Monday, February 28, 2011

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Made-up Indian jokes #8

Q: What bread is most likely to repeat on you?
A: Parotta.

India part 19a: Dharamsala

Tibet rocks

We loved Dharamsala. We stayed at the Kasheri Lodge - much recommended. Here's the view from the bed in our room (well, as long as you got up and opened the curtains first).

View from my bed

Again, it felt like we'd entered another country, although our cooking teacher Tashi told us only 10% of the people living there were Tibetan. My previous knowledge of China's occupation of Tibet extended to vaguely remembering that the Beastie Boys once did a concert to try and free it - and to presumably also fight for its right to party. I don't think I'd even seen a prayer flag before and wasn't really conscious of the Dalai Lama's situation and back story, so it was fascinating and shocking to find out the strength of feeling that lay behind signs like this:


While he showed us how to make bread, Tashi, now 35, told us he'd come to Dharamsala in 1997. How did he get here, someone asked. "I walked." He didn't elaborate, apart from to say that it took 28 days. He also told us he was the man responsible for introducing the chocolate momo to the menus of the town's eateries. "No one made chocolate momos when I arrived here!" he said. By this stage, I had gone off them, chocolate or otherwise, after overdosing on mutton momos on the first night. I had eight and I could feel the congealing fat blocking up my pipes.

A series of exhausting early morning yoga sessions helped, though. Our bendy instructor had an immaculate centre parting, gleaming eyes and some wonderful verbal tics, announcing the end of each posture by saying: "Closing time." Another frequently used classic was: "Happy feel, good feel, enjoy feeeeel." And I will never fail to think of him whenever I hear someone say: "Enjoy the all differentdifferent postures."


Saturday, February 26, 2011

Friday, February 25, 2011

Made-up Indian jokes #6

Q: What did the Indian cop do after catching the minced meat lady thief?
A: Kofta.


India part 18b: Wagah

Arriving at Wagah, where India borders Pakistan, you feel like you're part of a line of refugees, with the presence of stern police on horseback ensuring it's the only queue in the whole of India that's actually single file. The Rough Guide to India got there first in describing Wagah's daily face-off "Pythonesque", but there isn't another word for it as far as I can tell: Indian border guards with massive handlebar moustaches and gaudy uniforms high-kick marching like their lives depended on it, the crowd cheering like crazy, and their Pakastani counterparts across the border apparently doing the same. It's two nuclear powers facing off in the silliest way possible every day - I'm not sure whether it's comforting or terrifying.

Wagah border ceremony guard

Wagah border ceremony guards

I found out afterwards that we would have got a better view if we'd flashed our passports, which gets you admitted to the VIP stand. A shame, but then again, the Indian men-only stand was were the atmosphere was at and where all the chants were coming from ("Bharat Mataji!"). As long as you don't mind some dude with a distinctly un-Western concept of personal space using your shoulder to rest his arm on, what's not to love?

Wagah border ceremony crowds go nuts

I first heard about this place on John Sergeant's BBC documentary about the Indian railways, but it seems this is a bit of a rite of passage for Beeb correspondents making programmes about the subcontinent...

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Made-up Indian jokes #5

Q: Why did Mr Schuester put clarified butter in his hair?
A: He wanted to join Ghee club.

Signs I have seen #231

"Especially you, with your gammy leg and everything."

Thanks for that

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Made-up Indian jokes #4

Q: What's the best hair-of-the-dog Indian beverage?
A: Lassi.

Look, I warned you, all right?

India part 18a: Amritsar

Oops. Sikhs holy city Amritsar seemed like a foreign country, perhaps because the combination of cold and fog had everyone shuffling around draped in blankets like turbaned Clint Eastwoods. I'm slightly concerned the thing I'll remember about this part of the trip will be a minibus journey during which I sat in the front between Sarah and the dead-behind-the-eyes driver, with one leg either side of the gearstick, hoping the latter wasn't feeling frisky. Hopefully these pictures of the Golden Temple will crush that particular memory.

Golden Temple, early morning

Golden Temple bather

Golden Temple crowd

Golden Temple crowd

Pensive Sikh at the Golden Temple

Incredible place, sincere respect to the Sikhs.

[More Amritsar pics here.]

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Made-up Indian joke #3

Q: Where's the best place to vomit up potato curry?
A: Aloo.

India part 17: Delhi

A door

I do like my doors.

It was cold in Delhi, which was a bit of a shock for me because I had one pair of socks, no trainers and no coat. Keen to avoid the hotels of Paharganj, which we both remembered as awful and overpriced, we instead stayed at Ringo's Guest House near Connaught Place, which was awful and overpriced. On one hand, our room didn't have any beetles, but it did have holes in the wall, what looked like blood on Sarah's bedsheet, a deeply weird poster of a Thai boy wishing us happy birthday, and a dirty bathroom floor. We asked to have it cleaned, and the man who obliged also kindly dragged the wet, dirty rag across the floor of the room on his way out, smiling at us as he did it, and I'm sure genuinely thinking he was doing us a favour.

Going to visit our friends Eleanor and Charlie at their hotel possibly didn't help matters: they were staying at Claridges. Still, we had beer and fun on two consecutive nights, even if illness from both teams prevented us staying out until the clock struck 2011. Connaught Place was not exactly the party place to be, in fact it was completely empty save for the hundreds of cold, bored policemen hanging about, apparently expecting millions of people to turn up and overthrow the government, as often happens these days.

I don't remember much about how we spent the first day of the new year, but we did pay a visit to the Sikh temple, Bangla Sahib.

Bangla Sahib Gurudwara

Bangla Sahib Gurudwara

Bangla Sahib Gurudwara

Oh, and apparently we also went to the grotty but charming India Coffee House. Says my diary:

I just had a plate of chips. Twelve, to be precise.

And that's it. You ain't shit, Pepys. The next day, though, we went to Humayan's Tomb, where I saw lots of people clearly wondering: "Are you Humayan, or are you dancer?"

Humayan's Tomb

Humayan's Tomb - star view

Humayan's Tomb

Splendid stuff. On the way there - we walked - we were forced to cross a very busy road. There was a man standing next to it doing absolutely nothing and holding a "Delhi traffic safety week" sign. We asked him if he could help us cross, or if there was a subway or bridge or something. He muttered just one word: "Tip?" So we ran across seven lanes of traffic as he watched. What an absolute benchod. Please look at this picture of Paharganj while I fume inwardly for a bit.


Monday, February 21, 2011

Made-up Indian joke #2

"Waiter, waiter, why has this sweet bread put me in a daze?"
"You must be having kulcha shock, sir."


Signs I have seen #192

"The food was delicious, but the presentation was poor."

Tastee Mess

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Made-up Indian joke #1

Here's the first in a daily series of genuinely groan-worthy gags I've been "working on". I hope you're ready. At this rate, I reckon I could get a high-paid job as a cracker joke writer. I don't think they have crackers in the Subcontinent, so I may just jump off a cliff instead. Anyway, here you go.

Q: What was the name of the Hindu god's Star Wars-related one-man show?
A: Hanuman Solo.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

India part 16: Navsari

In summary, Navsari was all amazing hospitality, children's birthday parties, weddings, and strange beaches that your feet sank into. The Mahatma, who trod some of these beaches during his salt march, probably had more important things on his mind than weird sand.

Birthday party

Cute hair



And it wasn't a very Christmassy Boxing Day, but it was a very Indian Boxing Day.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

India part 15: Mumbai

Man on bike outside Maidan

The good thing about flying, apart from the substantial carbon emissions of course, was that it gave us the chance to meet a very strange man on the way. He was American, a Vietnam veteran who seemed to be having flashbacks while he regaled us with self-regarding stories and told us about his battle with cancer. He worked for General Motors and, it seemed, had been on more flights than we'd had hot curries.

Despite getting the Chennai-Mumbai hurdle out the way, we still had to sort out the train to Navsari in Gujurat, because we were planning on spending the festive season with our friend Rakesh and his family. This meant a few more early starts spent hunting for internet cafes. On the plus side, it also meant I got some fine early-morning photos of pigeons hanging out next to the Gateway to India, which lay just a few blocks from our hotel.

Pigeons hanging out by Gateway to India

The place we were staying had the most genial manager of all time. It was almost painful how genial he was. He also loved to use your name and did so as frequently as possible. When Sarah complimented the Indian railways: "Thank you for saying that, Sarah, because some tourists say they are dirty, Sarah." The other great thing about the our hotel was its proximity to my favourite restaurant in Mumbai, the brilliantly-named Food Inn.

Food Inn

Visiting here gave me the perfect excuse to tell Sarah the joke I made up about the place eight years ago, though she'd heard it many times before.

Q: What does the sign above the toilets in the Food Inn say?
A: 'Food out.'

HAHA. On our last day in the city, as is tradition, we appeared in "a Bollywood movie". The Bollywood movie in this case was actually an Aids awareness advert for Unicef. Normally I don't like to talk about my work for charidee, but since I feature so prominently at 0.25 (one of the hands), 0.27 (the only one wearing a stupid stripey shirt), 0.28 (standing behind the Nigerian "I know" girl) and 0.34 (running a stall), I thought I'd better own up before I start getting recognised in the street.

I spent the wages I most certainly didn't receive what with being on a tourist visa and all that on a few books. Here's what I bought.

Books galore

Just kidding.

Monday, February 14, 2011

India part 14: Chennai

"Beach is Marina Beach, M-A-R-I-N-A," the guide told us, as the tour bus made its way through Chennai. "Is biggest beach in the world, is number two ranking," he added confusingly. The man had more than one odd habit when doing his voiceovers, despite appearing normal in casual conversation (we also spoke informally about cricket, of course). He peppered his utterances with the word "sir", even when addressing a large group of both sexes: "On the left is old secretariat, sir..." And he'd pause in odd places, like a teacher who wants the class to chant the answer: "Secretariat is now using for the purpose of..." Pause, then firmly and clearly: "Library. Is now using for the purpose of library."

The tour stopped at this rather wondrous thing, which shall remain nameless because, um, I've forgotten its name.




And we dropped by the bustling Kapaleeshwarar Temple to leer at some more gopuras.

Kapaleeshwarar Temple: Cow and gopura

We also met a man from Mumbai with the most extraordinary toupee - the hair at the back was barely even touching his scalp - and a younger gentleman from North India who was very quiet and who wore a Bluetooth headset over his right ear for the five-hour duration, without receiving a single call. At his request, we both had our pictures taken with him.

We arrived at Marina Beach as the sun was setting, and strolling along, he promised to show us "something beautiful" and marched us across the sand. I wasn't holding out much hope; his claim was belied by the guidebook's description of the beach: "Its location just a little downstream from the port which belches out waste and smelly fumes, combined with its function as the toilet of the fishing community detracts somewhat from its natural beauty."

We walked anyway for at least 15 minutes, but the scenery remained similar and unremarkable: happy families frolicking, nagging beach urchin children each with their own monkey, a consistent trail of rubbish, and so on. We eventually got out of him that he was taking us to a fish market, but we couldn't really see it, even in the distance, though he insisted we were nearly there. I was worried the coach would leave without us, and then more worried when it crossed my mind that he was probably the kind of quiet guy who always minded his own business, kept himself to himself, and then turns out to be a serial killer, and furthermore that the pictures he'd taken of us would end up in some macabre basement collection. In his favour, however, he did seem genuinely surprised when we pointed out there was only 10 minutes left to return to the bus. As we hurried back, I saw a woman on the sand weeping into her hands, while the man she was with tried to comfort her, muttering under his breath.

Gandhi silhouette

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Mad Men's Peggy Olson spotted in India

Below: a photo of a photo I spotted at the Viceregal Lodge in Shimla, where many of the discussions about Indian independence took place. What's remarkable about it is that it appears to show India's first Prime Minister, Jawarharlal Nehru (in office between 1947 and 1964), absolutely cracking up at a joke made by none other than... Mad Men's Peggy Olson! A new direction for season five, perhaps?

Photo of a photo: Nehru cracks up

Saturday, February 12, 2011

India part 13: Mamallapuram

Back in 2003, I made up a terrible joke about this place, despite not even paying it the courtesy of a visit. It went something like: Idiot 1: "Excuse me, which member of your family will be doling out our drinks?" Idiot 2: "Mamallapuram." If the captive audience weren't utterly incapacitated by laughter at that, Idiot 1 would then add (referencing a slightly more obscure Indian town): "Yes, but Kanchipuram?" I had a lot of spare time in 2003. Of course, now it's officially called Mahabalipuram, which renders this joke as arcane as this paragraph is pointless.

Our arrival at the fabled place was amusing, since the state bus we were riding on didn't appear to stop there - so they dropped us and our backpacks off at the side of the road on the highway. Luckily it wasn't too far, and it felt cool strutting into town like we'd walked all the walk from Pondicherry.

But on to more important matters. If you wanted to start a mobile ironing business, you'd want to use the coolest, edgiest font possible, right?


The main reason to visit Mamallapuram - apart from getting your ironing done by a hipster - is the Shore Temple, which is sadly not in a great state, thanks to wind and sand and sea erosion. Here it is.

Shore temple

Much better are the Panch Rathas, named after the famous Ramones song 'Sheena is a Panch Ratha'. We visited on a Saturday, so the place was filled with Indian tourists posing in front of the monuments in increasingly hilarious ways. Here are a rare couple of pictures which doesn't feature any of them, for better or worse.



Which is best? The elephant on the Arjuna's Penance carving (c.600-700 AD), or a reclining Ganesha from Mamallapuram's Le Yogi restaurant (c. probably about 2005 AD)? There's only one way to find out...


Ganesh, chilling

Mmmm, my most memorable moment in Mamallapuram was hiring bicycles and cycling along the Kovalam Road towards Chennai, where you can see (and hear) the stone-workers chipping and shaving their sculptures by the side of the road. After nearly giving up about 10 times, we eventually reached the Tiger Cave, where there were some more Indian tourists pulling wacky poses. But you don't want to see the Tiger Cave - it looks more like a dragon, anyway. Here's a Shivalingam and Shiva's vehicle, Nandi, the bull, instead.


But it wasn't all frolicking about on bikes gazing in wonder at temples. Says my diary:

Imagine getting up early and exhausted to book Glastonbury tickets, but finding all the internet cafes in town are closed, then there being a power-cut just as they open, and then treading in a cowpat. Oh, and now imagine the reward for all this perseverance isn't actually to get to go to Glastonbury, but instead getting a ticket for a 25-hour train journey. WELCOME TO MY WORLD.

We never did get the tickets I was after; it was nearly Christmas, and the waiting lists were so huge, even the usual Tatkal option (an emergency quota of tickets held back and released at 9am two days before the travel date) was out of the question. We ended up having to shell out to get a plane from Chennai (our next destination) to Mumbai anyway. This saved us a day of travel, but made rather a nonsense of the Rs250-a-night hotel room (approx GBP 3.50) we stayed in when we arrived in Tamil Nadu's capital. Budgeting in India is quite a mindfrog: you can easily find yourself spending twice as much on a meal as you do on a night's accommodation, if you're hungry but don't care about sleeping on old sheets.