Back on home turf, quite literally, I was moved to try and capture the springtime beauty of the apple blossom on the tree in my mum and dad’s back garden.
Himachal Pradesh was on my wishlist from February but the weather was just too cold to make the trip pleasurable until spring finally arrived halfway through April.
I kept seeing gorgeous photos on Instagram and eventually booked two sets of accommodation in the Tirthan Valley. It was still damp and rainy when we arrived but we had a wood burner and electric blankets in our room to turn the chill into cosy.
To reach Himachal Pradesh from West Bengal we took a taxi from Siliguri to Bagdogra, flew to Delhi then on to Chandigarh (both steaming hot), then hired a car and driver to drop us in the Tirthan Valley.
Flights from Delhi to Kullu Manali (Himachal Pradesh’s airport) are extremely expensive and unreliable due to the weather conditions, and while night buses from Delhi to Kullu are cheap, they take about 10 hours and don’t have proper sleeper berths (just reclining seats).
So that’s why we opted for the car and driver; door to door convenience, comfort and a reasonable price. Salman the driver loved the trip too, it was his first visit to Tirthan and he was mightily impressed by the phenomenal landscape.
A landscape which I found impossible to capture well in watercolour. I made one attempt which ended in frustration so I covered the mess with a collage and did a simple sketch on top. Life is too short to labour over landscapes when you can simply admire them.
Still with an eye on the weather in desirable destinations like Manali and Mcleodganj (the Dalai Lama’s base in India) at higher altitudes we decided to stay put in the Banjar region until we had to return to Delhi and then to London. Comfort won out over curiosity; a sign of age perhaps.
Himachal Pradesh is a fantastic place to finish my trip. The weather is gentle as are our generous hosts here in the Tirthan Valley.
I also found this epic book in our guesthouse and was immediately hooked.
India had been a profoundly wonderful and confusing experience, there were many points when I felt like I’d had enough but then something amazing would happen and I’d bounce back.
Arundhati Roy, perhaps as only an Indian woman can, weaves a beautiful tale entwining the tragic, seemingly eternal (and universally human) threads of sexism, racism, classism, religion, corruption, exploitation and violence in ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’. The book is mostly set in Kashmir and Delhi but encompasses the whole of India.
“They aren’t very good at other people’s pain. But then who is? … What we have on our hands is a species problem. None of us is exempt.”
A sad but funny and fascinating read and a great Indian history lesson.
Europe will undoubtedly seem pale after India but I will be happy to dress and express myself as I wish again without worrying that I’m offending anyone.
That’s a huge luxury, as is white privilege – being born in a relatively rich, secular and democratic country.
Himachal Pradesh is so beautiful in the springtime and the people of the Tirthan Valley are so warm, kind and hospitable. We climbed up a really big hill today; up a dirt track, stone steps, through flowery meadows full of butterflies, we passed a waterfall, a few slate roofed cottages and a tiny school. Near the top a dog started barking at us quite enthusiastically; his lovely family gave us a glass of cold cordial and invited us in to see the temple in their new wooden house. We had very few words in common but they worked.
Little sketchbook homage to the humble bidi (or beedi) a cheap but tasty India smoke. Basically it’s a leaf rolled around a tiny bit of tobacco, secured with a string. There was a bidi factory in Bundi, a beautiful town in Rajasthan that I visited in January. The bidies in the image above are painted, the rest is a collage of beautiful bidi packaging.
The inspiration for this watercolour portrait / food illustration actually originated in Kalimpong, West Bengal but since I completed the painting in Sikkim here it sits.
Of course our travel plans for Sikkim originated in Kalimpong too. While we were waiting for the unusually long winter to turn to spring we’d both finished reading PG Tenzing’s very entertaining account of his Royal Enfield motorcycle trip around India ‘Don’t Ask Any Old Bloke For Directions’. Rob wanted to go and see Gurudongmar Lake, the highest in the world – a sight which had moved Mr Tenzing to tears.
A bit of research into the permits required by foreigners wishing to explore Sikkim revealed that that would not be possible; the farthest north we were allowed, even with a restricted area permit, would be Zero Point – some 15km south of Gurudongmar.
Armed with warm coats, half a dozen passport photos each and the same number of passport and visa photocopies we left Kalimpong in a shared jeep (having purchased two seats apiece for the sake of comfort). We disembarked an hour or so later in Rangpo, the closest Sikkimese border town.
It took about half an hour to swap some photos and photocopies for an inner line permit which granted us permission to stay in Sikkim for two weeks.
Sikkim was an independent kingdom until 1975 when it became part of India. It is bordered by Nepal to the west and by Tibet to the North and East. China’s invasion of Tibet has made those borders extremely sensitive so access is carefully monitored.
We continued our journey from Rangpo to Gangtok, the Sikkimese capital, in another shared jeep; the vehicles were lined up and waiting for passengers in the market square, a short walk from the foreigner’s permit office.
No smoking, no spitting, no cows, no dogs, no littering. Such are the rules in Gangtok and the benefits are palpable. It’s the cleanest and calmest city we visited and seemed very well off too. Of course we disregarded the no smoking rule but only in secluded places.
We took the advice of the guesthouse owner and booked three tours; handing over all the remaining photos and photocopies to get the required permits. We explored the area around Gangtok on our first day, visiting the beautiful Rumtek and Chorten Buddhist monasteries, and the Banjhakri waterfall, which is touristy but lovely nevertheless.
The following day we took a six hour round trip with a driver and a guide to the frozen lake at Tsomgo. Complete with yaks, snow fall, stunning mountain views, a trip in a cable car and stops for steaming tea and momos – it was a glorious day out.
Our third tour was only three days and two nights long but it felt like an epic adventure. Again we had a driver and a guide (above centre) who made the six hour journey up to Lachung very comfortable. We made several stops to admire waterfalls, drink chai and make use of roadside toilet facilities – 5 rupees for a pee, 10 for a poo!
We passed through a couple of military checkpoints, each beside big army camps, where our permits were inspected and our details noted.
The Lanchung Valley is absolutely stunning; with little farm cottages nestled on plateaus between huge mountains above and cliff drop waterfalls down to the Teester River bellow…billowing clouds gave it a timeless, mystical air. Enchanting.
We stayed in a little wooden cabin with a balcony overlooking the valley (view above) and were provided with a very efficient heater and plentiful, simple food.
It was dusk and raining when we arrived (a delightful sound on a cabin roof) so the snow capped mountain view that greeted us at dawn was hugely exciting if not totally unexpected.
We were a bit surprised that we had to be supervised if we wanted to leave the property grounds, even for a stroll around the tiny village.
The following morning we took a trip as far up north as the recent avalanche allowed. Nature trumped our Yumthang Valley permit, the road was well and truly blocked and the clearance effort would take several days to open it again.
A friend looked up our location on Google Earth and sent it by WhatsApp…we may have been way out in the sticks but the telecommunications were 21st century!
We returned to Gangtok elated by the mountain views and took a few days rest before leaving Sikkim by jeep; handing in our permit at the Rangpo office before we re-entered West Bengal.
Next stop Kolkata, West Bengal (3 hour taxi from Khajuraho to Satna then 20 hours on the train to Howrah Station), which we approached with some trepidation.
For a huge city it was, however, a revelation: friendly, fairly relaxed, fairly clean, really beautiful and easy to negotiate on foot.
With cheap, delicious street food to boot; Kolkata is famous for kati rolls – egg dipped flat breads which are fried and rolled around the tasty filling of your choice.
We passed a few fun days wandering around the Park Street neighbourhood, exploring the city’s green spaces and crossing the Hooghly River by ferry.
Our next target destination was Darjeeling the famous tea town. I had a romantic idea of Darjeeling – quaint and charming, nestling up there in the Himalayan foothills and the opportunity to arrive there in the heritage ‘toy train’ was irresistible.
We flew to Bagdogra, spent the night in Siliguri and the next morning promptly arrived at New Jalpaiguri Station for the advertised 8:30am departure of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway service from the narrow gauge platform.
At least an hour late, the tiny engine pulled up with three little carriages in tow. It took at least another half hour for the engineers to prepare the train for the trip up the mountain.
The journey (scheduled to take seven hours in total) was indeed picturesque; the little train pluckily chugged upwards taking several fascinating ‘z reverses’ to accommodate the incline.
Then, 15km short of Darjeeling a piece of the engine fell off, the train stopped and it became apparent that we would have to make our own arrangements to finish the journey by road.
Luckily, at dusk, after an hour or so of flagging down vehicles with little or no space for hitchers the lovely man (second right) in the photo above pulled over. He breezily packed us and our new German friends and all our luggage into his warm, comfy car and expertly drove us the hour to town.
The first first thing that struck me was the cold. A see your breath in the house cold. A wear all your clothes in layers, in bed, cold. Luckily our homestay host provided a heater and hot water bottles and the view of Kangchenjunga from the balcony (at 6am before the clouds rose) was stunning.
The food was fabulous too, inspiring me to immortalise this delicious and typical Indian breakfast of puri sabji. The puri are fried flat breads which puff up and are chewy and crispy at the same time. Sabji or sabzi is the generic word for cooked vegetables, usually in some sort of gravy.
We met up with our new German friends in a local Tibetan style restaurant to reminisce about our toy train misadventure and feast on momo and wanton (both dumplings)…a meal so delicious I was again inspired to capture it in paint.
Of course we drank some excellent tea in Darjeeling too and took the obligatory tour around the Happy Valley tea factory. But Darjeeling is not the charming hill station town of my imagination; it has a few pretty parts but is generally damp and dank, congested with traffic which makes the air foul with fumes and suffers from cascades of rubbish dumped down its sprawling labyrinth of terraces.
We spent our last Darjeeling days at another homestay, the beautiful Little Singamari and were treated to yet more fantastic home cooking.
This is a fantasy amalgamation of my favourite dishes cooked by Ramila, our hostess.
We set off for a few days in Kolbong and stayed on an idyllic organic farm. The two hour jeep ride to reach the farm was a bit of a roller coaster ride, one local lady promptly threw up as soon as she exited the jeep at her stop.
Luckily the driver made a slight detour for us so that we didn’t have to drag our luggage up the last kilometre of track to the farm.
The weather was warmer, the air cleaner, all our food was home cooked, mostly homegrown and organic. Our hosts were delightful but could only accommodate us for a few days as they were busy with another project. It was hard to leave.
We decided to head for Kalimpong, a chilled out town with a similar climate to Kolbong where we could wait for the weather to warm up before we set off to explore higher altitudes without freezing.
We both succumbed to bugs, one respiratory and one gastrointestinal, nothing major but enough to make us grind to a halt. Luckily we were in safe, comfy accommodation with a nice view…a good place for rest and recuperation.
I was inspired by the gorgeously bright colours used to paint the murals in the prayer rooms at two of Kalimpong’s Buddhist monasteries when I made this portrait of Rob. I also love the way they include the cloud and flower motifs. Kalimpong is well known for its orchid nurseries hence my choice of flower.
I must admit that I was exhausted by the end of my stay in Hampi. Tired of the heat, tired of traveling alone and tired of the attention of strangers; getting shouted at from a distance and asked to pose for a selfie had lost its curious charm.
I also had a creeping nausea, mild upset stomach and complete lack of desire to sightsee or draw.
I guess you could call it ”travel fatigue” and I figured that I needed a safe and comfortable place in which to rest and wait for it to pass without losing heart or forcing the issue.
I decided to head for Bundi (Rajasthan) to catch up with the friend I’d made in Bikaner in November; to enjoy some honest conversation and easy company.
I got a sleeper bus from Hampi to Bengaluru (surprisingly comfortable) and spent a few hours relaxing at a suburban health food cafe (they even had a hammock for a nap) until it was time to head for the airport and fly to Jaipur.
Having spent a comfortable night in a hotel close to Jaipur airport I took a listless taxi tour of the main sites of the city before boarding the evening bus for Bundi.
The Bundi bus turned out to be a ‘fly by’; without warning the driver let me out (alone) on the highway at midnight with vague directions to try the nearby train station for onward transport into town.
As luck would have it there were two guys on the other side of the road; one waiting for the bus to Jaipur and the other (having dropped the first guy off) about to drive back to Bundi.
I rented a charming but basic room at a guest house converted from the old elephant stables right next to Garh palace. A comforting slide into a lax routine ensued: gently exploring the beautiful town and sharing street food snacks with my buddy. Such a relief not to have to watch my back and field questions all the time.
Bundi may be extraordinarily beautiful but it’s not spared the mountains of filth and litter that are ubiquitous in India. The culture of “drop it for someone else to deal with” is so at odds with the anti-litter campaigns we were subjected to in the UK during the 70’s that the sight of the rubbish never ceases to be shocking; especially so when it’s in a rural setting and / or it’s being consumed by cows.
I deliberately cropped the garbage out of countless otherwise stunning views but today I decided to make it a feature.
Taragarh Fort above Bundi is one of the oldest and largest in India; the uphill trek past the palace to reach it (the guide books recommend taking a stick to ward off potentially aggressive monkeys) is well worth the effort. You’re treated to feeling like an intrepid explorer as you step carefully through the unchecked undergrowth and gingerly tackle crumbling staircases to encounter deliciously dilapidated ancient wall paintings and ever elevated vantage points from which to gaze over the city. Bundi is much bluer than Jodhpur which is famed for its blueness.
Bundi also has an impressive number of step wells, many of which are in a good state of repair and free to visit. When the water table was higher they were filled with fresh water and people would descend the beautifully symmetrical steps which line their sides to collect it.
Around a week later, feeling refreshed (if no more motivated to draw) I set off for Delhi by overnight train. My mission was to pick up my travel companion for the second half of the trip.
The New Delhi metro is wonderfully clean and efficient and is easy enough to negotiate at 6am, even after a night on a train and with a map in Hindi (note the colours, count the stops).
The hotel tried to fob me off with a dark little room that stank of damp so I stepped out for breakfast to give them the time to come up with a better option, i.e. the room I’d actually booked.
It was then that I discovered that my travel bank account had been cleaned out by a card fraudster. Luckily I had a backup bank account; luckier still the first bank responded swiftly and refunded the stolen money within a couple of days.
My travel companion’s flight was delayed by 20 hours due to a bungled Aeroflot transfer in Moscow. I took the opportunity to sleep. We were both delighted and relieved when we finally did meet up at Indira Gandhi Airport.
We set off on the six hour drive to Rishikesh (Uttarakhand) the following morning in a cab with no driver’s side wing mirror and half a rear number plate. By the time we were clear of the Delhi smog we had full faith in the skills of Ashok, the man behind the wheel.
Several people had recommended Rishikesh as an unspoilt beauty spot which attracts chilled out travelers into yoga and meditation (neither of which we intended to do formally).
It didn’t disappoint. We enjoyed gentle hikes along the banks of the Ganges, good food and the evening spectacle of the Hindu temple rituals.
It was chilly however, so we opted to travel south when the time came to move on.
My friend from Bundi and Bikaner had also moved on – he was by now in Khajuraho, a town famed for its elaborately and erotically carved ancient temples and spring dance festival. We decided to pay him a visit and booked a rail route via Varanasi.
A note on train travel in India
The railway network is vast and runs well. Even journeys of 12+ hours can be very comfortable if you prepare properly.
Delays are notorious, so are hideous toilet stories but my experience with both has been thankfully mild (reek of urine excepted).
Wear modest, comfy clothes in layers, pack a book, water (they do sell it on board), fruit and snacks (they sell food on board too, but without seeing how it’s prepared I’m wary), toilet paper, hand sanitizer, a lock and chain for your luggage – security eases the mind. Also keep your valuables tucked in your pants at all times (except during inevitable and hopefully brief toilet visits).
The Indian Railways website is tricky to negotiate. I persevered long past my usual patience limit and managed to register myself as a user but couldn’t pay for the tickets I wanted because they don’t accept foreign credit / debit cards. Hmmm.
So I booked train tickets on third party websites, through hotels and travel agents and at train stations (make sure you know the train number and that you have your passport with you). This man (in seat 61) is an expert on Indian train travel.
Tickets sell out pretty fast on popular routes so it pays to book well in advance. There are slim allowances for last minute plans but the numbers of seats are limited and they cost extra. Tatkal tickets are released the day before travel at 10am and you need a sharp agent with good karma to catch one. Tourist quota tickets can only be booked at railway stations and are similarly limited.
First class carriages are divided into compartments with two or four berths and lockable doors; obviously these tickets are the most expensive. Not every train route runs with a first class carriage so it may not be an option.
Second and third class carriages with air-conditioning (2AC and 3AC) are both comfortable. They’re divided by curtains into compartments which contain four berths (in two tiers) and six berths (in three tiers) respectively. There are also two more berths on the other side of the corridor which runs the length of the carriage.
All AC sleeper berths come with cotton sheets (in a paper bag from the laundry), a pillow and a blanket. The aircon can be pretty harsh so socks and a hat may be useful too.
Book an upper berth if you’re traveling alone. It affords more privacy and you can still lie down during the daytime stretch of the journey if you want; it’s mandatory to share a lower berth as a bench seat with other travelers in the same compartment during the day.
The middle berths in 3AC are supported by chains and are folded back to the wall during the day to allow enough space for passengers to sit up on the the lower berth.
Standard sleeper carriages do without AC by having no glass in the windows. Passengers there are expected to bring their own bedding. Not for the faint hearted.
There’s something very comforting about settling into your berth for a night on the train. The relief that the train has turned up on the correct platform and that it’s leaving more or less on time gives a sweet glow…as does having a well stocked snack bag and pretty much nothing to do. Rock on.
For shorter ‘local’ journeys you can buy your ticket for a simple seat at the time of travel.
So, back to Varanasi…it was absolutely choked with traffic, filthy and weirdly religious to our secular western eyes. We lodged in a homestay with a balcony overlooking the neighbourhood wedding garden; two nights in a row we had front row seats for the fascinating festive goings on with an ear splitting sound track of Hindi pop hits and the waft of delicious feast smells.
From Varanasi we trained it to Satna and overnighted in the filthiest shit hole guesthouse I have so far encountered. Luckily for one night only as I couldn’t bring myself to brush my teeth in that bathroom or undress to sleep.
We skipped the complimentary breakfast and caught the morning bus to Khajuraho. A four hour bone rattling journey in a thundering old machine driven by a tiny man who expertly multi-tasked. Hooting the horn, spitting betel juice out the window, swerving to overtake slower vehicles and avoid dogs and cyclists.
There are astoundingly intricate stone carvings to be found on temples in all corners of Khajuraho. The most impressive cluster of temples is the Western Group; there’s a modest fee to enter the spotlessly clean and well manicured compound.
Khajuraho has the air of a town where the number of residents who want to make a buck from tourism exceeds the number of tourists needed to make the equation comfortable. So the hassle factor was pretty high.
We did have fun exploring, we ate well, we enjoyed the company of my buddy and his local friends with whom we played badminton and attended (yet) another wedding. We saw some delightful classical dance performances and both suffered mercifully short bouts of d&v (unconnected).
My sketching mojo returned one day while I was wandering about the outskirts of town. A modest doodle but a relief nevertheless.
The day before we left Khajuraho we went to Rajnagar to eat a delicious lunch at the family home of a lovely young man who worked at our hotel, he also showed us around the gorgeous ruined fort there. Lovely.
So the day I set off for Hampi I see this on Instagram! It’s going to be worth the effort…
An early morning taxi from Varkala to Trivandrum, two domestic flights: Trivandrum – Chennai – Hubli, another taxi from Hubli airport to Hubli Junction railway station, a train to Hospet, a tuk-tuk to my guesthouse, an overnight break and then a local bus from Hospet to Hampi!
And Hampi (this link can explain the history better than I can) proves to be a delicious and mind bending mix of surreal geological accidents and logic defying Flintstone style construction.
Of course with my meticulous research (not) I was well aware (not) that the day of my arrival coincided with the Makar Sankranti festival so the bus from Hospet was packed to the gills and Hampi was swarming with visitors.
Here are a couple of pen and wash sketches…impossible to capture the mad grandeur of the landscape but fun trying.
The site is vast and I’m staying in a guest house (Funky Monkey – friendly, nice food and music, bathroom prone to flooding through the ceiling a couple of times a day but no drama), which is in a sort of shantytown in the centre.
I’ve taken to rising just after dawn (6:30ish) and going out for a wander in ever increasing circles then returning for breakfast a few hours later. That way I have the place virtually to myself and it’s fairly cool.
This morning I got up a bit earlier and since I was fully covered decided to visit the imposing Vishna temple next to the guest house. I left my shoes at the entrance and didn’t take any photos inside.
A friendly man showed me around, with the unspoken agreement that I would pay him at the end of the tour. He took me to the inner shrines, demonstrated a 700 year old camera obscura which projects an image of the huge tower (top left and bottom right in the photos above) onto an interior wall at sunrise, pointed out some stone carvings of Vishna in his various animal forms and some others which were frankly pornographic (unexpected, given the sacred nature of the site and the Hindu’s prudish attitude towards sex).
Just inside the entrance, to one side there was an elephant chained by his feet to the floor. His face and ears were painted with the red, yellow and white markings of the blessed. As I went in I noticed him pacing, as far as the chains would allow, in a rhythmic way reminiscent of a depressed person rocking. On my way out I saw two women offering him food, he knocked them to the ground with his enormous trunk. Shaken, they got to their feet with a laugh and left. Another woman sat to the side and spoke to elephant; I think she asked why he was so angry. Aptly he threw rubbish at her. I’d be well pissed off under similar circumstances but in the absence of industrial strength chain cutters and a PETA intervention order I left the sad scene.
On my first day in Hampi I’d noticed some people on the top of a huge crop of rocks but, tired and disoriented I wasn’t able to find the way up.
This morning, quite by accident I stumbled (not literally, I am quite sure footed for an old bird) upon the stone staircase around the back of the rocky mountain. I scaled it…admittedly not without misgivings, bouts of gentle vertigo and a few rest stops…
But the view! And the sense of calm…and achievement…and awe at the vast beauty of the landscape juxtaposed with the crumbling buildings. I’m so happy to share that view with the squirrels, birds and lizards.
Luckily I found an easier way down, although I did shuffle part of the way on my bum.
So I’m quite chuffed at this point, imagining the delicious breakfast I’m going to have when I get back to the guesthouse…when a cheeky monkey bounds over and robs me of the bag of bananas I’ve been carrying since I left the first temple. No way I’m arguing with him, ha!
There are centuries worth of stone carvings at Hampi; some of them crude and some so skillfully intricate it boggles the mind. Obviously the surviving carvings exist in various states of dilapidation and most are fully accessible to examine at close range with eyes and fingers.
I saw many, many examples of the woman above, all unique. I love the way her arms are entwined with the stone archway so I decided to paint a version of her.
I headed south to Kerala from Rajasthan on 23rd December via three connecting Jet Airways flights: Jodhpur, Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Cochin then I got a bus from Cochin airport to Fort Kochi. The whole trip took about 16 hours and was pretty smooth but also pretty exhausting. In retrospect I could have perhaps split it up.
I had been hoping to avoid Christmas as I thought that the only Christian stronghold in India was Goa. It turns out that a significant number of Keralans are Christians (a leftover from the Portuguese, Dutch and British invasions) so I was greeted by plenty of Santas, Christmas decorations and nativity scenes.
I lodged at Casa Feliz homestay with a very sweet family and enjoyed a huge and delicious homecooked Kerala style breakfast every morning.
I met up with some lovely friends in Fort Kochi on Boxing Day and we spent a few days and evenings exploring the impressive exhibitions of the biennale art festival and eating well. (It was strange to see so much meat and fish on the menus after largely vegetarian Rajasthan and I didn’t fancy it at all).
We even took a cookery class! Delicious, fun and interesting…it really took the mystery out of Indian cooking.
We learned how to make tomato masala curry, carrot and beetroot thoran (spiced, no sauce), dal fry (my personal favourite), coconut rice with dried fruit and nuts, and chapati – the dough is simple enough but getting them rolled out round is a different matter!
The humidity and sultry nights were a bit of a shock to my system after the dry heat and cool nights of Rajasthan so I was relieved to take a tour to the hill station of Munnar to look at the glorious tea plantations.
I found a room with a mountain view (lower right) in which to sleep deeply and wake refreshed on New Years Day.
The scenery was absolutely stunning and I regretted slightly not taking more time to explore on foot.
My next stop was Alleppey (two hours by bus) where I stayed in the lovely Kalappura Homestay and planned to take a boat trip along the famed Keralan backwaters.
But that day a general strike was called in Kerala by Hindus insulted at the supreme court decision to allow women entry to the temple of a ‘virgin’ male god as part of gender equality laws.
Alleppey was deserted…no tuk-tuks, no buses, no boat trips, no shops, stalls or restaurants. The Kalappura Homestay people made us a delicious breakfast and then I took advantage of the lull and made a sketch by the canal.
It was later explained to me that the right wing BJP, who have an overall majority in the national parliament of India, want to undermine the Communist party which has a majority in the state of Kerala. The BJP is escalating unrest in the Hindu community over the supreme court decision and inciting the Hindus to protest more aggressively. During protests about 150km from Alleppey one man died and 45 buses were destroyed.
They do say thay you should never discuss religion and politics and in India (and almost every where else) the two are entwined with a deeply patriarchal class system but I do wonder if tradition is the enemy of evolution.
I recently saw this on a tee shirt: “God has no religion” – Mahatma Gandhi.
The following day dawned peacefully…
…and the backwaters tour was on!
We caught the ferry from the main canal in Alleppey (about 5 minutes walk from the Homestay) and headed out to a village about 40 minutes away where a lovely family fed us a traditional Keralan breakfast of creamy potato curry and coconut. Then we boarded a kayak and explored the beautiful, peaceful side canals…watching the daily life of the locals play out on the banks.
One of the kayak boatmen told me that his house had been completely destroyed in the floods of 2018 and that it would be about 10 years before he could afford to rebuild it. In the meantime he was staying in one room at his family’s home.
We saw men repairing the flood damaged walls of the canals and the wreckage of ruined houses just beyond. The main industry in the backwaters villages is agriculture; there are huge rice paddies, fishing and tourism are secondary.
After four hours of gentle paddling (hard work for the oarsman nevertheless) we ate a fine thali lunch where we’d had breakfast and caught the ferry back to Alleppey.
Jose the Kalappura Homestay host met us and whisked me off to the railway station on the back of his Royal Enfield in good time to catch the train to Varkala (a 2+ hour trip which cost less than 60p).
The Royal Enfield 350 Bullet motorcycle is a design classic, a truly beautiful machine with a distinctive rumbling ‘dugger-dugger-dug’ engine sound. It has the longest unchanged production run (in IndiaI since 1948) of any motorcycle and was originally made in Redditch Worcestershire from 1931. The bikes are now manufactured in Chennai (previously known as Madras) and particularly ubiquitous in Kerala.
Bathing in the Arabian Sea at Papanasam beach Varkala is said to wash away the sins. It certainly feels like a blessing to be here – so relaxed – I extended my stay by a week.
Jodhpur is huge compared to Jaisalmer but it feels much more relaxed; probably because most of its people seem pretty disinterested in tourists. It’s a relief after the near constant solicitations to ‘let me help you spend your money’. The kids are pretty keen to ask your name and tell you that their hobby is collecting foreign coins…hmmm.
I went on a guided walk from the Moustache hostel (friendly staff, nice room, great common areas, lovely rooftop restaurant) to the blue part of the city yesterday afternoon, it was deliciously decrepit.
We watched the sun set then headed back through the old market, some parts of which (the old communal kitchen above) outdate the 600 year old fort.
Apparently these gods of sex can be invoked to improve fertility by placing appropriate fruit offerings in their orifices (an apple for the lady and a banana or cucumber for the man).
They’re conveniently situated next to a fruit and veg stall…I bought bananas but I kept them to myself!
I came across this man posing as a stall holder in the market today!
Here’s a street sketch I made over a couple of sessions. I attracted much interest from stall holders and passers by alike; especially children making it a little tricky to concentrate at times!
The steep hike up to the Mehrangarh Fort, which looms over the city is rewarded with stunning views. The huge and beautifully preserved monument boasts an excellent museum, a couple of temples and a garden. Well worth the entry fee (six quid).
About half a kilometre’s gentle walk from the fort is the serene and beautiful cenotaph, Jaswant Thada – a gorgeous spot to while away the late afternoon.
The oldest part of Jodhpur is famous for its blue facades. It was originally inhabited by Brahmins who considered blue a sacred colour. Nowadays the number of indigo buildings is slowly diminishing as people opt to show their wealth and modernity by cladding their houses in tiles or painting them in different hues.
I chose to do a Workaway at a hostel in Jaisalmar because I wanted to go on a desert safari and the hostel owner said he wanted some help to decorate the rooftop terrace (along with some basic IT tasks).
When I got here it was apparent that many people had already contributed to the roof terrace decoration…some in a lovely way, some in quite a haphazard way!
So, my exclusive rights to the wall space scuppered I set about capturing the beautiful view (above) of the fort while planning my strategy for mural painting in limited areas amongst a hotch-potch of other images.
I decided on a stencil with the .most obvious theme for a desert safari hostel – the camel.
I found a craft knife and the lid of a photocopy paper box in the market by the fort and set about preparing my template.
Having painted several camels, a bit of red shading and yellow highlighting I added a border inspired by a Rajasthani folk art design.
I did go on a camel safari, it was tremendous fun if a little hard on the thighs. Even though we didn’t venture very deep into the Thar desert the peace and vastness of the landscape were still impressive. We had chai on the dunes while watching the sunset, then ate dinner around a campfire before settling down to sleep under the stars. Gorgeous.
While wandering around Jaisalmar old town I was struck by the number of Ganeshes painted on the houses.
Then someone told me that since Ganesh is the Hindu god that removes obstacles and blesses new starts the people get him painted on their houses every time there’s a wedding. In fact the paintings serve as a kind of invitation since they contain the names, date and location of the union. Ah-ha!
I had a go at a Ganesh…
Then I got invited to a wedding! I went up to the fort for a massage, my second in a week since hard beds, overnight travel and painting have taken their toll on my middleaged bones. There’s a team of sisters who offer Ayurvedic loveliness in their home but the house was very busy when I got there so I expected to be turned away. One of the sisters explained that they were preparing for her niece’s nuptials and I got my massage and an invitation to the part of the wedding ceremony which would take place two days later.
And it was a delightfully colourful evening – the whole marriage ceremony takes place over several days and nights and costs the bride’s family an absolute fortune. There were saris of every hue, mountains of delicious food being cooked and consumed (the bride’s family aren’t allowed to eat though) and a cocophany of drums and firecrackers when the groom finally arrived at midnight. He strode moodily to the stage at the front of the main room at the ashram and sat on a sofa.
The bride, who was hidden in a back room for most of the evening then walked to the stage under a kind of awning. The groom appeared to ignore her completely for a good long while. I left the party at that point.
I saw the bride’s brother a couple of days later. He said his whole family were exhausted after the extensive marriage ceremony – the final part of which lasted through the night. They were also grieving the loss of the their sister / daughter / niece from the household but grateful that at least she still lived in Jaisalmer. He added that he had already started saving up for the eventual wedding of his eight year old daughter.
Jaisalmer has a frontier town feel – it’s close to the border with Pakistan and there were several days when there were fighter jets roaring overhead (Indian government posturing I was told). It’s certainly the most ‘male’ place I have stayed in so far. There were a few women with jewelry and vegetable stalls in the market and a few women street cleaners but their presence was mainly domestic and behind closed doors.
There were no female staff at the hostel and while I was mostly treated with kindness and respect there were times when I had to robustly defend my boundaries around personal space. I did it with as much patience and good humour as I could muster.
There is definitely an advantage to sticking around in one place for a bit longer than is usual on the backpacker trail. Taking time to talk with local people and other travelers creates deeper connections and insights.
I met a splendid fellow from Spain who went to the wedding with me, then the following evening I joined him for dinner at the home of a delightful local couple who have a shop. They were all so sweet and generous and the food was the best I’ve had in India.
To add to the excitement there was an election for the legislative assembly of Rajasthan on the 7th of December. The election takes place every five years and this one was eagerly anticipated because the people were generally bitterly disappointed by the broken promises of Modi and the right wing BJP who won in 2013.
The BJP is India’s largest political party in terms of representation in the national parliament.
Campaigning for the centre left Congress party (INC) which is associated with the Gandhi family was enthusiastically underway while I was still in Bikaner and in Pushkar there were reminders to vote spray painted on the lakeside ghats.
It took four days for the votes to be counted and when Congress was declared the winner on the 11th of December there were fireworks, drumming, chanting and cheering well into the night.
I only intended to stay in Bikaner for two days, just to visit the famous Karni Mata rat temple in nearby Deshnoke (weird I know, but I’m a rodent fan).
I painted the little pen and wash study below from a photo I took at the temple.
Then I met a guy who offered me free bed and board in exchange for some painting work at the hostel he’s renovating so I stayed an extra three days, and had a lot of fun.
I painted the frames around the doorways and windows behind my hostel buddies in the photo above, and below here’s me finishing off the stripes.
That’s Auntie Gee in the background, she owns the place, directs the workers and delivers chai.
Bikaner is beautiful in a dusty way and largely unspoilt by tourism. There are a number of guesthouses in huge hawelis in the old town which is where I stayed at the start of my visit. Then I moved downtown and took a lovely walk to the market most nights to eat street food near the stunning Bhandasar Jain Temple.