Tag Archive: Beauty


Ljuvelj Ljubljana

My mum says that we sound grumpy and ready to come home, and while she is right about the second part, we have been having a rather lovely and relaxed time for the past two weeks. Some might even call it a holiday… I have been working on an alternative format for the blogs about our time at Sega – its a house and garden, not a game console – so as soon as we have the opportunity we will upload these.

But first, Ljubljana. Josh had been here before, and given that it rained for the entire time, he had not had such a great experience. However, our joint perspective on the place when we visited a week ago was very different. It is now one of Josh’s favourite towns from the trip. When the sun is shining, you can truly appreciate its beauty. So much of the centre is accompanied by river, so there are a lot of chilled out spaces. Quaint yet also active, there is a studenty buzz about the place.

The fort is a strange mixture, unlike any other town ’castle’ we’ve visited. While it was renovated in a kind of dodgy nineties cafe-style and so the actual fort itself is odd, it is used as a space to exhibit local artists. This means that it hasn’t been turned into a tourist attraction for the sake of old forts, but a living space filled with creative opportunity. The comments book in one of the exhibits was rammed with angry statements from shocked tourists who couldn’t understand why there were quite graphic pictures – painted by two people simultaneously, dancing around one another – with skulls and innards etc, inside the Ljubljana Castle. ’It tells me nothing about the city or its history’, complained one. But that’s what makes it different, as the fort is also used as a place to demonstrate the present. And we thought the paintings were kind of cool.

One thing it is not worth visiting if you’re headed to the city is the ’Labyrinth of Art’ – ignore the enthusiastic write-ups in various guide books and the In Your Pocket, as maybe in 20 years’ time it will be worth it. Not now. The plan is to have a maze of trees, with benches throughout so that people can make their way to the centre where there is a reading space, thus celebrating nature, reading, and ’walking as art’. Perhaps such a pretentious aim as the last should have put us off, but I was curious so we ditched the stupid Ljubljana public transport system (you have to buy a 2 euro travel card to then pay for an 80 cent trip, it was rather ridiculous, why not allow people to buy a ticket on the bus?) in favour of walking there. This was a mistake. We had not realised that the trees are newly planted and therefore tiny! You can walk straight between the saplings to the centre. Not very exciting. So, not recommended. Maybe in 2030 it will be a different story.

Our CouchSurfing hosts showed us some much more interesting parts of the city and its surroundings, though. Metelkova is an old army barracks that was squatted after the war – it houses gig spots, bars and a hostel in a converted prison, so during the day it is a hangout for the ’alternative’ types of Ljubljana, and in the evening it continues in this role, gaining live music, club nights and more drinking.

One afternoon one of our CouchHosts and us bundled into the car and drove to Velika Planina, a plateau near to the city, where we walked amongst wooden huts housing cowherds and appreciated the fantastic views over Slovenia. We also sampled borovnica, a sort of Slovenian blueberry schnapps – sweet and tasty.

We were only there for three nights, so there isn’t much more to add – we will update you on our further adventures into WWOOFing in Slovenia when we next get a chance.

Advertisements

Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik! “A place that will be at the front your memory for weeks to come”. Dubrovnik! “The pearl of the Adriatic’. One of the most prominent tourist destinations on the Adriatic, one of the many astonishing places on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites… Having read so much about how its dazzling streets would remain in our memories for days to come, we had very high expectations when we eventually arrived. “Eventually” as in it turns out that outside of Turkey, the shortest hitches have become the hardest.

Dubrovnik is lovely, but we have to say, not really up to all the hype. The main problem with the town, in fact, is all the hype. Foreigners (of the moneyed type) are increasingly buying up the Old Town, and while some locals do still live there, the area is clearly tourist orientated. Rather, “tourist-oriented” is an understatement. Everything in the Old Town is focused around tourists – the sights, the restaurants, the pizza slices, everything has a tourist-oriented price tag, and there are hundreds of tourists there ready to buy. So while the place, with its marble streets and tiny back alleys certainly has a charm, you have to muster the ability to see past a lot of stuff to really appreciate it.

We only had one full day there, which is probably enough, and spent the first half on a pebble beach to avoid the height of the daily guided-tourist influx. Similarly to Montenegro, cruise liners seem to think it’s their right to take up the bay and so instead of having a view of the islands, we had a view of eurgh. When you swam, you could even hear the noise of the monstrosity. On the plus side, it was some of the clearest water that Lucie has ever swum in, and she was thrilled when the fish came to dart around in the water next to her.

Split

On the other hand Split, the second largest city in Croatia, exceeded all of our expectations. It is a very lived-in city unlike Dubrovnik which is much more of a holidayed-in city, with an almost perfect old town and vibrant marketplace. One afternoon we took a free walking tour around the Diocletian Palace. The enormous palace is the retirement pad for “one the most legendry Roman emperors” (that’s what the guide claims), Diocletian, who has a rags to riches story. Never destined for more than farming, he managed to claw his way through the ranks to General, and one day was appointed emperor. That’s the story anyway. The longer version has boars and prophecies and hand-to-hand combat, as you would expect from this sort of life story… He was also the first emperor to retire from emper-ing.

One of the answers for why a retired emperor needed such a fortified palace (the complex has a huge wall surrounding it on all sides), is that he was harbouring one of the first textile factories in Europe. As the palace was situated a little south of Salona, which was one of the Roman’s largest and most fortified cities, Split was very well protected, which is one reason why so much of it still stands. Another reason for this is that Diocletian was scared of earthquakes and so ordered that the walls be built in a way which allowed the rocks to move slightly in the case of tremors. This left the palace much better off than the Old Town in Dubrovnik, which was almost entirely wiped out by the 1667 earthquake, one of the worst to date since records began.

In fact, Split remained pretty well protected throughout its earlyish history. Following the decline of the Romans, the Avars and Slavs (or “barbarians”, as our guide called them) attempted to lay claim to it having conquered Salona. However, because of the handy sea by which supplies could enter the town, the attackers were unable to starve the residents into submission as they had elsewhere. So they made Split an offer it couldn’t refuse. Officially, it would be part of their empire, but they would have autonomy. So Split was protected both by the declining Romans and by this new power, yet they had autonomy from both.

It turns out that Diocletian also had a thing against Christians, primarily as he saw himself as a god and they didn’t. He therefore murdered thousands of them – more than any other emperor. After his death, the Christians came to power in the area and got their revenge the only way they could – by turning Diocletian’s mausoleum into a church. Burn. They also destroyed as many artifacts documenting his existence as they possibily could to attempt to erase him from history.

Our guide seemed more interested in the Romans than really any other period, so every other period was much briefer, and the 20th Century was basically covered in a couple of sentences – “and then Yugoslavia…”.

The rest of our time in Split was very similar to that of Kotor and Dubrovnik. Sun, sea, walking and eating great lunches sourced from the local market. We also went to Trogir where we did exactly the same…

Zagreb

Maybe it’s just the fact that we are, by now, kind of tired of sight-seeing and trying to find the interesting parts of otherwise uneventful or uninspiring places, but Zagreb is probably the most boring capital we’ve been to on this trip (other than Pristina which we are trying to forget about). It has lots of galleries, but you have to pay for all of them; plus our CouchHost’s partner was a curator and thus clued-up on this sort of thing, and she had no suggestions to make for us while we were there. Our plan to walk up the mini mountain near the city was thwarted by the weather, so we ended up going to see Pirates of the Carribean 4 in 3D(!), which was truly terrible, following this with a mediocre gypsy swing gig and drinking mediocre croatian beer. Croatia isn’t famous for its beer. Now we know why.

It’s as if, as we left Kosovo behind, we cut loose the black cloud that had been metaphorically and literally following us. So we had gone from Bosnia to Serbia to Kosovo in four days, and on the fifth we headed to Albania. Being in Albania was probably the closest thing to being back in India since we left, in terms of how we were treated as travellers there. When we stopped to ask whether the road we were on was the right one towards our destination, we were suddenly surrounded by an entire circle of curious men and boys – people were attempting to be helpful of course, but in a way where it’s really not providing much help… Hitch-hiking doesn’t seem to be understood, either, and so everyone who stopped for us would ask for some money – one man suggested 100 dollars to go about 100km. We said we would catch the bus! The roads were the next and completely contradictory bizzarerie – absolutely pristine. After the shoddy state of Kosovo’s roads, which were in desperate need of some additional tarmac, these were even more surprising. Holes have been blown in mountains and perfect asphalt has been laid, yet there are almost no cars to traverse it…

We headed to Lake Skodra, half of which belongs to Montenegro – we aren’t sure if there is a borderline down the middle…We spent some time enjoying the lack of stress while gazing out over the city and lake from one of Albania’s many famous castles.

The following morning, we headed off to Montenegro – our 5th country in 6 days. Hitching provided some of the most scenic spots we’ve held a cardboard sign at so far.

Unfortunately we lost patience with hitching after 3 lifts in lots of hours not really taking us very far at all, and we caught a bus for the final leg of the way to Kotor.

Kotor has a magnificent Old Town right next to a beautiful Bay. The crap side of this is that abominably enormous cruise liners land their humungous selves in the Bay in the mid-morning, spewing hundreds of organised tourists into Kotor’s tiny alleyways, as well as trashing the view in the Bay. If you can bring yourself to ignore the latter, you can take yourself off to a ‘concrete swimming platform’ for a few hours. This sounds grim, but is in actual fact quite pleasurable, and the only way to lie next to the bay and swim.

During the day the fortifications cost however much, but once night falls they are free to climb, so after dark we went up the 1350 stairs, shielding our eyes from the flood-lights. The view over the town and bay was worth every step.

We basically spent these fews days relaxing and enjoying the sunshine which finally decided to show its face.

With Marija’s enthusiastic streak for hitch-hiking running through us, we decided to head from Novi Sad to Sarajevo by thumb. Five hitches in, we were only 50km away from our starting point – not good. That’s not even ‘not a good start’, that’s just not good. Luckily, as has occasionally been the case on our trip, we got lucky just when things were looking really crap. We got a lift all the way to Sarajevo, or so we thought. A few hours in, they suggested we take a ‘thirty minute detour’ to Srebrenica. Thirty minutes turned into five hours. Literally. We got so lost at one point that the driver had to genuinely ask the border guard whether we were entering Bosnia or Serbia… Nonetheless, the detour was worth arriving somewhat later than expected.

Before we arrived in Srebrenica, our knowledge about what happened there was severely limited and while that is still the case, we now know a little more. Srebrenica and the area around it is the site of the largest mass murder in Europe since WWII, and one of the UN’s notorious failures. The civilian Muslim community at Srebrenica, fearing ethnic cleansing by Bosnian Serbs, fled their homes and sought refuge at the nearby UN base of Potočari. Having declared a “safe-area” to the besieged Potočari, for some reason still unclear to us, the UN stopped protecting these people, refusing entry to many and kicking others out of the compound. In effect, the UN had helpfully rounded up thousands of Bosnians for the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS). Serb forces were somehow allowed to enter the refugee camps where all of the ‘men’ (some as young as twelve) were separated from the women and children. What followed was the massacre of over 8000 Muslim Bosnian men and boys. They were buried in mass graves which sometimes they had to dig for themselves, and many of which are yet to be discovered. Here is a witness account of the massacre from the Guardian archives – http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/26/ratko-mladic-arrested-srebrenica-massacre

The Memorial and graveyard in Potočari is a hillside covered in thin white headstones. The green markers are for more recently buried bodies. There is an ‘open-plan’ mosque at the entrance, which seems strangely modern and out of place in the countryside. Squares of white marble show thousands of names, and, separated from the rest of the stones is a cross for the only Christian buried at the site. It was quiet, peaceful, difficult to imagine thousands of people clamouring at the entrance to the compound opposite over fifteen years ago.

If you follow the industrial-looking track on the other side of the road in between old factory buildings, you find yourself in what was the UN compound. Once you have found the man with the key, he will let you into a small room to watch a video about the massacre. Some of the most awfully memorable moments are of the women weeping for joy as the UN makes its (in)famous declaration of safety, and of the general who engineered the massacre (Ratko Mladic) openly stating to a television camera that today would be the day that they would take revenge on the Muslims. One woman talks about how she goes to the various graveyards regularly in the hope of finally finding her husband’s name on a marker. A man explains that he was working in the compound and was forced to tell his own family to leave with everyone else – he hasn’t seen them since.

Afterwards you can walk around inside the empty building, past maps of mass graves, communications between Mladic and his subordinates, and personal items belonging to the victims which are accompanied by descriptions of the people – how their wife remembers them, what they were doing when they were last seen…

It wasn’t what we had been expecting from our day when we started hitching towards Bosnia.

From the harrowing experience of Srebrenica we then got lost for several hours to the point where we were no longer appreciating the ‘scenic’ness, but eventually we reached Sarajevo. Throughout our time there it was hard to forget that over 10,500 Sarajevans died and the city was besieged for months on end – a street was even nicknamed ‘Sniper Alley’ as it provided a prime opportunity for distant shooters to pick off civilians trying to cross to safety. From the fortress that gives a superb view over the whole city you can see various graveyards with the same slim white grave markers all around the town. This somehow makes the majesty of the city even grander, particularly as now the churches and mosques stand side-by-side once again. The bustly, beautiful Old Town has been very well restored, and provides the perfect place to relax in the sunshine and enjoy a ‘Bosnian’ (read: Turkish) coffee complete with Turkish delight. Away from the centre, a path stretches alongside the river where locals rollerblade and people come to lead climb the craggy rockfaces.

Unfortunately, we were only able to spend one full day there as we intended to hitch to Prishtine the following day. This turned out to be an abysmal idea, but we’ll come to that later…

Olympos

Neither of us have much to say about the places visited in this blog, not because they were dull but because the photos speak for themselves…

From Antalya we caught our only non-local bus to Olympos. Set in a gorge right on the sea, Olympos is an ancient city right next to the electric blue sea. Josh was ill in bed with a fever for almost the entire time we were there, which meant he missed out on one of the few Turkish destinations we visited in the sunshine.

I have never been anywhere which is so rewarding to explore. Ancient amphitheatres, tombs, Roman baths and old houses complete with mosaic floors lie hidden within the undergrowth. Scrambling past the beach and up a hill brings you to Genovese castle from which you can view the sea and the ruins along the coast. I saw a surprising amount of tortoises and one HUGE snake (uncertain as to the black mamba population in Western Turkey I decided to go back onto the main path…).

If you aren’t ill like Josh was, it is a very relaxing and beautiful place to stay. The entirety of the accommodation in the area is directed solely at tourists – we stayed in a complex as big as a small village complete with ‘tree houses’ which are really just sheds on stilts near trees and other rooms. In the summer I would imagine it gets quite unbearably full of people, but since the sea was still a bit too cold to swim, the influx of tourists was far from its peak. It’s quite backpacker-y, which gave us the opportunity to chat to the hippy-est individual we’ve met on the trip thus far, who eats only raw food and who suggested that I give Josh an enema to make him feel better. It’s all about the toxins in the gut, apparently, although I didn’t follow this particular piece of advice…

There isn’t that much for me to say (I wasn’t paying attention to the signs about the history other than noting that pirates would occasionally ransack the city) so here are some more photos…

The rest of our time on the Western Mediterranean

Basically, it’s really beautiful. Our hitches in this area were astounding in places. Here are some more photos:

At one point we were treated to the presence of a presidential cycle ride – I’m not sure the president was there though…

We spent only one night in Fethiye – it seemed to our brief eyes that it’s a base from which people take cruises around the coast rather than particularly enjoyable in itself, although we later met a guy who testified to its incredible wondrousness which we must have missed.

Anyway, our final photo –

Ankara

Hıtchhıkıng remaıned blıssfully easy (even though Lucıe turned down a perfectly good lıft, but this turned out to be for the best as the next car that stopped was going all the way to our destination) and we arrıved ın Ankara – the capıtal of Turkey. Unlıke Istanbul there ıs very lıttle to see of ınterest ın Ankara – Istanbul would probably have remained the capital of the republic of Turkey if it hadn’t been under foreign rule when Ataturk declared Turkey’s existence – so thıs sectıon wıll be short. There ıs a fascınatıng museum – the Ankara Museum of Anatolıan Cıvılısatıon. The name ıs quıte self-explanatory. The Museum goes through all the stages of the ‘cıvılısatıon’ from really long ago and takes you untıl the Romans. There are loads of old thıngs to look at – lots of stylised stags and figures of incredibly fat women. The latter are used to suggest that maybe society was matriarchal or at least worshipped some sort of goddess (not the same thing, but never mind).

Other than thıs though, Ankara has very lıttle. A nıce enough castle and a really bıg mosque wıth a shoppıng mall attached to ıt, which seemed slightly surreal but apparently, since we saw this setup elsewhere, it’s fairly normal in Turkey – combine your needs for the day with worship and shopping in the same place… We CouchSurfed agaın, and our host, who was the under 16 chess champıon of Turkey, introduced us to Rakı whıch Lucıe lıked and Josh dıdn’t and gave us a potted hıstory of Turkey from the 16th century tıll now.

Movıng swıftly onto Cappadocıa whıch ıs out of thıs world!

Cappadocia

Once upon a time in far-off history there were volcanoes in this part of Turkey, and their ash settled after eruptions and became a very flaky type of rock. Over the years the wind has sculpted the rock into astonishing shapes such as the ‘fairy chimneys’ – tall thin points of rock, often topped with a chunk of a different type of rock which does not erode so easily, leaving ‘hats’ or toadstool-shaped caps on the stalks of rock. The larger rock formations look like sand dunes (or massive dildos) – ripples made by thousands of years of wind and rain. Neither of us had ever seen anything like it. One rock is shaped just like a camel, so there was the obligatory riding the camel photo –

Because the rock is so soft, it is possible to carve out 1 square metre in a few hours (apparently), and so there are many dwellings and also churches carved into the rocks. Our hostel had rooms carved into the rock face. Much more cave-like than the caves in Qikou in China! At the Goreme Open Air Museum there are many well-preserved churches and homes – you can tour around the eating halls and wine-squelching holes, chapels and caverns, although there is an onslaught of tour groups unfortunately, who pack out every available space… In some places you can escape the masses, climb up ladders or even the rungs cut into the rock and head up several storeys to look out over the area.

We felt very smug watching all the expensive package tours in their air-conditioned coaches as we hitched and walked our way from sight to sight – we hiked through unique valleys and wandered from strange rock to strange rock.

One day we hitched out to a tiny village to explore an underground ‘city’ – we decided to avoid the tour groups and the high charge and head to a lesser-visited one off the beaten track. It paid off as we were able to take our torch and explore past the lit areas (which were not very extensive) and feel much more adventurous than if everything had been well-lit and cordoned off. No one knows how many underground networks there are in Cappadocia – some say there is one for each village. At least 40 have been discovered and six are open to the public. Originally the dwellings were created to provide shelter from harsh weather conditions and protection from wild animals, but they were expanded into whole cities with homes connected to one another by tunnels by Christians who would use them to escape persecution by the Romans. Air vents were disguised as wells so attackers would not notice them – maybe they would pour poison in the ‘well’ to try to destroy a water supply, but this wouldn’t bother those hidden below. The earliest source about the cities is from the 4th century BC – it’s quite amazing to be able to wander around in a tunnel network past kitchens and store rooms that have been there for thousands of years.

If you’re headed to Cappadocia and decide to stay in Goreme like us, when you go to restaurants – where you can sample kebabs cooked in terracotta pots and cracked when served, or many different kinds of pide, which gets called ‘Turkish pizza’ in some places – ask for discount! ‘If you don’t ask, you don’t get’, as the old saying goes, and in Goreme you get if you ask. You can blag at least 10% in lots of places for being a ‘student’ or even because you’re staying in a hostel where the owners are friends!

Following in the theme of religion, from here we hitched to Konya – spiritual home of Rumi.

Havıng left the soulless consumerısm of Dubai behınd, we jumped straıght ınto one of the cultural hotspots of the world. Our base was the oldest Hamam (Turkısh bath) ın Istanbul whıch was establıshed some tıme ın the 15th century. We don’t want to suggest that thıs was a tıp-top hostel as theır swısh websıte ımplıes – ıt’s a hamam wıth some rooms upstaırs and only one member of staff speaks Englısh. However, we dıd have the luxury of usıng the hamam as frequently as we lıked for free!

Unfortunately, the weather was not great whıle we were there, so we dıd not get to see Istanbul ın ıts full glory. What we dıd see, though, was spectacular enough to draw us back at the end of our trıp ın Turkey. As wıth churches and temples of dıfferent flavours, unless you are an expert or have a decent guıde every tıme, lots of mosques all eventually become very sımılar. Luckıly the mosques ın Istanbul were both the fırst we had seen and also the most grand, ın partıcular the Blue Mosque and the New Mosque, the latter of whıch was declared ‘new’ several hundred years ago.

There ıs also the underground Basılıca Cıstern whıch ıs a surprıse, to say the least. It takes your breath away a lıttle bıt when you descend down the staırcase ınto thıs huge and beautıful man-made cavern. There are two Medusa heads at the base of two of the huge columns, and the sıgns offer an ınterestıng preamble to the more generally known story of a monster wıth snakes for haır. Medusa was an extremely beautıful woman who was ın love wıth Perseus, but Athene was ın love wıth hım too so she turned Medusa’s haır ınto snakes and cursed her sıght so ıt turned whoever looked ınto her eyes to stone – she could never look lovıngly at Perseus. Then he came along and chopped her head off and stuck ıt on hıs shıeld – that’s what happened ın ancıent Greece when you were a god’s rıval…

Whıle Istanbul ıs certaınly not cheap, you get your money’s worth. Although havıng saıd that, lots of thıngs are free, lıke the mosques (then you get much more than your money’s worth)… On Thursdays the Modern Art gallery ıs free, so make sure your vısıt coıncıdes wıth that – ıt seems to have taken ınspıratıon from the Tate Modern ın terms of ıts layout and appearance, and ıt’s absolutely full of ınterestıng pıeces ın all types of medıa. You can also wander the Spıce Market beıng offered turkısh delıght (lokum) by every person you pass – you can fıll yourself to burstıng for free as no one really pressures you to buy anythıng, whıch was refreshıng. There are spıces of all varıetıes, and many types of tea on offer, ıncludıng ‘Love Tea’ whıch ıs sold by every vendor ın the market, and every vendor sells somethıng dıfferent under that name! We were told by one man that by the mornıng you would love the person lyıng next to you more than you could ımagıne – that’s pretty strong tea ıf you dıdn’t already. In realıty thıs tea seemed to be a mıxture of all the others they were sellıng (lemon, orange, apple, cınnamon etc), wıth perhaps extra rose. As we found out later ın our tıme ın Turkey, one way of gettıng lots of free tea ıs to consıder, or pretend to consıder, buyıng a beautıful carpet – you wıll be ınvıted to drınk tea or coffee and sıt and chat to dıscuss your textıle-related needs.

It’s hard to belıeve that people ın Turkey do not have beautıful homes, gıven the splendour whıch ıs on offer around every corner. The Grand Bazaar ıs ımmense – a sprawlıng maze of wonder – although you’d get hugely rıpped off unless you knew exactly what you were doıng ın terms of prıces and bargaınıng. The Museum of Turkısh and Islamıc Art has many amazıng and detaıled carpets, weavıngs, callıgraphy and copıes of the Qu’ran, all of whıch are really old.

We woke up very early ın the mornıng after only a few days of awe, and took a boat back to Asıa (stıll Turkey – the much larger part of Turkey…) to contınue our adventure there.

Kochi to Kannur

Kochi

We were given mixed advice about the pleasures of this town, ranging from ‘my favourite place in India’ to ‘a bit of a tourist shit-hole’. Our experience is somewhere inbetween, tending less towards it being a favourite… Fort Cochin, which is the tourist bit and on a separate island from the mainland, has an incredible flair for colonialism – Dutch, Portuguese and British. Especially the churches. At first, we assumed they must be Protestant, given the fact that the British arrived in this part of India after the Reformation – this would explain their whitewashed walls and general lack of enthusiasm. Not for all of them, though – the Santa Cruz Basilica instead went for tacky kitsch, with lovely pink statues of Jesus, etc. How Indians can relate to a religion which is based on a ‘white’ man nailed to a cross, I find even more confusing than for white Westerners. What a clever way for imperialists to establish racial supremacy, though, eh?

Having not really gone in for “Experience the Culture” events, we decided to experience one. Kathakali, the ancient dramatic art, was simultaneously fascinating and unbelievably boring. Our friend described it as “a bit like pantomime”, but while this might be the closest thing to it in the UK, it’s basically nothing like it! The performance began with an hour-long makeup session which was actually quite interesting – the men (all men, even playing the female role – got to keep these things traditional…) lay down as someone made fins on their faces made from rice paper and rice paste. These added detail to the red, black, green and yellow of their faces – each colour has its own significance. Green means good, red means bad, black is demonic and yellow feminine.

This was followed by an introduction to the language of gesture that Kathakali uses – facial expressions, twitchy face muscles, eye movement, hand gestures. I think I took in approximately one meaning from the whole thing.

Then we were treated to a grim tale involving betting wives away in games of dice, murdering enemies gorily and then wiping their blood through the reclaimed wife’s hair. Unfortunately, one figures this out from the leaflet provided rather than the action on stage, as Kathakali for us was a bit like watching a play in a foreign language where even the body language means something totally different.

Kumily

Our time in Kumily will be better described in a following blog. It is safe to say that we were hoping for more than we experienced when we were there. We had gone to Kumily to work on an organic farm through WWOOFing – we were going to help with the pepper and coffee harvests. We did help with the coffee harvest, but it was all a bit less enjoyable than we had hoped, so we did not finish our proposed two weeks there and left after 8 days.

On our day off, we went to a Tiger Park, and although of course we didn’t see any tigers we did catch glimpses of wild elephants hainging out around the water. There were unidentified grazing animals, wild boar and of course loads of monkeys.

Having acquired an extra few days, we decided to return to Tamil Nadu as Kumily is literally on the border – Tamil Nadu starts just after the post office – and spend some time in the hills.

Kodaikanal

Great views and colonial heritage.

We met some travellers for the first time in a while – it’s good to have company other than ourselves sometimes! The views here are absolutely spectacular. You can see across the entire plains of Tamil Nadu. This is also apparently why our hotel felt justified in charging Rs500 a night (the expensive end of our budget) for a grim room, although it did have a fire place.

As the picture demonstrates, there is a resounding feeling that you could be in Dorset or something – quaint little cottages, sculpted lake, pine trees. It was a very odd experience.

The nicest part of being in this town was meeting other people, especially a Czech man who had lived in London for four years and is an Arsenal supporter. I think Lucie had become bored of me discussing the fine details of tactics and strategy with her, so this was a welcome opportunity to talk football with someone who actually understood what I was going on about.

Ooty

2,500metres above sea level, Ooty is the highest hill station in Tamil Nadu. It is also refreshingly cool and, outside of the town, extremely beautiful.

We trekked through tea plantations, through villages and up to the top of a mountain, enjoying the company of a Bristolian anarchist whose grandfather had fought for POUM in the Spanish civil war. I had to change my initial impression of him – I heard on the bus that he had come to India just to follow the cricket, which did not gain my immediate respect. However, after classic lines such as, “I always told my kids not to join the army. I didn’t spend money on raising my kids just so they could grow up and kill other people’s kids. It’s a waste of money”, and, “if Pakistan win against India in the final [Cricket World Cup taking place in India], I reckon they [India] might just nuke Kashmir or something”, I changed my mind about him.

One of the ironic highlights of Ooty, and one of the kitschiest things I have ever seen (I think Lucie was more impressed than me), was the Thread Garden – the only one in the whole world, they proudly declare. This is unsurprising. It took a whole bunch of people 12 years to accomplish this bizarre feat – everything in the garden, and they all look pretty convincing as flowers, is made from thread wound around canvas. What a waste of time…

Kannur

Having been in India for over 2 months and having not had a real break since we set off from London all those many months ago (nearly 6 now by the way), we are having a long and overdue break. My mentality in particular has increasingly become overly negative, and as a close friend of mine emailed me to say, I am in need of some time where I just don’t do anything. So we are spending four days on a beach in Kerala, followed by seven days on a beach in Karnataka.

I intend that it be as uneventful as possible and horribly relaxing.

 

Our holiday

After four months of travelling, including over three weeks in Bhopal, we needed a holiday. While everything so far has been an experience, we felt more physically and mentally tired than before we left. Sometime you just need the experience of not really doing anything. And in a relaxing way, rather than in a on-a-train-for-30-hours way. With this in mind, we did what all good holidaymakers do and headed for the beach. It wasn’t a beautiful beach, it wasn’t even a particularly relaxing beach, but it was a beach nonetheless. Puri is one of The holiday destinations for middle-class Indians, particularly from Kolkatta, plus middle-aged Westerners. That sounds perfect, right?

As usual, the train took longer than expected, and after a gruelling thirty hours, making friends with a liberal-minded Indian whose eyes didn’t fall out of his head when he found out we are a couple but not married, eating lots of channa masala (which is not chickpeas in sauce, but chickpeas in salad and lime) and Lucie getting her breast grabbed through the train window by a sad-act sleazebag, we arrived.

Our hotel – Z hotel, check it out – was exceptional. It was the old home of the person who ran the town (I can’t remember what that’s called) and had the obvious grandness implied. Our room basically had a four-poster bed, and  there was also a TV room (with selection of movies for the evening), a veranda, and an awesome view from the roof, overlooking the sea. Tourist heaven.

Puri itself has little to offer, but a combination of sand, sea and fish was good enough for a 4 day holiday. If you’re ever in the area, go to Raju’s for freshly caught from the Bay of Bengal kingfish and mackerel. Unfortunately, the fishing business seems to be totally trashing the turtle population: every day we would walk across the beach and find numerous dead turtles washed up, with crows pecking at their eyes and dogs chomping their entrails. If you can put this out of mind, the fish tastes damn good…

One possible outing from Puri is to Chilika Lake. Here you can see some famous dolphins playing in the shallow lake, spurting water from their mouths and generally larking about. This makes it sound quite exciting, but to be honest the experience is quite fleeting, and you may find yourself spending more time desperately trying to take a photo rather than actually enjoying the moment. On an important note, TAKE THE TOURIST BUS. Seriously. We made the poor decision, laughing at the foolish tourists who pay so much more than we did so, of choosing to go by local bus. A 48km journey took four hours on the way home. This works out at about 7.5 miles PER HOUR. You could cycle faster than that… The road isn’t even particularly windy or hilly. I actually have no idea how it took so long.  Lucie said that in Midnight’s Children there’s a bus where the bus driver suddenly decides to go to Pakistan and gets off the bus, leaving it full of passengers, who spend two hours clinging to their “hard-earned places” before they realise he’s not coming back. This doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. The people standing up on that bus probably took the delay as totally standard!

Having had a few days off, we headed off to Bhubaneswar to begin our careers as investigative journalists… We’ll tell you all about the horrors of GM and the heroes fighting it soon enough. In the meantime, check out www.stopgm.org.uk.

Animal’s People, by Indra Sinha

Another book review for you – don’t worry, we’ll get back to writing about what we’ve been up to in the next blog…

“This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people living or dead is entirely coincidental.” This is one of those standard disclaimers that stops people from suing the author. As is often the case, it isn’t really true when it comes to Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People.

Animal’s People is written as though transcribed from real tapes recorded by its narrator. Its ‘Editor’s Note’ explains that “information about the city of Khaufpur”, where the novel is set, “can be found at http://www.khaufpur.com.” It’s a real website: it looks like any other Indian city’s slightly cheesy site, and it comes complete with photos and contact numbers for governors. Thing is, what khaufpur.com is describing is the city of Bhopal, because that is what Sinha’s novel is really about. Kampani (company), factory, absent lawyers, birth defects, respiratory problems, grief, multiple losses, memories of chillies to the eyes and running desperately and all, this is the fictionalised story of Bhopal.

Eighteen years after That Night, Animal is a young man (“I’m not a fucking human being, I’ve no wish to be one”) bent in half:

feet on tiptoe
head down below
arse en haut
thus do I go

Shortly after the disaster, his spine twisted until he could not stand straight, so now he walks on all fours. We saw that man when we were in New Market recently. His situation is representative of so many people crippled and otherwise affected by the gas leak, and of almost hopeless hopes – he tries to hide the hope that maybe some day he will walk upright. Animal, symbol of the victims of the disaster, is no hapless victim, however. Foul-mouthed, mischievous and frequently distracted by thoughts of sex, Sinha has created an amazing mouthpiece for his tale. Animal’s often scathing view of the humans around him is allowed to also carry a great love and passion for the people of Khaufpur. His ability to hear voices no-one else can hear gives him compassion for people like Ma Franci who is insistent that the “Apokalis” will soon be upon them and can only speak French. Not only that, but it draws you ever deeper into his way of viewing the world, which, while scatological, and while it needs a glossary to explain some of the slang (although some words, like Jamisponding, are left up to the reader to work out – hint, think 007), it has a beautiful poetry to it.

Furthermore, its a celebration of the strength and weaknesses of the people who live in the slum areas here. By addressing himself to the “Eyes” reading his story, and through Sinha’s introduction of an American character, Animal sheds light on many elements of life in Bhopal (sorry, Khaufpur…). It would be silly to say that I now have a greater understanding of life in the bastis, but it has been interesting to apply his logic to what I’ve seen around me for the past three weeks.

Sanjay had taken us to the second, larger waste dump from the Union Carbide factory. By the afternoon, it is a playground for children and pasture for the cows and goats, but in the early morning it is the place that people come to take a dump. This is one of the things into which Animal offers some useful insights –

” ‘You foreigners talk as if the sight of a bum is the worst thing in the world, doesn’t everyone crap?’
‘Not in public, they don’t.’
‘There’s a lot to be said for communal shitting. For a start the camaraderie. Jokes and insults. A chance to discuss things. It’s about the only opportunity you get to unload a piece of your mind. You can bitch and moan about the unfairness of the world. You can spout philosophies. Then there’s the medical benefit. Your stools can be examined by all. You can have many opinions about the state of your bowels, believe me, our people are experts at disease. The rich are condemned to shit alone…’ ”

His views on religion, being in the midst of such a mixture of Muslim, Hindu and smaller traditions, are also interesting –

“If religions were true there wouldn’t be so many of them, there’d be just one for everyone. Of course all say theirs is the only one, fools can’t see this makes even less sense. Suppose people talked of beauty in the same way, how foolish would they sound? Times like this I feel sorry for god’s being torn to pieces like meat fought over by dogs. I, me, mine, that’s what religions are, where’s room for god?”

His cut-the-crap attitude is what guides you through the suspicions, paranoia, trust, love, despair and hope of campaigning for justice in Bhopal.

Read this book. It might break your heart a little bit, but read it.