Saturday, November 29, 2008

Stormed and Drenched in Chennai/Madras

I don't exactly remember if I encountered rain in India during this whole journey. Not even a drizzle, I don't think so. But as my night train slides oh-so-leisurely into Chennai, the terrain has abruptly changed into water-logged plateaus, marshes and lakes of greeneries. In fact, the surrounding areas around Ennore Station were completely submerged underwater.

Cyclone Nisha had been bearing down on Chennai for the last 3 days or so. My bunkmate tapped my knees and said, "See the rain waters?" I nodded and glanced at the flooded lakes of vegetables.

So - storm was abrewing in South India as the rest of the country is reeling from the series of bombings in Mumbai, particularly in the Colaba area where I stayed just a few days ago. Terror,as it turns out, never sleeps, and I cringe at the kind of conscience that these idiotic, pea-brai
ned, soul-less gargoyles have.

I just stayed in my swanky hotel (Hotel Anitha Towers at the Triplicane area) the whole morning through, sleeping through lunch. By 2PM, I was refreshed and ready to go. The heavy rains have stopped.

The streets of Chennai (Madras) are dirty and unkempt. As I walked towards the Marina Beach,supposedly the world's 2nd longest beach (after Bangladesh's Cox's Bazaar), there was stink of human excreta filtering through the air. Sewage had been sucked out and all these drained openly into the streets.

I cringed!

In a matter of minutes, the view of Marina Beach welcomed me. There was a wide expanse of beige sands and interrupted dry islands that stretch lazily into the harsh waves. After all, there was still a cyclone. I loved the steady blow of fresh air against my hair. In 30 minutes, the drizzling turned into a downpour. I rushed towards the watershed along with the rest of the locals. I was drenched all over, as the draught spared no one, not even us who were under the shelter.

It must have been an hour before I finally decided to leave and get absolutely wet! Men draped in short "tapis" carried useless umbrellas. A motorcycle got hit by a delivery truck - then the latter hurriedly left while people gathered around to help the hurt driver. Meanwhile, the man in front of me was already throwing up. What the heck! That was my signal to go!

I love the rains, though it hinders mobility. The waters calm me. I am all drenched down to my shoes, but I feel rejuvenated. I hope Nisha behaves tomorrow. I need to go!


Just for clarification, travelling to India (and Malaysia and Bangladesh) isn't exactly a pauper's budget; not when you consider 6 plane rides, countless train journeys which are mostly A/C rides with meals (not 3rd class), and very comfortable A/C hotels. After more than a dozen cities, any birdbrain could calculate that this whole undertaking involves a sizable fortune, at least for the daily wage earners. And this I am writing not to brag but to rightfully inform the uninformed! Meanwhile, I'm off to the beach - now that sun shines - finally! - over Chennai!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Terror in Mumbai

The imposing Taj Mahal Hotel in Colaba, Mumbai

To be in India, and to be in Mumbai particularly just 4 days after the series of terror attacks in the capital is an experience. I woke up yesterday with a deluge of sms from all over - Australia, Shanghai, U.S., London, Manila - all worried about me. But I have since left for Hyderabad and now, Chennai.

But these fidayeen attacks, loosely translated to "suicide bombers" have rocked the country as well as the world - and it all rings so true to home. Haven't we had much of this in Manila? You see, these fidayeen attacks have targetted 10 of the most important high-profile areas in Mumbai, especially the Colaba area, which is south Mumbai. My hotel was just a comfortable walk - 150 meters from the Taj Mahal Hotel as well as the Gateway of India. I have walked through the Taj, the Oberoi Trident Hotel, the Leopold Cafe, the CST Terminus (for my Hyderabad train), and the Metro Cinema - all among the 10 bombed sights in Mumbai.
With just a number of less than 30 terrorists circling the capital, they have managed to spread panic throughout the nation - and it reverberates so palpably, much like it did during the september 11 attack. The Lashkar-e-Taiba group has claimed the attacks, but it would seem that a Pakistani group has a major link with this attackers (Punjabi language was caught on phones). Currently, 110+ people have died including 6 foreigners, and 270+ are injured.

I just wish this will all stop soon, and the people of Mumbai can move on.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Lifestyle of the Rich, Famous and Dead in the Deccan Plateau of India

Chowmahalla Palace. This photo only courtesy of rahul kumar.

Golconda Fort

Nizam's throne at the nizam museum - photo courtesy of flickr's krithika

Now something has to be said about the drivers - autorickshaw, taxis, tuktuk drivers of india. They are the bane of a tourist's life. They come to the world with dollars and moolah instilled in their minute cerebral cortex. In the spirit of my insightful musings, i would like to dedicate this post to them:


Hmmm. That felt better! LOL

It was interesting how these ancient lives of rich men, mughals, kings, emperors mirror the affluence of the past as it also puts a distinct comparative demeanor to how 1.2 billion Indians live nowadays. 90% wallow in abject poverty, and when your stomach is churning and doing cartwheels, all matters of decency jump off the window.


The Nizam's Museum was particularly interesting to me. Accoutrements made of gold and silver, ivories and marbles - everything would equal the grandeur of the royal jewels of the British Monarchy.

Golconda Fort was a 20 minute ride from the city. It sits atop a hill - and the whole fortress is an inspired amalgam of towers and temples. From the top, you can see the awesome view of Hyderabad.


Chowmahall Palace was also picture perfect. Divided into 4 towers, all the old riches of the ancient owners are in full view; some available for public photography; some not! And of course, there's an extra fee if you take your still camera or video cam with you. Everything in India has a price - for foreigners! And why not? Beauty has a price.
I just felt lazy today so I opted not to check out the museum and just took a walk around the lanes and the nearby market. Gosh! I consumed 3 different kinds of ice creams, which are said to be famous in Hyderabad - as well as the Karachi breads.

Another One

I will be on another overnight train journey going further south tonight. Am starting to feel the tedium of these train journeys, although I know I shouldn't complain. But it does take some physicality - and require stamina.

Chennai, here I come!

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Hyderabad, Secunderabad and All the Bad Things That Are Good

This photo only courtesy of flicker's amit k.

I'm starting to dislike all these train journeys i'm having. Every single one of them have had stories to tell, and every one of them tiresome. You see, every single day, 14 million people ride the extensive Indian railways all over this subcontinent. Some of the services are good, but some of them also leave nothing to be desired. All the platforms are a mind boggling maze, and finding them is a little adventure in itself.

I am very good with finding platforms, but in India, I am just plain clueless.

My train journey from Mumbai ("bombay", to the local residents) to Secunderabad was a pleasant one. I befriended a really delightful Indian and we have become fast friends. He is a businessman who travels all over the country to do some hands-on checking for his family business (spices, dried fruits, etc). His name is Himanshu, married with a child. Had it not been for him, it would have been one dour trip with dour-looking bunkmates (they hardly spoke english, you see, and my only hindi is "namaste").

I got off the Begumpet (which the locals pronounce as "Beg'um Pay") instead of Secunderabad Junction, then got an autorickshaw to my hotel of choice, which was full. Lucky for me, a tout was waving the call card of my next hotel of choice! So I walked from there to the next block.

Hyderabad, as it turns out has a different system. Your hotel stay is 24-hours, not until the usual check out time between 9AM to 12noon; so if you arrive at 6PM today, your check out time will be 6PM tomorrow. Another thing, the local government imposes a travel tax of 10% on all hotel bookings. That isn't so bad. Mine would fetch 55 rupees (PhP55).

Later in the afternoon, I went 20 kilometers out of the city to see the Golconda Fort on the hills. I was with a delightful septuagenarian Indian couple who later turned out to be retired lawyers. I also became a celebrity of sorts. THREE different Indian people stopped me and wanted MY photo with them. I felt like the circus freak, but hey, a photo - or 3 - won't hurt me. Haha.

Fun fun!

Tomorrow will be hectic.


I realized I have seen east, north, west, south, and soon, south southeast of India. Imagine that!

P.S. 2

Hyderabad is a minor cyberhub of India (Bangalore is India's Silicone Valley), thus you would see the noveau riche driving their BMWs and Mercedes on the streets of Hyderabad. Secunderabad is its twin city; much like Old Delhi and New Delhi.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Strictly No Elephants in Elephanta Island

There is always something pleasurable in riding a boat, navigating water ways, with wind blowing your hair, and sun on your face. I found myself taking this 1 hour boat ride to Elephanta Island , some 9 km northeast from Mumbai harbor. I had to pay 250 rupees for the entrance to the temple which had to be trodded up a hill. The temples rise under a conglomeration of caves, and seen inside are magnificent stone carvings, allegedly the best in all of India. I've seen better in Jaisalmer and Jodhpur - but they are amazing work nevertheless. The mini-train ride (like this was a leisure park) was also fun, but the whole experience doesn't really take more than 2 hours tops.

The ride back was very refreshing. I took some pics as the orange sun sets over the cityscape of Mumbai. Now i'm off to hyderabad, one of the country's cyberhub. It will be a long 17-hour journey.


The elephant bust that's supposed to guard the entrance has since fallen off. The Brits transferred it at the Victoria Gardens in Mumbai.

This is the Eye in the Sky temporarily tired of capitals.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Mixed Experience in Mumbai

mumbai photo courtesy of mr. brian mcmorrow

It was like a scene from a movie. I was livid, pulled out my baggage from inside of the taxi. I just reached in Mumbai from Delhi via an overnight train. After agreeing on a price of 150 rupees to get to my hotel of choice, I was suddenly told that I'd have to pay 600 rupees! Indians are so predictable all through my travels in this subcontinent. It's hard to shake hands on anything you agree upon because they will change the terms of the agreement midway to your destination. They will shamelessly ask for fees 300% more than the usual price. I got exasperated. So I pulled my baggage out and left the taxi in a huff - shouting in the middle of the road - while everyone was watching me. NOW THAT will teach them a lesson! Shame on them! I wasn't born yesterday - if they thought they'd get anything more than 150 from me. It's exhausting dealing with Indian drivers!

I like Mumbai though, despite my rude welcome. It's a sophisticated city, and pollution isn't as bad as Delhi. Being situated in the southwest of the subcontinent, the weather is actually warm - a major change from my travels up north. Colonial buildings and art decos scatter around. It was a pleasure to learn that my hotel (which had a great view of the Mumbai harbor and bay) was just a 200 meter walk from the Gateway of India (an arch constructed by the harbor comemorating the visit of King George in the past).

jaisalmer - in a city of rough and tumble

This photo only courtesy of the journeyers.

it is the land of rough and tumble, a golden city that rises high from the Trikuta Hill, containing 99 enormous bastions that hide havelis of crumbling beauty. that is how the lonely planet describes this alluring city in the northwest of india. this is a place that exceeded anything that i've ever imagined.

jaisalmer, time has indeed stood still. the bhatia market surrounding the imposing jaisalmer fort is an interesting place to roam. local produce and handicarfts are being sold by men and women dressed in spectacularly colorful (some would even say "lurid") garbs. even their tourist center or post office looks like they came straight from fairy tale stories about the arabs, the desert of days gone by.

i meandered through the narrow streets filled with houses carved from sandstones. even the local houses look intricately designed. the city, after all, was built in
1156 by the Rajput ruler Jaisala (thus the name).

i am glad to see this magical city way before it starts collapsing (it is one of the endangered cities of the world, according to UNESCO).

Friday, November 21, 2008

A Camel, The Thar Desert and Me

I've always wanted to see the desert, feel the fine undulating golden sand as they sift smoothly through the crevices between my fingers.

When I finally had the chance to experience it, I snapped it like a hungry wolf. I signed in for a camel and desert safari, despite several concerns I had about sleeping alone under the stars. When Iarrived in Jaisalmer, a city at the fringes of the Thar Desert, which already borders Pakistan to the west, little did I know I was in for the unexpected, despite all the readings I have done about it.

It took us an hour to drive from Jaisalmer to the stretches of Thar where we passed by herding goats, a deer, and an idyllic queue of wind turbines. I was first treated to a camel ride that took 2 to 3 hours, I can't quite remember for how long as I was giddily swaying on the humpback of my camel. We stopped at the sand dunes where we watched the sun set, gentle winds blowing on my face. After that, we drove back to some "resort" which was really just a cluster of well-maintained thatched stone houses. We were treated to a dinner buffet while a band of local entertainers sang rajasthani songs and a lass danced around a bonfire. quaint really! by "we", I mean my camel, the camel owner and myself.

After dinner, I jumped at the back of a cart being pulled by another camel. I was joined by 3 french people, siblings really, who were very friendly. ben, the eldest, a flight steward, kept inviting me to join them. I was grateful for his friendship, but i am used to my lonely planet sojourns and quite comfortable being alone too. A spanish couple - the lady is from ibiza, and the guy is actually an actor from Madrid who was last seen in a - hold your giddy breath! - Pedro Almodovar movie ("Bad Education" with gael garcia bernal). Tt was exciting!

Upon reaching the site, our beds were queued beside each other. Blankets were in place. They weren't tents. They were just beds! We spread the sheets on the sand and started sharing our life stories (work, itinerary, relationships, etc.). It was also very dark, although the skies were full of stars - but moonless. by 12 midnight, we started to feel how bitingly freezing it was, so we jumped into each of our beds. I was a little worried that the fox i saw earlier would come and attack our backpacks. Not long after, we were "asleep". at about 3 am, I woke up shivering! it was icy!

I peeked from under my sheets. Wow. The moon was up, and from all that darkness, the sky had a clear blue shade as the moon shone brightly over us.

This is one priceless poetic moment i shall never forget.

Not in a long time.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

At a neglected ancient city of Mandore

mandore photo courtesy of phileasfogg

I found myself at an almost empty garden of spectacular temples in various states of neglect in the city of Mandore, north of Jodhpur. Some of these temples could equal the grandeur of the Ayutthayas and Sukhothais of thailnd, yet the local government doesn't seem to care. In fact, a visit to this park is absolutely free of charge - an unusual situation in all my travels in India where every single tourist spot is leavied heavily!

Mandore is an ancient city, an old capital of the Marwar state (now Rajasthan). The intricately designed structures rise from the backdrop of the surrounding Rock Terraces.

It was a good thingthat my autorickshaw driver decided to join me. It was a bit unnerving and eerie, roaming the park gardens alone. Having said that there are several spots to be enjoyed. Squirrels and medium-sized monkeys litter the area. A child busker carrying some ethnic looking guitar-type instrument was following me around, playing a dissonant music that had no melody at all. Finally, there's the Hall of Heroes as well as a Government Museum (10 rupees for foreigners, 5 rupees for locals).

The highlight of my visit was meeting a group of Boy Scouts. Kids all over my travel have been very welcoming. I always get "hellos" from smiling children everywhere. I snapped their photos after their egging me. It was my pleasure.

On my way back, we passed by several camels hauling off cartloads of building blocks and slabs of woods. Local color seems to runneth over.

Tonight, I shall take my midnight train going further North in the city of Jaisalmer, located at the fringes of the Thar Desert - India's Sahara (and already bordering Pakistan to the west). I pray that everything goes quite well.

Monday, November 17, 2008

jodhpur in a blue blue blue world by the desert

Jodhpur taken from the Mehrangar Fort (Photos by jpatokal of wikitravel)

Jaswant Thada


It had been a long day. I took a non-AC train from Agra Fort Station. A schedule that had me wake up at 4AM for my 6AM departure, only to learn that Marudhar Express no. 4853 would be delayed by 2 1/2 hours! To make things worse, it turns out that the ticket I paid for was under a waitlist (how the heck do I know that unless someone tells me? i bought my ticket from the foreigner's booth). When finally the train arrived, I was instructed to just jump on the train and wait for the ticket checkers who will settle my dilemma eventually. Now THAT took HOURS! I sat on my backpack beside the lavatories (which stink like hell). It wasn't until 6 hours that I was finally able to locate my seat - Coach 5, seat no. 10! We were supposed to arrive in Jodhpur at 5:30PM - an 11-hour travel - but due to the delays, it we'd park the trains at around 7:30PM. Guess what? We reached the station at 9PM, but unlike most India stations, the concrete platforms were immaculately clean and organized. Gone were the people just sleeping on the floor! I am liking what I see!


Jodhpur is a major city in the state of Rajasthan, which is located in North India. It is obvious that we were treading new territories, my local India SIM shut off for 7 hours; the terrain turned into a craggy, dusty landscape that thrived only with an endemic plant - the olive tree? There were camels feeding from the scanty leaves of their trees, and my hair was starting to mat from the unseen dust. Reality is, Jodhpur sits beside the Thar Desert, a desert that already borders Pakistan in the west! This though excites me, despite the long plodding, snail-paced hours!

Some 30 minutes from my check-in, I was at the rooftop of Shivan Guesthouse. There was a partial moonshine gleaming over an uneven cityscape of pastel blues and neon saris cloaking the women around. I found myself dining with a Korean who just came from Turkey, Iran, and Delhi who called himself "Ooo" - no kidding!

By 6AM, I was wide awake. It would be interesting to climb the hills and see the Meranghar Fort that sits on a 150 meter hill. Finished in 1458, this fort was never taken in its last 500 years of existence. What's more, calling it a "fort" doesn't suffice. It is a city in itself, a feat that took me 4 hours to roam - I was breathless!


My favorite spot in this "city" would be the Jaswant Thada, which is 1 kilometer downhill from the Mehrangar. I attempted to walk, but finally decided against it. The sun was up and I still had places to go. I didn't wanna get beaten by heat and exhaustion so early in the day. There was still a palace to visit - the Umaid Bhawan Palace - the very last of the greatest palaces ever built in India. And yes, it is a "living" palace. The descendant - the new Maharajah - still lives in a part of the palace that isn't open to tourists.

I have never thought I'd see so much grandeur in a single place in India that I haven't even heard of until 3 months ago! I am almost overwhelmed - but not quite.

And oh yes, I have been mistaken once again as a Japanese! Just a few weeks ago, while I was travelling the city of Sonargaon in Bangladesh (the ancient and very first capital of Bangladesh), the lovely locals would stare at me - and I would hear them say "japones...japones." Today alone, I heard that from several people: the restaurant server, the guy who sold Pepsi from the Jaswant Thada store, and the rickshaw driver who doesn't have "no" in his vocabulary, "Hindi" included.


It was weird how the Pepsi vendor detoured into a conversation that finally concluded with him saying, "I collect ballpens". I smiled and told him, "I do have a pen, but I need it." I got mine from Dhaka so I'm not gonna start giving it away to complete strangers who couldn't even give my Pepsi's change back! Tit for tat!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

taj mahal as a monument of love

the taj mahal (photo courtesy of jannsudds)

the baby taj aka itimad-ud-daulah

who can't be envious of a love so great that it translates into a structure as grand as india's taj mahal? i have finally stepped on the grounds dedicated by a ruler (Shah Jahan) to his second wife who died while giving birth to their 14th child. i am privileged to even name her - numtaz mahal! and stepping into this awe-inspiring structure is like floating into a dream. no words will ever approximate the grandeur of the taj mahal.

as to the minor structure - the itimad-ud-daulah - more popularly known as the "baby taj" which, until this trip, i have never heard of - it was the serene surroundings that absolutely drew me. with the placid River Yamuna providing the backdrop, there is no better place to just hang your feet down and stare into the blue skies hanging over agra. the chaotic crowd that congests the taj mahal doesn't seem to populate this spot, which is a pity.

the only minor letdown is the stark commercialism placed into visiting these amazing structures. the taj mahal alone fetches 750 rupees for the foreign tourist (in contrast to the 10 rupees levied on locals). each of the 10 major attractions found in agra has been price-tagged too steeply, which makes a visit to this country a bit of a financial "burden" to the average backpacker. grandeur and beauty sure sell.


to cap this day, i had dinner at a tibetan kitchen called saroj restaurant, located just across my hotel (shanti lodge). a surly looking indian, handed me the menu, then a blank paper where i was to write my order. haha. ok, maybe he was tired? but there was absolutely nobody there. just myself! when my order finally came, i was surprised with how tasty my meal was. sumptuous! i had to order a take out that shall be consumed before i check out tomorrow morning, before i catch my early morning train for jodhpur - the famed blue city of rajasthan in north india.

then, from out of the blue, he asks me, "Cambodia? Japan?" what is with this japan thing? I will never ever look japanese! "Filipino," i said. Then, like a sprinkle of cold water, he mutters, "You look like angle." I was angular? My face? "No, you look like angel (he correscts himself), with no wings..." Now I have never been called an angel. I am not a kid to still look like one, if you know what I mean. I just probably have this deceptive look of being "priestly" - as I have been told before. If that was a compliment, I wouldn't know how to take it. Thank you, i replied. That was to cap a very fulfilling day with a monument of pure, unadulterated love. So pure that the emperor (Shah Jahan) was to cut his hands off so that he won't be able to duplicate the Taj. aww... sniff!