Friday, March 21, 2008

Goa, India

After Ajanta, we took an overnight train back to Bombay, checked into a hotel early in the morning and after freshening up, spent the day in the city. That rest, however, was short lived and we checked out of the hotel that evening to catch another overnight train to Goa.

We spent the first two days in Panaji or Panjim, the capital of Goa when it was a Portuguese colony.

Though most people visit Goa only for the beaches, we found the winding back streets and brightly colored houses quite charming.

Portuguese colonial rule ended in 1961 and as one of the last colonial strongholds, Goa has retained much of that influence. There may not seem to be anything special about the street above, but for India the lack of cows is notable. The effect of missionaries in Goa has not been forgotten as the area is home to one of India's highest concentrations of Christians. The Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception church (pictured below), built in 1541, is one of the town's most famous landmarks.

The food, however, blends the best of both Indian and Portuguese cuisine - curried fish goes well with pastries from the bakery.

Pictured below: Chili peppers set out to dry along one of Goa's narrow streets

We spent one day walking around town where we saw an interesting Hindu temple and a few smaller churches.

The next day we tried to take a cooking course, but unfortunately found our instructor as knowledgeable about Indian cuisine as we were. Fortunately though the extra time that day gave us the opportunity to update blogs and get in touch with loved ones.

The next morning we headed to the bus station and spent the morning on two buses, heading towards the beaches. We arrived in Palolem slightly after noon and walked through a few local's back yards before finding our hotel. The word hotel is somewhat relative as there are no real hotels, at least in the western sense, only a few people renting out bamboo shacks.

The town caters largely to tourists but there is still a local fisherman population that's not entirely tourism related. Aside from one or two businesses, there are no two storey buildings to be seen and most businesses and hotels are strictly made of bamboo.

We spent two days on the beach and one exploring nearby Patnam beach. The two beaches are nearly identical in that they are both about 2km long and crescent shaped with brilliant white sand. One of the few identifying features is the small island just at the north of Palolem right next to our hotel (see photo above), while Patnam had less defined, rocky outcroppings at both ends. Unfortunately I didn't bring my camera out until sunset at the very last night so please excuse these not so clear pictures of Palolem.

We rented a scooter for about $5 and headed north to Patnam beach. After traveling over the same stretch of road about five times, we finally found the small turnoff for the beach and parked our bike for the day.

The palm trees and small huts are unique in Palolem and Patnam, most of Goa's other beaches are more developed.

We spent one day on Patnam's nearly deserted beach. Unfortunately the Arabian Sea was not as clear as the water in Thailand, but the water was a cool and refreshing break from the 90+ degree days.

The photo below gives a good idea of the "development" in Patnam and Goa.

The few days in Palolem and Patnam were a great way to unwind from the sensory overload that is India. Unfortunately we couldn't leave straight from the beach and had to take a bus then a bus then a taxi then a train then a taxi then a plane before we arrived in our final destination, Livingstone, Zambia more than 50 hours later. One upside of the trip was that we had enough time in Bombay to enjoy a few glasses of chai tea and dinner in our favorite restaurant before leaving the country.

Buddhist Caves at Ajanta

We took an overnight train from Bombay to Aurangabad, a town a few hundred kilometers to the west. After a great deal of confusion, a two hour train ride in the opposite direction, a lot of bargaining with cab drivers and a few hours in a car, we finally arrived in Ajanta, home of the famed Buddhist Caves .

The complex consists of 29 caves dug into the rock wall of a horse shoe shaped river bank. The caves are believed to have been created in two phases. Only five caves were excavated in the first phase which took place in the second century AD. The second, and much larger, phase began in the 400s AD when the remaining 24 caves were excavated.

The later caves feature grand carvings of Buddha and in many the original paint is still visible.

Some of the paintings are simply aesthetic patterns, like the one shown above, while many depict religious scenes or the Buddha, like the one shown below.

Some of the caves are tall and narrow, like the one shown below, but most of the caves are short and very wide with column as supports, like the second picture.

The main Buddha carvings are the centerpiece of most caves but my favorites were often simple decorations leading in to the caves (above) or on support columns (below).

As we were leaving, a group of school children swarmed Ellie and I asking if they could take pictures with us. We were all too happy to oblige, but only on the condition that we could take a picture with them.

After a few hours in the caves, the sun was beginning to set and we needed to get back to Aurangabad to catch the train. After a few minutes waiting by the road, we waved down a creaky old bus and hopped on. There were three passengers on bench seat and a few standing in the aisle but all were surprisingly helpful as we struggled to find a place for our over sized baggage.

We got back to Aurangabad in time for a big dinner and a brief stop at an internet cafe before boarding the train back to Bombay.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Bombay / Mumbai, India

We left Jaisalmer on the morning of February 22nd and took two flights ending in Delhi before hopping on an overnight train to Bombay. After a quick shower, we grabbed lunch next door at Leopold Cafe and Bar, a famous local bar that's been in operation since 1871. Our hotel and Leopolds are both located in Colaba an area of southern Bombay, popular with tourists Indian industrialists. We wandered around Colaba for a few hours in search of Flora Fountain (pictured below) where book vendors sell used and new photocopied books most days. After a few hours we found ourselves with a small library of books and a great feel for the area's British colonial charm.

The next morning we woke up early for a day packed with sightseeing. The first stop was Mani Bhavan, the Gandhi's home base in Bombay from 1917 to 1934. After Gandhi's death, the home was converted into a museum containing his photos, letters and books. Shown below is the humble room where he spent much of his time.

From Mani Bavan, we walked south to Chowpatti Beach. Hindus flock to the beach each year for the ten day Ganesh Chaturthi celebration when they immerse idols of Ganesha in the Arabian sea. Many of the buildings along the beach are leftover from the British colonial era - they are often dilapidated but still beautiful.

Occasionally we would walk by something and I would think "this looks just like Hong Kong," or "this is a modern city just like any other" then I would see something like this and remember what makes Bombay unique.

Pictured below: an ox card parallel parked in downtown Bombay

From Chowpatti beach, we took a taxi to Crawford Market. The Gothic style building was completed in 1869 and features carvings (on the far left side in the photo below) by Rudyard Kipling's father, Lockwood Kipling. The inside is packed with stalls of vendors selling everything that you might find in a modern grocery store, from personal hygiene products to poultry.

Sadly most of the vendors were closed as it was Sunday so we decided to come back the next day and head to the waterfront in the meanwhile. The most prominent landmark in Bombay's harbor is the Gateway to India, a 26 meter tall basalt archway built to commemorate King George's visit in 1911. Unfortunately the arch is currently under construction. The adjacent Taj Mahal Palace hotel is a prominent landmark as well. The hotel could easily be confused with a colonial era government building but was actually built by an Indian industrialist after he was refused admission into a "whites only" hotel. We walked north from the arch to the Churchgate area, passing by Oval Maiden along the way. The park is one of the few places in Bombay where people can gather to play cricket. Unfortunately there is not enough space for everyone to play so many games overlap with wickets from different games less than ten meters apart.

Finally, we walked northwest passing by Flora Fountain to what is perhaps Bombay's finest monument to British imperialism, Victoria Terminus. Though most people still refer to the train station as Victoria Terminus or simply VT, its name has formally been changed to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in accordance with the controversial renaming policy. The train station, built in 1888, is so large that it defies capture in one single photograph. The design, however, is so intricate that one single photograph could not do justice to the building's Victorian Gothic style. Hopefully the two following two photos will give a sense of buildings scale and rich complexity.

Having walked all over the city, we decided to take a taxi back to our hotel in Colaba where we both promptly collapsed in bed, exhausted from our day of rigorous sightseeing.

The next morning we headed back to Victoria Terminus where we spent a frustratingly long time waiting in line for train tickets. Fortunately we were able to get the tickets we needed and managed to make some friends along the way. We spent the remainder of the day exploring Bombay's now bustling fruit, spice, textile, jewelry, and poultry markets which all happened to be right next to each other. Along the way, we stopped to try sweet paan. The local specialty is made of coconut, Indian spices and a marachismo cherry wrapped in a betel leaf.

The next morning we took an hour long ferry ride out to Elephanta Island, one of many small islands in the Bombay harbor. The island, while still wrapped in a haze of pollution, seems far away from the hustle and bustle of Bombay. The most prominent attraction, and really the only reason anyone visits the island, is a series of caves containing Buddhist statues.

The caves, thought to date as far back as 890AD, were entirely man made and cover an area of 60,000 sq ft. Unfortunately the lighting was very poor and I didn't have a tripod so if you're interested in more photos, please check out the wikipedia entry.

That evening we left Bombay headed for Ajanta, a more elaborate but less famous group of cave carvings 300km west of the city.

Of course, I couldn't post about Bombay without touching on Bollywood. The following link is a song and dance routine from a recent movie, Om Shanti Om. The song, Deewangi Deewangi, is still wildly popular a year on and almost inescapable.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Jaisalmer, India

We had an unfortunate 12 hour layover on our flights between Varanasi and our next stop, Jaisalmer. Unfortunately both Ellie and I were too stubborn to get a hotel room for the evening and decided to try our luck in the airport. We quickly got bored and borrowed a luggage cart to go off in search of an internet cafe. Sadly the mission was unsuccessful. When we got back to the airport, a sympathetic airline staffer let us into the premier lounge where we spent the remaining time filling up on snacks and pastries.

Nearly a full day after leaving Varanasi, we arrived in Jaisalmer. The small desert town sits on the border of India and Pakistan in the state of Rajasthan. Running on chai tea alone, we had enough energy to book a camel safari and grab some real food before falling asleep.
Pictured below: lunch in a hotel decorated in the style of the British Raj

The next day we took a tour through town on a moto-rickshaw. Our first three stops were havelis, or old mansions with intricate carvings.

Our next stop was the old fort. Perched on a ridge high above the city, the fort is still home to nearly a quarter of the city's residents. Looking out from the top of the fort the city, built from all local materials, seems to blend into its surroundings.

The next morning we woke up early so we would not miss the highlights of Jaisalmer's desert festival, camel decorating and camel polo.

We took a moto-rickshaw to a stadium two kilometers outside town where hundreds of locals and tourists were already mulling about before the days festivities. The camel, pictured below, placed in the camel decorating competition.

Pictured below: an officer from India's equivalent of the Canadian Mounties rides a camel adorned with colored cotton balls and small mirrors

Pictured below: riders from the Camel Polo Association of India, Jaisalmer wait for their match to begin.

The red shirted team from India's Border Safety Force trounced the local Jaisalmer camel polo team.

After eating lunch far too quickly, we hopped in a jeep and drove 35 kilometers outside the city to meet up with our camel drivers. We rode for about two hours that afternoon with temperatures rising above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

We spent the majority of the ride in dry, dusty areas like the one pictured above but spent the evening in sand dunes.

Pictured above: one of our camel drivers, Hussein, poses on top of a sand dune
Pictured below: me romping about the dunes

As the sun began to set, another camel caravan walked along a nearby ridge.

So we ran up to the top of the ridge to get a few sunset pictures.

As sunset turned to twilight, we turned around to see the gloriously full moon. It gave off so much light that evening that we didn't need a flashlight and our camera tripod cast a shadow. Although the desert was oppressively hot during the day, the temperature plummeted at night and I was happy to wander back to our campsite where my sweater and warm food were waiting.

The next morning, our camel drivers prepared a breakfast of chai tea, toast, and jam then saddled up the camels before we headed out.

The photo above shows me, the camel drivers, and the camels that Ellie and I rode. Everyone, it seems, was happy to be in the picture except my camel, Raj. He was the most cantankerous of all our camels and as a result, I felt the need to give him constant pep talks.

Later that day, we visited our camel driver's village. The children came running out to greet us decked in long shirts and salwar kameez. The older women wore beaded saris and nose rings that seemed to cover their entire nose. A closer examination of the photo below shows the large necklaces and bracelets that women in this area traditionally wear.

The family patriarch spoke enough English to invite us in for chai tea. We sat around sharing our pictures of home while the children peered in curiously.

We rode for another hour before stopping near a small brush to escape the sun and prepare lunch. We read, ate and rested for two hours while the camels wandered around eating whatever brushes they could find. After another hour the camels stopped for water, each drinking about five gallons in as many minutes. Finally, sore and covered in dust, we arrived at our final destination - the camel races. A few thousand, mostly local, spectators had driven 40 kilometers outside the city to watch the races. Apparently 66 camels competed in the ten races but only a little over half of them ever crossed the finish line. Those that did usually barreled into a wall of spectators who hopped out of the way and merrily claimed to have been trampled by the winner.

The remaining camels usually rode off perpendicular to the course after a few meters despite their riders best intentions to keep them going straight. Camels are, by their nature, ornery beasts.

The next morning we did some last minute shopping before sadly heading to the airport. The difficulty with visiting so many places in such a short time is that you never get to spend enough time in the places you like. Jaisalmer has been my favorite place in India thus far.