A Very Unusual New Year




The lead up to New Year was spent in Kochi – which my parents thought was slightly dirty and full of tourists, and Sam and I thought was a relatively clean and calm paradise. However, you could scarcely find any local Indians, and the feel was very European; with Colonial Dutch and Portugese mansions and churches scattered everywhere. But of course the prohibition was still in full sway – with only the most upmarket hotels serving alcohol. This was a different side to India for me and Sam, and not a typical taste of India for my parents.

To remedy this we attended traditional Indian events at the popular Kathakali Centre, were we saw live sitar and tabla, and then traditional Keralan ritual theatre (Kathakali). The packed out theatre left utterly baffled with ears ringing, after men with faces painted like demons and wearing huge dresses conveyed story lines through use of facial expressions, stamping feet and strange arm gestures – all to the beat of a drum, the clashing of cymbals and a topless man warbling as though in severe physical or mental pain. It was a cacophony of colours and sounds, which I couldn’t decode even with the script – although I gather good vanquished evil at some point during the mystical warbling and banging. A man with a green painted face and hugely ornate earrings, raising his eyebrows suggestively and using a rocking motion to depict “wife” and then thrashing around for five minutes to convey “elephant” – was a personal highlight.

After soaking up all of the colonial ambience Kochi had to offer, we headed to Munnar on a two day excursion to sample a Keralan Hill station. We got lost in the mazes of vividly green tea bushes that covered almost every inch of the hills for miles and miles and then listened to a sermon on green tea.

And then of course, we went in search of an elusive gin and tonic – which our (useless) guidebook had promised on the lawns of “the High Range Club.” The place had a colourful history – not least for being highly selective on dress code and who they would admit. This was said to have been all but forgotten in the present day, and is now just a place to soak up the faded colonial era ambience and the mounted heads on walls… They saw us coming a mile off, and all but escorted us off the premises – no doubt they didn’t like the look of my parents, and it had nothing to do with mine and Sam’s scruffy and woebegone state.

New Year’s Eve day was spent sight seeing and elephant riding, before heading back down to celebrate the New Year and the old man’s birthday. We arranged to meet for a ‘special tea’ in one of the previously mentioned upmarket hotels. Here me and Sam suffered the embarrassment of being turned away from yet another posh establishment, and had to bargain our way in after smartening up to be able to meet my parents, who had already been let inside…

Tired from our journey and with one hour until midnight, we went for a peaceful walk along the beach, not expecting much to be going on. Slowly more and more people materialised, and we headed casually towards the sound of distant music. We found an area ahead cordoned off, with a guard only letting a select few through. Determined to wash the bitter taste of rejection from our mouths, we sidled up to the guard to try our luck, and to our surprise, were ushered in as others were pointed away. We knew something strange must be afoot.

We headed towards the small crowd ahead, as the music grew louder and louder – to suddenly find ourselves backstage, or more accurately on stage, at a huge drumming concert. Seeing thousands of chanting and dancing spectators below the stage we were stood on, was one of the strangest and least expected experiences of my life.

At a quick glance, we could see only western faces joining us in this VIP area. Some were thoroughly enjoying the privilege and dancing away, or else sharing slightly uneasy looks with one another – why were the Indian tourists separated from the westerners? We had the stage to ourselves, apart from the drumming troop, the MC and a 40 ft straw burning man with a grey beard and hat… The plot thickens.

Instead of the paranoid predictions of human sacrifice, it transpired that the separation was for our own safety, as we westerners were too fragile to handle the large and raucous crowd. However, safety considerations seemed to stop there, as after only a couple of casual requests to move back, the fire cracker filled burning man was set alight for the countdown, and soon after went up in an explosion of flames. The crowd stayed as close as it dared, as spectacular fireworks filled the sky – some soaring dangerously close to the crowd, spraying debris and delighted “oohs” everywhere.

Kochi threw a fantastic New Year party, and despite denying us the usual hangover, the adrenaline of being on stage in front of a thousand people and then having to quickly run away from a blazing burning man, that two minutes before I was leaning on, made for the most exciting start to a New Year I had ever experienced. May the rest of the year be as filled with as many firecrackers, drummers and exploding burning men.



Christmas on Cherai Beach, Boxing Day on the Backwaters







Just three days before the big day, I received a Christmas present from the UK in the shape of my parents. The base for our time together was Fort Kochi, and so we chose a nearby beach for the first few days; as what Christmas would be complete without sunbathing on the beach?

Cherai is a very long and narrow stretch of beach, spanning from semi-dirty and overcrowded with Indian tourists, to completely pristine and deserted, with only the depth of sand for a deck chair. There were only a few places to eat, and even fewer to have a drink, as the state of Kerala had introduced a prohibition that made buying alcohol anywhere near impossible. However, this didn’t deter some restaurant owners, who were happy to serve you a “special tea” in a mug and hide the bottle under the table – although you’d get some funny looks if you requested this in some places.

So the stage was set for an alcohol and snow free Christmas. We played cards by the pool with Santa hats on, attracting a few bemused stares and then tried to pull some coconuts down from palm trees to wash down all the pool water we swallowed whilst attempting to play piggy in the middle.

However, all hell broke loose when the sun set, and the atmosphere was less British Christmas jolliness and more unbridled carnival mayhem, as it felt as though the entire population of Kerala had descended upon our little beach. People were running into the sea fully clothed, rolling around in the sand, throwing it at each other, screaming like children and wrestling. Slightly different to the Christmas traditions we have back home. We then had to walk 3km for our Christmas dinner, as local tourists zoomed by on motorbikes yelling, “happy birthday” or “happy new year” – do they know it’s Christmas time at all? The meal consisted of about 5 varieties of fish and curry, despite the food being different, the concept was the same; eat until you can’t move. But instead of vegetating in front of the fire and Christmas television, we were sat by the Arabian Sea with a cool sea breeze and the flickering lights of lanterns – topped off with a firework display and beach hut shaped cake. I thoroughly enjoyed deviating from the traditional Christmas itinerary; spending the evening by the beach, and even having my parents to keep us company and play silly card games with. We were then driven home by our renegade tuk tuk driver, whose unexplained absence had caused the sweaty pre-dinner walk. With a slap on the wrist, he promised to pick us up early the next day to take us to our Boxing Day backwaters trip. Needless to say, he didn’t show…

We eventually made it to our backwaters trip, which in true India fashion took about 3 times longer than anticipated. We travelled along the wide, palm-tree lined waters at a relaxing pace, which didn’t match the serious tones of our tour guide – who could have been describing an epic tale of the battlefield, rather than pointing out the different types of flowers. We found a good way to escape prohibition, as we were shown that some of the “toddy” trees produced natural alcohol, that matured to around 80% if left for a few hours – no wonder all of the villagers had big smiles on their faces. These villagers also possessed an interesting set of skills that included catching mussels from the bottom of the riverbed using only their toes and putting up with the boats and boats of tourists that passed through their home – and even cheerily waved their fish at you as you passed by.

The backwaters were incredibly peaceful and untouched by modern society and were a welcome change of pace from the crazy Indian roads, that were to greet us the second we boarded the bus back. Upon returning to Cherai we defied Keralan law and lived up to our Brit stereotype as we enjoyed a few sneaky gin and tonics in the hotel room – ready for the next leg of celebrations for New Year in Kochi.


Bad Luck in Bangalore




My first impression of Bangalore was that it was a beeping, smoggy and fluorescent light-filled city with plenty to offer. My final impression was that Bangalore was a beeping, smoggy and fluorescent light filled city of madness – that I couldn’t wait to leave. Now that I’ve ruined the end of the story, I could go on to justify my view, but I think we had a run of bad luck in Bangalore that has quite discoloured my view of it… Or maybe that was the thick black pollution that fills the streets and prevents you from seeing at all.

I can see why people say it’s ‘trendy’ and ‘fun’ – if by this you mean there are places where you can drink and not get glared at, shops with all of the designer labels you can find back home and coffee shops booming out deafening David Guetta tunes. There is definitely a young, university drinking-scene, with people watching Goa versus Kolkata on the big screen and enjoying cocktails out of funky glasses. But this wasn’t what we were in the mood for after a horribly long sleeper train, being charged an extortionate amount for an average room, being charged an extortionate amount for an average meal and having cheesy yoghurt thrown over my new top by a clumsy waiter (my punishment for attempting to look presentable).

A tuk tuk driver told us of how the place had tripled in size over the last 10 years, as we waited in a traffic jam where we choked on the fumes of hundreds of beeping cars. The progression of Bangalore into a pulsating business and technological city has been as swift as it has been unpopular with the old locals – who have understandably found it hard to adjust to the huge, and pollution bringing changes. The result for me was the city felt a bit unnatural, over-stretched and over-priced – and seemed like a very forced attempt to keep up with the likes of Mumbai. Although I’m guessing this is because we made a few wrong choices with the areas of town we decided to go.

Sam woke up the next day feeling unwell, and so as we were left to roam the streets due to an unreasonably early check out time, we spent the (entire) day in a Starbucks – which is by far my best impression of Bangalore. We were given lessons on the stages of coffee tasting, delivered by a sweetly nervous member of staff who wanted to practice her English skills. In between sniffing the aromas of Kenyan coffee beans, we were given free samples of everything from vanilla lattes to red velvet cake. It’s hard to reconcile this Starbucks with the one we have at home; the nearest they get to doing anything for free is avoiding taxes.

The title of this post shows that we hit Bangalore at a bad time for us. There is always a chance of falling foul of a huge city, as there is so much on offer you may end up choosing wrong and missing out on some real gems. Would I go back? No, I value my lungs too much.

Gokarna: The Armpit of Paradise






Gokarna is a strange old beach town south of palolem. However, the two beach paradises are very different.

For one thing Gokarna is much less trodden, has much less tourists and much less capacity for any extra prospective tourists. It makes for a very small and strangely insular group of young Israelis and Europeans, ageing hippies, and in general, partially or completely insane individuals – drawn in by it’s gritty yet relaxed charm. Attitudes are lax here; you can show off your greased abs whilst hula-hooping in front of a crowd of people or else withdraw from social situations completely and live a life of muttering to yourself in solitude. You are hidden away from civilisation, or at least you feel like you are, with only bamboo huts and palm trees surrounding you.

At first, it’s hard not to be slightly unnerved by the unhinged atmosphere that lingers about the place. We lived opposite a huge, wild-haired man, who despite living on his own, could frequently be heard bursting into fits of chuckling and unintelligible conversations with himself. He could be seen drifting off into an almost sleep-like state at the dinner table, only to snap back to reality with a jump and mutter of “efemphup” or “nehmehma.”

However, there were plenty of activities aside from the fascinating people watching, such as swimming with wild dolphins or taking a walk around the bay to one of the ‘deserted’ beaches. However, far from being deserted, they played home to incredibly tanned and hairy travellers who looked surgically attached to their hammocks.

It was only after starting a fire on the beach under the stars one night and suddenly having all of the straggling travellers drawn to us like moths to the flame, that we started to understand why so many people seem unable to leave the place. Nearly every country in Europe had it’s representative, with a few Israelis and of course Indians. Even the cows joined us one by one, each person and animal adding to the strange and interesting bunch; the likes of which you would never expect to see in the same place at one time. Our week long commitment to the Om Beach family paled in comparison to the residents who had stayed for months, and some had no plans to leave at all.

The diversity amongst the people that have come together, careless of whether they have just met or how they ought to behave, is something worth coming to Gokarna for (despite the terrible food and the prospect of being trampled by cows on the beach).

They introduced us to the wonders of disturbing the plankton at night. For some wonderful reason, at night the plankton (tiny little sea creatures) glow in the dark when disturbed, and so if you swim out into the sea, with every arm and leg motion, hundreds of little glowing specks flutter around your limbs like underwater fireflies – there is no other way to describe this phenomenon without reverting to magical fairytale language. What made this better was the clear sky in which you could see thousands of stars, making the sea look like a continuation of the sky; and swimming around in it is the nearest I will ever get to space travel. I could have stayed out there all night if I hadn’t turned into a cold prune or else realised that I’m actually quite scared of being stung by a jellyfish.

And so I think we got off on the wrong foot with Gokarna, or else missed the point for the first half of our stay. It did seem like a refuge for the insane, but then you realise this only adds to the character of the place and if you’re not there to meet people, then you may aswell head to Palolem – or else sit back and enjoy some of the most interesting people watching of the Indian beach scene.

Sleepless in Sleeper Class: an Introduction to the Class System on Indian Railways



As about 50% of my time in India seems to have been spent travelling on trains, and I’ve lived a few horror stories, I thought it would be a good time to outline the confusion that is the Indian Railways. In England, the longest train journey I have ever sat through was 5 hours, and as India is huge in comparison, train journeys can range from 1 hour to 35 hours. And this means trains are equipped with beds as standard and you can spend some or all of your journey having a nice sleep on a narrow bed surrounded by numerous others.

Instead of just one standard class, plus one first class, which is a bit of a novelty/treat for us, there are 5 different classes on overnight journeys, which I introduce below, with a few of my own stories, starting with the lowest class first.

Second Sitting
Not to be confused with the concept of “second class” which might fool you into thinking that this is a class of reasonable comfort, like flying economy. This is not the case.

This class is a complete free for all, with reservations rarely made by locals and the only order is to strictly fit in as many people as possible. Seats are hard and bunks are simply metal slats, but the main problem isn’t the cramped and uncomfortable quarters, it’s the embarking and disembarking. When the train pulls into your stop, there is no restriction on the force or method you use to batter yourself through the hordes of densely packed people before, or in some cases as, the train pulls out of the station. Not to mention getting past the people that are frantically trying to shove their babies and bags on, just as desperately as you are trying to get off.

I’m proud to say I’ve survived a small journey in this class. However, I wouldn’t recommend second sitting at all, unless you have no money or no other choice. Or alternatively, if you’re an adrenaline junkie who enjoys having an excuse to knock people over or jump off moving trains.

Sleeper Class

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The layout of a sleeper class carriage

The man in seat 61 deems you brave if you choose to travel sleeper class; the class that most Indians use for their journeys. We have travelled sleeper class enough times to know it’s cheap and sometimes cheerful (it costs about £3 to go 600km) but it can also be your worst nightmare (provided you manage to fall asleep).

The carriages are split up into sections for 8 people, each made up of two sets of three-tier bunk-beds parallel to each other and a further single bunk-bed at the end, with the walk-way in between. There are about twelve of these sub-sections per carriage.

I have a complicated relationship with Sleeper Class, I love it quite as much as I hate it. If you’re lucky you can meet charming young families who treat you as one of their own, or you can at least get a friendly nudge from the man next to you when it’s your stop. You can entertain yourself for hours on end by people-watching and even witness beggars prance merrily down the aisles playing the flute with their nose. Although, beware, not all beggars are as peaceful as the prancing flute man; transvestites trail through the aisles and clap loudly in your face and wait, hands on hips, until you acknowledge their presence with a few of your spare rupees and beggar children won’t refrain from giving you a casual slap across the head if you refuse them your clinker.

You’re more exposed to Indian life – through the wide variety of people and through the permanently open windows and doors. The wind is the air-con and the loud and rhythmic sound of the train chugging is the background music; punctuated by vendors singing about the coffee and tea they sell – exactly what you want to hear when you’re thirsty and in need of refreshment on your hellishly long journey.

If you fall foul of the sleeper class lottery of luck; you’ll have to ram yourself in second sitting style and battle your way to your berth only to find four people sat casually on your bed for the night. You can try to get them to move, but in truth there is nowhere for them to move (the fact that your cheek is pressed against the window proves this). In fact, there are 32 people in a space for 8 and the train is crammed to five times capacity, and as the floor is already occupied by those bedding down for the night, all that is left for you to do is to share your bed with four strangers for the next 10 hours.

This happened to Sam and not me – on this journey, we managed to get the people off my upper bunk – but instead of bed-sharing, I endured the resentful stares of those I had relegated to the floor for many sleepless hours. It hardly mattered that we had paid for tickets and they hadn’t… The purchase of a ticket guarantees you a bed as long as you are willing to fight tooth and nail for it.

This is by no means a typical sleeper class journey, we caught a train at a busy time and on a busy route. Mostly it is impossible to predict how crowded the train will be; the only thing that is likely is that you won’t have the best nights sleep.

This aside, you can escape the over-crowding by sitting in the train door with your legs dangling over the edge and watching as you pass through the beautiful countryside, over rivers and count your blessings that you’re not in second sitting.

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Getting some fresh air
Sam trying to get some hours of sleep
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Some views through the bars of the train
Sam dicing with death
The view from the top bunk
A particularly grubby carriage
Some feet dangling
3-tier AC
These carriages feature sealed compartments (same layout as previous) with air con and significantly more padded seats than sleeper. Bed sheets and meals are provided on the newer trains, and there’s even a guard to wake you for your stop and prevent hordes of people packing into your bed. Normally twice the price of sleeper, and it a bit of a treat for those of us on a budget.
Nice curtains
Free bed sheets
2-tier AC
A rip off when you consider it’s exactly the same as 3-tier AC but with only two tier bunk beds. Double the price of 3-tier, to get moderately more privacy.

First Class
I can’t really describe what this is like accurately as I have never travelled first class. And nor do I think I ever will, as it costs near the price of a flight, and the only real benefit is you get your own compartment – but as it sleeps four you’re often still sharing with strangers.

We tend to switch between sleeper and 3-tier, depending on whether we need to arrive in our location refreshed and able to function. It’s always a gamble in sleeper class and odds on you won’t get a good nights sleep – but there’s always a chance you get a snorer or a crying baby in 3-tier and sleep is disrupted anyway. Expect trains to be late and things never to go smoothly, but you’ll nearly always have an interesting story or something good to moan about at the other end.

Happy Campers

A Palace and some Painful Postures







Mysore was one of those places that sounded immensely tempting and pleasant (it is known as ‘the Sandalwood City’ – being home to much of this sweetly scented wood) but could also easily have been a massive dirty and dusty letdown.

It was dirty and dusty, but less so than other cities, and was even relatively small and easy to navigate. One of the highlights was the huge fruit and flower market, that is over 100 years old. There were stacks upon stacks of the hugest, shiniest and most delicious forms of every fruit imaginable, separated into different alleyways. Somewhere down banana alley we found our way out of the fruit cave and looked for different tourist attractions.

The attraction we visited was one of my highlights of India so far. There are temples and palaces, and ruins of temples and palaces, but nothing so far has matched the grandeur and beauty of the Maharajas Palace. It was as I imagined the palaces of Russian fairy-tales; the place’s high painted archways and beautifully tiled floors were brought to life by an engaging audio guide, that was -shock-horror – included in the ticket price. No pictures were allowed inside, and we both got a severe telling off for trying to steal a sneaky picture – so google images will have to do. I just about managed to tear my eyes away from the solid gold elephant saddles and ornate silver tables in time to see the whole place illuminated by thousands of lightbulbs from the outside at night, which was a spectacle that made me dread their electricity bill.

Mysore is also famed for it’s yoga, and having avoided it completely so far in my life, I thought why not give it a try in such a prestigious place. Only Sam and I showed up for the drop-in session which got off to a shaky start as I had to confess my amateur status before the yoga mats were even unrolled. It further exasperated our distinguished instructor when I admitted that this was the only lesson I planned to attend. He recovered quickly and instructed us to cross our legs and close our eyes, and before I had even begun to compose myself, he began singing in a nasal, whiny voice that caught me completely off guard. What ensued was an inward battle against bursting out laughing at this occurrence, which was to him as normal as stretching. He paused only to ask us to repeat after him, the response to which was an awkward, laughter-suppressed silence.

I thought the worst was over, but as he prompted us to stand in seemingly easy positions, I sweated profusely and my arms and legs shook with the effort of maintaining even the simplest shapes. All the while he paced the tiny room, hands behind his back shouting, “stretch more”, “control your body,” and just generally to stop doing things I wasn’t even aware I was doing. I was soon informed I had bad, very bad posture and we didn’t get very far past the basics in this session (no downward dog for me). I don’t know if yoga in England resembles this, but either way I won’t be strolling so breezily into a yoga session again, or strolling anywhere quickly hereafter, as I woke the next day barely able to move my legs, arms or neck.

Mysore has sustained much of it’s magisterial glamour from when it was a major power around the 14th century. It’s magical attractions and green spaces make it a pleasure to wander around and afterwards punish your body with some back-breaking yoga.

Hampi: The Heart of a Traveller’s India






After nearly 2 months of wondering where all of our fellow travellers were, upon reaching Hampi we found where they had been hiding.. In the many ‘chill-out’ cafés, with low tables and futons instead of chairs, there they all were reclining; sharing stories and complaints about travelling. And what brings everyone to Hampi? Lots of temples, lots of boulders and most importantly; lots of the aforementioned chill-out cafés.

Looking at temples is one of the favourite pastimes of travellers. You can see why when you first gaze up at the towering structures of carved stone-work, and you think wow – that is a magnificent temple/elephant stable/tower-to-imprison-women/palace. But after a while – they all blur into one great big mass of stone, that you don’t know who built or why, and the only thing you care about is whether they provide enough shade to shelter from the blazing heat. This is a slightly unfair representation of the amazing ruins of Hampi, but I was suffering from the dreaded disease they call “temple fatigue.”

Luckily I had some interesting boulders and a river to look at to make me feel better. These boulders were scattered everywhere throughout Hampi, stacked precariously on top of one another and the only apparent explanation as to their presence, was that they were thrown down to Earth by a demon king… Whilst some travellers enjoyed climbing over these in their spare time, I favoured lying on mattresses in cafés as I was served pancake after pancake, and pondered that great question in life; should I have banana or Nutella as a topping? NB. The answer was normally banana, as one of the other perks of Hampi was that the parts that weren’t covered with temples or boulders were covered by banana trees. The trees made for a beautiful green landscape and a wide variety of banana centred treats. Other scenic-delights included a river which could be traversed by being rowed in a huge upside down spinning coconut (as strange as it sounds).

On our last night, I managed to drag my full stomach up Matanga hill to watch a sunset and enjoy an aerial view over the vast complex of the ruined city and appreciate it’s full splendor before realising it was now too dark to get back down…

Hampi has everything a traveller needs; historical sights, beautiful views and a lot of fellow travellers from all over the world to share stories with. Not to mention some beautiful sunset points atop hills; where the only disturbance is the many humping dogs that scatter the horizon.


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!