A quick sketch of IJmuiden Port from Forteiland.
A quick sketch of IJmuiden Port from Forteiland.
A quick sketch of IJmuiden Port from Forteiland.
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.
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.
Pushkar has been wonderful; a strange and delightful mix of the spiritual and the decadent with a bit of filth and hassle thrown in for good measure.
Don’t touch the flowers that are offered down by the ghats (sacred lakeside bathing areas)- you’ll get dragged into a lakeside blessing ceremony and charged well for the honour.
I sat in the doorway with some kind young musicians while I sketched this little market stall. They insisted that I showed the greengrocer the painting afterwards. He loved it.
Unknowingly I arrived in Pushkar during the most sacred week of the Hindu calendar, which coincided with the famous camel fair.
The streets were full of pilgrims from all over India and beyond. I met an Argentinian Hindu who was staying at the same hotel and he explained a bit about the bathing rituals and took me to a couple of temples.
Photography is strictly prohibited at the lakeside so I thought I’d sketch the scene instead.
The photography ban didn’t stop me being asked to pose for a couple of pictures!
In Udaipur I met a lovely young camel expert from New Zealand who spoke so passionately about the camel fair that I decided to visit. When I arrived in Pushkar I met up with her again and spent a very interesting hour or so meeting the camels. They’re surprisingly sweet and dignified.
Inspired, I drew the camel above, the circle is a design based on the ornaments the camels are dressed with.
I then painted this version on the hotel wall before I left.
The annual moustache competition was a hilarious highlight of the camel fair – Rajasthanis are certainly blessed in the hair department!
I got to the train station in New Delhi early with the intention to draw. It was a little overwhelming but a kind man insisted that I sit on his blanket with him and his son which made drawing more comfortable. My train to Udaipur left bang on time at 7pm and I had a good 12 hour journey in a bunked sleeping compartment.
This is the view across Lake Pichola from the roof of the Moustache Hostel in Udaipur. Rajasthanis have famously luxurious facial hair, hence the name of the hostel.
The hostel had lots of wallpaintings left by many guests so I offered them some cockerels…
They then asked me to paint something in the space above the birds so I drew a design in my sketchbook inspired by a beautiful cow I’d seen on my first morning walk through the city.
Painting in the reception area was a great way to meet people, and the cow and cockerels got a very warm welcome.
Here’s a pen and watercolour sketch I made at a little Hanuman temple in the street. The lady selling flowers next door kindly lent me a stool to sit on while I drew.
This is Yogesh, one of the Moustache Hostel team. He asked me to draw his portrait so I worked in pencil from a photo.
And here’s a quick pen sketch I made of a lady wearing a sari while she sat in a lakeside café. I’m sure she twigged that I was drawing her, she didn’t seem to mind but she did leave before I had a chance to add colour.
All in all a very enjoyable and creative first week here in India. I’m leaving the Moustache Hostel today to go and spend a few days with an Indian family here in Udaipur.