15.10.2014 - 03.12.2014 27 °C
Returning to Mumbai, feels like coming home. People recognize us on the street, in our favorite restaurants, and the owner of our hotel reprimands us for not giving him notice of our arrival. What a nice feeling. The city seems cooler, less humid and less crowded, but more likely, we've just gotten used to a country of 1.2 billion; 16 million right here. As we navigate between the sidewalk vendors and the motorized traffic of Colaba, the man selling the most ridiculous enormous balloons races towards me certain that I've come back to finally buy one! I decide that Kama Sutra playing cards make for more interesting gifts.
We are taking an overnight bus to mythical Goa. Private (somewhat cleaner & more comfortable) buses depart from points outside the city center and the ticketing agent has arranged our transfer to the pick-up point. Our rickshaw follows a motorcycle best he can. In a flurry of commotion, we are waved onto a local bus as our motorcycle escort barks instructions to the driver. Traffic is at a standstill and we resign ourselves to missing the bus as the ticket collector, juggling 2 mobile phones, gestures at us reassuringly between (and during) calls. Suddenly, he turns, motioning wildly and says, "Don't take tension sir!" leaving us in hysterics over the new phrase that rivals "Sorry sir, kitchen confused!" Ultimately, we arrive over an hour late to our waiting bus.
Goa evokes images of wide sandy beaches, glorious sunsets and Portuguese heritage. Thankfully, the Portuguese part lives up to the myth. There are a few upscale resorts but the public beaches are more than disappointing. In places like Calangute, hoards of tourists, mostly Indian and Russian, descend upon the beach in swarms. Vendors peddling plastic toys, cheap jewelry and all kinds of fried food, line the main road choked with traffic and fumes. The beach is packed with Indian tourists playing in the water fully-clothed. A handful of scorched tourists bake on sunbeds near the waterline. Even the cows seem put off.
Much more appealing are the brightly painted houses with traditional tile motifs and Portuguese names along the narrow streets of the capital city, Panjim (Panaji). Our Lady of Immaculate Conception casts a long shadow over main street from a hilltop in the center. The atmosphere is relaxed and pleasant. It feels like a small town in Portugal. The few colonial hotels and guesthouses in the neighborhood of Fontainas are charming and very reasonably priced. The only issue is the stench from the river occasionally activated by the wind forcing us to find less quaint but more comfortable accommodation inland.
It is Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights and Indian New Year. Over 4 days, the entire country sparkles with light and festivities. Illuminated colorful paper lanterns hang in doorways, firecrackers pop throughout the night and families gather in celebration of joy, hope, peace and prosperity. In Goa, one tradition honors Lord Krishna's defeat of an evil demon king by building giant (8 meters tall) paper mâché monsters and then burning them.
Visiting the old Portuguese mansions around Goa requires several days with a car and driver. The most famous homes like Braganza, Figueriedo, Alvares, Fernandes and Palacio do Deos in South Goa are easily accessible to the public. Owners & caretakers rely on visitor donations to maintain these properties as the government offers little to no subsidies. Homes are filled with Indo-Portuguese furniture, vast collections of tableware, silver and crystal from Europe and Asia. In general, we are warmly welcomed by elderly women, eager to share their family history, but husbands have passed, children have left, estates have been divided and a sense of melancholy hangs heavily in the air.
From north to south, Goa is dotted with churches from petite whitewashed structures in the smallest of villages to the behemoths of Old Goa.
We leave the cozy continental feeling of Goa and head back to Hyderabad where we have been invited to observe one of the most important events of the Islamic calendar, the Day of Ashura.
On the 10th day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, Shia Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of the Imam Hussein, grandson of Mohammed, at the battle of Karbala (present day Iraq) in 680 AD. Men gather on the floor of the Ashoor Khana (mourning hall) where a man recounts the story of the battle with fierce emotion as the entire audience weeps with empathy. Women, seated of the floor, behind screens, in adjascent rooms, look on crying their souls dry. A procession of men (only) in black follows in the streets, led by men of all ages including very young boys, beating their chests and cutting themselves with sharp blades in honorary self-mutilation. Veiled women, watch discreetly from behind doors and on rooftops.
In a radical change of decor, we spend a few days visiting the archaeological wonder of Hampi, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Gigantic rock formations dwarf the ruins of the Hindu empire that flourished here from the 14th to 16th century. Hampi Bazaar is the tiny village close to the main sites. In this compact labyrinth of narrow unpaved streets, with small guesthouses, restaurants and shops, cows, pigs and dogs go about their business nibbling on garbage and soaking up the sun as pedestrians and vehicles circumvent. The basic but comfortable Thalik Guest house is run by an unusually enterprising young man with a keen sense of service. At 22 he's already running 2 guesthouses, a restaurant, cybercafe and tours.
From Hampi we hire a car and driver for the day (30 eu) to visit the temple complexes of Aihole and Pattadakal (a classified World Heritage site) as well as the cave temples of Badami.
But the really impressive cave temples are those of Ajanta and Ellora (both classified by UNESCO) reached by day trips from dusty, chaotic Aurangabad, famous for its Bibi-ka-Makbara a scaled-down, far-less bejeweled, but equally grand in its expression of love, replica of the Taj Mahal.
Built between the 2nd and 6th centuries, there are no less than 30 Buddhist temples carved into the caves of Ajanta along a horseshoe-shaped ravine. It's a full day of walking up and down steep, uneven steps, shoes on, off, on, off, to admire the frescoes and colorful wall paintings which are remarkably well-preserved.
Over the next 5 centuries, the 34 caves of Ellora were carved into temples and monasteries by Buddhists, Hindus and Jains. It's almost too much for one day. The standout is the Kailasa Temple, an astonishing Hindu sanctuary carved from one mighty rock by a crew of 7000 over a century and a half. Let the photos speak because my jaw is still dropped.
Perched on a plateau overlooking a valley lies the fortified town of Mandu. With not much left of the walls or gates, and all of one intersection, it's hard to even call this a village, yet the splendid palaces, mosques, temples and tombs all within proximity are testament to a rich history disputed by rajas, muslims and moghuls between the 10th and 18th centuries. Moreover, it's easy to visit the various sites on foot or bicycle. Accommodations on the other hand, are nothing to write home about.
The ghats (stairs leading to the water) and temples that line the banks of the sacred Narmada River, under the imposing 16th century fort in the town of Maheshwar, have long welcomed pilgrims. However, it was the 18th century (people's) Queen Ahilyabai of the Holkar family who built, among others, the palace, today the royal family's home and a luxury hotel, within the fort walls. The highlight, despite the ear-splitting hammer of the outboard motor propelling our waterlogged boat, is the view of the fort from the river in the late afternoon. The panorama from our cozy room is pretty good too!
Known as Little Varanasi, Omkareshwar is a small island in the shape of the Om sign. Pilgrims come by the thousands to bathe in the water and pray in the surrounding temples. It is neither the prettiest, nor cleanest place we've visited and the enormous dam that sits on the perimeter like a digital backdrop is utterly surreal.
There are only a few hotels and for 16 euros, our "super deluxe" room includes a (thankfully) motionless bat lying on the bed! Later, as we kick back after a long, hot day, a lizard, the size of my hand, drops out of the A/C with a loud thud, stunned and frozen!
On an overnight bus to Baroda (Vadodara), as is often the case, the bus stops in the middle of nowhere. The choice is simple: go or hold it in for no telling how long, or how disgusting the eventual facilities may be. So, I walk far enough from the bus to find an isolated place when suddenly 2 ladies position themselves right next to me! It's so shocking yet it is a moment of female bonding. We walk back to the bus giggling with/at each other, I'm not really sure.
The 19th century Laxmi Vilas Palace, built by a British architect, with a mere 117 rooms is still home to the royal family of Baroda. A portion is open to the public.
Also classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Champaner, the ancient capital of Gujarat and Pavagadh the sacred hill above it are about an hour from Baroda. The ruins of half a dozen mosques, poorly indicated on a map, delineate the boundaries of the city. That compass saves us. The architecture is an interesting mix of Hindu and Islamic styles.
The top of Pavagadh has several Hindu and Jain temples and is a pilgrimage site which can be reached on foot or by (Swiss built) cable car, but local tourists seem most interested in the kitsch photo studios that line the cobblestone streets.
Like Goa, the small town of Diu on the Oman Sea (southern tip of Gujarat) was a Portuguese enclave until 1961 when India reclaimed the territory. The season hasn't quite started yet which has its pros and cons. We visit the fort and churches practically alone but finding a ride proves difficult. By the sea, the king prawns are scrumptious!
The only remaining wild Asian lions (different characteristics than their African counterparts) in India can be found in Sasan Gir Wildlife Sanctuary. Closed for 5 months during the monsoon, the sleepy town is swinging into a new season. Getting into the park is no simple affair as the number of jeeps per time slot is limited and there's a mafia-like organization for procuring the permits which consists of securing a jeep, then paying a gypsy to stand in line for you from midnight to 4am, whereby you (in our case two young Israelis looking to share costs) then take place for the remaining (freezing cold) hour or two until the office opens. Jeeps then gather around then entrance and after checking and rechecking paperwork, are allowed to enter for precisely 3 hours. We get lucky and spot 2 lions waking up with the sunrise.
The town of Jamnagar is famous for a Hindu temple where a mantra has been chanted 24/7 since 1964, but the real stars of this town are the beautiful Jain temples in the center.
In 2001, a devastating earthquake struck the region of Kutch killing some 30,000 people. Despite severe damage, the extraordinarily ornate palaces of the capital city Bhuj, still stand.
An hour away in the coastal town of Mandvi we visit the royal family's summer palace, and a couple beaches nearby. In contrast to the deserted private beach, the public beach is humming with activity. Families play in the water, vendors peddle food and toys, and young boys offer camel and pony rides. A jeep pulling a parasail drives by on land as a jet ski whizzes by in the water.
But the most interesting site in Mandvi is the shipyard with the skeletons of gigantic wooden boats under construction. No one is working today leaving plenty of room for a flock of Pink Flamingoes to wade in the shallow water nearby.