A Travellerspoint blog

The North-East, Kolkata and then Chennai

A splendid goodbye to India

all seasons in one day
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From Sasan Gir, we went up to Ahmedabad, and from there caught a direct train to Kolkata, clean across the country. In Ahmedabad, a hotel had collapsed near the station, and it was complete chaos. Apparently 15 people had been killed.

Kolkata, when we got there, was different to the other large Indian cities we had seen. Sure, it's dirty, loud and teeming with beggars, but there are some redeeming features. It has a more present colonial heritage than Mumbai, with lots of crumbling colonial buildings lining the streets. And though it has less glitter and glamor than Mumbai, it has instead a more intellectual feel. Bookshops everywhere, universities, students.

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We did a few days of volunteering for the Missionaries of Charity; Mother Teresa's organization. We helped out in a home they run for mentally disabled children. It was very simple and plain, without any luxuries, but the children seemed fairly well cared for. It was a brief experience, but rewarding and humbling all the same.

From Kolkata, we went to Darjeeling - former hill station and summer retreat for the British Raj. It sits on a mountain ridge at 2134 m. elevation (child's play after Bolivia). Darjeeling, of course, is famous for tea, and we certainly sampled lots of the local brew in the icy weather.
We went to see the sunrise at Tiger Hill, a famous view point, to see a majestic Himalayan sky line. Unfortunately, it was cloudy (very cloudy), and the sun rose as a pale disc in the grey, misty sky. We did get some clear, yet brief, stunning vistas of India's highest mountain (and third in the world I think) Kangchendzonga, as the clouds were blown away. So even without the famous panorama views, and the glimpse of Everest which you can get on a clear day, it was still worth it for the chance to see at least a tiny part of the Himalayas.

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In Darjeeling, we also visited a nice little Buddhist monastery. The colorful decorations, hand painted on the walls, were amazing. This area of India is strongly influenced by Buddhism, due partly to the large influx of Tibetan refugees. It was very interesting to see an example of another of India's great religions, and get a glimpse of a version of Buddhism which differs greatly from what we have seen in Thailand and Cambodia.

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All in all, Darjeeling was a charming, but freezing cold, little town, with a colonial history, its cute toy train from that era, and with a clear Himalayan history, in the form of its Mountaineering Institute founded by Tenzing Norgay (I think that's his name), who accompanied the English climber (don't remember his name) who was the first to climb Everest.

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After Darjeeling, we went to Assam to visit the Kaziranga National Park. This park is home to the majority of the remaining population of one-horned Indian Rhinos. Around 1800 of them live in this park - two-thirds of the world's total.
We went first on a morning safari, which involved riding trough the park on elephants. This was truly amazing. To feel that enormous animal moving, as you float on its back through the tall grass in the misty dawn. Truly lovely. There were several other groups of visitors, and so we made up a veritable herd of elephants stalking around the plains.

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We saw a huge male rhino close up straight away, and several others, including a mother and calf. The baby had yet to grow its horn, and looked quite comical.

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In the afternoon of the same day, we went on another safari, this time by jeep, in a different area of the park. Here we once again saw lots of rhinos - in fact, they were everywhere. It almost seems that the park is overpopulated with them - perhaps they should consider transferring some of them to other parks? Apart from the rhinos, we also saw some birds, and a weird giant squirrel. Lots of deer in the park, and we came across a ranger station where they had a new born elephant baby, which we got out of the car to say hello to. It was so cute! All in all, Kaziranga park made for a great experience.

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After the safaris, we stayed in the village of Kohora for a few days, and then went on to Guwahati, from where we caught a plane to Kolkata. We ended up staying in Guwahati a few days, even though it was a shit hole. We had planned to visit some other places in Assam, but there was a strike on, and no busses were running. So in order not to risk missing our flight, we stayed in town.

Back in Kolkata briefly, we went with a guy from the hotel to a poetry reading. Set on a breezy rooftop, it turned out to be a very interesting evening. It was held by a Bengali poetry group, and numerous poets got up to read a poem or two of their work. Some were in English, others in Hindi, Bengali, Urdu and other languages - a good example of how multi-lingual India really is, and another illustration of Kolkata's intellectual flavour.
We also went to see the Victoria Memorial. A huge marble building, shining white in the sunshine, it was built to commemorate Queen Victoria. It was impressive, and vaguely reminiscent of Taj Mahal, although not as airy or elegant.

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From Kolkata, I flew to Chennai, while Alan flew back to Goa to pick up the dive gear that we had left there. My few days alone in Chennai gave me a taste of what traveling in India as a single woman is like, and there was definitely a marked difference. I got stared at and followed down the street, and one guy nearly drove his bicycle into the ditch because he was craning his neck to stare at me. And I did get annoyed and tired of it, but I never felt unsafe or really threatened - just annoyed. There were always lots of other people in the streets, and I felt certain that if anything serious was to happen, someone would intervene. You can say a lot about India and Indians, and it is definitely a frustrating country, but for every annoying or rude person, there is one (or even two) who are kind and friendly, and who go out of their way to help you.
After a few days, Alan got here with the bags, and in two days we fly out to Singapore. So its now goodbye to India, and I must say that I have really enjoyed it. Amazing country, incredible India.

Posted by monkyhands 14:45 Archived in India Comments (1)

Bandhavgarh and Sasan Gir

Big Cat Diaries...

sunny 8 °C
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Taking a night train to Umaria, we left behind the splendour of Taj Mahal and the squalor of Agra. Lured by tales of tiger sightings told to us by other travellers, we took a bus from Umaria to the village of Tala - accesspoint to the Bandhavgarh National Tiger Park, a 448 sq km park home to some 65 tigers. the park boasts the highest density of tigers of any park in India, and we were optimistic due to the claim of 99.99 % chance of spotting a big cat.
All the same, the regal ruler of the Indian jungle lived up to his elusive nature. On our first jeep ride through the park, we saw two kinds of deer, two types of monkey and several interesting birds. Not bad - but no tiger.

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Next day, we did a morning ride. It was freezing cold, and the jungle was eerily quiet. We didn't see neraly as many animals as the day before. At a quick tea stop, we were told that some of the other jeeps had spotted a tiger. We rushed to that area and waited, hoping he would reappear. No such luck, but we did hear hom roaring in the nearby bushes - what a sound! So deep, like a rumbling thunder. On the way back, we spotted a jungle cat - looked like a mini cougar ( or a vary large house cat) :)

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Spurred on by our increasing success, we went on another trip that afternoon. We returned to the same area, and again we heard the tiger roaring. Amazing. And eventually, he did emerge from the trees. He came sauntering onto the road, with absolute confidence - sent a thrill down all our spines. One of the most beautiful creatures I have ever seen! There were loads of other cars there, and all were jostling for position nearest the tiger (which explains the extremely poor quality of the pics :) ) But the tiger appeared unmolested by this racket, and just walked slowly along, crossed the road and disappeared in the trees. We drove around a bend in the road, and he emerged again. Amazing encounter! Apparantly, he was the alfa male of the area, and he was truly huge and imposing...

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(I know, I know - they're shit, but hey, it's a tiger!).

Encouraged, and perhaps gone slightly mad, from our tiger encounter, we decided to do a completely illogical, insane backtracking train ride across half of India, to visit Sasan Gir Lion Park in Gujarat. Before we got to Bandhavgarh, we had not been aware of this last sanctuary of the Asian lion, and after the tiger we were possesed by a desire to see this other large cat of India! The fact that we had not thought about it earlier cost us about three days of riding trains, as we could have done the park on the way to Rajasthan. Even the best laid plans and all that...
We caught a train from Katni to Jalgaon, then Jalgaon to Ahmedabad, then to Veraval, and from there a bus to the village of Sasan. 36 hectic hours later we were there...

Sasan is a small, remote village, much like Tala, completely focused around the nearby national park. And just like the tigers, the lions of Sasan Gir proved more elusive than we had thought. Given the hype about this lion park in guidebooks and the like (to quote Lonely Planet: ├┐ou'd be unlucky not to see a lion on a safari here"), we were expecting the lions to be easier to spot than the tigers. In fact, they proved to be just the opposite. In Bandhavgarh, we saw a tiger on our third trip - here we ended up doing five trips before we found the lions. Of course, wildlife spotting is always a matter of luck, so we were not complaining.
On our first runs, we saw lots of other wildlife in the park. Lots of deer, like in Bandhavgarh, but also other species. Blue bull, the largest antilope in India (very large animals indeed). A jackal, wild boars, lots of birds.

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All very exciting, but in the end we were itching to find the lions. We could hear them roaring at night, but no sign of them. Finally, we "bribed"a park official, and our luck turned :) The ranger took us off the paths, and we walked on foot (!) into the bush to a spot where they knew of a fresh kill. A huge lioness was there, with two grown cubs. They had feasted on a sambar deer, and their bellies were enormous, hanging down to the ground. Lucky for us, as we were literally standing a few meters away, with only a park ranger with a measley axe for protection. Who knows what would have happened had they been hungry? Talk about an adrenaline rush! When we got to close to the kill, the lioness got up and glared at us, and bared her teeth. Time to leave! The lions were not as beautiful as the tiger, but they were certainly majestic, their sheer strength was impressive. Worth the detour we both agreed!!

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Posted by monkyhands 23:33 Archived in India Comments (1)

Agra

Micro cosmos of India

sunny 10 °C
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Arrived in Agra in the late morning of January 22nd. We were greated by a truly unappealing city. Dirt everywhere, noisy, dense traffic, open sewers overflowing with stinking, blackish sludge. Smell was worse than any other Indian city so far (and that's saying a lot).

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By way of contrast, of course, Agra is home to the world famed monument to love that is the Taj Mahal. And it does live up to the hype: pure, white and ehtereal, like a shining vision. Ordered, symmetrical and clean, it defies the horror of Agra city. It really is a masterful design, set in beatific ornamental gardens. A refuge of peace in a city of filth.

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Moreover, Agra also posseses a suprisingly beautiful Mughal fort, begun in 1565, by the grandfather of Shah Jahan, who was later to construct the Taj.

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And so it is that Agra, at least to me, represents a kind of condensed micro cosmos of the constant paradox that is India. Within it it contains the mundanely ordinary, right alongside the revoltingly, disgustingly ugly, contrasted again by the serenely, sublimely beautiful. What can you really do about such a place, such a country, except love it and, simoultaneously, hate it a little bit - and in any case, simply surrender to it and let it take you over? And that is what we do...

Posted by monkyhands 12:12 Archived in India Comments (0)

Rajasthan - the desert state of India

Three coloured cities - from blue to gold to pink.

sunny 8 °C
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After celebrating the New Year in Arambol, we returned to Maina on the 3rd of January. We spent some time here, with Philo and Preema, and just relaxed. We drank tea on the front porch, walked the dogs and watched the monkeys playing in the trees around the house.

On Janury 14th, Alan's 32nd birthday, we arrived in Jodhpur, after a 30 hr train ride from Margao. It was after dark, and it was exceedingly cold - no tropical heat here, just chilly desert nights! The narrow streets were chaotic, packed with throngs of people. rickshaws, bicycles, cows, camels. It was an unmistakably Indian chaos, and I was exited by the feeling of entering the "real" India, after our undeniably soft start in Goa.

In the dark, you mostly notice the narrow streets and the masses of people and traffic.

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But in the daylight, Jodhpur is dominated by its fort - Meherangarh. It looms high above the city, perched on the edge of a 125 m high cliff.

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The fort, as well as the city itself, was founded by Jodha, a Rajput clan chief, in 1459. Exploring the fort, you come across many interesting details and sights. The walls and gates are impressive for their sheer size, but the living quarters inside are notable for their beauty and delicate decorations. The fort is divided into several courtyards, connected by staircases and walkways. The windows are covered by latticed stone screens, which allowed the women of the court to look out, without being seen. One of the fort's gates still has scars from canonball fire, a remnant of one of numerous battles waged at the fort. It is a tribute to its construction that the fort never once fell into enemy hands.

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Another amazing feature of the fort are the fantastic views over the city from the ramparts. You can see the whole of the old city, centered around the clock tower and the busy market areas. Noticeable from here are the many blue-coloured houses - it becomes apparant how Jodhpur got its nickname of The Blue City. The colour blue was traditionally associated with the Brahmin caste, but today anyone can paint their house blue. It's believed to keep the house cooled in the desert sun, and to help keep moscitoes out. Whatever the reason, it makes for a beautiful view.

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Having thouroughly enjoyed Jodhpur, we made our way to Jaisalmer, in the far west of Rajasthan. Sitting isolated in the Thar desert, Jaisalmer is a city built of golden sandstone. Is is centered around a huge, crumbling sandcastle of a fort, constructed entirely from this glowing, amber-coloured material. Inside the fort there is a warren of narrow, rambling alleys, thronged with goats, cows, rickshaws, motorbikes, souvenir shops, restaurants and people. Despite the busy-ness of the place, and the grandeur of the fort and its central palace, Jaisalmer feels more like a village than a city. The people seem to know one another well, and in the evening men light fires in the alleys and convene around them to talk. And the pace is laid back and relaxed. It's surprisingly cold here though. In the daytime, the sun is hot, but at night it becomes very cold indeed, and you need a woollen scarf or sweater (which, having just come from Goa, we had to buy here).
Walking around the fort feels like being inside some sort of Lawrence of Arabia fantasy. Because the houses inside the fort are still inhabited, the whole fort is still alive, and you feel like you are inside a living museum. The sandstone from which the whole place is built, practically glows from within, earning Jaisalmer its name of The Golden City, yet another of Rajasthan's colourful gems.

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From Jaisalmer we went on a so called camel 'safari' - a camel ride trough the shrubby Thar desert. We opted to do three days-two nights. We rode camels through the desert, ate simple meals by campfire and slept on sanddunes under the stars (well wrapped up for the cold cold desert nights). Given Alan's open dislike of horses, I was surprised to discover that he was more or less a natural camel jockey :) He seemed totally at ease with this awkward, gangly animal. Of course, camels are much more calm than horses, having none of the jumpy nervousness that makes horses so volatile and wonderful. Camels do have their own quiet charm though, and as you become used to their bumpy walking rythm, you relax and just watch the scenery glide by slowly (you could walk faster yourself, but then where would the fun be in that?). We rode across golden cand dunes the same colour as Jaisalmer itself, and visited little villages of mudhuts. All in all a good few days of fun.

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By early morning January 20th, we arrived in Jaipur, capital city of Rajasthan. We were cold and tired, and at first glance the city seemed dirty and unwelcoming. Later on, we found that while Jaipur lacks the immediate charm of Jodhur and Jaisalmer, it does have some redeeming features. The entire old section of the city, including the impressive city wall, is painted a dusty salmon-colour, giving rise to the city's denomination as The Pink City. This adds some coherence and charm to the otherwise unattractive bazaars of the old city centre.

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Then, there is the Hawa Mahal - Palace of the Winds. This is probably the most famous landmark of Jaipur. A whimsical construction, barely more than a facade, built to allow the maharanis, and other women of the court, to observe the life of the city without being seen. It is splendid in its simplicity, like a delicate ornament, and painted in that same salmon tone that gave the city its nickname.

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Next, there is the city palace, which is certainly impressive as such things go, with marble arches, ornamental gates and sunny courtyards. In one such courtyards sits two enormous silver jars - repartedly the largest silver objects in the world. They are supposed to have been used by a maharajah to transport water from the holy Ganges to England (or so the story goes).

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Most impressive in Jaipur though, is Amber fort, located some way outside the city. Like Meherangarh in Jodhpur, it is a huge fortified castle, high up on a hilltop. It too contains a maze of rooms, hallways and courtyards. Most of it appears to have once been painted in colourful designs, although the majority of these have long since faded away. In a central courtyard, there sits a roofed marble pavillon, built from white marble. It is caved with designs of flowers and insects, and inlaid with gemstones and mirrors. It is easy to imagine maharajahs and maharanis reclining here on soft silk cushions, shaded by light, waving silk curtains.

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Posted by monkyhands 13:59 Archived in India Comments (0)

A month in Arambol

Relaxing and recharging the batteries in North Goa

sunny 30 °C
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After the 2nd of December, we movedd up North to the beach town of Arambol. We rented a small 'appartment', with two rooms, a kitchen area and a bathroom with cold water, for a month.
We became more or less vegetarian while here (you need a break from meat after spending any length of time in Argentina), and we started swimming a bit, taking walks, suntanning and reading books. The perfect way to chill out and recharge after our mad dash around Latin America - and before starting another odessey around India.
The beach here is far from undeveloped and empty, but it is still less crowded than the beaches just to the South of here, like Baga and Calanguete, and it is certainly still beautiful. A long stretch of white sand, bordered by a picturesque rocky headland. People reading on sunchairs, cows relaxing on the sand.

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After dark, the beachfront restaurants move their tables out on the sand, and light candles and lamps. Music floats out across the water, mixing with the scent of delicious Indian cooking.

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On the 13th, Jay and Milena arrived. it was great to see them again. We went to the busy flea market at Anjuna, which is obviosly a bit of a tourist trap, but was still fun. Ear cleaners come up and try to convince you that you have soap in your ear, and then proceed to try to clean it with a long metal rod - not very safe I'm sure. Elephant rides are on offer, as are a myriad of souvenirs. Very colourful, and a good way to spend an afternoon - but few real bargains to be had.

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We took walks round the rocky headland. You walk around a bend, between stalls selling the usual offerings of bags, shawls and clothes. Then you have to climb across some black, volcanic rocks. Beyond these, there is a smaller, sandy beach, which is unique due to the freshwater lagoon right there on the beach. Only a narrow stretch of white sand separates the lagoon from the sea. It is a lovely setting - the lagoon backed by tree covered hills, dense jungle-like forest. At either end of the bay, the hills and rocks jut out into the water, sheltering the beach. With only a few huts, the beach feels more isolated than the main beach, and swimming in the lagoon comes close to being the star of a bounty commercial :)

On the 20th, Lisbeth arrived from Denmark for a 10 day stay. We met her at the airport. We spent some days realxing on the beach and catching up. We also went to the local market at Mapusa, the major town in the North part of Goa, and to the Saturday night bazaar at Baga. While the night bazaar is touristy like the Anjuna flea market, it is also a fun way to spend a Saturday night, and it differs from Anjuna due to its many food stalls and the shows and live music going on.

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Mapusa market on the other hands is a more or less entirely local affair, and gives a more 'authentic' look at Goan market life, with stalls of fruits, fish, meats as well as clothing and blankets.

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In Goa, around the central town of Ponda, there are several spice farms, which run tours for tourists. Here it is possible to see how various spices are grown, and later to sample some food made with the local produce. We went with Lisbeth to one called the Savoi Spice Plantation. It was fascinating to walk in the shade of the many trees, and see how spices we are only accostumed to seeing in their dired form, look when they are fresh, adn to see how they grow. We saw pepper, cloves, vanilla, cinnamon, cardamon, chillies, nutmeg and turmeric as well as fruits and nuts such as pineapple, coconut, betelnut and the very pretty roseapple, which I had never tasted before. It was mild and fresh and quite delicious.

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After the tour, they served us a lovely vegetarian meal of veg curry, kingfish, bananaflowers, brown rice and cauliflower pakora, among other things. All in all a great day out.

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On Christmas Eve, we had a dinner buffet in Benaulim, in a restaurant called Pedro's. Unfortunately, I got a stomach ache in the night, and Lisbeth was quite ill all the next day. Food poisening. I guess we should have known better than to eat a buffet in India! So, Christmas day was spent in bed, and we had to cancel our lunch with Philo and Preema. Luckily, it was only a 24 hour thing, and we were better the next day.

We managed a quick visit to Old Goa - the original capital of Portuguese Goa. The chruches there, a remnant of the golden era of the Portuguese empire, are certainly impressive. They are surely unique in their grandour in Asia - but having just arrived from the Catholic stronghold that is Latin America, churches no longer impress us as easily... Still, is was fun to see it.

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We also stopped in at the fish market in Margao. They have great fish there - huge prawns, big pomfrets, tuna and kingfish. To my dismay, they also had baskets full of tiny hammerhead sharks - a most depressing sight!

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Before Lisbeth went home, we went to visit Philo and Preema in Maina. Preema took us round in Margao, and found the best places for Lisbeth to buy some spices and cashew nuts to bring home. The combination is this and all her previous market purchases, filled a whole new suitcase with stuff - good thing she had come out with only hand luggage.

Back in Arambol, we celebrated New Years Eve.

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Posted by monkyhands 23:08 Archived in India Comments (0)

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