The blog zone is a short web-based doodle book of my time in India over the winters of 2002 - 2003, 2003 - 2004, 2004 - 2005 and 2005-6
the blog zone

travels in India over the winter, 2003-4

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16 February 2004

Not drowning, waving.

 Background sounds: Whirr of an airconditioner

Ever tried turtle stroke in the water? I'd be surprised if you answered "yes," because I've just been developing it as a swimming stroke. Not to be too possessive of it, I've released it under the General Public Licence to swimmers everywhere to use and add to as they wish. It's basically a backstroke with out-and-down arm movements, legs moving singly to wiggle through the water (toes locked together, takes a bit of practice, but then I have been working on the stroke over ten years). Not a fast stroke - in fact rather a slow, ponderous one - but it gives superb exercise, especially to muscle groups in the back and shoulders which in me are often cramped from sleeping in undersized Indian beds. It also seems to attract dolphins - read on...

Confidence was premature when I spoke of expecting to see a turtle soon. In fact, the dead Olive Ridley Turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea) on Agonda beach I saw about three weeks back (no obvious physical damage to it, cause of death unknown to me) has been the only turtle encountered on this trip. The number of nests on the beach so far this year is less than half last year's number. Six have hatched successfully, apparently. I can't help drawing a parallel between falling turtle nest numbers and a big increase in shacks, huts and lights on the beach-front, but then that's only a hunch with my observations from two years.

There are advantages of ploshing around, on your back, doing turtle stroke in the Arabian sea. You might attract a dolphin, as I did just three days back. It swam four metres from me, did slow dive in the water, the classic "U-" shaped form, showing off its dorsal fin and making a gentle, almost sighing, sound in the water. It was an uplifting sight in the late afternoon, sun glinting off the wet, brown skin, and the first time I'd seen a dolphin so close to the beach in India (I've see them "surfing" in actual breaking waves in Australia, but never from so close as I saw this one in Goa).

There were obviously a lot of fish around this particular offshore rock I'd been swimming around for over thirty minutes. Next to be glimpsed in the water were a pair of sea otters. I had no idea that the shadowed profile of snouts poking from the surface and then disappearing were anything other than the floating stem of a banana tree creating odd shapes as it turned in the water, until I saw a little flapping paw, and the unmistakeable chewing action of small jaws. This morning I saw the pair again, and was able to see the body outline of one animal - about the size of a small dog. When I told local people, they were surprised to hear I had seen sea otters, but confirmed that they do exist around the coast here.

11 February 2004

Overlanders as swallows.

 Background sounds: Whirr of an airconditioner

With the call of the brain fever bird growing ever more insistent in a morning, the signs are unmistakeable of a warm-up in the Goan weather. In Marati, the name of this bird is paus ala, which means, "the rains are coming."

We're a long way away from that time in the first week of June, but the afternoon siesta - which seemed quite an indulgence in January - flows over the body naturally with the solid heat of afternoon. Even at five in the afternoon, sitting on the beach is warm work.

Some of the overlanders' trucks, that have been parked here by Agonda beach since my arrival, have moved on. Three from Germany left yesterday. One or two uproarious Sundays with boozy outsiders from Karnataka playing overloaded filmi soundtrack "music" at their end of the beach probably didn't help. Like swallows, they huddled together around their trucks ands vans to plot future moves on the road. Then... gone into the void, the blue beckoning sky. Of course, it is the opposite of how swallows behave (leaving when it's getting warm, I mean - not driving overland trucks), but both seem indicators of something slowly changing.

The people who own the small room I'm staying in at the beach have no dog. They keep a large number of pigs, which root around in the laterite dust (and, sadly, plastic water bottles) around the restaurant. One mystery was solved yesterday: the eruption of piggy grunts and growls from a scrum of porcine snouts several times each night is not anything to do with territorial fighting, just a nursing mother angrily chasing away quite grown piglets, who sneak up for a suckle while she's asleep. Bullocks sleeping under the washing line make it a challenge to shake out and hang t-shirts some mornings - I figure that shaking a rag 2m from the face of a large bullock is a near replication of Toreador antics. Fortunately, none of my shirts is red...

6 February 2004

Give me one (serviceable) pen!

 Background sounds: Whirr of an airconditioner

It took me a trifle longer than most people to begin typing after sitting down in the 'Net cafe. Being left-handed, I needed to swap the position of the mouse - try using it on the left of the keyboard to get an idea of how it feels if I'm unable to swap it. In most places, moving the mouse is easy, though some 'Net cafe operators just cannot conceive of anyone using the mouse in their left hand (Satyam iWay are particular offenders here) and don't allow the cable to reach that far.

But rather as a Macintosh computer user gets to weather the bias in a Windows world, I've learned to be patient in the right-handed one. I think it began with learning to write at school, where we used "fountain" pens (it was best when the pen didn't behave like a fountain) and an inkwell in the desk. The pens needed dipping into the ink twice per sentence. Writing with the left hand using a nibbed pen requires the skill of not smudging what has already been written, as well as being able to read it and write smoothly. Some lefties curve their hands around the paper, which looks awkward. Even when you have the writing hand position sorted, the nib on a pen is specifically angled to suit guess who? That's right - the 85%, the right handers - so often scrapes and scratches into the paper when held at the angle a left-handed writer prefers to use.

I do enjoy the fluidity of line and expression that an ink pen gives, but even by using so-called "left handed nibs" I've never had real smoothness from fountain pens... there's always some part of the page that got speared by the nib. Ballpoint pens are dreadful in all respects: they offer no variation on the line width, and always for me produce globules of ink that need periodic wiping of the tip if you are not to make a sizeable blot at the bottom of a page from clods of solid ink building up in the tip. Yet they are really all that there has been to write with aside from the "felt-tip" type pens, which usually start well (about the first ten sides they write), then become less sharp and squeakier as they age disgracefully. Not remembering the whole story, I bought two, Mitsubishi roller ball pens for writing in my journal on this trip (I try to write at least two sides each day). Each pen lasted less than ten days before only engraving-tool pressure would coax a line from it.

Then I tried gel. Have you tried gel? You should. Gel pens are cheap and plentiful in India, and they are not a gimmick. They are fluid and responsive like a fountain pen, but rugged like a ballpoint. Since using gel ink pens, I've not once had to curse the thing I'm writing with. Their only drawback is that the ink refill in each lasts a surprisingly short time, but that's a small price to pay.


3 February 2004

My pillow billows in the wind 

 Background sounds: Whirr of an airconditioner

With February's blustery arrival in Goa, the wind has begun to warm. Even so, to me and quite a few other regular Goa-goers, it feels cooler this year than for some time. After yesterday's cloudy presence (it was Eid-ul-Azar - so a holiday - but beaches were only lightly used throughout the day by either Western or Indian visitor), the wind has left these shoreside slopes, lightly clad in cashew trees, and lifted up over the Western Ghats.

Whatever weather effect was at work yesterday seemed to pull the dolphins in. For an hour before sunset, a school was in the bay of the beach I'm staying on. One member leapt spiritedly out of the water every few minutes, often doing four jumps in rapid succession ending on a sommersalt and noisy tail-flop! It was spectacular, and more unusual for being viewable from the beach. As I looked along the sunset tribe gathered to attend the sun's downing, all were captivated by the splashy spectacle happening just out in the waves.

I'm hopeful for more turtles coming in to dig nests in the sand for their eggs now the full moon is nearing. I even thought that I detected bobbing heads in the water yesterday noon, but it might have been the dolphin school. There are just three nests protected on the beach this year, contrasted with seven at the same time last year.

24 January 2004

News you can use.

 Background sounds: Whirr of an airconditioner

The newspapers in Goa feature stories which would never pass the desk of the copy editor outside India, like the recent snippet of a man who threw himself into a well and remained there for five days, demanding a new house or one hundred thousand rupees before he would come out. Or the one about the police who drove their car into a pond and needed to be rescued. Headlines often come brutally descriptive, such as this one:
"Scooterist dies when a tree branch falls on his head"

These are two stories which could have been included in the "local news" columns, but haven't as yet been reported:


The Goa bench of the Mumbai Supreme Court yesterday cleared the way for the Spittle Restriction clause of the new Union Health Bill to be enacted before the end of the current Parliament.

Observing that more deaths occur in Goa from swallowing excess spittle than do from road mishaps, local Health Minister Dr. Sammy Tavares said that it was in everyone's interest to get a grip on the growing spittle menace.

"Nobody needs to carry more than 10 ml. of spittle in their mouths, and we intend to get tough with those who disregard the new spittle restrictions." Police, he added, will be given new powers to stop and measure the spittle in the mouths of those behaving suspiciously (for example, a person riding a two-wheeler with a hand covering their mouth).

Any suspect having more then 20ml of spittle in their mouths will be sent to a new rehabilitation centre being built outside of Baina with money from the Mother Teresa Sisters Of Charity.



Observing that over 70% of tourists to the Cavalossim beach are aged 60 or over, Goa's Tourism Department is hailing as a success the take-up of "beach surfing" along this beach. As the sea waves are somewhat modest outside of the monsoon months, visitors can avail of an alternative experience by surfing along the beach.

Teams of decorated bullocks are taking a rest from ploughing rice fields and pulling tourists through the "wavy" sand. "It's slower, so people feel a lot safer surfing through the sand than in the water," said Manuel Furtado of the Old Anchor Resort on the beach.
"Sand surfing also opens up the option for tandem or family surfing, since more people can fit on the boards we use." There is no special equipment required, added Manuel, most resorts are using upturned restaurant tables as the surfboards, and participants receive a free certificate of achievement at the end.

But that's not all. Beachgoers with an unquenchable appetite for extreme sports can surf the "Big Wave" course at nearby Varca beach. Reformed and re-trained rag-pickers are employed to rake the sand into challenging shapes - with double bullocks at the pulling end, some exciting surfing can be had: loops, spins, barrel drops and wipe-outs are common.

(by local reporter)

18 January 2004

The myth of "limitless jungle".

 Background sounds: Whirr of an airconditioner

It died some time ago without my even explicitly noticing it had gone. Like peering hard into a space in the dark one knows holds an outline of a shape, I can contemplate what I've lost if I think about it hard enough. Only problem I face is knowing when it went.

Let's go back to where it all began. My first tropical travels, to Malaysia and then Australia, were in places with what seemed like boundless kilometres of land covered by trees - "jungle" in Malaysia, "bush" in Australia. Here I am in this little clearing, all aound me is the mass of the jungle, stretching so far that nights would have to be spent in the trees in order to reach another open space or coast. Yep: I'd been raised on too many Blue Peter (a British children's TV programme) specials to Africa, or maybe Joy Adamson and her colonial notions of "squatters" polluting the unspoilt Serengeti plains.

After leaving Australia, I found my encounters on the overland route through South-East Asia didn't dispel this perception - nay, enchantment - of being surrounded by the mass of trees and jungle life. Well I remember sitting in the steamy heat of a riverside hut at the apex of Thailand's Golden Triangle (Sop Ruak) in 1980. Looking across the wide, muddy river to Burma and then to Laos, there didn't seem to be much more out there than jungle. All through Sumatra (a genuinely dense jungle land in 1980 - this was before the massive deforestation push in the eighties tied in with transmigration) and Burma I often would find myself in small villages where, to step a mile beyond on the track in would be to go into the swirl of fireflies and squeaking creatures in the trees.

Then I landed in Calcutta. Unbelievably, I hung on to the vision of the colonial, "jungle out there" fastness and clearings in the tapestry of forest. Calcutta is a big place, surely, but I'd seen the pictures of routes over to Bangladesh and had seen what looked like an unbroken stretch of green before Dacca. North - well, that was the start of the Himalayan foothills and the next wave of jungle.

When my illusion collapsed is, as I said, difficult to tell. Yet it has gone: last night, sitting on the beach under a canopy of starlight while cicadas chirped in the trees, I knew I could not envision Goa, or the Konkan coast, as a stretch of unbroken green on the side of the Arabian Sea with villages carved out of the jungle. I can't do that with India now. In nearly twenty-five years the ground has changed - there are simply fewer areas of forest that join together, and they have all become eaten away at the edges. I've also changed, and I wonder if the "myth of jungle" isn't an entirely townie construct that matches well with nature programmes and travel agents' posters promising an untouched portion of the planet we know simply cannot exist.

10 January 2004

Getting some things together for the beach.

 Background sounds: Distant slush of waves on gleaming sands, voices of coconut sellers at Colva Beach, Goa

Arriving in Goa for a month's stay isn't quite as involved these days as ten years back. Then, the shopping manifest included items like kerosene and denatured spirit. Kerosene was often hard to find in the standard general stores because it is a rationed item, and I'd often be forced to hunt around the low-lying places of Margao's market for black-market kerosene, obtainable at three times the price and in minimum quantity of five litres (rather too much for my kero-parsimonious Optimus stove). I eat all my meals in restaurants now, so the complete thali service (plates and dishes) isn't needed either.

We'll overlook the fact my train was four hours late arriving in Margao, so I eventually got to sit in bed, showered and unpacked, with my cup of hot chocolate at slightly before one in the morning. Cup of hot chocolate? Yes, through the miracle of technology, all that smelly hardware and priming fuel from earlier days has been replaced with a simple electric element which can boil water for hot drinks or cooling.

Start shopping list:
1] One bicycle, colour - green.

This was an easy acquisition. Mr Aboo's shop down the Station Road in Margao can be recommended for quick service and reasonable prices. My "Hero" cycle (I try to remember it is called a Jet when I'm creaking up hills) took less than an hour to outfit with necessary bits. I really am squeezed like a Smurf with the 23" frame, but a larger one is harder to sell at the end, so I'll stick with the "caution - wide load" sign on each knee and a thousand Rupees returned to my pocket at the end.

Continue list:
2] Shorts, swimming gear, beach bag.

I heaved things into my rucsac without considering that I might eventually end up somewhere where a down jacket and heavy mountain boots are not suitable garb. Again, though, very easy to obtain just outside the covered market in Margao. Quality of the swimming shorts was abysmal, but at only forty rupees they are a "Spring 2004 Collection" fashion special.

Tougher item:
3] Good room near beach, but peaceful

I knew Colva couldn't provide peace, although rooms near the beach are still quite good value at this South Goa beach. I took the bicycle on the top of the bus to Canacona, then went through Palolem (initially a retreat from Colva/ Benaulim, now even more bustling) to the southern beach of Patnem-Collem. I wanted a small room with a balcony, and the traditionally-built house I inspected seemed to offer the peace I was looking for. I heaved bags off the back rack, set out my little corner table with offerings of sunscreen and notebooks, and then went out to secure a swim followed by late lunch.

Nothing disturbed my afternoon siesta and later sunset ramble along the tide line. It was in the calm of the night that the ghastly noises began. From all around me, corpses breathed into life from the depths of a Kingfisher coma. They began coughing. How that coughing went on! One man, surfacing from what sounded like a nightmare, uttered the words, "No, aghhrr - no, no, no!!!" and then breathed in gasps like a rescued swimmer for the next five minutes.

It was hardly peaceful material for a light sleeper like myself, and the next day I changed rooms and beaches. Where to? As if I'd be telling you here!

5 January 2004

A few days in Mandu.
 Background sounds: Drumming of traffic on the main road in Indore

"The road ahead is a little rough," warned Dinesh. He wasn't really being totally honest. The road turned out to be utter crap: bands of tarmac spreading thinly over a brown mud which had been ground into fine dust by the tiny hooves of goats and sheep. Yet this felt like the heartland of India - Madhya Pradesh. Dinesh was a seventeen year-old local, returning from the town where he was working to visit his grandparents.

For me, Dhar was just a bus-change on the way from Indore to Mandu, but it was where Dinesh lived his life. As we shook and shuddered our way along the road, he explained to me that he has been an orphan virtually since birth, as his father had died and his mother deserted him in his first year. His grandparents had taken on the job of raising him, and he was brought up an only child in a family of farmers. Now he worked six days each week in a bank in Dhar, and visited the family, 30km away in a village just before Mandu. He wasn't content to be a clerk in the bank, however. Dinesh had ambitions to get qualifications to be an electrical engineer. He was bright and had saved money to buy a couple of text books. However, it wasn't going to be easy with a 8am to 6pm job, and just two hundred Rupees each week left from his salary after he'd paid the Rp300 rent on his little room in Dhar.

I see Dinesh as rather typical of the new generation of Indian, with potential to move upwards in skills and earnings. Yet in other ways he is very untypical. Raised as an only child, and now living on his own (when I asked if it wouldn't be more economical to share a room, he agreed but told me that his privacy was more important than economy), he enjoyed the peace and quality of life of living in a small regional town in the middle of farming communities, but had no illusions about the "nobility" of following such a life himself. Perhaps when he got rich, he told me, he would return to this part of MP and raise fruit trees for a hobby. His village was 5kms. before Mandu, and I wished him good luck as he got off the bus for his "weekend home visit."

The road improved as it swung through the imposing gates of Mandu, but then, tourists were always more important than locals going home for the weekend.

2 January 2004

I'm a second-class sleeper... 

 Background sounds: cows bellowing and cycle rickshaw wallahs yelling in Pahar Ganj, Delhi.

Other passengers on the overnight train from Pathankot didn't say anything, but it was clear - as I climbed down from my top berth - that I was suffering from Cheap Indian Belt Syndrome. Already eight hours into a journey which was to be delayed by fog for many more hours, my trousers hung comically loose, with the poor, vinyl imitation "leather" belt poking uselessly, flappingly through the loops. I'd known the belt would end its days on this trip (I'd bought it last year in Delhi, believing it to be real leather, not cotton coated with black plastic), but hadn't allowed for the heavy wear and tear that travelling on trains puts on a cheap belt.

This is my question to the world: is it possible to have a first class sleep in a second-class Indian sleeper during winter? My own answer would be that it IS, but only if you come prepared with enough warm sleeping gear. With all the little air leaks around windows and doors, the carriages are quite breezy places to sleep in, and at night in low temperatures this makes some form of warm covering essential. Carrying all of my camping equipment, I was well kitted for low temperatures, but the sleeping bag I have is suitable for twenty degrees below freezing, and too big to fit on the petite sleeping shelves of a second-class sleeper, as well as being another item to guard against being stolen when leaving one's seat. So I improvised with two shirts, fleece jacket and hat, plus my down jacket spread over me. It was manageable, but I was greatly troubled by a chill wind whistling around my ears.

It is rather an art learning to arrange one's possessions before settling down to sleep. Everything must be locked and immovable. Indians often share their sleeping berths with tottering piles of suitcases, boxed TVs, children and mounds of shawls and blankets. When going with a rucsac, I prefer to lock that with a chain under the seat, then arrange my day pack of valuables on the sleeping platform beside me. Wedged in like this, it needs care and dedication to turn over in the night. I always choose the top berth, which has more advantages than the other two positions. First, it is always there, and on a longer journey that is great for an after-lunch siesta. Then it is removed from the general thrum and throttle of beggars and sellers walking the corridors at all hours. Its main disadvantages are that anyone smoking below will fill the scant breathing space with tobacco fumes, and the effort required to climb up and down.

This last reason alone is enough to make it unappealing to many Indians, and you almost never see a woman sleeping in the upper, "inside" berths (by inside I mean those berths that are arranged at right angles to the rails; the berths running parallel to the rails are slightly lower, and often used buy women with children). Climbing up or down is itself an art if you're 1.85m like me. In order to lie flat on the berth, you need to be seated well back on the sleeping platform. After tackling the hand and footholds and clambering onto the top level, a body must then complete a half-turn in mid-air and sit. With a quick, jack-knifing action feet are then placed at the bottom of the bed and push the reclinee up the cramped platform. You'll need to be sure you have taken your shoes off first at this point, as there isn't enough headroom simply to sit up and reach your feet.

Our train's arrival in Delhi was more than six hours late. It was noon, but the city appeared to be just at dawn: a diffused, watery grey light from the fog. Luckily (luck doesn't really come into it here: I knew what to expect and had prepared my departure) I had a ticket the same evening for the more balmy destination of Indore, somewhere I hoped would be far enough south to escape the chilling clamp of fog. I had some time in Delhi to shower and change clothes for the next stage, and to repack my gear for tropical travel. Yes, and to look for another belt.

31 December 2003

Weasels ripped my flesh, moths consumed my socks.
 Background sounds: Busy tippy-tapping typist finger sounds, combined with distant temple horns and bells and staccato Tibetan voices in McLeod Ganj.

They were supposed to be Llama wool socks. Now I'm in the place not of llamas but LAMAS I discover that my two pairs of boot socks, worn over a thinner pair, are so badly holed that they will be ready for the rubbish once I'm away from mountains and places that need boots. Packed away neatly at home for over six months, they must have been attacked by moths

It is a fate that befalls every December thirty-first blogger: Now you are writing, what's the prognosis on the year just gone? Now, the end of a year is such a delicate thing. Look at it with normal vision and it's a blunt tip like a pipe stem, ending abruptly in space. Examine it more closely and it seems more like a feather duster, with fibres and tufts projecting unevenly. Some feelings and events can be held within the package called "a year," many others push on outwards, needing time to run to completion, a slow, sea-mail package to the consciousness that overshoots its estimated arrival date by twelve weeks.

I wasn't even dozing when the monkey slipped my sunglasses from my head. Jakoo Hill in Shimla is noted for its monkey population, so I had the straps of my daypack held tightly as I sat in the sun. After around ten minutes observing the leaping, snatching and scratching antics of the simians, I felt a tickle at the back of my head and saw my prescription sunglasses being lifted expertly from my face. A macaque carried the glasses away like a cherished prize in his hands, pausing just to gnaw the tasty-looking plastic "tortoiseshell" coatings on the ends. As I watched, a man from nearby rushed over in pursuit of the monkey. He carried a bag of roasted chickpeas, from which he tossed handfuls towards the animal, now swinging inaccessibly from a concrete pillar on a partially-demolished building. Within five minutes I had my sunglasses back, with a request for "only ten rupees, Sir!" I began to see how man and monkey had worked together in profiting from me.

Then, as I walked back down the hill past tiny stalls selling pre-payment phone cards, I saw monkeys sitting quietly together, grooming one another. "Relieve back and neck pain through Ayurvedic Massage" said a sign pasted to a sagging telephone pole. It hung together: as humans, we couldn't just walk up to someone in the street and ask them home for some grooming, we needing to authenticate the activity by giving it the name and the container which would not threaten.

20 December 2003

'Tis the season for enjoying Haggish.
 Background sounds: Revving buses crossing the bridge in Mandi, indistinct movie music.

With only one shirt long-sleeved, and an air temperature low enough to chill fingers, it has to be a carefully judged day when I take it off for washing. Of course, these may be exactly the times when ravaging the emergency budget to pay for laundry service on my solitary shirt is justified, but I want to wait until the shirt is feeling the weight of its days. Presently, I've been wearing it for twelve days and it seems remarkably fresh to the touch. In the mountains, the slick which gathers at the back of the neck is leaner and greener... you genuinely don't need to wash an outside shirt very often if you wear inner, changeable T-shirts that can be saved up for washing all at once in warmer regions.

I went to the Tourist Officer in Kullu town before departing for the Parbatti valley. After all, I was carrying a chit with his name on (see previous entry). I asked him about the safety of walking in the valley after the repeat disappearances and murders of Westerners reported from there. His message was sensible: travel in a group with at least one dependable guide. He scribbled the name of a contact for guides in Manikaran. I kept it safely - another chit I might need in future, unexpected circumstances. Then I asked why there had been so many violent and unexplained events in this valley.

"You know there is big hydro project happening in the Parvatti Valley. Many of these so-called migrant workers are from places like Bihar and they are very bad people..."

Uh-oh, I thought - I know what the conclusion from all this is going to be:

"They do not shave, their shirts are dirty and they steal from people."

Without even looking down to check the rather crumpled collar of my own shirt, I thanked the man for his advice, and began to get up.

"And one other thing," The tourist officer was well into his pitch now. "No making friends with the older Israeli or Italian people in the valley, they are also stealing things!"

On the bus ride into the Parbatti valley, you descend a spur beyond Jari nearly to the river. On the opposite bank are two massive pipes bringing water down the hill to the Melana Power House. Up where the pipes start is a small pass, which leads to the fabled Melana valley. This strangely isolated village has a population which has never mixed with other residents of the Parbatti. It is also famous for its "cream:" quality charas or cannabis resin, produced from plants growing at altitude. As our bus reached the bottom of a long slope there was a surprise checkpoint. Dressed in the standard green anoraks of workers on the Parbatti scheme, they were probably police nonetheless. They were obviously on the trail of dirty shirt wearers, although it seemed that checking vehicle licences and registration papers provided some innocent cover for this.

"Are you liking Haggish?" asked the man who had examined my passport. I toyed with replying that it was still a week before Hogmanay, and that Haggis was anyway best appreciated with the sound of a piped band and caber-tossing on the TV, but simply said that I didn't understand. He handed me back my passport and, narrowing his eyes, asked:

"You like CHARAS?"

Again, I affected lack of understanding and he walked away, already disinterested. 

15 December 2003

Got the chits in India?
 Background sounds: Scraping and tapping of the peanut roaster's pan in Kullu town

Little pieces of paper often define your status in India. I made the mistake of heading for the Sainj valley with an insufficient number of paper slips. My chits were not in order, and that cost me a night sleeping in the comfy Forest Rest House in Sainj village

It's a short distance to Sainj from the more usual route into Kullu from the dam at Pandoh. Pandoh dam - well-attended by "Photography Totally Prohibited In Dam Area" signs - is one of the earliest hydropower installations on the Beas river system. Now, as you travel up from Mandi to Manali or Kullu town, it is impossible to miss the latest development. The Parbati Power project is planned to generate two thousand megawatts from three levels of turbine when Phase 3 completes in 2007. My bus was travelling on the old road, often running very high above the Beas river, then passed through one new, long new tunnel (swirling dust from its dirt surface, threaded along the roof with fluorescent tubes) and wove between more massive construction that reduces the Himachal Road Transport Corporation vehicle to a Lilliputian scale.

At Aut it was time to change to another bus. This took me to Larji, confluence of the Sainj and Tirthan rivers, where I'd intended to scope out the choices for further travel. The Sainj valley itself forgets Sainj and curves around from Larji to Banjar. Sainj is off in another direction. Somehow, Sainj seemed like a place that couldn't be ignored if I were to investigate this valley fully. The shop where I'd asked had told me that there was a PWD Rest House in Banjar, and a Forest Rest House in Sainj for accommodation. Now, both of these are normally intended for officials on business (Public Works Department and Forestry Department respectively), but they are nearly always empty and are sometimes rather quaint, old-fashioned places featuring oak wardrobes and huge verandas. I thought for a while, then decided - I'd try my chances at the FRH.

This valley toward Sainj is also part of the Parbati project. In the final system, water from a dam on the Parbati River is sent through a 32km tunnel to the Sainj river where it turns another turbine and enters the Beas. So there are plenty of mud-caked Tata trucks carrying migrant workers up and down the valley. I walked from Larji a little way toward Sainj. The river runs fast here, like in many places along the Beas. Some small farms clung to skimpy alluvial fans on the opposite bank, but where I was walking was the simple line of road, rising and falling.

As I walked, my eyes were drawn to many obviously lovely camping sites by the tumbling river. I was tempted, but remembered that just over the ridge, in the Parbati valley, nine foreigners had been killed as they walked or camped in the remote areas. Many say that these deaths are related to the cash-driven society that has grown up around the dealing in high-quality cannabis that almost characterises the area.

The Forest House in Sainj has the nicest location of any public building in the village... it's at the top of a wooded hill, with a fine high ridge behind. It took some final summary of strength to pull myself and rucsac up there, and I met the chowkidar and other residents. The chowkidar (caretaker) had a formidable moustache and a determination that only visitors with pukka chits would be accomodated in his fine Rest House. I showed a small slip of paper that I had, giving the address of the Tourist Officer in Kullu Town. It was a long shot, for sure, but I've seen unrelated pieces of paper work before.

"He has no authority here," said the chowkidar. Despite his judgement, I liked the man for his friendly face and direct manner, and at least I could try a final ploy:

"Could I camp here at the Rest House?" This offered no problems to the chowkidar - camping was not a problem. He seemed to be telling me, 'Look, we're modern and accomodating in Sainj - you don't need a camping chit...'

It was with a sizable audience (chowkidar, ground workers and their children) that I pulled out my 2kg. tent and proceeded to set it up in the FRH garden. It was more work driving pegs into the solid ground than would have been on a wild pitch, but that view was superb. Lying on my back in the quietness of evening, I delighted in the clarity of stars, the first time on this trip that I had been able to savour the mountain air. Dust from tunnelling and dam-blasting didn't seem to have reached the stars.

11 December 2003

Shimla's railway centenary - the Barog Blog 

 Background sounds: Internet cafe chatter, screeching of bickering monkeys outside on The Mall

Returned to India by the power of Turkish Airlines. Out into the Delhi morning an hour before dawn, then driving on roads which were already bustling with traffic at five into downtown Paharganj. Without holes or trenches in the road, it was a delight to walk to my first alu parantha breakfast since last year. But I shouldn't have been so recklessly optimistic - as I returned to my hotel on main bazaar in the afternoon, three men had gouged a deep trench for a water pipe across directly across the entrance to the hotel. By the next day, the trench had been roughly filled with crushed stone, something that made me consider that Indian enterprises run on a JGE model, contrasted with the, for example Japanese, JIT.

For those without an education in dollar-shaped halls of learning, "JIT" stands for Just In Time, often cited as a key component in Japan's commercial success: raw materials are not stockpiled to tie up capital, but are ordered "just in time" to keep the output flowing. For India, "JGE" is my formulation of the concept of Just Good Enough, a system where what the customer receives is just good enough to pass initial inspection, and only regular use will later reveal the true quality. Upon arrival at my Shimla hotel, we found that the main electricity power switch outside the room was faulty and the room had no power. This was solved by dismantling the switch unit and hooking bare wires together. Would the switch unit be replaced? I asked. "Probably," was the reply. After two days the protruding wires still poke from outside my front door, high enough to out of the way of small children, but inviting brushing contact with anyone passing my door. The repair had been Just Good Enough.

The Shimla railway celebrates its centenary this year. There are few sign of this occasion now (in December) but the railway is as well used as ever. Some statistics: the railway reaches 2130 metres above sea level and climbs at an average gradient of 1 in 33.3. From Kalka to Shimla, the track includes 919 curves (though what exactly constitutes a curve isn't clear, but it is a very bendy route) and 102 tunnels (101 in fact as tunnel 46 was removed, but the "102" figure is still quoted). Neither JIT nor JGE business models were used in 1903 to to construct it.

Barog station has a tale attached to it, related to me by a Sikh passenger sitting near me on the five hour trundle from Kalka up the hill. (And it is a trundle... the trains are limited to a top speed of 30kmh.) The British engineer, named Mr Barog (Scottish? The Sikh man wasn't sure) who surveyed the tunnel killed himself when the boring work from either side of the hill failed to meet in the middle. Thus the neat station bears his name. On our trip, the train halted for ten minutes to allow passengers to photograph the flower beds and elaborately arranged, painted stones. The station is accessible only by train, so unfortunates who choose to travel by road will miss the pristine, "Made In Manchester" brass fittings in the toilets, amongst other things. A modern sign of JGE, wildly out of place in the surroundings of stone and wood, is a fibreglass Indian Railways "elephant" sited on the platform. This character, of a railway guard waving a green lamp, was introduced last year to commemorate Indian Railways' 150 years anniversary.

After a gap of eleven years (my last visit here was the end of the monsoon in 1992), Shimla has aged more gracefully than other Indian cities I've seen after a similar gap. The sprawl of luxury hotels continues, but development on The Mall has been throttled, probably more by limitations on building space than anything else. I can see a small stand of coniferous trees from my hotel balcony, but one wonders for how much longer trees will be visible from the town.

20 November 2003


 Background sounds: Oasis - All Around The World

Anyone who deals with young children know how much more excited they are on a windy day. The wind affects adults, too, but perhaps we hide it better. I've often wondered why a simple wind like the Föhn, which blows off the Alps, can affect people in ways so often negative (irritability, headaches, lack of concentration). Today is a Föhn day, and it has already raised the temperature of early winter Vienna by twelve degrees Celsius in 24 hours. It wasn't so relaxing when the wind began on Monday, because it was still nearly freezing then, but now there is a warm wind it feels like an unusual seam of energy slicing down from the sky. I feel somehow looser.

Part of this is my hatred of duvets - quilts on a bed instead of blankets - to sleep under. Now, in northern Scandinavia where the winters are cold and unremitting, it it is sound sense to have a thick pad of insulation over you. In more temperate regions of the world duvets can only have been adopted because of an association with Habitat-Laura Ashley trendiness, cast-iron spiral staircases and designer garret wall hangings. I never sleep well under duvets, even in the coldest places. To begin with, the mass pressing down on my chest keeps me thinking of how life might feel in a tight burrow under the ground. Then, as the insulation and fluctuating temperatures begin to conspire and produce sweat, I spend hours seeking cooler regions of the bed or half-ventilating one side of the duvet, which of course only results in restlessness or a chilled back. Blankets - layering in the sense of dressing for a changeable climate - is what I'd choose if I didn't usually choose my bedding for whomever I share the bed with. End of explanation.

To return to the Föhn. When it's warm like this, I can sleep under a thin sheet and keep the duvet pushed down to be used only in the chill hours of 4-6am. Inevitably, my sleep is better, as it was in the summer. This last summer - a record breaker in Europe - I was able to sleep under my trusty Indian lunghi each night for three months. Solid, dreamy sleep, unbroken by being trussed, bounded and heavily wadded from above.

As I started to write this I began to wonder why, as children, we can enjoy the cold of snow on ungloved hands, why we run shrieking with excitement into the fierce wind, and splash with abandonment in puddles, trying to stamp on the reflection of the sky. Is it something that's lost as we get older, unwillingness to repeat the painful experiences (smarting, thawing fingers), or just an intolerance of extremes in general? Certainly, many people in their seventies and eighties complain of the iciness of winter, only to grumble at steamy summer temperatures.

Currently, taking the camping gear to India is on. I'm aware that one thing forcing my decision this way is what I've written already about adults versus children on weather extremes. Indian Himalaya extremes - I do have some fond memories of camping from before, so I'm hanging on those. I must remember to take a handful of colourful plastic cable ties to fasten up my rucsac this time. I'm sure airport security will have more interest in tent poles and stainless steel cooking pans seen on an X-ray screen, than two years ago, and I don't want my padlocked rucsac sliced open by inspectors.

11 November 2003

Eleventh day of the eleventh month.

 Background sounds: UB40 - Homegrown

I've never really bothered about the Remembrance Sunday thing, though when I lived in Britain I wore a Peace Poppy a few times (a white buttonhole poppy instead of the red one usually worn); but I'm always tremendously moved by the minute's silence. In death, we are all equal.

This day also happens to be my birthday. As I advance past the central pivot in years, though, I believe more and more that birthdays belong to those waiting to escape teenage and to the very old, grateful of another year from the stack to add to their "little winning streak" (Leonard Cohen).

Today was utterly normal, except for a few emails wishing me a good day, and a present and photo card from my dearest one. It was vividly bright and sunny, the nourishing warm light beaming onto the parquet floor as I sat reading in my front room in central Vienna. I'm now less than a month away from leaving for India. That time seems about right, but the colder weather coming to central Europe in the last weeks makes the urgency of leaving start to worry at my wing-tips, and I can't settle once I'm awake early most mornings.

I made a quick calculation that showed I'm still ahead of estimates on my saving for the India trip. Over the years I've become quite good at making shoestring trips to Asia, and so far never had a shoestring break. What is different about the last few years' trips is coming back to somewhere, a place that isn't a floor to lay my sleeping bag. Until the middle nineties, trips longer than a couple of weeks were also launching pads to a change of life. I'm not sure whether it's a sign of getting older, but lately I haven't wanted the trip always to include a new life/town/flat/job. Where I'm lucky is being able to take three months' break between the end of the autumn semester and the next years' term start. So I come back to everything substantially the same, except for one or two wilted houseplants. Yet sometimes I bother about whether it is all too safe, too contained. No risk taking, less "envelope pushing."

I can't say that this assured landing back in my own space leads to a less vibrant trip once I'm away from Delhi airport. My last trip to India, ending in March this year, was perhaps the best yet. I minimised the dead time (waiting for trains or hanging around in a metropolis) and got more of what I went for - time in the mountains, walking and wasting time gazing down from high vantages, swimming in warm waters in tropical regions, eating as much lovely Indian food as I can.

Preparation for my trip last year occupied about three hours the night before I left, and it looks like this year might follow the same pattern. My thoughts keep returning to whether or not I should take my tent. It's been on every trip so far, but last time didn't get used at all. Leaving it means I'm seeing signs of becoming even softer than the "no risk, come home to the same flat and job" stuff I talked about, but it's a bother to carry and pack. If I take it this time I'll feel obliged to use it, just to prove that I haven't lost my feel for camping, like the reformed alcoholic actor with a trembling voice once he approaches the stage door. Hmmm, getting to be a bigger issue than I thought, this one. I think I'll look more carefully at where might be good places to camp before I commit myself...

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