Archive for February, 2010

tropical beer notes #27

February 27, 2010

Indus Pride India  4.8%

I wouldn’t be too proud of this, if I were Indus.

I’m having a bit of a life crisis. I just am so sick of beer (well, this sort of fizzy beer). I need to go do some meditation to sort out my priorities – it’s just not right. What is happening to me? Damn you, India! The place is meant to change you, but I was hoping I would morph into a supreme, effortlessly charming and good looking yogi type, not a bony wowser.

It can be traced back to the Howard Park riesling that Hol flew in for us. Just so massively superior to anything we’ve drunk in the last year. Now that I have touched the void, how can one be expected to go back? My taste buds are doing weird things in the beer department. I can actually taste the difference between all these endlessly boring beers. I’ve been taught a lesson I didn’t want to learn…

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more forts and tombs? anyone?

February 21, 2010

Hyderabad sort of chose itself as our next destination. We wanted to head south to warmer climes but couldn’t commit to a journey of more than 24 hours and the city is famed for its tasty biryani… so Hyderabad it was. Plus, it’s Ralphie’s birthplace and although he feels very little nostalgia for the place, we felt duty bound to visit.

Golconda fort, the Qutb Shahi tombs and Chowmahalla Palace are all undoubtedly impressive but the city chokes on traffic and asphyxiation has a knack of taking some of the fun out of sightseeing, as do cabbies that have no idea where any of their city’s attractions are. One afternoon, we took navigational matters into our own hands and found ourselves wandering the streets of the city’s “Little Tehran” quarter in search of an obscure museum that no local resident had ever heard of. After happening across a billboard of the Ayatollah espousing that it’s better to die than live under your enemies, or words to that effect, we decided to cut our losses and retreat to the more familiar turf of G Pulla Reddy’s sweets shop, our frequent visits to which started to pose a serious threat to the viability of Linds’ skinny jeans. Australia Day also happens to fall on the same day as Indian Republic Day and we tried to make up for the lack of beer – in fact, our second consecutive dry Australia Day – by eating three types of meat at lunch.

Bidar was the first place in India where we sighted no other foreigners, although the guest book at the fort tells us they do visit, on average, about twice a week. Hats off to the caretakers who have resorted to the extreme measure of keeping most of the massive complex under lock and key in an effort to curb the mindless vandalism – “Ganesh ♥ Lakshmi” – that plagues many of India’s archaeological sites. Enter Shimon, our wiry guide, whose fervent enthusiasm for preserving the immaculate marble and sandstone structures matched the breakneck speed at which he whizzed us through them. We’ve developed a bit of a thing for tombs, rattling out to wander amongst some more on the outskirts of town, Isolated; stoic; the quiet punctuated only by occasional shrieks from the rag-tag bunch of boys playing cricket nearby, oblivious to the crumbling, onion-domed bohemoths around them.

Hampi has a definite air of Goa to it, with bongo drums and saggy-crotch pants on every corner, but we found a quiet corner and settled in for a few days of reading, napping and taking in the ruins at leisure. While the ruins are impressive, it’s the natural landscape of Hampi that really steals the show – the silver lining of all that pollution is the blood red sunsets over boulder-strewn hills that find you humming the “Incredible India” ad to yourself. And then there’s the other side to Incredible India, like seeing an elderly woman rush out of her home to scoop up a pile of still steaming cow dung in her bare hands. Usain Bolt would have struggled to make it there faster, mere seconds after Mr Moo deposited it on the road. They should put that in the ads.

tropical beer notes #27

February 20, 2010

Haywards 5000 India 7.5%

Do not drink and dial.

delhi p.s.

February 20, 2010

The good folks at Gandhi Smriti just got back to me with details of the music we heard at the museum, so I can now put a name to the voice: Kumar Gandharva. This sends a shiver down my spine.

salaam delhi

February 11, 2010

Delhi is the sort of city that makes you homesick. Universally acknowledged as fairly dreadful, we were loathe to write it off too quickly and while I like to think we gave it our best shot, the smog, chaos and grinding poverty got the better of us in the end.
 
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Not to say there aren’t “islands of awesomeness” tucked away amid the chaos. Gandhi Smriti is the suitably humble house where the Mahatma stayed on his visits to Delhi and where he ultimately took his last steps, on the way to his regular prayer session in the garden, before being assassinated in 1948. Although we were mobbed by school girls and bamboozled by some of the highly abstract interactive exhibits, the worth of the visit was sealed with a simple, poignant animated film depicting the last moments of Gandhi’s life, accompanied by some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard: “It will fly, the lone swan, from the carnival of the earth.” My great aunt Mary once described Gandhi as “a troublesome little man”, but perhaps Einstein’s opinion was less clouded by the inconvenience of having to flee the Partition of India: “Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.” Right on, Al.

And then there was Nizam’s Kathi Kebab – is it pathetic that we stayed in Delhi for several days longer than planned solely to allow for a few more cracks at the double mutton double egg special?

 
Whether India likes it or not, poverty will long be what much of the foreign world associates with the subcontinent and indeed, it was high on our list of anxieties about coming here. Yes, it really is as bad as we expected and at times, we can’t help but feel overwhelmed by it. The internal monologue often goes beserk, tossing over every known reason why we should or shouldn’t give to someone who asks us for money on the street.

As a rule, I don’t give – accepted wisdom says it’s best not to, as random giving doesn’t yield any long term benefit and those begging are often pawns feeding criminal activity higher up the food chain. But even then, I can’t help but feel uncomfortable about this logic simply absolving me from the need to give. And it’s hard to ignore the very basic fact that the person asking undoubtedly needs the money way more than I do, for whatever reason, and that they also deserve to be treated with dignity instead of being regarded as a nuisance. In more vulnerable moments, this inevitably leads to a broader examination of the complexities of what seems to be wrong in the world and what is ultimately the “right” way to live one’s life. Exhausting, and even then my exhaustion is tempered with a sort of guilt about the fact that I can even indulge in being exhausted by the whole quandary – certainly, this is a middle class indulgence, when I’m sure begging on the streets of Delhi is infinitely more exhausting and doesn’t come with the relief of a warm bed and a meal at the end of the day.

Perhaps in an attempt to try and make some sense of it all, we signed on for a city walk with Salaam Balaak Trust. Even this was not without some hesitation, as there’s something inherently distasteful about the notion of “slum tourism” and as if there to prey on these very insecurities, our group included a young Finnish journalist researching a story about these types of tours. What swayed us was that the tour focuses on the public areas of New Delhi train station and the Trust’s operations there and nearby, instead of intruding into residential areas, and the organisation is rightfully sensitive to the potential for exploitation, keeping groups small and banning photography. Conservative estimates put about 1,500 kids living at the station, as our guide, Shahanut, did until he chose to go live at the Trust’s shelter. A relatively small operation trying their best to tackle a massive problem, they are justifiably proud of what they do to provide an alternative to the very un-childlike life these kids find themselves living.

tropical beer notes #26

February 11, 2010
Knockout Strong Beer Karnataka India 8%
I doubt you could ever call a beer “Knockout” back home. Listen up! I’m going to tell you why.
The Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code, Australia’s “quasi-regulatory system for alcohol advertising”, states under Part 1 Rule (a): “advertisements for alcohol beverages must not encourage excessive consumption or abuse of alcohol.” And furthermore, Rule (e) states that “an advertisement must not contain any inducement to prefer an alcohol beverage because of its higher alcohol content.”
… all of which pretty much seems to be the point of Knockout.
Researching that sent me right back to the ol’ sky prison at Governor Stirling Tower.
 
Parsons also insisted that I include a reference to the weekly GWN programming highlight for Karratha’s 8-year-olds.

and the winners are…

February 7, 2010

Last night we checked in to our 100th hotel. In celebration of this milestone, we reviewed our list of accommodation and decided to let you in on some of the best and worst moments. Note to our mums – I’ll give you the nod when it’s time for you to leave.

The good:*

Friendliest welcome – Tony’s Guesthouse, Melaka & North West Guesthouse, Mae Sariang
Tony – what a legend. The man is a kindred Little Creatures lover – need we say more? After tiring of “always screwing the union” as a government employee, his life now revolves around cooking the perfect eggs for his guests and fishing.

We only meant to spend a day or two in Mae Sariang, but a week later we were still lounging on the verandah at North West. We had no need that Tukta and Kitti couldn’t cater to – they let us take our own beers from the fridge; lent us their bikes and knew the best lady-boy in town to go to for a haircut.

Country with highest accommodation standards – Vietnam
Despite the fact that we encountered two of our most horrific hotels in Vietnam (see below), the general standard was very high. There doesn’t seem to be much of a culture of ultra-cheap dorm beds and shared bathrooms, but when $10 buys you a spotless fan room with TV, attached bathroom and hot water, who cares?

Best on ground – Zhilam Hostel, Kangding
We’ve already sung the praises of this place, but it deserves another shout-out. Dare I say it, Kris could charge double for this place and it would still be good value. Endless hot water in pristine bathrooms; crisp linen, and Kris and Lillian seemed to know exactly the right moment to ask you if you wanted a cup of tea. Worthy candidate in the “friendliest welcome” category, but we had to share the glory around a little.

OK, so I’ll quickly move on to the nasty bits because we all know they are far more interesting. Mums: leave now.

The bad:

Worst value for money – Prince of Wales Hotel, Singapore
How on earth did we land ourselves in a hostel above an Australian-themed backpackers pub? Our first stop on the trip, I can only think we were blinded by the excitement of it all. Apart from being full of shocking bogans, the wailing of dreadful covers bands blared from the bar downstairs until 3am every night and all the advertised “perks” turned out to be not nearly as appealing as advertised. “Free breakfast” = a few loaves of stale sliced bread, Nescafe and eggs you cook for yourself in a greasy pan, the stocks of which stop being replenished about 30 minutes before the ridiculously early cut-off time of 9am – so, if you’re us, you end up with cold coffee dregs and a dry crust for breakfast. “Air con” = will be switched on at 10pm and turned off at 6am. Even at $60 for a spartan private room, you still have to share a bathroom with the room next door and from the $20 dorm beds, you have to schlepp downstairs to use the toilets in the pub. Boo.

Biggest disappointment – Ko Tarutao
One thing we noticed consistently throughout SE Asia is a lack of concern for upkeep. New places go up and then are left to decay, quickly, as one might expect in a tropical climate, without a sniff of fresh paint or basic maintenance until they reach the point of no-return, when they are torn down and rebuilt again. Being government-run, there was a small army of staff employed on the island, but it was as though highly specific jobs (I mean highly specific, like “sweep this one square metre of concrete”) were allocated on Day One and that file was then hastily closed with a sigh of relief, never to be reopened. Broken windows, burnt-out light globes and wonky doors abounded and despite being promoted as an eco-resort, there was rubbish everywhere – but it was nobody’s job to fix it, so it never happened.

Bed bugs – Greens Hotel, Jerantut & Welcome Hotel, Bombay
Conveniently for Linds, both incidents occurred when we were sleeping in separate beds. My bout in Bombay prompted a response of “Oh my God” from the guy on the reception desk.

Weirdest – Lete Hostel, Xining
Where else but China would it be perfectly acceptable to rent out the top two floors of a high-rise apartment building to a youth hostel? An eerily deserted rabbit warren of rooms, with staff who looked at you as though you had two heads. And I’m pretty sure they used a damp mop to clean the carpets.

Most dangerous – Can’t remember the name, Xiahe
Apart from nearly dying from exposure during the night, going to the toilet involved taking your life in your own hands. Guests are required to take the most circuitous route around the outer perimeter of the courtyard to avoid a savage dog, whose chain is just a mite shorter than what he needs to reach you and sink his teeth into your leg. I knew he was there, but I was still half scared to death every time he barked – not really what you need as you’re scurrying towards the fetid loo, bladder bursting from already having delayed the trip for as long as humanly possible.

The ugly:

No categories here – there is one undisputed winner of this dubious honour:

Trade Union Hotel, Ben Tre
This place had the vibe of a private enterprise which had been taken over by the Communists at the end of the war… and never cleaned since. Cigarette butts in the shower drain, highly suspicious wall stains and a roach graveyard under the bed. It was after staying here that “presence of a toilet seat” became a mandatory item on our room inspection checklist.

Notable mention must be made of the place we stayed in Vinh Long, also in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. I was suffering a nasty head cold at the time and couldn’t face venturing outside our otherwise passable room, so Linds waited until after we left to tell me that there were soiled prophylactics down the side of the bed.

* excluding statistical outliers – namely, posh hotels funded by other people’s generosity

slowly down the ganges

February 3, 2010

 

 

So… India. King of the quotable quotes goes to Dodd with this pearl: “islands of awesomeness in a sea of shit.” A perfect summary. We have on and off moments, which we oscillate between innumerable times each day. The sights are amazing; the food is delicious; we’ve had some wonderful kindness from people – it’s just the bits in between that can truly suck. At times, we have mused that if we could afford to do it all in swank hotels, getting ferried about in a private vehicle with a personal tour guide, it would be superlative. But then again, even East Bumcrack would be superlative if we could do it that way.

Twelve hours after we said goodbye to Nina, we were back at the airport awaiting Hol’s arrival and before we knew it, we had our own living, breathing tourist attraction – even cosmopolitan Mumbaikers are powerless in the face of white blonde hair and blue eyes.

 

After sampling all the naan, chai and laundry districts that Bombay had to offer, we plotted out a fairly gruelling route through some of northern India’s big hitters before racing to Delhi in time for Hol’s departure. I’m not sure whose bright idea it was to travel on New Year’s Day. Perhaps our collective judgment was clouded by the allure of a cheap flight to Udaipur, but after ringing in the New Year first in style, with high tea at the Taj, and then not-so-stylishly at Mondy’s, boarding a plane or even blinking, for that matter, was extremely painful. For some more than others (I’m looking at Dodd).

 

 

 

And thus began our tour that could be entitled “Incredible Things That You Won’t Be Able to Stop Staring At”: Pichola Lake in Udaipur; the Taj Mahal in Agra; and the Ganges in Varanasi – all islands of awesomeness, as referred to above.

 

 

We spent a lot of time in Udaipur perving on the lifestyles of the rich and famous. The City Palace and Pichola Lake are home to several luxury hotels, most of which are operated by the former Maharana and family, and for the princely sum of Rs 25 (62 cents), you can buy admission to the palace grounds and mooch about, thus escaping the complete mayhem of the outside world. Although stripped of any official capacity in 1947, we happened upon the Maharana receiving a visit, amid much pomp and ceremony, from the also defunct King of Nepal and speculated that their dinner conversation would most likely focus on how much better things were in the good old days.

 

Mooching about works up quite an appetite and we also spent a day learning the finer points of Indian cookery with the spirited Shashi, who delighted in teaching us some choice Hindi, telling Linds to put his back into pounding the spices and shocking us with her true tales of the crimes against hygiene that occur in the kitchens of many Indian restaurants.
 
After nearly freezing to death on the overnight train to Agra, we caught our first view of the resplendent Taj Mahal from the rooftop of our hotel. The next morning, we fronted up to find that it had become quite shy overnight, shrouding itself completely in fog. Three hours later, it finally revealed itself again and despite all the hype, it is truly beautiful – glowingly opalescent and strangely serene, even amongst the throngs of tourists. Agra Fort will be the eternal bridesmaid, but it still qualifies as an island of awesomeness and we even managed to catch some scantily-clad Bollywood filming going on there.

 

 

 

 

Better prepared this time, with bulk fleece blankets, we boarded the overnight train to Varanasi which turned out to be horrifically reminiscent of our maiden bus journey in Vietnam. Delayed by aforementioned fog, the scheduled 13 hour journey turned into 23 hours and upon our arrival, I’ve never been quite so glad to see a jostling pack of rapacious autorickshaw drivers. After failing to hear the endpoint of the conversation between the rickshaw pimp and Linds, I hastily paid our driver and raced off to collapse in our room, not realising until later that I had shortchanged him – surely, history was made as I unknowingly became the first tourist to ever rip off the infamous Varanasi autorickshaw mafia.

 

 

We whiled away our days in Varanasi strolling and cruising the banks of the Ganges, where the Hindu rituals of life and death play out in all their splendour and grittiness. We had read that if a single place goes close to encompassing all of India, it’s Varanasi – from hard-fought cricket scratch matches to Shivaite ascetics coated in funeral pyre ash, it’s all here. In his travel classic, Slowly Down the Ganges, Eric Newby curiously makes little mention of the holy city: “Ghats, ghats. So many ghats. Too many ghats”.  While the activity of the ghats oscillates between serenity and mayhem – from Brahmins quitely bathing to swarms of buffalo being herded down the concrete steps – to our collective surprise, Varanasi was far more relaxing than we had expected. Of course, there are touts and panhandlers aplenty but perhaps after hearing rumours of my remarkable reverse rip off effort, they decided to leave us alone.