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, 2005-6

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A fort, a boat and a beach…

With a new dental crown fitted in Margao, Goa, I was back on my quest for quieter seaside surroundings than I'd experienced last year in Agonda. The early “passenger” train on the Konkan railway stops at the station of Kudal, two hours to the north in the state of Maharashtra. From here, I had the choice of a lumbering bus or a slightly less lumbering autorickshaw to the interesting town of Malvan on the coast. I took the auto, as it is faster. Malvan is a somewhat sleepy little fishing port with some long traditions in food and architecture. As I was feeling a little short of time now - with just nine days left on the trip calendar - I forewent the town tour and instead took a boat out to Sinhudurg fort.

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Built on an island under unimaginable difficulties, the fort walls encircle the entire 48 acre island and make it impregnable from the sea. Its origins stretch back to Chhatrapati Shivaji, the Marathi king, and in its time it has resisted assaults from the Mughals and the British. It’s also a great vantage point for viewing many islets strewn in the sea around here.

Back on the boat to the mainland:

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It was time to find somewhere to stay. The beach nearest Sindhudurg fort, Tarkarli, is in the LP India guidebook now, so I’m not letting too many cats out of the bag by mentioning it. It is very long and inhabited only by fishermen and the very occasional tourist. Accomodation options are expanding as knowledge of its charms spread (one small hotel opened while I was there), but if you absolutely have to be slap bang on the beach, the MTDC resort is the only place to stay. It’s well run, and I had a week in a cottage nestling back from the surf in some casuarina trees. Passengers on the “Deccan Oddysey” train call in here for lunch, and the Hebridean Spirit cruise liner drops anchor just off the coast.

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A perfect place for contemplation, yet not quite perfect (the ever-present picnic litter in the trees is a scandal, and walking away from the area of MTDC brings life in the “turd world” [beach as a toilet] odourously into focus), the beach could absorb a few days of any Goa-weary traveller’s time. Tourist literature speaks of the uncommon clarity of the sea here. I was initially sceptical, but found myself looking at small fish around my feet as I stood, neck deep, in the waves. Try that in Goa (and I did) - the clarity fades at about waist depth!


Caught on camera - Ringmasters’ meeting

Some things are best talked about and not seen. This includes expressing the contents of particularly enlarged boils on the buttocks, hygiene in Indian kitchens, perhaps even personalities. A better memory might result if the details of all these were presented in written rather than photo-real form.

Nevertheless, the people have a right to know, are even demanding to know, and that is why I am posting these pictures. The people includes the other members of our Sky-Clad Web Ring, interested individuals from other forums, even general visitors. You can see here Cyberhippie (former site Gone India) Tokemaster Thomas (this site) and Lei (former site The Boonies) in a beach restaurant on Palolem Beach, Goa.

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Our little gathering was the largest meet of Sky-Clad Webmasters (or Webmistresses - whose absence, incidentally, cast the only shadow over this occasion) to date. With a perfect cooling breeze off the Arabian Sea, the blue sky over our heads and fine sand under our feet,

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we chewed the rag for a couple of hours over a luncheon of steak and barbecued tuna. LP Thorn Tree readers should note that this was no piss-up (a Maaza and lime soda-up?), and even the notorious dribbly-necked bong had been left behind.

What did we talk about? The state of tourist infrastructure development in Goa, certain posters on IM and LPTT (two online travel forums, if you just dropped in from the third moon of Naboo), our own sites, our travels past and present, sudden onset diarrhoea, the A380 aeroplane… We gathered humour was evident in our chat from the small titters circulating in the restaurant from time to time.

Yes, it was a fine afternoon, and one of the “moments of being” in the course of my journey through India and life. Nice one, guys!


Buffs on the velvet strand

It’s twenty years since I was first in the region of the Goa coastline known as “Colva beach.” Then, it described the whole arc of white sand stretching in the north from just under the Zuari Agro works down to Mobor, where the sandy sweep is interrupted by the Sal river (which gives the name to the taluka of Salcete). Now, people understand “Colva” to mean what the Rough Guide currently describes as a “few fly-blown snack and souvenir stalls gathered around a grim parking lot behind a stinking creek.”

Yes, it’s true that the beach in the immediate vicinity is less appealing than carefully-tended Benaulim, further south. However, strolling north of the Colva road-end (hold your nose as the pass the piles of fish guts tipped from fishermen’s catches if you do this early in the morning), you pass Betalbatim, and between here and Majorda the beach is backed with stands of trees and a density of people on the beach (Indian and Westerner) far lower than popular honeypots like Palolem and Morjim. Jetski boats (the curse of swimmers who like to be able to be in the sea without posting lookouts for fast-approaching marine traffic) and the backgroundl smells of kerosene or diesel fuel on the air are much reduced or absent - for now. Incidentally, Majorda beach resort is the original luxury hotel on this beach, predating other constructions by at least twenty-five years. Even with the blossoming of the charter trade and luxury hotels here, this is still a l-o-n-g beach (26km). Being so long, it’s also wide - tonight I walked on the perfect combination of wet and dry sand: squinchy, crunkly dry sand (with a feeling to the foot rather like walking through snow), and pure, tanned velvet over the hard, sea-washed and damp sand. I never saw so much velvet sand, super sensual sand, which blanches delicately with the weight of a foot, but doesn’t show any imprint.

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Each morning near the spot on the beach I take the airs, village men come down to bathe their male water buffalo in the sea, wielding branches of trees they use as switches to control the animals. These buffs are either working animals, used for hauling the plough in the rice fields - in which case they are castrated and docile - or stud bulls, behaving unpredictably. In recent years, I have seen more and more of this sea-bathing activity. It can be the result of many things, but I speculate that it is the result of fields back from the beach becoming drier, and thus the shallow ponds that the buffs used to bathe in being lost.

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Ratnagiri rambles

Ratnagiri is on the Konkan coast and features an industrial area streamlined along the main highway. It wasn’t initially very promising as we proceeded from the long-way-out-of-town railway station to the hotel. At the station I’d made the mistake I warn others about: asking a question and expecting an affirmative answer. In this case it was, “Is the town near to the station?” which I asked of what appeared to be a local man disembarking like me from the Mandovi express train. He simply nodded, raising hopes I could walk around the local area and find somewhere to stay. Yet a look around, away from the platform, suggested that Ratnagiri was very spread out.

Sometimes, autorickshaw pilots can help you, and I trusted that in this place where a white face was an unusual sight that I wouldn’t be sold down the river by asking for a hotel.

“Do you know a good hotel in Ratnagiri?” I asked of the first auto. He wanted to know my price range, and I told him (feeling that a little quality was worth it right now) between 350 and 500 rupees. A brief discussion with some other drivers followed. The rickshaw ride there would be fifty rupees, he told me, as it was seven kilometres. He took me to the Landmark Hotel on Thibaw Palace Road, which I can recommend, especially as it does not feature the notorious “Permit Room” (a room, usually with darkened windows and curtained cubicles, designed for consuming alcohol), and is down a quiet side road from the main drag through town. Further down this road is the eponymous palace, used by the British to imprison a king of Burma some time ago.

The next morning I was lucky to encounter Gourish in the lobby. Working for a mineral extraction company in Mumbai, he was conducting surveys of the coastline in the area from a ship facilitated by GPS. He recommended a beach far out of town, as well as the local beaches of Malve and Bharti, as a sample of the coastal delights from the area. If you are in town for only a day, a 30 Rs rickshaw ride to Bharti beach at sunset is definitely worth it (it’s about 1km long and pretty clean), and there are two tiny huts to buy snacks from at sunset.

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Ratnagiri residents, unwinding on the beach at the end of the day, were curious about the foreigner in their town. One man even stopped his motorbike to offer me “any help you need” in finding more about the attractions of Ratnagiri. Once, about twenty years ago, all travel in India was like this:

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I would have to wait to explore beaches further south like Vengurla or Tarkarli as Goa - and an appointment with unavoidable dental treatment - was calling. But what I’d seen on this coast so far opened up options to be on the beach enjoying the ambience of wind and waves without perambulating merchants dividing seclusion into unbroken, ten minute segments.



The Tokemaster Thomas recipe slot  

A ready made confection for you this week - marjoun or bhang candy:

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In this case it’s a lot faster to sample it ready-made; the man in Rajasthan who made it told me that it was matured for one whole year. Wow! Glenmorangie space cake. The ingredients list, you may be surprised to learn after sampling the confection, includes neither dubbin nor broken glass but embraces cashew and pistachio nuts, bhang (a derivative of the cannabis leaf and stalks), sugar, mint and other spices. The slightly cloying texture and slightly resinous odour is balanced by crystals of pure sugar (given the long maturing time, these would seem to have grown in the finished block) and light minty flavour, lending interest to the palette. Later (about an hour later) other interesting results of consumption begin to show.

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Sweet potatoes - and a very old tree

With Prakash, the oldest of three brothers in the family of the haveli I was staying in, I went to visit the ninety hectare farm, twenty kilometres out of Bundi.

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Here the family grew vegetables for sale. Mostly growing wheat, sweet potato, tomatoes, mustard and clover, the “farm” was essentially a flat area of fine, silty soil with a very fine, old banyan tree sitting by the side of a deep well. And how grand that tree was! With aerial roots sweeping back down to the mother earth, it had been alive for at least a century, possibly more (I’m no banyan expert). Prakash told me the tree was “four hundred years old,” but I immediately cast doubt on that number as Raj, the youngest brother informed me before I left for the farm that I would see a “two hundred year-old tree,” and other figures from Prakash were all multiples of 200 (he told me that the family lived in an “eight hundred year-old” house).

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Prakash told me that the vegetables were grown without chemicals (cow dung as fertiliser), and rows of marigolds by the tomato section showed that biological pest control was the family’s method of choice.

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Water came from the 70m deep well, which Prakash told me proudly had never dried up, even when tubewells from other farmers yielded nothing in a drought. At this time of year, it was only necessary to water every three weeks (buckets carried on heads), but in hotter weather watering would need to be done every four or five days.

We lit a fire and roasted a batch of sweet potatoes. Sitting on a charpoi (India rope bed) in the sun with some farm workers looking on, Prakash and I ate as many of the white-fleshed sweet potatoes as we could, then packed the remainder to carry with us on the motorbike back to the haveli

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Bounding around Bundi

Many visitors to India consider Rajasthan as an essential part of their experience, but last year (in trips spanning 25 years) was the first time I set foot in the state.

That was to the desiccated bird reserve of Bharatpur; this year I’m in the walled city of Bundi. Now, I haven’t ventured near Jaipur or Jodhpur, but for me Bundi was the essence of India (bright colours, tightly-packed back streets, blue-washed houses, deserted forts, lakes) that the larger, more popular cities of Rajasthan would seem to offer. Wandering the lanes between tightly packed houses, I met kids practising their kite-flying skills for a state-wide contest, and friendly people everywhere. This picture shows one of the many “kite shops” which sprung up to supply kites and string for enthusiasts (and you need a lot of kites here; they become tangled in power lines, or other fliers intercept your path and cut the string after a mere minute of flying:)

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A useful gauge of any area’s exposure to tourism is the children’s excitement when they sight a camera. In Bundi, they not only invited me to “make picture” but waited for the preview on the digital camera once I’d done it. They’d had exposure to tour groups, but didn’t hector or pester.

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It was cold in Bundi until the middle of the morning. Like me, the langur monkeys and rhesus macaques sit on the flat rooftops and drink in the warmth of the sun. I stayed in a haveli (old merchant’s house) and enjoyed sitting out on the roof with the family in the house in a morning and as the sun was setting on the palace and fort in the evening.

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I fould walking around the walls of the fort a delight, as the walls offered an vantage point to view the surrounding countryside, with a particularly pretty landscape across the Jait Sagar lake.

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Spiked acacia scrub, lantana and lots of other briars made strong shoes necessary for walking. The landscape of Rajasthan has definitely changed as rainfall has decreased; I began to speculate just how much the intensive grazing of these hills by goats has modified the vegetation. Probably very significantly.

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Lower down in Bundi Palace’s Chittra Sala, the glories of war on elephant back were depicted in paintings arranged around walls in a cloister.

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By the river - a new year

What better for the constitution than a New Year stoll by the river in Rishikesh? I hadn’t walked on the Muni-ki-Reti side (the main road side) for nearly ten years; development of luxury flats has changed this part of town a lot, and a long flood embankment curves around in front of the properties. Down by the rocky banks of the Ganges, I came across this lovely statue of Kali/Durga (Godess of Destruction) riding a tiger (though the artist made it a lion)…

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Nearer to Ram Jhula bridge, life went on without any recognition of the Western “New Year” impostion:

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While around the houses in Swarg Ashram, where I was staying, the party of simians was winding up a little late.

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The Experimental Art Of The Big Towel

The Lonely Planet Experimental Travel book has a number of ways to persuade you that not all unusual travel is dead:
Do you yearn for the glories of yesteryear? Pack an octogenarian guidebook and replace the subway with a penny farthing for an Anachronistic Adventure. Do you like to gamble? Taste the real thrill of adventure with Trip Poker or Monopoly Travel. Are you desperate for a holiday but strapped for cash? To undertake Budget Tourism low funds are not an obstacle but a prerequisite.

To paraphrase a lot of fartsy padding, the experiments involve introducing an element of creativity, chance or pattern into moving around and doing things. You might have to do without something you have grown used to. This was certainly my own, home grown, experiment.

Since the time when I packed my bicycle for six weeks’ solo touring of NW Scotland thirty [GULP] years ago, I have advocated travelling with minimal-sized towels in order to conserve carried weight. It’s obvious really - a few slightly chilly morning washes in exchange for days free of carrying extra kilograms of towelly mounds around. Mounds which are becoming progressively heavier, more often than not, as they absorb more moisture.

So an example of experimental travel for me would be to carry really huge towels. This is just what I am doing, carrying three weighty towels (bath-sized at 1m x 1.5m). They are quite a luxury in the morning nippy zip of Rishikesh with a blustery wind coming off the river. Soaking my dusty feet this morning ("sand” forming the beaches to this river is really glacial dust - pulverised rock) was a delight; a warm towelling following twenty minutes’ soak is quite the way to begin the day.

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Need I add that the towels were bought to carry home (generous Turkish Airlines overlooks bags a wee bit over the 20kg limit), and will travel from here only as far as Delhi, and storage.



Strangled green chilli pakora

These must be a speciality of Kausani: pure green chilli pakora. If you are unfamiliar with Indian food, pakora are small snack items made from vegetables fried in a chickpea flour batter. The usual ingredients are cauliflower or similar, with a small amount of chilli (either fresh or powdered). In Kausani, I bought pakora made only with chilli peppers. They were like - ‘ow you say? - blast-worthy for a couple of Mars probe launches, and should only be issued to those over 35 presenting records of the last three heart scans.

I got a “plate” of them. That’s sort of odd, you always ask for a plate (and the magic word “packing” shows you want to have a take-away, rather than munch them in the restaurant, although in the case of the pure chilli pakora, some cooling assistance might be a good idea), but the plate is never included before the restaurant people wrap them in newspaper. The wrapping is nearly always newspaper, but I’m wary of the seep-power of the oil they are fried in now (a blotted journal and camera bag from another trip was the learning experience) and always have a ready plastic bag tucked into the side of my daypack.

So what did I buy? A handful would be the honest description, but “plate” seems a more hygenic measure.

Once out on trial in the hills, the pakora soon proved themselves. I navigated faultlessly to a high ridge and back to Kausani, showing that the pakora manage to show a rudimentary GPS or compass function. Is there a lot of iron in green chili?

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Those Cranky Crinklies (go hoppin’)

Seeing in the thinning trees (from my first visit to the region of Kumaon around Almora nine years back) a reflection in the increasingly thin hair of many male visitors, I decided to dedicate at least some of my time on Cranks’ Ridge to finding out why. [Erm…] why what? Why are the trees thinner?

That’s simple - humans keep cutting them for firewood. Since the sixties, when such illuminati of the counterculture as Baba Ram Dass, Timothy Leary and Lama Angarika Govinda had furloughs in these hills (why it became tagged with the name “Cranks’ Ridge"), what were a few houses on the ridge have marched down to the bottom of the valley. All those extra people taking wood from the forest to cook their food (few use wood for heating, only the live embers from cooking fires are put into rooms to take off the first “chill” of a November evening), and wood collectors only supply a need.

Or, Why are the visitors older?

Perhaps that aura and association of the Summer Of Love and general peacenicking brings some visitors over forty to Pappar Sali ridge. As older usually equals wealthier, these crinklies may often own laptops, motor scooters and mobile phones. They choose the area because it is ideal for contemplation away from a European or North American winter, and the sunshine isn’t bad until the end of the year. Internet connection speeds might not be all they should be, but long stay visitors may want to escape from that encapsulated world for a while, in fact even to get out of it totally for a wee bit.

The natural shades of ochre released by December sunshine make welcome warm tones in the early morning dusts of frost. A bole of wood, hacked into but left to yellow in the ground for a return visit. A pumpkin, strong and matured, lending food to the eye now, later for the stomach. The snow sometimes lies thickly here in January, and it’s somehow a good feeling to display the fruits of autumn as insurance against the cold times.

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Having recommended these ridges to people for five years, I thought it was time for to stay here myself, instead of walking up from Almora city. It saved a big clutch of road slogging to need to return to Khim’s GH on Pappar Sali ridge after the sun weakened at five. The peace of the ridge was marvellous - the silence came even with an absence of night-time warring dog barks.


A short waiting room wait

The Ranikhet Express seems to receive low priority for departure from Old Delhi station. It is hardly ever at the platform more than fifteen minutes before departure, even though it originates in Delhi.

Thus it was that I had an hour to use before there was any train to sit in - and, at nearly ten in the evening, this could only mean a spell in the waiting room. Old Delhi’s waiting room is on the same floor as the retiring rooms, although you needed to walk up two floors on a spiral staircase when I was there, the lift having got stuck between floors.

With only forty minutes’ remaining before my train left, I tried to avoid the lengthy signing-in process that normally goes with using the waiting room and simply stormed into the the hall, settling myself and my rucsac as sole occupant of a table for four. But it was no good; the old woman I had breezed past with a smile (figuring she would speak no English and thus be unable to ask, “Excuse me, sir, but would you kindly complete details of your name, passport number, father’s name, exact place and time of birth and ticket serial number before taking a seat in our waiting room?") kept trying to catch my eye and then eventually snared another traveller to request the same of me.

The electrician team arrived and began inspecting the arrays of fluorescent light fittings hanging from chains in the high-ceilinged room: four men and a nailed, bamboo ladder. In fact, the job of two men in the team seemed to be solely to carry the ladder and steady it as the “Bara Sahib” electician (dressed implausibly in a suit and polished leather shoes) climbed to change tubes in the fluorescent lights. The third man could be classed as semi-skilled: he carried the spare tubes and the shopping bag holding the team’s one piece of technical equipment - the socket tester. This fabulous device consisted of two lengths of coiled, solid wire connected to a small lamp in a paper bag. Ends of the pieces of wire were stripped back one centimetre to make “probe tips” for the electrician to insert into a suspect socket. The socket tester was handled with great reverance, placed carefully back into the shopping bag after each use, and only operated by the Bara Sahib electrician.

Now there was a problem. The socket tester had revealed a faulty starter in one lamp fitting. BS Electrician instructed his number 2 to switch off the particular fitting. He blew caked layers of dust from around the site of the problem, and the audience - sorry, waiting room passengers - could see the old starter projecting from the fitting, connected to the innards by twisted wires. BS Electrician took a new starter from his jacket pocket, twisting it in place of the faulty component. The job was complete, and faulty tubes and starter switches bundled away.

Indian rail station waiting rooms are only grudgingly welcoming to the traveller. Nonetheless, this doesn’t deter people using them for sleeping, performing lengthy ablutions and sleeping some more. I used to think that the “sleeper class waiting room” was so called because of the number of snoozers it contained, but the upper class rooms are hardly different. The electrical interlude had been enough; it was time for me to search out the Ranikhet Express and get moving north to the mountains.


On the 25th Anniversary of the death of John Lennon.

I don’t buy into all of this hagiography surrounding popular music figures such as Lennon and Dylan. The Beatles sang, “All you need is love,” yet twenty years later Paul McCartney would be supporting the proposed invasion of Iraq with the comment that “Saddam Hussain is just like Hitler - we have to get him out.” No-one pointed out the contradiction; the iconic status of the Beatles was undamaged, it was necessary for the media illusion to remain intact.

The myth created by popular media endures. Is it any coincidence that the present day newspaper editors and programme controllers were nearly all Beatles and Lennon listeners during their formative youth? Yet newspapers of the day generally ridiculed Lennon (for the album “Two Virgins” which featured front and rear naked portraits of him and Yoko, for their “bed in for peace,” for their arty commentary on publicity when they appeared in front of the press dressed in full bags) but now conveniently see him as an “important figure in the Peace Movement.” Ono was viewed as a witless and inarticulate tangential Oriental, somehow she had diverted Lennon from continuing to a bright future making music with the Liverpool lads.

Yoko, seen receiving a presentation for lifetime achievement at a recent MTV awards ceremony, is lachrymose:
“I only wish John were here to receive it…” she snuffles. Does nobody question why - twenty five years after losing a partner - a woman starts blubbering into the nearest microphone about what she and the world lost that day he was shot dead? She does not own her grief - we do. Her grief is required by the collective mythology, she is part of the whole grotesque fantasy manufactured by the media. It could be that Yoko isn’t even acting her sobs, it could be that she doesn’t even recognise that her profile in the media today is identified with mourning, as a Liverpool Lieutenant’s Woman, an inconsolable widow draped in black, mired in sadness despite her obvious financial wealth.


The eighth what?

“The eighth annual Sixt General Meeting” was being hawked around on greeters’ nameboards at Vienna airport’s arrival lounge. Whatever could it be?

In any case, arriving delegates who saw the signs appeared to understand what was meant and collected in small groups, ready to take an organised coach to town.

It’s always interesting to observe meeting and greeting behaviour at airports. A short but stocky young man in spectacles and pressed trousers held a large red rose in one hand. He paced a slow and deliberate path up and down, sometimes scanning the doors where each new arrival would stand, blinking in the fluorescent lamplight of a grey, early Vienna December morning. When his girl arrived, she looked bashful, but pleased to be welcomed. They hugged in a sleepy but practised way. He shouldered her rucsac, steering her rolling luggage carrier towards the exit.

Why was I spending time in arrivals, when this was my day to leave for India? Well, once checked in there is little to do except shop or sit drinking expensive Capacino, so I went in search of the myriad human threads that airports - despite being sterile buildings barely reflecting the character of the country they are portals to - provide to the observer.

Being Austria, everything on the airport apron (Vorfeld, in German [Forefield] seems to take the mind back to a time when grass grew on runways, propellers were greased by red-faced mechanics and flying was genuinely an adventure) has a name. A minibus stopped briefly to drop off a connecting shaft needed for the crawler to push the aircraft back from the passenger embarkation tunnel. On its side was its name: Pushback.

Of all the motor vehicles on the apron, I like the pushback crawlers best. Low-slung and hinting not only of power but mysterious hidden features, they resemble the rescue machines from Thunderbirds, a children’s TV adventure which had the power to keep me watching raptly in the 60’s.

Thanks to a late connecting flight, I reached Delhi centre at sunrise today - not such a disadvantage, when breakfast can be taken at a small dhaba (cafe) facing the relentless tumble and crush of buses, rickshaws and hell-bent pedestrians that is the scene opposite New Delhi station at six-thirty in the morning. I had always been puzzled by the presence of muddy water lying around here, even on days without rain. It lies like an evil lake at the side of the uneven road, inviting walkers to test its turbid depths as a way of dodging the traffic. It seems the water comes from the dhabas and shops themselves - runoff from washing, an deliberately splashed over the road surface as a way of settling the dust.

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