Saturday, 2 March 2013

Goa: Once more onto the beach

We were in a boat early, because morning was the best time to see the dolphins, and we didn't want to miss out. We'd helped the guide push out into the Arabian sea, and were currently cruising along with the wind blowing in our hair, and the waves a deep blue-green. This was what holidays were made for.

After two weeks in busy cities, we headed down to Palolem beach in Goa to chill out for a few days. It was another new part of the country for me to visit, being down on the west coast of India, and it was by far the hottest, being around 35 degrees celsius for much of the day. Even when we arrived at the hotel, at about 5pm, it was far too hot for us to cope with. Partly that was my fault. I'd started looking at beach huts, and somehow ended up booking a hotel that was 20 minutes walk inland. I think I was forgiven for this.

Palolem seems to have a mixed reputation in the guide books. We'd read that it was a paradise in Goa, largely untouched, and also that it was a paradise lost in Goa, largely fucked up by clutter. What we found was a beach that to us seemed really quiet, especially after the hassle of places like Delhi. There's bars and cafes that run along the length of the beach, but they're not exactly bringing the area down. Amplified music can only play till 10:30 at night by law, but even that hardly seemed to be an issue.

This meant we had a few days to lie down on the beach, go for a swim, and generally relax. Lunchtimes we headed for some shade, as the temperature was blistering, but the water was the perfect temperature for a swim when we needed to cool down.

We also went on the dolphin hunting trip I mentioned up the top. We didn't see any, but I did see Monkey Island! It was the second biggest monkey island I've ever seen.

Next time: We round off the trip by taking it up a notch - literally - to the foothills of the Himalayas

Sunday, 24 February 2013


In most of the places I've been to, the easiest way to get around by far has been by taxi. This has been for a few reasons. Firstly, while Delhi has an amazing underground system, elsewhere public transport has not really covered where I've needed to go. Secondly, it's incredibly cheap! Most taxis we've had have cost a few quid, and where I'm staying right now we're getting most taxi's for less than a pound. 
Arriving in any major city can be a bit tricky, because some dodgy taxi drivers see this as an opportunity to take advantage. A result of this is that the Indian government have installed approved pre-paid counters which offer a set price to your destination. These are invaluable. We've also always made sure to get a price agreed in advance of any journey outside of travelling, just to be safe. 

The taxi's are pretty cool - in most cities they look like 1960's London black cabs, but painted yellow. There's almost always a lack of seatbelts, but you get used to it. In Delhi, there were a lot more minibus style taxis, which usually had about a foot less headroom than I'd have liked.

But anyway, enough of the boring stuff! I've had some amazing taxi experiences I want to share with you, which I'm prefacing  now with a note saying that most of the taxi drivers we've met have seemed like lovely chaps. 

In Kolkata, there was a general strike one of the days we were staying there, which meant getting a taxi was a bit harder, although not impossible. We ordered one to take us home at around 10pm, and fifteen minutes later we saw one headlight turn around the corner, on an incredibly battered looking car.

It was my turn to pay, which means I rode shotgun (for anyone who doesn't speak cool, this means I was up front in the passenger seat). As we pulled away, everything seemed fine, but this level of normality was removed ten minutes later, when we took a corner at about 30 miles an hour and the passenger door swang open while I was being pushed in that direction from the turn.

I squealed (yes, squealed) while desperately trying to grab the door and shut it. Luckily the driver heard, and sorted it out. I say sorted it out, he slammed the door and told me it was fine. Quite an experience. 

A few days later, as we arrived in Goa, we took a taxi out to our beach. I was quite looking forward to getting away from the crazy city roads, and onto some much more relaxed country lanes. I was wrong to feel this way. 

Our taxi driver was suffering from the biggest sense of road rage I've ever encountered. Anything on the road was there to be taken over, especially if it was a bus or a lorry. We overtook cars on blind corners at least 3 times, and forced oncoming traffic to screech to a halt as we pulled out. This journey lasted for 90 minutes. 

Still, at least the driver didn't mind - when I grabbed my seat in fear, he burst out laughing.

Next time: Goa! Beachy times and Dolphin Hunting, as I find Monkey Island.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Kolkata: Bengali Wedding

There's a lot to cover today, but I'll start with a little housekeeping. Normally on this blog, I try to avoid talking about people who I meet up with or travel with, not because I dislike them (although this is occasionally true), but because I'll inevitable make enough in-jokes to hugely increase the level of indulgence on what is already a pretty self indulgent blog. However, I was in Kolkata, the former colonial capital of India, for the wedding of one of my oldest friends, so I'm going to need to break the rule for this post. In the unlikely event that you care about this, you may need to get over it.

The wedding I attended was a Bengali wedding, and the rituals were specific to in and around Kolkata. One of the great things about India is that the wedding traditions vary so much in different areas of the country, not that I'll get to see many others.

The first ritual I got to attend was the Mehndi night, which is part party, and part preparation for the ladies. We'd headed out the night before to get ready, and we were looking pretty swish. The night started with what's best described as a dance off - some dancers put on a show, and then we were invited to join in. Naturally, I went for it, as did everyone else! The dancing was quite difficult to master, but I think points were being given for effort, so I clearly did amazingly. After that, food and drinks were served, while all the females at the wedding went to have henna patterns put on their hands. The henna artists were amazing - they worked at an incredibly fast pace!

The next morning, we attended the Haidi ceremony. The bride is presented with a representation of the groom in the form of a fish, and then the groom is presented with a representation of the bride, also in the form of a fish. Tumeric is then crushed and placed on the bride and groom (separately), leaving them with yellow faces. It's then finished by pouring a glass of cold water of the lucky couple! This is all one without the couple seeing each other, but everyone else is allowed in the central area.

This was leading up to the main event itself, and what better way to start the main ceremony of a wedding, than with a grand entrance! The groom, Mike, had hired a horse-pulled carriage to take us through the streets of Kolkata on the way to the wedding. As you may expect, we drew large crowds. In fact, people may have been running out of shops to see us pass by. I think we also felt a slight amount of guilt at the fact that the horses weren't hugely overfed, but as far as I can tell they weren't struggling with the effort, and seemed much happier than, say, the pack of wild horses I saw crossing a motorway today.

Once we'd arrived, the next big moment was the arrival of the bride. However, this entrance was considerably different compared to a British wedding. Ishanee (the bride) sat on a small rectangular, decorated, piece of wood, and five guys from representing both sides (including me!) lifted her up. We then had to carry her around the groom, who was shielded from seeing her by a sheet, seven times, before they were allowed to set eyes on each other. Before we did this, we were incredibly nervous - we'd been expecting some big throne type thing with handles, and when we arrived we realised we were lifting her on this:

Luckily, Ishanee is very light, and it wasn't an issue!

Next, they were taken off to a special area in the corner of the venue, for Ishanee's dad to give her away to Mike (for the cost of 101 Rupees). This ceremony is generally not watched at most Bengali weddings, and used as a chance for the guests to speak, but we were determined to see as much as possible, and so crowded around. I spent quite a lot of it on my knees, ducking under a lighting rig.

After a short break, the final ceremony was the fire ceremony, in which the couple walk around a fire seven times, each time making a different vow. Finally the rings were exchanged, and they were married!

In terms of weddings, I'm not sure I'll ever make it to a more spectacular one. Not only was the stage grand, but Ishanee's family welcomed both Mike's family and us (his friends) with incredibly open arms.I sincerely wish the happy couple all the best for the future, and feel incredibly lucky to have been to such an epic event.

Next time: Taxis: Powerslides and near death experiences!

Wednesday, 20 February 2013


I'd been told about the trains in advance, with stories of strangers coming up for a chat, huge delays, awesome Chai and beautiful countryside. As with everything else I've experienced here, the stories are true.

I've been on three train journeys so far (with a few more to go!), and I've been on each class once: AC1, AC2 and AC3. Most of the carriages for the big journeys are sleepers, as the trains go on for so long. AC3 is the economy class, with three bunks on either side of a cabin, and a curtain to close your cabin. AC2 is a little more roomy, with 2 bunks on each side, and AC1 is the top class with 4 bunks and a nice door to keep you safe.

There's quite a bit of variation between the trains too, on the Punjab mail, which I took from Delhi to Agra and back, the doors remain open for the journey, so you get people jumping on and off when the train slows down (it also removes the need for air conditioning). It's not uncommon for people to hit the emergency breaks when a train passes by their village when the train doors don't close, as it saves them the trip back from the main station. Sadly I've not seen this in action.

There's plenty of chats too. On our first trip, we met a doctor who kindly provided us with a prescription note to help the guys with their illness (and it worked a treat!). On the train to Kolkata, we met with the Vice President of the Indian Mining, Geological and Metallurgical society, who took it upon himself to give us a detailed plan of how to spend the rest of our holidays. He also nabbed a taxi driver at the train station and sorted a huge discount on the trip to our hotel (good guy!).

The best rain journey we had was the one spent with the VP on the Geronto express. Once the train pulled away, we were presented with Roses and a bar of soap. Dinner and breakfast were four course affairs, with really good food (curry, naturally). The beds were spacious and comfortable too - I slept the whole night through, only being woken for some refreshing chai!

Speaking of the chai, I really can't rave about it enough. It's like regular tea, but with some kind of special spice/sugar combination going on. I've developed a bit of an addiction...

Next time: Kolkata! The Wedding!

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Delhi and Agra: There will be poo...

...but I won't talk about it in too much detail. Aside from 2 things. The first is that I've so far escaped the Delhi belly (and I seem to be alone in this), and the second is what's being referred to as the pooshoe incident. While walking through Delhi, my friend had a guy fling a shit onto his shoe with a stick, and tried to get him to pay for it cleaned off. He wasn't impressed.

Delhi, you see, is full on. Very full on. The streets are paved with people trying to hassle you, take you to their friends tourist office for overpriced tickets or sell you overpriced goods. It's also very dirty, it smells pretty bad, but it's also nice and cheap!

I only had two days here though, and the first of those was spent on a day trip to Agra. We hired a taxi and a tour guide for some insanely cheap price, and headed out. Agra seems a lot calmer than Delhi, and the sites are amazing. Best of all though, it was Valentines day!

Note: I'm aware there's a thumb in the above pic.

First up was the Taj Mahal - probably the most famous site in India. This was particularly appropriate for a Valentines day trip, as the whole thing was built out of love! We entered from the East gate, and our view was of the gate entrance ahead of the Taj. The great thing about seeing it this way is that the main structure is hidden from you for as long as possible - you only fully see it once you walk through the gate. When you do get to see it, it looks a little like this (although normally without me):

The design on the walls is incredibly intricate, you can see why it took 22 years to build. My only regret here is that the original plan to build a black marble mirror image of the Taj Mahal on the other side of the river fell through. It would have made one of the best sites in the world even more insane.

Also in Agra we saw the "Mini-Taj" where Taj's Mother was laid to rest, and the Agra Fort. The Agra Fort was pretty impressive - on the way in there's a long incline with high walls on either side. The walls had small holes in, which were designed to pour boiling oil on anyone trying to attack the base. Nice. We were also told that one of it's rulers kept three wives, for political reasons. One was Christian, one was Hindu and one was Muslim, and he'd bring out the appropriate wife for the appropriate occasion, which seems practical.

Back in Delhi, I had time to visit the world's largest Hindu temple, called Akshardham. The scale of Akshardham is quite something, around the main temple there's literally hundreds of carved elephants, some with seven trunks. The temple itself is huge, and also contains endless intricate decorations and work. There's a giant lotus flower type hole in the ground nearby, containing quotes on God, which also looks pretty good.

The highlight of Akshardham though, was the animatronic shows! We had both a guided tour and a boat ride, explaining the history of a child spiritual leader, and also the Indian people. The boat ride made some pretty huge claims, including that India invented Space travel and quantum physics over 3,000 years ago. I had no idea. Apologies for the lack of photos from Akshardham, by the way - they don't allow any photography. Here was my best attempt from outside:

Next time: Trains! First class! Second class! Third class!

Wednesday, 13 February 2013


 At about 3:30am, I rolled over in my sleep and got woken by a large, cold, long, moving thing hitting my chest. I panicked. I hit it off me, twice, jumped out of the bed, and switched on the lights. It was at that moment I realised that what I had thought was a snake, was in fact, my own dead arm.

Aside from that one moment of bizarre panic (although from the pic, I mabey should have been scared of this guy!), things are pretty good! It turns out every rumour you've heard about India is probably true. As a result, I've realised most of my posts are going to be much longer than usual, so I apologise in advance.

Let's rewind back to the start. I mentioned in my last post about being taken to the wrong hotel, but the full story is a lot more fun than that. Having arrived in Chennai, I sorted out a prepaid taxi (top traveller tip!) and we set off.At this point, my driver, who until then had insisted he knew where to take me, asked where I was going. I showed him, my address, and he looked at be blankly. He'd never heard of the Park Pod hotel, and he looked terrified about not knowing where it was, too.

At this point, we hit the roads. You've probably seen how roads in India work from tele or something, but in real life it's amazing to see. The road I was on had enough space for 6 cars to go side by side, despite probably being designed for 4. On top of that, there was a tonne of people on motorbikes squeezing inbetween the cars, and many of the motorbikes had 4 people sitting on them (Mum, Dad, child and baby). The bikes on the roads constantly look like their about to be hit, and the cars drive right up behind them. For a first timer, it's terrifying.

The driver was weaving through these guys while trying to work out where to take me, his next idea was to find out from another taxi driver (while at speed and on this road), so we pulled up alongside another taxi, and they had a chat, at 30 miles an hour, with motorbikes with babies on cutting us off on the road.When we arrived (at the wrong place), the hotel sorted it out quite quickly, so there was no real cause for panic.

I've been treated to quite a few things in Chennai - it's home to the second largest beach in the world, which features quite a lot of birds that circle round in flocks. I saw it at night, and again first thing in the morning, and despite the hectic city nearby, it's really peaceful.

Perhaps more peaceful still is the Buddhist temple I visited. I was incredibly lucky, in that they let me go into the main chamber, which normally doesn't happen for white people, because there's a good chance I've eaten beef (I have). The temple is surrounded by images of gods, all incredibly intricate and colourful. The inner chamber itself has two guys standing there to give blessings. To give a blessing, you give a donation to the temple, warm your hands on a flame, and then get your head cupped by a golden cone. I didn't get my head cupped, again because of the beef thing (I didn't feel like pointing out the horse thing). It's really cool to be allowed somewhere that's so central to Chennai culture - it's quite religiously conservative compared to many other cities.

One quick word on the food - it's amazing! I'll talk about it more when I've had more dishes, but suffice to say I've been stuffing my face every day, and I'm still (largely) free of the Delhi belly (unlike the other two - I've just arrived in Delhi to two very ill guys in a hotel room).

UP NEXT: Delhi! Poos on shoes! the Taj Mahal! My ongoing battle to avoid the shits!

Monday, 11 February 2013

A new location!

Hey guys, It's been a little while since I had an adventure, but the grayhound express is back with a bang! I'm in India for three weeks for a wedding, so it seems like a good time to revive the blog for a little fun. Today's my first day, and I've already had an experience... My bag had a dvd of the film 'Contagion' added to it by airport security, I got a bit of money exchanged into rupees and now have a 2 inch thick wad of notes, and my taxi driver took me to the wrong hotel. I promise that this trip will provide some of the best stories I've had on this blog. I'll start reporting in about 3 days time (with photos), but a little bit of admin. In Italy, I posted a "Where's James" competition, and I can now announce that the winner is... well, no-one. I had no entries. The mug is safely with me. Speak soon!