September 1, 2011

Going into the West

Filed under: Uncategorized — podtourz @ 1:16 pm

At the end of The Lord of the Rings Frodo goes into the West, with the remaining Elves; it should be a glorious moment as the hobbit embarks upon his immortality, but instead it is shot through with melancholy, a feeling of autumnal sadness.

The Celts knew that the immortals lived on an isle in the west; but it was also the land of death.

On a summer evening when the sea was misty, the sun sinking in pink wafting cloud, we drove to Morecambe. The tide was out, the sands of Morecambe Bay glumly gleaming. Two pensioners strolled along the seafront, the sky was grey above, three drunks sat outside a pub. Posters and neon proclaimed the attractions of the place – amusements, pubs, restaurants, those odd shops that sell plastic buckets and spades, masks, garish shirts, but nothing you actually want – but the streets were almost deserted.

We ate in a huge Thai restaurant, the only ones there till, just as we were about to leave, a couple came in for a takeaway.

We didn’t want a huge meal. Could we have the noodles from the cafe menu?

“We’re not really doing the cafe menu any more. It didn’t work out.”

It didn’t work out. That seemed a good epitaph for Morecambe itself.

“But I don’t see why we can’t put something together for you.”

And they did. It was good; pad thai, duck noodles, a pot of green tea.

“A toilet? Have you got a toilet?”

A drunk woman had crept into the restaurant, edging round the doorframe like a cat bent on stealing a piece of fish, half-afraid, half-daring. Her hair was frizzy and her speech was slurred, and the answer was that yes, they had a toilet, but it was way upstairs, and she’d be better off using the toilets in the pub. (I think, in fact, she’d already been thrown out of the pub, but it was difficult to make out the rambling story.) In the end she left, not making a scene but just fading out like a failing radio broadcast.

Before we left, I went to find the toilets – up a massive, dramatic staircase, and through a huge empty restaurant through whose massive window I could look out on to the expanse of Morecambe Bay.The rooms were immense, expansive; I felt like a dwarf. And indeed, since the glory days of Edwardian Morecambe we have all shrunk; we live in hamster hutches, we make tiny, frightened gestures, nothing is this size any more.

The wonderful Winter Gardens, with its over-the-top music-hall facade in terracotta, its tall curling gables, its bulging finials, was closed. And even this is a shadow of its former majesty; the baths, the ballroom, the bars, are all gone, leaving just the theatre.

New Morecambe starts after you pass the station – an awful shopping centre, a broad unsheltered road where pedestrians dodge the cars to cross, modern shed-like retail outlets on both sides. The road was wet with rain, and the lights were out, no sign of life to be seen.

The small streets that wriggle inland from the esplanade were the heart of Morecambe’s shopping a century ago, and they still have the cosy feeling that always comes from being sheltered by tall buildings on both sides, and yet only a hundred yards from the challenging emptiness of the sea. But even here, no one seemed to be about; everything closed, even the pubs.

And then, strangely pristine at the end of the seafront, we spotted the Midland Hotel. Its fine sweeping curve, its Art Deco streamline sleek and bare, a vision of architecture diametrically opposed to the Winter Gardens’ fiddly riot of ornament. It’s been restored as a luxury hotel; but I wonder who stays there – Morecambe isn’t the kind of place lovers of the Bauhaus typically turn up in.  Coming across the Midland Hotel is like cutting through a wrong-side-of-the-tracks scrapyard and seeing a spotless Lamborghini among the dented VW Golfs and burned-out Volvos.

More typical perhaps is the closed fairground, the land lying bare behind blank hoardings; demolished to make way for a retail park that only ever got half built. In Morecambe, if you build it, they still won’t come, and it seems the developers found that it wasn’t only fairgrounds that didn’t pull the crowds.

The decline of the British seaside is a long term trend; even by 1987 it was obvious that the fairground was in trouble, and the amusement park was rebranded as Frontierland with a Wild West look and feel. But that didn’t stop the crowds from leaking away, and the park started cutting back; ride after ride was sold, till it closed for good in 2000.

Now there’s a single attraction left; the Polo tower, like a piece of Andy Warhol, a huge packet of mints rearing into the air. It owes its reprieve to the fact that it supports a mobile phone antenna; a twenty year contract forces the owners to keep the Polo Tower going at least until 2013. (Mobile phones are, of course, more important than joy in this grim land of ours.)

Poor Morecambe. It was the beginning of August, and still no one was here. The sun wouldn’t shine, the streets were slick with rain, all the traffic was heading out of town. We joined the flow; on towards the Pennines and the Peak District, and away from the lands of the west.


August 30, 2011

Mortsafes, morthouses, and resurrection men

Filed under: Uncategorized — podtourz @ 6:31 pm

There’s a certain strain of Scottish Gothic that’s full of body-snatchers, crooked surgeons, and cadavers transported in carriages; hangings, murders, dissections.  Stevenson’s short story The Body Snatcher includes a ghost as well as a real corpse (or does it?); in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Hyde’s mysterious door is in fact the entrance to Jekyll’s dissecting room, and the whole novel can be seen as an oblique comment on the case of surgeon Robert Knox, the man who paid Burke and Hare for cadavers for dissection.

(Burke and Hare were smart businessmen. There was a high demand for fresh corpses for the anatomy school; other men dug up bodies from the graveyards, but these two live wires cut out the middleman and made their own corpses.)

Various devices were invented to prevent the ‘resurrection men’ from snatching the bodies of the recently deceased. Several graveyards have watch houses or watchtowers: there’s a fine circular watchtower in the kirkyard at Banchory, in Deeside, like a castle among the graves.

But guards could be threatened or overpowered. The mortsafe afforded greater protection. At first, the simple expedient of laying a huge slab of stone over the grave was used, but the mortsafe – a sort of iron grid – provided lateral protection as well as a huge weight on top of the coffin. Once the body had started to decay, the mortsafe could be moved and laid on top of the next burial, whenever that occurred. (There are the remains of a couple of mortsafes in the cloister garth of St Conan’s, Loch Awe, that provided the impulse for this post.)

And then there are morthouses. Again, the idea was to keep coffins protected till the body inside was well rotted; many are huge sheds of solid stone, with stone vaults and slate roofs, and huge barred doors. But as with the watch tower at Banchory, form, function, and the desire for an architecturally pleasing construction occasionally created works of impressive character; there’s a  wonderful circular morthouse at Udny Green built with a turntable inside, so that coffins would be rotated till at last they came to the entrance again, and could be buried, the body inside having achieved a state that made it no longer of any interest to the resurrection men.

There’s something rather more than usually morbid about these relics of the bodysnatching past. (The Anatomy Act of 1832 put paid to the bodysnatchers for good, by allowing surgeons to dissect unclaimed bodies, and allowing relatives to donate their next of kin’s body to science, thus creating a regular supply of cadavers for the medical schools.) All graveyards are a little morbid, even the cenotaphs of Hindu rulers in Rajasthan where there never was a body – they simply commemorate the site of a cremation. But these mortsafes and morthouses remind us more strongly than usual of the facts of death – the fact of putrefaction, of the slow falling apart of the body – and so they exacerbate the usual macabre nature of the place.

Yet we enjoy such gruesomeness. As Dickens’s Fat Boy says, “I wants to make your flesh creep” – and the telling of ghost stories has been a pleasurable activity at least since his time (he wrote some good ones), and in fact since Shakespeare’s (Mamillius in The Winter’s Tale starts a story “Of sprites and goblins” with the line “There was a man dwelt by a churchyard”, which was completed in a nice little jeux d’esprit by MR James). And I don’t think we’re going to stop enjoying it any time soon – certainly not judging by the success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.



The Celtic Twilight

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — podtourz @ 5:32 pm

“What the hell is that?”

We were driving along the side of Loch Awe – one our way from the Munros of Tayside that we’d bagged already, towards Ben Nevis, on a rather miserable day of slanting rain and grey skies. We’d passed village upon village of sensible foursquare houses, slab sides of rock dressed against the rain. But what I’d spotted out of the window defied description – a Byzanto-Romanesque dream palace, a Highland version of Disneyland, a folly or a nightmare; we’d have to investigate.

Fortunately there was a lay-by a hundred yards along the road; two or three cars were already parked there. We walked back, and down the hill through wet ferns and moss glittering with droplets of rain.

Perplexity grew as we approached. Celtic arches, a Gothic apse, bits of what seemed Art Nouveau; it was a tumultuous, jumbled mix of styles and stones, bits and pieces from diverse ages crazily jammed together. I couldn’t even tell if it was beautiful or ugly – it was both at once, or neither.

It is, indeed, the dream of a madman,  Walter Campbell, the younger brother of Lord Blythswood, who began it in 1881, and kept building till his death in 1914. Work continued under the patronage of his sister and later under trustees, and the church was not finished until the 1930s. Campbell designed the church himself, taking ideas and models from all over Europe, and even carved the organ screen himself (he was a keen, and not untalented, amateur woodworker).

Even on the outside the church looks eccentric; there’s a Saxon style tower with long-and-short work, a tall Celtic cross, a French style smaller tower, a Victorian Gothic apse, strange carved panels, perched terraces on the steep side of the hill to the south overlooking the loch, flying buttresses which come out at odd angles to shore up the south aisle. (Incidentally, while Walter Campbell lived on one of the islands you can see in the loch, another, Innishail or ‘the green isle’, was the burial ground for local inhabitants. The Celts seem to have preferred to bury their dead on islands, as at Caldey island, and the islands of the blest occupy an interesting place in Celtic myth – the isle of Avalon, Tir nan Og. At Killin, at the end of Loch Tay, the clan Macnab burial ground is on the island of Inchbuie in the middle of the river.)

Inside, the church is full of interesting spaces, a jumble of chapel. The nave is darkened and diminished by the accretions around it, while the apse blazes with light – a dramatic effect even on an overcast day. Everywhere you look there seems to be another hidden chapel, another doorway or arcade giving on to yet another space. It’s a box of secrets, slightly dusty and smelling of damp, the kind of place you might find a small casket of priceless jewels, or a ghost.

Craftsmanship was something Campbell valued, and there are some marvellous works – fine wrought iron gates topped by the lymphad of Lorne (a little galley or single-masted ship), lovely stained glass, even chandeliers made out of miniature organ pipes. There are two screens which were brought from Eton College Chapel, though they were never installed where they were meant to go, and there’s a more than life-size effigy of Robert the Bruce guarding a relic of bone from Bruce’s grave in Dunfermline Abbey. There’s even a tiny cloister, with two mortsafes on display. (More on mortsafes anon.)

The thing I’ll always remember about this church, though, is that blaze of light streaming in through the clear windows of the apse. And it reminds me that the year Campbell began his work here, 1881, was the year before the first performance of Wagner’s Parsifal – a medieval, religious themed opera, in which the final scene shows the opening of the Grail shrine – “enthüllet den Gral! Öffnet den Schrein!”

Campbell’s vision is as eclectic, as dramatic, and as medievalist as Wagner’s. And possibly just as insane.  It may not be a great work of art, but I was glad to see it; and as I stood on the terrace behind the church, looking out across Loch Awe, the sun came out, for the first time on that blustery day.

August 2, 2011

Useless signs

Filed under: Uncategorized — podtourz @ 10:15 am

Dumfries. Probably quite a decent city in itself, but bloody difficult to leave.

There are no signs for Carlisle. There are no signs for New Abbey, Castle Douglas or the coast, where we were headed.

There are plenty of signs saying ‘All Routes’. Following these, we managed to go round Dumfries twice before finally finding a way out.

And there is one of the most spectacularly useless signs I’ve ever seen. It said ‘tourist attractions’.

Er, right. Disneyland is a tourist attraction. Westminster Abbey is a tourist attraction. Oscar Wilde’s grave in Pere Lachaise cemetery is a tourist attraction. The same kind of person doesn’t probably want to visit all three.

And anyway, what are the tourist attractions of Dumfries?

We never found out. Eventually we found a road leading out of the city that got us, in a roundabout way, to Rockcliffe and Kippfold and the great expanses of low tide sand and mud that is the Solway Firth, and the view to the Lake District. On the whole, I was happy to miss the ‘tourist attractions’.

April 26, 2011

English, but not as we know it

Filed under: Uncategorized — podtourz @ 2:13 pm

One of the great delights of India was they way it felt familiar, but in a very strange way; or sometimes, strange, but in a very familiar way.  In South America, I felt I was in a completely different world; India, somehow, didn’t feel nearly as different as I’d expected it to.

Perhaps that was partly due to the widespread use of the English language. But it’s not quite the same English as I hear every day in Norfolk or on the BBC. It’s English put through a few chemical processes and with some spices added, rolled out, squeezed a few times, and pressed into a new shape.

I found that sometimes conversations would go like this:

– How do I get to the railway station?

– The what?

– Railway station.

– ???

– Railway.

– ???

– Going to Kochi. Train.

– Ah!!!!!!! REL-WEH!!!!!

Vowels are often flexible. I’ve seen a Brass Bend, I’ve eaten sendwiches. Spelling is as joyfully mutable as in the English of Shakespeare’s day; often, a word will be spelled three different ways on the same sign.

And words have changed their uses, or sometimes, there is a different word – traffic circles instead of roundabouts. Hotels may or not have rooms – often they are ‘food but not lodging hotels’ – so it can be safer to ask for a ‘lodge’, which has nothing to do with Masonry.

My favourite usage has to be ‘backside’. In English English, backside is arse, ass, fanny, bum, butt, bottom, fundament, posterior. In Indian English, backside is what it says on the tin; the back side – the other side, the road behind a station for instance, or the back garden entrance to a house. It is somewhat startling the first few times you hear it; even now, it makes me smile.

Then there is the (ever) present participle which is dominating the Indian-English language with its particular flavour; the continuous present is almost always used, in fact I’m not sure there is an alternative. I found within a few weeks I’d started using it myself; it gives the language a lilt and a sense of continuing time that the simple present tense of English-English doesn’t possess. (Though it would be nice to know whether the tiger is actually eating people, or just does eat people from time to time, before I approach it…)

Journalistic Indian-English is particularly good fun – I was soon addicted to my daily paper, whether Times of India or (great paper) New Indian Express. First you have the extra words – gherao, dharna, neta, goonda, babu, the lakh and crore. (I did have a fleeting vision of Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan escaping to Hyderabad when I read the headline ‘Goons hit local supermarket’…)

And then you have the superbly vivid way Indian journalists use the language. No one surrenders; they cave in, crumble, are whacked, smashed, crushed. It took me several weeks to get attuned enough to the language to read the op-ed columns, with their imaginative, slangy, dazzling way of throwing language at the wall to see if it will stick.

Indian English isn’t quite the Queen’s English. It isn’t quite a different language either. But it’s definitely alive and kicking.

(A good resource if you want to find out more about Indian English is the  excellent list of Indian English words which adequately translates all those I’ve used in this post.)

April 20, 2011

Spirituality: how not to. And, maybe, how to.

Filed under: france, spirituality — podtourz @ 8:16 pm

I hate Strasbourg cathedral.

I love the outside. A spider-thin network of lacy stone mouldings covers the entire facade, glowing orange at sunset, or blood-red on a snowy, overcast day. The ambitious openwork of the one finished spire, with its turrets and open staircases.

The interior is disappointing compared to that; a large parish church, rather than a cathedral, it seems to stop short after the nave, with just a stump of a choir.True, there’s some fine stained glass, and some marvellous late Gothic work – a good pulpit, a rather ordinary ‘Mount of Olives’, and a well carved font – and there’s the strange pillar of angels, with figures of the Evangelists.

Oh, and the Astronomical Clock. A very disappointing clock, really; none of its little mechanisms are particularly spectacular, though I like the little cock that crows at the end of the chime.

But that’s not why I hate Strasbourg cathedral. What I really hate is the way it’s been presented.

  • Every ten minutes or so there’s a bingy-bongy chime like you hear in railway stations, and a sanctimonious railway announcer voice tells you this is a PLACE OF WORSHIP and you must BE RESPECTFUL and BE SILENT and NOT SHOUT. Bing-bong. “The next mass will be leaving at eighteen-twenty, calling at hymns number thirty-two and one-oh-four.”
  • There’s a huge TV screen next to the pulpit. Does it tell us something useful about the art? Does it tell us anything about the pulpit and what it means? No. It just says LA CHAIRE and then flips to THE PULPIT, perpetually cycling the two words. And it gets in the way of your actually seeing the pulpit.
  • The TV screens telling us THE PULPIT or THE CHOIR or THE MOUNT OF OLIVES must have a massive carbon footprint, and they must have cost a bomb – they are massive flatscreens. But if you want to see any of the things in the cathedral lit up, you’ll have to pay for it. The cathedral has after all spent its entire electricity budget on the televisions.
  • There’s no information on the art historical, or historical, aspects of the cathedral at all. There’s loads of ‘spiritual’ stuff though. I couldn’t work out who it was addressed to at all – it told you things anyone brought up in a Christian environment would surely know (‘Christians worship Jesus’, and there’s also a hypothesis that bears defecate in afforested areas; ‘the pulpit is used for delivering sermons’), but equally its affirmation of faith would offend any visiting Hindu, Muslim or Jew, who might need to know what a font is for…
  • Except that the font, which I think most Christians would agree is one of the most important places in any church, has no label at all on it. Odd – since its spiritual importance as the site of baptism is equalled in this case by the artistic merits of the Gothic sculpture.
  • And this SPIRITUAL place we are meant to RESPECT, in capitals since that is how the loudspeaker delivers those words, has a bloody great shop set up opposite the astronomical clock – not neatly hidden in a cloister or side chapel, but right in the middle of the place.  I can’t help thinking: Matthew 21: 12-13 –  “My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves”, in this case with the addition of modern electronic devices.

Ugh. It all left a nasty taste in the mouth. As did the fact that the cathedral is closed every day at 1130, not for mass, but for paying audiences to see a film about the clock, followed by the clock striking twelves. Den of thieves indeed. Sorry, but if what you see is a money-making machine, administrators of the cathedral, then what I see is not deep spirituality, and I am not inclined to respect it.

(Chartres cathedral, my local one, makes a good contrast. Nearly every ancient stained glass window has a board explaining the narratives and images in detail. And it’s not sectioned off with little barriers, either. And… sorry to say it, but it is ten times a better cathedral anyway.)

I was happy, later on, to visit Saint Pierre le Jeune (Protestante) – that’s the official title; there’s a Saint Pierre le Jeune (Catholique) as well for an organ recital. It was an interesting recital, on a Silbermann organ, taking as its theme the Lord’s Prayer, and featuring arrangments of ‘Vater unser in Himmelreich’ by Praetorius, Buxtehude and Bach. In between there were readings that took the Lord’s Prayer as a starting point – but what was fascinating was that they could have been written by (and admired by) agnostics or even atheists; they deconstructed the prayer, questioned it, questioned even the existence of God. So that in a prayerful setting, we ended up not worshipping, or being invited to ‘respect’ a place of worship, but being invited to think. And to enjoy the good music, too (there was a cracking piece of Bach neither of us knew – and when your partner is an organist, that’s definitely not usual).

Oh yes; the collection that was taken went not to the church, but to a charity fighting against torture. And when we wanted to take a look at the architecture afterwards, we were warmly invited to wander around. We actually felt welcome – something we hadn’t in the cathedral.


April 9, 2011

Souvenirs of India – and the International Jewellery Market

Filed under: Uncategorized — podtourz @ 2:21 pm

My earlier post on the globalisation of the souvenir notwithstanding, I did come back from India with a few souvenirs.

  • One Orissa painting of the Lord Krishna, showing his life in tiny scenes around the border.
  • One Madhubani painting of a tree inhabited by birds.
  • A set of tiny painted wooden birds (I have a set from Poland, which they go with), and a little painted Durga and Kali. Durga on her tiger. (I was told, by the way, that an image of Durga should always show the tiger with its mouth open, for luck.)
  • Two bansuri, a G and EE – nice little flutes which I really ought to learn to play properly. (A trip to Varanasi beckons… the best tuition is there, apparently.) It took the best part of half a day to locate the best shop in Udaipur and test the stock. One high, trilling, piercing flute and one deep, dark sounding flute. A nice pair.

They all mean something to me. Durga and Kali for instance are deities I respect, like Death in the Tarot, as representing creative destruction. The Lord Krishna I now know through devotees I met on my journey, and through the works of Meera Bai. And the flutes are also part of Lord Krishna’s domain – besides which they have been added to my large collection of wind instruments from around the world.

I also came back with two shawls from Delhi, one very thick one in felted wool, and another woollen one. But that was because it was absolutely freezing, and I needed them badly (they doubled as a sleeping bag on night trains).

It was difficult to find good flutes. Hundreds are made for children to play (and break), or for tourists to take home as wall decorations, and they’re simply not good enough for playing real music. They have rough fingerholes, which is not only cheap and nasty in effect, but spoils the tone by setting up disturbance in the bore. They have thick walls, which may make them robust but ruins the tone – I was shown by the master flute player I bought from (and yes, he really could play – an eyeopener as he demonstrated some of the techniques of tonguing and note-bending you can use on bansuri which aren’t in the classical western flute repertory) how to look for thin walls on the deeper flutes, which make the tone warm and full.

But India is full of souvenirs I really didn’t want. Tie dye T-shirts that are pieces of superannuated 1960s hippy culture, not Indian life. Palm-leaf etchings of the kama sutra. Tibetan singing bowls (the clue is in the word ‘Tibetan’. As in, not Indian. Though I should really cut these guys some slack – the fact is that a great deal of the Indian tourist industry, particularly in the south of the country, now seems to be run by Tibetans and Nepalis.)

There also seems to be a creeping standardisation of  ‘India’. As every Indian and many visitors know, it’s not a single place. For a start, it’s divided by the Idli-Line, somewhat as Germany is divided by the Weisswurst-Equator; in the north, parathas and chapattis – in the south, idlies and dosas. No such thing as ‘Indian’ food. Regional loyalties are strong – I even found one kind of sweet that is only ever made and sold in Chittaurgarh. And yet there’s a standardised, non-regional ‘India’ that you find in the tourist shops, that mixes Tibetan and Ladakhi and Kashmiri stuff with Orissan or Madhubani work and Jaipuri jewellery, a sort of mixed-up-melting-pot-India that represents neither Idli nor Chapatti, but rather a sort of gooey porridge.

And I found that Kashmiri embroidered kaftans are twice the price in Kochi that they are in Istanbul, where I bought my black wool one. How sad.

Part II – International jewellery markets and the stonecutters of Jaipur

March 20, 2011

The accidental vegetarian

Filed under: Uncategorized — podtourz @ 4:24 pm

I seem to have become vegetarian by accident.

It’s quite difficult to be a carnivore in India. In some towns, like Pushkar and Hampi, you’ll not find any meat at all. In others, you’ll find meat if you look for it, but still a majority of the restaurants will be pure veg, or predominantly veg, and if you want a thali, it will probably not have meat in it.

So I was pretty much eating veg most of the time in India; I can count the number of times I ate meat, and tell you exactly where it was. Five times, in three months.

So when I came back to France I honestly thought the first thing I’d order would be steak tartare; one of my favourite dishes.

Instead of which, I found myself staring at choucroute and thinking; all those pieces of dead pig. Oh dear… not so much that I have qualms over eating animals, I just somehow didn’t feel like eating it. My appetite for meat had gone.

A month later, I haven’t really got it back. I find myself cooking veg, and thinking I really should get round to cooking some meat, but just bookmarking the veg recipes in my cookery book. How strange.

Vegetarian food, and Indian food, can on one level be deeply boring. Dal fry is dal fry however you serve it up. India is a bust for gourmet travellers. (The south is worst; idlies for breakfast, idlies for elevenses, idlies for lunch, idlies for tiffin, and for dinner – more idlies. Idly-idly-idly-idly-tum-te-tum, can’t bear any more of the bloody things. And don’t say ‘You could have a dosa’; I got tired of those, as well.)

And yet eat dal fry a hundred times, and each time it will be different; a different spicing, consistency, flavour. The same for mutter paneer, or paneer butter masala (good in Puri, great at the German bakery restaurant in Hampi, too hot to handle in Ahmedabad).  A simple veg curry will be sour and hot in Kerala, richly spiced in Rajasthan,  sweet in Gujarat.

So that I haven’t missed my meat. But I still find it perplexing that I’ve dropped into vegetarianism so very accidentally. I wonder how long it will last.

March 14, 2011

Some packing lessons

Filed under: Uncategorized — podtourz @ 9:35 am

One or two things I learned about travelling while I was in India… this is after 30 years as a traveller! But nearly three months is a longer time to be on the road than I’m used to, and it throws all your small failings into stark high relief.

  • Pack a torch or a headlamp, and keep it with you – even when you go to the bog. Power cuts nearly always happened when I was in the shower – the one place in an Indian hotel practically guaranteed to have no natural light at all. (Cracks in the wall don’t count.)
  • Have a large handbag or a tote, not a daypack. Zipping and unzipping a daypack requires two hands, which is a pain when you have a camera. The only time I was glad I had a daypack was when I was biking. (And it would be easy to fit straps to a handbag.)
  • One thing I got right was taking a jagbag. I slept in silk sheets every night… next time I’ll take a pillowcase too. Though grimy, my bag has survived everything India could throw at it.
  • Another thing I got right was having a shesh, not a hat. A shesh has so many advantages. I can wear it as a headscarf, a makeshift sarong, a shawl, use it as a towel or a fruit carrier… When you’re wearing it as a hat, it also covers the back of your neck, one of the most annoyingly easy places to get sunburnt. And my shesh cost about 50p; it was a bit of cheap cotton muslin chopped off the bottom of an old curtain.
  • Next time I go to India I will buy an Indian mobile phone on day one. They are incredibly cheap and the call rates are even cheaper.
  • I really must make sure not to pack trousers and shirts that don’t have pockets. You’re always after somewhere to put a bus ticket or your lens cap… I might even get a flak jacket style waistcoat with plenty of pockets, though camouflage isn’t really my preferred dress style.
  • I will print off Google maps of places I’m going, because the guidebooks’ maps are always crap.

And I will pack lighter. I thought I had packed pretty light… but in the end, I had far too much.


March 10, 2011

India: some highlights

Filed under: Uncategorized — podtourz @ 2:21 pm

Travelling around India, I found the Rough Guide was almost always wrong about a place. If it says it’s wonderful, it’s probably either grotty, or too touristy; if it says don’t bother to stay there, it’s probably a place with great cheap hotels, good pure veg restaurants, and a nice relaxed feel. Maybe that’s just me… but I thought I’d put up a few personal highlights.

  • Hampi. First off, a chance to see some incredible temple architecture, but for once set in a landscape rather than among the streets of a bustling town or in municipally-flower-bedded ASI compounds. The landscape, pale orange boulders and lush riverside plantations, makes you feel as if you’re walking in an Indian miniature; there are hills to climb, views to sit and soak up. And the place has a marvellous feeling to it – despite the global hippie hangouts, the didj music, the buy-a-cool-tshirt joints, there’s an underlying sweetness to the place. I meant to spend two days there; I stayed a week.
  • Mandvi, Gujarat. I only went to see the boatbuilders, and I’m glad I did; most of the boats are reaching completion – the superstructure was already being finished on one, delicate banisters and a carved wheelhouse – and it seems there may not be many more new commissions. But Mandvi also possesses a glorious beach, 8 kilometres and almost unvisited, except for the funfair at the town end; and one of the best restaurants I ate in during my entire stay, the Osho.  (No choice at all; you get a thali. Which, of course, is in itself choice.) Fine old shipowners’ mansions, a long straggling market street, small town India at its best.
  • Madurai temple. The city of Madurai is unlovely, and hotel owners there might like to know that physical aggression in pursuit of tips is not a great way to get anyone to return… but the temple, a claustrophobic agglomeration of inhumanly huge corridors, dark halls, tiny gilded shrines, soaring towers, where chants echo and bells are ringing all the time, where every sculpture and every wall seems to be painted in violent, strident colours…  where you enter a twilit world of ritual… the temple is something else. It’s worth going for the entire day, participating in the life of the temple and its deities, slowly feeling it capture you.
  • Trichy. Not on anyone’s list – I was told it was the one place in Tamil Nadu I could miss out. Not for anything! Where else would I have seen one man chopping veg to feed two hundred hungry people at lunchtime, at the Rock Fort? Or seen the huge Srirangam temple, so huge it holds its own village inside it? All this, and a marvellous electronics bazaar where I could buy SD cards for three quid. I enjoyed Trichy. A very civilised place.
  • Tughluqabad – one of the past cities of Delhi, now the most atmospheric ruins, on a ridge above a few remaining scraps of plain and forest holding back the development of the Delhi exurbs. Cricketers use the plain in front of the huge mausoleum, striking with its stone the colour of congealed blood and its tapering walls, more a fortress than a tomb. The Red Fort is more photogenic, but Tughluqabad has a million times more atmosphere.
  • Bundi, Rajasthan. Here, yes, I do agree with the guidebooks. A delightful small town. Though the main road is full of tourist businesses, as soon as you wander off it, you’re in small town India – particularly in the market (wonderful Mahaveer kulfi centre!) Stepwells, paintings with an amazing bright turquoise I never saw anywhere else, palaces clinging to the rock… I loved it.
  • Amber. The best palace in Rajasthan bar none. And behind it, a village of fine havelis, soaring temples, cobbled streets.
  • Jaipur. Which Rough Guide says is busy and stressful and not worth staying more than a couple of days… I got into a nice rhythm. Morning; French toast and coffee at the Indian Coffee House, and a chat with my friend Mr Krishan the retired schoolteacher; then to Lassiwalla (the original, the one that doesn’t sell snacks as well, just lassi); then exploring, by foot – to Galta, Gaitor, Nahalgarh, or just wandering the alleys off Tripolia bazar, finding small temples of unparalleled grace, or tiny palaces with panels of fine painting. Or, on one occasion, an entire street taken over by huge steaming cauldrons over their cookfires, for a wedding. No, Jaipur is worth it – providing you are prepared for a long walk. It is big.
  • Pushkar. I didn’t like Pushkar. A fight broke out on the bus there, and I had to duck in my seat to avoid punches. The internet didn’t work. The hotel turned out to have vicious dogs (which weren’t vicious, according to the owner, but they still wanted to bite me). The next day I couldn’t find my way up to Gayatri temple, and when I did, I twisted my ankle on the way down. Brahma temple won’t let you in with a bag, and I’m not going to leave a grand’s worth of photographic equipment on a bench outside. So… and then suddenly, it started working its magic. I can’t explain. The unwonted honesty of stallholders (‘Madam, that is only glass, this is real stone. Madam, this is synthetic coral, you understand, real we are not having…’) The porridge at a little street stall, glinting with jewel-like pomegranate seeds. The chikku shakes. The ladies at Savitri temple singing bhajans, who laughed and joked and let me take their photos on the way down the steep path, and had broad hips and broad smiles.
  • Lodi Gardens, Delhi. I walked there down the long tree-lined streets of New Delhi, finally able to stride out after days in the crowded, twisting alleys of Old Delhi. There were games of cricket, and softball, and toddlers in Sunday best making their unsteady and very serious way across the lawns. There were courting couples holding hands in hidden arbours, and teenagers listening to radios. (You never see that in London any more; iPods have privatised music, it’s no longer a communal experience.) Old men reading the newspaper. And among all this, fine Mughal tombs, high domes and Persian style tiles and hidden staircases.
  • Sarkhej, Ahmedabad. At Nizamuddin, Delhi, and at Ajmer, I’d been disturbed by the feeling of the dargahs (Sufi shrines); madwomen at Nizamuddin clutching the screens, yelling at visitors, a feeling of downtrodden poverty and grabbing. But at Sarkhej, the shrine has a holiday feeling; kids playing with huge brightly coloured balls, women chatting in the dim dappled shade of the corridors round the mausoleum, pan puri stands outside (where I was bought one, and everyone shared a laugh when the pepperwater proved too hot for me). It’s a lovely place, despite the poverty of the local Muslim community – sidelined by the development of huge residential estates around Sarkhej.
  • Kumbakonam and Kanchipuram – the two best Tamil towns in my book. Kanchi may not have the amazing architecture of Mamallapuram, but it’s a much nicer place to stay; Kumbakonam is just cram-full of temples, all in use, all visitable, and again, it’s a great little town, part ancient city, part modern mall strip – real India. I have fond memories of both; not perhaps up there on the ‘extremely special’ list with Amber or Hampi, but very enjoyable and slightly off the beaten track.

Not that other days weren’t magnificent. Humayun’s tomb. The Gulbumgaz in Bijapur, a huge, looming dome; I went there at dawn and sang Hahn’s ‘A Cloris’ in the dim echoing space, and heard my voice return seconds later, darkened and enriched by the reverberation. The temples in Osian, near Jodhpur. The brigadier-type who hands out the audio guides in Meherengarh fort, and promises you ‘this will be, positively, I can guarantee, such an unforgettable experience for you, madam!’ (and he was right). The temples of Bhubaneshwar…. I could go on.

And then there are the places I wouldn’t bother with again. Tiruvannamalai, a grave disappointment; the volcano Arunachal that is unspectacular, the muddy, unprepossessing track around it, the perpetual demands for money… except that the ashram there has such a feeling of peace and softness; monkeys that don’t steal, dogs that don’t bark, a chance to sit in the stillness of the cave and meditate.  So that was a day that had its special moments, even though overall it was rather miserable.

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