Diwali in the desert

Although Diwali is the festival of light, really it has become the festival of noise (which for India is saying something).

All around our haveli in Jaisalmer, we have non-stop firecrackers and fireworks (some are so loud it’s like a bomb has gone off). So it is nice that we are spending the main day of Diwali (like our Christmas Day) in the Thar desert.

We are with two other couples and we are sitting on simple beds around a camp fire as the sun goes down. Our two guides have whipped up a thali, complete with rice and chapatis, and served them with a chilled beer.

Then I notice them bring out the chocolates. The box makes me think of Ferrero Rocher. I don’t even have time for a reality check (in India? in the desert?) when I realise that what they have produced are some fireworks and sparklers.

We all have a bit of childlike fun making shapes with our sparklers, while the Australian male helps with the lighting of fireworks (not always as easy as it seems with Indian products).

Although we create a little noise it is brief and we return to our peace. The air is still, everyone settles back into a thoughtful silence as we stare at the flames from the fire or at the carpet of stars above us, which seem to get closer with every passing hour.

One couple return to the haveli by jeep, leaving four of us behind. Our beds for the night are open to the elements. We are on a basic bed frame, with incredibly heavy layers of blankets. We do need them as the temperature drops to 16 degrees – easily half the daytime temperature. Because of the contrast, it feels colder still.

Never before have I minded struggling to sleep or waking in the night. It is magical indeed to open your eyes to the view of the night-time stars with no light or noise pollution. One time I turned over, glanced up, and saw a shooting star, one of many we saw that night.

Sunrise was beautiful and before we knew it, we were on our way back to our haveli – but not before we met some camels.

Are you sitting comfortably?
(Keep reading to the end for our views on the Pushkar Camel Fair)

In Jaisalmer it seems that every haveli or tour agency is offering camel desert safaris. In the morning we saw a small group of tourists riding camels back to the village. We later spoke to one couple staying at our haveli who had done this and they said they had been assured beforehand that the camels were well looked after – and they verified that appeared to be the case.

They explained that the camels had been allowed to wander off at night – with certain restrictions. They had a small bit of rope around their front legs, preventing them from walking further than 3 or 4 km. So in the morning the guides had to round them all up, causing their group some amusement as they waited.

As we are on a journey towards veganism, talking about the ethics of camel riding has been taking up quite a lot of our mealtime conversations.

Everyone we have spoken to has been ok with it. We Googled it and didn’t come up with any clear controversy that said it should be avoided at all costs. Indeed, camel-riding still consistently gets five stars on outdoor activities in Jaisalmer on TripAdvisor.

The conclusion would seem to be summed up by this: Choose your tour company carefully. Camels should be in good condition, properly fed, watered and rested – though I am not sure how exactly you can do this before you book. You can ask the right questions – but I suspect most tour agencies will give you the answer you wish to hear.

Camels – ships of the desert – are domesticated animals and have been for 2,000 years. (That doesn’t mean it’s right, I hear someone argue.)

For hundreds of years they have been used to transport goods across the desert. (But we have cars and lorries to do that now.)

These are relatively poor people, who cannot afford vehicles – or vehicles can’t go where the camels can. (Ok, that’s the reasoning for using camels in their ‘day job’. Why should a tourist ride a camel, when they can ride in a jeep as an alternative?)

What are the ethics of a tourist riding a camel? Is it any different to riding a horse – with the caveats that the animals in all cases should have proper care, food, water, shelter and rest?

There will be some (including the organisation PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) who argue that you should not ride any animal full-stop. But I think that most rational people would accept there is a middle ground.

Maybe one day we will look back and think that no horse should be ridden for human pleasure. After all, they too have to go through a training process, just like camels do.

We were able to get close enough for photos of the camels in the desert. You cannot get away from the fact that the camels have pegs through their nose, meaning that their human can control them, getting them to follow on rope or getting them to sit and stand at the right time.

Ideally, pegs would be put in under anaesthetic and with due veterinary oversight. I am pretty sure that wouldn’t have been the case here.

While the camels were being saddled up, there were many layers of covers and cushions put on and straps under their belly. So far so good.

It was when the saddle was put on (which was pretty heavy in its own right) that the camel grunted and grumbled. Being no expert on camel communication, I concluded that it was a bit irritated by it.

As we discovered, it’s all very well trying to do your research on the spot by asking the drivers questions, but their English is limited. You can’t get a full conversation with them, though it is clear that this is their livelihood and it makes a lot of sense for them to care for their camels.

We saved ourselves the discomfort – mental and physical – and hopped back in the jeep for the fast, bumpy, sandy, sweaty ride back to the haveli.

David adds…

Most of the poorest communities we have met during our recent travels have a relationship with animals unlike our western tradition. We keep our beloved dogs and cats as companion pets who are often viewed as one of the family. In Vietnam and Cambodia, with their long traditions of poverty and near starvation, people have until recently been obliged to eat whatever you could get your hands on… and that includes cats and dogs.

In the west, as much as we love our dogs, we think nothing of eating equally sentient pigs and cows. The scale of intensive farming to satisfy our lust for meat has engendered the most infamous crime against nature which rivals genocide and war for its barbaric cruelty of millions of animals. Yet I feel we are in no position to judge those who have not enjoyed the choices we have. People here breed livestock to feed their families. Unlike we smug westerners, they cannot pop down to Waitrose to buy organic, ethically sourced vegan ready-meals.

The indigenous people who live in the villages on the edges of the Thar Desert are some of the poorest people in a poor country. In this harsh climate their lives are a constant battle for survival.

Some make enough to feed their families by facilitating camel rides. The villagers we met seem to take good care of their camels who they know are essential to their livelihood and very existence.  No matter what we in the west may think about using animals as ‘beasts of burden’ or worse, as tourist attractions, we have to remind ourselves that we judge from a very privileged position.   Farmers in the UK spend hundreds of thousands on tractors, harvesters and other industrial farming machines. This is not an option for subsistence farmers for whom one year’s bad harvest due to adverse weather can destroy families and communities.

Certainly tourists have fed much of the cruelty to animals which in many places is fuelled by greed and ignorance rather than necessity and now it is the more enlightened generation of tourists who must vote with their feet and via social media to bring an end to some appalling abuses; dancing bears, caged and drugged wild cats, whales in fish tanks and elephants who have witnessed the cold-blooded murder of their mothers to then suffer the physical, emotional and spiritual abuse known as Pajan… the process by which the baby elephant is cruelly ‘trained’ to endure a life of servitude and abuse.
Maybe camels and camel-riding will be the next thing that tourists will have to think twice about. Our next stop, Pushkar, is famous for its camel fair which is being held this month.

Camel Unfair…

The Pushkar Camel Fair is held from 15-23 November this year. Luckily we will be out of town by then but preparations are already well under way and plenty of people have laid out their stalls (there is every bit of equipment and adornment you need for camel-keeping), three Ferris wheels are up, and hundreds of camels have arrived.

Each year, around 200,000 people converge on this small town (right near our guest house, as it happens) and, according to Lonely Planet, they bring some 50,000 camels, horses and cattle. There is serious business to be done, before it becomes a strange mix of sideshows, including snake charmers, children balancing on poles and ‘visitors v locals’ wrestling matches.

We took a walk around the dusty showground, fairground and camel-parking area, four days ahead of the start of the event. It was not a pretty sight.

It distressed me to see two beautiful horses tied up in a tent – where a man was swinging a heavy hammer to knock in some more tent pegs. The horses were clearly terrified by the noise and could merely shy away, as far as their six feet of rope would allow. The man was oblivious.

In terms of camels, I would have expected that if you were here to sell, you would have healthy specimens. But they are not all well kept, that’s for sure. The ones pulling heavy carts laden with humans are not in the best condition. The ones taking tourists for rides around the grounds were not too bad.

But it was the ‘back’ area where people have parked their camels that distressed me. Some have been painted and decorated. One, we believe, was having a peg put in its nose and it was clearly unhappy about it. One was being moved – and a child no older than eight was needlessly thwacking it with a stick.

Another was being walked – and a different child started picking up stones and throwing them at its back legs. Again, absolutely no reason. The camel was walking with no fuss, being led on a harness and rope. I said ‘no’ to the boy twice. He did it again and looked back. I shook my head. He stuck his tongue out and backed off.

We are not going to change a culture that has had this kind of fair for hundreds of years. For many, again, it will be their livelihood. But what I came away wishing more than anything was that someone would please educate Indians about caring for their animals. They can keep camels, horses and cows for their livelihood – but for God’s sake (whichever one you want to believe in), be nice to them.

Is there no organisation in India which could set up several stalls here at the camel fair and spread the word about why it is good to be kind to your animals? Speak in their language, speak in a way their culture and religion will understand. It surely must be possible.

The trouble with being more aware of animal rights, we have learned, the more it hurts.

Next stop, Jaipur.

(Sorry, no pictures until later… Wifi not strong enough!)

 

Cheeky beggars

Up until now, we have been surprised by how laid-back Indian drivers appear to be. Yes, they are always hooting and they don’t follow rules of the road like we do but they seem to have their own system.

Basically this is the rule: Give way to anything bigger than yourself. So that works for buses, lorries, cars, tuk-tuks, motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians. You know your pecking order.

Other than this, it’s every man for himself. Unless you’re an animal. Water buffalo, wander as you wish. Cows, walk or sit where you like. Foolish dogs, sleep in the middle of the road, why don’t you…

Mainly, the driving we have seen in recent weeks has been on slow roads. Traffic cannot go too fast because of the state of the road. Potholes, construction work, rubble, it’s all there. But on the road from Udaipur to Jodhpur, we spent some of the time on a two-lane highway where slow lorries hogged the outside lane.

One minute our driver was overtaking on the left, the next minute on the right, and then occasionally there would be a barricade in the road with incredibly little warning, either put there by police to slow the traffic or put there to allow roadworks (there will be women in saris carrying concrete on their heads). The equivalent roadworks in the UK would have about a mile of warning cones. Here, you’re lucky if there are three cones before the hazard is underneath your front wheels.

Right in front of us, two large lorries found themselves side by side at the same speed. One wouldn’t give way to the other. They got scarily close to the point that I gasped, thinking it was accidental. And then I realised they were doing it on purpose.

One wouldn’t give way to the other and one of the drivers was deliberately trying to force the other off the road.

The other retaliated and pushed back. Then a third lorry somehow came up and got involved and stopped (causing us to stop) – and the driver jumped out brandishing a stick.

At which point our driver pulled round to the left on the stony hard shoulder and we carried on our journey, safely out of the way.

A couple of weeks ago, we were in a car where we needed to get to a restaurant on the other side of the two-lane highway. Our driver crossed over in a gap in the central reservation, and proceeded to drive on what was the hard shoulder – in the opposite direction to the oncoming traffic. In England, you would be vilified. Here, no one batted an eyelid. They didn’t even hoot!

Indians like hooting. It must be their favourite pastime. It’s even painted on the back of most vehicles. ‘Horn OK.’ ‘Horn please.’

(You may remember Mohammed, the taxi driver in Mumbai. We liked him because he never used his horn.)

But Indians are surely oblivious to the sound. It all becomes white noise. One driver we know hoots at every corner, even when he has not looked the other way. It’s as if he thinks that a hoot means he can proceed.

Tuk-tuk drivers pass vehicles and pedestrians with inches to spare. They don’t stop if they see something coming. They might slow down but they otherwise just keep going until people squeeze past and somehow, if everyone breathes in, they manage it. It’s as if every customer has told them to step on the gas because their house is burning down. I’m sure no one is in such a hurry.

We had the best tuk-tuk drive into Jodhpur on our arrival. It was busy at 5 pm, and everyone was hooting. And our young tuk-tuk driver, who may or may not have been to tuk-tuk driving school, was for a while on his mobile phone. I was getting worried as I thought he was texting when I realised he was putting on Indian music on his speakers. To be honest, it really added to the atmosphere, as we whizzed in through the crowded Sardar Market past the Clock Tower and into the alleyways of old Jodhpur.

During the day, the market is alive with people selling all kinds of things, from Diwali stickers and firecrackers to brightly coloured scarves and sandals. The area around the Clock Tower is touristy but initial prices are designed to let you haggle. Today I picked up a large piece of fabric (almost too big to be a scarf) for 100 rupees (approx £1). The price had started at 500. I hardly even tried!

But of course where there are white faces, there are inevitably beggars. Many scruffy children approach you, often tugging on your clothes to draw attention to themselves.

They indicate that they are hungry.

We were approached one morning by three girls. Admittedly, they did look like they could do with a decent meal. Instead of giving them a 10-rupee coin, we gave in to their requests for chapati. We took them to the roadside omelette stall and ordered them an omelette each. It cost more than giving them each a coin, but it was a far more satisfactory outcome all round.

You do have to make a judgment call each time you see a beggar. Some we ignore, others we acknowledge. One such was a particularly disabled man outside a rural temple we had visited. I was pleased that David had given him something, because I realised that we were both going up to the street dogs and the street cows to say hello, and yet it would have been all too easy to ignore the human being.

The man was delighted by our gift, which was little more than the cost of a cappuccino back home. He kissed it and said thank you by touching his heart.

Other beggars are less grateful. One young girl didn’t want to accept a slightly torn 10-rupee note (we made it clear it was that or nothing). Another, who had followed us for way too long, didn’t seem to think that a couple of small coins was enough. Cheeky beggars!

As I say, you do sometimes have to ignore beggars and we don’t tend to give them the time of day when an area is crowded. If you give to one child, you’ll find that 20 more suddenly come out of the woodwork. You also don’t want to be getting a wallet out, exposing where you keep your wallet and making yourself vulnerable to a thief.

It has become a bit of a routine each morning, sorting out 10- and 20-rupee notes and other coins. We also take biscuits and cakes from our very generous breakfast, ready to hand out to grateful hungry children. We don’t have to carry them for very long.

 

It’s funny, many people here in Jodhpur seem to have the same hobby.

The other day, we were walking and talking to some boys who had tagged along. They were practising their English.

‘What’s your hobby?’ they asked. So we mentioned photography, pointing to the camera.

‘What’s yours?’ we asked. ‘Football? Cricket?’

No, it turned out to be collecting foreign bank-notes. Of course! We didn’t have anything to give them, and probably wouldn’t have put our hands in our pockets in this instance anyway.

Earlier the same day, as we were walking up a tiny back street to the fort, we said Namaste to an older man standing in his doorway. ‘Where are you from?’ is the question we have been asked more than any other this year.

‘England,’ we say. Ah, England, his favourite. Of course. ‘Very, very good.’

And before you know it, he is talking about his sons and how one of them loves history. And oh look, within arm’s reach by the front door, is his foreign bank-note collection in a small photo album.

David doesn’t see it as begging by any other name, but the cynic in me says otherwise.

We have, after all, been advised by our haveli owners to be wary of people chatting to us. They tend to be over-friendly and will say they are best friends or brothers with the haveli owner in order to gain your trust somehow.

Fortunately, nothing bad has happened yet. In fact, we don’t think (touch wood) we have been scammed once in our travels. Over-charged, definitely, but not scammed.

Next stop, Jaisalmer.

Medication for the soul

It was the story of the staggering street dog with maggots in his head that brought us to Udaipur.

We saw the two-minute video on Facebook once we were already in India and we were lucky enough to be able to factor in some time to visit Animal Aid Unlimited, whose mission is to rescue and treat the street animals who have become sick or injured. An important part of their work is education and inspiring a community to protect the lives of all animals.

Primarily we came for the dogs, but we have been surprised by how much we have been touched, literally and spiritually, by other animals.

One of the first things that most volunteers will experience is bottle-feeding the calves. My first one was a pure white calf, with the softest hair you can imagine. She nuzzled in to me, gulped down her milk, and came back for more. She stayed afterwards for a cuddle, her milky breath in my face.

In the enclosure with these orphans is a fluffy baby donkey and some friendly goats. One day, as I tried to leave the enclosure, one of the goats stood in the way so I stopped to say hello. (You are always saying hello to the animals here.) He promptly put his front hooves on my chest, because he wanted to reach the leaves in the tree.

One of our jobs in the day is to ‘give love’ to the sheep and brush them. Some allow this, but there are two young brown ones who are not so sure. To be honest, sheep have never done much for me. This is probably because I have never got to know one. Usually they are skittish and run away, and their coat is hard and wiry so they are not actually that nice to touch.

But there was my first lesson. While I was sitting amongst the calves one morning, a sheep came over to say hello. It is always nice when an animal comes to you for attention, rather than the other way around.

I duly said hello. And she looked me in the eyes. There is a moment (I am sure other volunteers will agree) when you seem to communicate with an animal, when you acknowledge something special, and you just stay with it for as long as you can. You know it isn’t really personal, but you like to think it is.

The sheep stayed there for a chat and a rubdown. And I loved it. I was surprised by how gentle a creature she was. I also never cease to be amazed by how many animals here are open to trusting a human being again, despite what has happened to them… the donkey who has been beaten about the face (a court case is pending), the cow who has had acid thrown on her, the dog that has been tied up with wire around her jaw for so long that she is permanently scarred…

And then you get another lesson when you find the courage to sit next to a huge water buffalo or brush the flank of a super-sized bull. In the cow and donkey sanctuary in the lazy early afternoon heat, we get to brush the animals. I don’t think most of them really need brushing, but it’s a good way of bringing you closer to them – and they seem to like it.

When a young (but still impressively large) water buffalo comes to you, it is very special indeed. Their skin is tough, on the back of their wrinkly necks the hair is long but thin. They like being brushed, much like I imagine they like having a bird on their back to pick off the bugs.

The one I am drawn to has a small tuft of white hair on her head and she is called Flower.

There is a large bull who is interested in being brushed. At first, when he walks over, I shy away, especially as he tends to shift others out of his way with his horns. Eventually I realise that he is just jealous, so I pluck up the courage to brush him, and he stays there happily until he has had enough and just ambles off.

The sanctuary area for cows and donkeys is a peaceful place. It has plenty of room for the animals to relax. When they are standing still or lying down, you don’t see their disability. It’s only when they move that you notice the amount of limping and hobbling, or where limbs are missing. Most donkeys have one if not both front ankles bandaged from where they have been tied up for too long.

They are still, however, very capable of leaning on those two front feet if they need to give a swift kick from the back, to any animal that mildly irritates them.

There is another area where cattle and donkeys are recovering, it’s still the ‘hospital’ and ‘accident and emergency’ area for these animals. One cow has a lot of bandaging around its head. One day we see the staff changing the dressing. The large hole where the eye socket should be is astonishing but the animal seems not to be in pain when it is cleaned. We understand that maggots have already eaten the nerve endings.

In this part of the sanctuary you can sit with a dying cow. In India, cows are sacred and it is against the law for one to be put down. All that staff can do is ease their suffering with medication.

One black cow is brought in with a badly broken back. She is lying in the shade on a black plastic mat, where she is kept as comfortable as possible. It is only a matter of time.

And, if volunteers have the time, they can sit with her. David sits with her for quite a while, stroking her head, talking gently, reassuring, and batting flies away.

It is a humbling and moving experience.

It seems deliberate on the part of a large black and white horned bull that he sits himself right next to her. At one point he licks her face. We don’t think they were brought in together, we have no idea whether this was empathy, but I hope she felt comforted by his presence.

She is not there the next morning.

Despite having emotional moments with cows, sheep, goats, water buffalo, and even a donkey, my favourite times are with the dogs. You can quickly establish a rapport with a dog and I find myself returning to the same disabled dogs in Handicapped Heaven.

There are dogs who have lost limbs, most of them have lost the use of their back legs and they are either dragging them behind them or they have been amputated. There’s one, Deepak, who has only one and a half legs. He gets about all right. He is a handsome dog, with quite thick rusty brown fur.

Then there are the ‘ugly dogs’. It’s what they are called for identification purposes but everyone knows that they have even more beautiful souls and they are so friendly. But you can see why they might have been rejected by people. They might have a long tooth protruding forwards, or a misfitting jaw, or no lower jaw at all, leaving the tongue to flop out and get covered in sand when they are lying down. I sit with one dog in the corner, who responds immediately to being touched. Her haunch starts moving like she is scratching her ear, though there is no leg there.

I scratch her ear for her. The haunch keeps moving.

Another dog, with longer fur (God knows how they cope with this heat), just rolls over in the sand, inviting a tummy rub. He is so inviting that you find yourself playing with him like you would a normal dog, a bit more forcefully and a bit more fun, and it’s only later you realise his back legs are not functioning.

We have been shown how to give them a lovely soothing back massage and how to rub their shoulders – it’s where most of them will carry their tension from having to lift their bodies and compensate for their disabilities.

Later in the week we are introduced to the area where it is not known for sure yet what, if any, diseases the dogs are carrying. We have had our rabies injections so we are allowed in, but you have to exercise more caution. Somehow the reward here is even greater.

Sitting for ten minutes with a dog who is in a small gated room for his own protection while he heals really feels like useful work. You feel like you are making a real difference to their day. Some wag their tail and you know you can relax with them. Others don’t have a tail that can wag any more.

Some have ‘lampshades’ on, the plastic cone on their heads to stop them from licking a wound. One white dog is so nervous of me that I cannot touch him. But he is ok with me just sitting, chatting. It seems perfectly natural to be telling him about my rescue dog back home. I change his matting and leave him just a bit better than he was ten minutes before.

When you see the progress of most of these dogs in videos on the Animal Aid website, you realise just how resilient they can be.

You go home sweaty, dirty, having sat in the sand, or had a dog in your lap, pee down your front, dried milk splatters from the calf-feeding, a big smile on your face, and your heart bursting with love.

You are in a place of healing, though we suspect that humans get as much as, if not more, healing than the animals. One volunteer described it this week as ‘medication for the soul’.

Personally, I have never been more ‘in the moment’ and present than right here in Udaipur.

Please take a look at the video which brought us here.

To read more about Animal Aid Unlimited, or to donate, please go to their website. You can also read there about their education programmes and how they return street dogs back to the community where they live.

*Deciding to go vegetarian was a decision we made before our visit to the sanctuary but these last two weeks have certainly confirmed that it was the right decision for us. 

One crisp packet

It’s bothering me. One simple orange crisp packet. It’s nestling under a railing, stuck there between the white rail and the green wooden boards of the deck of a boat.

We are heading towards Elephanta Island, about an hour and a half’s journey from Mumbai. There’s a family opposite us, mum and dad, a set of grandparents, and two children, a girl of about eight and a boy of about two.

The children have been happily sharing a packet of crisps. I don’t think much more of it. The mum peels a small orange and they share it out. Without a thought (and without a care as to who might notice) throws the peel over the side of the boat. Although it is not something that I would do, I reason that, ok, it’s biodegradable and my mind wanders to other things.

There are dozens of commercial boats moored off the city’s coast. It’s an industrial stretch of coastline in the hazy distance. The boat is noisy and makes a slow plodding progress towards the island.

I can’t help noticing bits of rubbish floating in the sea. It’s perhaps not as bad as I thought it might be, but still you get the occasional area where it is huddled together, presumably herded by some underwater current, and it becomes more obvious.

The girl is doing as her mother does. She picks off little bits of pith and throws it over the side. Then I see her tearing up a piece of white paper and sprinkling it over the side like confetti.

Paper, I think. At least it is not plastic.

The mum tries to throw a piece of paper overboard but it is light enough to be lifted by the wind straight back at her and back on the boat. She sort of shrugs her shoulders.

And then I spot the crisp packet. It is sitting there under the railing. It is the one that the kids were holding a short time before.

I am willing it to stay where it is or to be carried by the wind further on to the deck. I will pick it up myself if it heads my way.

A passing boat causes a bit of wash and spray comes up. The only person to get wet is the mother in her blue sari. She laughs it off but her seat is wet and she comes and sits next to me, with her sleepy younger child dozing off on her shoulder.

Karma, I think.

And then I notice that the crisp packet is not there any more. I shift position to see if it is on the deck but I can’t see it. I am quite perturbed that it has unnecessarily gone into the ocean.

I want to say something. I want to nudge the grandfather, who was next to me earlier, to say ‘Please teach your grandchildren not to throw litter in the sea.’

I think about conversation starters, how I can start talking to him and bring it up. He may not even speak enough English.

How do I say something without sounding patronising or offensive? In India, you can be sure that it would attract the attention of all the other people on deck.

What would you do?

The signs, as you walk from the boat up the hill, read ‘Keep your Elephanta clean’. There is rubbish everywhere, over on a sad small beach area, down the side of the food, drinks and souvenir, stalls, along the rocks at the side of the jetty, derelict boats, a large cow with its head in the bin which it pulls over leaving contents to spill out.

cow

At the top of the hill is the World Heritage Site of Elephanta Caves. It’s a beautiful area of ancient rock temples, now inhabited by monkeys.

Security guards and members of staff sit lazily in the heat. Near one, I make a point of picking up two large plastic bottles from the ground and put them in the bin, almost in front of his nose.

We see several monkeys carrying plastic drinks bottles, which they steal from tourists. You can’t blame them for learning that they can get a nice drink of water. Maybe they are acquiring a taste for Pepsi.

One young monkey, scraping around in the rubbish pile, is chewing on a piece of plastic.

We reckon you could teach the monkeys to return the empty bottles to the many rubbish bins before you could teach many of the ignorant humans.

*In other news, the caves are well worth a visit!

The City of Dreams

I am sitting in our hotel room in Mumbai. I am not very good at working out its square area, but there is plenty of space to move around the double bed.

Since I got back here after visiting the Dharavi slum, I have been looking at the space I have here, something which doesn’t even start to compare to what I have in my own house back home.

If this was an area in the Dharavi slum, it would be divided into two or three smaller units and likely house two or three families of five or six.

It’s been a mind-boggling day, visiting the slum with Reality Tours & Travel. We chose them because they promote responsible tourism and put 80% of profits back into social programmes. They were running slum tours before the film Slumdog Millionaire.

‘Slumdog’ was loved by millions around the world, but not in India. Here, they thought it portrayed the Dharavi slum only for its negative side – filth, squalor, dirt, crime. The term ‘slumdog’ is also derogatory, suggesting that the residents here are the lowest of the low.

Dharavi 1
Picture: Reality Tours & Travel

Reality Tours have a strict ‘no photography’ policy so as to preserve the dignity of people living here and so they don’t feel exploited or invaded by tourists gawping at them. Admittedly this is strange at first but totally understandable. You really don’t want this to be like a human zoo.

One million people live in an area of just two square kilometres. Just to put that in context, in the (relatively urban) parish where I live (St Saviour, Jersey), there are 13,500 people in nine square kilometres.

As we arrive, we can see some high-rise blocks of flats (within the slum area) called, with no hint of irony, Evershine Meadows.

Our tour starts with a walk through the commercial district. Dharavi has its own vibrant economy. People are working in dark rooms in what to us look like Dickensian conditions. Recycling is the biggest industry. Here, they recycle plastic bottles, they sort plastics into different colours before melting them down and selling off the new components.

The fumes from burning things like paint pots are acrid. The heat in the semi-basement where bakers are churning out breads and biscuits is intense.

Most factories around the world are proud to put their label on, ‘Made in XXX.’ You don’t see ‘Made in Dharavi’ because people wouldn’t buy the foodstuffs if they knew it was made here.

Many immigrant workers arrive here, the City of Dreams, having left wives and children behind in rural areas, and they work long hours in a dark dirty room. What shocked me most was hearing that they all sleep in this same room.

The hide-tanning area is distressing for someone who has only this year turned vegetarian. Another penny drops and I know that I will never again buy leather. Most of the skins here, from sheep and goats (not cows as they are sacred) feeds the European and American market in the form of bags, purses and jackets.

In another area potters are at their busiest, preparing for Diwali next month by churning out thousands of little clay pots to hold candles. They will be sent around the country.

As we walk past the open sewer, our guide explains that sanitation is the biggest problem here. Very few homes have their own toilet. Some neighbourhoods have public facilities but the people have to pay each time.

There are sleepy dogs and skinny cats. Surprisingly we see only one rat and that is a dead one.

Some homes are made of concrete, others are more ‘shanty’ with corrugated roofing. The eye-opening part is walking down alleyways where the sun will never shine. They are so narrow that they are one-person wide. No room for passing someone, you just have to wait, or give way to the man who has a sack of concrete on his head.

There is mud and rubbish on the floor, water pipes to trip you up, and cables dangling overhead. A ragged piece of cloth serves as a front door.

Electricity and water supplies are available but are often limited to certain times of day.

Some people are doing quite well. Those who arrived here first have a bit of extra space, and many rent out upstairs rooms for a bit of extra income.

Women are washing clothes, scrubbing them on the floor, or cleaning out their stainless steel pots and pans.

There are stern-looking barefoot children, in grubby clothes, but there are also children in pristine school uniforms running around playing and laughing, and saying hello.

Dharavi is Asia’s largest slum and one of the densest populations in the world. 60% of Mumbai’s residents live in slums – by which is meant they illegally inhabit land owned by the government.

This visit was certainly not about taking selfies in the squalor. It was much more about the fascinating economy of a city within a city. There are about 5,000 businesses and 15,000 single-room factories in Dharavi.

The slum is the most literate in India, with a literacy rate of almost 70%.

Our guide said that people here are considered middle class – many men commute to work in other parts of the city. No, he explains, the poorest people in Mumbai are the ones who are homeless on the streets.

*More reading here.

*We are very aware that we can only just touch the surface here. There are two other fascinating parts of life in Mumbai which we have witnessed this week – the dhobi ghats and the dabba-wallahs.

The ghats, built during the British Raj, are where all of Mumbai’s commercial laundry goes. 7,000 people handle half a million items here each day. They pride themselves on not losing an item. All the hotels and restaurants send their sheets and table-cloths here.

The dabba-wallahs, about 5,000 of them, are the men who bring homemade lunches in to the city. They collect them from outside the city and bring them in on the train and can be seen at a couple of stations, emerging to transfer the lunchboxes onto bicycles and on to offices. A mistake is made about once in six million deliveries! If you haven’t seen the film The Lunchbox, I recommend it.

More reading here.

I moo’ed at a mullah

The first day in Mumbai and we wander in the streets from our hotel. It is just a way of getting the feel of our local area and we put down the map once we have got on to the Colaba Causeway.

I always like a good market and we turn left as soon as we see some fruit and vegetables on sale. Away from the traffic and into the smaller streets which are lined with stalls.

It’s not just fruit and veg. You soon smell the fish and chicken which is on sale with no protection from the midday sun.

Everyone is friendly here and full of smiles.

A group of young children have made up a game by throwing a sandal forward and I could only guess that it was a matter of each child tying to throw their flip-flop as close as possible to the first one, much like boules or petanque.

One little boy wearing just dirty white pants emerged from a building to pee against a motorbike (twice).

We were amused by a man who was trying to brush cockroaches away from his property into the street. It was funny because they kept turning around and running back in. Even he saw the funny side of it, as did a girl who was trying to help. One cockroach was flicked almost to the other side of the street where it was swiftly pecked on and eaten by a chicken.

An older man is on a static bicycle and he is pedalling away, which is turning a device with which he is sharpening a knife.

The road turned to a lane, and the lane into an alleyway. Having walked through a very residential area where the alley was two people wide, we emerged at a harbour. Children were splashing about in the sea, jumping off steps and two older boys were trying to catch fish with a large piece of fabric. On the rubbish-filled beach, right out in the open, a man was squatting to have a poo and splashing water between his legs.

The second day in Mumbai, we take a taxi. I have read about a cow sanctuary at Bombay Panjrapole, a bit off the beaten track and a good place to start the day’s explorations.

We say hello to see how friendly the driver is. He’s a skinny old man dressed in his white

robe and cap. He has a long white beard but no moustache.

We ask Mohammed to take us to Bombay Panjrapole.

He didn’t understand. Bombay Panjrapole. I showed him the name written down, I repeated it but I wasn’t getting anywhere.

It’s a cow sanctuary, I said.

‘Mooooo,’ I said, with my best cow impression.

‘Ah! Bombay Panjrapole. Yes. One cow, two cow. Bombay Panjrapole,’ he said.

He still had to stop a couple more times to ask directions (I hope he also moo-ed at the people he asked) and then I had to help a bit with the directions on my map app.

He confessed that he had never been here in 37 years taxi driving and he was quite taken with it. (Taxi and tuk-tuk drivers are always willing to wait in order to get more business from you.)

‘One cow, two cow. No, so many cows!’ he chuckled. ‘Hehe.’

His growly laugh was something akin to Steptoe’s.

We liked Mohammed enough to ask him to pick us up again at 5.30 pm as we wanted to go to the Royal Opera House for a night of jazz. He said that six o’clock would be better, he used the excuse that the traffic would be (relatively) lighter and the temperature (marginally) lower. What he meant to say was that it suited him better because he had mullah duties at his mosque.

So at 6 pm we hop in his taxi.

‘Royal Opera House,’ I say. Where? Royal Opera House.

He doesn’t understand.

Which hotel?

In exasperation, I look at David to help me out here. Nothing.

I knew it was coming. If I can moo at a mullah, I can damn well do my Maria Callas impression and sing at him in a loud high pitch. (My singing is awful.)

I even extended both arms out (within the confines of the small sweaty taxi) to get my point across. Twice.

I try showing him the map, it’s near French Bridge. Ok ok. What hotel?

I showed him the map. Eventually, he said: ‘Oh. Opera. Opera House. Yes yes. He he.’

I swear he does it on purpose.

Lower expectations

(Otherwise titled: ‘And then Granny-ji farted in the back of the bus)

We must stop accepting the first offer of a tour in order to find our way around somewhere. The woman at our hotel in Panaji (or Panjim, no one seems to know which to use), fresh out of the Little Hitler School of Hospitality, suggested we take a tour.

It was only 250 rupees a head. It was only when I had paid it that I thought, gosh that’s cheap, I wonder why.

She hadn’t shown me the itinerary, told me the name of the company, or given me a receipt. She merely wrote a few places on a scrap of paper – it included a couple of temples and a couple of churches in Old Goa.

We were picked up at 10 am. The bus was a pretty, old thing, its sides painted with peacocks. On the go, it creaked and threw out black fumes. Less pretty inside, where the seats had been covered with thick plastic, which generated even more sweat, particularly when we quickly realised there was no air conditioning. I mean, a tourist bus in India with no air conditioning. Unbelievable!

The door was held on by a piece of string.

The guide, in his scruffy jeans and falling-apart sandals, was helpful in accommodating us two westerners. Everyone else was Indian so he spoke to them (a lot) in Hindi.

He handed us a piece of paper with the itinerary. We were with Express Travel Agents & Tour Organisers – Approved by the Government of Goa.

We were joined on the bus by Indians, some from Mumbai, some who couldn’t speak any English, including a sweet old lady we shall call Granny-ji and her husband. She smiled a lot, and after lunch had gestured for me to sit next to her on a wall, which I did until I noticed the large ants that were crawling around.

So, this is the chronological order of our tour stops. It’s just as well we keep an open mind.

*Fun Science Museum. Remember, low expectations. Well, we actually had fun! It was good – a mix of childhood games and magical illusions.

*Miramar – ‘a lovely golden beach of soft sands, along Blue Arabian Sea’… we drove past it so fast I had no idea it was on the schedule until afterwards.

*Basilica of Bom Jesus, Old Goa – nice to take a photo of, some saint’s remains are there.

*Se Cathedral, Old Goa – nice to take a photo of, the largest church in Asia.

*Shri Manguesh Temple – average Hindu temple, ten minutes enough.

*Shri Shantadurga Temple – average Hindu temple, ten minutes enough.

*Margao (Bypass) – we are still unsure what on earth that meant. We went past it or around it and four people got off to catch their train to Mumbai, but why was it on the itinerary? Not a clue.

*Colva Beach, longest beach in Goa. People swimming in jeans and shirts, no one just sitting in costumes on a towel. At least it was clean and we got an ice cream.

It was the three things that were not on the itinerary, however, that proved to be most memorable: a wax museum, an aquarium and a house of horrors, all of them utterly bizarre and only fit to be closed down.

The wax museum in a scruffy old building included some random historical figures like Mozart and Einstein, as well as some Indian figures like Mother Teresa and Gandhi, whose birthday it was today. Initially we had an English-speaking guide provided to us (not that we asked for it). She didn’t tell us anything that wasn’t on the information boards in front of the wax figures. ‘Gandhi,’ she pointed. ‘Gandhi.’ (They always say it twice.)

And suddenly she seemed to have a better offer and off she went with no explanation, leaving us to carry on. It was fine, you really didn’t need a guide and it only took three minutes in all, from start to finish. Madame Tussauds it was not.

(Above: Bizarrely, bits of crab in front of the waxwork of St Xavier)

On the way back from Colva Beach, we made one last stop. A very sad aquarium, tanks with a single fish and nothing else – no rocks, no greenery, an albino terrapin with no place to get out and bask, one fish which looked like it had grown too big even to be able to turn around in the tank.

We exited past a revolting statue of a man in beach shorts holding a child. It was filthy. Surely no one even takes a photo next to this? There were other such things in the garden, women holding fish, a woman gaily kicking her legs in the air on a bridge. All surreal (in a bad way).

And then we were shown the house of horrors. (In effect, our third that day.) It was so basic it belonged to an eternity ago, yes it could make you jump once or twice but there was no variation on a theme, it was just mechanised bodies moving towards you with a bit of screaming.

As we headed homeward bound, Granny-Ji, with her long grey hair and bright green sari, farted in the back of the bus.

The Indians seem to have no worry about farts and belches in public places. There was the ‘maid’ at our last place in Alleppey who burped like an old man every two minutes. On the train there was a young man lying on the seat who was snorting a dry sniff every couple of minutes, and then he topped that with a fart for all to hear. Not a care in the world. Not a flinch. Didn’t even open his eyes.

The road back to Panjim was bumpy, there is a lot of road-building going on. In some places the traffic-calming measures are a set of 20 small humps. It gives you what is known as an Indian massage. We worried that it might trigger more outbursts from Granny-ji.

Anyway, we were dropped back at our hotel. We couldn’t see the guide in order to give him a small tip, maybe he was too embarrassed.

Good God, if these were the highlights of South Goa, I think we need to move on quite soon.

[Luckily, our second day in Panjim was taken up with exploring on our own and we found that we like the place – lots of old houses, a Portuguese influence, an old quarter, a lovely church, and we found some nice cafes and restaurants.]

…………..

It was the kind of day that David finds he needs a beer. A long cold beer.

Wifi here in Panjim has been difficult. It doesn’t help that our hotel is the Indian equivalent of Fawlty Towers. When we first arrived, we noticed that there were only about five sheets of toilet paper left on the roll. I have asked three times now – in person and on the phone. ‘I’ll send the boy,’ is always the answer. The boy never arrives.

I have never had to beg for toilet paper before, but finally it is delivered on the fourth nagging.

At the end of our odd day, we ask if we can sit in the restaurant for food. No, the menu applies to room service only. We order noodles, a Kingfisher beer and a lemonade.

The food arrived – as a takeaway from somewhere over the road. Could we have it here in the lobby, as there is a table and we could continue with the wifi?

No.

Banished to our room, we take delivery of the food. No beer.

I call reception. No beer? No, it’s Gandhi’s birthday – a dry day. Ok, but could you not have told me that when we placed the order? We only found out when we got to the shop and it was closed.

And there was no offer of an alternative drink.

[The plates and cutlery were still outside our room in the corridor 24 hours later….]

The next morning, at breakfast we were making use of the wifi connection in the small restaurant when we vaguely heard a woman say ‘Good morning, Sir.’ We didn’t look up as we had been aware that two other guests had arrived.

‘GOOD MORNING, SIR,’ she repeated, at greater volume, directed at David. It’s enough to make a grown man stand up and take his hands out of his pockets.

She’s scary, that one. Each time we see her she seems to think she is in charge of telling us what to do (like that tour of South Goa). I don’t think we will take her advice again.

Our three-star hotel certainly has the most comfortable (bug-free) bed we have had in many many weeks, but (as well as the wifi issue) the catering is lacking. We are not offered tea or coffee in the morning. Yesterday I had successfully asked for cold milk to go with the cornflakes. (It’s the first time I have seen a cornflake in three months. Sometimes it’s difficult to face idlee and curry at 8 am.) Today, however, no such luck. The boy (their term) scurries off to get some (he has to take the lift downstairs) but comes back emptyhanded. ‘Sorry, ma’am, we have no cold milk.’

But you have hot milk right there at the buffet…?

He stands there staring at a cupboard for a bit and then stations himself back in the corner, standing and waiting. Suddenly, five minutes later, he remembers that he also has an order for two black teas and he has to leave the room again, only to return with two teabags, and he puts the kettle on.

…………..

The last time we had to lift our suitcases (on the train from Kochi to Goa) we realised that it was time to send a little home to lighten the load. This is the second time we have done this, the first in Cambodia (happy to report that the parcels have reached their destinations). So today the first mission of the day involves a walk to the nearest Post Office.

We arrive with our parcel unwrapped because, in Siem Reap, the post office wanted to see the contents for themselves.

There is no queue at the Parcel Packaging Centre so we walk right up to it. Could we have this parcel packaged here? No, we don’t do that. No, silly me, of course you don’t.

We are directed to the back of the building, outside to a tiny shop, the Xerox shop, behind the small chapel.

The man invites us in and we sit down. He doesn’t say much. He trots off to the back room, returning with an old shoebox with no lid. He tries the things for size and prods at it until he is satisfied. It’ll do.

He gets a piece of paper and straps it to the top using string. David is watching this in astonishment.

But wait, this is a skilled craftsman – he is not finished yet.

First he gets out his roll of gaffer tape. That’s more like it, I’m thinking. But it’s like he has never handled it before. The ends are all messy and twisted and at one point he tapes down his hand.

Next, he picks up a ragged piece of muslin which he wraps around the shoebox. Again, I am more reassured about the likelihood of my parcel getting home.

But it turns out that he needs to apply a plastic window for the documents – proof of ID and a form to say what is in it. In order to apply this, what does he do? He is going to use a sewing machine of course.

He retreats to the back room, giving us a chance to look around. It’s what your great grandfather’s shop would have looked like, there are stacks of old paper on the floor and on random shelving, some of it tied with string. It has all accumulated a layer of dust and cobweb like it belongs in an ancient attic. I feel sure he knows where everything is.

An older man comes in. He stands in the entrance, looking like he has forgotten what he has come in for. He says a prayer.

The parcel-wrapper re-emerges and walks outside, muttering something. The new man explains that he is working with a secondhand sewing machine and the string is broken, so he has gone next door to use theirs.

Another man comes in and buys two brown envelopes. He helps himself from the shelf, pays and leaves.

The next customer is an older woman who requires the photocopying service. The ancient photocopier (from the 1980s perhaps) actually works. While she waits, the electric fan (which has been put on for our benefit) scatters some papers to the floor.

The man also requires a copy of our ID – I show him a picture on my phone. He tries to copy it but each time he places it on the photocopier it turns from vertical to horizontal and he really can’t get to grips with it. It also only comes out black. Fortunately he says that David’s driving licence will suffice for ID so he copies that instead.

Our man returns. Success! He has the muslin with a plastic window attached. Now all it needs is for the muslin to be wrapped around the box.

The two men do this together. All the edges are folded the way we would fold the edges of wrapping paper but instead of using Sellotape they hand-sew it in place with white cotton.

It takes for ever.

The men chat happily without a care in the world, they feel no pressure to finish the task any faster than the time it will take to complete. India, we are reminded, teaches you patience.

Job done. 150 rupees (approximately £1.50), keeping someone in work and recycling materials to boot.

Now it’s back to the Post Office. We remind ourselves to count to ten.

The man at the counter is none too happy that he can’t see our passport. I suggest I could email the image of my passport to him. We point out that the other man said the driving licence was ok for ID. He repeated his request for a copy of the passport and I said the same each time. ‘There was a problem, it wouldn’t copy.’ This exchange was repeated three or four times, until he just seemed to accept it.

A queue starts behind us. Inevitably the ripe old man immediately behind me is in my personal space, but I smile, and say ‘Sorry, we could be some time here!’ He doesn’t understand a word but smiles slightly.

Can I pay by card? No. Of course not, I knew you wouldn’t, I was just having fun. Cash it is.

Finally, we walked out into the blazing midday sunshine. Sending a parcel back home had only taken two hours.

…………..

And then… a train ticket!

Booking a train in India is notoriously difficult. I had hoped it was easier now that there is online booking. Nope.

I had already tried booking online. I had wasted an hour of my time, on a flimsy internet connection. There are plenty of trains running – it’s working out the details of where you are leaving from, where you are arriving (working out which station is where – it’s the difference between arriving at Kings Cross, Paddington or Euston in London), what class you want, and whether your choice of train actually runs on a specific day.

I had tried emailing a company who specialise in Asian travel and had helped us in Vietnam. Even they were flummoxed. (‘If you impossible to change the date you can directly to buy the ticket with IRCTC website. We highly apologise for the inconvenience.’)

We look around for travel shops – there are usually loads in a town when you are not looking for them. We ask in Thomas Cook. We are clearly the first people to have asked that question. They suggest some bloke ‘round the corner, next to Mustafa’s’ but they can’t remember his name.

Instead we cross the road to Quest Travel, though we are actually next door at the Lokmanya Co-operative Society who, it turns out, book trains!

We are ushered upstairs. There is a slight whiff of toilet at the top of the stairs. A sign on the door says ‘Please flush after use’.

In the office, half a dozen balloons are static-stuck to the wall, a couple of them feeling a little deflated. Maybe someone had a birthday a week ago. Also on the wall is a tiny Ganesh statue surrounded by half a dozen yellow marigolds and a lit incense stick.

A couple of wires dangle from the ceiling. A computer cable is taped to the edge of the customer-facing desk. In places, it has given up holding the wire, but many small strips of brown tape are still there.

We perch on light beige plastic chairs, which are clean at the front but grubby underneath.

There are three young women in blue uniforms, one of them looking after us. Any time they need anything they summon what we can only assume is the new boy as they seem to tease him in good humour.

We soon establish that we need to return the next day because the booking system for the trains will be released in the morning. I am not sure why the Indian rail system does this. I know trains get booked very quickly here. Maybe it is because they keep back some tickets for those who need to travel at shorter notice – and for tourists who are less organised.

In true British fashion, we are at the office for 9.30. Actually we are there with ten minutes to spare, allowing us time to notice the dead dog on the street outside. She looks like she has gone peacefully, rather than being knocked down by traffic on the busy road nearby. Strangely, I feel relieved to see a dead dog rather than one who is badly injured.

In the office, the first question we are asked is whether we got the message from the hotel. No. (Doesn’t surprise us.) Luckily the message had not been vital, they wanted us to come along to the office anyway – but the schedules are not out until 10.30. Of course they aren’t.

We go away to have a coffee in the nearest cafe, a lovely locals’ place, chosen for its proximity, though it turns out the coffee is perfectly drinkable.

At 10.30 we are back. We are informed of the price and David sits with cash in hand as if payment is imminent. A more senior man offers coffee. Yes, one please. Black. Ten minutes later, one milky coffee and a carton of mango juice are produced with a smile.

So anyway, eventually, we have our train ticket in hand, not quite Old Goa to CST (the historic main terminus in Mumbai), but near enough (Madgaon to LLT).

The commission for the agency? 40 rupees (about 50p) for two hours’ customer time.

Next stop, then, is Mumbai.