Saturday, 31 January 2009

It's A Hard Life

Our bus to North Goa took us through several small villages. Actually it took so long it must have taken us to every village on every small road, but I loved it. You got a sense of what Goa is like besides the tourist resorts. It is an odd place, tropical, but at the same time with a very European architecture, Portuguese.

Some of the houses reminded me of my grandmother's back in Galicia. So while in the bus and seeing all the children coming out of school, memories of Cuba's countryside kept coming back.

Goa, as opposed to Rajastan, has got an almost 100% literacy level, as like Cuba they have placed great importance on education. As we drove through the countryside we passed several schools with the children coming out for lunch. We also stopped at a school for mentally disabled children, their mothers collecting them and getting on the bus. It was a much more encouraging picture than the one seen up North.

Here's the view from our room....

On our first day here we went down to the beach. I even did an 8am morning swim. Here 's Charles with the lake behind him...

We also went down to the freshwater lake, and upstream, as we read about some sulphurus mud that's meant to be good for the skin. So off I went to get myself a mask...I couldn't stop myself.
It smells as bad as it looks, but hey, it was free...

We chose a resort in the very north, Arambol, as it's meant to be less touristy, less party orientated. There are still people here, and sadly there's quite a bit of building going on. However, the locals have stopped any large resorts being built, so it's managed to keep a more relaxed air to the place. I have also managed to have chicken breast with garlic sauce and chips...topped up with two doubles of the local liqueur, at 25pence a piece it's a winner.

So here I am relaxing, and trying to learn to the meaning of the word...compromising. I have never been that good at it, but I've come to realise that as much as this is my one year trip, and that my money has somehow to last, it's also Charles' holiday.

He doesn't like roughing it, it must be something from his upbringing, so I have to compromise (I had to ask him what was that word that started with comp...).

Some of my issues though are not to do with money. For example I dont want to take tuk tuks, as they mostly run kerosene and are terrible polluters. I also like walking, just to see how people live their lives, not to be driven around, but it's not all, i accept, about me.

We have decided to start our malaria drugs. We were going to wait til we were going off to keralla's backwaters, but there has been a sharp increase in malaria cases near here so we've decided not to chance it. Also I'm getting eating alive by the local insects. I'm even showering in bloody DEET.

I decided in london I was going to mix Malarone with Doxiclone. The first one is too expensive for long periods (it's over £3 a day), but I need it for my whole time in Laos. I'm just hoping that I dont get any wild side effects. I don't tend to, not even with the yellow fever one that's the strongest.

Anyway, I'm off for now...

Friday, 30 January 2009

When In Rome

Dinner on the Orient Express...

Leaving Ahemabad I could not help but notice, for the first time, street tension and violence showing its ugly face.

Initially it was the police being heavy handed the previous night with tuk tuk drivers who then fled really quickly. Police had started hitting their vehicules with the long thick sticks they have here. Similar things seem to be happening again this morning, but also they focused on the beggars, like Guliani did in NY.

Sadly Guratj is an area known for violence and riots. But more disheartening was the news coming from Mangalore, a growing city in the South. Local women had been attacked in Mangalore by a right wing extremist group in the name of "tradition". Their crime was to be in a pub. Intolerance is a stain that seems to be spreading fast in this country. There seems to be a rise in religious bigotry, in the extreme intolerance of the fringe of society in India. Thankfuly, the public outcry has led to the arrest of almost 20 people including the head of the group.

India has a long tradition for tolerance, for the integration of its people and their religions. With sporadic episodes of hatred across the different groups, the last 60 years have not delivered the balkanization forseen but Churchill or Kipling. As the country celebrated its 60th Republic Day and remembered the struggle for Independence and its heroes, most of its people see themselves as Indians, and are proud of it.

'Mother hen'

I have just woken up on the train. I actually managed to sleep really well, and no sign of Delhi Belly.

Yesterday I binged on lots of Indian food from the people walking up and down the train selling. But this time I had the help from our new mother hen. The couple that were travelling with us ensured that the fruit we bought was ripe, that I got the right amount of rice cakes and curry and that we were not paying too much. She was such a lovely lady, though constantly belched away.

We have now reached tropical India. As the sun cut through the morning mist I enjoyed the view over the beaufiful mangrove, the light reflecting on the marshes, and the smell of the tropics.

After 21 hours on a train we have eventually reached the main station in Goa.

I dont know why, but until I started planning this trip I thought Goa was an island. A former Portuguese colony till the 70's, the State is a lot more laidback that most of India. Lower duties mean that alcohol is a lot cheaper and since the late 60's people have been coming here to party and chill.

It seems that there are lots of hippies.

Oh joy!!!

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

I Am Not Bugs Bunny!!!!

It is mid day and our train is cruising South on our way out of Rajastan towards the sea.

We were up at 4.15am to catch breakfast and then make our way down to the station. Managed to catch a few hours sleep on the train before we were woken up by the noise from the next carriages' passengers.

I was dreaming about kite surfing, not that I have ever done it, when I was woken up by some transvestites asking for money, not a pretty site. Why are they always so tall? It's never the 5'2" man (and there's plenty of those in this country), but the 5'10" who wants or needs to do drag.

And then he puts on heels... this, no comment...:

Eventually they left and I went back to sleep for a while.

I cant wait till we get to the South. After almost two weeks I have decided that I am not a rabbit, I can't live on vegetables, carrots and pulses, and Charles may not wake up one morning as he's likely to suffocate from the effect the pulses have on my digestive system.

Don't get me wrong, I love the food. I love all the vegeterian curries, the thalies are fantastic, and it's great if, like us, you are on a budget, but I'm convinced that if God wanted me to not eat meat he would have made me a rabbit.

However, everytime I have tried a meat dish here I have regretted it. They're so badly cooked, and when I see the live stock I can't help but wonder what I'm really eating. But down South we should be able to eat plenty of fish. Also food in Goa will have plenty of Portuguese influences and memories of Europe and home.

Tomorrow it will be two weeks since I started my travels, and it has now sunk in that I will be gone for a year. If this was a normal holiday, I would be heading towards the airport today or tomorrow at the latest. Instead, I am heading further away from home and I'm a mixture of worried and excited.

...We have now reached Gurajt, and been welcomed by several text messages from different mobile operators.

So much for the element of surprise and "Welcome" board signs. I bet that soon the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet will start including GPS details so people always feel in control. I want to travel but not as a tourist, I want an adventure. Then again, I've got my ipod, my laptop and two mobiles, and in my bag I carry half a ton of skin care products.

I have just had another Masala Chai, typing away on my laptop, all very Starbucks, but I much prefer it this way, enjoying the changing landscape and our two local companions chatting away, going through the guide and recommending us places to go.

Trains, as I've said before are a really good way to meet the locals.

...We're at our destination, Ahmedabad, and we have had the most amazing dinner. Maybe I should be a rabbit after all. We went to a place called Gopi Dinning Hall for a local Gurajti Thali and it was amazing. I couldn't stop, and I must be bottomless inside, so I stuffed my face. Well I had to, as previously in a Vodaphone store I got told off for eating some crisps. Supposely you are not allowed to eat in the work place. What a thought?! Is this a new torture they have invented? How could I survive? Do you go outside for food breaks?

I am now off on a 21 hour train....but the sea is waiting so I don't really care...

I need to tell you the valuable lesson I learnt about the need for modesty...even as a man...but will wait till I'm a little less embarrased about the incident...

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Gangaur the Goddess

Another amazing day in Rajastan, our last day here.

We got to Jodphur, dubbed the 'blue city', at 5.50am this morning, almost on time. Jodphur is another big ugly city with 1.2 million people and a permanent layer of smog over it, but with a couple of amazing sites. Amidst the smog it's not that easy to see how blue the city truly is (they use indigo to paint the houses as an insect repelent).

After dropping the bags off and a bit of a rest we walked up to the Fort.

The Rough Guide puts the Fort here as India's top attraction and I'm inclinied to agree.

It is a magnificent piece of architecture that has been recently rescued after decades locked up by the current maharaja. Kipling described it as the work of angels and giants, and I am not going to add anything to that, you can all see how impressive it is in the pics.

One thing that caught my attention while listening to the really good Audio Guide was the fact that someone agreed to be buried alived in the foundations to break a curse that a hermit had put on the building works that had just started.

By one of the seven gates, all built on a right angle to prevent attacking elephants gaining momentum, we found some handprints. They are the handprints of Maharaja Man Singh's widows. They had followed the Rajput code of honour and killed themselves by their husbands pyre in 1843. The widows actions were in clear defiance of the British Law of 1829 that had outlawed the practice, 'sati'.

I could not help to wonder what drives Indians to suicide.

Recently I read in the Indian Times that a 16 year old girl had taken the extreme measure of killing herself after an argument with her brother over which TV Channel to watch. I remember the journalist wondering what makes us so obsessive about seizing TV control. I just wondered how nuts you need to be to kill yourself for something like that, or how little value you put on human life to do that.

I also photographed the gear they used to smoke scented tabacco and to drink opium. I had never realised what a big part of the Raj society it played. I knew that the British Empire had given it to the Chinese to exert control over its population but in Rajastan it's still a great part of the social fabric today, for weddings, funerals etc...

Warriors drank it to get visions of the Eternal City and to build courage to go into battle. That to me sounds like BS. They just got high as a kite and didnt realise what was going on.

But my favuorite bit of history I learned today was about Gangaur the Goddess. Married women asked her to protect their husbands when they went to war, while young and single pray to her to bless them with a good husband. I went on my knees and prayed there for hours.

I even lit a little candle (that's my catholic upbringing). So everyone start praying as I have been told she is ever so powerful and helpful.

Pray for a happy marriage to Gangaur the Goddess...

In general the place exhumes beauty and wealth, but in a fairly elegant way. However, there was a room, Phul Mahal, that the audio guide described as breathtaking and the ultimate in oriental opulance. It's name meant 'the palace of love'. However for me, it was just more proof of the love this country has for camp. Somehow I thought of Graham Norton, it would have been perfect for his set...

Once we finished in the palaces we went down to the recently reopened gardens. Among the lush vegetations and sitting next to a worryingly empty tank one building kept popping into my thoughts: La Alhambra in Granada. The sheer size of the majestic fort here dwarfs La Alhambra by comparison. However, the detailing and the upkeep of the gardens are far superior in the Andalutian palace.

To end the walk around the Fort we were treated to the circling flight of a harriet over us.

As we left the Fort and walked over to the marble cenotaphs a few hundred meters away I noticed that more and more birds of prey were circling. Eventually I realised that a local was throwing meat to the birds and attracting tens of them. It was an amazing view, but probably not the most ecological as it will create bad habits for the birds...

Tomorrow I'm off to Ahmedabad, one of the 10 most polluted cities of the world and our last stop before beginning a 21 hour journey down to Goa for a few days on the beach...

Monday, 26 January 2009

The Cows of Jailsalmer

It's our last day in Jaisalmer and I wanted to take a break to reflect on my time in India so far.

With all its many downsides, there is a lot that's good to say about India. Now that I've got over my initial shock I am starting to love this country. It is not just the amazing and monumental sites, it's the majestic landscapes, it's also its people. If you are able to see beyond the touts and the scum that pollutes it's tourist centres, the over eager traders that hassle you, you will discover that the people here are warm, caring and funny.

They are truly interested in you, to a point that you may find intrusive. I don't think they know what personal space is. Sometimes I feel like I am in the Bollywood remake of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding". "You are vegeterian, here have my mousaka". All very surreal.

Our new American friend, Mary, specifically ordered a chicken burger, and just the bun with the gherkin. Nothing else.

The burger arrived with a fried egg on top.

So the burger went back to the kitchen. Can I have a new one, without the egg?

Here comes back the same burger with the egg scrapped off.

So Mary, typical West Coast American, gets on the phone and calls Customer Services..."I asked for a chicken burger, just the bun, and the gherkin, nothing more, nothing less''...

"So you just want bread, burger and gherkin, just that?"..."Exactly, just that''...

"...but, would you like an egg with that???"

Jaisalmer is a magical city. As we sat on a roof top restaurant earlier the air filled with the noise from the buzzing market. I could really see the place as a setting for "Arabian Nights". However, if Ali Baba would have ridden out of his fort into this desert, instead of facing giants it would have been windmills.

2500 windmills have been put up in just over a year and a half as another demonstration of India's potential. Obviously some may consider them eye sores, destroying the wonderful landscape. I personally see them as a source of income for these people and a hope for the world as we fight climate change.

The icing on the cake in this city is the great German Bakery. They've got some really good chocolate croissants for Rs30. It's just missing a decent espresso. A Masala Chai is just not the same...

One last thing I love about this town are the cows. I have found the cows all over India completely mad. They just stand waiting for the traffic to drive around them, and here they wait by the door, expecting to be let in, sometimes in lines across the street.

They are completely bonkers and I am absolutely infatuated by them.

And here's one final cow. Not only was she determined to get in, she was also checking that everyone could see her...

Off to Jodphur on another night train...

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Camels and Madame Butterflys

Yesterday we had an amazing day in the desert, or as our American travel companions Mary and Daniel would say, we had an awesome day.

Charles had met them the previous night in the roof top bar of the main hotel. They are born again Americans, ie. since November the 4th they are no longer embarrased to tell people where they are from. No more lying to people that they're Canadian.

We had booked our camel trek with the people from the hotel. It had been recommended in our Rough Guide, and although it was more expensive than some others we saw advertised it seemed to go more off the beaten track.

We also wanted to make sure that the place was reputable in regards to the way they treat their animals, and the way they visit the small villages.

Early start. 8am. I had managed an omelete for breakfast, and was ready to go on the camel. I just didnt realise how tall they were and how quickly they moved. So I had a little performance that made the rest of the group aware that they needed to be careful.

Charles had warned me that travelling by camel was anything but comfy...after 15 minutes on the camel I had had enough. I had crushed the nuts so badly you could have made nutella with the leftovers. But we carried on.

It was a really cold misty morning as we entered the desert. Initially we stopped in the cenotaph for the local royal family. I still have not worked out how many they have. There seems to be so many of them, one per town almost. As we rode further into the desert we saw in the distance one of the several windfarms that have been built in the area. After a further 30 minutes on the camels (and having lost the ability to have children) we found ourselves riding in the middle of this very large windfarm.

It was all very eerie. The mist, the low frequency humming, the goats and sheep.

It was more Don Quixote than the Lawrence of Arabia day out I expected. I had pictured myself galloping across the dunes in the desert and there I was struggling to keep myself on top of a camel held by the guide.

To make matters worse the camels are on heat, and kept making funny noises and salivating. And to do that half of their mouth comes off, like a bag of skin. Just gross...oh and Mary's camel had a wind problem. The guides swapped turns to go behind her camel. I thought they were going to put her last, shunned to the back in the Thar Desert, but there was some problem with camel hierarchy and the mating season.

Around midday we stopped for lunch, and as we settled in a scrubby bit of flat land the sun broke through the mist and the skies turned an intense clear blue. The three guys that were with us cooked a beautiful vegeterian lunch. They set a little fire with scrubs, got a couple of pots out and made us a delicious curry, then and there. So for a change we stuffed our faces, especially me. They had only brought three spoons so I had to eat with my fingers and the help of the chapaties, very ethnic.

So off we went. Charles and I swapped camels and somehow the journey was so much better, still not Lawrence of Arabia, but no longer able to sing Madame Butterfly. We stopped in a nice Jaen temple and then a desert village. I made a note to myself to research into this off shoot of hinduism called Jaen.

Eventually we got to the dunes, just in time for the sunset, and what a sunset!! The whole setting was unbelievable, just what I had always imagined for a desert sunset, with such a clear sky. After a bit of jumping around in the sand we took some pics and then finally went for dinner under the most amazing star filled sky. Magical.

I would really recommend the whole day to anyone. Make sure that you do a whole day, and that you use a reputable agency, either here or anywhere. Animal mistreatment is rife across a lot of countries. The only thing i did not like was the visit to the desert village, as I personally thought it was very invasive. But the two guides that came from the village into the dunes were great, non-stop talkers that really wanted to know everything about us, and tell us about their lives.

I love my orange turban, it will be my new facebook pic...

We sometimes forget that in these quiet parts of the world people may be happy with their simple village life, with no need for wifi, exotic holidays or G-Star denim. These two seemed to be more than content with their lives, their camels and the passing of life, one year after another, one breeding season followed by the next. Happiness is not a modern times invention.

One more day in this small town and then another night train down to Jodhpur. The Rough Guide puts down the town's fort as the Numero Uno thing not to miss when in India...

Just one more thing. Julia Roberts is in town, well at least in Rajastan, so clearly she heard that we were here.

And couldn't contain herself.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

The Orient Express. NOT!

I have just woken up.

We have arrived in Jodhpur, for a half hour stop, well behind schedule and we still have half of the journey to go before we get to Jailsamier.

These sleeper trains have not been made for a 6' man, especially the side bunks. As you can see in the pic it was a really cramped sleep.

I gave Charles the larger one. At 6'6" it would have been like fitting Johny Wilkinson in a doll's house. Not pretty. And not fair.

The place is like a hen house. Thinking about it, the only thing we are missing is a load of animals running around. Though I think that's more on South American buses.

We are travelling Sleeper Second Class. 3rd Class must be a true Indian version of the Tube in a summer rush hour, conditions it would be illegal to transport cattle in.

The sun has risen, and it is a beautiful day. The blue skies contrasting with the red tones of the arid landscape. Sadly, as I am typing away admiring the view I am listening to bl**dy Christina Aguilera 'Beautiful', a dance mix by Wayne G. I really should be put down. I have no shame.

I am enjoying the train journey. You really get a sense of what true Indians are like. No touts. When they ask you "where are you from?" they mean it. Not "where are you from, buy this polyester saree that I wouldn't give my mother in law". Every family seems to be quite well glued together, mother hen sending them all to brush their teeth and both parents playing with their children.

I think yesterday I forgot to mention that I had the pleasure of visiting a GPO, General Post Office. There are the same attitudes and queues as in the UK. Actually that's not fair. The last time I was in my local PO in the UK they had 30 people queueing and only 3 serving clerks, the rest were at lunch. Public services tend to forget that they are just public, the clue is in the name. I have been a member of the Labour Party for years and don't believe in the privatasion of public services, so no one should be able to accuse me of being a closeted Tory, a Union basher. I can't wait till the end of the monopoly, and the day when the PO won't be able to expect us to spend our lunch hour queueing, cos we will go somewhere else.

So the Indian Post Office was the same, but with more queues, though shorter. One where you weigh your letter. One to get your stamp from. One to give your letter to after having it stamped. You have to glue both envelopes and stamps, so it was like a surreal primary school class with all of us sticking bits of papers together.

It is well past midday, actually almost one o'clock in the morning. We were meant to have arrived at our final destination by now. But we dont seem to be anywhere near. There is still around 100 km to go, so probably another 2 or 2.5 hours.

We have just stopped in Pokaran. Some of you may remember the name if you were paying close attention to the news in 1998. The Indian Army tested 5 nuclear bombs starting a dangerous arms race with Pakistan. Pakistan tested its own two weeks later. The sense of pride that the initial bomb had sparked in India was soon dampened by the the run on the Rupee that followed as the conflict escalated. Eventually the Rupee collapsed to its lowest level ever against the US Dollar. Oh, the futillity of war!!!

The landscape is now savannah-like. The closer we get to the border with Pakistan, the drier its gets. At some parts the vegetation is very scarce indeed. I am expecting giraffes, african elephants, but I'm only seeing goats and sheep. I am feeling more a part of Don Quixote than anything else.

In the distance, towering over the herds of goats and sheep, there is a large wind farm. Once again the dichotomy of modern and old India face each other, even here in the remote westernmost corner of Rajastan.

The explorer man from Gap with a strong smell of Own Label...and looking really tired after 16 hours on a train...

We have arrived now, and tired of roughing it we're sitting on the roof terrrace of our new hotel with a nice coffee, basking in the sun.

Actually we are staying in the sister hotel, only GBP4 instead of the GBP15 that this one costs, but it's still beautiful.

I think tonight I will have an early night on a proper bed and tomorrow we will finally head into the desert....

Friday, 23 January 2009

The Exorcist meets Steps

Charles had a street shave today.

I would never let anyone get that close to my neck with a sharp object but, hey, a lot of people seem to like it.

We spent another day in the bazaar, but this time we bought something. Charles bought a "shawl" and I bought two "blankets". I dont want to call them shawls. It sounds a bit camp. We need them as we are about to take a night train to a desert town and it's going to be cold.

Talking about camp, we did manage to go to the cinema to see a movie called "Raaz". It's everywhere here. From the school of high camp it blends mystery, suspense, a bit of horror (I even jumped), with love and dancing.

It's "Stigmata" with The Backstreet Boys or "The Omen" starring NKOTB.

Then throw in a bit of ecological crime and police corruption to bring it bang up to date.

Men in the cinema screamed and whistled when the hero came on screen, and again everytime he took off his shirt and flexed his muscles. That really threw me. There are a lot of repressed people in this country, but then again, there are probably as many in Newcastle.

I loved the constant commentary, and the joking you could hear. Normally it would have bothered me people talking, but as I didn't understand most of the dialogue it kept me entertained. I say most 'cos around 10% of the dialogue is in English with characters jumping between languages.

I really got into it: girl gets kind of possessed by someone that's been killed reporting an ecological crime. Of course she is a top model, living in an amazing penthouse. They still manage to have several songs and a even a couple of dance routines for good measure. A bit like "The Exorcist" if re-made by Steps.

But the movie is a more modern Bollywood, and the main song in the film has a more rock chick Evanescence sound than I was expecting...

Great way to spend an afternoon. Honestly, I am a convert !!!

Shortly before midnight we take our first night train.

12 and half hours on a bench...

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Super-Tight Witch


Jaipur seems to have its charms, though if I am completely honest my favourite bit so far has been Amber Fort, the amazing fort just out of town.

As I have broken my camera and have had to spend money replacing it, Charles is having to put up with me going on a super-budgeting drive. As someone I know would say, I have turned into a "super-tight witch". 

So instead of a tuk tuk we went by local bus. I prefer that anyway, and for Rs7 each way it was a winner.

The fort is a great attraction, so impressive towering about us. The bus leaves you at the bottom and once you get rid of people trying to sell you postcards you start the ascent (I am not sure why they think that the fact that the postcard is plastic and not paper is a selling point). Then again, they've been trying to sell me a carpet excitedly telling me it had been cleaned with chemicals.

The 20 minute uphill stroll could be changed for a longer one on the back of an elephant, but I have never agreed with the way these animals are sometimes treated, and for what I have read it is no different in Jaipur.

The journey back would have been a sociologist's dream, or an amateur one's for just discovering the country. Let me explain myself. I am not old fashioned guy. I would not stand up to give my seat on a bus to a woman my own age, except if she is expecting or hurt. Y'know, the normal things. If I am with a friend I will probably offer her the seat if I get to it first, and will curse her if she takes it.

However, I was surprised to see a young woman get to a seat on the bus, and instead of sitting down, waited for the boyfriend/husband to come and take it while she stood up. I was going to offer my window seat to the woman, but decided that I may have caused more harm than good and also she would have had to sit next to a stranger.

Sitting next to Charles was a younger guy, probably straight from the hills of Kashmir but definitely smelling of goat. He looked completely at ease on the bus and fitted in perfectly well. Until he opened his pocket and got out his i-phone and started to play games. 

This is a dichotomy that has not stopped to amaze me in India. Modernity and past are living hand in hand. Some people are holding on to a world that is fast changing, for example the peanut roaster that I photographed in one of the bazaars.

On the other hand others are able to move on. My hope is that the country is able, as they move forward faster and faster, to bring with them a higher proportion of those that are currently left behind.

My week here is making me think about going to China.

Are they able to avoid the levels of desperate and depriving poverty seen in India? There is no democracy when you dont have anything to eat, when your children walk around naked in rubbish piles. The biggest democracy in the world has to do more than give its citizens a vote every four years to be a true democracy.

Tomorrow we will be enjoying the heights of current Indian pop culture. A Bollywood movie and later on taking our first long distance night train on our way to the Thar Desert.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Lowering My Guard

My first bus journey across India, and it was the experience I was expecting.

I am starting to really enjoy this country, for all its madness, poverty and harshness there is a side of it, a candor to it that I am relishing.

Our bus was like a sardine tin, an old piece of metal filled up with people and lugagge. Our luggage was in the aisle, safer there though than on the top of the bus. So everytime someone needed to pass, the luggage had to be lifted. Either that or people walked all over it, like they did with the rest. And I couldn't have that. Imagine if the little luxuries i brought with me had burst. My Molton Brown splashed all over a bus!

I am really up for roughing up for a year, but I felt I needed something to take me back home now and again, to my regular life when I needed it to, a little pick me up.

So far I have been really careful with what I drink or eat, but in our lunch stop I lowered my guard. The 'barrista' of my local 'coffee shop' added the sugar with his hands. Not even a sugar lump but a whole whallop.

How could I even think about letting him? So I had to keep a pic in case I get Delhi Belly.

Here is Fred doing my Skinny Double Frapuccino with hazelnut syrup...

So we're happily on our way now to Jaipur, hoping that I am not going to pay for that slip of my attention with a bad stomach.

And here is the sardine tin.

Tomorrow the Pink City.

What is so pink about it? I wonder if it is like an Indian Soho...

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Python Point

So I have survived the pythons.

The Keoladoe National Park was amazing, an oasis of life and water. There are over 300 species of birds at this time of the year. It is a great place to cycle around, though the bicycles do take you back to 'A Passage To India' (they were probably built around the same time).

The marshes are covered by thousands of nesting birds. At one point we went near the nesting trees of the painted storks and the maddening noise of the hungry chicks gave a new perspective to the noise of Delhi. It was like 10,000 30something women at a Take That concert, re-living their teenage years. Not that I’ve ever have been at one….

My camera is no good for this type of job so I’m afraid I’ve got no pics.

Some of the wildlife we saw included storks, ibis, igrits, cormorans and darters, or as they’re known locally - snakebirds. Hovering above in the sky we saw harriets, hawks, one eagle and a number of vultures. Sadly most vultures have died after being poisoned or as the result of eating animals that have been treated with too many chemicals.

We also saw jacals and antilopes, so an amazing and broad array of why did i agree to finish the day going to Python Point?

It is a bit like Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, everyone goes there to get a picture, and naturally so did I.

As we were cycling towards it my stomach was tightening up, then turning, then spinning and then all three again at the same time, like some new generation washing machine. I was not expecting to enjoy it or to appreciate the beauty of these very large reptiles. I just prayed not to be overcome with fear or start screaming in unknown languages.

I didn't need to get to Python Point. While cycling through rough terrain I got too close to the edge of the path and I hit a small stone. Suddenly, a Common Cobra felt attacked and lifted its head and got ready to attack my leg. As if I had drunk some Asterix potion I turned into Lance Amstrong and Miguel Indurain all at once, and sped up past both Charles and our guide. You can not imagine how close I was to sh*tting myself.

Breathless I waited for them to get to where I was.

But we still went to see the pythons, and they were there.

First we saw two entangled, then another three. I still managed to scream while I was looking at them, because a fourth one moved, next to my left foot. We had missed that bloody one.

I will stop trying to beat my fears by facing them. From now on, the further I stay from snakes the better. Indiana Jones may have said that brave is not who has no fears, but he, who beats them.

Frack that, from now I will be a coward.

Tomorrow we are going to Jaipur, and we are taking our first long distance bus...

Monday, 19 January 2009

Sheena, The Taj Mahal Princess.

It is 8 oclock in the morning and its cold.

Last night we arrived in Bharatpur, a smaller town west of Agra famous for a bird reserve, the Keoladoe National Park, on the outskirts and I cant stop thinking about the pythons that also happen to live in the reserve.

I am absolutely terrified of snakes. The last time someone brought one near me I was in Thailand, I had a screaming fit, a 'scooby-doo moment', jumping onto the person sitting next to me's lap...but lets not get ahead of ourselves.

Yesterday we saw India's main treasure, the Taj Mahal.

We got up early to avoid the crowds and to get to see the Taj in the morning light. However a thick layer of fog covered the town so when we got to the gates we could barely see our feet let alone any monument. As we walked into the gardens the place was filled with mystery.

As the morning went on the fog lifted, as if someone was pulling up a curtain, and eventually we could admire the Taj Mahal in all its glory.

You could not help but to be completely awestruck. It is stunning, larger than I was expecting, all shining white marble. I dont know if the story of its founder is truly the 'greatest love story' ever told but the Taj is one of the world's wonders, and maybe the first.

The place filled up quickly with crowds. They were everywhere, running around like small insects, but irrelevant.

I can't recommend a visit to the Taj enough. It should bring all Europeans a sense of humbleness, remind us that although we have built empires and achieved great things, so have other people. Having said that, the Taj is also a reminder of the dangers of absolute power. A king, grieving for the death of his favourite wife spends the public money on a mausoleum...

Once we were finished in the Taj and before heading to the deserted capital of Fatehpur Sikri, we had some lunch at Sheela.

Sheela is the only decent place around the Taj, well so said the Rough Guide. And so it was. Food was great, cheap and the place was set in a secluded garden. We also got to meet Sheela, the little princess that 'owns' the place. As the pic shows she should would fit better in Cannes than in Agra, but she must have done something terible in her previous life. She still behaved like she was in the South of France and she was travelling in Sharon Osbourne's handbag...

Please meet Sheela, the Taj Mahal princess...

So off we went to this ghost city.

A Moghul emperor from the second part of the 16th Century had decided to build a new capital, but well after building got underway they realised that there was not going to be anywhere near enough water. One thing I have already learnt is that in the past in India things got up and running really quickly: the Taj was built in 17 years, Agra Fort was built in 8. The ghost city, a fully fledged capital, was built in 16 years, but they lived in it for merely 15 after that.

It is extremely impressive to walk up the stairs into the mosque. The place is very grand, in local red rock, with beautiful decoration. I liked the goats on the stairs. They seemed to be so happy staring at us.

As we walked around the palace I felt the architecture was more what I have would expected in China than in India. More 'Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon' than 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'. But then again, this was a capital built by the Moghul rulers. I loved the 5 layered podium, like a wedding cake. The emperor was meant to sit at the top and enjoy the evening's entertainment.

I'm now off to the Bird Reserve. Here's hoping I dont get crushed to death by an Indian Rock Python...

Sunday, 18 January 2009

A Drink With The Locals

Our first full day in India and the first thing that hit me in the morning was the smog.

Somehow you could tell the skies were clear, but there was no way the sun could break through the cloud of dirt. The air in the city is so dark it has started to affect the main monuments, so the Goverenment has closed some of the factories. But until the traffic is regulated and the city modernised it will continue to suffer from really filthy air.

The smog covers everything, dulls down the colours, everything goes grey, as if you were on the set of Momo. Yet, it is amazing how life finds a way to survive. Amongst all this smog, on a derelict site, sitting on an electicrity cable, there was a beautiful kingfisher. The vibrance of its colours was in sheer contrast to the encroaching dullness the smog brings to everything. I had never managed to see one in Europe, not even in a National Park.

Never before had i experienced traffic like this. It was manic, and so dense, but somehow manages to integrate cattle drawn carts. At one point we got stuck on an old british empire built bridge, one side us, on the other an old cart and in a few minutes hundreds of motorbikes. I couldn't help but smile, I really felt I was here, though I was still in a taxi, not down there on a push bike.

You can't help but think that most people who talk to you are part of a scam. I don't like to sound negative, and I know that as soon as we leave the big city things will be different, but here it has been like that. Charles has been a lot less cynical and agreed to go for a beer this evening. Invited by our driver, it was going to be a drink with the locals. I am afraid this was not the case, as we realised when we arrived at a carpet dealer, where we were going to have a beer with his friend...

However, as negative as I may be sounding I am actually glad we came here. Walking this morning into the Agra Fort, a Unesco World Heritage Site, you really got the feeling that you were part of a Rudyard Kipling book, that Mowgli was hiding somewhere behind one of the walls.

Saturday, 17 January 2009


So after a few last manic days we eventually got here.

The flight from London to Delhi was really easy. A fairly empty flight, extra legroom and three double vodkas, a sleeper as a chaser and 8 hours later we were here.

As everyone had warned me, Delhi was a shock. You cannot prepare yourself for it. It is hard to believe that India is on its way to becoming an economic superpower. We had never planned to stay here, just to get into town, find the station and get a train straight out.

The whole place is delapidated. You wonder if while you were on the plane here a really quick WWIII took place.

As India's economy has leaped forward most of its people have been left behind, living in desperate poverty, mostly just surviving and not particularly well. Across the city poverty strikes you as the main feature of peoples lives. For all the country's power in terms of IT the people in the capital seem to live in really poor conditions.

Delhi also suffers of another common disease of poorer countries - touts. The train station was infested with them. They really know how to prey on peoples insecurities and fears, especially in a country that is so different to what people are used to.

So we got on a train and left Delhi as fast as we could.

Personally I think trains are the way to see a country and its people, or the way they can see you, or even their animals can see you. The cow below wanted my curry (or was it my beer?) but I was not having any of it, lol...

Our first destination will be Agra, another tourist destination, but the home of the Taj Mahal, the incredible Agra Fort. We will have to put up with the touts, the constant 'sell, sell, sell'.

Will let you know how it goes.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009



Only 2 days to go and I'm starting to feel really apprehensive.

In less than 48 hours I shall be on a plane on my way to India and to begin a year's trip away from home.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Minus Three Degrees

Today I got my vaccination for yellow fever, £50, and spent almost £90 in malaria tablets. The worse thing about them is that they do not guarantee that you will not catch it, and you may get side effects, and you wont eat for a month.

Personally, I think it is wrong for the NHS to charge £15 for a consultation fee in their travel clinics, regardless if it is the Center for Tropical Diseases or not. The NHS is a universal health system free at point of delivery. I understand that not everything can be free, but to be charged £15 to be seen by a nurse is a bit of a smack in the face.

On a happier note I went down to the Royal Academy to see their exhibition in Byzantium 330-1453. I thought I would have one last bit of 'old fashion culture' before heading off, and seeing it all for real.

I managed to squeeze in lunch with a great friend of mine, Stephen. Someone told me a while ago that if you dont work you should do lunch, breaks the day and avoids you feeling lonely. And let me tell you, it is so true.

72 hours and I will be heading off ....

Sunday, 11 January 2009

A Degree A Day

My name is Roberto. On Thursday I am flying to Delhi to begin a one year journey around the world.

A 360 degree trip that I am planning to do in 365 days, day here day there, hence the name of the blog.

It is the story of a physical trip but also of a personal journey, trying to find out a bit about myself.

Clearly I could do this in Camberwell, but that would not be as interesting and would not give me a reason to write a blog.

Getting my last vaccinations tomorrow, and then I'll be ready to go.

Today I got rid of some of my earthly possesions at an ever-so-glamorous car boot sale. I was wearing a flat cap just to blend in with the other traders, please also check out the red jacket. Jokes aside I still managed to take £150. Better than a kick in the 'f*nny'. As i always say.

At the minute my flat is a mess, a true war zone, after a party last night, and cos I'm trying to move out at the same time. Please enjoy the pic of my friend Glenn and the coconuts. Those coconuts have been here for the last 5 years, very hairy and very dry, but always a feature, always a good prop for a joke. This should tell me, and you, something about the maturity level of my friends.

I'll let you know how I get on with my vaccinations, but I know the yellow fever one will probably make me feel ill by about next Thursday.

Just the perfect thing for a long haul flight.