Thursday, March 31, 2011

India part 26a: Darjeeling

I heart Darj

Or do I? The plan was to spend a few days in the hill station of Darjeeling, then head on east to the obscure village of Mungpu, where Sarah was set to do some teaching. The plan was thwarted by the echoing repercussions of history and race, as usual.

The views in Darjeeling are breathtaking, though we couldn't actually see any of them, due to clouds. Instead, we saw St Andrew's Church, which could've done with a scrub...

St Andrew's Church

...and visited the two-in-one zoo and mountaineering institute:

Bengal bear

Monkey

Napping tiger

Red panda, red wall

Then, on the evening of the third day of our stay, things got interesting, and we were forced to begin preparations for a siege. It was announced the town would be shutting down to show their solidarity in favour of the creation of the independent state of Gorkhaland. I shouldn't have made that joke about 127 Hours in Calcutta.

Looks like heaven but could be hell

The Freewheelin' Gorkhas

"When you said Darjeeling was a striking place, I didn't think you meant this!!11!!1!" As a result of the action, everything and everyone was closed, with pharmacies and hotels the only exceptions (and even they started locking the doors behind you).

As it became clear that the strike would be indefinite, the tourists started fleeing and we watched from our hotel room window as a long line of jeeps headed down the mountain. Sarah and I thought on it, and decided to sit it out. I felt like the guy in the movies who passes up his place on the last chopper out of the embassy to stay behind and help the people - although our plan was actually to eat biscuits and watch Burn Notice on TV. Our reasons for staying were fairly prosaic and practical: Mungpu is only 35km away, and the trip back down to the plains long and sick-inducing.

To be continued...

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Signs I have seen #394

Hmmm, bit vague, I think you're making this up.

Let's pray for some dog that probably never existed

That was at Darjeeling zoo, by the way. I do wonder if this bear-fighting dog might have taken its inspiration from Star Wars bad guy Jabba the Hut, and Han Solo-ed this poor grizzly:

Han Solo bear

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

India part 25d: back in Calcutta

After attempting and failing to go to a Botanical Gardens in a variety of cities, and also managing to not get a decent picture of a butterfly a number of times - the fiends kept flying off - in Calcutta, fresh from our Sundarbans trip, I managed to achieve both.

Common Tiger butterfy

Blue Tiger butterfy

The gardens also featured the delights of India's biggest Banyan tree. So massive, I couldn't fit it all in.

The biggest Banyan tree in India

Banyan trees are a pretty scary idea as it is - this one had spread its 2800-odd offshoots over a ridiculously large area and looked like something out of HR Geiger.

Banyan roots

Banyan clearing

Some of the roots are thick enough to resemble trees in their own right; some are spindly and propped up by wooden crutches, as if Salvador Dali had done a turn as a park ranger. The only drawback of the gardens was that the ticket people confiscated our bottles of mineral water on the way in, which meant we could only stay as long as thirst allowed. As I noted in my diary, this turn of events was startlingly reminiscent of the protagonist's predicament in 127 Hours, which we'd seen at the cinema the previous day. Thankfully no arms were sawn off during our frolicking amongst the foliage.

The other memorable thing about Calcutta was that it was the city in which I finally finished reading Roberto Bolano's monster masterwork 2666. Let us celebrate with one of my favourite quotes from the book:

That night Reiter wasn't tired and the full moon filtered through the fabric of the tent like boiling coffee through a sock.

Monday, March 28, 2011

India part 25c: The Sundarbans

Boat

On day two, it was all aboard the boat, which appeared to be named after a blunderbuss-toting red moustache-wearing cartoon character (unless you spoke Spanish, of course).

Elmar

In summary: no tigers, but plenty of saltwater crocodiles, wild boar, deer, Brahmin kites, Kingfishers, curfews and egrets. I wish we hadn't seen any of the latter, so I could write: "Oh well, no egrets," - but never mind. There were also tons of Indian tourists ignoring the wildlife and instead taking pictures of the three of us, many without asking first, which is rare. Say cheese, guys!

Happy Indians

Ajay, Mowgli's young cousin who was looking after us for the day was very disdainful of them. He turned out to be a delightful raconteur, telling us a good anecdote about being ambushed by his family on Holi, and a more worrying one about a British-Gujurati girl who was, to all intents and purposes, stalking him from afar. He did have occasional moments when he seemed sullen, as if Sarah and I were his parents who he has embarrassed to be seen with, but then this impression would vanish and he'd start on another enthusiastic story. Later in the evening we walked a few kilometres with him to a cafe for chai and sweets, getting another bicycle cart back, with the road flickeringly illuminated by the naked flame the driver was using in lieu if a headlight, and the stars seemed brighter than ever.

The next day we wended our way back, via a number of tea shops, before getting a lift to Calcutta with Mowgli, getting to experience his pimped stereo. It cost a sixth of the price of the car itself, he told us proudly. Unfortunately he had a fondness for substandard house music and skipped over any promising-sounding hip hop, presumably in case P was offended by the language. More irony, since when we arrived back in Calcutta, she made a comment about Jews which made me wonder if my verdict on her - "Daily Mail reader" - had been a bit mild. Oh dear.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

India part 25b: The Sundarbans

Sundarbans painting

We decided to dip into our wedding gift money and pay for an organised trip to the Sundarbans  - pronounced "underpants" - since it's rather complicated to get to without help from someone who knows what the hell they're doing. Also, if you want a meal in that neck of the woods, you have to go and ask a villager in Bengali.

I vaguely remembered hearing about the Sundarbans from reading Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide (my edition had a rather similar cover to the boat's painting above, a coincidence, I'm sure), which had baffled me in parts; I think I must have drifted off during the bit when he explained what a mangrove was. The Sundarbans are a set of ever-changing islands set amid a load of tidal mud deltas. It has lots of mangroves, which, it turns out, are sort of muddy orchards. The thing everyone asks you when you get back from a boat ride through the Sundarbans is "Did you see a tiger?" to which you reply "No" and pretend not to be disappointed, perhaps listing other wildlife you did see.

Deer in undergrowth

After a few hours in the car out of Calcutta, we boarded a ferry, which was actually more reminiscent of a wooden longboat with a motor, then, in one of the coolest bits of our whole India trip, had a half-hour ride across the peaceful and remote island of Gosaba on the back of a bicycle-powered cart.

Ride on a cart in Gosaba

We arrived at our hotel, which truly had the hardest beds we'd ever experienced - "like sleeping on a table," was Sarah's verdict. In an Indian trope we'd encountered before, the immaculate garden was a thousand times more impressive than the inside, decorated as it was with luscious white, pink and purple Cosmos.

Purple flower

At this stage, my diary says this:

A goat just farted.

In the afternoon, we went for a walk through the village with the other person on the tour, an adventurous older lady from Devon, who I assumed would be called Margaret or Alison, but wasn't, and here will be referred to as P - and our guide, who was nicknamed Mowgli after a run-in a few years ago with a French girl who had dubious levels of political correctness. He seemed quite a serious young man, although he was perhaps disgruntled at P's earlier unsubtle suggestions that his father was a slave-owning pimp (I'm actually serious, though she didn't use those exact words).

After our stroll through the village, which was disrupted by two mad dogs, one of whom got its teeth round my calf, thankfully not tearing the skin or my trousers, we got on a small wooden boat...

Your boat awaits

...and an iron-armed gondolier rowed us up the silent river.

The boatman

The waterways here are about three billion percent cleaner than the Ganges at Varanasi, and as we gazed at the birds, the grey swampy riverbanks like sludgy concrete and the passing fishermen, all you could hear was the creak of the boat and the water sloshing gently. Then Mowgli's mobile rang. Though he has the trappings of a city boy - haircut, goatee, souped-up soundsystem in car - when we asked, he professed a love of the countryside. "The more technologies and options, the more puzzle," he said of urban life. Too true, though this prompted P to tell him about the British phenomenon of happy-slapping, calling it "very common"; Mowgli's eyes widened. She then threw an anecdote about a man (black, of course) who stabbed someone after they objected to him throwing chips at them and rounded off with a quick dig at benefit cheats. Littlejohn alert! Ironically, she referred to the happy-slappers as "feral children" - a phrase Mowgli should certainly have recognised given his moniker!

Sunset over the Sundarbans

Later that night, we ate at one of the villagers' houses and saw a concert by local Baul musicians. It would've been interesting to find out what they were singing about - "life and culture", according to Mowgli, so it could've been Bengali translations of Coldplay singles for all I know. Between songs, the vocalist, whose voice was hypnotic, and strangely feminine, had the look of a man being stalked by a tiger. During songs, he looked like an Indian Hugh Dennis with bad teeth.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

India part 25a: Calcutta

Cabs in Calcutta

We arrived into Calcutta on the Vibhuti Express, which was lacking in both the vegetable biryani I'd ordered on board and punctual ticket inspectors (the guy turned up in the middle of the night, while everyone was sleeping, and promptly switched the light on). The train made up for these shortcomings in grime and mice, which were in abundance, the latter making cameo appearances dashing between the areas under the seats and the former liberally coating our beds higher up. I cleaned mine by dripping mineral water onto the bed's plastic surface and scrubbing away with already-read pages of Private Eye. These then went out the window, as subcontinental litter rules dictate. While I was trying to sleep, I pictured a villager chancing on the filthy pages while performing his trackside excretions in the morning: figurative dirt on British politicians and literal dirt from the passing Vibhuti Express.

Compulsory Calcutta touristy pictures, then:

Victoria Memorial

Victoria Memorial

St. Paul's Cathedral, sunset

Park Street graveyard

Grave, Park Street

Top of building

Friday, March 25, 2011

Six things that have happened while we've been away

1. Egypt
2. Tuition fees
3. Japan
4. Wikileaks
5. Libya
6. The Only Way Is Essex

India part 24c: Sarnath

This bit is a sort of sideways subsectional branch of Varanasi (it was a day trip, courtesy of a very uncomfortable rickshaw). Sarnath was where Buddhism was invented. 'Nuff said.

Cart in front of Dhamek Stupa
Dudes hanging in front of the Dhamekh Stupa near where the
Buddha gave his first sermon. He ain't coming back, boys!

Jain temple
A bit of a Jain temple nearby: gaudy but great.

Sadhu! Sadhu!! Sadhu!!!
Nice use of increasing exclamation marks.

Script
Paging Indian Jones.

Couple at Sarnath ruins
I'd love to know what this conversation's about.

How many Buddhists does it take...
As my dad remarked: "How many Buddhist monks does it take to..." Here, the gang try
to get a very heavy generator onto a wooden cart amid much mutual hilarity. Some hipster
in East London is in the middle of turning this tableau into a six-part sitcom for BBC Three.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

India part 24b: Varanasi

Here they are: the Varanasi highlights. Steps feature heavily (not the band). Drying clothes, too.

Surveying the Ghats

Instruments and shoes
Lesson by the Ganges

Boat trip 2

Monkey

Flower seller

Saris drying

Dogs and men

Band and bike

Washing on the ghats

Ghat steps with goat