Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | February 3, 2013

India: Sex tips from statues

Lake Kabini

Lake Kabini: Life at a gentle pace

Leaving Lake Kabini (though not on an oxen cart) I boarded another rattly bus destined for Kalpetta, one of the main towns in the northern Keralan district of Wayanad. Not that many tourists make it to hilly Wayanad, on the edge of the Western Ghats.

There are no backwaters and houseboats here, but there are coffee and tea plantations, spices and palm trees in an area that is a bit wild yet has a relaxed rural atmosphere. With the fourth-highest rainfall in the world, it is also greener than Kermit.

Bottom line: Take that JLo, this washerwoman nymph had the goods first

Bottom line: Take that J.Lo, this washerwoman nymph had the goods first

It was warm and languid in Wayanad, so I spent a couple of relaxed days eating cuisine featuring lots of coconut and staring at ripening coffee beans. Except I had had a late invitation to spend Christmas in Khujaraho, which is not that far from Delhi but a long way from where I was. Making arrangements to get there was not relaxing at all. Flights were really expensive, train tickets difficult to obtain, and Indian websites are maddening and almost impossible to book anything on unless you are using an Indian credit card. If the country does want tourists it really should make arranging travel a little easier for them. It is exhausting enough doing the travel without getting an ulcer just trying to organize it.

Tricky position: Now who said we couldn't work as a team?

Tricky position: Now who said we couldn’t work well as a team?

Leaving Kalpetta for Bangalore, the bus was late and it just got later. We were four hours later by the time we reached the capital of Karnataka, and Silicon Valley of India. I didn’t see any computer programmers, but I did see the dust, traffic and evidence of the ongoing saga of trying to construct a metro there.

According to a friend who has moved there, Bangalore has lots of shops. I saw a few from a distance, but I only really had time to eat, sleep and then get myself to the airport for a flight to Delhi. This took most of the next day. The cashews on that SpiceJet flight should have been gold-plated they were so expensive, but it was either eat those or instant noodles (so no prizes for the food). But everything else was just like a normal flight and compared to other forms of travel I’d done recently hygienically relaxing.

On reaching Delhi I stopped off at Haldiram’s for a raj kachori (fried bread ball filled with yoghurt and mysterious crunchy things) then made my way to Hazrat Nizamuddin station for an overnight train. While sitting on a pile of boxes with a sleepy dog, I chatted with a young woman about the brutal gang-rape that subsequently led to the death of the 23-year-old student in the capital.

Elephants can learn new tricks

Elephants can learn new tricks

“There is no respect for women in Delhi,” she told me. I never felt unsafe there, but I am a large, cantankerous foreigner who would kick the crap out of any man who started molesting me, and I guess they can tell. I’ve often been surrounded by groups of curious men, but most of them look too scared to even speak. The only aggressive people I’ve encountered (apart from the usual pushing and shoving) were some kids in Jodhpur who threw things at me. But that made me cross rather than scared and I dispatched them fairly quickly.

The train was meant to reach Khajuraho at 6am, but it was a couple of hours late, which was fine for me though a bit boring for the driver sent to collect me. Khajuraho is a small town in Madhya Pradesh mainly famous for its World Heritage-listed temples.This part of Central India is not that far from the southern part of Uttar Pradesh where I spent a sweaty night in Chitrakut, the town electricity forgot. But there was no chance of sweaty nights on this trip.

All in the detail:

All in the detail: Intricate Vishvanath temple

They were frisky, the dudes that commissioned these temples. Technically they are “superb examples of Indo-Aryan architecture”, and there are panels featuring depictions of life a millennium ago, which tends to indicate this lot were rather fond of sex. Ganesha the elephant-headed god makes a few appearances but there are lots of women, lots of sex scenes and quite a few “smiling elephants” looking on who I guess were happy to be learning a few things.

I for one saw how (if I were a bloke) how to have sex with a horse, and the kind of help I would require would I wish to perform the act on my head. Also the J.Lo of a thousand years ago was sticking her bottom out, and frankly I think the one carved in stone is a tad more shapely.

There are eight main clusters of temples to see in the Western group, which was a pleasant afternoon of temple-tripping. Then it was time to retire to a cafe – at Raja’s you could get a decent latte, which was probably a good thing to tank up on before the temples. I once had a friend who edited an art magazine and he would have a strong espresso before entering a gallery because then, he maintained, he had at least one alert hour before he began to feel sleepy. There’s something about galleries that makes me want to nap too – must be the lack of fresh air.

Being Christmas, one of the hotels has a display of Christmas trees and snowmen, with a painting of Santa and his reindeer. Jesus and the Wise Men do not make an appearance. But turkey and a very strange cranberry sauce/gravy made an appearance at the Christmas Eve buffet dinner. Along with a various curries, pasta and a chocolate Yuletide log cake, bless them. No brandy butter though. And it is just the weather for brandy butter, ie freezing cold.

When it comes to weather in India it’s always about the heat; wilting English memsahibs who need to be carried to a hill station or bathed daily in mango juice to survive the all-baking sun. I wouldn’t have minded a bit of baking sun actually, because it was bloody cold.  And when I returned to Delhi it was even colder. I stayed at my friends’ apartment and we were wearing thermal underwear and huddling over heaters. I was never that cold in the UK in 12 years. Indian construction doesn’t help here – draughty housing with marble floors is designed to deal with scorching summers – I guess they think shivering for four months is fine. The floor was so cold I was wearing slippers and socks and my feet were still chilly.

As it turned out, northern India was having its worst winter for 70 years and everyone was feeling chilly. Worse, a great blanket of fog was sitting over a chunk of the country delaying everything. The train back to Delhi was supposed to take 12 hours, it required a further 9. And when I took a train to Kolkata to fly out of the country, the train was delayed by 11 hours. The good thing about that last train is that they kept bringing us meals (it was a Radhjani Express – politicians use these). On the Khajuraho train I couldn’t even buy a bottle of water.

The unfortunate thing about that train was that I was looking forward to a final day in Kolkata, to reacquaint myself with that strangely compelling city. And feel a bit warmer. I was meeting a friend in the evening and he was worried about what I was going to do with myself in the afternoon. Sitting on the train took care of that. I thought he was picking me up, then he said catch the airport bus, get off at a certain place and he would collect me there. The last airport bus departed at 9pm.

The train was meant to arrive at 7.30pm. Then 8pm. Then 8.30pm. At 8.50pm we were sitting outside Howrah station somewhere. Then finally it started moving. At 8.58pm my friend texted and said it was a pity I’d miss that bus. At 8.59pm I staggered onto the platform and started running. As I said to him later, I am nothing if not determined. I’d seen something that looked like a bus and I was lumbering towards it.

It was a bus. It was even the right bus. I felt very triumphant, though as it went rumbled along MG Rd (and only one door at the front) it became crammed with so many people I thought I might never be able to get off the bus.

But obviously I did. Thank you India – even my last night there had an element of high drama. I could never say it hadn’t been memorable.

Once the sun never set on the British Empire, but it does at Khajuraho

Once the sun never set on the British Empire, but it does, rather scenically, at Khajuraho

Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | January 18, 2013

India: Goin’ South

Fragrant city: Mysore produces a lot of sandalwood, used in hand-rolled incense

Fragrant city: Mysore produces a lot of sandalwood, which can be used in hand-rolled incense

People were dying of Dengue Fever in the Malwani district of Bombay when I was there – it was front page news. A man and his daughter died who were living streets away from where I was staying with my writer friend Frank Huzur, his actor brother and a tribe of cats he has adopted. No one in our apartment became seriously ill however, though the cats were temporarily trapped in the sofa bed.

Frank Hazur at home in Mumbai

Frank Huzur at home in Mumbai

Frank is a playwright and Imran Khan’s biographer and his new book* is about a major Indian political figure.

Three years ago I was in Bombay and I stayed in the tourist area of Colaba, with easy access to the city’s Victorian architecture. Malwani is far north, and there aren’t many tourists on the streets, but plenty of chickens ready to be hacked up and sold off in pieces.

Frank’s new book is attracting attention from Bollywood before it is even published  so we fuss over the cats and then leave them for a meeting with a director in Andheri, who then takes us to a local production office where there is more discussion and we watch trailers for some forthcoming movies, including a Hindi version of Romeo and Juliet set in Varanasi titled Ishaq, and Sweet Sixteen, a coming-of-age drama about teenagers, which looks quite gritty. The director is there and he talks about it took so long to get the project off the ground he had to keep changing the cast as they got too old. I mentioned Skins,  a British drama about and written by teenagers which was uncomfortable viewing for many adults, and he knows what I am talking about, though no one else there does as programmes like this simply aren’t made in India.

Both films look like interesting viewing, though I will need subtitles of course.

Spotted: Leopard in Nagarhole National Park near Lake Kabini

Spotted: Leopard in Nagarhole National Park near Lake Kabini

The next day I was leaving for Mangalore and my blood pressure soars again as a taxi to the unbelievably remote station was organised and the train was departing in ten minutes and I was still in the taxi driving there. I thought the driver was briefed as to when the train was departing, but apparently not. After some frantic communication he speeded up a bit and we got there with at least five minutes to spare.

While most of my Indian trains have been fine, this one has cockroaches – some men in advertising complained about how dirty it was – and there is a sick man who shouldn’t be on a train with noisy people fussing over him all night and more noisy people coming and going and I can’t sleep at all and am exhausted when I arrive.

Luckily there was a nice woman called Di on the train who says she is going to a quiet, clean hotel and I can tag along with her. I retreated to bed for a few hours, which was fine as there is nothing much to see in Mangalore anyway. It’s hard to tell you are even in a city centre, though I do find a Cafe Coffee Day.

Di and I go to a smokey temple where the priest tells her to do 48 rounds and i watch a woman being weighed to complete a ritual involving bags of rice, then we go back. Next day I take the bus to Mysore, and the trip is quite scenic, taking in Madikeri in the Coorg region. Mysore is much more appealing than Mangalore, with interesting architecture and great street food.

There’s more about Mysore here in a blog I did for the Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carolyn-odonnell/karnatakas-kabini-lake-is_b_2414954.html

Mysore – Karnataka’s second city after Bangalore – is loud though. The drivers are champion honkers and hotels seem to be constructed around courtyards that act as echo chambers as staff bellow at each other. Of course the rooms are built in such a way as to maximise the flow of sound, with ridiculous vents above doors. I stay in a new hotel called Kings Kastle which has quite nice rooms for the price but is unbelievably noisy, with constantly slamming doors, and staff roaring around on tuk tuks playing music and shouting at each other.

Luckily after that I go to the wildlife haven of Lake Kabini where I stay at Red Earth in a private villa and I can’t hear anything except birds. Bliss. And while I am there I see my first big cat in the wild during a safari in nearby Nagarhole National Park.

*Frank’s forthcoming book The Socialist is adefinitive political biography” of Mulayam Singh Yadav, the ex-Defence Minister of India and father of Akhilesh Yadav, the young socialist leader and youngest Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous province. A Bollywood adaption is expected to arrive on cinema screens at the end of the year.

Let's drink to that: Elephants in Nagarhole National Park

Let’s drink to that: Elephants (with little baby elephant) in Nagarhole National Park

Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | January 1, 2013

India: Prisons and funky fortresses in Pune

Aga Khan Palace: As prisons go, quite a pleasant one

The Aga Khan Palace: As prisons go, this is quite a pleasant one

According to one popular guidebook, Pune is inhabited “by a cheerful and happy population”. A friend of mine who lives there rolled his eyes when I told him that, but Pune (either Poonay or Poona) is a pleasant city, though the traffic is a bit wearing.

In the upmarket enclave of Koregaon Park there are cafes, restaurants and one of the nicest streets I’ve seen in India – there are plants, a footpath, it’s like being in the Australian suburbs. It’s also where you find some upmarket houses. I tried to enter one, thinking it was a boutique hotel. Who calls a house “Nest” in funky letters with a guard sitting by a designer gate in a little brick office?

There’s also the Osho International Meditation Resort, which is all polished grey stone and black bamboo. It looks very minimalist chic, boutique hotel, and apparently there is one in there but no one would let me see it.

The favourite word at Osho International Meditation Resort is no. No, that’s not possible, no you can’t come in, no you can’t do that. Fittingly, from the outside it looks like a glossy fortress. If you pay upwards of $30 and have an HIV test you get a meditation pass. The media person doesn’t seem to like talking to the media, so all I can say is that this place seems very overrated, not to mention unfriendly and unco-operative.

Public Relations people are especially unskilled in India. They really don’t want to do their job, even when someone is making it easy for them. I emailed one PR woman in a large hotel and it took her about ten days to reply with a two-minute email, saying she wanted to know more about my request, by which time that window of opportunity had closed.

The guru who founded Osho is associated with free love, hence the HIV tests – if you feel that having sex will help you meditate, then you must! Someone I know meditated a few times at Osho, and he thought it was OK – there was a concert one night – but he didn’t have sex with anyone.

Some articulate and well-dressed kids tried to scam me for money outside the Cafe Coffee Day, where I retreated for their reliable caffe latte, but as soon as I said I wasn’t going to the supermarket they disappeared. They said they were hungry, what they wanted was me to buy them stuff they could return for cash. I don’t think so.

Then I went to the Aga Khan Palace (R100, no HIV test to get in, no professional beggars), which was built by the Sultan Aga Khan III in 1892. It’s a grand colonial building now best known as the place where Mahatma Gandhi was interned by the British for about two years after his Quit India resolution of 1942. A shrine containing his ashes, and that of Gandhi’s wife, along with his loyal secretary who both died at the palace are in a garden at the rear.

Shrine for Gandhi: Where the leader's ashes were laid to rest

Shrine for Gandhi: Where the leader’s ashes were laid to rest in the palace garden

Visitors can see rooms where Gandhi and his entourage stayed, and there are some exhibits, but the presentation could be better. The palace is a bit run down, but it played a significant part in history, and anyone interested in Gandhi’s career and achievements would probably find it worthwhile. Plus, there are several acres of attractive gardens.

The same guide book lists Osho as the “top attraction” in Pune, so once I’d loitered outside that and seen where Gandhi was interred, I thought it was time to move on. In between I managed the 60km trip to Lonavla, which is not much of a town really, but it is full of chikki shops – toffee full of nuts that in another place I would call peanut (or cashew – kaju) brittle.

I rather like chikki, though bite it the wrong way and you could break your teeth. I was also rather partial to the dried fruit roll in various flavors that is sold in slices. Sweets! India never fails on the sweet front, except in Bengal where they taste too much like milk.

Bag of chikki in hand I was ready to board a bus for Bombay.

Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | December 28, 2012

India: Married in Maharashtra

Married and fabulous: Alekh and Barkha

Married and fabulous: Alekh and Barkha

I met Alekh on my first trip to India in early 2009. He was serving in the Indian Navy, showed me around Bombay, including the Hard Rock Cafe and the Siddhivinayak Temple where Aishwarya Rai was married, and was resisting his parents’ pleas to get married.

Entertainment: The happy couple performed for us

Entertainment: The happy couple performed for us

A few years later we were chatting on facebook and he suddenly wanted to know if I was attending his wedding.

“You’re getting married?” I asked.

He was, and I’d been invited to the extravaganza several months ago, except somehow the invitation had got lost. Which was a nuisance, as booking transport to get there would have been much easier in early August than early December. Not that I would have known where I would be in early December, but I could have had a plan. At this point I had nothing. Though I was happy for Alekh.

The wedding was in a place called Amravati. I’ve never heard of it and it’s not in the guide book. It’s about 12 hours inland from Mumbai. My initial plan is to go to Bombay, spend the weekend there, and get a train to the wedding. Except there are no trains with space on them for me going to Bombay. I get my friend Anil, who works in travel, to investigate for me and he said the day I wanted to travel I would be waitlisted 60. Not good.

As did parents ...

As did parents …

After much toing and froing, I abandon plans to leave from Chandigarh (good move considering what happened there) and return early to Delhi to increase my train options. Anil books me on a train to Nagpur from Delhi, which is about three hours from Amravati, so at least that is in the zone. About ten days before the wedding I am waitlisted 7. Anil seems to think this will be OK. Or at least this is what he told me.

Two days before the wedding I am waitlisted 5. I have found an internet page which gives an update depending on the PNR number on the train ticket. I started checking this fairly regularly. I was supposed to leave Monday afternoon at 3.30pm. All day Sunday the page just tells me the same thing – and that the chart has not been prepared. While the chart has not been prepared, there is hope of a berth. I’m not sure what I will do if I don’t get a berth, but there are always last-minute flights I suppose.

And what looked like India's version of the Backstreet Boys

And what could have been  India’s version of the Backstreet Boys

Monday morning I was wearing that page out. When, at noon, it finally says something different, I am amazed. I have to check it again to make sure. I was prepared for disappointment, but I have a berth. It’s the slow, slow train to Nagpur, and I have one of the narrow berths down the side of the corridor near the door that will creak open and closed all night long, but I am ON THE TRAIN.

When I know this, I email Alekh and his bride-to-be Barkha Kedia, who is a celebrity as a champion swimmer and the first Indian to swim the Strait of Gibraltar. Before I left Amravati I visited her parents’ house which has a wall devoted to her achievements, full of trophies and photographs of Barkha with various Indian leaders.

Now I was on the train, my instructions were to disembark at Nagpur (9am) and board the Maharashtra Express (10.55am) and get off at Badnera where I would be collected.

Taking the wedding to the street

Taking the wedding to the street

So that was all fine. I slept a bit on the train and at 8am I was ready for an imminent arrival. Barkha’s cousin had texted me with some information. I tried to reply, but I had no network coverage on my phone. Everything was still fine, even though the train was now due to arrive at 10 am. Except 10 am came and went and we were still not at Nagpur. The phone was still not working, it was 10.45 … I was getting a bit stressed by now. I would not have time to get off the train and find the ticket booth, let alone queue and buy a ticket.

I got off the first train at 10.53. With two minutes to find the second train, It was, fortunately, on the other side of the platform so I just hopped on. I don’t think I hadn’t many options there. The train left 5 minutes late, and then the phone started ringing …

So I finally reached the hotel which wasn’t finished yet and from there it was all manageable chaos. That evening there is a kind of variety show where friends and relatives of the happy couple put on a show. They were surprisingly good at doing a turn. Food also plays a large part in all of this.

With musicians

With musicians

The next day there is more eating before the groom rides a grumpy white horse down the street accompanied by friends, musicians and random dancers.

At 5.30pm or so the decorations are still being put in place but they manage to finish all that when the rituals begin (accompanied by snacks). Panni puri is served and I love panni puri, especially these ones as they didn’t make me ill.

Alekh was looking very regal in a purple jacket, cream turban and a manly amount of jewellery. Barkha wore an incredible sari that weighed 9kgs. They stood on the stage under giant tusks greeting hundreds and hundreds of well-wishers, while hundreds and hundreds of others attacked the buffet, which offered a pasta bar, an array of street snacks (chaat) and a variety of Maharashtrian delicacies dripping in, floating on or coated in ghee.

Dancing in the street

Pre-wedding ritual

At around midnight the greeting and gobbling ended and the bridal couple moved inside so the next bout of ceremony could begin. At this point I was feeling fatigued, and I was sharing a room with a girl who had to get up at 3am to get on a plane so we retired. At least she retired, her phone kept ringing, then people were banging on the door, then Alekh came to say goodbye, then some guys were looking for spare turbans (as you do) then other people were banging on the door for no discernible reason at which point I yelled at them, pointed at “Do Not Disturb” button and told them to shove off.

Sleep is sometimes the last thing you get in an Indian hotel.

As I wasn’t even sure I was going to Amravati, I had no onward plans. But one of Alekh’s friends was going to Pune, and I recalled having a friend in Pune, and somehow I end up on this train, with no berth and the conductor wasn’t too impressed but he lets me share the berth (charging for a full ticket, and an extra chunk, which I guess is a kind of aggravation tax, though I think it is Alekh’s poor friend who deserved a reward). I get to curl up in the foetal position near the door that never stops creaking open and shut, and my chivalrous acquaintance nods off in the corner.

We disembark about 5am and then all I have to do before I can collapse onto a stationary horizontal surface was hold onto my bag for a motorbike ride through the suburbs of Pune.

Crowd-pleaser: Dancing in the street

Crowd-pleaser: Dancing in the street

Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | December 16, 2012

India: Sexual perversity in Chandigarh

Hope springs eternal with me that in getting to know someone I discover more facets to their character as respect for their integrity and accomplishments just increases. It’s always a bit disappointing when prolonged exposure to someone just reveals how shallow they are.

One thing I know: Just because someone talks about “purifying their life”, devotion to yoga, meditation and their guru, and puts posts on facebook about the “spiritual experience of living every minute with respect, love, grace and gratitude”, doesn’t mean they can’t be a hypocritical sleazebag.

I returned to India’s only planned city to visit a friend I’d stayed with before. For two months he had repeatedly asked me to come back and visit, saying he missed my sense of humour and our chats about the world. As an Indian who had lived in the West for a while, he liked spending time with people from different cultures. Or so he said.

He is a senior civil servant, with an MBA from Canada. He was a bit inconsistent – one minute he would tell me how important his career was and that he lived like a king, next he was expressing his boredom with what he does and a neverending round of social engagements with other civil servants he said were friends but he called “sir”.

One night he told me he wanted to use 7 acres of family-owned land to grow organic food that he would then process as a business venture and contribution to society. I said people who bought organic food were probably more interested in fresh food, and a few minutes later he was ranting about his processing plant. “I’ll process anything!” he panted, acknowledging 7 acres were unlikely to produce enough raw materials to keep this enterprise engaged for more than about half an hour. “The important thing is to keep the plant busy and MAKE MONEY!”

“Imagine being involved with someone who talks so much rubbish,” I thought. “He would drive me mad.”

He scurried off one morning because he had a last-minute crisis at a hospital – I thought someone was dying – but it turned out someone’s mother had a dodgy knee and he had to assist with queue-jumping so she could get a room. It was all a bit Godfatherish – his days seemed to revolve around doing favours for friends with occasional stints in the office and a meeting every now and then.

When I first knew him I wasn’t very well and had no appetite and he was very concerned that I ate very little. Eating loomed large in his forebrain, as he obsessed over his diet and body shape quite frequently. And his 5am jogs. And his milk-drinking habit. As I have a degree in physiology I tried to explain a few things about nutrition.

“I am learning so much from you!” he exclaimed from time to time.

He was drinking litres of milk a day and wondering why he wasn’t losing any weight. From his short-sleeved shirts and ill-fitting, too tight trousers, I didn’t think appearance was very important to him, but I was wrong. Apparently he wanted to look good naked, which was surprise to me, and not a good one.

I was a bit shocked to find he’d never heard of Jackie Kennedy – obviously, despite reasonable intelligence and two years in North America, he never read anything. I know who Indira Gandhi is. Even Sonia Gandhi. Not to mention Mayawati, former chief minister and colossal money waster of Uttar Pradesh.

That first time I was in Chandigarh towards the end of my stay, he had asked me, extremely nervously, one night if he could kiss me. I declined, rather surprised, as there was nothing remotely flirtatious between us. He was not even a remotely sexual being to me, as he seemed more concerned with his meditation and yoga. I said, truthfully, that there was someone else, though the truth was also that I was simply not attracted to him.

Despite a degree in business administration, his grasp of detail and time management skills were non-existent. There was always some last-minute crisis that needed his presence and would take three times longer to manage than he said it would.

He had told me on several occasions what a good organiser he was, but when we went on a short trip to Shimla we left six hours later than we were meant to, because of more last-minute crises. He wasn’t even clear about how long we would be there. My one morning in the place was wasted because despite supposedly organising breakfast, the cooks took an hour to produce an omelette and having got up early for one of his jogs, when we supposed to be going out he fell asleep. I spent most of my time there waiting around.

After finally encountering the Oberoi Hotel, which he claimed to be familiar with though in truth had never entered, he ordered some nasty milky drink, then sent it back because this cold drink was, well, cold. And he was rude to the waiter about it.

But he had a good heart. Or so I thought.

After I left he kept calling and emailing me, eager for my return. The first evening after doing some errands (and missing his dental appointment) he asked me if I wanted to kiss him. Er no. Sitting on a chair opposite him, I wondered where that came from. He wanted to talk about feelings and my moods and whether I wanted a relationship (maybe, but not with him), and then he concluded by saying he wanted something casual with me that was a “notch above friendship”. OK, nothing contradictory there.

Notches, above friendship or anywhere else, are not my thing. The next evening he tried to resume this conversation and I reminded him that there was someone else in my life, while he talked on as if my acquiescence to having sex with him was a matter of me being in the right mood. The next night, apropos of nothing while I checked my email, he asked me again if I wanted to kiss him. That would still be a no.

These requests were starting to get a bit irritating.

“I used to drink like a fish,” he told me one night. Ignoring this cliché, I asked how much this fish consumed. “I used to have three or four drinks and then I’d be tipsy,” he replied. It’s not a competition, but when I was on the party circuit, three or four drinks barely touched the sides.

Although constantly reminding me that he no longer drank, he was always offering me drinks. Eventually I realised he thought if I got enough alcohol in me I would be in a “good mood”, ie I would want to have sex with him. We were supposed to go to Rishikesh, but his lack of organisation and ability to pay attention meant that didn’t happen, which was probably just as well. He also wanted to download music from my iPod – I said he was welcome to it, but he needed to get a cable that I didn’t have. “I’ll have it tomorrow,” he declared. It never materialised.

In the middle of this visit, he went to Goa for three days, supposedly to celebrate a marriage, then it turned out he was tagging along for a 25th wedding anniversary weekend for people he didn’t know, and that he was just going to hang out with his friends at casinos and “look for ladies”. He gloated over all this free hospitality but said he wasn’t going to attend the events planned.

I sensed the “looking for ladies” remark was for my benefit. I guess in some part of sub-conscious I wasn’t really acknowledging, I knew he was getting rather grumpy that I kept spurning his advances. I was rather glad he was going, and when I found my departure was a day earlier than I thought, I was even happier.

At the start of my second visit he told me he needed a woman around the house, and someone to take charge of his wardrobe. I wasn’t sure if he thought I should do this – I’d want to get rid of all of his clothes. His kitchen was a mess, so I tidied that a bit.

There was only one night left after he returned from Goa and he said we should go out, so we did. We went to a large hotel, and he drank lime soda but was determined to get some cocktails into me. I guess I was in the mood for a drink and a chat, and the cocktails were actually good for once, so I had a couple, then we went upstairs and had Italian food and I introduced him to a few things he’d never had before, like minestrone soup, tiramisu and dipping bread in olive oil and balsamic.

“I am learning so much from you!” he exclaimed yet again.

He asked a few personal questions, then talked at length about a girlfriend who whom he was involved for a year. She wanted to get married,  he didn’t, though he thought perhaps as time passed he would. He started complaining about how marriage would compromise his freedom, though I reminded him he would get that wardrobe supervisor he wanted.

“It seems to me you didn’t want to marry her,” I said. He was unsure, but I knew he didn’t, especially when he confided that she had a skin pigmentation condition on her elbow and that was a major factor in putting him off. Anyway, she is now married to a neurosurgeon in America so I doubt she misses him though he is convinced she does. Then he took credit for her current situation, saying: “I taught her how to be good in bed, and that is why she has a happy marriage now.”

I would really like to delete this remark from my brain, but I fear it is stuck there forever.

I told him a few stories about silly things I’d done at university – none of them sexual – and we had a reasonably nice evening. Then we returned and as I was catching an early train I got my things organised. He said we should leave at 8.10am the next day to be at the station in time.

Everything done and ready for sleep, I went to bid farewell for the evening. “Give me a kiss good night,” he said. I kissed him on both cheeks as I would a friend.

“That’s not a proper kiss!” he squawked.

“What do you mean by a ‘proper kiss’?”

“A passionate one.” I guess he meant tongues.

I squirmed and said I couldn’t do that. To clarify (and spare his feelings), I said his “notch above friendship” thing was not for me. Which it isn’t. He had indicated that he had feelings for me, but now it seemed all he really wanted was a compliant body.

He went on about wanting sex and how we were both there and we should enjoy it, blah, blah blah. Finally he snorted: “I don’t understand your moods!” Except there weren’t any “moods” … We went out, that was fun, then we came back and I focused on getting my stuff together. What he meant was, that despite consuming four drinks, I still didn’t want to have sex with him. He complained about waiting, saying he thought I “needed more time”. I did the math: Western + alcohol = sex on demand.

I reminded him yet again, that I was involved with someone else, to which he spat: “I have someone else too!”

It seemed beneath his slightly nerdy, milk-slurping, golf-jumpered exterior, there lurked a wannabe sex beast.

I regretted those drinks when I didn’t sleep that well and had a bit of a headache the next day. But I wasn’t drunk, and even if I had consumed an entire Punjabi liquor store’s worth of whisky, I still wouldn’t want to have sex with him.

That night I dreamed I was sleeping and he came into my room and pestered me, not physically, but just by being unpleasant, making noise, not allowing me to rest.

I woke up, wondering for some reason if he was going to turn nasty. Oh well, if worst came to worst, I could get a tuk tuk and take myself to the station. But he was a nice guy, he wouldn’t be like that. I thought we would drive to the station and he would ask again when I was coming back, and how I should live in Delhi so we could chat, etc.

One night he had mildly berated me for shutting the door to my bedroom because he “didn’t shut doors”. I like shutting doors at night as they keep out light and sound. While he was away he locked the door to his room, and the door was shut now.

About 8am when I was thinking of tapping on it, he emerged and announced: “Are you ready? I’ve called you a cab. I’m going jogging with a friend.”

There was something very petulant in his tone – I understood that he he’d decided he wasn’t going to get what he wanted, and now he couldn’t wait to get me out the door. I couldn’t believe how petty he was; if having sex with him was a condition of my return, he should have said so. And in those moments he became as repellent as a man can be.

And that was that: I was dispatched. Friendship over. Though I am left wondering, does a spiritual path encompass being a petty sex pest? I can only think that woman with the defective elbow epidermis had a lucky escape.

Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | November 26, 2012

India: My hair is officially goat food

Night vision: Khimsar Fort in rural Rajasthan offers a glimpse of village life with big city comforts

The past few weeks have been busy: Amritsar, wonderful chunks of Rajasthan and elephants getting ready for bed. Then it was back to Delhi for a large helping of parties to celebrate a friend’s 40th birthday.

No kidding: A new friend and more goats in one place than I’ve ever seen in my life

All this traveling takes a toll on the appearance. I was standing in what I will call Goat Street in Jodhpur taking some photos and something was yanking at my hair. I turned around to tick off the kid who was pulling it, but a goat was actually trying to eat it. So that gives you an indication of what it resembles.

There were hundreds of goats in this boulevard (it ran up the side of a shopping plaza harboring a Cafe Coffee Day – I went for the beverages) and these men insisted I take pictures of a frankly rather ugly goat, so I did this to make them happy, and then they followed me down the street asking for money.

‘This is business,’ one said, or at least I think this is what he was trying to say.

‘This is my business,’ I replied. ‘You should give me money. Anyway, I only took photos of that goat because you asked me to. It’s not even a very nice goat.’

Employing the power of ‘just keep moving’, I walked off and I guess those dudes had to rethink that money-making scheme.

Amritsar’s Golden Temple was memorable, as to be expected. You can read more about it here.

First stop in Rajasthan was Jaipur, the busy and congested capital. I arrived at the Pink City by overnight train from Amritsar.  As a result of a CouchSurfer who had contacted me (he was going to pick me up until he discovered I had a bag; how perverse of me) I whizzed through the city and out past the lake palace and Amber Fort to Amer on the city outskirts.

I was met by a photographer called Bharat who was detailed to look after me. He put me on his motorbike (with bags) and took me to a chai shop where he hangs out with his friends. Even over the course of one day I got to know that place well. After chai he took me to the Nahargarh Rescue Centre where visitors can see tigers that had been abused in circuses leading a more peaceful if confined life in their enclosures.

I don’t have much luck with wildlife, it’s always hibernating when I go to see it, but Bharat and I were biking up a dusty path and I heard a noise to my left. Glancing over I saw a cobra, an angry cobra rearing up with its hood extended – I guess we woke it up. The noise it made rearing got Bharat’s attention too – he’d never seen a cobra in the wild so that was a first for both of us.

The Amber Fort probably looks more spectacular from a distance, and there is nothing much inside, but some beautifully detailed wall paintings survive. And I was rather taken with some of the lamps.

In the evening, after another session in the chai shop, Bharat took me to some elephant stables, a high-ceilinged space down a side street supported by large wooden pillars with five elephants ranged around one corner eating sugar cane, and 5kg of chapattis. A few goats live in there as well, and the mahouts sleep on a couple of charpoys. The elephants sleep on soft sand at the side. We sat in the middle and listened to them chewing, rooting around in their fodder and finding a stick occasionally to scratch themselves.

Rahul is a fourth-generation Elephant Man. He manages 24 elephants, he rode his own elephant for nine years, then took more managerial role. ‘She loves me,’ he says. He’s been around elephants since he was 3, rode his first one when he was 12. These elephants have been bred in captivity for generations and live longer than wild elephants as they get better, softer food, and their teeth last longer.

All female, these elephants are born into the family business, and carry tourists to the fort, working in mornings and afternoons. Its a competitive business and I sense healthy elephants are profitable elephants. The males are only used for breeding.

The pachyderms start work at 17 and retire around 55, then live for another 20 years or so in a kind of elephant retirement village. Surprisingly enough, this life suits the elephants in some ways. Wild elephants die at 60 to 70 years of age  as their teeth wear out. These ones are groomed every day and ‘educated gently’, with ‘no sticks’ and will live up to a decade longer than elephants in the wild. Read more about elephants here.

In the city I visited the observatory Jantar Mantar, which was begun in 1728. Its slightly spooky structures made me think surrealist artist De Chirico got together to build some “impossible constructions” with the Dutch graphic artist Escher.

In Rajasthan I stayed in four heritage hotels that were formerly palaces belonging to royal families of the region. In Khimsar I had dinner in the private compound with the man who would have been the current maharaja if those titles hadn’t been abolished in the Seventies.

The staff brought snacks on heated platters and a Bloody Mary that I nearly dropped when a huge Labrador jumped on me. Luckily I like enthusiastic dogs.

In Bikaner I avoided rodents at the rat temple and made a friend called Man Cow. I spent a lot of time on dusty buses crossing Rajasthan and can report that as you move west across the state, there are fewer cows on the road and a lot more camels. But I made sure I didn’t sit on one. I did a camel safari in Morocco and I learn from my mistakes. The camel cart though is a different matter. Sitting on something a camel is pulling is absolutely fine.

Sacred water: Pushkar’s lake is surrounded by 52 bathing ghats

Jaisalmer is remote but its “living fort” is impressive, and a pleasant change from all the forts that are now simply museums.

After bussing it back to Jodhpur, I needed to return to Delhi and made an excellent decision in going via Pushkar. Famous for its camel fair, Pushkar is also a Hindu pilgrimage town with a serene lake and loads of guesthouses and restaurants. There are also  ashrams, yoga centres, shopping and plenty of places to get a decent coffee.

In the evening pujas are performed at the lake, which feels a little like the Ganges at Varanasi, but without the crowds or the mess. Gandhi’s ashes were sprinkled at Gandhi Ghat.

Pushkar is only 11km from the transport hub of Ajmer, but the trip takes 30 minutes on a bus because the road crosses Snake Mountain. It’s worth the effort to get there though.

Then it was a train back to Delhi and the madness of the old city at the station and an alarming if efficient hurtle through traffic and some laneways straight to Nizamuddin West where my friends Anna and Inga live. Inga immediately whisked me off to a party for a jazz group at a large house and the Festival of Inga to commemorate her birthday (along with a breakfast in bed, rooftop party and sundowner drinks) commenced.

Then it was my birthday, and I was sent for a surprise spa programme – my feet finally looked tidy again – and in the evening we learnt some Punjabi moves at a Bollywood Dancing class. Thank you – it was a memorable birthday.

Bollywood birthday: We don’t make a habit of standing around like we are posing for a poster to advertise an amateur production of Mamma Mia, but we are full of post Punjabi-move euphoria.

Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | October 19, 2012

India: Not that hot but insanely itchy and disconnected in Jammu

Travel in the slow lane: All backed up on the highway to the Kashmir Valley

I like overland travel. Flying is a bit like cheating – too fast, too predictable and too comfortable. No, give me some rickety engine-mashing gear-grinder with no space for luggage and no one who can speak English and I feel right at home.

Sometimes I arrive at a hotel and the managers are astounded I’ve managed to get there not only on my own, but using local transport they do their best to avoid. In my case any number of rickety buses is fine as long as there is a civilised hotel at the end of it. That’s not always the case, but I do my best. Staying in horrible places upsets me.

Comfort is always nice on the trail too, but after some of the travel I experienced in Burma, these days I am grateful for a seat.

Dumpsville

At the end of this particular trail I arrived in Jammu, which is a bit of a dump frankly. Or as one tour guide I met put it, a ‘shithole’. But you have to stop somewhere – from Jammu to Srinagar takes about 11 hours which is more than enough overland travel for one day (even if people say it takes seven hours, that would be seven Indian hours I think).

Leaving McLeod Ganj it was Boneshaker Bus One down the mountain – bus stopping heart-thuddingly close to the edge of several precipices as bits of scarred metal screamed in the effort to stop the bus and help it reverse rather than let it tumble over the edge.

Once down, it was hot and dusty plains to Pathankot, which has little to offer except a bus station and a squashed tank on a roundabout coming into town. Silly me, I thought the bus was going to the bus station but it threw us off in the street. That was five and a half hours of bus, then I had to find Boneshaker Bus Two to Jammu, which was about another three hours of being squashed behind the driver, who focused equally on using his horn and spitting out the window.

I  was sitting with my new friend Priti who could speak about seven words of English, enough to be freaked out that I was going to Jammu for the FIRST TIME and ALONE. This bothered her so much she accompanied me when we reached the bus stand – a noisy collection of vehicles by the side of a rutted intersection under a newish concrete overpass sadly misrepresentative of what I hoped would be the type of road going to Srinagar.

Priti trotted beside me to several divey hotels near Jewel Chowk after we fought our way through the traffic – one manager was very perturbed that I wanted a towel, this being a ‘high-cost item’. Please note Mr City Centre, I ended up at Hotel Sant which was a dump, but it cost less than your dump and they gave me a towel and clean sheets.

Rooms at Hotel Sant haven’t been cleaned properly since around 1973 I’d say. The establishment had loads of staff who spoke no English and were devoted to watching cricket noisily in the front foyer, which though lacking in design features was fabulous at amplifying any squealing or yelling taking place at the front desk or the stairs.

Long trek to Kashmir: But the scenery is stunning

Due to security issues in Kashmir, mainly India and Pakistan warring over who gets to control the gorgeously fertile Kashmir Valley, texts are banned on pre-paid Sim cards, and my phone didn’t work at all. During the week I was in the area all calls and texts to my Indian number were lost forever. I gave the Hotel Sant number to a few people, but the cricket was on and as far as the person who answered the phone was concerned I was not there – not at 5am, not at 7am and not at 10pm either. The room did come with a TV though, to feed my new addiction to Grey’s Anatomy.

There are so many things to check for in an Indian hotel room. My first room had a bathroom tap that didn’t work and I realised the ‘air cooler’ was just shoved into a hole in the window ‘area’ that wasn’t sealed in any way.  Unfortunately I moved to the room next door which had a better tap, but also many nasty, bitey things living in the mattress. I passed out from exhaustion, woke with a slightly irritated abdomen and by that evening my torso was covered in about 80 itchy red weals. YUK.

A less-select viewing of my weals: Look away now if red itchy lumps on a squidgy torso offend. This s just a few of the 80 or so bites I counted. Ugh

I gave a select viewing of my weals to one of the hotel guys and mimed things biting me. He came up to the room with a mosquito coil and a can of air freshener. I guess he was trying, but I needed bug spray, not Floral Mist.

Anyway, I went back to the room with the dodgy tap, turned on the noisy air cooler which did a great job of drowning out anyone screeching in the near vicinity and slept without being feasted on. Strangely enough, it wasn’t that difficult to get up about 6.30am.

On my one fabulous day in Jammu I spent a tortuous three hours queuing for a train ticket at the main railway station (asking a police officer where the station was, he pointed in the wrong direction to an apartment block. I’ve been told all Indians understand train station, but maybe not).

I stood in the queue long enough to become friends with the people nearest me, watch attempted queue jumpers (‘I’m a cancer patient!’) and Indian Railways staff who all go on breaks at the same time. Our guy said he was going for lunch, then spent 30 minutes shuffling bits of paper before disappearing forever. I thought I was going to grow old and die in that station, but eventually someone else came to sell a few tickets when I was reaching the point or screaming or fainting. I just thought I’d pop in, seeing as I’d been sent to the local telecoms head office with bits of paper and five photos to get my Sim card registered and make my phone work, only to find the office was shut. Cue Marge Simpson grunty noise. Jammu station has a booking office for foreigners, but as it has no computer, it can’t actually book anything.

At least leaving for Srinagar was easier – I walked up the street, found a nice young man who had share cars going that way and got in the front where no one was sitting on me or bothering me in any way. They have rules about this kind of thing here. Then it was hours and hours of mountainous roads carved into the sides of jagged valleys, huge trucks, and inexplicable hold-ups before a long tunnel and voila: the valley full of rice paddies and distinctive wood and brick Kashmiri architecture.

The drive was long, but the landscape is so dramatic, and the change so profound on reaching Kashmir, that it is worth it. Unless you get car sick. And I knew I was going to a rather lovely houseboat, even though that involved a boat trip in the dark.

The return trip was more complicated (naturally) with long traffic jams for no discernible reason, being pulled over by the traffic police, hungry Punjabis wanting snacks constantly and me fretting that I wouldn’t get to Jammu in time to find either a place to stay or access to the internet to ascertain where I was going the next day. At one point we sat for 40 minutes about 70km from Kashmir as traffic surged past in the opposite direction and engines around me were turned off. I started worrying that there was some kind of security problem and we would still be perched on this rocky shelf in three days’ time. Well at least I could throw myself off if it all became too much.

But this passed, as all things do, and we ground into Jammu about 9.30pm. This time the driver was concerned I had nowhere to go. He wanted to take me back to railway station to share his lodgings with me, but my eye was on the prize – a five minute walk from Jewel Chowk to the bus stand and escape from this place early the next day.

So I tried out a new dump that night. I wouldn’t stand on the carpet in my bare feet and there was no showerhead in the bathroom where the hot water wasn’t working, but they did give me clean sheets and a towel and nothing bit me while I was asleep. I piled two skinny Indian mattresses on top of each other, swaddled them in cleanish linen and climbed in. A noisy fan drowned out any screaming and I thought I might be a bit cold, but the electricity went off later on, so that all worked out then.

Next day I headed to Amritsar, home of the Golden Temple and more importantly, a normal mobile phone service.

Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | October 7, 2012

India: Shimla and the rubbish tip that is the home of the Dalai Lama

Main drag: Shimla has ponies and a bandstand, gazebo-type structure

Dorothy Parker said ‘hell is other people’. Hell is also other people’s noise, especially if you are in the mountains for yoga and spiritual or physical rejuvenation, and there is more aggravation than in Central London. I will be complaining a lot in this post. But there is one miracle.

Shimla

Hill station view: Looking out from Shimla

It’s not all bad, Shimla is quite a revelation. The capital of Himachal Pradesh could be a contender for a Tidy Town award, if they had such a thing in India. No cars in the main town, a smoking-free zone, lots of bins and hardly any rubbish – I was impressed.

The former Viceroy’s Lodge is formidably large and Scottish, its baronial panelling now used as a home for the Institute of Advanced Indian Studies. There is a guided tour, although you can only visit about four rooms. One was used for the Shimla Conference where at least part of the Partition of India was decided.

A narrow gauge toy train weaves its way up the mountains to Shimla, which I intended to investigate, but I got entangled in another plan which meant I was taken there (which was nice) but no railway, a very short visit and a hellishly early departure for Chandigarh which set back my virus recovery and sent me back to bed for a day.

Finally I left Chandigarh for good on a local bus which according to the internet would take 4.5 hours to reach Dharamsala, but in reality took more like eight hours. The internet said the bus would depart at 8.50am. A friend said he would take me to the bus station, but not till 8.30am.

‘It will only take 10 or 15 minutes to drive there,’ he said. Hmmm, so I’d get there five minutes before the bus departed. It can take longer than that just to find the ticket counter.

‘That’s too late,’ I said.

‘It won’t leave on time,’ he replied. ‘This is India.’

We had a small disagreement about that, and in the end we went at 8am. Being India, nothing is predictable. The bus station was reasonably orderly, the counter was right there in the open where almost anyone could find it, despite inaccurate signage, and the bus left at 8.38am.

McLeod Ganj

View from the echo chamber: This is good at least; clouds parting and sun starting to set in the valley

It took all day to reach Dharamsala, and my ultimate destination, McLeod Ganj, home of the Dalai Lama and a full array of hippyish, New Agey pursuits. I quite like that kind of thing; in amongst all the crystals and thangkas I hoped to find someone to give me a decent massage. My neck muscles are even more tortured than the squealing brakes on the Dharamsala bus, which I would not care to test on even a mild descent.

Rinky of Victoria House found me at the bus station so I went with him and the room was quite nice. Sadly the building was  opposite a rather noisy guesthouse and drop off point for locals on motorbikes. When I decided to close the windows to block out their arrivals and departures, I discovered I couldn’t, because the glass was missing. One void had plastic over it, the other had shards in a broken frame. This is a first. No windows means no stay here.

Next morning I awoke with gut pains that largely immobilised me, but I had to move. Luckily there was another guesthouse a short distance away that looked peaceful and had window frames with glass in them.

The second one seemed good: I was told there was one day of building work but then it would be finished. Noise in the afternoon is fine, as long as it is quiet when I need to sleep. By say 11pm.

After a quick lunch I saw The Darjeeling Limited, set largely on an Indian train so I could relate to that. The Cinemaa is in a basement and looking for a handbasin I saw someone’s room – filthy and with moldy carpet. I don’t know how anyone could live like that. I could smell the mold – I’d be ripping up that carpet and spraying everything with hydrochloric acid.

Then I saw a poster about volunteering for English conversation classes with Tibetans so I went and confused a Tibetan man about grammar and tried to teach him the difference in pronunciation between ‘carry’ and ‘curry’. Amazingly enough, he wanted to do it again the next day and invited me for tea and dinner and various other things, but I had to find out about buses.

Peaceful sunny morning: The general area is relieved that the weekend hordes have gone home, although the town is packed with tour groups who have come to see the Dalai Lama

Two travel agents and a trip to the bus stand later and I was sorted there. Sadly the little Himalayan railway I wanted to take from Kangra was not operating. I have very bad luck with trains, when I got on Darjeeling’s Toy Train the second time  for a decent chug up the mountain, we managed to get 2km out of the town of Kurseong before the train broke down and we had to abandon it.

After dinner I wandered around and met the guy who runs the Cinemaa. I ended up having chai with him in a handicrafts shop full of crystals, then more gut pains were telling me I should get back and go to bed. While laughing at some cows eating rubbish, a young Tibetan guy started talking to me, said he’d show me this massage place and I ended up in his (astoundingly dirty) room while he tried to massage my stomach. I appreciated the thought but he was dripping oil everywhere and I really wanted to get back to my room. The thing that worried me the most was that, given the state of where he was living, I could only hope his hands were cleaner.

He was a strangely intense fellow – he kept telling me to relax and that ‘nothing would happen’, but between the spasms and the blackened bedding I was perching on, it wasn’t easy. Going to the main temple the next day, he asked why I didn’t go to the puja with the Dalai Lama, said he’d massage my stomach more (hmmm) and kissed me on the cheek. I finally went and looked at the massage place in the daytime and it appeared nothing but bacteria had been in there for years.

After the stomach massage I was up late declogging the shower head so more than three tiny streams of water could push their way through. By the time I’d pulled it apart and fixed it, it was about 1am.

Next morning, there were fewer spasms, but there was lots of loud noise from labourers moving things and loads of banging. This was exactly what I didn’t want. So I went out to find out what the guesthouse people understood by one day of building work. They stopped working when I appeared and there was a long discussion about how long this work would take. The owner said it would be done that day and I didn’t believe him, but I suggested he told the builders to get back to what they were doing instead of just staring at me. Then the main banging guy got on his motorbike and sped off.

The towel I had been given smelt strange and was made of some synthetic material that just moved water around, so I asked for another one. I was offered various towels lying around on chairs where the builders were working.

‘I would like a clean one,’ I said. I’m sure the owner thought I was completely neurotic but eventually another stained towel appeared. It also had bits of yellow stuff sticking to it, and a maggot. I went out again to show the owner the maggot.

‘You really need someone to do a better job with the laundry,’ I told him. He seemed to agree. I didn’t ask for another towel, but another one appeared, then the owner wanted me to go to Dharamsala with him for towel shopping. He mentioned prices, so maybe he thought I would buy myself a towel, which I absolutely do not want to do. Too damn bulky.

Walking around McLeod Ganj I was slightly depressed by the noise and the rubbish and the unregulated building that is causing small landslides. The traffic is horrible, and walking on the main roads is fairly unpleasant.

There was more banging in the guesthouse the next day, and the next. But I was past worrying about that. What bothered me far more was that the wretched Dalai Lama was teaching and the town had filled with millions of tour groups. And it was the weekend, so Punjabis and other locals were flocking to McLeod Ganj to hoon around in pointlessly large cars, shout, throw rubbish everywhere and generally behave like they deserved to be pushed off the mountain.

I’d made a new friend, Yakub Ehmed Shalla of the Kundalini ‘esoteric boutique’ (getyakub@yahoo.co.in). it was Yakub’s shop I had chai in the other night, and he also has a large selection of pashminas and rugs and local handicrafts. Plus he is a gem expert, hence all the crystals. If I was any kind of shopper I would probably buy something from him. But mostly we just chat.

He knows about reiki and holistic healing and we discuss many things, including all the things I want to complain about. He basically agreed with everything I say, but he is more relaxed about it. He said when McLeod Ganj becomes really messy, it will be cleaned up, and it will probably get worse before it gets better.

Indian tourists

Everyone hates Indian tourists. The Indians hate them, hoteliers hate them, and now I am getting close to hating them. Indians are not welcome everywhere in their own country. They are banned in many hotels in central Kolkata for example, and when I arrived there I thought this was awful. Now I understand why.

Naturally there are exceptions, but a large percentage of Indian tourists are rude, noisy, dirty and destructive. They travel in packs, leave wreckage in their wake and scream constantly. A perfectly decent room in a guesthouse is ready for renovation after a five or six Indians have been in there upending tables, screeching and making a nuisance of themselves. They are the Keith Moons of the Developing World without the drumming skill.

Case One: About five young guys move into the room next to me. They assured me they were just there to sleep and they would leave early the next morning. Unfortunately this building has horrible acoustics also, and tends to amplify voices. I realised it was reasonably quiet when I arrived because it was reasonably empty.

I asked them nicely not to make too much noise in this echo chamber of a guesthouse as I have not been well and I need to sleep. At 1am they are still shouting at each other. They wake me up at 6am and again at 8am, at which time they are rolling around shrieking with their door open to share their squeals with the world, at which point I got up, marched in there and gave them a bollocking like they have never had in their lives. Their mouths dropped open, and they were much quieter after that. Sadly yelling at them worked much better than being polite.

About noon when I returned from looking for another guesthouse (pointless now the Dalai Lama is here – see a horrible one called Seven Hills where you have to wait 30 minutes for a hot shower and then pay extra), they were still there and arguing about something, probably something they broke.

Case Two: The next night there is a lot of noise from upstairs so I trotted up to investigate. There are at least four large Punjabis in a room that looks like they have been in there for a month surviving by eating bits of furniture. When they see me, one of them starts talking about black magic. I thought they’d been dabbling in witchcraft, but they’ve been to a bar, got drunk and been beaten up in a fight at a venue called Black Magic.

‘We were in a fight, so we were shouting about that,’ they explained. They are a bit upset about this, so I do a little energy healing work with them to calm them down and help them feel better. They seemed to like this and were very grateful. They were quite sweet really, like large, inebriated Labrador puppies.

‘You are the nicest person we meet here,’ said the drunkest one, which probably isn’t saying much, considering how the people who live here feel about most of the weekend visitors. He then took me to see his jeep and offered to drive me somewhere. It is a mark of my new maturity that I was not even tempted.

Case Three: I was listening to my soothing rain noises on the iPod, but it was competing with an insistent voice that just did not stop. It’s after midnight by now. Some guy with an ugly moustache was lecturing his wife on the balcony a few feet below.

I asked him nicely if he wouldn’t mind lowering his voice a little, and he got very irate, saying things like: ‘Are you telling me I can’t talk to my wife!’ (um, no), shouted ‘I’m not shouting!’ and yelled ‘Go to your room and sleep!’ I only wished I could, but he was keeping me awake.

He refused to lower his voice, saying his friends could sleep through it (they are probably used to tuning him out) and he would ‘talk’ to his wife for another half an hour (poor woman). I can’t imagine he was listing all the nice things he was going to do for her, so I bet she couldn’t wait for the pompous ass to shut up too. He accused me of being drunk and I told him he was a stupid, rude man. I have a feeling his wife enjoyed that.

I was involved with someone like Ugly Moustache Man once. He would just talk and talk on some subject he was interested in, like autobahns or his skin problems, and someone else might get to squeeze out a sentence and then he’d be back on to German roads and psoriasis again.

Honky town

Taking a walk along the Bhagsu Road out of McLeod Ganj the next day, I ambled – honked at all the way – to the next conurbation of Bhagsu, a depressing pile of concrete, dust and cars full of hundreds of squawking daytrippers.

On the way back, I was thinking about how awful Indian tourists are when I met a local with a small jewellery store. Without prompting he launched into a tirade about how awful Indian tourists are, how rudely and noisily they behave, how they steal from him and what a purgatorial experience Sundays are. It doesn’t make them less annoying, but at least I know it’s not just me.

Here’s a tip: Avoid McLeod Ganj and Bahgsu on the weekend, though not of course if you enjoy car horns and litter.

We both agreed these people lack manners and respect for others or the environment. It’s time they grew up and stopped behaving like such self-centred brats. It’s a choice, I have a friend in Kolkata who has nothing and has had about six months’ schooling in his life and his manners are better than 100 of these arrogant, marauding barbarians put together.

Miracle

I was feeling mightily aggravated when I was trying to find guesthouse number three, and then I looked down and realised that in addition to all my other grievances, I had lost something. Most of my jewellery has either disappeared or been stolen, but I’ve managed to retain a ruby ring for 27 years. The setting is nothing special, but rubies are nice. Or were. I looked down and the pink stone was gone. If I was the kind of person to get a firearm and shoot people at the post office, I would probably be ready to do it now.

Instead I just made Marge Simpson grunty noises and trudged back to the echo chamber. That morning I had been all over town, and I tried to accept that the ruby was to be seen no more. I imagined how much worse I’d feel if it was a big chunky diamond, but that didn’t cheer me up that much.  I recalled however, the ring feeling a bit strange earlier – maybe when I was getting dressed. I searched the bed, thinking maybe the ruby fell out while I was tossing and turning and grinding my teeth. No luck. Stomping around grumpily I looked towards the door.  Amazingly enough, guess what was lying there …

Massage

Mitter Singh is good, if you want a vigorous healing massage. He worked on the congested points in my neck and shoulders and loosened them significantly. Mitter Singh can be contacted at Mitter.gasny@gmail.com, and found at the Tashi Choling Monastery, Jogiwara Rd, opp Hotel Akash. After two sessions I was thoroughly prodded and pummelled and and my shoulder muscles were much happier.

Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | September 29, 2012

India: Chandigarh, modernist city planned with the help of Le Corbusier

Making an entrance: Le Corbusier’s High Court. Judges had to share this entry point with the public at first, but they soon put a stop to that

Anyone interested in architecture knows Le Corbusier, and even if you aren’t you are probably familiar with his black leather and chrome office chairs (or rip-offs thereof).

Built from rubble: Nek Chand’s Rock Garden (and the next three photos below)

After Partition, Punjab’s former capital, Lahore, ended up on the other side of the Pakistan border. So the local authorities decided to plan a new city. Two American architects came up with basic designs, but then one was killed in a plane accident, so that’s when Le Corbusier came on board.

Le Corbusier was born in Switzerland in 1887, later to become a French citizen. He abandoned his birth name of Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, adopting a pseudonym, which the author/designer/artist said was derived from an ancestor, but also means crow, or crow-like.

He worked with what the Americans had done to plan a city with green belts, roads to certain levels of traffic and land use around sectors. Each sector is approximately 1.2km by 800m, enclosing 250 acres. Sector 17 is where you find the main shopping district. And at least one semi-decent coffee place.

Chandigarh has some good restaurants, but I can’t appreciate them that much because most of the time I have no appetite. For whole days I have no interest in food. This frees up a lot of time, although I am slightly disturbed by this. Then a virus takes hold and fills my head with mucous and all I really want to do is sleep. However I do manage to get to the Le Corbusier Centre and the Chandigarh Architecture Museum, which gives a good picture of how the metropolis came about.

Le Corbusier visualized the city as a human body and near the city’s ‘head’ you find the man-made Sukhna Lake with the Capitol Complex the skull. The complex is made up of three masterful Corbusier buildings: the High Court (1951-57), the Secretariat (1953-59) and the Legislative Assembly, with the city’s symbol, the Open Hand sculpture found near the High Court.

Back in the upper torso thousands of people come to admire Nek Chand’s Rock Garden. A road inspector from Pakistan, Chand was struck by the amount of waste created by the clearance of villages to build Chandigarh. So he took the rubble and started making figures out of it.

He went on making animals, dancing women and chai drinkers for the next 15 years until a government survey crew found them in 1973. The garden was unauthorized and occupying government land, but luckily the local council saw it as an asset. Then Chand was given a salary and labourers to continue his work, which he also does in his spare time because he says it’s what he loves.

In an interview he said he was not making an artistic statement, but just doing what he needs to do. With no formal education beyond high school, he says his ideas ‘are a gift from God’.

The Rock Garden is lovely to wander through, with waterfalls and paths and an ever-evolving array of sculptures. I thought of the Catalan architect Gaudi and his use of mosaics, but I don’t think Chand has ever been near Barcelona. It was inspiring though to see what someone could create out of what most people would simply class as just rubbish.

Symbol of Chandigarh: Le Corbusier’s Open Hand sculpture near the High Court

Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | September 21, 2012

India: Dancing in Delhi

With Akram Khan and dance teacher Nikolina Nikoleski after the show

I am so brave. People in Delhi seem to think you are taking your life in your hands, or at least placing it in a mobile tin can, by taking an autorickshaw alone and after midnight.  How did I survive? Superior sitting technique I guess. Anyway, as I said later, if the driver did something weird, when he stopped for a cow or a big pothole I could just jump out and run away.

Such rapid movement is usually too much for me, I’ll leave it to professionals such as the Akram Khan Company, who were visiting the Indian capital for the final performance of The Park’s New Festival for Emerging and New Work.

Multi-award-winning Akram Khan is one of the UK’s leading choreographers and dancers, who has worked with such varied artists as Sylvie Guillem, Juliette Binoche and Kylie Minogue, and was recently part of the Olympics opening ceremony in London.

I met the company’s producer, Farooq Chaudhry, last year when the company performed at another arts festival I was involved with, the George Town Festival in Malaysia. Sadly Khan was not with the troupe on that occasion so seeing him dance was a treat I had to wait another year for. The Delhi show was the final date of a  six-city Indian tour.

Getting into the performance was a bit fraught as there was a scrum outside the Kamani Auditorium akin to a riot outside a jail because there were too many punters and not enough seats. Security told me to go away because I wasn’t on the list, but fortunately someone from the company recognised me and let me through the gate.

Effortlessly combining and re-inventing contemporary dance and his classical Kathak roots in Gnosis, a 2010 work that explores the forces of light and darkness via a story from the Mahabharata, Khan performed solo and with Taiwanese dancer choreographer Fang-Yi Sheu, former principal dancer with the Martha Graham Company. Accompanied by five talented musicians – Lucy Railton on cello, Faheen Mazhar, vocals, Kartik Raghunathan, violin, Sanju Sahai, tabla, vocals, and percussionist Bernard Schimpelsberger, there was a vibrant dialogue between sound and visuals that was thrilling to experience.

In the first half Khan paid homage to tradition and his commitment to classical Kathak dancing, with the tale of the young Hindu Queen Gandhari, who discovering her future husband is sightless, blindfolds herself forever. Lord Shiva blesses her with 101 children, and her firstborn is Duryodhana, whose pursuit of power  leaves colossal destruction in its wake.

The second half featured a powerful duet as the dancers examined the bond between mother and child and the choice between good and evil as Duryodhana became a ‘merciless beast’ consumed by ambition.

I had a great week in Delhi, largely free of colossal destruction (thank you Anna and Inga for your hospitality) and with the bonus of some inspiring dance. Also thanks to DJ who introduced me to the Raj Kachori, a rather extraordinary creation at Haldiram’s, home of fine Indian street foods served in the hygienic confines of an air-conditioned restaurant.

The Raj Kachori is a fried bread sphere (or puri) filled with chickpeas and crispy bits, topped up with white yoghurt and chutneys in stripes of green (coriander) and orange (tamarind), to remind one of the Indian flag. It’s sweet and salty and creamy and crunchy with a touch of nationalism all at the same time and rather good.

As the Akram Khan Company was staying at The Park Hotel, I became well acquainted with its buffet. Generally I spurn the buffet, but this one had great vegetarian options and chefs on hand to whiz up curries of your choice. One night I was invited to the nightclub there which sounded like an invitation to Acne, but the name of this extremely popular venue is actually the rather less evocative Agni.

The Park’s New Festival sponsors include Park Hotels with support from the British Council. The festival was curated by Ranvir Shah of the Prakriti Foundation.

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