Saturday, February 27, 2010

Chillin in Chennai part 2

I met some interesting characters last night. A woman, a man, a Facebook romance ...just another tale from India's intriguing fabric.
As luck would have it I was back in the same neighborhood- the beach at Besant Nagar, 2 for 2. And, because of my recluse day yesterday and a day out at Mahalabarapuram today (a World Heritage Site full of temples south of Chennai) this meant the beach at Besant Nagar, the airport, the hotel and a whole lot of traffic in between, were the only things I have seen in Chennai. I'll have to hold final judgement on the city for another trip.
Hey I learned two Indian-English verbs today. "Four Laning"... As in "Construction Work- Four-Laning in progress"... This is a verb to increase the width of a two lane highway into a four lane highway!
The other one is "Timepass". I like this one! This is a verb to mean doing something to pass the time, or a time-wasting activity. You can use it next time you see your coworker texting her boyfriend when she should be working. "Hey stop doing timepass- at least make me some tea if you're bored!"

Taking a time out in Chennai

Room service is on its way so I better make this quick.

Yesterday I arrived in Chennai and first impressions are not great- the city seems very congested and polluted; there are fly-overs and traffic jams everywhere and in general people seem a lot less happy than they did in Kerala. I miss the smiling Keralans faces already.

The frantic Taxi ride was not much fun either; the driver spoke no English so gone was the chance for my default 'sense of the city' conversation with the one guy who knows the city best.

In the evening however, Chennai redeemed itself a bit, as I ventured out to Besant Beach and people watched while I ate my dinner at Tasty Jones Cafe.

Later on I met up with my friend Sooraj who lives here. It was great to see a familiar face and we caught up while he enjoyed a late snack and I had dessert.

The hotel is worth a mention- The Lemon Tree Hotel. After 3 weeks of very Indian accomodation, this place is an oasis of non-Indian ness. I'm calling it the "Ikean Embassy". Also it smells of lemons.

The Euro furnishings and cozy duvet, the English speaking TV, the climate control; the lack of mosquitos and the warm lighting- it's all playing with my mind. I slept in until 11am, cossetted only by the slightest breeze from the ceiling fan.

I awoke to realize just how much for granted we take all these luxuries.

My cousin Avi called me from Toronto using his Vonage line and now I really felt disconnected from the India outside my double glazed window. I chatted with him for over an hour and he recounted a hilarious tale from his recent cruise to the Caribbean that must be retold:

He had been chatting to a fellow cruiser, a Texan man, who was sharing his experiences aboard the boat. Everything was fantastic they agreed, but the Texan mentioned how unhappy he was with the microwave in their room- it just didn't work very well.

Avi started quizzing the man, as he had no microwave in his cabin
and would not have said no to such a wonderful convenience to their stay on the ship.

"Where exactly IS the microwave?" Avi asked..... "Well, you know, it's riiight thaayar, insiide the clooset?" (think: Texan accent).

Inside the closet?! Avi went back to his room and sure enough his suspicions were confirmed. His Texan friend had been placing meals inside the room safe to warm them up.

The best line though I save for last: "The microwave does work," he said, "it's just really slow- we put in some food one night and by the morning, it had cooked just a bit"...

Well cooked or not, his food had been safe as other guests' diamond jewellery.

Well India continues to amaze and impress me- but for most of today I'm going to be a recluse in the Ikean Embassy until the sun abates. Perhaps I'll venture out after my late lunch. Talking of which, Room service has arrived- it's time for my mushroom soup, club sandwich, and melon juice (for 9pounds!). Cheap good food rocks!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Kochi- funny airport code, fascinating history

Today I said goodbye to Kerala and hello to Tamil Nadu. I flew on IC511, a decrepit Indian Airlines Airbus A320 that was a good candidate for an episode of “How Dirty is Your Plane?”. This thing needed a good scrub down from the inside out. Luckily the food on board was delicious enough to distract me from looking too hard at the dirt. It’s amazing that Indian Airlines can serve a delicious meal on board a quarter full, 1 hour flight, while US carriers will leave you starving or let you pay for a 3rd rate snack on a 5 hour flight right across the country.

As Captain Prashant Rajdev piloted us safely across India and I munched on Cholay Paneer, I reflected on my last few days-

On Wednesday, I was to catch a boat from Kollam to Allepy, to ferry me up through the backwaters of Kerala and help me continue my journey northwards to Kochi. Unfortunately I had left Varkala too late to catch the train, so I took a cab. Alas I still arrived too late to catch the boat from Kollam, (I’d like to blame traffic but it was actually because I had been too busy enjoying my breakfast of porridge, fruit salad and iced coffee at the Abba Café).

Luckily my cab driver had a plan of epic proportions. For another 300Rs, he drove me to a tiny village, where he knew of an even tinier jetty. From there he phoned a friend who had a line to the captain of the boat. The friend told the captain he needed to make a pit stop at the jetty to collect a lonely backpacker that would be waving him down. Luckily it all went to plan and I got a special pick up from the river side! I actually needn’t have waved so frantically. Nothing is frantic around here.

The backwaters are beautiful- especially around sunset. We passed by village life on the banks; kids bathing in the river, women washing clothes and dishes in the river, their heads lifting for a couple of seconds to see us waft by, sometimes waving back. More than once I actually felt a bit voyeuristic- after all you wouldn’t like it if someone passed by your kitchen window in a bus and peered in for a few seconds while you were doing the dishes!

By sunset we arrived into Allepy, and 8 hours of chatting with fellow passengers had paid off; I now had a travel companion (Hokkam from Sweden!), and a free lift to Kochi with 2 French couples who had a rented minibus. I was ready to say goodbye to the boat and looking forward to the next adventure.

We arrived into Fort Kochi late, and Hokam had the worse sense of direction ever (I knew it was bad when I had to tell him we had already walked through this intersection 3 times looking for a place to stay). We walked (and I sweated) our way around Fort Kochi for an hour or so, looking at rooms in homestays and B&Bs. After I had lost my day’s water intake in sweat I just needed a place to stay. The place to stay became a 1700s Dutch Colonial hotel called The Rosita Inn on Rose Street, with a lovely courtyard and just a few steps to the action. So for 1500Rs/night, it was a deal for the next 2 nights.

Hokam and I spent most of the next day exploring by foot- and what a delight Fort Kochi is! It was coveted, plundered and rebuilt by the Dutch, French and British and remnants of all these colonial powers remain. This was a smorgasbord of cultural remnants, to use a phrase from Hokam’s home country. It’s just bursting with color, character and life; from cantilevered Chinese fishing nets to a Portuguese Catholic Church built in 1505, to a whole area of antiques shops in ‘Jew Town’, and no shortage of restaurants and cafes to recuperate from the heat. There’s some beautiful colonial architecture to admire and myriad alleys where rickshaw drivers are awaiting to offer you a ride to your next destination, even if it’s a 3 minute walk away. (me: “It’s just around the corner, I’ll just walk thanks!”, Rickshaw walla: “but Only 10 Rupees!”).

Hokkam was one hungry Swede- so we asked a rickshaw driver for a lunch recommendation where locals go- and were pointed to Krishna’s Café. Now I can say I’ve had my cheapest meal out ever! Hokkam ordered 2 Vegetarian Thalis, I had one, along with 2 “Lahar Pepsis”… and the total bill (for 3 meals essentially) was 100 Rs. About 1 Pound 30p, or $2 US. And the meals were delicious and filling! Wow one could get used to eating good food for nearly free!

Other firsts today were 1) eating an Italian pizza for dinner in an Indian restaurant, and 2) eating an Italian style pizza in an Indian restaurant with no lights, as the electricity went out in the restaurant about 2 minutes into my meal!

And so we come back to this morning, when I had just enough time to pack up and catch the A/C bus to the airport for my flight. Next stop, Chennai!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Wherever I oil my head, that’s my Om

I’m now in week 3 of my trip so I’m going to recap my experiences from week 2 (at the Beth Saida Hermitage) and get up to date on my travels this week.

Far from going insane in solitude last week, I actually found some partners in crime and together we chuckled the latter half of the week away, improvising wry commentary at the goings on around us. My fellow guests Tina (Cologne), Norina (Basel) and I had no shortage of material between the guests and staff to keep us in hysterics.

The biggest drama though was the Russian woman who had slipped poolside and fractured her hip. This was most inconvenient for me as the hotel representative who accompanied her to the hospital was also the only guy who could process my mobile phone top up. I had to wait a whole afternoon- some people are so inconsiderate!

Other funny moments included the old German woman who kept pulling the male staff aside one by one and making them pose for pictures; one under a tree, one by the pool etc. We imagined she was working on a “Men of Kerala” calendar 2011 (think dark skin and moustaches as a theme). And then we saw her walking with what was surely to be Mr. December- a 4-starred security guard whom she escorted back to her quarters, no doubt for a more intimate photo-shoot.

I got non-stop entertainment from trying to explain English idioms to the staff. Like “That’s the way the cookie crumbles”. It was impossible as they kept thinking I was being literal. Then there was the Bugs Bunny incident- the last guy thought I was saying “Bagbani” but then one waiter thought I was saying “Pakistani”- he thought I was asking him if he’d ever seen a Pakistani cartoon about a rabbit. I now realise that in an Indian accent “Bugs Bunny" and "Pakistani” actually do sound similar. So from then on, Tina and I were convinced Bugs Bunny was Muslim.

I’m pretty sure Tina and I will see each other in Hell.

I left the Bethsaida Hermitage thoroughly relaxed, mind cleansed and body massaged to the point where I couldn’t handle any more massages (The last one was the nail in the coffin- a sort of Rice Pudding rub!!).

I was also tired of South Indian vegetarian curries. I sent the staff into shock by Friday as I ordered an omelet at lunch and by Saturday I broke up with Vegetarianism and dug into some Tandoori chicken. Crispy dead bird had never tasted so good!

I also left knowing a lot of Malayalam swear words, taught to me by the waiters. They all seemed to enjoy it when I swore at them!

So in summary- there were lots of sunset pictures, a short trip to Kovalam beach, daily swims, massages, yoga classes, lots of food, talking and laughing, a couple of Keralan entertainment shows, and a lot of Malayalam swearing…and my stay was over.

My next destination is Varkala, further up the west coast of India, past Thiruvanathapuram (Trivandrum). A little like Kovalam in that it is a favourite of hippies and travelers, it’s unique in its setting on the top of (red) cliffs. There is a narrow walkway on the clifftop that stretches for at least a couple of miles, full of places to eat and shops selling every trinket ever made in India- from elephants to Saris, to elephants wearing saris. They’re all here.

I am staying at The Kerala Bamboo Resort, recommended by my friend Ankit. It’s quaint- a series of bamboo huts surrounding a courtyard with a koi pond and just a few steps to the cliff-top walk. A nice little oasis just a few steps from the people watching.

Varkala is a great place to connect with my inner backpacker (you know, the one that is lugging this giant backpack around, constantly wondering if a Tumi wheeled case wouldn’t have sufficed nicely thank you). There are a lot of skinny, hippie looking travelers in their 20s, the type of people who don't question the fecal matter count of the ocean or what species of jelly-fish are present before swimming in it. The type that rent motorbikes without a license and drive in the pouring rain without a care in the world. I'm not sure I will ever find that inner back packer in me. But it's fun to hear their tales!

The beach itself is a little disappointing only in that in comparison to my oasis in Kovalam (I know it’s such an unfair comparison), it’s filthy. The beach is littered with garbage; mostly empty plastic bottles. India has got some catching up to do.

I whiled away the evening chatting with fellow travelers, breathing in second hand pot smoke and listening to reggae. At one point we all had to run for shelter as the heavens opened up for a 5 minute downpour. I’ve never been so happy to feel rain; it’s very very hot and humid here. At least 34C. I am just constantly sweating, and not just a ‘dab it off with a moist towellette’ sweating… I mean profusely. Like drops and drops of sweat, constantly pouring down my face, all day. There was no point applying any moisturizer to my face, hair product or even sun tan cream this morning. I did, only to feel everything get washed off in an instant by a tsunami of sweat beads.

So I spent the hottest part of the day playing “Valet Hero” on my iPod touch. It’s quite addictive. I am now sitting on the terrace of my bamboo bungalow looking at the koi pond and listening to Barber’s Adagio for Strings… that bit of music heard during the soppy scenes of nearly every love story ever made.

Und! Now I wait, for ze inferno to become ‘just a sauna’ before heading out for a cold coffee or two at Abba Café.

I'm meeting up with Sarah from Pinner, Middlesex tonight for dinner. She was in the online media business and left her job to travel. How bizarre :).

I love not being the only crazy one here- she's travelling around for 8 months :)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

ayurveda is in my head-a, and other randoms

This ayurveda thing is a bit strange- there seems to be a particular smell associated with everything ayurvedic and it feels like it's now entered my bloodstream. I mean everything smells of this stuff- soap, shampoo, my clothes...

Wait a second! Part of the treatment includes actually inhaling a powdery substance at 9am; come to think of it that may have a lot to do with why everything smells the same for the rest of the day! mystery solved, live via blog!

So today I saw a man on a public beach squat down and take a dump infront of the world and Jesus himself (no really! There's a giant statue of Jesus in prayer, within viewing distance of the offending act!).

I had a square-on view with perfect lighting in the bright afternoon sun, which made me sad as I never get that lucky in timing, angle and light when I am presented with something I DO want to capture on film :) I then found myself strangely fixed onto the scene just to figure out the logistics- he was strategically placed as a wave came in and he lapped up water (and no doubt sand) onto his posterior region. I can't imagine a more insane visual in this whole trip so far.

A fellow guest put it best when we started talking about swimming at our pristine beach, knowing that there was fecal matter being deposited half a mile away, "When you swim in the sea, keep your mouth shut!". Sound advice, but I'll save swimming for Hawaii thanks!

I have made friends with all the wait staff at the restaurant. They have names like Jaiseenth, Anthony, Abraham and Gobin, Virjin

They show great glee when I sported the local meanswear- I bought a Lunghi from the beach traders (think: freedom of a skirt, looks like shorts). Problem is my tying skills- I have had to re-tie the damn thing at the most inopportune moments, as the folding comes undone to reveal a long skirt, not a flattering look.

Yesterday I was near the hotel entry and had to ask a sentry guard to help me! I told the wait staff 'The police in Kovalam tied my lunghi so it's done right! Don't laugh or I'll have you arrested!'

Today I had the last laugh though, as none of them had ever seen or heard of Bugs Bunny. "Bagbani? BAGBANI? Who is this Bagbani?!" I promised them tomorrow I will show up to dinner with a video of Bugs saying "What's Up Doc!"

It's amazing what else they don't know about the world- one saw my cap from Alaska and didn't know what Alaska was, another had never heard of Las Vegas or what a casino was! and I asked one what he would do if he won the lottery and he said he'd give the money to his father to help pay the loan he took out for his sister's wedding. I had to push him to come up with something for himself before he said, a house, but right here in Kovalam! These people are so innocent it's amazing!

The yoga instructor at this place looks like he could just about bend over backwards and fit into a cereal box. I mean this guy is so flexible, the group cringes when he demos a move in fear he's about to snap his spine and become a pile of flesh on the floor with legs coming out of his face.

I washed clothes by hand in a bucket for the first time ever! I had flashbacks to documentaries of Indian 'Dhobis', slapping their clothes on the stone steps of the Ganges and I tried to emulate that, but not before stirring the clothes with my arm and hand, like a top loading washing machine's rotor... all very pathetic but fun!

more adventures await!


The blog's going Ayurvedic!

Over the last few days I've been staying at a hermitage. I'm not even sure what a hermitage is; it sounds like a nursing home for old Hermit Crabs.

I'll be here for 7 nights and hopefully I wont get bored out of my skull staying alone and being all "auyrvedic holistic healing" etc. I am a cynic, what can I say.

Anyway, The Beth Saida Hermitage is also an orphanage in Kovalam, Kerala. They invest some of the profits of the (mostly Swiss, Russian and German) guests back to educate the kids that were deserted by their parents (mostly because they just can't afford to raise them).

I found this place with the help of all sorts of travel sites, and finally Tripadvisor's #2 rating and raving customer reviews.

First impressions are that it's just amazing here... I fear that talking about how amazing it is will just solicit jealousy and rage, and those are certainly not emotions I should be concerned with during a week of wellness.

Oh what the hell- I'll give you a little mental picture, just promise you wont get jealous. Feel free to get even though- come visit and tell 'em I sent ya!!

The resort sits on muliple acres of hillside overlooking the Arabian sea. Set in lush tropical foliage, the buildings are sympathetic to Keralan traditional architecture- white and terracotta with rich wooden furnishings.

Every room overlooks the crystal blue water, with just the sound of lashing waves to soothe the soul.

It's about 34C every day, hot and sunny. There are 2 lukewarm swimming pools to cool your body along with daily yoga to calm your mind.

The resort is filled with stairs and walkways leading you from one nook to another; you feel like your corner is all that matters.

Every day begins with a 90 minute ayurvedic massage at 8am, and you can follow up with breakfast on the outdoor terrace on a cliff that has views overlooking the beautiful, clean white sandy beach below. Here you can see brightly robed Keralan fishermen set sail for their daily catch at 5pm each day, or returning early in the mornings. You can also often see scantily clad Russian men that obviously didn't get the memo about Speedos not being too flattering on a 300lb Moskovite.

As for the Ayurvedic part, I'm too cynical to believe it can do anything but hey, I've paid my monies, so I'll eats their pills. (I did google the tablets and the liquid to ensure the FDA hadn't put it on their hitlist). I'm really not sure what they're supposed to be doing for me- but one of the pills is recommended for arthritis, so maybe it's a good pre-emptive strike!

Now that I've had a chance to start reconnecting with my Chakras, my Doshas, the Earth, Wind and Fire (I love that band!) and all things vegetarian, I can report that it is starting to have some effect on me.

You see without the buzz of 'something going on', which for most of us is the daily chaos of non-stop working life, my mind has started cleansing itself of 'the chatter'.

This in turn has created a void which needs to be filled with other (better!) thoughts. The brain has delved into its deepest parts to conjure up the creative genius that it's convinced is lying there... and until it returns with something, I'm getting what I call 'limbo thoughts' (they're in limbo until those better, creative thoughts arrive).

These thoughts I'm having are random and dream-like... and I'm trying not to let them worry me!

Example. The other day, dozing off, I pondered if a mosquito landed on my eyelid and, would its proboscis be able to penetrate the lid and actually reach my eyeball.

You see, in normal life, one doesn't have time to wonder such obsurdities.

If I get more of these limbo thoughts, maybe I should dedicate a blog to them?!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

14 Feb_ Mumbai, My Valentine

Parting is such sweet sorrow, and today I spent the day being a tourist in South Bombay. It's a little overwhelming- amazing developments of highrise office and apartment blocks are being constructed, there's a new sea-link from the north to the south and with a 50 Rupee toll you can save a good 45 minutes of commuting through congested potholed streets, while enjoying the sea views from this modern road hovering over the ocean.

I made my way down to Colaba where Kunal lives, close to Naval housing. Colaba is a posh part of town- one building even has its own helipad!

The rest of the day was spent eating and walking. Always a great combination. We started at Cafe Leopold and walked down to the Gateway of India, a huge arch built to commemorate Queen Victoria's arrival to the city- a notion that is so outdated now.

Then came coffee at the Taj Palace hotel, the grand dame of them all right on the waterfront. With views overlooking an immaculate courtyard and pool area, we really felt like royalty here.

Next we walked around some more, strolling along Marine Drive and people watching.

We then went to the INOX cinemas and got a movie tickets for me to watch Valentines Day with Kunal and his girlfriend. They had already planned on it, and now that I was stuck with them, I had to go. Talk about being the 5th wheel on that date!

Next came ice-cream at Naturals; by far the creamiest and freshest tasting ice cream I've ever eaten. Fresh strawberries and cream flavour... this experience makes me question everything I know about what tastes good. We get used to all the preservatives and processing that goes into food in the west, and it's not until you try something really good that you have to reset your taste scale! I used to think Cold Stone Ice Cream was the bees knees, and now I know better.

What other 'best tastes' could be shattered? How about the holy grail of the burgers- In-N-Out?! I almost don't want to know if there's a better burger, as I'd rather stick to the devil I can get my hands on once in a while.

After tea at some wonderful Raj-era tea house whose name escapes me, it was back to INOX, for 'Valentines Day' the movie-what an awful film. It was a great brochure for Los Angeles though! I could really see myself living there some day :).

And finally dinner was at The Gordon House Hotel- they do an amazing "Mongolian stir fry" where you pick your food raw and it's cooked up in a wok for you.

So as the night came to a close, I reminisced about my time here- I barely scratched the surface of things to do and see here, but that's ok, it gives me something to look forward to for the next time I come. And I had a different kind of experience this time, less touristy and more getting to know how people live here, hanging out with locals is always a better way to get to know a city than just seeing buildings I think. Today was an appropriate day to be in Mumbai, as I really do love this city.

So on to South India, which promises to be a vastly different landscape... Kerala- the garden of India, here I come!

13 Feb _ Bio Disk

Saturday had a great start with Aloo parathas and buttery home made yogurt for breakfast. I love any day with a buttery start.

The rest of the day was interesting to say the least. I met up with my cousin's cousin Kunal again and I joined them for a great lunch at Yellow Tree in Bandra.

Then the conversation took an awkward turn. He started talking about a great business idea that his friend Jitin had told him about. He was all on board to sign up for it today and excited to share more, but wanted Dev, the guy running the show to tell me more about it. This sounded painfully like an Amway pitch. But it got better.

I joined them on a trip over to Dev's house.

There were 4-5 guys in this small apartment in an upscale street in Bandra, all sitting around a laptop.

After some light conversation, Jitin was first to 'log on'.

One of Dev's henchmen directed Jitin to whip out his credit card and follow the instructions to 'buy his combo unit'.

Dev was straight out of Boiler Room- cunning yet pally, showing off the material wealth gained from his earnings in the business. And he didn't give "an airborne fornication" about anything, to quote Dev.

Dev is the master of spin- he replaced Pyramid with "Network Marketing" and it all seemed so much more above-board. The company is Q Net and Kunal was about to fork out thousands of dollars (US!), on a timeshare mobile phone roaming plan, and a bio-disk. Well I know what a timeshare is but what was a bio-disk? And why was it $700?

Dev brought one out for me- basically it's a glass coaster. But remember Dev's spin? Now it was a high tech nano-technology fused-mineral device that emits 'Scalar' energy, which in 15 minutes can make (with no direct contact mind you), a glass of scotch taste smoother, change the molecular structure of water to reduce its surface tension, and make it "hydrate the drinker more", so you could get the same effects of the water by drinking less. Oh and it can also cure wounds faster if you use the energised water, it can make milk last for a really long time if you keep one in the fridge. You're laughing, right? ROFLMAO? These guys weren't. But I wasn't in the cool believer's club and they were getting uneasy.

I was in an alternative reality at this point; sure that Dev was going to bring out a gun and make me buy time shares and a bio disk combo too. I stayed quiet and watched the action unfold.

Then Kunal went up to the laptop, and with credit card out, he proceeded to buy a bio-disk, for $690. Kunal had drank the scotch and tasted it against a non-bio disk sample, and he was convinced there was something in the Bio-disk that would make this the next miracle invention.

My friends- my point here is that India is such a spiritual country, that it's not far fetched at all for young, well educated people to dismiss science and reason after hearing or seeing just enough to make them believe something amazing can happen if they just did this one thing... rub something, eat something, put a glass disk under your water...

We finally left Dev's place, and not a moment too soon. Kunal's girlfriend and I spent the next 4 hours over coffee (at Mocha Mojo), trying to talk sense into him. Jitin came along too but he was the first to admit, that despite not fully understanding the science behind the bio-disk, he was a believer in its powers. Or as we'd say in the UK, he was a gonner.

I'm not entirely sure either of us got through to Kunal. The Bio disk was $690, but the timeshare required an $8000 investment (which of course through hard work and network marketing could be recouped multi-fold). Jitin was already in. I wonder if Kunal will follow?

It's hard work having a non-conversation. I would ask a question like, "Jitin- what accredited scientific facility has proven empirically that the bio-disk has any measureable impact on the water?"... to hear back answers like, "I'm not sure but it's all documented... It's on thier website... I don't need to prove anything to you"... you see what I mean?!

Tomorrow is my last day in Mumbai and I'm spending it with Kunal and his girlfriend Nidhi. He lives in Colaba which is close to Town; I'm looking forward to it, but have promised no more BIO DISK TALK!!

12 Feb_Party time

Party day! Today I went to Freda's salon in Bandra where for just short of $20, I was able to get a bevvy of treatments including a traditional shave! Yikes, a sharp blade swinging infront of my face- I just shut my eyes and imagined him whipping the blade around, Kill Bill style...with his Hittori Hanso Gillette Blade...

In the evening we headed to Pran's 90th birthday at The Royal China restaurant. It was more of a family and friends party than Bollywood headline grabber gala event. About 150 people. But when your friends include Amitabh Bachan, who needs anyone else?!

Pran was in really high spirits throughout the night and at one point the crowd cheered his wife on to join him where he gave her a kiss. He was also awarded an honour by the Punjabi Society, one more to add to his massive collection of awards back at the house.
When famous Bollywood actors came in the crowds parted to let them through, some snapping pictures and generally ogling them.
Later on, I along with cousin Rashi, were given the task of getting a large notebook filled with dedications. Before I knew it, Amitabh (India's most prolific Bollywood actor of all time) was heading towards me on his way out. Book and pen in hand, I stopped him in his tracks and asked him to sign the book. While he was doing that I threw the camera at Rashi and said, PHOTO! NOW!!!!

Well that turned out to be a million dollar photo, so thanks Rashi!

AB and PR

After dinner, us young folk continued the night with an after-party at one of Mumbai's newest and coolest clubs, Escobar. With a large rooftop terrace (about half the total area) we partied into the wee hours and I got to see first hand what the young and trendy are about in this city. Mumbai is the place to come if you like to dress to impress, or indeed be impressed.

Another juxtaposed moment came at the end of the night- parked outside the club was a Lamborgini Gallardo, bright yellow of course. As a crowd gathered around the car and the owner let some girls sit in the passenger's seat, there was a frail old man with one leg, on crutches, with one hand held out begging for money. The owner of the Lamborghini was too consumed to notice.

He zoomed out of sight (The Lambo driver, not One-leg), and somebody said, "Should have got an Audi R8"... it was me of course.

11 Feb_Chillin with Pran

The next few days were really about relaxing and enjoying the home time with the family- We watched some movies; one of them is "Idiocracy" with Luke Wilson- funny look at how the West will dumb down to the point of not speaking English properly and drinking Gatorade instead of water... That's the future? Have you spoken to any school children lately?!

We strolled along Carter Road, and at Jogger's Park, but the highlight was spending some quiet time at home with Pran. I don't know any other 90 year olds, let alone famous Bollywood legends :). I also never knew either of my grandfathers so the whole experience was wonderful on several levels.

It's amazing to see how sharp his mind is. He showed me a brain-teaser and card tricks that really had me stumped. He shared stories from his movie making heydays, how he and his Rat pack of other legends did pub-crawls on movie shoots in Switzerland; pictures of him with his MG and fan mail of such dedication that it brought tears to my eyes.

Pran oozed Suave, there is no doubt. His wife Shukla was a champion card player and for her last birthday, her daughter had a cake made with the 4 Queens on the side, and the Queen of Hearts on the top. They're obviously still in love- it's wonderful to see and I feel so priviledged to have had such a personal snapshot into his life.

10 feb_Bombay, yaar!

I've found myself strangely drawn into 'Bombay-speak'. It's hard to explain really- it's the English of the educated and definitely the lingua franca of young people at social gatherings. You wont hear much Hindi in any clubs!

It's essentially one part English left over from the Raj, with some hilariously creative vocabulary, mixed up with some interesting grammar and sung in an intonation that mirrors that of Hindi.

And, whatever 'nuance gap' there is, gets filled by some hand gesticulation. It seems to do the job; sometimes you can say less and wave more, and the point is equally conveyed..."So why not to save the talking?"

I'm an accent sponge, and I now find myself mirroring the accent of people with whom I am speaking, while they give me dirty looks as they think I'm mocking them. But hey, the kids love my accents- I do it for them :).

So last night Arjun and I went for a little excursion out to the waterfront on Carter Road, where we sat and took in the views from the Cafe Coffee Day that overlooks the water. I had the most delicously creamy Iced Mocha and got my sugar rush for the week. On the way back we stopped at Olive, where I had a Mojito or 3 and stumbled back in time for dinner at the house.

Tonight I went back to Olive for more mojitos, (hey back off- it feels like summer to me!) and a great dinner- some old friends and some new. You can read more about Olive in all the good tourist books but it's one of the more successful venues where the young set go to see and be seen, especially on Thursday nights. White stucco walls and candle light, white pebbles on the ground...all make you feel like this could well be in the Mediterannean...and the food is quite nice too.

Arjun has me hooked on Boston Legal, so our evening ritual includes watching two or three of them on the laptop.. What a great show! Denny Krane!! Pritinder Rangar!!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

9 feb_Moving 'home' to Bandra

Today I'm moving to Bandra, to spend the next 5 nights with the Sikand family. I'm here to share a huge family event- a reunion for Sunaina and Arjun's Grandfather's (Dadaji's) 90th birthday, on Friday.

This would be quite an auspicious occasion in itself, but you see Pran is no ordinary grandfather. Pran Sikand is a legend. To just say, 'He was a Bollywood actor' would fail miserably to capture what impact this man's career has had on generations of Indian film lovers around the world. His career has spanned decades and his work has brought audiences to their knees as the archetypal villain from a golden age of Bollywood films.

I will leave you to read his complete biography here:

2 of Pran's grandchildren are my friends, Sunaina and Arjun and they have flown in from Boston and London respectively, as well as a dozen or more family members. This is going to be fun reunion for me too!

My introduction to the week was a lovely lunch at Arjun's aunt's house right at Juju Beach. In addition to amazing food, there were wonderful green parrots flying across the treetops, sea views, sweet smelling flowers and a view of Shilpa Shetty's condo being constructed from the rooftop pool terrace.

Bring on the Bollywood!

8 Feb_Sanjeev's tour of nowhere

Jet lag and thick curtains got the better of me today; I woke up at 1pm!

I'm convinced my Auto-rickshaw ('Auto') driver from last night, Sanjeev, should be working in a sales job in the US; he's tenacious and has great follow up skills. He could earn more in a week than he would in a year here.

No sooner had I turned my phone on this afternoon did Sanjeev call, asking if I still wanted his services to roam around town- now that's great CRM!

I took him up on it but then things started going downhill with Sanjeev. Soon after we started zipping along, I told him a few places I wanted to go to in South Bombay, an area I later found out is out of bounds to 'autos'. Rather than be truthful, he decided to tell me that every market, mall and museum I wanted to go to was "closed, sir", but luckily if I wanted to go 'sopping' he had just the place.

Faced with limited options I took him up on his offer and thus spent most of the afternoon in the back of an auto-rickshaw; going over every potholed, dusty street and fly-over to many dodgy shops on many dodgy streets.

I saw a Bombay you can't see on the Cox and King's tour- the Real Bombay.

I had Kunal's (my cousin's cousin's) phone number and was planning on meeting him later. I called him a little early, after Sanjeev offered to take me to a really nice place for lunch. A place called "Pizza Hut". I needed OUT!

Luckily Kunal was free for lunch; on his recommendation, and after ditching Sanjeev, we ended up at Basilica in Bandra which has great Italian food and even more amazing cold coffee.

Finally we ended up having drinks at The Mumbai Times Cafe, a laid back bar with a rooftop terrace, just off Linking Road, and finally Kunal introduced me to Theobroma, a pastry shop that serves the best brownies I've ever had!

Today I'm begining to realise how quickly (I've only been here 2 nights) one can overlook things like stray dogs, dusty roads and uneven pavements when good food is so cheap and delicious, and people are so genuine.

Will my changing perceptions of India revert to the 'this is gross I want to go home' days of previous visits as the novelty wears off? I am keen to find out.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

7 Feb_Mumbai's magic makes its mark

Well this post has become a bit of an essay. What can I say?! My first full day in Mumbai was exciting and a total sensory overload. I'm sure as the days progress I'll have a lot less to report, so enjoy while it lasts-

Jet lag aside, I actually started the day with a bit of trepidation to leave my room. It was hard to leave my comfortable oasis of luxury at the Hyatt Regency, and face the big bad city.

After all, if I were to believe what some people had told me, everyone here was out to rob or cheat me and steal all my possesions.

It didn't help to know that one of the places I was planning on visiting, Chor Bazaar (Thieves Market) was named so, not nostalgically but factually- apparently what you buy there may well have been yours to begin with; stolen from you minutes earlier. How a market of stolen goods is even allowed to exist is way beyond me, but Nikhil, the concierge, suggested there was strength in numbers and I should go in a pair.

So instead, I chose, 'Linking Road' in Bandra to begin my walkabout.

This shopping street is full of air conditioned boutiques (imagine a Levi's store with a doorman and guards!). No sooner had I walked by a mens' store selling £50 sweaters did I come across the contrast that is India's signature- a street corner with an entire family living on the sidewalk; a small child naked and playing in the dirt and all sorts. It was very sad but alas it's not the first or last such scene one can expect to see in India, and you can only make it through a vacation by not letting this poverty 'get to you'.

So I walked on, and I walked a lot- all the way to Juhu beach to be precise, a distance that Nikhil later told me was unheard of among locals.

Juhu beach- this place was CRAZY! (Oompah Loompah crazy, not shoot out in a mall crazy). I loved being there and people watching!!

Here's just a small selection of what I witnessed-

- a packed beach and no more than a handful of men even had shorts on, let alone their tops off. Indians are conservative when it comes to stripping off in public
- women in hijabs (full length black cloaks).
- monkeys! (on a leash)
-coconut water, roasted corn on the cob and bhel puris for sale
-hundreds of people playing cricket
-dozens of wild dogs sleeping in the sand
-children begging while well dressed families sitting on laid out newspapers enjoyed their picnics
-a kid peeing against a wall in front of thousands of beach-goers.

Now before you westerners dismiss any of this as gross, consider what I DIDN't see- excessive flesh, fat people, sunburned people, fights, anyone making out or drinking

All in all enough to write a small book called 'Beach culture India vs. the West'. I think it would be a fun read!

My highlight at the beach though, was when a group of 4 little boys, no more than 8 or 9 years old came up to me when they saw my camera and said, "Uncle! Uncle!! please take our photo!" so I did, and showed it to them and said in Hindi, "Oh! You guys want to be film stars, eh?" as they ran off to play!

I caught a scooter rickshaw back to the hotel- a truly amazing experience. No more AC cabs for me! I loved the wind on my face as we zipped in and out of cars, dodged other rickshaws, ran red lights and basically wizzed across town like being in a roller coaster without tracks for 25 minutes, all for 50 Rupees (about $1). You can't even buy a Coke at Alton Towers/ Magic Mountain for that much!

I loved it so much that my rickshaw driver Sanjeev is coming back to pick me up again tomorrow- we're going to do it again!

Food highlight- thanks to Anjali for her top tip- delicious Aloo Paranthas (potato stuffed and lightly fried chappatis) at "Just Paranthas" on Linking Road.

So another day, another adventure awaits!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

7 Feb_First impressions

Some observations-

India has a unique smell- that's the first thing that hit me on my transition from the plane to the jetway, as I went from breathing 'Recycled European', to 'Mumbai Masala' air.

It's a smell that is not wholly offensive, but strong for the untrained nose. This is a scent that will forever stay with you, and in an instant prompt you of memories from past visits. In that sense (or scense?!), it's an old friend that welcomes you on arrival!

The airport exit at 1am was chaos! Dozens of drivers with signs waiting to pick up their parties and no end to human and automotive traffic.

If there's a job to be done, you'll see two people on it, and neither of them doing much! Case in point- the exit to the car park at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport (BOM). One guy sitting inside the booth and another one standing outside collecting money from the cars, and passing it to the guy inside.

Posh German cars are everywhere now, a far cry from my previous visits!

I'm very excited to get out and see more- alas it's 4am and I think my old nemesis Jet Lag and I have a few days of wrestling before the real fun can begin.

6 Feb_Salaam Bombay!!

This voyage is truly underway! I just landed in Mumbai after a most pleasant flight on the German flag carrier, and spent an easy 8 hours from Munich between catching up on a night of missed sleep (yes, I packed all night like I promised I wouldn't!) and watching Sandra Bullock in "All about Steve", a very dumb film, but a great character acting performance from Ms Bullock.
Random thought- what ever happened to Marissa Tomei?! She was way more talented than Sandra Bullock but hasn't made a film of note for ages.
Anyway I digress! I'm in Mumbai!! I had Coyote (my backpack) wrapped in clear film at Heathrow so it emerged in Mumbai looking like a giant chrysalis waiting for a 8ft butterfly to emerge.
With a great stroke of luck, my seat mate, Herr Reinhold Lauf from Cologne, was also staying at the same hotel and I got a free lift from his shuttle! Nice!! He's taking a morning taxi to Pune to set up a Turbo jet manufacturing plant.
I on the other hand look forward to breakfast and a dip in the pool before heading into the city and exploring!
Glad to see no giant butterfly, but all my possessions intact in my backpack!! Day 1- Success!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

I lost my insurance down the back of The Internet

Ladies and gentlemen, behold the ethereal nature of the internet:

Now, I've lost keys before... 21 storeys down a garbage chute to be precise, and with my 'Macgyver-like' resourcefulness and a big stick, I actually recovered them in a garbage bin to the amazement of the apartment facilities manager.

But now I seem to have lost something invisible down the back of something else that is invisible, and this is spinning my mind like a washing machine on its final cycle.

Back in June, I bought a 1 year travel insurance policy after finding what looked like decent company and following a series of 'links on the web' as the kids call them.

Now I can't find any paperwork on said policy as it seems like I deleted the email to which it was attached.

I can't remember the name of the company, the website, the date, the credit card used. Infact the whole thing might have been imagined!

At this point my only hope is checking my credit card statements and piecing the puzzle together. It's all very Altzheimery.

The Internet should come with instructions- 'warning- the Internet is shallow, unforgiving, fleeting and sometimes without trace- transact with caution!'      

UPDATE!: Miraculous luck! I was just sent a renewal notice via email today! "OUL insurance" I would never have remembered the name in a thousand years. And I would have found nothing in June's credit card statements as I had bought it February 2009.
Bad news is that the annual cover doesn't go further than trips of 31 days, so a £37 renewal is useless- I have to get specific cover for this trip. One more thing to sort out on my last day!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Internal monologue 1.0

So with just a few days left before I hit the road for 3 months, what's going through my mind?

Well here is one thought-

Three Months!!?? How is it going to feel being away from home for that long?! Don't get me wrong I am dying to find out, but I have no frame of reference to understand quite what it's like to live out of a suitcase for that long. Mostly I'm worried about my tendency to 'get comfy' and spread my wares wherever I land as though I was going to stay a while.

I once left a cell phone charger in a hotel room in Vegas; they shipped it to where I was staying in LA, only for me to leave it behind there too!

I once left a pair of jeans hanging on the back of a hotel bathroom door in Fort Lauderdale (with which I was never reunited), a cell phone in a hotel lobby, tax returns in a rental car... the list goes on.

You see where I am going with this- over 87 nights it's quite possible that I might lose/ leave behind the entire contents of my backpack, returning to London with an empty backpack. The backpack itself I'm sure will be safe as it's Tiffany's, so no doubt I'll be protecting it with my life.

This makes me think- if the weight of protecting borrowed goods is so great, maybe I should just borrow everything!

Ok not such a good idea.

On the other hand, if this whole journey is about self discovery and starting anew, then maybe purging the contents of the backpack wouldn't be such a bad thing- maybe some kid in India would enjoy a new pair of Ben Sherman trainers.