Archive for January, 2010

tropical beer notes #25

January 29, 2010

Royal Challenge Premium Lager 5% Maharashtra India

Our hotel in Hyderabad had room service (and a hot shower!).. While no Grand Millennium Bangkok, it’s nice to eat in your undies occasionally. For me, this also involved drinking beer in my undies – what a sight! Calm yourselves readers. This slightly risque nature of all this was increased by the dastardly “no booze” rule at our hotel – which, like a teenager of old, I flouted by dashing past the front desk with a bulging backpack. Pours a very weak head, ricey, thin and metallic. The bottlo around the corner did give them to me cold, which was a welcome surprise.

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santa claus is coming to bombay

January 27, 2010

Bombay or Mumbai – have it your way. It would appear that the only thing politicians have done here since independence is change names. Bombay is a beautiful place for a tourist – cosmopolitan; all sweeping bays and history oozing from every pore – but one man’s artfully crumbling colonial building is another man’s case study in decades of civic neglect. The homelessness is intense and it’s not just the destitute who sleep rough – clean shaven men in business shirts would catch their few hours of sleep on the pavement around our hotel before rising for work early the next day, such is the acute housing shortage. Victoria Terminus (or the unwieldy “Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus”, if you play by the name-change rules) is the busiest station in India – a cool 6 million commuters traipse across its platforms every day – yet has remained virtually unchanged since its construction. The train boffin term is “super-dense crush load”, with 14 to 16 standing passengers per square metre of floor space.

Nina jetted in from Old Blighty and before she could say “pass the parathas”, we shoved her on to a bus and headed south for some long-awaited beach time. Goa: legend of the mythical 60s and a very un-Indian bit of India, although the cows dozing on the beach are a dead giveaway. Despite it being super dense crush season, we managed to jag a cocohut right on Arambol beach and got straight down to the business of taking it easy. Swim, eat, play cards. Repeat.

Some cultural observations:
  1. The “undies, undies, undies… bathers” test appears to have been somewhat misunderstood in Goa. A key element of the test is the presence of Speedos, which we all know turn into undies as soon as you lose sight of the beach. People, take note: Y-fronts are still Y-fronts, no matter how close you are to the Arabian Sea.
  2. Although not high on most people’s list of things to do in Goa, a trip to the local doctor is actually quite entertaining. He’ll put you at ease by talking about the cricket while he’s injecting Nina with anti-death serum; Dodd will weigh himself, which is always good for a laugh; and when you’re done, you’ll be asked if you’d like to take advantage of some creative billing practices (read: insurance fraud).
  3. I’m surprised it took us this long to come across a pack of young travellers of Jewish extraction, recently discharged from military service*, as they are apparently ubiquitous in the Indian subcontinent. I would almost admire their earnest dedication to blaring trance and smoking grass if it didn’t kick off at 9am every day. And by jove, it was earnest – guys, look like you’re having fun, not sitting a calculus exam. In your Y-fronts. Perhaps they have conservative leadership in their futures?

We dragged Nina back to Bombay just in time for Christmas, which had elements both traditional and unorthodox. There were presents (reciprocal Christmas albums for Dodd and me – are we co-dependent or what?); we went to midnight mass, albeit at 10pm due to noise restrictions, which ended in a stirring rendition of “Happy Birthday Your Eminence” for the Cardinal; we ate and drank too much at Indigo (vodka test tube shots, anyone?); and the day ended with us lying around, rubbing our bloated bellies and watching Home Alone on TV. Ho, ho, ho.

* aka Israeli backpackers

tropical beer notes #24

January 18, 2010

King’s Black Label Premium Pilsner 4.8% Goa India

It’s rubbish, but comes in this cool little medicine bottle. There’s a big “land that time forgot” thing going on in India – safari suits, compulsory ‘tashes, Ambassador cabs, Enfield motorbikes. This little stubby fits right it. Cheers to the 1960s

when touts attack

January 16, 2010

As we disembarked at Indira Gandhi International Airport, I couldn’t help but feel nervous. India had always been our nominal “destination” and despite our fairly decent bank of travelling experience acquired over the past year, we were still prepared for India to crush us mercilessly. Much to my relief, our arrival went seamlessly – the transfer was there waiting for us; the room we had booked was passably clean, and we enjoyed our first Indian meal, plentiful and delicious, in rooftop environs not dissimilar to the party area at the House With the Red Door. The knot in my stomach eased and I went to sleep wondering why I was so nervous in the first place.

As an aside, the decision to fly to Delhi from Kathmandu was one of the best we’ve ever made. And when the alternative was a 50 hour+ journey by bus and train, it was a fairly easy one too. We got beer and curry on the plane; Delhi airport still holds the record for Cleanest Dunnies in India; and it was novel not to arrive in a new city completely shattered. Oh, and we got to buy duty free gin. Air travel, where have you been all my life?

The next morning, we ventured out and delighted in such wonderfully Indian visions as motorcyclists patting disinterested cows on the head while weaving their way through traffic jams. I even managed to put a positive spin on Linds being pooed on by a bird within about two minutes of leaving the hotel, declaring it an auspicious sign for our time in India. Linds, however, did not agree.

As it turns out, he was right. Rather than auspicious, you could say our feathered friend was a touch clairvoyant, as we were both struck down with the runs within four days of our arrival in the country. Needless to say, the honeymoon period was declared over as we both found ourselves rushing to the toilet at various inconvenient times. Not that there’s ever a convenient time to poo your pants. So even after nearly a year of eating food of questionable hygiene, we were still no gastrointestinal match for Mother India.

Another thing we’ve encountered a lot of in our almost-year of travelling is the tout, in all its forms. Male and female; ambulatory and vehicular; subtle and not-so. Never before seen though, until now, is the vitriolic tout who, when ignored, immediately responds with such venom as:

  • “If you don’t want to talk to Indians, you are RACIST!”
  • “Go back to your own country – in fact, I’ll give you a free ride to the airport!” (that sounds like a tout-within-a-tout to me…)
  • “I thought you looked like a nice couple… but clearly I was WRONG!”

Of course, just another wiley way to get you to engage with them at any cost. FAIL. However, pride comes before a fall and we promptly found ourselves being ripped off, albeit only to the tune of about $13, on arrival in Bombay after falling prey to the ol’ double-time taxi meter trick. Luckily for the thieving driver, I had to race into the hotel to use the toilet, so we let it slide.

Author’s note: Given the content of this post, I trust you will understand why there aren’t many accompanying pictures.

you can’t fight the revolution on an empty stomach

January 15, 2010

Our post-hike days in Kathmandu were pretty pedestrian. One drifted into another, following a familiar routine: breakfast; internet; shower; lunch; constitutional stroll; snooze; pester Ryan & Jo into coming for a drink with us; dinner – although the Indian embassy made sure we didn’t get too comfortable by requiring that we pay them a visit every few days.

Our daily shuffle was interrupted one Sunday when we rose to find the streets eerily devoid of touts and taxis and the doors shuttered on every establishment in town. Confused tourists littered the streets, desperately seeking somewhere that would serve them up a stack of banana pancakes. Something was up.

As we wandered back to our room, contemplating that the only stash of food we had was half a stick of Toblerone – not at all a bad breakfast, as it turns out – a crowd of men came striding down the street, shouting and waving red flags: Maoists. We met them just as they found a shop that was tentatively attempting to open – an unwise decision, as we witnessed. Maoists in Nepal have never targeted tourists and while they remained mercifully uninterested in us, they did give us a fright as they banged relentlessly on the shop door, yelling and threatening the shopkeeper with sticks and fists. Suffice to say the shutter came down quickly. It was all too reminiscent of a run-in with football hooligans rather than high-minded freedom fighters.

No thanks to the guys at our hotel, from whom it would have been nice to receive some warning, we found out later that the Maoists had called a general strike of the variety that locals call “stop the wheels”: in addition to closing all business, no traffic is allowed on the streets. Exceptions are made for pharmacies and ambulances and a lone tourist bus that shuttles people to and from the airport. The cause was the eviction of alleged squatters from land in the west of Nepal, which ended in violence and several deaths – although with the deadlock between the government and the Maoists showing no signs of resolution, it seems that any excuse for a strike will do.

Driven by growling stomachs, we ventured out again in the early afternoon. Our intended short stroll turned into an extended wander as we enjoyed promenading right down the middle of the usually anarchic streets. The empty stretches of asphalt weren’t wasted, as half of Kathmandu seemed to be out doing the same and impromptu cricket games sprung up every few hundred metres. It was really very pleasant, if a little “28 Days Later“. Back in Thamel, the city’s main tourist area, we allowed ourselves to be guided though the back door of a local restaurant, speakeasy-style, for a late lunch. We’re not ones to cross picket lines but crumbs, we were famished. How the mighty have fallen.

It was hard not to be somewhat impressed with the authority of the Communists in a country where the rule of law barely exists and the government is largely impotent – they can’t even effectively pedestrianise Thamel – although one wonders whether the Maoists’ ability to call and enforce such a massive strike is as much about them showing their opponents just how powerful they really are. And it’s hard to be impressed with a crowd who still bizarrely venerate Stalin and Mao. Nepal has some interesting days ahead.

After two weeks of waiting and the consumption of a king’s ransom worth of cinnamon rolls in the meantime, the righteous prevailed and we got our Indian visas – even managed to bargain the guy up to multiple entries by appealing to his inherent fanaticism, saying we might pop over to Dhaka to watch the Indian team smash Bangladesh in the cricket. Not.