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, 2004-5

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Stuck by this river

“Here we are, stuck by this river
Waiting here, always failing to remember
Why we came, came, came
I wonder why we came…”

(Brian Eno)

It’s getting near the end of this trip now. Before leaving warmer parts of India, I reasoned that somewhere reasonably sunny and shirt-sleeves warm would be needed after the wintry days in Mussoorie. That place is Rishikesh - it’s merely down to Dehra Dun in a share taxi and then the same on to the holy town by the river Ganges. Three hours of travel and I’m sitting on my balcony in Hotel Rajdeep.

I like it here. There’s enough rolling forest on this side of the river (the district called Swarg Ashram) for walking on hill trails, the mood is peaceful and reflective, and the food is good. Tip: if you want to eat a thali (or plate meal) in this area, do your sightseeing at one or other of the famous Chotiwalla restaurants and eat at the Rajdeep. The Rajdeep thali is better value, and you can eat outside on their terrace. All that’s missing is the spectacle and crowds:

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From Swarg Ashram down to the river is a lovely walk, and I’m delighted that I can leave behind the thermal jacket and waterproofs that were needed in upland Uttaranchal. Through dappled shade, I pass wandering cows and sanyasi, and it’s warm, sunny and joyous. “This day, too, will pass,” advises a pasted notice on a whitewashed ashram wall; I cannot disagree, having just five days here before my return to Europe.

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As part of a meeting of Osho devotees at the Parmath Ashram, a sizeable Vishnu image is being constructed out from the river bank at the ashram’s ghat. Being washed away in the monsoon swell of the river seems part of the lesson in impermanence.

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I divide my time between walks in the hills and simply sitting by the river north of the Ramjhula bridge, watching the day grow long and grey in the evening, and reflecting on the moods this trip has taken me through.

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Soon, the day and the days have passed. It’s -5°C in Vienna when I arrive, so I draw deep on the reserves of heat I put away during my beach hours in Goa, and, silently like everyone else around me, buy a ticket for the airport bus from a machine which bids me “Welcome” as I feed in Euro coins.




The balmy pleasures of Goa ended - as they always have to - and my last stage of travels take me to Uttaranchal once more. Instead of the normal, budget “trundle” on an India sleeper class train, I paid four times that fare for the Rajdhani Express from Margao to Delhi, saving nearly twelve hours. My destination from Delhi was the hill station of Mussoorie. This required another overnight train to Dehra Dun and then into the amiable Mr Balwant Singh’s taxi up to Mussoorie’s Mall at 2000m.

Northern India’s mild autumn has been tempered by a severe winter - many hundreds have died in avalanches in Kashmir - and Mussoorie was blanketed with drifting cloud upon my arrival. In the evening, it began raining, and then hailstones fell, blown with such force by the wind that they flew under the gappy door of my hotel room and soaked the carpet while I was out. It was a full 30°C colder than Goa - a massive climatic change to encounter in two days’ land travel.

Next morning sunshine beamed meekly out of a clearing sky, and I was able to see that the hotel I’d chosen had an excellent view of Gun Hill:

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Life in Mussoorie was “off season” - a phrase I heard around twenty times a day. Most of the foreigners in town were studying at one of the institutes in the area, and Indian visitors up from Delhi for the weekend huddled around steaming bowls of soup and cups of chai in restaurants. The Mall slumbered until the sun began to warm the air a little after ten each morning. Many smaller cafés and food stands were closed, including, sadly, my only chance to drink “hygenic” juice:

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Cows and porters (and tourists who had recently been clad only in the shorts/singlet kit of S India) stood around in the sun, feeling a surge of energy in the warmth.

When it’s so cold, it’s best to keep warm not by sitting around and drinking tea, but by moving. The walking opportunities in Mussoorie were as good as I’d hoped - not demanding, but energetic strolls along quiet roads and ridges. I went mostly through Landour and then into the wilder hills beyond. This view - from a top I’d heard was known as “Flag Hill” (due to Tibetan prayer flags on its summit) - was an enjoyable, half-day ramble:

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I’m here for another three days, then it’s down to the heady heat of Rishikesh on the plains. Did I say “heat?” At least, double figure temperatures will be nice…


The tokemaster Thomas recipe slot

There are more facets to the enjoyment of cannabis resin than smoking it; even on the road you can make quite eatable sweets. Here is a quick walkthrough for making the basis of any hashy edible - hash butter.

1) First, you need to get your hands on some decent product. Poor quality resin won’t get you very stoned if you eat it, so choose the best. Our photo shows tokemaster Thomas with two tola (about twenty grams) of reputedly Kullu valley material:

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2) Use a genuine Swiss Army knife to chop a pellet from the bulk. The size of your pellet will depend on how many people you’re aiming to stone as well as the basic strength of the base material. We took a one gram piece here, which was enough for stoning four people. Note that only a genuine Swiss Army knife should be used for chopping - using a knife purchased from a boy carrying a tin box of “Swiss” Army knives in Kathmandu or Pahar Ganj bazaar may be very disappointing - the knife blade could shatter and lacerate your hands or the plastic handle may crack and trap skin on your palms.

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3) Melt the pellet in a candle flame and crumble it like a stock cube. Be careful! If you are also cooking a casserole while preparing the hash butter you might mix up the hash and stock cube as they are nearly the same colour. This confusion could lead to difficulties with visiting, elderly relatives.

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4) You need a small pan (a short tin can will do in a pinch), some butter or ghee, and a candle flame. Add just one teaspoonful of ghee/butter to the mixture and heat over the candle.

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5) Heat the hash-ghee mixture and stir. You want to sterilise the hash, so keep heating until you see little bubbles coming out of the mixture, and test with a knuckle dipped in - it needs to cooked, so make sure it is too hot for your finger… You might know that a lot of hash is adulterated with stuff like buffalo shit, and you don’t want to be eating this unsterilised!

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Finally, you can strain the mixture through a fine tea strainer and mix the filtered butter with muesli, with your own dried fruit and nut mixture or you could cut open a sweet bun and secrete it in the middle. The taste is still going to be strong, but some sugar in the food - and possibly spices like clove - help to disguise it. Tokemaster Thomas likes simply dipping Goan pau into the liquid and eating this together with lime pickle and a samosa.

Addendum March 2014

Hash consumption with no cooking and no candle: the NOCNOC method

When you have been fortunate enough to score some strong hash on the Indian subcontinent (forget this with low strength material - you will waste it) then try my NOCNOC method. It's utterly simple; you need no candle and no cooking.

Simply, you heat the hash with a flame from a cigarette lighter (flare it all over very well - this is for surface sterilisation as well as warming), then use an Indian sweet to mop the pieces up. Eat the sweet (chew well!) and something around an hour later the effects become apparent.

A tip: if you haven't eaten the hash before, go gently at first. If the first use is too mild, up the dosage the next try. There's little worse than collapsing onto a bed with a high that won't allow you even to walk around and be coherent (unless that's what you are aiming for). Here are the stages from a recent trip in south India (I bought the confectionary from a regular sweet shop: try to buy a sweet which uses ghee - clarified butter - and has a few other oily things in it, such as nuts and coconut):

heating the hash with a lighter

the crumbled hash ready to consume

You probably lose some of the ultimate strength of the hash this way compared to the cooking method, but if you have enough of the right gear (mine was Malana cream, which does a great job eaten this way), it hardly matters, or at least won't matter much once you get stoned...


A thorny little climb

The south end of Agonda beach is bracketed by a hill locally known as Kol~wain. The hill itself, although hacked for firewood by residents, is still thick jungle. A vague track, probably used for smuggling, threads through the undergrowth south towards Palolem for a couple of kilometres. The clifftops here are also a haunt of white-bellied sea eagles:

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The climb from the beach level took nearly an hour, mostly because I needed to clear dinner-plate sized fallen leaves from eack step (snake risk) before placing my foot there. Spindly but tough vines with backward-facing thorns also retarded forward movement. Very near the top of the ridge I found myself looking up in awe at a rock the size of a concert-hall thrusting out from the trees - this is one of the rocks which can be seen from anywhere on Agonda beach.

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Rewarded at the top with a shady viewpoint of the entire Agonda beach and a 270 degree panorama of the sea:

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The first sea eagle swung over soon after I found a spot to rest under shade. It flew so close over my head that I could hear it grunting and panting with the effort of hauling itself into the air (their wingspan can exceed 2m) to find a soarable thermal.


My peat sun…

Ever awoken to stupid words going ’round in your head? This morning, at six, I had My peat sun going frocking in your face repeating in my brain. It wasn’t properly time to get out of bed, but there was another flood of the floor, as I found on a service visit to the toilet: a flood which had happened noiselessly, or at least beneath the sound from of my whizzing ceiling fan.
After ten minutes’ mopping the floor while water for coffee boiled, I decided that it probably should be: My PINK sun going FROLICKING in your face.

Life on Agonda beach, at this time a quiet little collection of shacks, is soon to change fairly dramatically, as a large hotel on a high bluff above some coconut trees nears completion. For years there have been two “super” resorts lying quiescent behind the whispering sands. One complex remains empty but is maintained and lighted, the other is merely a concrete shell, halted in mid-construction by a court order.

The newest hotel terms itself a lifestyle resort, which is definitely ominous language to me. Already, a “Visitors Not Allowed” sign had appeared at the start of their access road, and they have set labourers to fencing off one of the last stretches of open land at the beach side.

Other thrills and spills in Goa last week include the dismissal of the Parrikar State government by the Governor, and the new Director of Police for Goa starting his term with a blitz on motorcycle riders (I saw lines of riders being stopped for riding without helmets, and trucks loaded with motorbikes that had been confiscated in Margao ). The BJP government getting kicked out for “irregularities” in the Assembly would be something to cheer about if the Chief Minister to replace Parriker hadn’t been our old friend Pratapsing Rane, whose charge sheet stretches back the decade and a half he ruled Goa, some would say like a semi-feudal rajah. Oh, yes: the devil we know.


Stridings on the sandings

Rain fell yesterday, noteworthy because it shows the intensity of the “cold wave” (how the Indian press loves that expression) now in the north of the country. Rain has fallen heavily in parts of UP and MP, and in the mountains there was significant snowfall; down here in Goa the long plume of cloud spilled out and sat like a trapdoor over the sky on Saturday evening. It was such a strange sight from the beach - one half of the sky dense, piled clouds, the other half clear - that village dogs began barking at the sky. When the rain fell here, it simply puffed small craters out of the laterite dust by the roadside.

Nature news: On Agonda beach, a dolphin I caught swimming the length of the beach last Tuesday, just ten metres out, has returned a few times since, probably for catching fish. A nest of turtles hatched the night before, which typically I missed. Apparently over one hundred youngsters made it to the water edge.

There are always some flyers and handbills by travellers offering yoga instruction or Reiki massage left up from the pre-Christmas season, but I was intrigued by this one. It had been neatly typeset and printed in gorgeous lime green and yellow colours:

“Learn Regurgitation for Compassion!”

It made sense to me. Regurgitation can be an effective way of giving beach beggars what they most need. No longer need the pitiful cry from an emaciated waif of “Give me chocolate!” be met with, “No, I haven't got any…” After all, you have eaten chocolate earlier, haven’t you? As the notice explained, we look at TV images of a mother polar bear hunting seals in the Artic, coming back to her snowhole where she regurgitates the food for her hungry, waiting cubs, and we feel that this is an expression of the purest love for life and survival. After learning proper regurgitation methods, the notice claimed that we can deliver the so-desired chocolate straight over the head of the lowly beggar.


The washing that washes you

My room in Goa has suffered a flood and a 24-hour power cut in the space of the last three days. It’s not especially worthy news that the electricity supply fails fairly regularly in India, although, I must note, this is something which has hardly improved in my near twenty-five years of visiting the country.

Heath Robinson could not have devised a more labyrinthine water system than exists in the house where I’m renting rooms. Four water tanks at various levels supply both the family living below us, and the four tourist rooms above. My section has a bedroom and a kitchen area - it was this kitchen area which received the flood water when the 100 litre tank perched directly over my bathroom overflowed. The inconvenience was minor - tropical heat, even in the evening, means that wet stuff dries speedily. As for the lost and precious water (see the previous entry), that could be incorporated in the “leakage” loss figure (30 percent or more) that’s given for water pipelines. Well, I now have a very clean kitchen floor.

My washed shirts hang from the line near my bed, under the ceiling fan. This way, I can rinse one out late in an evening and have it quite dry for the morning. Should I pop out from under my mosquito net for a piss in the night, I have to walk under the washing line. Often, a damp shirt drapes lightly over my head as I pass sleepily under it, bringing to mind the old bus depot where I grew up, a place where buses would have roofs swept clean by a hanging blanket each time they entered the garage. Some of the East Yorkshire buses had very pointed arches to their roofs - I later was to learn that they were the only buses that could drive through Beverly Bar, a medieval arched stone gate in a town about 20kms away from where I lived.

I’m recalling this now largely from the impulse given by meeting Jamie in Bharatpur. He’d gone to the same junior school as I had, and we shared some recollections of those halcyon times nearly forty years ago. That’s another of the unexpected delights about travelling, which more than makes up for the occasional flood or power outage.


I’m the man with bright red knees

Yes, I am that man. After being shoehorned into a morning commuter bus (bodywork by Uday Killekar proclaims a badge inside) to Margao I extract myself at the end with bright red knees. The ride from Canacona is around ninety minutes, and the last stretch though Navelim seems endless. When there are fewer people standing I can swivel my legs sideways and avoid the crushing from the seat in front, but on a full bus the pressure is maintained on knees, unrelentingly. Wearing trousers in a cooler climate, this would remain my problem, but in my constantly be-shorted state, the red knees blink like airstrip landing beacons as I walk Margao’s streets. As my head when sitting is a forearm’s length above that of an Indian passenger, I receive frequent jabs to it from people who don’t expect a head to be so high in the air.

Once in Margao it’s a swift circuit of the covered market (with a swanky new roof from last year) to meet my old pau (bread buns) man and the ravishing lady who sells bebinca, and after that to the Post Office to send seven postcards. Probably due to the emergence of email for messaging, there are no tourists in there. I enquire about the glue* and am pointed outside. Searching around the sloping surfaces coated with a light film of Goan red, laterite dust, I find a dried glue pot.

“Excuse me, madam, but the glue is exhausted,” I tell the woman who sold me stamps. She asks me to come inside, so carrying the grubby blue pot, I go into the room of the Head Postmaster to request glue.

“I want glue, please. Sticky glue, globby glue. Even blobby glue.” I remember the days when glue in Margao’s head post office was dolloped onto the corners of the outside window frames, sitting like an apparition from the spirit world in fist-sized bluish blobs. Even that would be preferable to an empty glue pot.

The Head Postmaster tells me to sit and wait. After the usual Indian “one minute” another PO worker appears with the bottle of glue.

Appearing outside with the refilled pot, I’m like a film star in town - people with registered letters, swatches of stamps and dockets swirl around me. They all want my glue. How easy it is to be a popular person in India: you need either money or glue.

* Glue was essential once to fix the gumless stamps to letters. Now stamps are gummed, but it’s still a good idea to double secure them, and anyway most envelope flaps are gumless.


On this raft of a coast

It’s a very fragile life at the edge of the sea. How self-serving our nomenclature is, when we talk about the Earth to describe a planet that has a surface 70% water. This planet sometimes reminds the weaker and poorer ones that water is not only something out there but is also a force that can change, remould, break down, reclaim, as it did in December last year and will do through the next cyclone season and beyond.

Yet the reminders are only a faint wake-up call to the rest of us, continuing as we do to treat the seas as a vast rubbish pit. The Government of Goa, while encouraging an almost hyperbolic increase in tourist visits to the coast, has done little to try to deal with sewage produced by hotels, restaurants and other dwellings. Much is discharged untreated into the sea. Primitive, local sewerage systems depend on often leaky septic tanks. Bacterial seepage into groundwater is a major problem in many areas. Nothing to be concerned about, claim the monied visitors, who simply stock up on plastic bottles of drinking water and carry on partying.

With the advent of beach cleaners on most beaches, the attitude towards plastic packaging has become even more casual. Tossed water bottles on the beaches are ignored as the “beach cleaners will get them.”

Even the water buffalo are needing to walk further in search for water as the water table by the coast is dropping steadily from an acupunctural spread of bore wells sunk to supply thirsty tourists, or fill their hotel swimming pools.

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My earnest plea to all visitors to arid coastal regions, but especially to Goa:

1) Don’t buy the 1 litre bottles of water if you are staying more than a few days. The 5 litre reusable bottles are better value and are recycled;

2) Even better, boil or filter your water to treat it;

3) Patronise places with pig toilets. They might be hard for the squeamish, but having a pig devour faeces is better than using 10l of water to wash them into the ground;

4) Minimise your use of water for showering - if you also swim in the sea, you can miss a freshwater shower after each alternate swim and feel the benefit from having seawater on your skin


By the sea once again

If you have been visiting the blogzone over more than one summer solstice, you’ll be ready to hear about the bicycle and the bullocks about now. Indeed, some regular readers might claim that the blogzone content is almost entirely bullocks. The better to furrow your brow with while reading (it’s a pun).

My bicycle - the eighth one bought in Goa - came from Chaudi this time. Hero Jet bounces up and down the roads around Canacona with glee (and the odd creak).

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Ploughing the rice fields around has started in earnest. As other years, I’ve seen mostly animals doing the work, just one machine spotted so far:

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Back at the sea, the recent tsunami event in the Indian Ocean also caused minor damage in Canacona. Some erosion of already flakey sea walls (the dunes - which offer natural protection - having being removed long ago on most of the tourist beaches), a few shacks flooded in Palolem. The Goa Chief Minister’s comment that only Goa offered “365 days of natural calamity-free tourism” was rightly attacked as misguided and insensitive to those who lost their livelihoods in other parts of the region.

Presently, I perceive the visitor numbers in Goa are slightly less than last year, but that’s obviously going to change in months to come when the would-be Sri Lanka and Thailand jetters reconsider their options.


More thoughts on the “Soon Army”

What were you doing the day the Indian Ocean tsunamis hit? Tragically, for many residents of the countries bordering the Indian Ocean, they were simply getting on with their lives, getting children ready for school, preparing the meal for the day. They were unaware that a massive earthquake had unleashed a series of wave trains that were about to erase all they had known. Many thousands of travellers staying by the coast in the region died, too.

All of us who watched the TV reports (and I was glued to my television in Bharatpur that evening after being out in the bird sanctuary when the event itself struck) are wiser about what tsunamis are and what they are not. We may have heard of the little girl who saw the sea going out a long way and warned people not to go looking for beached fish because she had recently learned in school that this was a sign a tsunami was about to strike.

We may have memories of the more poignant pictures from the tragedy’s aftermath. Mine was of a four year-old girl in Aceh, northern Sumatra, being fanned by her brother. Her pretty face was disfigured by a large open gash on one cheek.
“No-one cares about her,” said her brother, “You can see the wound has got gangrene now, but nobody comes to help her.”

Assistance began arriving only hours after news of the tsunami reached the world. The “Soon Army” of NGOs, volunteers and UNICEF workers quickly found their resources were minute compared to the size of the problem, and some of the aid was inappropriate (one heard tales of people in tropical Sri Lanka picking through piles of donated winter jackets and fashionable women’s shoes) but you couldn’t help but feel that the response to this global humanitarian tragedy was motivated by human concern not conceit.

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Having argued with more than a few travellers about what exactly a tsunami looks like, here are some facts:

  • out at sea, a tsunami is mostly undetectable - the length between peaks may be 100km and the time between them 10 minutes or more.

  • the wave may be travelling at up to 700km per hour in the open sea.

  • as it approaches land the tsunami slows and its height grows. It still may not appear as a classic “big wave” like surfers would recognise, but as a rapidly rising and falling tide, much higher than the normal tidal ranges

    For many Westerners, then, the tsunami of December 26 struck at an extraordinary time and place. A catastrophe that left millions with nothing occurred exactly as Westerners were over-indulging in everything.



    Orchha - New Year, old edifices

    The happy feeling in Orchha I knew from two years ago started again the moment I arrived, and this place doesn’t even party on New Year’s eve! (except in the dinner-included-exclusive-couples-only-ticket luxury hotels). The splendid palaces and temples around are one reason to visit,

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    the friendly people another:

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    I was much encouraged, on a tour of the airy rooftop parapets of the Raj Mahal, to see a nesting vulture. These birds, a vital part of the cleanup ecology of India, have been declining at alarming rates over the past five years.

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    Some of the vivid murals from the Raj Mahal:

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    The fort walls have been given a mortar rendering since my last visit, though I think in years to come the poor quality of the mix will disfigure rather than enhance the appearance of the stones. Ominously, initials recently carved into the soft, crumbly mortar have begun the process of flaking.

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    Cows are especially photogenic when they disport themselves around some of the traditionally-built houses:

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    The Betwa river is the best place for doing your laundry and having a pre-New Year wash in the sun:

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    Some birding in Bharatpur

    Bharatpur bird sanctuary (the Keoladeo Reserve) this year is dry as a bone. Part of this is due to last year’s poor monsoon, the other part of the story is - as often turns out in India - a political issue. Agitating farmers have ensured that the water from the Ajan Bund resevoir, fed by the Ghambir and the Banganga rivers, has not been released to the sanctuary. A couple of lonely pumps thud inside the sanctuary, splashing feeble gulps of groundwater in the reduced wetlands. The Siberian Cranes left a long time ago, and Sarus Crane numbers can be counted on two hands - once they created huge clouds of birds when they took to the air.

    With the rapid drying after the monsoon ended, early breeders like the Ibis abandoned their nests, their eggs shrivelled up and were eaten by crows and eagles.

    I’d noticed wood collectors going about in the park, and asked my guide Primod about it. Another typical Indian paradox: wood collection is forbidden, yet it goes on. There are estimated to be 5000 cattle foraging in the dust-dry grasslands - I saw Nilgai and cows together, as though the latter were part of the scenery. In fact, cattle are also forbidden: a wall encircling the park, built to prevent cattle from entering has developed breaches in several places, and has not been repaired for years.

    I only hope that the resultant downturn in tourism in Bharatpur speaks most loudly in the way that Indian politicians understand - with money.

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    Twice the tinsel twirls

    There’s nothing like Christmas day in the Indian capital. And today is nothing like that - it’s more like Guru Nanak’s birthday celebration, with processions of sturdy Sikh gentlemen on horses and Sikh schoolchildren dressed in tartan and marching to brass bands.

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    It wasn’t a planned stop here; I’d intended to skip any overnight Delhi stop on this trip by connecting my morning arrival from Ramnagar with an afternoon departure to Bharatpur. Shivers and a high fever set in while I was in Corbett, though, and although I could have reached Bharatpur the same day, the torture seemed not worth the gain. The fever passed in a day, so I’m prepared for an early start to Keoladeo Sanctuary, parched from water scarcity that it probably is, tomorrow.


    Happily tigerless day

    An early start for the trip into Corbett Park by jeep. We went in by the Jhirna gate, with driver Mannu, sensibly wrapped up in his hooded, fur-lined jacket against the cold of the morning air.

    Almost immediately I was rewarded with the sight of a Crested Serpent Eagle, not at all a rare bird, but a fine, hulking raptor, perched high in the branches of a Red Cotton Silk tree. Earlier, in the reserved forest area before the protected zone, I’d spotted two Oriental Pied Hornbills, and was to see three more, quite closely before the day was over. The list of birds might look unimpressive to serious ornitholigists, but I was delighted with my thirty-five plus (how do Changeable Hawk Eagle, Yellow-Footed Green Pigeon and Grey-Breasted Prinea sound?)

    This was the closest I got to a tiger today - a fresh pug mark in the fine sand with my pen for a size comparison:

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    There were a couple of jackals down by one of the dry washes, and plenty of peafowl strutting around in the late afternoon.

    As for larger animals, this is Lakshmi, a twenty-five year-old beauty who works in the Jhirna area carrying tourists on her back:

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    “Most tourists don’t linger in Ramnagar”

    The guidebooks are wrong about Ramnagar - it’s a decent place, a little bit of plains India at the edge of the Shivalik hills. Just about everyone who comes here heads for Dhikala in the Corbett Tiger Reserve, justly famous as India’s first national park.

    I’d had an exciting ride here from Ranikhet - legs jammed into a space a spaniel might find cramped, I was reminded of similar short wheelbase bus trips to Nepalese trek starts.

    Ramnagar is beside the wide Kosi river, something that attracted me as the bus came through the “jungle resorts” (expensive place to pretend you are in thick of the forest, but outside the National Park proper and many just hundreds of metres from the main road) clustered close to the river bank. I’d decided that bird-spotting would be the main reason to be here - any other wildlife could be a bonus.

    I set off the next morning up the river bank on foot. Fortified with a samosa and chole breakfast, I was surprised how delightfully calm life down by the river was. Some visitors have written that taking a bus north to beyond Mohan gives the best setting for watching wildlife at the river, but just wandering a couple of kilometres beyond the edge of town was fine for me. It also gave me a chance to interact with the local people, as I bumbled through their backyards trying to find a route along the bank of the river:

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    I quickly stumbled across a group of Sambar deer browsing on the fine grass near the water’s edge. Plenty of Jungle Babblers, Long-tailed Shrikes, Red-vented Bulbuls, and Black Kites here as well.


    Woken by monkeys, water goes wonkey

    Paul and Bruce had told me the hotel in Ranikhet’s bazaar was “a bit noisy,” but left before I’d thought to ask them what the problem was. In the area for a prolonged stay, Paul and Bruce were both Kasar Devi veterans. I’d intended to stay for some days on the Papar Sali ridge near Almora myself, but rushed through quickly to get onto new ground. Bruce was delighted with his motorbike purchase, and having just suffered a couple of hours stuffed in a share-taxi like a pimento in a jar of olives, I could see the value in having your own transport on these often quiet roads of Uttaranchal.

    Morning noise in the hotel ensured an early start - Chandra Cassettes opposite began playing selections from their film songs at first light. The monkeys on the roof - possibly inspired by memories of the filmi dance routines - began bouncing on the hotel’s corrugated steel roof soon after. From below, lying in the bed, this sounded like multiple attempts to break down doors all around.

    A cheerful man known to everyone as Bhandari (although he introduced himself as Mister Bhandari to me) ran errands and sorted out problems in the rooms . Aside from the monkey mischief (and who could have any reasonable grounds for complaint over noise in an Indian budget hotel?) my next problem soon became the hot water. A family who’d moved into the next room soon took advantage of the 24-hour geyser hot water and did their weekly wash. This quickly lowered the water pressure so that my hot water failed to flow at all. When the power went off later in the morning Bhandari told me that he couldn’t use the pump to raise more water to the roof tank until later in the day.

    I took a long walk out to Holm Farm - formerly built by Norman Troupe in 1869, and now a heritage hotel in wonderful bushland surroundings - and came back for a hot shower in early evening.

    “Bhandari - where’s the water?” I called when the same feeble burble of air as in the morning came from the tap.

    “I have a big problem, sir,” Bhandari told me. He came into the room and tuned on all of the cold water taps first. Air sucked back into the system. Then he closed the highest-situated tap, and water began to flow again. He turned on the hot tap, put his lips to the opening and blew air into the tank. Slowly, and with lots of gurgles and splutters, the hot water began to flow.

    “You’re a magic man, Bhandari!” I congratulated.
    “No, you’re magic man, sir - I’m a room boy.”

    Ranikhet is a great place for walks, and most days saw me taking between ten and twenty kilometres of strolls on local paths and roads. It’s just big enough to have the facilities, yet small enough to be able to walk through in a short time. The local people are friendly and helpful - a quality I’ve come across again and again in Kumaon. These two young boys were on the back of their Dad’s scooter in the bazaar:

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    I couldn’t resist this sign, probably the best warning that chewing pan is bad for your health:

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    A low swoop through morning fog

    “How many times in India?” demanded my taxi driver once we had left the surrounds of Delhi airport. I always have to reply that I don’t know the exact number, only that it must be nearly twenty entries. This entry to conversation is a rather obvious way of determining the “green-ness” of the new passenger, and probably how much scamming they are good for. I’m not sure; I’ve never had problems on the taxi run from Delhi airport. After some demonstrating of my counting in Hindi (but why do I always forget the numbers 17 and 18?) the driver then dropped his pretence of not knowing where in Paharganj the Ajay Guest House is located and drove straight there.

    Some changes noticed in nine months’ away: the onslaught of the Delhi Metro, with concrete pylons spidering over roads, plus more highway stretches starting to look like motorways. Fewer cyclists everywhere except in narrow streets such as those around Paharganj.

    As someone who generally despises shopping, it’s another life to run down a list of thirty clothing/ medical/ general needs items and have it completed in less than two hours. I neglected to pack my handkerchief, soon needing it once I went to eat my first thali of this season.

    Life looks good - thalis for dinner and tea, awakening tomorrow in Kumaon. Must get back to start packing for the train.


    Meshes nicely with the dancing

    Those who have travelled only a little or not at all in Asian countries may wonder what needs to be got ready for a three-month layover in India. So I have prepared this little tutorial to help you get your bong meshes in order for the big day:

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    click for bigger picture

    After wielding the needle-nose pliers and tinsnips for the whole of REM’s “Automatic For The People,” I could sit in weak winter sunshine with the morning coffee and admire the products of my finger-piercing work - seven meshes that will fit inside my bong cone. Perhaps you should ask yourself whether you want to view the rest of the page in Julie Andrews mode if you don’t know what this is all about by now.

    The meshes came from the working part of a stainless-steel tea-strainer (fresh each year; I have the poshest tea strainers in the neighbourhood) and were formed inside the cone with the blunt end of a screwdriver after trimming to an approximate shape with tinsnips. By the time I got to “Everybody Hurts” on the CD my fingertips were a little bloody from being pricked by sharp ends of the wire, but I continued to improve my technique - until the two meshes I’d produced by “Star Me Kitten” were followed by five more before the end of the album. The trick, as I discover anew each time I make meshes, is to leave just the right overlap after sizing to allow a modest turnover at the top. You need the mesh to sit snugly in the bong cone (shown at the top of the picture) - few things are worse than flinting up a bowl of finest Parvati valley charas and then losing it all seconds later as an insecure mesh pops out. I’ve had this happen to me in Nepalese hotel bathrooms, on a viewpoint overlooking Mount Everest, and once while camping in the Indian Himalaya. Only alertness in the last case prevented the glowing hash fragments from burning a hole in the groundsheet of my tent.

    I’m packing only three changes of underwear, so why, then, do I need seven meshes? “Flaming” the meshes off in a cigarette lighter flame burns the residue (often with a lightly re-stoning sweet scent that’s perfect for a morning walk) but weakens the metal. They look utterly like druggie accessories once flamed a few times. New, they pass off as spares for my kerosene stove (the bong cone goes in there too, while its aluminium tube fits nicely alongside the tent poles), and a change of bong mesh raises morale almost as fast as the switch to clean socks and underwear at the end of a trying bus journey. As I mention on another section of the site (go to the Roll Your Zone), the bottle for this bong is renewed frequently, using water bottles cast off from other travellers (my own water is boiled using a tiny portable electric element - consider using one if you don’t want to convert oil products into beach pollution).

    Ten days remaining to the flight to Delhi. With any less experience of how easy it is to get a trip like this together I think I would be edging into the panic region, but aside from the Indian visa (going in tomorrow for this) all of the totally essential items on the “to do” list are ticked off. In the bedroom, a lunghi is spread with stuff bags, plastic bags, camping tackle and notes on pieces of paper. Moving in and around the growing pile, fishing things out from storage, peering from the top of my step-ladder into the many cupboards I have in this high-ceilinged flat in Vienna, shuffling through bags for things that have lain in wait for nearly a year - it’s all like a dance.

    At least I won’t be waking up any more with turbulent, morbid worries that I’ve forgotten the bong meshes…

    Go to Blog Zone 2003-2004


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