Come along for the journey!

Come along for the journey!

Thursday, 24 December 2009

BEACH NAZIS: (Varkala, India)

It's Christmas eve. There's nothing like a bit of apartheid on the beach to get you in the festive season and promote some relaxation. The local authorities in Varkala have decided in their wisdom, to implement a strictly policed segregation policy for locals on 'the tourist section' of the beach. That made me feel pretty uncomfortable.

I'm trying to get all the thinking behind it - it goes something like this: the local fellas used to head for the beach for glimpses of the forbidden western flesh in abundance. In such a conservative wider context, this is fairly understandable, but equally understandably, tourists feel pretty annoyed and often unsafe. So, in an effort to safeguard the vital income from the tourist industry in Kerala's premier beach resort, the local communist (relevant?) government simply split the beach in two. There is a line demarcated at the mid-point, where people are dark on one side, and mostly white on the other. Police with sticks chaperone and shepherd the adventurous few who breach the tabooed point.

I'm not sure what the solution is, but I certainly know I wouldn't want the best part of the beach reserved for people from overseas on my annual holiday at Minehead. And this all leads to my nauseatingly trite punchline…"what a complete beach"!

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

LIFE-LONG LEARNER: (Kerala, India)

Ten days on the beach for Christmas with the Herberts - fab! Great to be joined by Charlie, Archie, Polly & Trev. It's been nearly six months, and whilst I love the travelling, and the beach here in Kerala, there's a risk my brain is going a little soft. As well as the stimulating and educational experiences we value so much, it's a good idea to read things to stay sharp. The problem is, that reading has a fairly narcoleptic effect on me. Imagine my life as a Uni student - for those of you who were there, I won't let you re-live that thought for too long. We have a few inspiring and interesting books in the backpack: Obama's autobiography; 'The god of small things' Arundhati Roy;  Ghandi's life & ideas, CF Andrews; 'The time travellers wife' etc. I'll normally start one, on my four-page-an-hour pace, N will then typically pick it up at a cafe and read half the book. Then we'll try reading to one another so that I'll keep up, but clearly I was read to sleep as a child…and the usual snoozing happens. So, I've been doing several sudukos a day to keep my brain out of the gutter. Off for a cruise on the backwaters in a rice boat next.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

PILGRIMS & BACKPACKERS: (Somewhere in Tamil Nadu, India)

As a reminder to you that this blog is not simply wasting your time with pictures of our unrecognisably incremental tanning, I submit to you another riveting observation that will be entirely meaningless to most, but will satisfy my pseudo-anthropological tendencies.

I'm going compare and contrast the pilgrims who we believe are headed for the Brihadeeswara Temple in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, and us weary backpackers on the old hippy trail: both consider their trip 'a quest' of sorts - the pilgrims seek good luck and prosperity through their devotions and offerings, backpackers find neither; the pilgrims shave their hair as an act of piety whereas backpackers frequently feel compelled to grow theirs; both have to carry all the posessions needed for the trip - the pilgrims may only take what they can carry on their head, we may take what my wife can carry; neither party showers for extended periods; and both must travel third class (apart from our own Laura Spink who simply 'will not').

Whilst my exhaustive study draws no concrete conclusions, my submission to Harvard will inevitably land me with a grant to pursue yet more inane pontificating.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

SCHOOL: (Pune, India)

Posted for a week at Gyanankur English Primay School in the countryside near Pune, we were keen to help in whatever way would be useful to support and encourage the staff and children. The head, overworked and savvy (aren't they all?), asked if I (Kris) could operate puppets??!! Little did we know that we were being primed to run the whole Christmas party programme.

My lack of puppeteering skills was ignored in favour of our 'open offer to help', and we were asked to "perform something" for the 350 strong school the very next day…for twenty minutes! Thankfully, there was an old youth work stunt I remembered that we could pull out the bag, no puppets, but it's gold. I rallied up some support on the basis of this 'surefire skit', secretly terrified, more than aware that kids are the most frighteningly honest audiences going. Lauren and Jonathan, our lovely hosts from NYC living in Pune, were good sports, volunteering to muck in - even where Jonathan knew he was to be covered in egg, water, and…well muck basically. The following day, relieved as the skit unfolded, to be greeted with riotous laughter and applause, bouquets of flowers, and smiling little faces everywhere, we finally took our bow. Heroes basically. Hearts and minds campaign wrapped up. All part of our charitable portfolio. Please don't hesitate to contact us for birthdays, Bar Mitzvahs, summer fetes, Christenings. Ask Dan & Sarah West for a reference on my child entertainment skills in clown suits: not scary or inappropriate at all.

It's an amazing school, with amazing staff, doing amazing work. If you're going to India, go visit and get stuck in.

Monday, 14 December 2009

LUCKY CAFE: (Ahmedabad, India)

I perused the menu. "I'll have the Maska Bun please…with no butter". Maska is Gujurati for butter I have since learnt. So that's like asking for a jam donut with no jam. I could have asked for a plain bun, the equivalent of asking for a ring donut, but no, despite the waiter's earnest advice, I had to insist on the house speciality Maska bun…with no Maska! Us western big shots must look pretty darn stupid most of the time I reckon - but we're loaded, so we must be respectable and clever right?

The other delights that the 'Lucky cafe' served up included a 'Cadbury Pizza'??, a dead dormouse under our table (and N's foot), and it turned out the place was built on an ancient Muslim graveyard, so we were surrounded by around twenty tombs that could not be removed interspersed amongst the dining tables. That was odd.

Sunday, 13 December 2009


Just when you think you have this whole cultural thing in India slotted into neat compartments in your head…Sikhs are the ones with Turbans; Vishnu's the one with a bunch of arms and the attractive blue hue; Coconut chutney isn't the one that makes me sweat and convulse at the table; etc, India decides to inform you that it is far too diverse to be pigeon holed by some blinkered tourist like you (especially smug ones with a Theology/World Religions degree). Hinduism's claim of having 330 million gods, although figurative only, does conspire to bewilder those trying to understand it.
Today, we visited MG's, a fancy hotel restaurant, for some light relief from cheap dal cafes. After being served by men in Turbans, but apparently not Sikh, and eating our breads with our 'unclean' left hands, we tried to eat the banana leaves that the food arrived in (used for cooking only) and spat out the 'Pan leaves' digestif meant for eating. The alloys in the traditional Thali dish were allegedly good for your memory?? but we forgot anything we may have learned over the past month. We thought we were getting to grips with things, but now we've changed state to Gujurat from Rajasthan, the dishes are largely different, people dress differently, the local customs and gods worshipped have changed, and we have to start over again.
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Wednesday, 9 December 2009


Having missed our train connection to Mount Abu (when our driver decided our private bus was an opportunity to slow down to pick up strays in standing room for a few rupees baksheesh), we ended up going directly to our next planned leg where our pals G&Z were already charming their way into a local wedding. We were all hailed as glamourous guests of honour, where our only requirement was to 'look British', and dance in the streets with the closest guests and family before the gaze of the crowded onlookers. No longer strangers, garnished with wreaths of regal orange marigold flowers, we were ushered in to a gathering of nearly a thousand people being fed, and waiting their opportunity to be photographed with the bride & groom. Although an arranged marriage, the couple were apparently smitten, not that you'd know by the lack of smiles…but a serious demeanour is the Indian way for such official photo occasions.

It's funny how it isn't the quality of our dress or manners that influences what people here think of us here. Rather, with prejudices that we also possess, as white westerners we have been treated with all the grandeur or contempt our status inspires. I feel quite awkward that the tone of my skin has 'got me into', and 'kept me out of' various areas of life here in India. Great wedding though.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

"STOP THE BUS!": (Jaiselmer, India)

Trains and buses stop an awful lot in India…that, or not enough when you're trying to get off if you're sick or you've missed your stop. And people stare a lot, not out of rudeness, just fascination. A brief bus stop from Jaiselmer to Jodphur allowed me to nip to the loo and then fetch some fruit. I got onto the bus with hoards of others and the bus resumed its journey. My darling American wife, unaware meanwhile that I was back on the bus, part of the mass of people jostling their way up the aisle, was screaming blue murder and asking random amused co-travellers who understood no English, to stop the bus. Whilst I attempted to shout assurances back in her direction, her own hysteria and the increasing amusement of the people in nearby seats prevented her hearing me and she was on the point of tears / attacking someone / climbing out the window, by the time I reached her. I like to think she was upset on account of my being left behind, but I think it was more likely the prospect of being left alone on a bus full of spectators. Being stared at can be amusing when paired up, but quite an ordeal when on your own, and female.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

18 YEAR ITCH: (Jaiselmer, India)

I suppose as a European tourist, I like my Med azure blue, beaches cultured, and my coffee expensive. It just seems proper. It follows that I like my 'third world countries' dirty, poor, and rough around the edges. How patronising is that?! We want the authentic experience. We enjoy the dramatic contrast to our own lives, the voyeurism of seeing people suffer for our holiday pics. As a humanist and a Christian, I long to see poverty alleviated and people better their situations: then the quintessential pics go out the window though right?

Since my last visit 18 years ago, India has 'fattened up a bit', with population growth outstripping GDP by ten percent, and technological prowess a hallmark of their endeavour. There are 200 million more people here now! That's a whole lot of breeding. Today, the beautiful and 'remote' Thar desert was cluttered with folk wandering around, and our English speaking camel driver was on his mobile phone ordering our group cold beers to have on the sand dunes.

India is growing up and changing a lot. It looks and feels different: it's less exotic and more familiar; less impoverished and more polluted; less mystical and so on… However, people have more choices and some can live more like their European neighbours should they want to. For that matter, India finds me a little fatter, with more travel gadgets, and less the purist, idealist, 18 year old authentic traveller with my old one change of clothing!

The wonderful impressions and scars from my first experience seem slightly unmatched on this visit. Like a hypocrite, I want developing countries to develop so long as they can give me my 'aren't they dreadfully poor here' authentic holiday snaps. Travelling feels less harrowing, and perhaps less remarkable for it. The hazy romance I had with India on my last visit may have died down a bit, but the friendship has deepened.

Friday, 4 December 2009

DESERT SONGS: (Thar Desert, India)

I've never been one for going to 'traditional shows' where I'll see how the local people used to dance, sing, or weave. I do enjoy traditional things though, when it's not quite so simulated for me at a discount pre-booked price.

We slept under the stars in the desert, and it was beautiful. The camel drivers sang for us around the camp fire in those slightly shrill and metallic tones, as perfected by Indians, and it was un-simulated and beautiful. It was a really nice moment, but I didn't want it to be one-way, 'for the tourists', like performing monkeys. We were glad to make it a collision of cultures with renditions of 'In the Jungle'….maybe a little thin on culture our side.
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Wednesday, 2 December 2009

A MATTER OF LIFE & DEATH: (Pushkar, India)

I just heard from my brother that his best mate died. It's very upsetting, and he's such a young guy. We hide death pretty well in the West. In fact we hide our lives pretty well too. In India, it's the polar opposite - life and death literally happen 'on the street'. People eat, sleep, wash, work, live, die, and generally loiter for no apparent reason on the street. For this reason it is both a vibrant and vital, messy and decaying place. For this, a bunch of western travellers continue to gravitate here in pursuit of this vibrant reality, despite the trade off of the stench and harsh truths that await.

I saw my first dead body here aged eighteen, on my first day in India wandering through Bombay: a young child in the arms of her wailing father with a prayer chalked on the pavement in front of them. It's no less profound eighteen years later to see bodies paraded through the streets to be burnt publicly and communally grieved. People here are familiar and sensitised to death happening. In the West, we are encouraged to 'work through things ourselves', aside from those around us:  we take our mess out of the family realm where it may stress and shame, we talk to professionals, strangers, to impersonally unravel our pain, we isolate to find inner strength and our own path…perhaps to a fault?

Tuesday, 1 December 2009


NO kissing, drugs, photos, or eggs…this is a holy town: (Pushkar, India)
We ambled down to the bathing ghats at dusk to see the local priests and gentry perform Puja, a 'cleansing act of worship' whereupon songs were sung and flowers were cast into the water. Hinduism has many rituals that are as beautiful as they are intriguing. I would have captured more of it on camera but it transpired this was best not photographed out of respect. That made perfect sense to me, as did the prohibition on drugs and public displays of affection. For a drug free town though, there sure is a lot of it peddled, particularly to the hoards of Israeli 'post-military-service-obligatory-year-off-stoned' crowd. I still haven't worked out the eggs thing.

I did manage to get a shot that reminded me of young Amir in 'The kite runner'.