Glastonbury to Delhi

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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

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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/

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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

The West Highland Way

Continuing on from blog ‘Ben Nevis’ which is at
https://kevollier.com/2012/09/13/bennevis/

Leaving the youth hostel the next morning, four things struck me. One was how there was a definite lack of youth at the hostel and having visited quite a few over the years I do wonder why the Youth Hosteling Associations don’t simply leave off the word youth in their name as youth is in the minority at every hostel that I’ve ever been to, unless of course everyone really was aged between 11 and 19 (which I assume is the age range of youth) and all the hiking and panting combined with rising pubescent, testosterone levels has prematurely triggered the onset of grey face hair, bony knees and bad shorts. The second thing that struck me was how very seriously hung over I was finding myself and the third thing was the awareness that I now had to walk 16 miles today to our next stop (with no cafes or pubs or even a hot dog stand en route) which brought me to the fourth, which was I’d never in my life actually walked more than 8 miles in one day before and then I wasn’t carrying a weighty rucksack and walking through changeable weather in the Scottish mountains and all this on stiff legs from the record-breaking Ben Nevis ascent and descent only a day earlier.

As we wandered to the path the other lads insisted that I toke on the budbomb as, I think they said, I’d feel better and despite my rebuttals I succumbed and no more than ten minutes later I could no longer feel the rucksack and I was smiling the sort of smile that rather quickly makes one’s face hurt especially as we reached the beginning of The West Highland Way only to be met with this sign

This was the moment we learned that we were doing this most famed of British hikes the wrong way. This however, if you want to experience the trail and its surrounding grandeur of mountains in peace, we discovered, is the only way. Kinclochlevan is the next stop, 16 miles away – nothing between us and there except wilderness, and thankfully a nice path so we didn’t once have to resort to machetes, so all the other walkers that would be coming the correct way wouldn’t get to us for hours and indeed we had the mountains to ourselves for a good four hours. To ourselves, that is, except for a convention of sheep. Gazillions of them and all welcoming us into and out of their view, which was 100% of the time, with their melodic bleating.

The path, for what seemed a very long time, followed the bottom of a valley bereft of trees and it reminded me of a time when in a Geography lesson at school I’d nearly convinced Dave Black, who fancied himself as ‘half Scottish’, that there were no trees in Scotland and as luck would have it that very lesson had a slide show about the geology of the highlands and every slide that graced the overhead projector was devoid of trees. Shaking my head and gesturing to the proof of my argument Dave got so enraged he raised his hand to interrupt the one teacher you never interrupted and asked, ‘Sir, are there any trees in Scotland?’ which was so random to the lesson that Mr Statham sent him immediately to stand outside the headmasters office for being a buffoon.

But by now, four of the five of us were, what we referred to, as off our trolleys, and I was walking alongside Phil who ‘doesn’t do drugs’ when we both became aware that if you stood still, you could, if you paid close focused attention – and this is a great thing to do with your kids – pick out one bleat from the cacophony of baas and mews and marry it, eventually, to one sheep. You must remember, we are probably looking at a thousand sheep on the  slopes on each side of the valley constantly bleating and we knew we’d picked out one bleat to one particular young sheep (I think they’re commonly known as lambs) that was moving slowly down the slope. Now, if this wasn’t amazing enough we did the same to a sheep on the other slope which was also making its way down and we observed this for what seemed like hours, but was likely about ten minutes, and as if Walt Disney himself was directing proceedings these two sheep both walked on to the path about 100 yards in front of us, touched noses and then walked off back into the melee. Pure gold.

But the weirdest part of this day wasn’t known until 10 years later when photos were finally browsed over. Duncan and I had been captured on camera in a ‘look at the majesty and how off our faces are we?’ moment and we never did see anything in the sky, none of us did. But the photo wasn’t messed with and there are several replica prints showing the exact same thing even though there is nothing on any photos taken before or after.

                                                                                                                             Dunc telling me how wonderful it all is and note the lack of trees but what are those things in the sky?

It was after this that the first walkers appeared and for a good hour it was a constant stream of them, all with their ski sticks marching away saying hello with a look on their face as if to say, ‘are you mad, you’re going the wrong way man and you have no ski sticks, what are you, townies’? – though I except this could be paranoia given the amount of plant life we’d set alight inside that budbomb – before they dwindled down to a few every ten minutes then a straddler or two after another 20 and we mused on how their experience, going in the right direction, was so much different from ours as they’d all be near together all day and there would be no time or space whatsoever to get involved in bleat focusing whereas we only saw people for that two-hour window and then we had it all to ourselves once more – and on we went for a good nights rest at Kinlochlevan before another jaunt the next day, through Glencoe to our posh overnight stop at the Kings House Hotel where we basically, but unwittingly caused total chaos ….

Yoga Books

My qualification for this blog is that I’ve been practicing yoga for fifteen years, the last five of those being Ashtanga and also a dusting of Kundalini. I’ve been reading books associated with yoga for over twenty years and I thought I’d let everyone in on what I think are amongst the best books available on yoga *that I’ve read so far* and I would love to know what other yoga books people have read and been positively changed by.

My longest mention is firstly to Ram Dass. His books have been mind blowers to me. Born as Richard Alpert (curiously the name that the TV show Lost chose for one of its main characters) he became one of the leading professors of the Psychology department at Harvard in the 1960’s.  He was best friends with Timothy Leary and was at the forefront of LSD research that pretty much spawned the post Beatnik flower power movement that overtook the world (apart from some villages in Northern England who have yet to this day to be introduced to Bill Haley)

This LSD research got him famously thrown out of Harvard and after a time he wound up in India and found his ‘guru’, Neem Karoli Baba, became Ram Dass, which means servant of God, and at the same time realised that Psychology didn’t know much about the workings of the mind, which is quite something coming from a professor of Psychology at Harvard! His workshops and lectures since then are legendary and his book ‘Be Here Now’ is a classic. His writings and anecdotes are as laugh out loud funny as those of Bill Bryson, if Bryson did inner travels.

His latest book though is, for me, the ultimate biography/instruction manual on the reason we are here – which is to perform yoga. This doesn’t (necessarily) mean buying lycra and trendy mats and saying hello in a low misty voice, but the discipline of life, that is yoga. ‘Paths to God, Living the Bhagavad Gita’ has been called the greatest commentary ever written on the Gita and is an enlightening, humorous and very easily digested and highly recommended to all those beyond lycra 🙂

I came across the book ‘The 8 Limbs of Yoga, Pathway to Liberation’ by Bhava Ram in a second hand bookshop in Glastonbury, UK. Seeing the cover of an aging western hippy sat on a rock, somewhere warm, wearing a garland around his neck I very nearly put it back on the shelf but thought I’d read the back cover so I could be reinforced in my initial cynicism.

It stated that ‘Bhava Ram overcame a broken back, failed back surgery and stage four cancer through yoga’. Stage Four is to cancer what Category Five is to hurricanes – so I bought the book – and I’m very glad I did as the book is essentially a modern and western explanation of , as the title states, the eight limbs of yoga – which is Ashtanga yoga as written down 2200 years ago by Patanjali. If you’ve never read about the sutras and the whys and wherefores of yoga, this is a good place to start, though the book is not that easy to get hold of but worth the extra effort to find.

Mysore in India exists as the place to visit for western yoga enthusiasts and tens of thousands do visit each year. Indeed, for westerners, Mysore is to yoga as Goa is to hedonism.

This is thanks to Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
who began practicing yoga at the age of 12 and at 15 ran away from home to study Sanskrit in Mysore. He eventually held a teaching position in yoga at the Sanskrit College of Maharaja becoming vidwan (professor) as well as being Honorary Professor of Yoga at the Government College of Indian Medicine. He is renowned for bringing ashtanga yoga to the west when he visited California in 1975.

He wrote just one book which is a book of his original teachings with photos showing all the postures of the ashtanga primary series and reading the book feels like one is reading history and all ashtanga practitioners today, in the west at least, have Jois and this book ‘Yoga Mala’ to thank.

I’m currently reading ‘Heaven Lies Within Us’ by Theos Bernard, an American who is allegedly the first westerner to go to India to study and practice yoga, back in the 1930’s, and from what I’ve read so far he delved more than most ever have since and the book is all about his travel and his delvings and is proving to be another must read for yogi’s. It has just been republished having been out of print for many years.

Although I’ve read many books that refer to the yoga book of books, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, I’ve never read the actual book itself.  I feel that I may have been leaving it to last, getting everybody else’s viewpoints and translations before going for my own – but now I have a copy and it will be accompanying me on an upcoming visit to India which includes a week in Mysore not doing any of that hedonistic stuff. 🙂