Originally published: 1st February 2008
300 metres of royal blue iron and steel heaved its way through the Indian countryside as night slowly settled across palm trees and rice paddies. Inside the belly of this elongated beast sat two tentative travellers, unsure of what to expect on their first overnight train.
An elderly Muslim lady from across the carriage, sensing the young adventurers’ trepidation, leaned over with a smile.
“You know,” she began. The two tourists leaned forward, eager to hear what advice this seasoned journey-woman would impart.
“Elvis Presley is better than the Beatles, but neither were a patch on Sinatra. I like him the best.”
The travellers smiled and sat back, comforted by that particular glow of truth that only comes from the transfer of knowledge from the wise to the young. This night was to pass without incident, giving false confidence to the explorers that all such journeys would be so. India smiled at them. Sleep soundly children, she thought. For thy test is yet to come.
We spent Christmas at a beach. Specifically, Om beach in Gokarna, which is a Hindu pilgrim town and so, as you can imagine, was totally into the whole Christmas vibe. We barely even noticed the celebration of consumerist capitalism, uh, I mean the birth of Christ. It was nice though, staying in a simple bamboo hut, chilling at the beach, sculpting figures and fishes out of sand, being accosted by naked Kashmiris and generally feeling alright with the world.
The only problem was the cows took all the best shade.
Leaving for more beach action in Goa we were pumped, primed and ready for more chilled out beach action, swimming and sunning on some relatively secluded beach (travelling is hard work). What we got was the Costa Del Sol on acid.
The ‘beach’ (we’re certain it was there somewhere) was covered by hundreds of sunbeds and fringed by countless hotels and restaurants. The tell-tale lobster red of Brits Abroad mingled with the countless eatery owners and shopkeepers all vying for trade. It was manic, and we walked around open-mouthed for an hour before coming to our senses and going for pizza, where we sat in silence contemplating the miserable chaos. Yes sir, empty Sri Lankan beaches had spoilt us and we were not ready for this mass of semi-nude humanity in the slightest.
Luckily, Jason was due to arrive and provide us with some comfort during these testing times. Also arriving were Melinda and Jen who we hadn’t yet met but we assumed, as they were friends with Jason, that they would be nothing less than awesome (we were right, they were impossibly lovely).
We spent New Year dining with our friends and watching a spectacularly haphazard fireworks display. Each of the owners of the 421 thousand beach front restaurants had passed to their waiters, after getting them all suitably wasted, rockets large enough that they could have made a fairly decent attempt at another moon landing. The soused staff then proceeded to light these missiles only a few feet from where carefree tourists were sitting eating sizzling vegetables and supping strawberry daiquiris (for those keeping score, it wasn’t 2008 yet so Simon was still drinking), then they stumbled backwards laughing and hoping that the clumsily constructed launch sites would keep the explosives pointing upwards. Health and Safety Indian style – cotton wool covered Britain would have had a fit.
All jolly good fun though and in the end the injuries were minimal, the bangs were big and the colours were pretty and it was a new year so it all didn’t matter! Hurrah for 2008!
We fearless five then headed out to handsome Hampi, a massive area of ancient ruins and temples set among smooth, impossibly stacked boulders. A wonderful week was spent by the river, watching incredible sunsets of which I will not bother trying to describe and getting to know our American friends under an infinite canvas of stars. It turns out that Melinda is also an ex-lawyer who got tired of the profession and wanted something more. We think there’s something about Jason that attracts them. His manly sneakles (are they sneakers or are they sandles?), probably.
A definite highlight of this particular portion was the afternoon in the Coracle. The five of us (+ captain) clambered into what can only be described as an oversize half coconut shell and set off down the river. How our captain kept this thing in a straight line we don’t know but he did and we sailed down this blissfully empty river surrounded on both sides by large hills covered in smooth boulders and abandoned temples. It was very Indian Jones (in his Temple days) and very beautiful.
Deep breath. Then back to Goa.
We met up with Erin’s folks and spent a lovely few days relaxing in their luxurious resort by their immaculate beach with the softest sand I ever stood in (so they DO have beaches in Goa), catching up with news from home and reviewing our trip so far. Erin’s dad very kindly upgraded us from our rather shabby shack to some air conditioned comfort and we promptly repaid him by taking him out to a restaurant and giving him food poisoning.
After leaving them in Margao we boarded our train to Mumbai. Now Simon’s dad had been to Mumbai on business and had warned us on what to expect and we had met other travellers who had also cautioned us with weary sighs about their experiences there, but we don’t think that any amount of warning can prepare you for this place. This one city has a larger population (17.8 million people) than the whole of Australia. The fricking whole of Australia! Australia itself has a bunch of big cities in it! That’s crazy! Imagine 17.8 million people all giving the finger to traffic laws makes crossing the road a dice roll with death every single time (of course to do this you’ll also have to imagine that everyone there owns a car. And that the babies drive.) We were beaten. We retreated to our AC-cooled hotel room and watched Star Movies.
The next day, we steeled ourselves with hard liquor (well, coffee and a muffin) and set out again. This time, though, we found a vibrant, cosmopolitan metropolis with amazing shopping and some truly first-class restaurants. We spent a few days kitting ourselves out with some fashionable Indian garbs and eating some fine, fine food. We didn’t see much of the poverty that Indian cities are infamous for (we suspect that the council has gotten quite ruthless about it), though we did see the Dhobi Ghats which is where much of Mumbai’s washing gets done. Hundreds and hundreds of hand-washing done daily by dhobi-wallahs in specially constructed tanks. Check the photos. It’s unreal. In the end (and to Simon’s eternal surprise), we really liked Mumbai and didn’t want to leave, but our wallets insisted that we must.
Onwards, and another overnight train. Oh mother India, you bitch. Wailing children mixed with hyperactive children mixed with large men that refused to sleep and a door that was forever opening and closing and a light that wouldn’t switch off. Sleep was a distant dream, for the most part.
We arrived in Bhuj in Gujurat, the Wild West of India, weary and wrathful, and were welcomed in to a dusty but calm, laid back town that made us feel infinitely better. We saw a wedding procession led by a painted camel (no photos, alas), where some relative of the groom was handing out nuts and fruit to all and sundry (including dazzled white tourists) and met some of the friendliest, most honest people on our trip so far. We took a trip out to some remote desert villages where we met traditional people who showed us how they created some intensely beautiful textiles. Needless to say, we spent a bunch more money here, but we got some awesome stuff.
Then we went out to Hodka, where we stayed in a tent by the desert which was peaceful and relaxing and where we were serenaded by local musicians.
Little Rann, Gujurat
After a few more nights in Bhuj, we headed out to the Little Rann of Kutch wildlife sanctuary, where the last remaining wild Asian asses live. We were supposed to take a safari out to see them (and flamingos, jackals, desert cats, etc) but Simon got sick. He was so cock-sure that he wouldn’t, that Erin couldn’t resist an ‘I told you so’. Luckily for us, the sandy-coloured donkeys heard about his plight and came to see him personally. And we did see a desert cat in the dark on the way to the campsite. And a camel train, with baby camels. So it wasn’t a total wildlife washout.
Now we’re in Ahmedabad and you’re up to date.
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