Blackout Blog: Heroes and Villians

The power’s out across the whole city. So I guess this is a good time to shout out to some of the characters I have met over the last few weeks. There seems to be about two good guys for every scam artist, a respectable ratio.

In Jodhpur, my sincere gratitude goes to Ramit, the propritor of my first hotel. He co-signed my Indian SIM card, sorted me with some cash on the first day and found me a bed for two more nights when I need one. Top man.

In Jaipur, Tamil was my speedy driver when I was raiding cash points at dawn. Resourceful fellow. In Udaipur, my cab man Ghanesh showed me around rural Rajasthan and detoured to some great photo sites when he found out about my camera.

In Mumbai, Bhatman the Parsi restauranter for being such good fun, and the Sikh hostel boss for helping me to sort out a scammer. And finally, Guru the tailor in Goa knocked me up a new pair of shorts in record time when nothing he had would fit me.

Now we come to the villains. In Mumbai, I met an Indian-British fellow called Grenville who was in a bind, having been mugged the day before and lost his passport. He was looking for a way to visit the UK consulate in Delhi.

I spent about an hour with the guy assessing his options, and his story was a little odd. He claimed to be from Kensington and had a brother at Ealing hospital, but he seemed a little relaxed for a guy a few hours away from sleeping on he street. I told him I would pay his train ticket if Ealing hospital switchboard would confirm his brother worked there. I called and, alas, no luck for him. Then I kept being polite and resourceful until he made an excuse and left. I did buy him a coke, but he had some charming stories so that’s fair trade.

My hostel boss later told me that is was unlikely the guy was even British; call centres here teach accents, elocution and ‘local knowledge’ to their operators. It’s so racist types in the U.K. don’t burst a blood vessel when they call their bank and hear a foreign accent. I think there was a scene about it in Slumdog millionaire.

There have been a few taxi guys who tried to get payment twice, hoping I’d forgotten. 

In Udaipur, a ten year old kid followed me for a mile asking for money. When he figured I wasn’t going to give him any, he distracted me and led me into a low roof, then ran off laughing when I banged my head. 

Any establishment that advertises they take a credit card then refuses my MasterCard goes on my naughty list. Do not mess with the cashflow.

But my Spectacular Prat Award 2016 has to go to the Georgian guy who walked off with my bag at Delhi airport, almost torpedoing my entire trip. Congratulations dude, you earned it.

Anyway, I’m in Kerela, looking forward to a canoe tour up the backwaters tomorrow.

Christmas in Goa

I have been told that I plan ahead too much. So I’m trying something new, on a tip from a stranger I’m heading to Goa for Christmas, without a plan or any forward bookings. It’s an ex-Portuguese colony on the coast with loads of Catholics.

It hasn’t gone very well, it’s an enormous tourist trap. My first (sleepy) hostel advertised they accepted credit cards, but it turns out they were exaggerating. Also, it smelled like cement dust as it was still half a construction site.

Running low on cash, I swapped to a (party) hostel, but forgot to check the smoking policy. People here were up for a drink, but most of them stunk of tobacco so badly that I couldn’t stand near them without feeling nauseous. 

There were also drugs being passed around, my bed was steel-framed with no springs and half the guys in my dorm snored like pigs. And I had to educate the hostess on the difference between the number of beds (seven) and the number of lockers (four). They had also exaggerated their ability to accept credit cards.

I ate out on Christmas Eve (tourist pizza, way too much cheese) and got savaged by mosquitos, even through my socks. I starting looking for new digs, but the beaches nearer the city were full of fat tourists. I finally found a guest house next to the airport and moved in on Christmas Day. Checking out this morning I find out their credit card machine is broken, which resulted in relquishing the last of my cash including all my small change. I’m now walking to the bus station as I can’t afford a taxi.

To hell with this, you can keep your relaxed, spontaneous lifestyle. From what I’ve witnessed, it consists of:

  • Arguing about small amounts of money,
  • Having the same three conversations over and over again, and;
  • Getting so wasted you spend most of your daylight hours sleeping upright so you don’t choke on you own tounge

Let’s see, good points on Goa. I bought a cool pair of shorts, the supermarket had delicious raspberry sorbet, and I met a guy with my exact camera (we’re Instagram friends now).

Looking forward, I have spent most of the last few days using my brain to plan my New Years in Kochi. They have an elephant parade with fireworks, and it will be awesome. 

I’m impressed by Bangalore airport, they have used the ‘dead zone’ inside the luggage carousel as a garden.

Religion in India

I’m getting woken up every day at 6am, and I am trying to figure out which religion is responsible. 

Islam has a call to prayer five times a day, it’s short and loud and just a voice. There are also longer, thirty minute, singing and instrumental performances at dawn as well. As my brother remarked, ‘If there’s music, it ain’t Muslim’, so I ask around and it turns out it’s a Hindu thing.

I’ve also met some Jains, who are a Hindu branch, and run some really awesome pacifist temples. They are so vegan they don’t eat garlic as it’s an insectacide.

And today I partook of some Parsi hospitality at a fantastic restaurant. Parsi are the Jews of Asia, they are Zoroastrianists (pre-Christian fire worshippers) who fled Iran when Muslims invaded and set up a small community in Mumbai. They value education and family success, and they were persecuted until the British arrived in 1700 or so and put a stop to it.

I got a warm welcome as a subject of Queen Elizabeth, and I was asked to pass on the regards of the Parsi community to her majesty next time we meet. The proprietor, who goes by the name of ‘Mister Bhatman’ (hahahaha), is ninety five years old and met William and Kate three months ago. 

His family cooked me the best food I have tasted in years (mutton berry pulav). I asked for the secret Parsi recipe and he said he couldn’t give it up. The American ambassador had asked for it the previous day and Bhatman had told him he would only trade it for the recipe for Coca-Cola.

I suppose I should blog about my day for a bit. I’m in Mumbai and it’s ridiculously overcrowded. Imagine the worst London tube strike and multiply it by ten, that’s their normal Tuesday.

The trains here have no doors, and I spent a mile or so hanging onto a pole half out the train. This occurred when we pulled up to a platform and a flood of people came in the opposite door, almost pushing me out.

But I’m alive, and flying out tomorrow to Goa. It’s an ex-Portuguese Catholic colony and I figure it’ll be a great place to spend Christmas.

Indian Gastronomy

Food has been an issue. The lack of cash combined with my European digestion has resulted in my ‘routine’.

I get up at 6am with the call to prayer, brush my teeth and boot up my ATM app. I raid a couple of cash machines before the locals figure out they are restocked, then get a large three course brunch at a venue where the food is good (i.e they didn’t make me ill last time).

Then I head out for the day, and visit a shop somewhere to get bottled water. Before bed I eat a packet of biscuits or a tube of Pringles. The Pringles tubes here are slightly narrower than in the UK, so I can’t fit my hand inside. It’s infuriating having to to invert the tube like a clumsy gorilla.

But today was different. I attended Indian cookery school, by Shashi. I was informed at least three times to ‘come hungry’, and she did not disappoint. Pakora is going in my cookbook, next to the mango dust chutney. I also finally met a few other travellers, they are thin on the ground right now.

A Gentle Introduction to the Railways

I wanted to have an authentic Indian train journey, so I booked a sleeper train from Jaipur to Udaipur. The idea is; you show up at the station late, sleep in a bunk, and wake up at your destination. Carriages with glass in the windows are extra.

Alas, upon arriving for my 11pm train, it was expected at 1am. Also, I find out I am on the waiting list for a bunk and they may not be able to fit me in. After an hour of queueing, my train is now due at 3am, which I can only imagine means it has reversed up the line.

So I gave up, booked a flight, got a nights sleep and still got to my destination the next day before the train did. 

I met an Aussie couple at the airport and we swapped all our survival tips – I find out Uber is in India, is cheaper than a tuk-tuk (rickshaw) and takes a MasterCard. This is good news.

Udaipur is spectacularly beautiful, my favourite so far. It’s got much more water and geography than the desert, but the dust is getting to be a problem for my camera and my lungs. I want to see the new Star Wars soon (no spoilers please!), so I’ll aim for Mumbai and Bollywood next.

Treasure Hunt at the Amber Fort

Everyone in India blows their horn continuously, regardless if there is anyone else on the road. I took a train to Jaipur yesterday, looking forward to a quiet respite from the din. Alas, the train driver took it upon himself to sound his air horn every mile or so. I think making noise is the national hobby.

I met a German couple who put me onto an app called WalnutPay. It’s a crowdsourced map which flags working ATM’s and their last known status. So this morning I recruited a young guy called Talim and his tuktuk. We sat in a layby, refreshing the app and swapping stories. 

Suddenly an ATM across the city flagged as active four minutes ago, and we scrambled to get there before the locals emptied it. On our first try, we were a few minutes late. Our second, and I couldn’t find it. Third time lucky and we find a tiny queue, and replinish of 2000 rupees. The rationing guard shows me out as he knows my foreign cards can be used multiple times a day.

I spent the afternoon at the enormous Amber Fort. When Europe stopped building castles because of cannons, Indians just decided to make them so big as to be cannon proof. I also chance upon the Marharaga’s step well, a swimming pool which can be filled as either a diving pool or a bath for the King’s elephants.