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, 2005-6 and 2007-8
the blog zone

travels in India over the winter, 2007-8

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This trip was three months’ leave from the winter in Europe. I went through Uttarakhand, Ranthambhore, Hampi and North & South Goa, travelling by train, bus and taxi. You can see a short visual overview directly underneath. If you want to read the blog in the right order, you’ll need to start at the bottom of this page.

Click on the small pictures to enlarge them

03. Mar 2008

The right note to end on

Three days in a “coco house” on the beach in Goa wouldn’t have been my choice for wrapping up the trip most years, but after Hampi I felt like some time by the coast again. A train from Hampi took me to Margao, my previous launchpad for stays in south Goa. Panjim was only two hours away, and it would have been easy to get to Morjim/Aswem that same evening, but I felt like seeing the Portuguese quarter of Fontainhas in Panjim again (after a gap of twenty years), and anyway, Panjim has some good riceplate restaurants.

The new Siolim bridge makes access to beaches across the Chapora river (Morjim, Aswem, Mandrem) rather easier than before. Of course, this cuts both ways; change is happening rapidly in this part of Goa (it seems driven by Russian property speculators), rather like the beachfront cluttering I’ve witnessed in south Goa since the late eighties. Nonetheless, Morjim made a pleasant and uncrowded change from beaches such as Agonda and Patnem in the south, and I found the Goan Cafe (one of the original two accommodation options on this beach) a friendly and peaceful spot.

Here’s a view from my balcony in the early morning:

By chance, my visit coincided with the full moon and the period of low tide was bang in the middle of the day. This meant that walking beyond Aswem and Mandrem to Arambol was straightforward on the wide stretches of sand and low inflowing streams. Most of my time was in fact continuing the passion for walking that had begun in the nipping chills of Uttarakhand three months before, and gone on through Rathambhore and Hampi.

The heaped riceplates I’d devoured in Karnataka were now only a memory, and soon the baking sunshine and gentle swooshing of waves on white sands would also be alive as mere memories and virtual stacks of digital photographs.


18. Feb 2008

What’s Hampi like, then?

The sacred site of Hampi was somewhere I went prepared to be come away from with disappointment. Well, how many travel recommendations have you followed and found them to be everything you were promised? That’s right, most likely about two. In my case the Taj Mahal and Uttarakhand would be those two. Now I have another to put on the list – Hampi.

The approach to the site from Hospet was less than promising – a dreary road with heavy traffic, and at a railway crossing, there were two rather heavy, Nordic-looking male tourists who seemed to be helping their autorickshaw driver push it over the bumpy lines. My own autorickshaw driver provided a helpful commentary as we passed areas of cultivation: bananas over there, coconut trees, see the sugar cane growing in that field… I told him that I did know about things like banana and coconut trees already.

Hampi is breathtaking. The first view of the river, with the sacred ford and ghats leading down to it, is a memory I’ll keep forever. I stayed on the other side of the river but made the boat crossing each day to explore. One day I came across the Virupaksha temple’s elephant, Lakshmi, who I was told was just 20 years old. She had been having her daily bath at the river and her mahoot was riding her back up to the temple. For such a heavy animal, she trod the stone steps up from the riverside ghat with a lot of elegance and power.

There are many things to like about Hampi – the peace, the serendipitous quality to your wanderings (to come across an unvisited ruin away from the usual crop of popular sites was especially nice), the large number of birds, even fellow travellers. At this time of year, the sun begins to strengthen, but each day I found somewhere to sit in the shade and eat the little picnic lunch I had brought with me:

Perhaps my favourite temple was the Hanuman temple. It seemed like every autorickshaw driver I met on the Virupapuragadda side (where I was staying) tried to get me to jump in his vehicle for an overpriced trip there and back. In the end, I walked both ways. The road isn’t too busy and in late afternoon, being close to the river, the light is lovely. First up a snaking stairway, which must rate as one of the most idiosyncratic sets of steps I’ve walked on. A water pipe makes an appearance shortly after beginning the climb. It runs near the steps, and then actually cuts across them at several points, sometimes knee-high, so you have to step over it many times. It becomes like a companion to the climb, and in this dry region you develop respect for a pipe which carries water to a high plateau. Eventually the pipe runs on to an open end, pointing into the air, with nothing more connected to it – all that dodging around it was for nothing, the pipe is useless.

At the top, the temple is small and unpretentious but attractive. The monkeys (I only saw Rhesus macaques) are somewhat combative, but didn’t trouble me, even though two baby monkies eyed my sunglasses a few times, those same sunglasses which had been snatched expertly from my face in Shimla by Jakoo Hill monkeys a few years earlier. It’s a superb viewpoint, especially if like everyone else you go to take photos on the rocky area painted liberally with signs warning “Entry forbidden. Restricted zone. No entry. Photography prohibited.” This is India!

Back down at river level, a quick way back from the Hanuman temple – if you are staying on the Hampi bazaar side of the river – is to take a coracle from a crossing near the Agni temple. Bargaining is very much in order here, as you face a long walk to the regular boat crossing if you can’t arrange a suitable price. The coracles look totally in keeping with the landscape.

Those fellow travellers gave me plenty of entertainment, of the type you might find in “travellers’ centres” all over India. It’s something about the clash of cultures when traditional meets Western, the pretension of being in a place with a lot of other pretentious people pretending we are all doing this for the first time anyone has ever tried it, and the bullshit babbled when in the company of those who don’t criticise. Here are some young people performing yoga on the lawn of my guesthouse, oblivious to the ladies behind them taking a lunchbreak from thinning rice shoots in the paddy fields. Imagine it in motion – the Westerners are bumping their hips up and down, making “aah” sounds to match…


16. Feb 2008

Thereby hangs a tale…

‘Tis but an hour ago since it was nine,
And after one hour more ’twill be eleven;
And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot;
And thereby hangs a tale.’

As You Like It, William Shakespeare

I wasn’t exactly rotting from hour to hour while waiting in Hospet, but it was a tedious time to be on hold. The President of India was visiting Hampi and I’d timed my visit to coincide exactly with hers. No tourists allowed to stay overnight in Hampi. Well, how to use up the time I had to stay? The town itself (“charmless” according to my Rough Guide to India) can be explored in half a day, and there’s only so much time I could spend in restaurants eating the admittedly excellent riceplate meals. Some context for the situation of the Tungabhada river came through my Sunday cycle outing to the Tungabhada reservoir and dam. By Monday, the decks were clear for visitors to stay in Hampi.

So about those tales… well, actually tails are what I want to talks about. The grey langur monkeys in Hampi impressed me – as they do every time I see such animals – with their graceful tails. Held in a gentle loop above their back when they walk, the tails are long, furry and constantly active, whether for balance or climbing (they can grip with them, and literally hang from a tail). In my photo, the baby’s tail seems enormous compared to its body size.

Humans lost their tails many millions of years ago – but how would the world be if we still had them?

As a part of the body near to the genitalia and buttocks, tails would probably be seen as shameful things to display uncovered, and no doubt certain religions would want all human tails coiled up and strapped away to hide their very existence. Those cultures which sanctioned the showing of tails would probably also adorn them – tail covers would be big sellers in the shops, and rapidly changing fashions in tail accessories would be a major interest for many, and a source of vast revenue for some. It wouldn’t matter at all that the tails were practically useless for urban life (after all, what’s the use of hair on the head most of the time, yet it still attracts interest with its potential for style and colour embellishments), but some breakaway groups would embrace a return to tree-based life, where tails have a definite advantage for climbing. No doubt tail aerobics and yoga would be available to those wanting to develop prehensile tails. Martial arts combat matches using the tails to fight with would be available on at least ten different cable TV channels. I could even visualise tail transplants, enlargements and reductions being offered, while medical tourists would flock to India as the centre of surgical tail enhancement at affordable prices.


10. Feb 2008

Hey, Pratibha, your shoes are unlaced!

When the president of India looks in on Hampi, most of Hampi’s residents are removed. This includes rhesus monkeys, famous for scampering around the rocky monuments, stray cows and all of the tourists staying in Hampi’s sixty or so lodges. Shipped out, in the case of the monkeys, to large holding cages in nearby Hospet. Tourists had an only marginally less gruelling exclusion, as the evacuation of Hampi led to great pressure on hotels in Hospet.

Now, the ancient piled stones of this ruined city in South India are well known as a venue for Pakistani terrorist training camps, which explains why over two thousand police were moved to the area for Mizz Prez’s visit. President Patil herself made a flying visit, literally, in an army helicopter, broke a coconut on a lingam and threw some flowers at grateful, pot-bellied priests.

None of these security steps is less than George Dubya would demand and expect, probably (in fact, in his case, throw in an aircraft carrier or two in the Indian ocean). Yet the sight of this grown woman and her husband, being helped on with their shoes after visiting a temple ground into me like an irritating beggar. The picture – carried by many Indian newspapers the day after her Hampi visit- seemed to touch a raw nerve with Indians as well, best expressed by this correspondent to the Deccan Herald:

Do they need help to do this simple job? What sort of democratic spirit is PP conveying through this? Our netas are worse than the royal brigade of yesteryear in shamelessly using servants for such simple tasks.

I’d be really ignoring reality if I excluded travellers from the criticism of those who take advantage of gratuitous comforts which piss all over the rights of others. Think of just about anywhere in the southern region of India popular with low-budget travellers. What do you see? That’s right – horrible, insect-like motorbikes, revving and spewing black fumes into the air of an otherwise peaceful Goa back road/ Kovalam street/ Hampi laneway.

30. Jan 2008

Banana barrow boys in Margao

It’s interesting to take a look in the warehouses scattered around Station Road in Margao, the main city in south Goa. Amongst the charcoal collection yards and spice houses are buildings dedicated to receiving the large numbers of bananas which are sold each day. I went in one and talked to the men working there. They showed me the large “arms” (my word, there must be a proper term for the long stems of hundreds of bananas), which weigh a good twenty kilos each:

The cost of one “arm” for me to buy? About thirty Euros. Sampling of the different types was compulsory. I’m not greatly taken with the Indian variety of banana, and buy them only when ill or when there’s no other choice of eatable (I find them too slimy; the Carribean variety has a more delicate flavour to my palette, but I know plenty of travellers who love Indian bananas). However, I could easily tell the difference between the “good” and “best” quality fruits I was given to sample by the friendly men. This man has three different quality of bananas on his barrow – without a grounding in basic bananogenics, a traveller just arrived would think all were equal, and wonder why the bunch she’s taken home for a snack were so acidic…

The men load their barrows each morning and push them to key intersections on the roads. Buyers come on motorbikes, or on foot and purchase ten or twenty bananas at a time. Each bunch is wrapped carefully in newspaper and (if you want) popped into a plastic carry-bag.


20. Jan 2008

Branson’s clockwork dog crosses Atlantic floor

My strapline, coming as it does from British TV’s 1994 The Day Today, could hardly go wrong. Those watching the unfolding story of British PM Gordon Brown’s China visit will have been struck by the absolute lack of any critical words from him on human rights abuses in the country, the Tibet issue, or of the throttling of voices of dissent on the Internet and elsewhere. Brown’s plans for ID cards in four years will move British democracy closer to the Chinese model, anyway. The appropriacy of the quote shone out at me when seeing the story as carried by BBC World TV. They dwelt lovingly and lengthily on the trade delegation travelling with sag-jawed Brown, foremost being the poster child of 80s and 90s Thatcherism, Richard Branson.

Less prominent in the news was the fact that some prime Malana went up in smoke in early January. The historic village of around 1000 people, some of whom claim direct lineage from Alexander’s Macedonian army, was 60% destroyed by fire, with more than 150 houses gutted.

The cost of rebuilding has only included replacing the wooden houses with modern, concrete boxes, but even then it has been put in the region of 120 million rupees. The precious gold and silver ornaments and valuable idols dating back centuries are of course priceless

Joke: Why did it take the residents of Malana 36 hours to extinguish the fire?
Answer: For the first 24 hours, the residents were standing downwind, breathing in the smoke…

The people speak a unique dialect and have continued a policy of separation from others in the Parvatti valley for as long as can be remembered.

Those who say the fire spells the end of the famous “cream” production are probably scaremongering. If anything, financial ruin to Malana’s villagers will mean the expansion of the area planted, even in the face of police actions which involved torching a lot of the crop in four successive years from 2003.


14. Jan 2008

The “foot holiday” has begun!

Indian Railway station signage has its own unique grip on the use of English, of course, and my current favourite is Foot Over Bridge (FOB). This sounds to my ears less like a pedestrian footbridge than a unique way of using the feet. The bridge itself appears from the name to take on a slightly specialised function. Who ever heard of a “rail over bridge” or a “canal over bridge”? Most likely there are none, not even in Indian Railways gazetteers.

Yet we are invited as passengers to cross the lines with the foot over bridge, instead of a footbridge. Often – as it was on Sawai Madhopur station – the arrow points the way with a cryptic message so: “Platforms 2-5, F.O.B” Do there even exist FUBs (foot under bridges, pedestrian underpasses)? Perhaps, in unfamous parts of Orissa, there might even be found LOBs (leg over bridges), but I wouldn’t go defrauding a bank to prove my point. In any event, Sawai Madhopur is such a compact station that you can cross platforms most times using the hole in the fence near the end of the last platform. Many locals I saw were doing this, giving a thumbs under down to the foot over bridge concept.

Feet need vacations too, of course, and after mine had been pummeled into shoes and stinky socks for six weeks – and the last stretch to Goa, when a missed train connection meant 48 hours in shoes without a break, they leapt for joy when peeled of coverings and able to walk on the naked, steaming sands in Goa. I really said to myself, “The foot holiday has begun!”

13. Jan 2008

Sir Ed remembered

The name of Edmund Hillary first came to my ears during a community relations visit by the police to my school, when I was about nine years old. They showed a grainy, black-and-white film of his expedition with Vivian Fuchs (and how we all giggled at that name) across Antarctica to the South Pole. Even though we couldn’t imagine what the ice continent would be like, the pictures of Snowcats crossing crevasses was inspirational.

A hotel room in the Australian Snowy Mountains’ village of Adaminaby was the unlikely setting for my catching the film of Hillary’s Ocean to Sky expedition. It was aptly timed; I was travelling to Asia and had a fascination for the sacred sites along the Ganges.

I keenly felt Sir Ed’s comments about the “ecological slum” that the Khumbu valley had turned into since his first visit in 1951; I could only mourn the loss of “the dense forest around Tengboche, alive with colourful birds and nervous musk deer” on my 1980s and 90s treks to the region.

Now the great man is gone; he is sorely missed. Those who value mountainous places, the Sherpa people of Nepal, sustainable development and straightforward talking have lost someone who felt like a personal friend.


11. Jan 2008

What’s this fogging delay all about?

That delay mention in the previous post led to the Golden Temple mail – taking me from Sawai Madhopur to the city of Mumbai – being four hours late arriving in Mumbai’s Dadar station, where my connecting train to Goa had left over two hours earlier It was a gamble I played, as regular travellers to these parts will know that trains are often delayed at this time of year by thick fog hanging over the N Indian plains until midday. Nonetheless, I’d previously made the same connection without drama in January, 2006.

The station master in Mumbai Central endorsed my ticket with a stamp detailing the late arrival, something I knew was needed to obtain a refund on the onward ticket. I made my way by taxi through now walking-speed, stop-start traffic to Churchgate reservation office, where I explained what had happened to the kindly woman handling tourist reservations. I was prepared to invoke the Emergency Quota (which worked once for me in Kochi) in order to get a place on a train leaving the same day, but this wasn’t needed. By shelling out about twenty Euros, I would get a berth on the 11pm departure to Margao, travelling in (for me) stylish 2AC (air-conditioned, two-tier) class.

Having this ticket also entitled me to use the “air-conditioned class” waiting room in CST station. I found the room a cut above the upper-class waiting room at New Delhi station (which I have blagged my way into countless times over the years), with a flatscreen TV on one wall, glass-topped tables, subdued lights and a decent bathroom. With twelve hours’ leisure in downtown Mumbai at my disposal, I needed a friendly waiting room.

First a look and a sit in the “General Waiting Room,” where the entertainment came not from satellite TV, but two men slowly painting and repainting the ceiling with what seemed to be very watery whitewash, arranging the seating to avoid drips. This room had no AC but fresh air, which owing to its location at the side of the station, wasn’t at all stinky.

With the heat of the day passed by three in the afternoon, I peeled my whitened body off the waiting room seats (the painters had gone to lunch) and went to explore a bit of Colaba. I’d not been here for a long time, but I still relaxed into watching the people strolling along the causeway from Polishwalla (shoe-shine boy)...

…to fashion-conscious Indian tourists:

I liked the feel of this seaward edge of Mumbai, but it was certainly a different India to walk off an international flight into, compared to Delhi’s Pahar Ganj district – the northern portals’ backpacker centre. Mumbaikers I saw later in restaurants seemed more sophisticated and relaxed than their Delhi counterparts. Wealth wore on them with an enhancing effect and less like spoils grabbed hungrily.


08. Jan 2008

The tiger Sanctuary of Ranthambhore

Ranthambhore is Rajasthan’s most popular destination for tiger watchers. Yet following my dawn patrol around the track in a 20-seater truck looking for large striped cats, it was renewing my relationship with the surrounding countryside the next day by bicycle and on foot that gave me more of the feel of the place. From Ranthambhore Fort, a vista of two lakes was tempting enough for a closer look.

A quick hop over the wall and the magnificent spectacle of bird life down by the water was mixed in with some nervous crocodiles shooting away from the bank as I approched them.

My bicycle was actually roomboy Hamraj’s shopping cycle and featured fully functional brakes on the front only. I parked it before the final climb to the fort. A handy guard post with soldier in attendance was nearby; simply leaving the bike there for a few hours was less simple than it could have been. What time was he leaving?
“That’s good – I’ll be back before then…”
“No – five minutes… at ten forty-eight.”
Here he slipped out a cell phone to check its clock.

Ten forty eight! Now things in India run to the minute, especially in a relatively remote place like Ranthambhore. I explained as best I could to the man (“Is English problem,” he said) that it was a pity he was leaving, but that it really was still acceptable if the bike were unguarded but parked away from the main road. There would still be significant deterrent effect from the proximity to a military guard post and in any case the bike was a rusted heap that I wouldn’t go into cardiac arrest to find had been pushed into the lake upon my return.

It was settled. I locked the bike and walked.

Some views within and around the fort:

Leaving Ranthambhore’s nearest railway station at Sawai Madhopur was with a bonus five hours’ delay on the platform (the train was late, something that had an influence on my arrival in Goa).


05. Jan 2008

Fresh, New Year

Rather like the rush for supermarket bread before a long weekend, it's back to normal supply in Kausani once the few days of holiday peak pass. Pressure from New Year's Eve celebrations had led to the better hotel rooms in the popular hill station being booked out when I'd arrived at the end of December, so I was forced to stay in less than ideal surroundings. I never book rooms in advance, and this was the penalty I paid.

When the weather's cool - here it's freezing or slightly cooler in the early hours - I'm always out of bed later than eight in the morning; having the early sun shining through the window is the best alarm clock. However, patrons of the hotel's outdoor breakfast area found they needed to be chomping their onion omlettes and paratha before this. This area's floor was my ceiling, and steel-legged chairs made a painful awakening as they were scraped and dropped on the rough concrete, two metres above my head.

No matter: by the second of January, Mumbaikers, Bengalis and Delhites alike had packed their Qualis (quite a change from even ten years ago when most Indians used the train/bus to reach these hill resorts) and started on the road home, leaving free rooms in Kausani's more desirable hotels. I settled on a pleasant little hotel near the KMVN government guest house, with a lovely open roof with splendid mountain view over nearly 270°. On sunny days, a perch on the roof after ten o'clock was a baking seat.  Cockerels crowed in the mornings to awaken me, and I was alone for my five days here. Walks around the tea gardens and across and around the nearby hiils were wonderfully relaxing and the snow hadn't begun even in the first week of January. Kausani has grown enormously in a decade, but in the quieter winter months it still offers a bit of charm and extensive (though rather hazy from forest burn-off) views. 


30. Dec 2007

It’s a blast in Bageshwar

People kept telling me, “You should stay here for the Mela!” By this they meant the Uttarayani Mela, which would see lines of wetted bodies snaking down to the confluence of the river, probably humans numbering lakhs (hundreds of thousands). No, I’m just not that much into melas these days. Give me a high and whispering forest at midday in the warm wind, and you can keep your mass ablutions and Giardiasis.

Bageshwar made an interesting place to do a little walking around, and my first jaunt was to climb a nearby hill which gave a view down to the river and the hills over in the direction of Kausani, only around 20km away in a crow’s-flight line:

I met two of the local women as I walked, they gathering wood for cooking fires and browse for their buffaloes, me dithering about and peering about for signs of a contouring path.

Bageshwar, which I found to be a friendly and interesting town, kept me entertained for three days. I was fed with a nightly Bageshwar riceplate at the Ministry Of Truth-like KMVN building (state tourism organisation, a little institutional), in a quieter part of town, with a small garden to the side of it…


26. Dec 2007

Ridge barbers and rare barbarity

Ralph had arrived from a grey December in Wales for what I consider an unusual winter holiday. His time was to be a sandwich, in total just over two weeks. Around the filling was a thick crust which consisted of sitting around, getting stoned in the hills above Almora. The filling was three days in the high village of Munsyari, and a trek in the direction of Milam glacier.

Ralph was interesting, and you found yourself wanting to listen more and more carefully as he spoke in a gruff voice, always pitched at the limit of audibility. When he spoke his words, they were issued in the same way as sounds made through gargling with a cupful of cooked macaroni… We sat around talking over breakfast, waiting for the day to become warmed through, and for the mountains to glow fully in their garb.

One day, we walked down to Almora town together, on the road from Tara’s restaurant to the beginning of the paved bazaar in town, which we both intended to visit for different reasons. We agreed that this stone-paved bazaar made Almora a special place for shopping – nobody bothered you, there was plenty of space, great views and a good variety of shops. However, I could never agree with Ralph’s enthusiasm for having a blade shave at an Indian barbers shop. Getting a shave this morning had been Ralph’s prime reason for a town trip. Shaving for me is an activity always closely related to severe wounding accidents: a nicked artery at the side of the nose, bleeding profusely, a fold of the lip sliced in mishap, that ear gash which left it attached only by ligaments. In Kausani later I even saw the high street barber leaning over his first customer of the morning with a sharpened blade bringing down the sunlight from the mountain tops. But wait – he was wearing a black leather jacket, unzipped, standing with one hand in his pocket. Nightmare pictures in monochrome follow many a dream on this theme…

My aim was to have a look around the market, get a new shirt and locate some Uttarakhand Rangolies (the originals are sand paintings – hard to carry home on an international flight; I was just looking for stick-on versions, particularly the stylised footprints which are symbols of the goddess Laxshmi).

A sheet of six was printed in about ten different designs.


22. Dec 2007

Some bugs about beds

None of the biological variety of bedbugs encountered yet, for which I am thankful, but my time in India so far has given me plenty of exposure to troublesome bed problems. Although not yet inflicted with a collapsing bed on this trip - as previously occurred twice in lodges in Nepal -  noisy beds have followed me around Uttaranchal like a reputation for bad credit. The construction of the typical budget hotel bed fairly encourages noises, noises which the word creak doesn’t begin to express. Thinnish plywood laid over as few as three cross-lattices, which flexes in the frame, rubbing stubby scratch-squeak edges on varnished frame wood.

An action as reduced as turning over in the sleeping bag releases a “nzeeek!” from the bed. If I sit up, release myself from the bag and swing my legs over the side of the bed to stand, it emits, “waaaag-kkk-nzeeeeg-kkk-weeeerg-zeeeeek!” One can only begin to fantasize what sounds would be produced by two heavily-pregnant women engaging in sex with an athletic dwarf. But only begin to fantasize, anything further would release those sonic alarms…

The beds’ perennial undersize irritates me enormously, and bends my back and neck into ever more tight curves. The tallest man in the world was once a man from Rajasthan, I believe, yet Indian bed-builders are currently unable to cater to anyone over 1.8m. Being a good 15cm more than that means that I have to train a permanently embryonic posture. This also helps when entering low doorways (hey, but that’s another grumble).

To avoid gantrying feet over the end of the bed, I mostly arrange to sleep diagonally on double beds as a solution. This may or may not wreck any residual Feng-Shui elements the room possesses, but this matters little. The resulting stiff neck in a morning is much worse.

20. Dec 2007

From the midst of a golden winter

While oranges and lemons still cling to trees, the flat banana palms are wilted and yellowed at the edges. You see frost on the ground in this part of Uttarakhand most mornings now – thin dustings of cake-ice that stay until ten in shaded areas in woodland and in people’s gardens. Yet fickle conditions from the sun’s strength mean that locally-grown green peas and rock melons are in the markets next to pumpkins and oranges. The ground is dry since the last monsoon rains, but a few seasonal rainshowers keep it lightly sprinkled. There were two of those a week ago.

It is a time of dormancy and sometimes death. Those few waxy red berries which are left on bushes are teased-over with fine strands of spiders’ silk, and any bird trying to snatch one has to poke its head through the webs. A mother’s death in the family I am staying with has made a quieting in the guesthouse, and a time of consolidation for the living. Sunsets often blush the deepest pink on the snows of the far mountains, reflecting the blood glow of the lands they face.

This regular walking each day – except the rainy ones – is really good. A twenty kilometre walk on hill roads or tracks (mostly in sunshine), followed by a rice-plate-ready thali in the evening is the best way to loosen up from gloomy European chills.


27. Nov 2007

You lucky packers – the easy guide

One year of packing to leave on this trip is pretty much like the last one. It has become fairly automatic, selecting what to include in my rucsac for a brief saunter around the northern hills followed by some time in the south during my three months in India. Such that packing is just about the final item on my “to do” list. But I will pass on some hints for anyone facing the packing process for the first time. These are in no way intended to supplant what’s already in the ComPAQt FAQs elsewhere on this site – they are more like a sprinkling of afterthoughts to what I included on that page.

Obviously, once you’ve been there, you’ll realise that nearly all of what you brought with you from home the first time could have been bought locally (in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan). So I’m saving my travelling clothes’ purchase for somewhere like Khan Market in New Delhi, or maybe even further into the trip such as along the lanes of Almora’s fabulous cobbled market. This means I arrive at the airport in fairly threadbare clothes on their last jaunt before being thrown into the rubbish or donated to a “rag-picker.” You wouldn’t want to chance lifting my bag, thinking there’s a laptop inside! My toiletries, umbrella (if it’s needed), medicines and pens also go into the “buy at destination” category. There are exceptions to this approach, though.

My nice new journal is better quality than any hardbound, plain paper book I have seen in an Indian stationers’ shop, so I got this in Europe. There’s a special lift it brings at the end of a day, writing my recollections and thoughts in the creamy pages of this fine, weighty and solid book while seated in some tiny restaurant – probably by candle light or torchlight, because the power failed before I left my hotel. It’s a book which has to endure for many years of re-reading, so the seven Euros I spent on it (probably five times more than in India) I consider justified.

Talking of torchlight and power cuts… I learnt some time ago that a hand-held torch is pretty useless for most things. A headlamp is much more useful for finding your way along dark streets, cooking in a tent at night, reading or writing when all the hotel lights have extinguished in a “load-shedding” cut. A headlamp is more versatile and easier to carry than a hand-held torch. I use a very small Petzl white LED one, which runs on three AAA cells and has a battery life-time measured in days. I also take along spares for those AAAs, as the quality of these batteries is poor on the sub-continent.

I have never trusted locally bought sunscreen (and there have been stories of fiendish refilling of old tubes from leftovers in tourists’ rooms in places like Goa, later sold as new in beachside shops), so packed a factor 25 tube of the patent goo from home.

Cold weather comfort (after dark in upland areas – I’m not planning any trekking for this trip) is important in quiet places where there is little to do after the evening meal except read and write. I am taking my new Merino wool underwear (a recent birthday present from a dear person) as insurance against evening chills when sitting around before bedtime where heating is either not provided or a bad idea (for example, only wood-burning heating in regions already suffering from deforestation is something I’d like to avoid). I had some of this style of underwear before (long-sleeved vest and long-johns) – and can testify to its effectiveness – but it was made from a polypropylene material which felt rather alien to the skin. The headtorch and underwear are shown below.

My favoured old walking boots are definitely in the bag, as is the wax waterproofing treatment to go with them. There’s no way I would gamble on finding reliable memory cards for the camera at the right price, so I have a stack of these with me. They are so cheap right now, forty Euros gets any snap-oholic enough storage space for a couple of months, and in my case I also have SD card storage for an mp3 player, which can be wiped of music and used for photos as the trip progresses.

There’s just over a week remaining in freezing Europe before I’m in Delhi. What a lucky little packer I am!

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