to slide backwards and slam open on every acceleration, which essentially means 20 times a minute.  The seats were very, very shiny, and they weren’t leather or plastic, and as the bus began to move it shook as if it had square wheels. It shook as if every nut and bolt was hanging on by a thread. I felt my first measure of total discomfort before it had even left the bus station and had resigned myself to the fact that sleep would not be something that would occur.

SAM_1115
The actual ‘deluxe coach’

We were then told that the beggar children had got hold of the puppy and had thrown it violently down a set of stairs. The sadness this filled me with made me angry as it must have surely died and the thought that went through my mind was that the beggars had virtually guaranteed their rebirth as a dog in India.

My mood was jolted sideways when the driver, a maniac even by Indian standards, having dared to do 007 manoeuvres on very winding mountain roads, with infinite drops, hit the brakes, and skidded across the highway narrowly missing wiping out an ambulance on an emergency call. Once we’d all removed our heads from the very, very shiny headrests in front we consoled ourselves that had he hit it, we would have at least got instant medical attention, had the crew survived themselves. This was 15 minutes into the 14 hour journey. We were later joined on the bus as dusk fell by several large families of mosquitos taking advantage of the automatic windows.

But there’s only one thing you can do in a situation like this.
Switch off your mind, relax and float down stream.

At the halfway stage the driver stopped at a roadside ‘restaurant’ where we got talking to our fellow passengers all of whom were Indian. One guy said he does this journey, 10 hours from Dharmasala to his drop off point,  twice a week to commute to work –a return journey I might add! After staring at him speechless for a long unbelieving while I asked if all the drivers are as bad as this one and I was reliably informed that they are not and ‘this one is crazy, the worst driver I’ve known’.

Lucky us.

 

all posts from this trip – ‘North India in 23 Days’ can be found at
https://kevollier.com/category/north-india-in-23-days/

see also

‘I am not a Buddhist….’ https://kevollier.com/2014/06/14/i-am-not-a-buddhist/

‘In Search of Gandhi’ https://kevollier.com/2014/04/14/north-india-in-23-days-day-2-in-search-of-gandhi-part-1/

I am not a Buddhist – McLeod Ganj

following on from https://kevollier.com/2014/05/10/delhi-to-mcleod-ganj/

‘I am not a Buddhist’ were words I heard myself uttering at the end of our three day stay in the home of the Dalai Lama – the town of Mcleod Ganj not the big man’s house itself of course.

SAM_1007

We dropped our backpacks into the Pink House Hotel, had a hearty breakfast of Mango Lassi, Chocolate and Banana pancakes and a Tulsi Tea and then went off to discover the town. After just 100 yards I was approached by a woman with a baby who told me that she didn’t want money, just food, for her starving child. How could one possibly refuse? –  so I was led back the way I’d come, to a shop. It was at this time I realised that I’d become part of a scam I hadn’t come across before. The shopkeeper was well prepared for me as I assume the woman must do this as many times a day as she can get away with. The choice offered was rice or/and milk and I decided to pay my dumb dues and pick rice – at 400 rupees a bag which I later found was about 350 rupees too much. I guess that she gets a small commission and the shop owner, Mr Robin Bastard, gets the rest. I left muttering inner ffs’s and started back up the road only to met by another woman and a baby. I couldn’t tell if it was the same woman and baby and I entertained the prospect that today might actually be groundhog day. This time I said No. I learn fast.

SAM_1080

Apart from gangs of babies clutched by women, McLeod is brimming with purple robed Buddhist monks and nuns and a hefty mix of dreadlocked Ohm wearers who fill the many groovy cafes and funky restaurants.

SAM_1002

Most of the population are Tibetan non-monk refugees fleeing the on-going Obama and Cameron ignored  atrocities of the Chinese which has been on-going since 1960 when the first refugees came and still do to this day.

SAM_1062

Tibetans outnumber the Indians by at least 5 to 1

SAM_1068

SAM_1025

All of the buildings are built in Tibetan style which include the residence of the Dalai, the Tibetan Childrens Village, the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute and hundreds more. I wasn’t sure about the Astrological one as I’m a Virgo and it’s a known Virgo trait not to believe in Astrology. There is the Library of Tibetan Works and countless yoga and meditation centres. It was in Mcleod Ganj that I discovered what I assume must be a Tibetan delicacy – French Toast. Everywhere does it and they all compete for taste. This is not Eggy bread, this is French Toast – the names don’t even sound similar.

SAM_1078

What surprised me here was being in a restaurant and monks ordering chicken. I was always under the impression that sentient beings weren’t supposed to be eaten and apparently the Buddha himself died choking on pork which might have been his very last lesson on the pitfalls of eating a fellow sentient. But more than that, from what I understand, a monk dons his robes to renounce the world, but I didn’t encounter one who wasn’t holding a smartphone or an ipad where, rather than renounce the world, you can access all of it, 24/7 which makes becoming a monk bloody easy in my opinion.

SAM_1089 (2)

SAM_1075

I always wonder what Christ would think, if he came back, and allegedly he’s supposed to, of all the churches built in his name, each one with his murder hanging from every arch and alter and I do wonder what Buddha would think of all the golden statues of him, some small with holes in his head to hold joss sticks, some so big to rival a cathedral.
At least the Buddhists don’t have his everlasting image as a guy trying to cough up some bacon, so he got a better deal than Jesus.
And where does it say that to understand the teachings of the big B one has to shave one’s heads or don robes or prostate?
It doesn’t.
The philosophy and teachings of a tuned in being, once again, have been lost or side stepped into a religion of ritual – yet another case of fingers pointing at the moon.

SAM_1067

SAM_1076

The Dalai Lama was in residence when we were there, though I think he was having a lie-in and indeed the temples are certainly very  impressive – as buildings and as symbols of devotion, and all of it with the majestic and mystical snowy peaks of the Himalayas as a back drop. It is a magical town.

Delhi to McLeod Ganj

Of all the things to excite you in Delhi there is one ‘must do’. At around 5pm take a taxi across the breadth of the city, a journey of about an hour and then get a tuk tuk back and in that 2 hours, apart from having what may well be the most thrilling journey you will ever take and, if you survive, you will know Delhi.

21446247

Our crazy ride let us off at the ISBT (Inter State Bus Terminal) at Kashmiri Gate and our coach to McLeod Ganj, a trip of 12 hours, was due to depart at 8.06pm. You simply have to trust that your bus will come in at the stand that it is supposed to come in on and that you will board it at the time printed on the ticket, but for all the world, until two minutes before it arrives, you are convinced, along with the other westerners that have gathered with faces of stark confusion that there is no bus for you. The chaos and noise and organised insanity teaches one to either lie on the floor kicking and screaming or to let go. It was a toss up for a while which one I’d end up doing.

The overnight Deluxe Volvo AC coach had seats that virtually recline horizontally, but on the downside there is no toilet on board so you’re in trouble if you’ve been keeping up your water levels and not thought to wear a diaper. They do stop though approximately every 3 hours at a remote chai stand with a loo. And these loos are the stuff of museums as you likely have never seen loos like these before. And it befuddled me that the dirtiest, most grotesque toilets have a guy outside demanding a payment for using it. I’m not sure what it is he does but evidence suggested that after every so many customers have relieved themselves, he goes in with a brush and spreads shit everywhere.

Another downside is that these deluxe coaches are so air conditioned that Eskimos refuse to use them as they are not used to such low temperatures. At one stop, the driver was forced to open the luggage hold so that passengers could don all of the clothing they’d brought for their whole trip, including bobble hats.

On top of this, when getting on the bus, all the seats have been thoughtfully reclined ready and all the lights are off or dimmed to encourage sleep and relaxation on the dark 12 hour sojourn, but then, once moving and as drowsiness sets in the driver puts a film onto the one blurry TV and at full volume to the point that it distorted, and as it was a coach full of westerners the film he chose was in very loud Hindi – which had enough machine gun firing and door bells ringing and shrieking and sirens that thoughts of hijacking the bus rumbled down the aisle.

SAM_1007

As dawn broke, we saw the first enticing glimpses of the snowy peaks of the Himalayas and the coach began it’s ascent on roads, the like of those that Ice Road Truckers would refuse to navigate. The coach made a quick stop at Dharamsala bus station to drop off people who thought Dharmasala was where the Dalai Lama lived, before continuing higher into the mountains, another 10km, to the town where the Dalai Lama actually lives – McLeod Ganj (which we instantly re-named Heaven)

all posts from this trip – ‘North India in 23 Days’ can be found at
https://kevollier.com/category/north-india-in-23-days/

Holi !

SAM_0961

holi-festival-celebration-in-delhi

following on from In Search of Gandhi (Part 2)
https://kevollier.com/2014/04/23/north-india-in-search-of-gandhi-part-2/

Sitting down for breakfast we were joined by a Swiss couple who looked like they’d been in a road accident – and indeed they had. The night before, the tuk tuk they’d been riding in had been hit, side on by a car throwing both of them from the rickshaw and subsequently being ambulanced to hospital. They checked themselves out though because the amount of ‘carnage’ that was coming in to the A&E from road accidents made their injuries seem trivial (gashed forehead on him, possible dislocated shoulder on her). Despite what the taxi, coach and tuk drivers tell you, India has the highest road death rates in the world. In fact it is safer to base jump.

article-1156858-03AFE4A4000005DC-150_468x327_popup

It was then that Ashwari, the hotel owner, came in to the dining room brandishing pink paint powder and so it was that we were all facially colored before even leaving the breakfast table so my holi festival avoidance tactics had hiccuped at not even the sight of a first hurdle.

Holi is a spring festival also known as the festival of colours or the festival of love. It is an ancient Hindu religious festival that has become popular with non-Hindus as well. It is primarily observed in India, Nepal, and other regions of the world with significant populations with people of Indian origin. Recently, the fesitval spread to parts of Europe and North America as a spring celebration of love and colors.

INDIA-SOCIETY-WIDOWS-FESTIVAL-HOLI

We left the hotel to walk to the one open shop that sold water and was immediately in a movie scene from Black Hawk Down. In that film the US soldiers had to run a guantlet of bullets through the streets of the Somali capital of Mogadishu whilst we, it very quickly transpired had to walk a gauntlet of paint bombs through the streets of a quiet neighbourhood suburb of Delhi. They were coming at us from all angles from rooftops, from the windows of every floor on every house, from passing motorbikes where one bike with three people on it all managed a synchronized bombing whilst moving.

SAM_0899

SAM_0890

All the time random people from age 2 to 90 were running up to us, smearing, pouring and covering us with the rainbow of paints – all the time and without exception smiling and laughing and saying ‘HAPPY HOLI!’

Holi-Festival-2

SAM_0923

By the time we had reached the end of this one, quiet mind, street we looked like we’d survived an explosion at a Dulux factory. My Holi avoidance tactics had clearly failed. The next street and the one after that was no different. It had obviously gone along the wires that they’re were westerners coming and we were met at every nook and crannie.

We happened upon a park where the locals of Saket were having a community Holi party – big buffet, DJ’s and bollywood dancing and we were invited in and it was insisted that we ate and danced. Indians definitely dance differently. They make all westerners who dance, regardless of any past Ibiza credentiials, look like your father in law after five pints at a bad disco.

SAM_0916

Then there was a sort of undercover finale where lots of little plastic bottles, full of vodka were handed out and we were also encouraged to take part. It was a lovely time and after the vodka, it felt like we lived in this suburb of Delhi as we’d got to know so many of the residents and them us.  One Love.

SAM_0929

SAM_0930

One set of kids had earlier covered James in a bucket of water which inadvertently soaked his smartphone which later on returning to the hotel he decided to dry – on the 3rd floor balcony rail of his room. I had truly forgotten he’d told us that he had done t this and when going on to the balcony to watch the clean up below, I only slightly felt my finger brush something before hearing the smashing sound that is a smartphone hitting solid concrete three floors below.  :0

SAM_0942

all posts from this trip – ‘North India in 23 Days’ can be found at
https://kevollier.com/category/north-india-in-23-days/

Glastonbury to Delhi

SAM_0813

After our last trip to India in 2012 we decided not to ever again sleep overnight on chairs at Gatwick or any other airport and so we booked in at a nearby Gatwick Hotel which is a 10 minute shuttle from the hotel door to the North Terminal.
The staff here were lovely but for all its neon promise of decadence the room was, in a word, shit. The bed, when one sat up straight in it with one’s back against the wall (there was no headboard besides it being London in the 21st century), rolled away towards the door. The one pillow seemed to be stuffed with itching powder and, as the walls were no thicker than white washed kleenex, it wasn’t at all difficult to hear the thoughts of our young neighbours – neighbours, it turned out, that were on a school trip from Brookside, just 2 miles from Glastonbury.

All flights were on time and once again Emirates proved to be real value for money. Their economy class would match business class on many other airlines. The seats are spaced so that in the event of a crash you would actually be able to get your head on to your knees rather than up against the head rest of the seat in front of you and as I practice Yoga I knew I’d have no trouble in going as far to be able to kiss my arse goodbye if the moment called for it.  This leg of the journey took 6 hours which the three of us whiled away watching movies. There was an hour to kill at Dubai airport which we did in a Costa before getting the connection to Delhi, a trip of 3 hours.

Arriving in Delhi at 2am to the amazing Mudra walled arrivals building everything was going swimmingly until we met the queue for passport control

SAM_1291

We stood in line watching the queue we’d thought about joining diminish at least, I had time to work out, five times faster than ours. After a whole hour and having only 5 people in front of us, we swapped queues. This was a silent protest at the imbecilic official that had converted mild mannered travellers in front of us into potential terrorists. I was particularly anxious as I’d mislaid (turns out, lost) the phone number and address of the small hotel down a side-street that we’d booked and there was supposed to be a driver waiting. Had he gone home, all I knew was the small hotel down a side-street’s name and in the biggest city in India, I knew we could be in trouble and at 3am. We were in 20th position in our new queue but still we went through passport stamping before one other person had moved in the other.

Suffice to say our backpacks were just being loaded onto the Delhi lost persons presumed dead trolley when we arrived and thankfully the wonderful driver from our booked hotel had waited all this time who by now was nonchalantly waving a board with ‘OLLIER’ across it to anyone who would listen. I’d use the word ‘relieved’ to describe his reaction but I might have been mistaken as I think he also had given us up for or wishing we were dead.

At 4am he delivered us to ‘The Tree of Life’ and our second India adventure had begun, this one with our adult son along for the ride – and what a time was about to be had………

all posts from this trip – ‘North India in 23 Days’ can be found at
https://kevollier.com/category/north-india-in-23-days/

Mysore – The Guide

There is a lot more to the Indian city of Mysore than most people realise including the western yogis. It is the perfect city to head to for the India virgin. Not too large, it has all the elements of India, is low on hassle and scams and has an air of chill out about it. You do not have to be on a yoga course to go but the vast majority of westerners that do so are there only for that purpose,  and you will soon discover that there are not too many other westerners around outside of the main yoga suburb of Gokalum meaning that it’s a city for the residents and not necessarily for tourists per se, so you get to experience a slice of real India – and it’s perfect for a 4 day/5 night stop.

601597_503271149707307_2124975870_n

The nearest international airport you could fly into is Bangalore and I’d recommend having a pre-booked taxi driver standing, holding up a sign with your name on it as you exit the airport with your baggage who will take you straight to Mysore – a 4 hour trip, that for the uninitiated is like a full on acid trip, but with no comedown (possibly ever) and that for only £28 which is a much more desirable alternative than a 3 hour trip into Bangalore itself where you will likely pay at least that much for a room – see
https://kevollier.com/2012/12/02/helloindia/

Mysore Palace

61270_503287999705622_876342438_n

Beautiful and opulent and yet I couldn’t help thinking that the Maharini who had it built was more than a little egotistical but simultaneously on a guilt trip. In the main overlook hall he’d hanged huge paintings of various deities along the back wall with one of himself as the centre-piece. It was a shoes off affair to walk around as it is also with the temples in India and that in itself was quite freeing and they did have the shoe organisation off to a tee rivaling even those of 10 pin bowling alleys back in blighty
When we exited back out into the gardens we spotted some elephants with handlers in an off-piste bit of the grounds in the distance and so went to inspect as these were the first elephants we’d seen so far on this trip and seeing our curiosity the handlers surreptitiously beckoned us over and insisted we stroke their trunks, sit on them without any form of saddle as they had them gallop and kneel, be a bit scared and then pay them a weeks wage to be able to get back into the public, elephantless area.

306748_503273669707055_968847617_n

Each week on a Sunday evening and every evening during the Dasara festival the palace and all the buildings are illuminated in an instant and it is definitely a Mysore highlight so unless you’re there for Dasara it would be prudent to factor in a Sunday evening if possible.

21918_503276929706729_1031821471_n
600029_503277123040043_857718871_n

579216_503277263040029_321177264_n

The Silk Factory

Grab a tuk tuk and head over to the silk factory. Where you will see the most beautiful sari’s made from scratch – from silkworms in situ, through to the added gold thread, which the workers encourage you to feel and touch as it whizzes through their looms and you weave between the huge machines listening to their directions so as not to decapitate oneself on the virtually invisible and very taut silk thread that connects the who place like a spiders web  ( they’re not big on health and safety) to the finished product. Nothing is hidden here, it’s not a sweat shop, but immaculately clean and tidy and the workers loved you being there and taking an interest in their work..

From here it’s only a 5 minute tuk tuk to the Sandalwood Factory which couldn’t be so different. It’s as if the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has been turned into a sultry, jungle of incense stick and oil making workshops with the Sandalwood pervading the air at every breath. It was quintessentially Indian and here the workers were extremely chilled out and a tad nonchalant having not much work because, we were told, there is a serious shortage of sandalwood trees on Earth and hence it is becoming increasingly expensive.

Mysore-Sandal-Soap-8599-adj-lrg

Before reading further, please bear with me – because also, not too far away from both the Silk and Sandalwood factories, is the Mysore Railway Museum which we managed to get around rather quickly and I think it’s really for rail enthusiasts that are really, really, very, very enthusiastic. We didn’t see anyone wearing an anorak but then it was a warm day, but for the sake of my train spotter friend (be honest, we all have at least one) – here is the entire list of what’s on display. (Feel free to scroll down to the next block letters)

ES 506 4-6-2 is the first locomotive at the entrance. An Austin rail-motor car. Several inspection cars, one inspection car is used as a ticket office. Two royal coaches that belonged to the Maharaja of Mysore. The Maharini Saloon carriage that has a kitchen, dining car unit and royal toilet dating back to 1899.yawn. A W.G Bagnall #1625 which was made in 1900 for Khushalgarh – Kohat – Thal Railway which was a military frontier line, was subsequently transferred to North Western Railways. It operated at Timber Depot in Marala and was transferred later to Dhilwan Creosoting plant. This 2′-6″ gauge locomotive is configured as 2-4-2ST. Class E #37244 4-4-4T from SIR built by North British Locomotive Co. in 1920. Originally # 8, it was one of the three superheated locomotives. Class TS/1 #37338 2-6-2T from made by W.G. Bagnall in 1932 for Mysore State Railways. A YP #2511 made by Telco in 1963.

DevaRaja Market

259939_503275169706905_1834015315_n

We loved it here. It’s everything you expect India to be. It’s hot, colourful, stinky, hassly, smiley, cheap and full of thousands of market sales people who I can only assume are permanently on a task for The Apprentice. This is where you will learn a few new skills. One is being able to ignore everything and everyone as if you were walking alone on a barren and deserted salt lake. But before you learn this you have to learn firstly never to look, stop and especially touch any item on any stall ever because this essentially means you will buy it even if it’s only as a pay off.

530909_503271029707319_897790830_n

After this you go through learning a bit of quid pro quo banter, before learning really and truly how to say NO before then reaching the salt lake stage and lastly the next time you’re in the vicinity, you learn to avoid the market.

423062_503271109707311_1041717973_n

But if you love all of that then this is India’s very best market apparently. And to be honest we went there every day. It was trippy and life affirming. We bought about 200 incense sticks for no more than 50p and a brass inlaid wooden incense box for £1.

Green Hotel and the Malgudi Cafe
This was our Mysorean sanctuary. We didn’t stay here but we did visit several time to eat the glorious food and drink the greatest coffee in its renowned and controversial cafe – a cafe that once made the world’s press as the cafe is staffed by ‘untouchables’ – see http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2009/apr/06/dalit-girls-waitress-caste-taboo

479967_503274523040303_1547021476_n

Employing these ‘untouchables’  is still frowned upon to this day but the ones serving and cooking in that cafe have the warmest and loveliest smiles you may ever see. And the hotel it belongs to has been set up as a model of sustainable tourism and ALL of its profits go to charitable and environmental project in India.

231011_503274443040311_630690141_n

Chamundi Hills
We took a bus to the top of the main hill where the astonishing Chamundeshwari Temple is situated at 3489 feet. We wandered around choosing not to join the thongs queuing to go into the temple. We had been in a few that week already and you simply don’t have enough years in your life to go into every Indian temple. We then walked down back to Mysore, down 1000 steps built by Dodda Devaraja Wodeyar in 1659 who at the same time, at 300 steps down, also built a huge Nandi, Lord Shiva’s Bull.
532317_503275876373501_609540733_n

This Nandi is one of the largest in India standing 16 ft. (4.8 meters) tall at the head and 25 ft. (7.5 meters) in length and it’s one of the largest carvings from a single piece of rock, granite no less.

On our journey down these teenagers stole my shades but taking their photo got them returnedAlong, with I think I recall, a few rupees.

396629_503275606373528_737155248_n

This is a great walk down and when nearing the foot of the hill you pass through a village where the children are not part of any begging ring but just want to crowd you and speak to you and laugh with you and point out the numerous monkeys that had now gathered all around us in a very Hitchcockian manner.

68032_503276383040117_637649114_n

63773_503276499706772_9787601_n
And in Gandhi Square in Mysore centre there is a golden Gandhi
8766_503271219707300_1999894866_n

Visiting India? You might not come back…

well I haven’t! –  although my body is definitely in the UK, It seems I left something of me in India and possibly the best bit and for my sanity I’m going to have to go back and retrieve it or just go back .

It’s a cliché I heard so often, before what was our first ever sojourn into the land of the enlightenment of Buddha and the birthplace of yoga, the stomping ground of Gandhi, the home of the exiled Dalai Lama, the best chai tea on Earth that ‘you never come back the same as you went’ and I’d agree.

tibetans

Going to India is not a ‘holiday’ in the seaside and sangria sense unless you find yourself in the sticky honey trap of the distraction that is Goa which to some, however, is a tidy balance of seaside and sangha. In this short life I’ve travelled through Europe, the US and Canada, been into Africa and the Caribbean, and the Middle East and even ventured daringly and more than once into the depths of Wales (think Borneo with sheep) and all of them are very different to England but always, and without exception, it felt that we were on holiday even though we avoid most of the tourist traps  but India for me was like ( another cliché) returning home to a distant memory that fills (just one more cliché) the heart with unbridled joy. It immediately felt like I’d always been there and that I’d just popped out to have a life as an Englishman to see what that must be like.

About a week after returning  I found myself sat in the car in the local High Street waiting for one of the family to return from a self-imposed errand, and whilst  witnessing the passing scene, the only thought that came up, projected or otherwise was ‘lifeless’. A grey stepfordian, freezing turkey, comedown, drudge of lifelessness. And I realised then that what India has, projected or otherwise, is life-force.

Chalmundi Hill, Mysore

I began missing the beeping horns, the colours, and smells and of course stinks, the abstract poverty wearing a smile alongside the newfound western inspired consumerism wearing a frown. I missed the endless tuk tuks, the clever scams, cows and goats and cats and dogs and monkeys wandering ignored everywhere. I missed that all you had to do when a curious local stares at you, which they do, is  not to look away but to smile and be reciprocated with the sunniest of faces. Subsequently I smiled a lot, and at everyone and everyone smiled back.  🙂

India Smiles

I imagine for some it’s a culture shock too far. It’s definitely a long way from most westerners’ comfort zones which explains why so many congregate in AC coffee shops. But for me it put the western world into a Orwellian perspective that modern India is desperately currently trying to emulate, much to its loss – though somehow I think it will take a long time – possibly long enough to be able to attend the funeral of the dying world of capitalism.

India sheep

see the other ‘Visiting India?’ blogs in the Visiting India category

Tuk Tuks – avoiding death and scam

“Stop this tuk tuk right now or I’ll grab your keys” was one comment I screamed at a driver. There were many others. I estimate that we took more than a hundred tuk tuks in the few weeks travelling through South India and were treated to a plethora of scams and dishonest practices – but there is no better way to experience the towns and cities than to put you life into the hands of a tuk tuk driver.

Especially this driver – as it’s yours truly

tuk tuk

A tuk tuk which is known by the less colourful name of ‘auto rickshaw’ is basically a dirty two-stroke motorbike with three wheels with a hard plastic hood over to seat, well you’d think to seat two people but I did count seven in quite a few of them. Some are the driver’s pride and joy which is evident in its adornments and cleanliness and some are simply a means to an end aka death traps. There are millions of them on the roads in India.

They are without doubt the cheapest and most exciting way to get about the urban areas and you can pretty much be getting into one, only ten seconds after thinking you might need one because in India a western tourist is simply a very sweet and sticky jam and the tuk tuks are extremely hungry wasps. However jumping into one and saying ‘home James and don’t spare the horses’ might leave you disappointed because there are so many pitfalls and stresses once you step over the threshold to taking a ride, that it’s worth knowing some of the latest dupes and scams that you can find yourself involved in and/or the victim of.  It can be a great game to play of psychology and wits as long as it’s not hot and you’re not slightly tired or distracted otherwise you may fall folly to their little games – which seem to vary from city to city. We stayed in three cities and each one had its own unique scam amongst the universal ones.

loaded-tuk-tuks-agra

In Mysore, it wasn’t too bad. One day you could pay 100 rupees and the next 50 for the exact same journey of 3 miles but as it was 85 rupees to the £1, one at first feels no pressure to grumble but that will inevitably wear off.  ALWAYS ask how much it will be to wherever you’re going and when they tell you a price that you think is ok, repeat it back to them and get confirmation at least three times. Two times isn’t enough. Tuk tuks have meters yet we only saw them in use on two occasion in all the tuk tuk journeys undertaken.

Once in a tuk tuk, most drivers will ask you where you are from. This is not asked to discuss your life or cricket but to know what language they need to scam you in. They are of course very low paid, work very hard and have enormous competition and they will try to sell a journey to every tourist spot in the area – which can be much cheaper and very useful if you actually want to see the places they are offering and in Mysore there are some wonderful places (watch this space for an upcoming Mysore guide blog) but most tuk tuk drivers haven’t yet learned the English for ‘no’. It is good to talk in a slow east European accent naming exactly where you want to go and then answering every question they broach at you with ‘capotski’ and a big smile.  You’ll get to your destination quicker. Always know where your destination is as they don’t.  Whilst in Mysore we were staying near the Pattabhi Jois yoga centre yet it was surprising to us how many drivers asked us where it was and when I explained to them that they in fact were the driver and we the western tourists they would pull over and ask locals who always checked us out and then had a chuckle with the driver in Tamil or Hindi or maybe it was east european but nonetheless it’s a wonderful endeavour for anyone who has or  is recovering from paranoid tendencies .

The driver stopped to run an errand

32391_503277419706680_1851609995_n
In Cochin, they have a  different approach. On the whole they are friendlier here and speak much better English but will offer you a free trip or a very cheap one, at say 20 rupees, if you would only do them a favour and visit this shop or that shop as they get a petrol token from ‘the rich Kashmiri owner’ and all you have to do is look around whilst they wait outside. We did this the first time and the idea is that you are pressured into buying something to which the driver gets a percentage that adds up to much more than any fare he would have received. I assume he gets a little something for just taking you there. We were in Cochin nearly a week and virtually every single driver tried to get you into some shop which are always full of westerners trying their very best to say no as they delve for their purses and wallets.

In Bangalore, and I have to assume all bigger cities, it’s a whole different ball game. They don’t even hide behind friendliness. But above all they tell bare-faced lies and even go close to what could be construed as kidnapping in some countries.

One morning we decided, from our city centre hotel, to go to the huge Hare Krishna temple of ISKCON seven miles away but still in the centre of the city – Bangalore is huge and sprawling. I asked a tuk tuk driver how much it would be to go to the ISKCON place and he looked at me as if I was a talking cat. I said it slowly several times and added other words like K R I S H N A   T E M P L E  but to no avail. We were then ambushed by an astute, silk shirted, much younger driver who spoke perfect English and knew Mick Jagger who pulled us from this ride to his own tuk tuk admonishing the older guy in Hindi. He then explained that ISKCON is closed until 2pm. I said that the lonely planet guide says it’s open all day, he assured us it was not but offered us a tour for only 100 rupees to see various temples. This he did – at first – but then it became a pressured set of stops to various emporiums. I had to demand quite strongly that he returned us. The ISKCON temple, of course, had been open.

HKH

The next day we decided to walk for a while before asking a kerb-crawling tuk tuk how much it would be to the botanical gardens, he said 20 rupees, we got in and off we went. Whilst driving, he told us that the gardens was closed until 2pm and he’d take us on a tour. I told him that it’s OK, just take us to the gardens anyway at which point he stopped the tuk tuk on what can only be described as a six lane inner city motorway with cows and turned to me and said, ‘no it is closed’, I assured him that it was open to which he got a tad annoyed and so we exited the tuk tuk to his fury.

We were then immediately picked up by another one at 20 rupees. I explained that I don’t want to go any shops, we just want to go to the gardens, he agreed then took a turn at speed and in totally the opposite direction before explaining to me that he was just taking us to his friend’s shop. This was the point where the calmness my yoga training has brought me left the tuk tuk and was replaced by my training from the streets of Northern England. It could have got hairy but I didn’t fancy a Bangalore prison so we left him still with his keys to his auto, shouting apologies back at us. I genuinely think it was the first time that he’d been challenged like this.

lal-bagh_opt

But now we were in the middle of nowhere and so we flagged another tuk tuk down as we were determined to see some bloody flowers before the day was out. He told us it would be 100 rupees. And here’s a tip – a tuk tuk is cheap for a reason. This 100 rupee tuk tuk was intending to take us to our destination without us having to look first at wooden elephants and brass Buddhas. I did however, ten minutes later, utter, under my breath, ‘for fuck’s sake’, when he flew past the entrance to the botanical gardens. I told him but he assured me he hadn’t. Two miles further on and for the third time in an hour I forced a driver to stop. This one however was not, it turned out, scamming us, he was just completely clueless and realising his mistake and the time he’d now lost randomly pulled over and said, ‘we’re here’ pointing to what was simply a front lawn in front of an average sized government building.  This time I refused to leave the tuk tuk to which he hailed over a policeman and we both explained our disagreement with me having an ace card commonly known as a city map. The policeman gave him short thrift and 15 minutes later (the time it takes to do 2 miles in Bangalore) we were at the gates.

The gatekeeper mistakenly short-changed us, I say mistakenly in that he had deliberately short-changed us and that was his mistake.

I promised myself there and then that I will never return to Bangalore on purpose – though the gardens were lovely.  They even had spit bins dotted about to stop the paths getting too gooey.
12878_505106796190409_865279385_n

How to Avoid Delhi Belly

The qualification for daring to write such a blog is that we recently spent three weeks travelling through Southern India on dirty, sardine packed buses, on trains that were so unclean that even the flies got off at each stop, to cafes without adequate sanitation such as running water from the one tap in the loo with no paper with the one toilet which might flush if your luck was in.

We ate and drank well, we didn’t wear plague suits and none of us got even slightly ill.

We could have just been very, very lucky as over 70% of all visitors to India succumb to the DB or it could be because we had a disciplined regime that we adhered to, what Buddhists might refer to as mindfulness – and that is the first thing you must have – especially in India.  If you’re the sort of person who loses their keys every five minutes then go to Disneyland or Center Parcs instead.

P1000453

I was given lots of advice about the dreaded ‘Delhi belly’ for months before the trip. None of it however was how to actually avoid it but what to do when you inevitably get it which included, ‘take lots of Immodium’ and  ‘if you’re not better within 48 hours go and see a doctor’ – the latter advice has to be noted. We met a frantic girl whose boyfriend had been losing weight at an accelerating weight she said for over three days and she needed to go to Goa. We said that he needed to go to a doctor and not the Dr Pepper sort she was buying to hydrate him.

The best bit of really bad advice I was given was, ‘you’re going to get it whatever you do, so you may as well, as soon as you get there, drink a few pints of water straight from the taps and get it over with’ – DO NOT DO THIS. The favourite tip I collected and one I did put in to my top pocket was, ‘don’t travel on buses with it, as they don’t have toilets and they don’t stop’ – a combination, I admit, that I wouldn’t like to put to the test.

So, here is a list I complied mentally in the quieter moments on the long train rides;

Don’t expect immunity by staying or more particularly eating in 4 and 5 star hotels or restaurants. Eating at a 5 star and expecting to stay DB free is like buying a Volvo for safety reasons and then constantly pulling out at junctions in front of oncoming traffic thinking the side impact bars are made of armoured iron. We all know those Volvo drivers.

The rules are not necessarily about where you eat but what you eat and how it is cooked and whether all the staff who handle your food and that you may never see have washed their hands.  It is far, far safer to eat from a street vendor wearing disposable gloves (a lot do) who has just cooked your food right in front of you than it is to put literal blind faith into an unseen chef in the sealed off kitchen.

Forget all about meat in India. You don’t need it and the risk from illness is high. The Hindu diet is vegetarian and rather than having to endure the token Vegetable Biryani at your local curry house which always tastes like a meat dish with the meat removed, the quantity of vegetarian dishes to be enjoyed in India are incalculable and all the ones I tried were astonishingly gorgeous, particularly Pea and Cashew Nut Curry and of course any non-meat Dosa. If you think you can’t live without meat, visit a local market and that should sort you out, possibly for good.

meat

Do not eat the skin of fruit such as apples, pears, plums, peaches etc as these may have been washed in DB causing water or had flies land and play footsie on them, and/or been handled by many hands. Rubbing fruit up and down your arm mimicking a Cricket bowler simply will not cut it.  Stick to bananas and oranges or peel everything carefully yourself.

Bananas, however, are everywhere!

P1000185

Otherwise eat only cooked food, ideally vegetables and always try to be able to view the cooking of it.  There are plenty of Pizza Huts and international corporate chains with their pre prepared fayre that we tried occasionally in the bigger towns and they have Air Con! Do not eat salads as they are nearly always washed in water.

Chai Tea. If you go to India and don’t have a Chai Tea from a street stall at least once a day, you should be sent home. It truly is the taste of India (and Glastonbury Festival as it happens) and it costs only 5 to 10p a cup (In India that is, more like £3 a cup at Glastonbury) and each vendor uses a slightly different recipe so every time it’s a slightly new experience. We must have had 10 cups a day each and each time they were served in small polystyrene or plastic – used only once, bad for the environment, but good for your intestine, cups. We were served in glasses only a couple of times and in those instances we tipped the scorching tea around the edges of the glass where our lips were to go as a form of crude albeit risky sterilisation.

Water. Don’t allow water from any tap or dispenser into any bodily orifice so avoid home-made colonics and keep you mouth shut whilst in the shower as it really doesn’t take much. Travellers are advised to always check the seal on bottled water as they can be tampered with and then filled with tap water for more profit. We checked every time but never discovered a broken seal. Before going back to your lodgings, buy an extra bottle of water to use to clean your teeth. Loads of people, it seems, come a cropper here by using the sink taps and thinking that not swallowing will save them. That is extremely high risk. Use the bottles.

Ice Cream and ice in drinks. Don’t touch. When ordering drinks that would normally come with ice such as shorts and soft drinks, always and firmly say ‘no ice’. It’s of no benefit to fish the ice out once in as the damage is already done.

Alcohol. And here lies a problem. The bonus is that drinking out in bars in India would probably turn you tee total as they are always darkened to the point that you’d think there was a power cut, women are not forbidden but I wouldn’t dream of taking a woman into one as the men seemed far more pissed than they do in any bar I’ve ever been in, they re all in a state of total squalor and the smell of urine is nostril ticklingly overwhelming – so if you find yourself in a typical back street, hidden away Indian bar – as they all seem to be, you can assure yourself that you are definitely an alcoholic. I did put my head into quite a few in different towns for reasons of research for this very blog but was careful not to touch anything. God knows what the toilets were like or even if anyone bothers to leave their seat to go one!

However, towns that attract a lot of westerners have more approachable bars, and hotels often have bars for non residents and here lies another risk and that risk is getting drunk, because once drunk you forget about the ice and may miss the not perfectly clean glass rim and may end up eating anything. Kebab houses only exist in the UK for this very reason.

There is a golden elixir that each person must carry a vial of at all times – and that is alcohol hand gel. I can’t emphasise enough how essential this is. Every time you’ve been to the loo and had to open the door or  touch any surface in there really, have a squeeze of hand gel.  Do not touch a surface and allow you hand to get to your face before first stopping at the hand gel.

I’m not advertising for Dettol – there are many brands to choose from – but the picture does say a 1000 words

dettol-instant-hand-sanitizer-bus-hands-small-88164

But the item that we thought was the ‘be all and end all’ was a homeopathy travel kit that we purchased for this very trip. In fact it may well have been the use of its contents that was the only reason we didn’t fall ill. There is really no way to know other than going again and not taking one of these kits – and we won’t be doing that!
The one we used and would certainly suggest checking out was from
http://suzyparkerhomeopath.com/

I’ll add-on to this list as I think of others but if it all goes wrong and you find yourself stuck in a bedroom and toilet for two days, be sure that you have the sort of room and loo that makes that time more comfortable and if you must travel whilst ill then either breakfast on Immodium or dress in Pampers.

see also ‘North India, Glastonbury to Delhi’ at
https://kevollier.com/2014/04/12/north-india-in-23-days-day-1-glastonbury-to-delhi/

and ‘North India. In Search of Gandhi (Part 2) at
https://kevollier.com/2014/04/23/north-india-in-search-of-gandhi-part-2/

Hello India!

bangalroe_traffic__3181f

Our trip was blessed from the start because, although unbeknown to us at the time, we were met in the Bangalore arrivals hall by Lewis Hamilton very cleverly disguised as an Indian taxi driver.

If you only do one thing on your travels to India, make sure that you pre book a taxi to greet you with a sign with your name emblazoned upon it on arrival, otherwise the very first thing you will be subjected to the second you step through those airport doors is 3500 taxi drivers who all want you in their cab and all have a hotel that you must stay in, whether you’ve booked one ahead or not.

Our driver had driven 4 hours from Mysore, had waited over an hour at the airport and then driven us back to Mysore which took 5 hours because of a serious road accident, that we thought he might have caused on the way to get us, and it cost us a total of only £28!

2

You will hear people say that the Indians are crazy drivers but there are hardly ever any accidents and it’s all perfect chaos. This, you must understand, is complete balderdash. India is the number 1 country in the world for road traffic deaths with an astounding 15 % of those killed being pedestrians – though not so astounding really as pavements don’t really exist in a way we would expect them to, such as being able to walk more than two metres before having to circumnavigate a huge tree or climb over a parked car, limbo under a parked lorry, hurdle endless motorbikes, avoiding the taut, metal neck high cables whilst falling down a pothole.

170,000 people were killed on India’s roads  in 2010.  The injured are in the millions.

Luckily I hadn’t researched this before we went there and so was surprised when after only an hour being in India to have witnessed a horrific crash when 4 un-helmeted people, two of them small children, and all riding on the one motorbike were nudged off by a passing 4X4 at speed.  However, we never saw anything else in the three weeks we were there, though we were involved in approximately 18000 near misses.

It is true what Judi Dench says in the movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, that you either fight the wave and risk near drowning or you dive through it and rise above and float along which I assume is code for you either let go or go mad. Perversely the accident we witnessed and the revelation that there was nothing whatsoever we could do made us face this choice at the very start and we took the former.

india1

I fell in love with India within an hour. It was like coming home and the only thing I could compare that to was the coming home feeling that shrooms had instigated when I was a young man. The colours, the vibrancy, the sheer lifeforce was astonishing and breathtaking and it never left me once – nor of course did the noise, the rhythmic beating of the countless and constant horns. They even beep at red lights, so much so that local governments have started erecting countdown signs at junctions to assure drivers that the lights will go to green.

On the 5 hour trip in the back of the taxi to Mysore I successfully managed to decode the beeping system. They don’t beep in anger and I never saw one inkling of road rage. It works like this – as the car or tuk tuk or lorry or bus or motorbike your riding in or on approaches another vehicle, they beep to warn of their approach, they again beep as they are about to pass and again if they think the vehicle ahead wasn’t listening. The vehicle ahead will beep acknowledgement of your beep whilst at the same time beeping ahead to the ones in front and to the sides of him. Once passed, another beep says thanks.  Also beeps are made at any approaching hazard whatsoever, be it a junction, a pedestrian, goat, dog, elephant, drunk or cow of which there is one or the other about every two metres. Each and every vehicle will also add its own beep approaching any one of these hazards and all hazards will ignore all beeping as if it wasn’t occurring – indeed after only three days I was wandering across roads oblivious myself.  So the only word one can realistically use as an adjective is ‘cacophany’

This new car owner took his vehicle to the local temple to be blessed. I saw this a few times and think it a very good idea

4

Our driver, presumably delayed by the accidents went faster and faster and demonstrated great skill in multi tasking as he drove at 80 ( I was watching from the back seat), talked constantly on his mobile and all the while partaking in the pastime of the afore mentioned beeping.

By the time we arrived at our first weeks digs I felt as if I’d been strapped in an unstoppable dodgem at Disneyland for 5 hours with the only difference being that the dodgem would have had a seatbelt.

But we’d arrived, I’d fell in love and after a few hours sleep we would experience our first of what would be a hundred plus tuk tuk rides (Think the vehicular equivalent of bungee jumping without the rope bit).

No Gadgets, No Cry

gadgetsOn the return flight from Bangalore to London via Dubai, a stewardess, whilst pouring out yet another coffee, asked where we’d been. She nodded expectantly and with reasonable un-interest as we said, ‘a mini tour of South India’ but her whole demeanour changed when we added, ‘without phones, without watches and without computers’, which she then repeated back to us incredulously as it seemed she thought she’d misheard.

I guess she was about 25 and she made my head tilt to the side with a smile when she said, ‘wow, I’ve never known anyone to do that, that must be totally amazing’ and ran off to inform the rest of the Emirates staff who then gave us respectful nods and glances each time they passed our seats because we were the people who had spent three weeks in India-without phones, without watches and without  computers and that obviously put us right up there with the explorers of old.  I mean even Bear Grylls has GPS, phones,  a film crew and a 5 star hotel.

It seems that under a certain age ( I estimate about 25 to 30) to travel without the crutches and aids of the modern world is seen as an extreme sport – much more dangerous than bungee jumping because we were also without the umbilical elastic rope attached.
We did use internet cafes a few times when we were settled  just to check on the kids. The hardest thing, though not that hard at all really, was not having a watch and having to resort to saying ‘excuse me, have you the time’ on a rare occasion- the pay off with this is that you will not only be given the time but also one of those Indian smiles – but when travelling, railway and bus stations still tend to have clocks.

In addition, it was the longest time since I passed my driving test that I hadn’t driven, not that you’d want to drive in India, unless of course your psychiatrist insisted. None of this  you understand was done as any sort of challenge nor for charity.  We just wanted to be free of the shackles that we all have imposed on ourselves – and now having done it, all I can say to everyone, and I have been doing so for the last week, is that if you want a true holiday, a vacation free of pointless distractions, leave behind – in a drawer at home – your hand helds, your net books and tablets, your watches and your driving licence and experience what some of the over 30’s might still remember – a new freedom. And for added comfort, leave all jewellery and tight clothes as well. You will be so much better for it, you’ll do it every time.

Right – the next blog will be my very first impressions of the baptism of fire that is India.
I’m just waiting at the baggage carousel for the rucksack to come through……….still blissfully unaware of the psychopath that is waiting in arrivals holding a smile, his taxi keys and a board that says KEV AND ALI OLLIER.

India and Imodium

When you tell others that you’re soon to head off to India, one word above all others that pops up is Imodium. This is usually followed by advice on what not to eat. So it looks like we will dodge the dreaded Delhi Belly as long as we avoid meat, vegetables, unpeeled fruit, water, anything that has been near water or has been left out in the rain. And it’s best not to touch anything, to shower with your mouth, ears and nostrils sealed and try not to breathe the air unless it’s absolutely necessary.
But regardless, I simply can’t wait to go. This is the first trip that doesn’t feel like it will be a holiday per se but more of a true adventure bordering on a re-birth, but hopefully not a literal one. Just yet.


We’ve been saying for years that we’d go to India once the kids have grown up and as the youngest is nineteen on the day we return, that time has to be right now.

I was ‘sold’ the idea many years ago when a friend came back from there and was recalling a moment he  had in a cafe in Mumbai, which at the time was still known as Bombay. He said he was sipping his Chai Tea in a crowed and noisy tea room as random cows were aimlessly wandering outside, amongst chaotic, technicolor people and traffic that included every mode of transport including the odd Elephant, whilst a beggar, without arms, was sat doing tricks on a skateboard at the cafe entrance and all the time monkeys were running in and out trying to steal food off the tables!

To see anything remotely like that in England you’d have to brave Stoke on Trent on a Friday night.

Mysore Palace (not Stoke on Trent)
We’re spending a week in Mysore before going where the universe sends us and where that will be we won’t know until the day arrives – which is very exciting and although we are going to Mysore, we’re not going for the yoga, even though the yoga will of course be practiced every day, we’re going there for its gateway into South India. The man at the Indian Visa centre was surprised and pleased that we were not thinking of going to Goa as that destination seems to be frowningly regarded by some as the Kavos/Ibiza of India.

I earlier had email confirmation from our taxi driver who will be taking us from Bangalore airport to Mysore and I smiled to learn the driver’s name is Ganesh. That seems like a good sign.


So we’re packing very light, we have to as we’re carrying it all on our back. In fact the heaviest things I will be carrying are books. I’ve opted not to take the kindle but instead a few paper books and apart from the reading material there will be enough clothes to last only a few days in the rucksack as Mysore allegedly has the very best street markets in India. Besides, any available space will be taken up with Alcohol gel, sun block, Deet, baby wipes, toilet rolls, 42 Ainsley Harriot cup a soups, a canary and enough Imodium to be able to take regular bus trips without embarrassment.

Visiting India? You HAVE to have a visa

I often think I should procrastinate but I keep putting it off – yet with regards to the looming India trip I have so far managed a high level of procrastination. This weekend though it simply had to stop and I finally forced myself to face the on-line visa application to be able to visit India. There are several websites that will pretty much do this for you, for a fee, but there are a lot of other websites warning you not to use the websites that will do it for you as they might take your passport and money and never be seen again, so one already has a furrowed brow before reaching the official Indian visa site at  http://in.vfsglobal.co.uk/  which on clicking around made me exclaim, ‘you’re having a laugh’. Have a quick look if you don’t believe me. 

You cannot enter India without a visa and you have to do it before you go, and to be safe, at least three weeks before you go. They don’t make this process easy and undoubtedly the first time you will ever fill one in you will have no choice but to ring the helpline number at the site which costs 95p a minute. I initially had to ring it three times at a cost that would probably have covered a return flight to Bombay. Here’s a tip, do not have any alcohol nearby as you’re filling this application in because you will be inebriated by question 9 and will possibly complete it incorrectly although by that time you likely won’t care less. If you manage to fill this in in one go, you deserve the holiday you’re applying for. I very nearly did. My only mistake was missing out my middle name on the ‘Given Name’ box  because everything has to be the exactly the same as your passport – and as I’d already pressed confirm, the whole form, all three pages, had to be done completely again!  You also need to know the correct spellings of your parent’s names and where they were born and if they, or any of your grandparents, were of Pakistani origin or whether any member of your family, neighbours and even distant friends might have once supported the Pakistan cricket team even if it was just a chance remark of  ‘hit it for six Imran’.

Once completed, and if you’ve so far avoided the valium, you will then discover, if you’re lucky as I was, that you need two photographs to attach to the form, but not the usual, standard, everyday passport photographs – so therefore not photographs that passport booths strewn amongst the post offices and supermarkets of Britain would supply – but special 2 inch by 2 inch photos, and this is when those thoughts of bypassing the valium and heading straight for the prozac enter your head, simultaneously with the thought of ‘where do I get them from?’ which inevitably led to a fourth phone call, to be told that there are booths in all of the visa offices except for the one in Cardiff but there are none anywhere else in the UK but you can just go to a local photographers and have them done there. I started to wonder whether to cancel the trip and instead get a caravan in Dorset for a long and comfortably wet weekend or should we see just how far my synapses will stretch?

Not surprisingly, the first photographer we rang, knew all about it and had a studio if we’d like to come along and two hours later we were being told not to smile and try to look grim please.  Back home to the computer and there’s just the declaration form to go and then all are printed off – because you fill them in ‘on-line’ but they then, along with your only escape from Britain booklets, your passports, have to either be posted (and risk them never being seen again) or taken to one of the visa centres. The nearest one to us was in Cardiff, just 64 miles away – the one visa centre without the photo booth hence the photographer – and was very sat navigable and was found nestled between streets of terraced houses in the Splott district of the city. It even had parking which is a plus compared to the one in Birmingham which was seemingly sited to cause maximum frustration as there is ‘no parking on site and clamping and heavy fines for any unregulated  parking anywhere near the building’ that doesn’t involve getting a taxi.

On entering the Cardiff  ‘India Centre’ we were greeted by many pairs of shoes without people in them, a very nice, smiley man and a big sign saying om namo narayana which looseley means “Salutations to Lord Vishnu/Praise the name of Vishnu”

That felt much better and we were all done and out in less than ten minutes………..and…….. breathe