Outside Context travel writing has been featured on some of the world’s top websites. Articles have been purchased by Airlines, featured in iPhone Apps, published as questions in degree level English examinations and comments have been posted by everyone from Lonely Planet writers to US Special Forces Lieutenant Colonels!
In the last of my series of films re-examining my output over the last 10 years, I present the definitive edition of my film celebrating my wife’s silver gilt award […]
The magic of the temples of Angkor are almost beyond imagination.
I met many people on my travels who have claimed to be “templed out” – tired of seeing one similar […]
After watching LOTR for the first time I started a long journey of the heart. The first steps were the reading of the book itself, now and forever with the […]
Endings are actually beginnings too. This is what I told myself as I sat in the tiny, oh so tiny, room in Osaka. It’s one of those glass half empty […]
I have written before about travellers wanting a point to it all, to travelling. In part this is perhaps seen as them wanting to justify the vast cost of travel; […]
Writing an article about Zen is almost a contradiction in terms. That is unless I simply leave the rest of it blank…
Just a finger, pointing to the moon… But, I don’t […]
4am in Tokyo, Japan trickled around and we were ready to go. We skipped breakfast and headed down to the famous Tsukiji Fish Market.
It opened at 5:30am and back then […]
“So,” said Cesca loudly and clearly, just as I was drinking from a water bottle, “What’s all this about China and Tiananmen Square?”
I almost did a spit take.
“Quiet!” I said […]
Everyone loves Pandas and at the Panda Conservation Centre near Chengdu, China is probably the best place to see them in the world.
Watching them reminded me of the Douglas Adams […]
At one point in our journey I actually advocated to Cesca that we skip China. That she didn’t listen, and talked me round, proves clearly that I don’t know everything and Cesca has some great ideas herself.
Oh, boy were my eyes going to be opened!
Entering the country via a large bus with lay down seats was fun. It rattled through the night towards the modern city of Guilin and the Li River.
Certain cities in the world are instantly recognisable from hundreds of classic movies that have been set there. No one could mistake Paris, New York or London on film, but for me the most recognisable city of them all is the great bay of Hong Kong. I grew up on a strict diet of Hong Kong movies: from Jackie Chan cop thrillers to John Woo gangster flicks. The Hong Kong cinema actor Chow Yun Fat was considered by my friends and I as the coolest guy in the universe, bar none, thanks to his incredible performances as Ken Gor and The God of Gamblers. With these memories, I felt like I knew the city off by heart even before I visited there. I had a mental map already in my head that included combinations of scenes from Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon and the, unintentionally, hilarious Jean Claude Van Dam 90’s action fest Double Impact. It was no doubt the sort of distorted mental map that everyone has when they have watched too many movies: all warped distances and colours. Larger than life could ever be.
I knew, of course, that reality would bring me down with a bump. Surely, no city could be exactly as it is portrayed in the movies?
I prepared to be disappointed.
Very little survives a man’s death. I have commented before that most of the “Great’s” from history did not write much down for themselves and Gandhi is no different. For while he did write many letters (all available online) he did this not because he wanted to leave lessons for you and I to follow or to build a movement around, but simply because he didn’t have a telephone. If you are looking for published books then you only have one to find; his autobiography “The Story of My Experiments with Truth”.
I have a copy of it, I picked up in Mumbai, and it is not what you might expect.
Delhi. Many people say they have “done” Delhi, but in all honesty they haven’t. They have perhaps done the tourist parts of New Delhi, or maybe spent some time in an Ashram there – which amounts to the same thing: a tourist experience. Delhi is so large to be beyond being “done” should you spend a lifetime there.
For one thing there are 16 million people living in Delhi and 249 thousand in New Delhi (the capital of the capital). This makes Delhi the 8th largest metropolis in the world (we will visit the largest towards the end of these journals), and once something gets that big you know that no two stories of visiting it will be the same. Each will be a “slice of life”, a “moment in time” and a “vision” of the city. Also, like other gigantic cities, it is more than possible to leave with a very un-favourable impression. Walk down the wrong street or pass by the wrong district in any major city and you may not come out the other side alive, but perhaps in Delhi of all these places are you risking coming out a different colour.
That is because coming here during the Hindu festival of Holi, white and vulnerable, must make you a serious paint target as if you are running the gauntlet of 16 million amateur Jackson Pollacks’. That’s what first went through my mind when we arrived on the train, our last train journey in India.
This is a “Special Edition” of my Hong Kong at night film.
The beautiful skyline of Hong Kong at night! Come with us through the brightly lit, and empty of people, Business District and then over the river to Kowloon Bay to look back. The buildings all come to life with colours and lights embedded in their structure that forms a fantastic light show. Finally we visit the vibrant and busy center of town and see some of the amazing flashing neon screens and lights around the streets thronged with people.
Hong Kong is one of the cities that inspired the look of the film Blade Runner and so I have set the film to the score- hope you like it!
Cesca left me snoozing in our room and went out to the roof top café/restaurant to take some photos of the city.
The city is blue, blue of the Brahmin caste we were told, but I can’t help wondering if there is another reason for its popular -nay ubiquitous-shade. I heard one rumour that it was due to the blue paint putting off the mosquitos. However, I am more inclined to believe it is to challenge the other brightly-coloured-city it is most often confused with (Jaipur, which is bright pink!) I leaned back on the bed and spied out of the window at the huge cliff-wall behind the hotel, and then up, up and eventually to the turrets of the Mehrangarh Fort high above.
It towered over the entire city of a million people, ever watching like a sleeping dragon turned to stone by some mighty magic, frozen with one eye open and brooding over its faded dominance.
The city’s name? Where else but Jodhpur: the blue city of India set amongst the stark landscape of the Thar Desert.
Udaipur is famous for many reasons. To those in the west it is mostly known for its gleaming white Jag Niwas hotel found in the middle of one of its many lakes. To the Indians themselves is it known as a home of the great Maharana family. To the travellers, who could never afford a night in such a famous hotel and are relegated to simply looking at it, Udaipur is mainly known for a very special ceremony involving unmarried women and coloured hats.
Udaipur was the first stop for us into Rajasthan. We had heard so much about this part of India and were looking forwards to our visit with relish. The historic capital of the former kingdom of Mewar in Rajputana Agency, Udaipur’s fierce independence had successfully led it into the modern world almost untouched. This is in part due to its mountainous region being unsuitable for heavily armoured Mughal horses; Udaipur remained unmolested from Mughal influence in spite of much pressure.
Ask a hundred people where in the world they would like to visit most of all and a significant percentage of them will say Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. Indeed there are tours (and we met a few people on such) that fly into Delhi, drive to Agra for a day and then drive back to fly out. That these people can claim to have experienced India is to some laughable.
But then they are probably not trying to, instead they are after a unique chance of visiting the worlds greatest monument to romantic love ever constructed. For that is what this strange tomb is; one man’s attempt to express his love and loss. Seen in that sense, flying half way across the world just to see the sun rise here is perhaps not so crazy after all.
Cesca and I arrived a different way, a much more down to earth way; by train. Agra was one of the few places that we had phoned ahead and booked. This is because Agra has quite a different reputation amongst backpackers; a deadly reputation.
Surrounding the great tomb is, what some might call, a shanty town. In the past it probably was, just a place for the Mountebanks, snake charmers and con artists to live when they weren’t begging outside the tomb proper. Then came the era of international tourism and the arrival of backpackers. I can hardly imagine what courage it took to backpack India in those first days. I get some of the stories from fifteen years ago when my sister-in-law was in the north of India. Back then, the population was tiny compared to now and everyone much poorer. Staying in the area around the Taj, called the Ganj, was probably taking your life in your hands even just from the point of view of the water quality (drawn directly from the great river flowing behind the Taj and very polluted). You may consider this an exaggeration, but even in our more modern times there has been deaths here. The story I was told was that there was a con being played, which went like this:
Many Indian cities are a jumble, a mix of the ancient and modern, but nowhere I have ever been compares in this regard to Varanasi. I come from a country, and from a city, which has a long history and many ancient sites of worship, but even the 1000 year old site of Saint Pauls in London pails next to the 3000 years of worship maintained here by the Vedic priesthood. Its mythical history goes even further back than this. The legend is that Varanasi was founded by none other than the Hindu deity Lord Shiva himself.
It is that this point that the average Westerner or British’er should try to forget everything that they have ever been taught in school regarding Hinduism.
When I was at school, Hinduism was brought up in Religious Education classes. Unfortunately, these classes forced all religions into the structure of Christianity in order to compare them. So, where in Christianity you have God, you had Shiva and under that you had, in place of Jesus, Krishna, and so on and so forth through the angels (the Deva), the priests (the Brahmans), the Bible (the Vedas) and the Kingdom of Heaven (Rebirth). The one thing is that it is clear from such a muddle is that the people who wrote the RE syllabus had little-to-no idea of Hinduism either. Placed into this twisted context it all looks a little crazy and no wonder as the Hindu faith isn’t like Christianity in almost every way possible. It is a totally different beast. In the first instance it is vital to realise that “Hinduism” is an umbrella term for a whole host of beliefs all interlocked only by their founding geography – that is they all come from India. Then you must realise that when we discuss the Hindu Cosmology we are not talking about a Celestial Hierarchy in the same way that we do in Christianity at all. I.E. with God at the top and you near the bottom just above the animals.
No, in Hinduism you are God.
There was only one time in our journey around India that I didn’t feel entirely safe, one moment where I thought to myself, “Ah, this is potentially a dangerous situation” and took measures accordingly. That was in my first hour in Varanasi.
We arrived on the train from Bodh Gaya relaxed and ready for more adventure.
It was a dark night and, unlike the Buddhist Centre, the large city of Varanasi was busy even at this time of year, so we joined the hordes at the station exit trying to find transport. The Tuk Tuk drivers descended on us travellers like raptors and the experience soon became a walk amongst shouting voices all vying for our attention. Over the top of the throng I could make out a government taxi ticket booth. These large booths sell fixed price tickets to people wanting transport into the city proper and are the only way to avoid being totally fleeced by the touts. It was only when I approached the counter and saw two policemen armed with sub machineguns standing behind the ticket seller that I started to get a feeling that this might not be the safest place. Indeed in my time in Varanasi I was to see more armed policemen than in all the other cities put together and I don’t mean with pistols, I mean with large rifles, assault rifles and Stirling sub machineguns. We bought a fare to our hotel at the far end of the strip running along the Ganges. It was a good price, slightly higher than one would want, but fixed – and that is worth paying a premium for. We jumped in the first Tuk Tuk, which had two men in the front, one driving and another along for the ride, and handed him our ticket. He immediately pulled off onto the road and started pootling along.
“Where do you want to go?” He asked with a thick accent placing a heavy emphasis on the ‘o’ in ‘go’ so it sounded like ‘Gohhh’
To the “Anami Lodge please.”
He shook his head, “No sir, that not good hotel.”
“Just take us there please.”
“Yes sir, but please this not a good hotel, very bad. I can show you a better hotel. It’s on the way no problem. You need a guide to the city?”
“No, we’re fine thanks.”
“Sir, please let me tell you, I am a government sponsored guide, I can show you the whole city for a fixed price.”
“Who are your inspirational hero’s?” I asked a friend.
“Dunno. King David, I guess, would be one.”
“Awesome answer,” I said impressed that he hadn’t picked a modern actor or, worse, a footballer.
“How about you?”
“My grandfather, Ghandi and the Buddha,” I said quickly.
“You’ve obviously thought about this!”
“Lots. My grandfather is easy; fighter-bomber pilot in the Second World War, boxing champion, and gentile but courageous Welshman. He died before I became old enough to truly know him, but I carry one of his service uniform buttons with me everywhere.”
“How about Ghandi? A bit pacifist for you?”
“Ghandi was anything but a pacifist. He was very strong and he used his strength, not of his body, but of his mind; his soul. His belief was in the Indian people and of leading by example. Not using violence was far more effective than using it.”
“And the Buddha?”
“I became a real fan of him when I visited Bodh Gaya and the ‘Tree of Enlightenment’…” I began.
Varkala is a very popular tourist destination with western travellers. Similar to Goa in many respects, it is a large beach front collection of Happy Bars and cheap hostels. Our taxi from the bus station tried ever so hard to force us to chose the hotel he wanted us to go to, to the point of demanding more money and following us to a cafe. As unsettling as that was, I felt safe in the western environment and only kept him in view as he sat menacingly opposite us. After he got bored and left, we ventured out and found some rooms.
Cesca and I chose a nice beach-hut style hostel, which was very pleasant. Gwenny found a room further along the cliff edge.
Varkala beachfront is sat atop a quite high cliff overlooking the beach itself. A narrow, and in some places, dangerous path runs along this cliff with the hordes of tourist shops, cafes and hostels all along one side.
Kerala the beautiful; the green of a million palm trees, the blue of warm waters. Kerala the red of the sun at set; its light rays refracted to a ruby colour that captivates the mind. Kerala the advanced; an Indian state with amazing reading levels, excellent English, vibrant and – for India – safe roads. Where people duck into little cafés to sample the regions amazing ice-creams. A maze of river inlets and quiet backwaters and small settlements filled to the brim with interesting people. Kerala that is an example to us all, showing that Indians can find a way of peace with East and West and that not all change has to leave people behind. Kerala the only state in the world that has elected a Marxist government; Kerala the communist.
Kerala the heat wave.
As we came down from the cool of the mountains of Ooty, on the famous Nilgiris – Mountain Railway, I couldn’t help but notice the creeping rise of the ambient temperature. It rose and continued to rise. Just when I thought it must surely stop, it didn’t. A few of the European people in the carriage exchanged looks and nervous laughter. One girl sitting near us had befriended us on the way down. This was Gwenny from Holland. I have remarked before that it is the people we have met that really matter in our travels, for they give you a chance to share your experiences, to laugh with someone who has been there and done it too – quite a different feeling than talking to someone back home about the journey. There it is “to”, on the road it is “with”. We had met many: Franco in Australia, Lenin and Bobbits in South East Asia and now Gwenny. We all hit it off immediately, not that we had much choice in talking to her as she talked incessantly to anyone who would listen and could keep it up for hours. As people with the same skills and the same open attitudes, I don’t think we stopped talking for the entire day. Or week.
Bangalore is a strange place because it is just like cities at home. Almost slap bang in the middle of India, it sits like a jigsaw piece put in the wrong box. To some, it is the epitome of the “two tier” society outsiders see when they look this country. But that is just in mean economic terms, and when you actually get here you soon realise that Western ideas of how society structures itself into two halves down purely how much cash is in your account is the worst of models. It just doesn’t work in India; there is another dimension to the whole thing, a special dimension of multi-layered religious and social tiers laying next to each other for a thousand years. Most of the time, India provides a refreshing change for visitors. How much money you have does not define you and your world.
And then you come to Bangalore…
The most common question I have been asked by people after returning home is, “which was your favourite country to visit?” For Cesca and I it has to be the majestic New Zealand. Not because it is terribly exotic. as everything is familiar (especially the road names), but rather because it is so much like you wish England could be. The lakes, the mountains, the rivers, the beaches. New Zealand has everything. The people have a real “get up and go” attitude that is infectious. They love their country, they also appear to know who they are and what they want. Living in such a culture is, and I hesitate to write this, idyllic.
Shame I don’t live there then!
Cesca and I have written many articles on the subject of New Zealand and also made a “love letter” of a short-film celebrating the country (found under “films” in the navigation bar). However, I have always wanted to do more to speak of our time driving around these islands.
Well, our wish has come true.
About a two weeks ago I was approached by a company working for Air New Zealand. They wanted to license all our content on New Zealand for use in the official Air New Zealand iPhone app!
I lay on my back and tried to relax. The sound of rolling waves crashed back and forth in the distance, which helped. However, the sun was beating down, heating the air and leaving me gasping like I had my head in an oven. It was also making the sand hot to the touch and the use of sandals more of a necessity than just a fashion statement.
I hadn’t worn shoes for 2 months. A new adult first, meaning that my feet were always dusty; the ever present Indian dirt and sand sticked to my toes. Every night I showered and a torrent of black washed off my feet. I turned onto my side and spied Cesca on the next sun lounger, she was taking in the sun by laying on her front, her bikini open at the back to allow a tan, but – since I had rubbed in some cream for her – no white line or burning. I reached to the table between us and took down my beer and my book. It was called The Master of Go, by Nobel Prize winning author Yasunari Kawabata.
Then my phone rang. It was my best friend Mark.
I thumbed the screen and the call connected, “Mark!” I exclaimed, genuinely please to hear from him, “It’s great to hear your voice. Where are you?” From over the connection I could hear what sounded like traffic and men talking; the sounds of London. The sounds of home.
“Heyya, I thought I would give you a call,” his voice was raised like he could not really hear me and was compensating by shouting; he must be at work on a building site, “I’m in a man hole at the moment sorting out foundations for a new tube station.”
“Wow,” I said, interested.
“Yeah, it’s for the Olympics and all that. Anyway, it’s cold, wet and horrible and I am down this smelly hole and I thought I could do with cheering up. Where are you?”
One of the unique things about India, and one that you never quite come to terms with, is the trains. I would even go as far as to say that if you could understand Indian trains, then you might well lay claim to being truly at home in India. For almost everything that there is to experience in this wild and beautiful country is capable of being experienced by rail.
You see all sorts of things just by walking into a station. They are often grand buildings left over from the British age of iron and function as hotel for thousands of homeless travelers of all types. They have some of the best and very worst toilets in the world, and for some over the edge of the platform is preferred. They are often smelly, frequently dirty and occasionally horrid. But, for every bad thing there exists a good to balance it out. Stations are packed with families playing together, sleeping and eating together. There is the bustle and fizz of people meeting, people departing from loved ones and people wishing they were on their way. The best bookshops I found in India were operated out of mobile stores. Almost anything you could want is for sale on these strips of concrete, and after hours on a train you will eat almost anything (no matter where it has been). They are amazing places, a sort of nexus point and a melting pot of cultures. The gaps between the high and low fade away on these platforms. They are to India what blackcabs are to London. Almost, but not quite, romantic.
People sleeping at a Station.
India has invested heavily in its trains, a trick they learned from the Victorians, and something we back home should consider carefully. Short of flying, trains remain the quintessential method of transport around India. The tracks are everywhere. All the major cities are linked, and most of the minor ones. In fact, we never struggled to find a train going anywhere we wanted to go, from the high tech city of Bengaluru (Bangalore) to the deep desert city of Jaisalmer.
We just struggled to get on one or two.
They are not slow either. For while a journey, say from Varanasi to Agra, takes place over one night, a simple look out of the window shows how the train is hammering out the miles at mind-meltingly fast speeds. It’s just the country is massive. Eventually, train transport became a welcome break for us. We would even plan our journey around it and use it as a “free nights’ accommodation”. For seeing into a heart of India, trains are your choice.
The November terrorist attacks on Mumbai was something we had worried about before landing in the city, but to look at the place it was as though they had never happened. In any city with such a varied and ethnic population, it had probably not fully been disseminated. Sometimes, I have wondered about the quick dissemination of news. Does it actually help or hinder? Is, in a very real sense, ignorance bliss? In India, of course, they are as used to terrorism as any Londoner. Terror was in at the birth of this nation, it was in the separation from Pakistan, it never leaves. I think perhaps that they have become numb to it.
This is what I thought as I sat at the table. Leopold’s cafe is a travellers legend. Not least of all because of the famous gangster novel, supposedly mostly true, called “Shantaram”. In that book, which I read in two days (a sure sign that I didn’t enjoy it), the main character is taken here by a local guide and it is here that he meets his friends for the first time. In my mind, I imagined something grander. Something with a “old empire” feel, like some of the journalist bars we had visited in places such as Cambodia. In fact, it is nothing of the sort. It is a cafe like a greasy spoon.
Albeit one with machine gun marks on the walls.
I flipped out my phone and called the hotel. We were waiting outside the Mumbai airport, it was late, dark and the pickup area was badly lit by the low lightbulbs common all over the country. There was a long line of waiting taxi drivers all holding placards, but none with my name on. They stood all silent, like the crowd in a Greek tragedy, watching our every move. As if, suddenly, we were about to remember who we really were and claim the name on one of their boards.
The phone connected and rang.
“Hello?” Came a voice, its strong India accent being the very first I had heard since landing.
“Hello, there. Basho here, I booked a pickup. Tell me, has our driver arrived at the airport?”
“Yes, he is there,” assured the voice.
“Great,” I looked around at the horde of drivers. “Whereabouts? I can’t see him.”
“15 minutes he will get there, he’s leaving now.”
15 minutes? I asked myself, “You said he was already here. Is he here?”
“Yes. He is there.”
“15 minutes, he will leave in a moment.”
I was beginning to get confused. “Leave? The hotel? But, is here actually here or not?”
“Yes, he is there.”
I must admit that a little incredulity crept into my voice, “So, you say he is here already, but he hasn’t left yet and will be here in 15 minutes?”
“Yes I call him and tell him to leave to come pick you up.”
“Thank you,” I said and I hung up.
Cesca came up to me, saw the confusion in my face and said, “Where is the driver?”
“He has yet to collapse as a waveform. He is both right here and yet also 15 minutes away.”
She furrowed her brow, Quantum jokes being lost on her, “What?”
“He has not yet achieved a Quantum state of 1.”
“Look, I’m tired, please make sense.”
**UPDATE – LOTS OF NEW IMAGES!*
Welcome back to the travel blogging. Our amazing, 12 month, around the world journey had so far taken us to the far side of the world, the jungles of South East Asia and now was to come our most incredible experience yet.
Now we had arrived in India.
Over the next few weeks, I will be presenting a number of article on the subject of our travels in this most exotic of countries. We explored almost every inch of it, from the cities, beaches, mountains, deserts, jungles and wet lands. Along the way we took in some of the most holy sights in the entire world, including Elora, The great Taj Mahal, Varanasi, Sarnath, the Bodhi Tree and even stood in the presence of the remains of the Great Lord Buddha himself.
It was 3 months to remember.
To kick us off, I have this article by none other than Cesca herself. This was her experience trying to find the Gandhi Museum hidden somewhere in Mumbai. This was our pilgrimage to Gandhi:
Many people speak of trekking in the north of Thailand, but such over-popular options are not the flavour we go for. Instead, we had read of tours starting from Bangkok that would combine the amazing jungles around the Burmese border with a trip to the Bridge on the River Kwai and the Death Railway.
Our trip started out with a small bus full of people. What would this be like? The trips we had been on in Vietnam had essentially disappointed.
No so this one!