Friday, January 31, 2014

The Final Adventure - 11th Stop: Aurangabad

Next up, as we continue our trip northwards, is Aurangabad. Where? Exactly. Certainly not a big tourist destination to rival the likes of Goa or Agra, and probably not a place many would have heard of outside India (or even inside India). In fact, the only reason we came here was to act as a base for day trips to the caves of Ajanta and Ellora. To sum up the city of Aurangabad itself, hmmm… how can I put this nicely? Well, I’m afraid I can’t – it’s a shithole (excuse my Hindi). There really is no other reason to visit here besides these two attractions. My advice would be: find yourself a nice hotel, see the caves and get out as soon you can.

Sorry that’s a very negative start when we actually had a great couple of days (not in Aurangabad itself obviously). The two caves really were beautiful and worth visiting, whether you come through here or not. They were similar in ways, but each had enough individuality to warrant a trip to both. And when I describe them as caves, I’m not talking about big, dark underground caverns. They’re more like intricately carved, hand crafted, marvels of sculpture; more like little villages, but instead of being built brick by brick, they were chiselled into the rockface itself.

Before that, we had another day of travelling; first from Goa to Mumbai, and then Mumbai to Aurangabad. It’s certainly a lot less tiring travelling by plane, so it was a relatively pleasant day. Once we arrived in Aurangabad, we got a taxi from the airport and were given a leaflet about tours to the two caves. We were planning on looking up how to go there ourselves, but at our hotel we found out that there was no internet. And not even a case that the internet was gone temporarily, they simply didn’t have any internet service! At all! Ludicrous! 

Apart from that, the hotel was actually lovely (Hotel Oberoi), probably the only good thing about the city. The food was amazing too, especially the tandoori chicken which has really become my go-to meal while in the country. When you order meat in India, most of the time it's very boney, and there's also the risk of it not being cooked properly, so tandoori chicken is great as, a) it's seared right the way through, and b) you get a whole damn chicken!

Anyway, back to the story...

With no internet at hand, and none anywhere nearby, we kinda had no choice but to contact the company from the leaflet and arrange a tour to Ajanta for the next morning. We rang them a few times at reception, but there was no answer, so the only thing I could do was walk there, in pitch darkness, along a dusty road, and not exactly sure where I was going. Along the way, a rickshaw pulled alongside me, packed to capacity. There was no other civilisation in sight, so I squeezed on board, and jumped off again when we miraculously passed the travel agency. It was part of a dingy hotel, which should have been a red flag right there, but we really had no choice, so I booked two seats on a tour bus to Ajanta for the next morning. I similarly hopped on another overcrowded rickshaw on the return leg, and somehow made it back to the hotel in one piece with tickets in hand for the next day. Phew! It made me lose all faith in Indian kidnappers and murderers though; I was really there for the taking.

The next morning, we strolled down to reception at 8:30, ready to be collected, aaaaand… nothing. So we waited.

8:45 – nothing.

9 o’clock – still nothing.

Eventually at 9:30, after we had long given up hope of anyone coming at all, a driver pulls up, not knowing himself where we were going. He took us to the travel office where the owner informed us that no other tourists had signed up for the bus (no surprises why now!) and the only way we would be able to get there was to pay more for a private car. An absolute dickish thing to do, and on principle we wanted to walk right out there and then, but we knew at that stage of the morning all the other tour companies would have departed, so we were kinda stuck between a rock and a hard place. And because we had allotted ourselves only two days here, we didn’t have the luxury of postponing it. In the end, all we could do was use our position as disgruntled customers to haggle down the price for a private car, and try to enjoy the day that was in it.

Classic tours: going from Aurangabad to Auranga-worse!

Thankfully, from that point on, we had a great day! The caves were really beautiful and not overly crowded, seeing as it was a Sunday (and seeing as we’re in India). It's another of the country's UNESCO world heritage sites, and work on the caves began over 2,000 years ago! It’s just a shame that they’re so out of the way so most people don’t get a chance to see them.

A point to note for any prospective visitors – the Ajanta Caves are closed every Monday and the Ellora caves are closed every Tuesday, FYI.

There were lots of monks around too, which is always great for photos, but they weren’t just monks going about their everyday business, they were foreign monks on holiday! That meant they were taking pictures of themselves and posing in typical monk-esque ways, so I was able to fire off a few sneaky shots and I really got some crackers!

I do realise the hypocrisy in previously complaining about locals taking photos of us without our permission, and then we do the same thing here, but I feel like there’s a difference. We actually are quite stealthy! Certainly compared to the majority of people we’ve encountered. We’ve even had some, quite literally, shoving cameras in our faces while looking in a different direction, thinking we don’t notice. 

Thankfully, here we didn’t really have any bad experiences in that regard. We still had people asking for photos but at least they were asking. We even had people giving Ais their children to hold!

Despite the early drama, we had a really lovely afternoon, and the next day was equally as lovely, but thankfully minus the initial headache. This time we decided to go back to our roots and do things more DIY, so we made our way to the bus station and grabbed a ride to Ellora. Again, it was kinda more of the same in terms of scenery, but the day was probably even more enjoyable as it was much closer, much quieter and there was just a nicer ambiance overall.

And just like the day before, lots of monks. And just like every historical site, lots of monkeys!

Other moments of note from that day: someone asked if Aisling was Chinese! We get a lot of locals talking to us everywhere we go, enquiring about our names and where we’re from, and they usually might guess that we’re Russian, or German, but never Chinese! We’ve obviously been in HK too long!

It was a big day for Ais too as she tried her hand at quidditch for the first time.

We just found that broom in one of the caves so we decided to have some fun (just in case you thought we were carrying it around with us). There was obviously a janitor out there slacking off. I just don’t think Indian cleaners are as committed as their western counterparts, but that’s probably just a sweeping generalisation! Hiooooooo!

After a few hours of wandering about, and after climbing high above the caves, and more importantly, above the crowds, we made another video diary.

It was around 5pm by the time we made our way back to Aurangabad. Our train wasn’t until half 11, so we had over six hours to kill in town. So what did we do? We checked back into the hotel and paid for another night’s board, even though we wouldn’t actually be sleeping here, just so we had somewhere to relax, shower, watch TV, have food, and most importantly, so we wouldn’t have to spend our evening walking the streets of this God forsaken hellhole! (I guess I might as well finish this entry as I started it!). And to be honest, it was worth every penny.

For now, it’s goodbye, and next, it’s Mumbai! See you then!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Final Adventure - 10th Stop: Goa

A pretty short entry this time around, not because it was a dull or unenjoyable, there just isn’t much to write about when you spend your days lounging on the beach. And that’s what we did for a large portion of our stay in Goa. We knew these would be our final moments of relative peace and quiet as, from here on in, we’re heading into the belly of the beast and the real hustle and bustle of northern India. So for now, we were glad of the tranquil white beaches, and were quite happy to keep things thoroughly easy Goan…

Goa is a province rather than a town or city, so I guess I’m being rather vague with the title of this entry. To be more specific, we were based in the south of Goa, in the vicinity of Palolem Beach, but it felt like we had been transported to a different country entirely. It was completely alien to everything we knew of India; from the atmosphere, the buildings, the people – and not only in terms of attitude, they didn’t even look Indian! This could’ve been any beach side town in Thailand or the Philippines, well, not just any beach side town, a really good one!

We had just over two days here, so we rented a scooter for the duration of our stay. It seems that it’s the best way to travel here, and being honest, I’ve really come to love driving them! I’d never rent one in a big city, as the traffic would just be too manic, but in quiet places like this, it’s not just a means of transport, it’s a delight in itself – having an open road in front of you, the wind in your hair, the sun on your face, and all the usual clichés. Every day we were in town, I’d look forward to the sun going down, just so I could drive back again!

On our first morning, we scooted over to the nearby Palolem Beach and just planted ourselves there for the day really.

I wish I could say more, but that’s about the long and short of it! I did get The Life of Pi at a book exchange in our hostel, so I started reading that, and a fitting place to read it too.

On day two, we ventured further afield and went for a bit of a drive through the countryside to Cabo de Rama – an old Portuguese Fort on top of a cliff. As I detailed already, the best part of the day was probably getting there, as it really was a lovely drive through, just like the rest of Goa, a very un-Indian looking landscape. I probably should have taken some photos…

Cabo de Rama itself was quite cool as well, and we spent a bit of time walking around the walls and down to the water’s edge.

While we were there, we made a quick video diary too:

On our way back, we stopped off at Agonda Beach, a bit quieter than Palolem and probably a bit nicer to boot. It also shattered any illusions we may have had about being in Thailand or the Philippines, we were certainly, very much still in India!

Surf board at his side, just waiting for that perfect wave. Cow-abunga dude!

Cows are a real part of everyday life here, which is to be expected in small towns, maybe a surprise walking around big cities, but I never expected to see them in a place like this with sand beneath their hooves! And not just the odd one or two either, there were actual herds of them!

What are they even doing here?! Wouldn't they be happier roaming around in a nice green valley?

Well, he's trying at least...

We returned to Palolem for sunset, capping our short but very enjoyable stay in Goa. The next morning, we got a car to the airport for our first internal Indian flight. I said before how cheap transport was here; buses, trains and even flying is quite reasonable, so it was worth taking to the skies here and there to cover some of the longer journeys. Our first was a double whammy as we flew, first to Mumbai where we got a bit of traditional Indian lunch…

…and then continued on to our next destination, Aurangabad. We would be returning to Mumbai again shortly, so no need to worry about missing out there. For now, it was a case of two caves in two days, as we visited the artistic marvels of Ajanta and Ellora.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Final Adventure - 9th Stop: Hampi

Originally, when we devised our master plan for this 3 month journey, we had 3 days assigned to Hampi and then 4 days for Goa, which would be our next stop (sorry to ruin the suspense), but due to train timetabling, we had to slightly rejig things. So, that meant we now had 4 days in Hampi, but that was ok as it gave us lots of time to see everything there was to see, and even more time to unwind. Due to this extended stay, we decided to treat ourselves and splash out on a fancy hotel in the nearby town of Hospet.

We had been looking forward to it for a while as we never usually spoil ourselves when it comes to accommodation as we, more often than not, just go for the cheap and cheerful. We were expecting it to be a nice place so, on the way there, we were trying not to build our hopes up too much, in case we were disappointed. We arrived at the hotel and bounded up to reception, eager to be taken to our room, when we were told there was a change of plans. For some reason, our room wasn’t available… and we had been upgraded to the executive suite! Boom! Talk about Hospet-ality!

More like executive sweeeeet! I knew that lucky double bird shit in Sri Lanka would eventually come back around!

We could easily live in an apartment this size! It was probably twice as big as our place in HK! We had the works - a leather couch, a dining table, flatscreen TV and more lights than we knew how to turn on! (In fact there was one bedside lamp that we actually never figured out how to turn off… it’s probably still on now).There was also a swish pool that we frequented as much as possible – a perfect tonic for the hot, Indian sun.

The food was equally as magnificent, so our first order of business (after running giddily around the room a few times in celebration), was to stuff our faces at the breakfast buffet, before we headed out for the day.

358 words in and I haven’t even starting talking about the place we’re actually visiting! Hampi is the former capital of the 14th century, Vijayanagar empire, the ruins of which are now a UNESCO world heritage site. We've been to some ancient capitals before and historical ruins, and sometimes there's barely even a wall left standing, so it's hard to be impressed, no matter how grand the empire once was. But Hampi really is spectacular, right up there with some of the best sights we've seen. Not only how well preserved everything is, but the vastness of the complex and the intricacy of the architecture and carvings. It's impossible not to be impressed.

We were only 13km down the road in Hospet so it was very handy to pop over and back by bus or by rickshaw each day. And during our 4 days in the area, we really saw the best and worst India had to offer. But we’ll come to all of that in time. As it turned out, the annual Hampi festival had just started, and you may think that was superb planning on our part, but honestly, we had no idea! Just a stroke of luck, although, it was probably more bad luck than good, as it just meant that the place was overly crowded. Still, we had two days of festival and two days of peace, so at least we got to experience both sides.

The whole complex stretches over 26 square km, so we had to divide it into a few bite-sized chunks to make sure we got to see everything. On day one, we tackled the area surrounding Hampi Bazaar, the highlights being the symbolic Virupaksha Temple, and the monkey-infested Achutaraya Temple. I've noticed this before but it keeps proving itself truer and truer every time: monkeys love ruins! You go to any ancient city in the world, walk along the streets - no monkeys, visit the shops - no monkeys, but as soon as you pay a visit to some crumbling temple or former citadel - monkeys galore! Such historical connoisseurs.

I just don't know what the attraction is! Well, I guess I do -  people. And more specifically, unsuspecting tourists with, soon to be ransacked, bags of food. They're so sneaky! And a bit intimidating to be honest, some of them are enormous!

Hampi is a lovely place with great natural scenery besides the ancient buildings. It’s like what I imagine the stone age was like, or at least my picture of it from cartoons. I guess what I’m saying is that the landscape is just like the Flinstones, with massive cartoon-esque rocks at every turn. 

Those monkeys were bold, but these rocks are boulder!

Sadly the locals didn’t seem to be embracing a typically Flintstonian lifestyle, which was thoroughly disappointing; no mixing cement in a pelicans beak or using an elephant as a vacuum cleaner, or any such animal based appliances.

The next day, we returned to Hampi once more, this time visiting the Royal Enclosure, including the Lotus Mahal and the Elephant Stables (well, housing a dozen elephants, they’d want to be pretty stable!). It was again really beautiful, and only added to our glowing opinion of the place.

But I did mention there was a negative side and, I hate to say it but, it was the people. They were so rude and obnoxious. We had experienced it on our first day here, but on day two it really went to a new level. Everywhere we went, there were locals gawking at us, shoving cameras in our face, trying to take ‘sneaky’ pics which couldn't have been more noticeable. It was like being celebrities, in the worst possible way! There were people actually asking to take photos with us as well, which we didn't mind, but in the end was just as annoying because once we started posing with one person, a crowd would start to form and suddenly people were queuing up (or just pushing forward, this is India after all) to get in on the act too! So every time someone asked us, it would be ten minutes before we could move on again.

We had this before in China - people staring, always asking for pictures, but it’s very different here. In China, they were just naïve and you were a novelty to them, so they wanted a picture. But here, there was just a different feeling (especially since 99% of the people asking were men), and I think that if it was just me, they wouldn't have had much interest. I know it’s a generalisation, and obviously not true for all, but Indian men are just really sleazy.

Oops sorry, wrong Indians!

But seriously, they’re the worst we've ever encountered. Even when they don’t approach you, just the way they stare is sickening. And I’m not even a woman! We couldn’t just say no either as a) we’re too nice (obviously!), and b) everyone you meet asks you where you’re from, so we didn’t want to give Ireland a bad reputation. In future, we should just say we’re from England and tell them to fuck off!

Some people were actually very polite and respectful though, so I feel bad tarring them all with the same brush.

That afternoon, we returned to the safe haven of our fancy hotel and went for a dip in the pool. It was pretty quiet too, although about 20 minutes later, it suddenly became packed (I guess that’s what happens when you’ve got hot bods like these!). We were done at that stage anyway, so were just happy to sit on the side, but we probably got as wet there as when we were actually in the water! Not from kids splashing us, but from adults actually trying to swim properly, you’ve never seen anything like it – arms and legs flailing in all directions, water flying through the air – it was more like a Jacuzzi than a swimming pool. Now I know why India never win anything at the Olympics!

I feel like I’m being a bit harsh here on the Indian populace, but with over a billion of them around, of course it’s always going to be hit and miss (and mostly miss…).

Seeing as I’m talking about Indian people, here are a few more notes:

- Everyone has a moustache here, I just don’t get the trend! I wouldn’t be surprised if Indian babies come out of the womb with a full blown tache, even the girls!

- Vegetarianism: they're all doing it! Around 40% of the population are meat free, which is a big percentage in itself, but especially when you consider that that equates to almost half a billion people! There are actually more vegetarians in India than the rest of the world combined!

-         -  The Indian head wobble; what is it?! It’s not quite a nod, it’s not quite a shake, it’s just some strange, figure of eight cycle that usually denotes confusion, but frankly could happen at any time.

It’s actually quite helpful sometimes though as it acts as a good tell that someone has no idea what they’re talking about. In other countries, you might be lost and ask for directions, and you only realise 20 minutes later that the person you asked didn’t have the foggiest where they were pointing. At least here, when you see the wobble, you know to immediately forget everything you’ve just heard. I should try to get in a few games of poker before we leave here, you could make a killing!

Thankfully, that was the last day of the festival so the crowds soon departed and we had relative peace and quiet for the remainder of our stay. And so, the next morning, we hired a scooter for ourselves (it's good to be back in a country that doesn’t require silly things like an international licence!) and probably had our most enjoyable day in town.

We spent most of the day just zipping through the countryside. Hampi really is a lovely place with great natural scenery, so there's a lot more on offer than just the ancient ruins. Our only real stop was at the Vittala Temple, famous for its stone chariot which, like everything else here, was incredibly impressive.

I can understand how you'd carve a statue or even a temple out of stone, but how does one go about carving a whole chariot?!

Seeing as we had a bit of peace and quiet, we made our video diary on the grounds:

Final day, and as we had seen pretty much everything of note in Hampi in the three previous, we had the luxury of pure relaxation – a nice treat seeing as our Indian schedule is quite go, go, go. We once again chilled by the pool, ordered some fine food and tried to come to terms with leaving our little palace. (I’m sure every waiter that came up to the room was banking on a huge tip from the ‘big spenders’ in the executive suite. Boy, were they disappointed!) We did also have some work to do, finalising our plans for Nepal in a few weeks’ time, but I’ll save the details of that until we’re actually living it!

The following morning, we were up at the dawn for our next trip west to Goa. There were unfortunately no night trains we could have taken (on this date at least) to speed the journey along, so it was quite a long day for us, 12 hours in total by train, taxi, bus and rickshaw, but we got there in the end, and the pristine white beaches that greeted us made the journey all worthwhile.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Final Adventure - 8th Stop: Bangalore

As we left the sleepy state of Kerala behind, it was time for our first (but by no means last) taste of India's bustling urban life, as we pulled into the country's technological hub and third largest city - Bangalore. Being honest, it wasn't a place that we expected an awful lot from, and we saw it more as a gateway, as opposed to a much anticipated destination in itself. But I'm glad to say that we were pleasantly surprised, and although we only had a couple of days in town, we left Bangalore with nothing but fond memories.

And a huge chunk of that is down to our accommodation, Mass Residency, and more specifically, the owners; brothers Shakir and Sid who couldn't have done more for us during our stay. Right from the moment we arrived, it was just a whirlwind of hospitality, and it felt more like we were staying with old friends rather than being customers in a guesthouse. 

It was the perfect welcome following a night of travelling, and after a lovely breakfast, and taking some time to relax, Sid even escorted us (and a French couple) on a three hour walking tour of the neighbourhood (free of charge of course!). We strolled through various streets and markets, tried some new fruits, chatted with Sid and learned a lot, not just about Bangalore but Indian culture as a whole - a great way to be introduced to a new city, and in many ways, we felt like we were being introduced to India for the first time.

It was especially interesting to learn more about Bollywood and Indian film in general, particularly when we found out that there was a Bollywood movie (a pretty high profile one too) shot in Dublin! Who knew?! We even got to watch a bit of it back at the guesthouse and, production-wise at least, it's probably the best thing ever filmed on Irish soil! Brawling in Templebar, a chase scene on the Luas; my words will never be enough to paint the picture. You'll just have to watch it yourself to appreciate the brilliance! Here's a short clip for you. Enjoy!

And of course, no Bollywood movie would be complete without a song/dance sequence, especially one in Trinity College!

I still can’t get it out of my head. It's so catchy!

When visiting Bangkok at the start of our trip, we branched out and searched for something a bit different to do while in town, which led us to the Escape Hunt - probably one of our favourite things from the trip so far. And in Bangalore, we similarly looked beyond the regular tourist haunts; your temples, your parks, your usual sights. We wanted something new, something we had never seen before, something on another plane entirely...

And indeed another plane we found! Or at least a simulation of one.

The Flight 4 Fantasy experience was just great! It was like being on the Krypton Factor! I was seated behind the controls of a Boeing 737 with a real life pilot beside me, telling me what to do, as I gracefully took off from the old Hong Kong airport, and successfully landed, without a scratch at... the new Hong Kong airport. (Well, they didn't have Cork in the system so my choices were pretty limited). I even got a little certificate (and a keyring!) at the end of the flight, so there's one for my CV!

The next day, we had a bit more of a traditional touristy day, visiting the Vidhana Soudha (the state government building), walking around Cubbon Park and into the main district surrounding Mahatma Gandhi Road, and it was all rounded off with a sunset dinner overlooking the city from 13 storeys up in the aptly named, 13th Floor.

The following afternoon, we finished up in Bangalore, but didn’t have far to travel (by Indian standards at least), taking a three hour long bus ride to the city of Mysore. We only had 24 hours in town, but that was more than enough as there was really only one thing to see – the hugely impressive Mysore Palace. We even went to see it twice! First by night, the evening we arrived, then again the next afternoon, when we got the grand tour.

Unfortunately, I was carrying a bit of a cold during our stay, which was a pain, so while I was trying to concentrate fully on Mysore Palace, I was pretty distracted by my sore head, my sore throat, my sore everything! (You'd think that I made up that situation just for the word play, but I actually was quite sick! I guess on reflection it was the best kind of illness though, one that fits in perfectly with the narrative!)

On our first visit, there was a 45 minute light show which told a story through light, sound, music and spoken word, although it was all in Hindi, so we kinda had to piece it together through the other mediums… Needless to say, we were completely lost. Still, it was nice to see the flashing lights and at the very end, the palace became completely illuminated, so it was certainly worth the 50c admission.

We went again the following afternoon, when the palace itself was open to explore, although you weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, which really was a shame as it was very nice (Mysore - certainly no eyesore!). We were still able to walk around the grounds and take some snaps there, so we certainly got our fair share of pics while in town.

And we made a video diary too!

Apart from that, there was very little to do in town. Our train wasn’t until 18:15, so we were just winding down the hours til then. We found a mall which had a little arcade so we spent a bit of time there on the machines, one in particular -  air hockey. It has become a bit of a rivalry now between myself and Aisling, and the competition is really starting to heat up! We played in Bangalore a few days prior, where I was beaten 3-2 on aggregate (she’s got mad air hockey skillz), but in Mysore I levelled the series with a romping 4-1 victory.

Who knows when we should happen across our next air hockey table to settle this for good…?

We also won a few tickets on some of the other machines which resulted in this grand haul.

Mysore was practically stripped bare!

The time for our train finally came around and we climbed aboard for another whopper of a journey, 14 hours this time, but again, really enjoyable, really quiet and comfortable. And the next morning we were in Hospet, our base of operations for our longest stay anywhere in India; 4 days exploring the old city of Hampi. Stay tuned for that!