A Week on Palolem Beach





Palolem is arguably India’s most paradisical beach. I’d never really given much thought to what ‘paradise’ would look like before, so I am easily convinced that kilometres of soft white sand, turquoise seas and walls of Palm trees, is what paradise ought to look like.

It certainly felt like paradise, after traversing across an entire country (never doubt the logic of our route) and the craziness of the north. The place was tourist central, and it wasn’t even peak season yet, but I loved every second of our week long routine of lounging on the beach, eating and then going to sleep.

Palolem beach is curved in a crescent shape and is guarded at both ends by rolling hills, that in addition to the walls of palm trees, make the beach feel all the more secluded and safe, in short; make you never want to leave and face the world again.

But face it you shall, in some warped holiday-makers sense. There wasn’t so much a travellers community here (travellers meaning smelly twenty-something’s with huge rucksacks trying to find themselves) but a holiday-makers, and dare I say family oriented scene. Before now the thought of bringing a small child to India on holiday made my blood run cold, but there were youngsters in their droves out building sandcastles on the beach (lucky babies). There were bars and truly fantastic restaurants, but the prices of these were all reflected in the fact that holiday makers have exponentially more to spend than us. However, I still managed to make the most of the speciality seafood restaurants and saved up for my first ever crab (complete with shell), which far from being the civilised affair I had envisioned, culminated in tearing a crab apart with my bare, masala covered hands.

The high prices drove us to the backstreets and in search of street food. The search led us to one of the oldest relics of palolem, before the tourist boom – and that is Maria and Michael’s. Part fantastic traditional Indian chef, part bitter old woman – Maria didn’t waste a second moaning about how high rent was and what a good deal we were getting for our food, even charging us for extras we didn’t order, whilst her husband humbly swept up after her, quietly majestic. You could see this as annoying and repellant behaviour at first, screeching “COME EAT HERE” at every person who passes is far from ideal hosting, but you can’t help but soften and want to shake your fist in anger at the way tourism has crippled traditional businesses. Squeezed between developments and new restaurants, Maria and Michael’s tiny ram shackle street store has weathered 30 years of continual price hikes and increasing traffic in the area – which has unfortunately resulted in the charismatic couple having to pack up and leave palolem, as they simply can’t afford the keep the business running. Seeing their plight makes it hard to begrudge their frugal ways, and we found ourselves returning there every day to hear the same old soliloquy on the price of eggs, and how you couldn’t get this quality of cooking anywhere else.

With or without the scolding of Maria, Palolem is the most beautiful beach I have ever been on, and the multi coloured beach shacks that line it, although unnatural, are incredibly picturesque. They provide the perfect place to watch the sun set, and the sky slowly change from blue to pink – to match the European tourists skin.

Is palolem a paradise lost? No, not even the ugly face of tourism can spoil the beauty of this place.


Modern Mumbai, Backwards Bombay





The 26 hour journey from Kolkata to Mumbai passed with alarming ease. It was alarming that my laziness is such that I am quite happy to sit and do next to nothing for an entire day, but even more alarming that a 26 hour journey feels like nothing in India. How strange that I was once aghast at the prospect of a 5 hour journey back in England.

And so we arrived in Mumbai relatively refreshed, with expectations again markedly low, and plans to look at a few sights if we felt like it – or weren’t scared into the refuge of our hotel, as in Delhi. Fortunately for us, our train arrived straight into one of the architectural gems of the city; CST (Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) train station, which is said to be modelled on St. Pancras. For anyone who has ever seen said station before, or doesn’t want to have colonialism shoved in their face – this wasn’t too appealing, but beautiful all the same. Our taxi ride to the hotel showed us that much of the architecture was of a similar nature, in that it resembled London. And so you can’t comfortably say you found the buildings beautiful, without condoning the fact the British forced their own culture upon the place. I enjoyed the view out of the cab window nonetheless; if not only for the fact that it made me feel like I was a little less far from home.

Again, I’m not sure whether I ought to feel guilty or not for saying the small part of Mumbai I experienced was incredibly pleasing to me. We stayed in the up and coming ‘artists quarter’ – Khala Ghoda – which was already filled with starkly white loft style coffee shops and rustic organic pastry cafés, that could have been lifted directly from the trendy side streets London. Seeing young girls out of the traditional saris and in slim fitting jeans and tee shirts, was as much a shock to the system as the wide tree-lined streets, which were wonderfully free of the wild dogs that had been bothering us most days in India.

This city scene catered for young rich professionals; who demanded new glass tower blocks to live in, trendy restaurants, bars and art galleries to hang out in and the wide streets to park their new cars on. Any young Indian wanting to make money would have aspirations to be a part of this liberal and progressive movement, where jobs and opportunities far surpass anywhere else in India.

Ashamedly, I forewent the opportunity to visit some of the contemporary art galleries with Sam and instead indulged in some retail therapy. The shops consisted of boutiques of beautiful Indian designs made from ethically sourced fabrics and home decor, such as hand painted glass lanterns and dark wood carved furniture. All of the specialty handicrafts from across India had been brought here, and presented in air-conditioned shops, in one easily accessible place – with fixed prices – which you can see as either a blessing or a curse.

Apart from these wares, nothing much we saw was particularly ‘traditionally Indian’; from the bars and eateries, to India’s answer to the arc-de-triomph (The Gateway of India) – there was a very Western European feel. Mumbai was so full of culture, and yet was simultaneously so devoid of it. Must being progressive always come at the expense of traditional values?

But alas, we saw only a tiny part of this huge city, which is home not only to artisans and trendy young business people – but infamous slums, the largest of which covers 550 acres and is home to more than one million people, all of whom share 70 toilets between them. Impossible that these two spheres should coexist; with high rise glass buildings only metres away from families sheltering under corrugated metal canopies in veritable sewage. Even the slums turn over £700 million a year through the many factories on site. Can anything stand in the way of the productivity of Mumbai?

It is a hauntingly fascinating city, which gives you one impression only to rip it away and present you with another. From what we saw, Mumbai not only holds the torch for a modern and progressive India, but the sickening roots of poverty that hold it back.

Kolkata: A Little bit of a Big City



Plastic Coin = ticket for metro




This and the next blog post, should come bearing the disclaimer that the cities described were experienced at break-neck speed, and hence the activities that took place were carefully selected, keeping in mind the short time-scale we had.

After our less than successful brush with Delhi, we were more than happy to use Kolkata as a stopping point on the journey down South, and nothing more. We tentatively chose accommodation and activities an easy walking distance apart, with minimal room for the varied problems that India continually throws at you.

Upon alighting the train, the clean and modern station, filled with crowds of people bearing a harassed look of purpose (a staple expression for most Londoners) told us Kolkata was not of the same ilk as Delhi. Instead of dismembered people groaning and selling fruit on the dusty roadsides, we were met by seas of yellow cabs, and a clearly sign-posted pre-paid taxi booth, that gave us a very reasonable price to our hotel, and in a very efficient manner.

However, we underestimated how popular Kolkata would be and found nearly every hotel fully booked. Eventually we managed to nab the last room in a place in the slightly grittier part of town; which we were essentially shoved into before the last couple had even moved out.

Still gripped with our fear of Indian cities, we cautiously ventured the idea that we might try to use the metro to get the university district, that was supposedly filled with some of the most interesting book shops in the world. With expectations low, we could hardly believe our eyes as we headed underground in a blue-tiled tunnel, clean enough to put London to shame. The friendly ticket man chuckled at our looks of glee as we found out the journey would cost only 5p. An easy, air-conditioned ride later, we were accompanied to College Street by a young female medical student with perfect English and ambitions to practice in America.

In the next stages, Sam and I went into pleasure over-drive. After slipping down a side street, we were met with rows upon rows (upon rows) of book stalls, so over-loaded they spilled out onto pavements. Astrophysics text books stacked unevenly between aged leather-bound classics and Hindi comic books, spread over 5,000 stalls that lined every street for a square kilometre. I hardly doubt that if you looked hard enough, you could find any title ever written, in any language you desired – but you would never have time to even scratch the surface here, and the mystery of what titles could lay hidden, entices you into hours of searching.

And you may wonder how these many neighbour stalls could ever make any money; but that was before Sam and I showed up to plunder their dusty crates of hidden gems. This went on for most of the day with repetition of, “this is the last stall,” “this is the last book” – but at every turn a different shop, with a different character, would invite us in. Prices would be lowered until the only thing that could make us refuse, were the protestations of our weary backs, that would have to bear the consequences of this indulgent shopping spree.

And if you think that was indulgent, we filled in the hours until sunset people-watching in the institution that is the Indian Coffee House; a venture run by a series of worker cooperative societies. The place manages to distill great tasting coffee, that even westerners can appreciate, whilst still keeping the taste and surrounds typically Indian and unique. There are many branches across India, but this one was set in a huge high-ceilinged canteen, with white-washed walls, red tiled floors and a dark wooden balcony over-looking the vast complex of tables and chairs. It is famed for being a meeting place for the intelligentsia of the city, and so we enjoyed imagining we were over-hearing the discussions of great scholars, and feeling as though we were at the epicentre of academia in Kolkata. We were waited on by white-turbaned waiters; who could sense when you were in need of a refill or a snack, but despite this excellent service, an unexplained 50 rupees could still find it’s way onto your bill – it is India after all. The whole experience was ideal: 15p for a (small) cup of delicious coffee, without the guilt that comes with indulging in something a bit too western or touristy.

And you may gasp: what about sunset over the beautiful Victoria memorial or the old time markets where you can experience the colossal gap between the rich and poor… We just didn’t have time and couldn’t bear to miss the opportunity to experience a side of Indian culture that we had not yet to seen.

And so, another trip to Kolkata is definitely in order!


Delightful Darjeeling









If you head far enough up north-east and get your best bartering hat on, you can find yourself riding a jeep up some winding roads through the mountains to the well known hill-station of Darjeeling. A mere four hour journey can leave you feeling so far removed from the characteristic craziness of India, that you can barely relate this peaceful town, to the challenges of the plains below.

The cold air brings smiles to the rosy cheeks of the inhabitants of Tibetan and Nepali origins; their attitudes and visages scarcely relating to their Indian countrymen. To pass a group, huddled in their thick wool shawls, is to be merrily greeted and welcomed. This strange infection of sincere friendliness seems to have spread and thrived like a warm germ under the cold conditions. It passes to all those who travel through and you feel compelled to give an equally merry hello in return; with a spring in your step to guide you up the many hilly paths.

Hours can be wiled away searching through the well stocked-book shops and dens of Tibetan curios and handicrafts, and then resting in the many invitingly cosy tea and coffee shops. Spectacular views over the valley and tea plantations feature in every joint, and allow you to soak up this refreshing Indian-Tibetan-Nepali fusion of culture with a nice warm beverage.

Peer over the edge of any given road, and the roofs of houses built into the steeply sloping mountain soon fade into the mist below, giving you the impression that you are floating along on an island in the sky. Small allotments, filled with potted flowers and small green bushes, frequently line the edges of paths, and the multi-coloured prayer flags, that stand out so vibrantly against the white fog, feel like a mystical net that stops you from falling of the edge of the earth.

Haggling wasn’t practiced here – apart from our one conquest of bartering down a fairly swish hotel to a reasonable price, for four nights of wooden chalet and log-fire paradise.

This was Darjeeling pre-trek. Post-feel, after splashing a bit too much money on said frivolities, we tightly reigned ourselves back in and re-homed ourselves in a budget joint, costing just £3 a night.

The only problem was, exhausted and freezing after our two day trek – we needed our lost luxuries more than ever. In between eating street food outside every night and cold bucket showers, I don’t think I warmed up until two days after we left. That said, our new thriftiness meant we saw a different side to Darjeeling. Stepping away from the comfort of this Victorian haunt for the upper-class, we found bustling streets lined with fresh veg stalls. You could watch delicious Tibetan street food be cooked before you, perched on a wooden bench and then enjoy a few seconds later. The fresh vegetables were a welcome change from the deep-fried everything that had been clogging our arteries for the past month, and at 20p for a plate of momos (veg dumplings) you can’t complain.

Other highlights included a visit to the zoo, that specialised in red pandas and snow leopards, and a new friend Samshu the tailor – one of the most kind-hearted and gentle souls we’d met to date. He enjoyed telling us the colourful history of how his father had made suits and dresses for kings and queens, and Samshu himself had dedicated his life to keeping his father’s business alive, despite being an avid young scientist.

We had such a good time, we’re already planning a return visit – as tea-leaves and tailors were only scratching the surface of this island in the sky.

The Trek to Sandakphu



And I can’t leave Darjeeling without a brief description of our trek. Of course I was broken into trekking gently by aiming to reach the highest point in West Bengal in one day. The first day was a steep 1000m climb, bringing us into Nepal briefly, and the second day was an even steeper climb down the other side.

We got cracking views of Kanchenjunga and a distant Everest at the top, despite my being too cold and tired to appreciate this. In conclusion, trekking isn’t my favourite activity, and I certainly wasn’t prepared for this test of my fitness and joints. My hat goes off to all the Trekkers out there – I just wasn’t cut out for it.

The only Westerners in the Village





Our tour of Bihar, supposedly the most illiterate Indian state, continued
with Patna – which we used as our base for Sonepur Mela, the largest livestock fair in Asia. After reading another travel blog on the matter, I was excited to see elephants bathe in the Ganges alongside chanting witches, performing rites with their eyes rolling into the backs of their heads. Whoever wrote this should have their poetic license suspended, as the fair wasn’t quite like that…

Said blog suggested casually strolling down to the Ganges for 5am when some of the ceremonies kicked off, which wasn’t so easy considering Sonepur was an hour drive from Patna. The less said about the time we woke up the better. I suppose the blog got one thing right, sunrise was the best part of the day as we were the only westerners there to watch the ceremonial bathing. However, at times our boatman took us awkwardly close and we struggled for places to look. And disappointingly, not an elephant in sight!

A lot of the locals found us more interesting than the fair itself. After finally finding a place to sit and eat breakfast, we drew a crowd of over 20 people, who stood an arms length away not even trying to conceal their dead-pan staring; such was the novelty of us being there (or perhaps the levels of their ignorance). And I don’t exaggerate when I say this weird staring continued for over half an hour, without any hint of boredom or even blinking.

The strange fair continued with only one sighting of elephants, amongst varying levels of animal cruelty and the strange feel of an Indian take on a travelling carnival. Alongside bartering for elephants and camels, you could also buy a new set of pots and pans, or pass the time spinning at a moderate pace on a mid sized ride and then cool off in the shade, watching a young girl ride a hoop across a tight-rope with plates stacked on her head.

I am glad we went as we experienced something completely authentic and not put on for show for the tourists. And you don’t get much more authentic than vast open fields used for the one purpose of mass pooing; you could frequently catch the distant site of two or three men squatting awkward distances apart. And we thought porter loos were bad…

Patna itself was again interesting to observe, as it had no tourist industry whatsoever and boasted KFC as the third highest rated restaurant on trip advisor. I would describe it as a fair attempt at a commercial city, with malls and supermarkets, and was even slightly more pleasant than Delhi. Despite the city having a reputation for lack of education, we were defended by members of the public more than anywhere else. The most special of which being a young lady, completely unprompted, shaming some boys in front of the whole restaurant for taking pictures of us eating dinner without our permission. This act was incredibly encouraging in many ways, especially as the defender in question was a young lady who wasn’t afraid to stand up to a number of males and came after being stared at like animals at the fair. So despite Bihar’s bad reputation, there’s definite signs of progress…If you can see past the people staring at you and the bewildering, organised pooing in fields.

(Apologies if any of the pictures are poor quality – having Internet connection issues)