I return to India 

I return to India 

Gratefully, I was once again inhaling the blessed air of India as I stepped out the doors of Mumbai airport.  The chaos immediate, and the “fit” palpable.  My first mission was to sort out a taxi to my Mumbai welcoming party, and Peruvian Ayahuasca family, Pooja and Rishit, weathering the storm of willing volunteers for the job to choose from, of course. 

Once arranged, my driver saw something in me and offered to read my energies for free, as it should be done, so our departure was delayed as he did so, from the back of the cab.  Turns out he was an ex-employee of the Osho Ashram in Pune!

OH INDIA, YOU’LL ALWAYS BE MY LOVE AFFAIR

This, my first taste of a familiar and beloved land, a reminder of all I loved about India, and a foretaste of what might be to come over the 6 months ahead.  It’s why I felt compelled to return East almost exactly 12 months to the day, same packaging but much changed contents, this time with a renewed sense of purpose.

Two days before I had been in Medellin, Colombia, with a freshly squeezed shiny and new 6 month Indian visa stuck in my passport – the ink barely dry.  Now, here I was, in the madness and melee of India – it was an amazing feeling to be back, made all the more surreal because I’d been in suspended animation from travelling for about 4 days to get there, taking 2 buses (Salento-Bogota, Bogota-Medellin), a last minute passport pick-up in Bogota, 4 flights (Medellin-Fort Lauderdale-Chicago-Abu Dhabi-Mumbai), 3 connections, a 12 hour time difference to get the better of, 2 taxis, 1 whatsapp blunder that almost blew the whole surprise, and finally a 5am arrival at my hotel in Pune.  Great anecdotes are a numbers game. 

There’s only one thing that could have prepared me for such ridiculous mileage and endurance, all for a good cause… ah Dumball… 

For the last 10 years I’ve been involved in the Dumball, a “fancy dress on wheels” charity rally that brings a rather splendid kind of people together, where we drive bangers for ridiculous amounts of miles on challenging routes all across Europe, Morocco and India to raise money for Teenage Cancer Trust.  It’s not only given me the most incredible experiences in the name of a good cause, but also a family of friends of a distinct and different calibre – the kind you know inside out, from red mist to purple haze, the kind you can trust to come running if ever the sh*t hit the fan,  probably to laugh and take photos, but there for you till the end.

The Dumball returned to India for the second time in January 2017, which was to be the first rally I’d miss since 2007.  FOMO is one thing, but knowing that all your favourite people are all together in a country you love and you have the chance to see all of them at once after 12 months absence, PLUS you can surprise them all too, is an entirely different thing.  Then, the question really isn’t Why? but Why the hell not!      

So I did, and it was glorious.  

Stood at a non descript bus stop on the side of the road in Pune at 8.30 in the morning after a few hours kip, a convoy of dusty, sweaty, colourful Mahindra Jeeps rounded the corner towards me.  Knowing each car was filled with friendly souls that I’d soon be able to touch and squeeze in real life meant I could barely contain myself, and local pedestrians passed me by, ackowledging my huge grin with intrigue.  As the infamous Blue Squadron slowly came to a halt, each car pulling over no doubt with some confusion inside as to the ad hoc stop in the middle of nowhere, I searched for those all too familiar faces, beaten only by the glare of the early morning sunshine on the windows.  As the news slowly spread down the line suddenly my wait was over – I had dear friends running towards me, and the best group hug anyone could possibly wish for.  



UNEXPECTED TURNS

With that, I gate-crashed Dumball 2017 on the final leg, and hitched a ride to Goa.  Not a bad start.  My friend James told me, “India has a way of doing with You what she will”, and as it turns out She had a little unexpected surprise in store for me, involving a little puppy we like to call Mr. Biscuits.  

Some of you may have read my recent blog Steve Appreciation Society so you’ll know precisely how stray dogs or “Steves” have been a consistent and integral part of my travels in Asia, Central America and South America over the past year.  

The Indian culture is very different to what we know in the West.  Here, street dogs are tolerated but are also considered vermin, kicked, shunned, and so they live a very different life compared to our pampered pooches – but that’s the way things work here, and you just have to accept it through some Western gritted teeth.   

All that being said, I have a very special Steve story to tell.

THE TAIL OF MR. BISCUITS 

On a dusty road in the middle of nowhere, somewhere between Pune and Goa, I found an abandoned and near starved to death 2 month old puppy, all skin and bones, severely dehydrated and malnourished.  Standing not much higher than mid calf on some very unsteady and skinny pins with a protruding rib cage, stomach entirely concave, hip bones visible, sores on his fur but with the most gorgeous eyes, I beckoned the little dude towards me.  

At first he shied away fully expecting a kick, but with a little encouragement he wagged his bony tail, dipped his head, licked his lips and came towards me, and without hesitation I bundled him up in my arms and into my heart.  

With little supplies on board, the only thing we could offer him was biscuits.  As he wolfed them down, the nickname “Mr. Biscuits” was coined, and stuck immediately.  

On the Dumball time is precious, so all too soon we were ready for The Off, so I had to make a decision, and I decided to save Mr. Biscuits – at the very least to get him the hell outta there, feed him back to strength and deliver him to a rescue centre somewhere in Goa:  I had the time to do this, and I knew from past experience that street dogs on the beaches have pretty much the best life in India, which had to be better than leaving him by the side of that road to an uncertain fate.

TWO HITCH-HIKERS TOGETHER 

So, just like me, Mr. Biscuits gate-crashed a Dumball, hitched a ride to Goa, and into the arms of 130 (give or take) sympathetic Dumballers who showered him with love.  

As time passed, Mr. Biscuits became less street-dog and more loved, to the point of no return frankly (who couldn’t fall in love with those eyes), and I had to make the ultimate decision. 

Street dogs, or Desis, like Biscuit are ownerless scavengers who have been free-living these continents for 1,000’s of years. An abundant and fertile population leads to abundant breeding – many secure a safe territory to survive, but plenty become abandoned, alone, malnourished, sick or injured from attacks by other dogs or traffic accidents. 

The charitable infrastructure to help those animals is meagre, but growing and needs support. The Indian culture is also very different to what we know in the West, so rehoming or adoption was highly unlikely.  At best, I had to find a hostel or restaurant owner who wouldn’t mind “keeping an eye out for him”, and I grew uncomfortable with that uncertainty.

So I made a choice: to save one, to give him a better chance at life, safety, security and love on a permanent basis – now, he needs your help to start a new life the UK. 

To do that I need to raise ~£2.5k to cover the vets bills and various bits of paperwork and administration.  If by some miracle I smash my target, I’ll donate the extra funds to the Animal Rescue Centre here in Goa. 

Click here for the Crowdfunding Website

It’s been 42 days since that fateful day, and I have much to update you on… till next time! 

You can follow his journey on 

instagram: @thetailofmrbiscuits

twitter: @mrbiscuitstail & 

Facebook: https://facebook.com/thetailofmrbiscuits

 

All aboard the Bangalore Express

All aboard the Bangalore Express

Day 66: Gokarna-Mysore

At 3.30pm, the Bangalore Express pulled out of Gokarna destined for Mysore, 550kms away. To steal a quote from a book I’m reading, Around India in 80 Trains: 

“Taking trains in India involves a process wholly different from taking trains in England. At home it is not uncommon to arrive at London Euston 10 minutes before a Virgin Pendolino departs to Birmingham New Street, slip a credit card into a machine, grab a ham and cheese baguette from Upper Crust, and hop onto the train with a saver return ticket in hand. The booking system in India opens 90 days in advance and is instantly flooded with reservations, building up endless waiting lists. Fortunately Indian Railways has a useful system in place for latecomers, emergencies and the disorganised.”

It was into this first category that we fell. Three hours before our train was due to depart, we made the snap decision to leave magnificent Gokarna. All the decent class a/c tickets had been snapped up already, but somehow we managed to bag ourselves general class sleeper tickets for 680rps (~£6) each, which is basically code for “anything can happen”. 

     

With much excitement, we boarded the train and held our breath about what was to come – as it turns out, Indian trains and General Sleeper Class is ACE, and there’s even space to hang a travel hammock! Satisfyingly the windows open, making what could have been an uncomfortable 14 hours very pleasant and airy. 

    
   
 
The main carriage doors also remain unlocked for the duration of the journey, meaning you can sit in the doorway and watch the world go by with the wind in your hair and the sun on your face, and no one bats an eyelid. The air, the loud clackety clack of the train and the lack of any real health and safety concerns fills me with exhilaration for The Go, the journey, and admiration for India’s general approach to stuff like this. 

Chai wallas, biryani and various food sellers march through the train at break-neck speed, or up and down the platform from window to window at each stop, refuelling hungry, weary passengers for minimal fare. All quite civilised, and a world away from those regimented trolleys yielding extortionately priced beige goods in the UK. 

We touched down at Mysore Station at 5.30am this morning, urghhhh, but in a change to recent energy levels we were ready to smash whatever Mysore had to offer, just needed a snooze first.

“One of South India’s most famous tourist destinations, Mysuru (which recently changed its name from Mysore) is known for its glittering royal heritage and magnificent monuments and buildings. Its World Heritage–listed palace may be what brings most travellers here, but it’s also a thriving centre for the production of premium silk, sandalwood and incense.”

Unfortunately for us, the night we’d arrived a VHP activist (the Indian equivalent to the IRA) had been murdered. As a result, this morning a bandh (Hindi word for “strike”) had been called in protest. That meant processions in the street, shops shut, businesses closed, and everyone advised to stay in doors for their own safety. So, we’ve been on curfew at our hostel alllllll day. Mysore says No. Balls.  

Day 60: Lets Go’karna

Day 60: Lets Go’karna

An International herd boards the sleeper bus at Hampi – Russians, Indians, Mexicans, Spanish, Kiwi, Danish, Australian, Israeli and English to name but a few, along with Denso, Clay, Jamie, Oskar and me, all privileged to be touring this great country for next to nothing and destined for Gokarna 250km away for only 900rps (~£9 each). Each passenger has their own story to tell, but with one common thread: right now, we’re trading it all in for simplicity, adventure, curiosity and perspective. 

The windows suck in a warm breeze as we go (a much welcomed change from the Mapusa-Hampi ice-box), making the curtains flutter and flap in the aisles like sails. Ironic, as the coach pitches and rolls like a sailing boat on rough seas, and our sleeping quarters resemble a narrow galley below deck.

Oskar and I settle down to conversation and an obligatory game of cards; whooshing through the quiet chaos at 100 knots, we pass towns, villages, countryside, catching glimpses of ornate archways, the vast rocky landscapes of Hampi, wandering dogs (hi Steve), “don’t give a fuck” cows ambling the road, rubbish and filth piled up behind smiling, waving locals, and always that innate feeling of an unconditional welcome – a slice of India.

I stare out the bunk window at the stars. We take a moment to reflect on our predicament: of being in this beautiful, rough-round-the-edges marvellous country where anything goes, sat on a shithole of a bus that’s rattling it’s way rapidly towards the coast, taking us back to our beloved sea, and feeling completely content. If nothing else happens in India from now on, I’m happy. 

After 60 days in India, we’re used to how things work here. Our bus pulls into the backarse of nowhere at stupid o’clock in the morning. We disembark. Stares. Confusion. Fatigue. Engines. Truck horns. A bit fatigued but un-phased, we sit bleary eyed outside a dimly lit transit stop. We buy some chai, and patiently await our connection – we’ll get there in the end. 

I love this part: the joy and freedom of travelling. It doesn’t really matter where you go, it’s the going that’s the thing. By early morning we’ve arrived somewhere new: new people, new places, new ideas, somewhere new to make our own, somewhere new to stretch out, and just in time for a pre-dawn skinny dip surrounded by phosphorescence, a cow raid and the sunrise. Sublime. 
 

Endings and Beginnings

Endings and Beginnings

Day 50: after 27 magical days in Arambol, it’s time to move on. We leave behind some wonderful people – the lovely Heather, Spencer, Matthieu, Violet and Prana – heading East with Jack, Clay and Jim, bound for the ancient ruins of Hampi, Karnataka: they say “an unearthly landscape that will leave you spellbound the moment you cast your eyes on it. Plan on lingering for a while”. We say “Ok then.”

To get here involved our first sleeper bus experience from Mapusa – 10 hours in an economical double bunk (in relation to humans anyway), shared in a cosy shoulder to shoulder manner whether you know your neighbour or not – untold numbers of people have lain their heads here before me. the a/c is cold, consistent, assertive, often wakening, and the curtains indifferent about their job – but who wants an easy journey? thank you India, and thank you Xanax. 

   

Bleary eyed, I step off the bus the next morning at the sacred centre of Hampi Bazaar, straight into a swarm of enthusiastic Tuk Tuk drivers, each vying to take us where want to for 100rps (84p), if only we knew our own names. 

Factoid: set over 36sq km there are some 3,700 monuments to explore in Hampi – it would take months to do it justice. It’s early, but the suns already fierce and the Xanax only just wearing off: makes for a dizzying combination. The temperature’s set to hit 36 today too. Jeese. Think we’ll ease ourselves in gently. 

   

Due to Hampi’s religious significance meat and alcohol are banned in the Sacred Centre, but across the river is Virupapur Gaddi where there are no rules – ideal.

 

A tightly-squeezed Tuk Tuk ride, a short boat crossing and a sweaty walk later we land at The Goan Corner, a guesthouse run by the sharp witted matriarch Shamila, and for 900rps/night it’s our home for… well, let’s see shall we? It’s the usual basic room and we have a hammock, so I’m sold. 

7-Bullet Sunday – day 38

7-Bullet Sunday – day 38

A tardy summary of events and anecdotes from the last 7 days, and what a week it was! 

– Cultural sensitivity gets cranked up to 11, as we teach Max ‘ow to swear in English (and giggle like school girls explaining the usage), and how to speak Mattox. ‘E is a Lad in ze, ow you say, errr, making? Peu t’etre oui (I probably spelt zat wrong, mon dieu).

  
 
– Cow Surprises BBC Journalist at Magic Park in Stealth Attack: Cows are everywhere in India, and I mean all over the place, so after a while you really do just stop noticing them. Really. So much so they can sneak up on you in the dark whilst you’re having a quiet conversation, stick their heads nonchalantly and inquisitively in to your circle before you’ve even realised they’re there, and scare the bejesus out of Denso. Favourite.moment.ever

– The Max and Jess school of music opens for business on Kalacha Beach. Rahul, our first pupil, turns out to be a musical prodigy. I blame the teachers.

  
– Around 10-15 minutes walk round the cliff side of Arambol gets you to Sweet water lake – a secluded fresh water lake made from the river off’ve the in-land jungle. it’s beautiful, and what’s more not many people know about it so it’s pretty deserted. Makes for a nice combination: a salty dip in the sea, followed by a fresh water bath in the lake with pleasant layed back vibes to match. If you trek about 10 mins into the jungle from there you can get a mother nature mud pack made from mashing up the clay in the spring water. 15 or so minutes further in, if you follow your nose and the small hub-bub of people and music, you’ll find a huge Banyan Tree: a popular pilgrimage site for hippies with a Baba in residence, and made famous by being the place that spurred John, Paul, George and Ringo’s Sgt Pepper era. we deffo sat in John’s spot. Just saying. 

   
   
Arpora night market: Mental. watching our good friend Spencer and his band Spencer Maybe play the equivalent of the Saturday pyramid slot at Glastonbury, in busking terms anyway. Compared to the relative quiet and layed back of Arambol, Arpora night market is like heading to Blackpool. Lots of tourists, traders, stuff and things and noise, and for us a bit like that bit in the beach (urghhhh, I’m quoting the beach, kill me) when he does the supply run to the mainland. Loved it. Hated it. Crap at shopping, didn’t buy anything. Loved the headliner.

– We’d recommend you stay Cliffside @  Naik Guesthouse… ocean views from your window, crashing waves to permeate your dreams, a private beach no less, et un tres bon voisin – what’s not to like? Our new venue meant we got to hang out at spirit of shiva and watch India vs Sri Lanka 2020 cricket (a much needed Denso sport fix). Ironically, us two girls spent the evening explaining the rules of cricket to Max, whilst we both knocked back Kingfishers and cheered on Sri Lanka (just for funners) with Max looking on, gallically perplexed. Pro Kibaddi also featured – combines rugby, wrestling with a dash of British bulldog, the opposition has to say “kabaddi” the whole time during their attack, or they’re out. It’s fast paced, confusing and as ridiculous to watch as it sounds, but we got the rules explained, sort of. All of us crowded round their small TV set it felt like we were in someone’s living room instead of a bar, and sledging back and forth during the cricket, we got a comforting feeling of home that we hadn’t realised we’d missed so much. Go hug your sofa, and your tv. 

 

    

  
– music we’ve been listening to: Serge GainborgGeorge Brasse.

In defense of strangers

In defense of strangers

“When we talk to strangers, we shift our perceptions on who counts as human. And as Kio Stark, author of the upcoming TED Book When Strangers Meet, says, “Seeing someone as an individual is a political act.” Stark wants you to try talking to more people you don’t know. She personally loves speaking to strangers: she makes eye contact in the street, says hello, listens. One day in New York when an old man told her not to stand on a storm drain because she “might disappear,” she thought it was silly — but she stepped off. And they had a moment. 

In many parts of the world we’re taught not to trust strangers. “Instead of using our perceptions and making choices,” she says, “We rely on this category of ‘stranger.’” But, says Stark, there are two great benefits to talking to strangers: first, it brings a special form of closeness we can’t get from friends and family, because there are no consequences; and second, we often expect loved ones to read our minds, and with strangers we have to tell the whole story to be understood. It’s a practice all of us should take on.”

We speak to strangers, lots of them can now be counted as our friends, and it’s bloody marvellous the things you learn, the fun you can have, and the surprise adventures they can take you on. Try it. Join someone else’s table, introduce yourself, and buckle up.

The helpful talks in Session 4 of TED2016

7-bullet Sunday – day 31

7-bullet Sunday – day 31

A summary of things that have happened this week:

1. Sunday 7th February, day 31 since leaving the U.K., day 16 since the Funballers left and we’re still in Goa. This place is very hard to leave. The whole “no return date” thing takes some getting used to, it can feel quite overwhelming and requires a bit of deprogramming, but I’m losing myself in the bubble. Taking my time to enjoy the surprises, the twists and turns, the tales of the unexpected. Just sit back, and wait.

2. Renting a moped, exploring the area, so that means Mandrem, Ashvem and Morjhim beaches, all of which I would highly recommend. Arambol is a long stretch of beach that attracts the most crowds/events. The beach is very long – I prefer the comforting embrace of seeing both headlands at once, I realise. Mandrem is smaller than Arambol, quite sparse and with a few high end hotels. Riding through Ashvem village you get a taste of a surfy vibe, and the beach is smaller still. Morjhim, the most deserted of all the beaches we’ve visited, is populated by small, independent beach shacks and no beach sellers. The bike gives us freedom, a different sunset spot each day and a taste of Dumball – back on those mental roads with mental traffic – and only costs us the princely some of £2.50 a day to hire!  

3. Learning from our Guru, Prana, about all kinds of stuff: acupressure massage, Chinese zodiac, Indian Sanskrit, the cards of life… All food for thought, even if taken with a pinch of salt. Just fascinating listening to a man who can reel off stories, and anecdotes of his time as a Monk over the last 40 years. Just don’t ask him what his tattoos mean unless you have two hours to spare. 

4. Arambol feels like a home from home – we’ve made some lovely friends who are normals/PLU, and they’ve gifted us an “in” into the community here. Most of them are musicians working the season, so we’ve been invited to places we’d never have known existed: under the motto of “Arambol never sleeps” we’ve dined out on festivals, cafes, gigs, open mic and private after party/jam sessions in the back streets t’boot. It’s been wonderful. Such a joy. All because we made friends with Heather on day 1. Sliding doors… Arambol’s a magnet for musicians, yogis, bikers, fire throwers or freelancers who keep coming back year after year, and we can see why. We didn’t know any of this when we selected our destination, and it continues to surprise us.

5. Recent purchase I’m enjoying: my ickle geetar, a jen-you-ine Godson, “little moon” model, straight off the production line from China. Prana kindly replaced the crappy Indian strings and messed about with the action and now she’s not a bad little guitar! We’ve called her Steve, like all the dogs we see in India: it brings a smile to my face every time and can’t be taken seriously, so the name seemed apt.

6. Getting propositioned by a 59 year old, during a full.body.massage. I took it as a compliment, but didn’t acknowledge it in the slightest. Not awks at all. Cough cough. Also being told I look old enough to be Denso’s mum, 45 apparently, by a stoned rasta, was another plus. 

7. Writing this from my bed at 2pm, as we both nurse some sunburn. Aloe Vera, coconut oil, A/C and ibuprofen have all been administered, but today is about being horizontal and catching up on the six nations Rugby.