Hearty Welcomes & Salutations! Originally an action-packed travel blog from a globe-trotting Scotsman, An Ache for the Distance has, over the years, slowed down (I post less often), mellowed out (domestic life has found it's way way on here) and become more of an expat/photo blog. Take a look around, leave a comment and share the love if you like something.
Stuart Mathieson, Lübeck, Germany

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Varanasi - India

Ten hours of fear, sometimes rising into sheer panic with rushes of blood to the head, tears rolling down cheeks and murmurs of praying for it to be over. That was Lana's experience of the Delhi - Varanasi express train. Why? Cockroaches...

For the hundreds of other passengers scoffing samosas and slurping soup, the roving roaches weren't worth a glance but for the lady with roachaphobia, Lana had one of the most petrified, enclosed nights of her life as they scuttled everywhere from the bathroom floor to the bed sheets we slept in.

I spent the best part of an hour standing by her bunk trying to portray Colin the cockroach in a friendly light but it was like telling a cow loving Indian that he should try a Big Mac. I had no chance. In the end, we slept on the lower bunk together with me acting as a kind of cockroach barrier and although we did eventually manage a few hours sleep, Lana was still in a state of mild panic until we set foot on the platform at Varanasi.

In fact, when her little flip flops finally took her off the train, such was her relief that she failed to notice the two stalkers we had picked up after less than 15 seconds in the station. They didn't exactly show KGB levels of stealth as they plodded along in front of us, stopping when we stopped and occasionally throwing a brief glance. But they also went out of their way to avoid any direct eye contact and tried to make out as if they weren't interested in us and were merely enjoying the ambience of the loud, jostling station. It wasn't until we neared the exit that one stalker scampered over and whispered, "Hello, you need auto-rickshaw?" A question which immediately infuriated his companion. Within 60 seconds, not only did this lead to a heated argument, but also a bout a fisty-cuffs, thus completing the perfect Monty Python stalker sketch.

We skirted the squabble and opted for a bespectacled tuk tuk man who, with minimal haggling, weaved us through 10km worth of Varanasi traffic, to the southern end of the bathing ghats on the Ganges. However the beginning, set the tone for the entire 3 or 4 days in Varanasi. Crazy tuk tuk drivers, traffic clogged streets and constant followers offering everything from help to hard drugs. Serious brain overload...

Any longer than two hours out among the chaos meant slow mental shut down. It sounds quite extreme but in less than five minutes, on a Varanasi street, you will have 15 offers of tuk tuks, 10 offers of cyclerickshaws, 10 people ask where you are from and what your name is, you will hear a constant pumped up version of Ghandis symphony no.3 (the car horn concerto), you will step in at least 4 different types of shit and you will narrowly avoid two fatal traffic accidents. And that's not including the obstacle course posed by the cows, pigs, donkeys, horses and chickens.

As such, chilled out sightseeing was needed to prevent mental meltdown. An early morning boat-trip up the Ganges to enjoy the sunrise and see the pilgrims bathing in the poo-infested, holy river was first on the cards. After reading that there are 1.5 million faecal particles per 100ml of Ganges water, I didn't actually believe people went into the river, let alone attempt to wash in there, but they do. Every plunge likely taking a couple of months off thier SAGA holidays. Despite this, every morning the ghats are lined with people dousing themselves with the brown water and worshipping the rising sun.

We disembarked at Harishchandra ghat where, daily, between 250 and 300 bodies are cremated, filling the Ganges with yet more funk. As we arrived, nobody was performing the "I can fit in an ashtray" trick but, without sounding too hippy about it, the death vibes were strong. Lana, freshly recovered from the cockroaches, freaked out once again after seeing piles of hair shaven from the dead and I became claustrophobic when surrounded by nothing but stacks of firewood, the only way out being a narrow lane into the old town, which wasn't any better.

Varanasi's old city is a bewildering maze of metre wide alleyways, a place where you can easily get lost and not see the sun for a full hour. In addition, the walls of the lanes around the burning ghat are adourned with photographs of the recently deceased, a dangerous combination for a couple suffering from claustraphobia and deathaphobia. It was a long, frustrating half hour before we found our way out and back into the hectic world of "Hello sir, rickshaw?" All in all, a failed attempt at chilled out sightseeing.

Over the next couple of days we tried to chill out in Varanasi but generally, it just didn't work. We spent an hour or so watching monkeys fight and fornicate in a small temple but were hassled the whole way there by every Indian with a set of wheels for hire. We tried to explore the muslim quarter but without success, in hindsight it was a stupid idea to take a blond Russian through streets filled with sex-starved males.

In the end, we gave up. Our final 24 hours in Varanasi were spent in a colonial style hotel on the edge of town, splashing in the pool, puffing on shisha and enjoying a break from the chaos. A bus to Allahabad was next on the cards...

Monday, 25 October 2010

The Transition - India

Hindi Speaker, "Usne banduk si chiriyaan maaree!" (He killed the bird with a gun!)
McTourist, "...sorry, what? I don't speak Hindi. English?"
Hindi Speaker, "Vah ek saptahh men mar jaaegaa..." (He will die within a week)
McTourist, "Good good, yeah..."
Lana, "What did he say?"
McTourist, "I dunno, probably wanted money..."

I needed a phrasebook...

Lost among some dusty shelves of a backstreet bookshop, I had narrowed my choices down to two possibilities, one from Lonely Planet and one by an Indian fella looking to dispense his linguistic wisdom.

I spent the best part of twenty minutes weighing up the pros and cons of each before finally settling for the Indian guy. I'd like to be able to say that it was his useful content (as used above) or his finely worded introduction which won me over, with titbits such as,

"Tourist traffic in India is increasing day-by-day. This book will prove handy for them and they will learn Hindi in a couple of days..."

"Therefore it is essential for every foreigner to have a workable knowledge of Hindi to get through the everyday ordeal of communication." And so on...

But, with a car and driver to pay for, our budget was in need of some David Cameron style cuts and consequently, the fifty rupee price difference was the big decider. We were about to go solo again after two weeks of flashpacking around Rajasthan and every rupee was being counted.

It was a long drive from Bikaner in Western Rajasthan and, as we passed through the dust cloud of outer Delhi and rumbled once again through the bumpy streets to Connaught Place and central Delhi, I had that "end of a chapter" feeling. For fifteen days we had been whisked from city to city in air-conditioned comfort, deposited in nice hotels, taken to the sites and were generally living in a tourist bubble. Suddenly it was all over and we would be left to fend for ourselves...but not before a chicken party!

Sunday afternoon, Lucky & Lucky (two Indian drivers, both called Lucky...) picked us up at the hotel and together we dodged the traffic in the direction of Halal Straße for some muslim friendly chicken. There, two squeamish tourists and three Indians witnessed the murder of a chook called Charlie. I named him for the sake of rememberance.

Charlie was plucked from his cage, twirled into an upside down, dangling from the feet position and allowed one last look at the world, albeit the wrong way up. Disorientated, it's unclear whether or not he saw the knife coming but, even if he did, he wasn't exactly in a position to flap it away from his throat. Bleeding from the neck, he was thrown into a bucket where he spent his last moments in a kind of poultry pogo, rocking the bucket violently as life slowly drained away. Less than five minutes later, Charlie was ready to be curried.

We headed to Lucky's place, after the obligatory English Wine Shop detour, where and he and his father cooked up a tasty Charlie masala. We washed it all down with cold kingfishers and another bottle of Vodsky, acquired through unknown means. Due to the latter, the afternoon flew by and a few photos can be seen on the posting "A Sunday Afternoon in Delhi."

The following day, we attempted the impossible and tried to buy a train ticket at Delhi station. The guidebook warned of touts, scamsters, fraudsters and commission rackets that abound and so there was a slight feeling of apprehension as we boarded the metro in the direction of New Delhi station. En route we were seperated into male and female carriages and as it was morning rush hour, the metro was similar to that of Japan where platform officials shove passengers inside in order to close the doors. At one point I was forced into a standard "where you from?" conversation with a Sikh guy, as Delhi transport broke the Geneva convention on personal airspace and his wirey beard tickled my eyebrows between stations.

After a brief farewell, I squeezed out of the carriage and we weaved our way through the scores of female Nepalese soldiers guarding important parts of the central station against possible "anti-Commonwealth Games" terrorism, although if their positioning is anything to go by, the extremists were targeting toilets, pissy concourses and dark shitty corners of Delhi's central rail hub.

Once into the main station itself, we went into a focused "ignore everyone, all Indians want to cheat you, go directly to the booking office" mode. Perhaps it was the Indian smile or perhaps it was my stupidity, all I know is that ten minutes after trying to buy a ticket to Varanasi we were in the city centre getting the hard sell on a trip to Kashmir with a tuk tuk driver outside sporting an eager commission based grin.

Mr Kashmir salesman tried everything to get us onto one of his pricey tours North, including showing us a page from the Indian rail website and saying the trains were full for the next five days. We politely declined his offer, went for a coffee, made a new plan of attack and found ourselves six hours later on an express train bound for the Ganges. The next chapter was about to begin...

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

The Thar Desert - India

Whether it's about national borders or cricket boundaries, India and Pakistan will squabble. A deep distrust exists between the two nuclear cousins, leading both of which to deploy thousands of troops along the border and invest heavily in armaments. The Indians however, seem to be taking an unorthodox approach to military vehicles, that's if the bases around Jaisalmer are anything to go by.

Spend any time on the highways of Western Rajasthan and you could be forgiven for thinking that when the first Pakistani tanks roll across the border at the outbreak of world war three, the Indian military will likely set into plan "Operation Blitz Tuk."

Their fleet of, Jaisalmer based, camouflage painted tuk tuks will fire up lawnmower-esque engines, splutter out of some sheds, circumnavigate the smouldering bomb craters, buzz past growling tanks and make a noisy counter-attacking dash for Lahore, overcharging each soldier 20 rupees on arrival.

Those squaddies looking for a more traditional approach to local/military transport could always opt for the camel and cart, a popular alternative in India's deserts. They would however have to factor in an extra 20 minutes, in comparison to a tuk tuk, for the arrival time in Islamabad. One other negative factor is that the camels would have to be requisitioned from the hordes of tourists clumping around in the dunes of the Thar desert.

For one night, we were those camel happy tourists....

After a bumpy four hour drive from Jodhpur and a quick chai refreshment we boarded our beasts and set off through the scrub. The initial scenery was more African savanna than Indian desert as this years generous monsoon had left a sea of green in it's trail. Half an hour into the plodding I developed what scientists may call "camel crotch."

No matter how I positioned myself upon the hump, numb bum found it's way to defeat my comfort and my nether area was constantly in a kind of boxer-short strangehold. Thus, with my fatherhood chances firmly diminishing, I was inwardly ecstatic when we finally reached the dunes and hoofed our way to the top.

We spent the best part of an hour on the sandy mass, enjoying the sunset, listening to the camels fart and trying to ignore the ant-like swarm of tourists across the dune tops. When the sun finally took his hat off for the day, we were given the pleasure of another 40 minutes of camel crotch before arriving at a desert resort in the savanna for some dinner.

One drawback of a good monsoon is that it's not only the plant life that explodes after the rains but also the insect population. As the last into the outside dining area, we were left with a table next to the bathroom, the outside of which was bathing in spotlight. As you can imagine, lights in the desert are few and far between meaning every creepy crawly within a 10km radius was drawn to this solitary lightbulb. It was like being under fire.

Something actually ran into my toe under the table with such a thud that I almost jumped out of my chair. Grasshoppers were down my shirt and in Lana's hair. Large black things imitated spitfires with an engine like buzz and occasional divebombs. Long legs would brush past your ears and occasionally crawling little monsters would attempt nasal entry. It was a nightmare.

However, after a simple veggie dinner and some desert disco moves from a local woman in need of a dentist, we hopped into the back of a roofless jeep and were whisked back out to the dunes where two insect free beds awaited under one of the most stunning night skies I've seen. Lying back on the camp bed, with the gentle hum of a camels digestive system in the background, I counted three shooting stars before drifting off into a shallow coma for the night.

I was woken upon the next morning by a combination of a camel fart, a fly in my nose, Lucky snoring like an angry pitbull and a rising desert sun. What a perfect way to start the day...

From An Ache For The Distance
Morning in the desert

Monday, 11 October 2010

A Sunday Afternoon in Delhi - India

From An Ache For The Distance
The "Chicken Party" begins with a freshly butchered halal chook

From An Ache For The Distance

Time for chow

From An Ache For The Distance
An after dinner chai complete with goat in the bathroom

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Vodsky in the Sticks - India

"Every day in India, thousands of people eat with no food."

Despite the truth in it, Lucky's finely composed sentence had me tittering like a school girl. However, as the only native English speaker attending the alcohol appreciation gathering in Ranakpur, the imagery was largely lost. Although the stuff that was being quaffed by Lana, the Indian fellas and a Dutch guy didn't help either.

It was neither vodka nor whisky but apparantley something inbetween. Something which would likely fall into the "home-brew/cleaning product" category. Lucky had bought it from a oily-looking guy with a slick wave of hair, possibly styled using the alcohol, and yellow teeth, definitely because of the alcohol, in a signless doorway in a nameless town somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

The "rural" India experience was a shock to the system after a week and a half purely on the tourist trail. The previous couple of days we had spent strolling around the watery delight of post-monsoon Udaipur. Slurping on coconut juice whilst watching the sun set over the lake, strolling around the royal palace, enjoying celebrity status as locals asked for photos, chowing down on belly-swelling veg thalis and even a visit to a rather mundane vintage car museum.

But despite it's middle of nowhere status, Ranakpur offered a break from the usual traffic-logged streets of the India we'd seen so far. We decided to take the chance to get out into the countryside and go for a walk over a nearby hill to a lake with crocodiles. On the way there wasn't a single horn or screeching tuk tuk to be heard.

Instead, the silence was filled by the squelching and huffing of an unfit, perspiring Scotsman. It was easily over 35C and by the time we hauled ourselves over the hill to the lake, I had the appearance of someone who'd been attempting various swimming strokes in a shallow puddle.

Clearly put off by the overly salted aspect of the Scottish snack before them, the crocs decided we weren't worth the effort and stayed well hidden. I only know this because another couple went to the lake just after us and were actually stalked by two big papa crocs.

Thus, rejected by the reptilians, we headed back to the hotel, narrowly avoiding being pissed upon en-route by some urine happy monkeys, and settled down for an evening of beer, vodsky (my name for the home brew) and banter.

The rest is a little hazy...

From An Ache For The Distance
The crocodile lake

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Pushkar - India

Set by a lake and ringed by forest covered mountains, Pushkar is temple town of the highest order. Holy men, priests and cows meander through hot, dusty streets filled with touts and hippy trail tourists. Holy petals are offered up for the soul and marijuana for the mind. Alcohol is officially forbidden, as are kissing and eggs, but it's possible to get your hands on a beer in some places and, as we all know, where there is alcohol there's kissing...

Eggs however, are most definitely off the menu as the local council plug the chickens and employ various other anti-egg measures. The last sentence may not be entirely true but wouldn't it be a better world if it was? What the town elders actually do, is charge unsuspecting tourists a cheeky entry fee. For 5 princely rupees, a limp roadside barrier is hauled up by an underfed pensioner and you are granted access to Hinduism's holiest, and possibly dustiest, city.

Ten rupees lighter, we rolled under the midday sun into town, wound or way down a long dusty, egg-free track peppered with camels and cow shit, and were deposited in the tranquil gardens of the Prem Villas hotel. After a bit of banter with Pawan the manager and a promise to give his pranayam yoga a bash, we dumped our bags and headed to the markets for a wander.

Central Pushkar is a walking heaven compared to other Indian towns. For Indian town planners, the concept of a pavement is as abstract as the smell of unicorn shit. Pushkar however has a small centre where pedestrians have equal rights with the cows, motorbikes and scooters. We spent an hour in amongst the colourful stalls and stores selling everything from books to banana lhassis, before we found a little rooftop restaurant with a view over the lake. It was just what the travel doctor ordered and when we hit the streets again it was with full stomachs and a springy pedestrian step.

But Pushkar is also a place where you shouldn't get too ahead of yourself. Just because your feeling spritely, it doesn't mean everyone else is. A holy four-legged beef steak decided to teach me this when I failed to move out of his way with enough haste. Instead of politely mooing me out of the way, Billy Beef thought it best to headbutt me into a doorway before continuing with his holy plodding. No damage done but a valuable lesson learnt, never disturb the path of holy beef.

We spent what was left of the day, relaxing in the cow-free hotel garden and quaffing banana lhassis in the late afternoon heat. The next day continued in pretty much the same fashion but with occasional blasts of air-conditioning as the electricity connection was reestablished for brief 20 minute periods. It was lazyness personified but by sunset we were getting restless.

Thus, we hopped into the car just as the sky was turning a pinky orange and headed to an "English Wine Shop" (note: wine not sold) on the outskirts of town to buy some forbidden beers. Once laden with sweaty bottles of Kingfisher, we made tracks for the Pushkar Palace rooftop restaurant. There, we feasted on chapati, poppadoms, curry and beer and 5 hours later my backside was firmly planted upon the porcelain throne, with a bucket in front of me, as I experienced my first, violently sudden, case of Delhi belly. I won't go into detail but lets just say I didn't even have time to look for the lightswitch.

Eight o'clock the following morning, Lana, myself and a grumbling stomach were given a crash course in "pranayam," i.e. an "oooing" and "aaahhhhing" breathing thing. It's something between meditation and yoga and can apparantley cure thousands of diseases and prevent malaria or dengue fever. Under normal circumstances I would have been a keen listener but a nervousness brought about by the slightest abdominal pressure meant that angry stomach took all my attention.

We checked out of the Pushkar hotel that morning, but not before Lana had painted some flowers on the wall at reception and I'd packed the bags, ensuring the toilet paper was sitting ready in my pocket... It was a long road to Udaipur...

Day 7 - Delhi Belly (positive)

From An Ache For The Distance

Monday, 4 October 2010

Agra to Jaipur - India

India is now officially in tourist season as the monsoon ends and the temperatures drop, but as we left Agra after visiting the Taj Mahal, the 40C with 300% humidity felt more like the face of the sun than "the cooler winter months" promised by the guidebook. With heat like this, my forehead in India has the constant appearance of a supersoaker firing range and I've slowly had to accept the small puddle that has formed a permanent water feature at the bottom of my back.

Aquatics aside, after leaving Agra we hit the highway in the direction of Jaipur. En-route we stopped at an alleged "ghost town" with a mosque asking for €5 entry fee. It's highly unlikely that anyone from Tourism India is reading this, but if you are, please note that your ghost town is neither ghostly nor town-like and is in fact just a pile of stones. I was expecting something like that little village in France that still stands empty after the Germans came to pay their respects. Instead, we were faced with the foundations of a village, which we were forbidden to walk around, and a mosque on top of a hill filled with clucking French tourists. The expression "tourist trap" springs to mind, and the number of persistant touts would probably confirm this idea.

*N.B. Between these two paragraphs, a bird shit on my foot. The strange part being, my foot is under a table, there's a roof over my head and there are no birds around...Incredible India...I mean it looks like bird shit...Maybe the mozzies are bigger than I thought?*

We retereated from the mosque's ticket counter, €5 better off, and back to the car with hopes for the next stop, the monkey temple. Two hours later, somewhere in the hills of Rajasthan, we found ourselves in a village, ruled by primates, built onto the side of a hill. It looked like the kind of place where Lara Croft would burst out of a doorway, backward roll, starjump, forward roll, and slap an ape across the face. Clearly that's Monty Python Tomb Raider but you get the idea of the temple.

We bought some nuts, and spent an hour or so at the whim of the monkey gods. Most of the inhabitants were friendly and hospitable, especially after being bribed with a nut, but one mother took a disliking to me after her little one got shoved by another monkey and missed out on a nut. Clearly this was my fault and mama monkey came toward me with a war cry and a look that suggested eye gouging intent. Seconds before she had her hairy fingers in my sockets, the monkeyman (a real man with a self-given title) who was speaking with Lana, stepped in front and stopped her with a human/monkey grunt. This did the trick but mama monkey still wanted my blood and so I backed away slowly, throwing nuts in the opposite direction. We arrived safely, without monkey injury, an hour later in Jaipur.

The next day, after another fine rooftop breakfast of chai, toast, omlette and butter suffering from sunstroke, we went out to the edge of Jaipur and marvelled at the steady stream of elephant taxis, trafficking sunburnt westerners up to the hilltop palace of shiny shiny. The real name is something a tad more official but I never found out as we didn't go in. We opted to watch the elephant taxis instead. And, in defence of my cultural ignorance, in Europe we've got plenty of history with palaces and forts but elephant taxis... a little thin on the ground around Hamburg.

After photographing the tuskless monsters from every possible, respectable angle, we made tracks in the direction of Jaipur's bazaars. A fatal decision. Indian traffic is fantastically chaotic but when channeled down narrow lanes, everything simply comes to a crunching standstill. We spent several small lifetimes, waiting behind motionless tuk tuks, slowly choking to death on exhaust fumes and after only 30 minutes, it becamee too much to handle. We bailed out, pansy tourist style, and went back to the hotel.

That night, desperate to avoid traffic but experience something at the same time, we were formally introduced to the world of Bollywood...

Day 6 - Delhi Belly (negative aside from a few rumblings)