Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Travelogue 2017, Episode 3, Amdavad (Ahmedabad), Gujarat

...a lively, almost boiling city full of vitality and contradictions, poverty and opportunity, tradition and progress...

Amdavad old town

Jama Masjid, the Friday Mosque, was built 600 years ago, shortly after the founding of Ahmedabad (Amdavad) by Ahmed Shah.  Clearly he had a big vision, as the large courtyard had room for thousands of believers, just like the main building. 260 Pillars created a mystical atmosphere, the sculptures were very refined, the proportions and the dimensions perfect. The consistent stony colour added to the serenity. The outer wall had murals of large Arabic letters. It was very quiet and peaceful, and the building was really impressive. 

Next to it stood the mausoleum of Ahmed Shah, along with his son and grandson. The graves were revered daily and covered with coloured cloths. This building too was a masterpiece of architecture and sculpture. We sat for a while on the steps at the entrance and saw a miniature neighbourhood before our eyes.  Right next to the mausoleum, laundry hung out to dry above a couple of anonymous graves, girls were getting ready for school, women sat on the street baking chapatti's on a wood fire.  Goats were herded (one baby goat carefully kept in a crib), cats strolled at ease on the street. It was a lovely homely and relaxing scene, you would want to move here instantly. 

Once this had been the core of it, now it was a different world than the metropolis Amdavad had become in those six centuries. The day before in the bus we drove kilometre after kilometre along industrial complexes, then large areas full of modern offices, before we entered the city centre where the traffic was crawling along poor neighbourhoods. It was a lively, almost boiling city full of vitality and contradictions, poverty and opportunity, tradition and progress. 

Next was the mausoleum of Rani, the wife of Ahmed Shah, also completely hemmed in by the encroaching city. Again the building was superb, with lots of fine sculpture, but it was much less maintained. The elevated walkway around it even housed a family. Still they were better off than the family we saw on the sidewalk not far from our hotel, covering themselves up for the night. 
We walked through the maze of alleys. Motorcycles and bicycles zigzagged around the cows and the potholes and us. Houses, shops, workshops. Close together were concrete buildings and old stone houses with havelis, overhanging balconies of carved wood. Some well maintained, most neglected. We stood there admiring a  facade when an old lady motioned us inside. Her shabby courtyard  also had a facade full of carvings. Just down the road was a square with a bench where we could sit down. In two hours we had covered 200 meters as the crow flies. But zigzagging so much and seen so much, that we were fully saturated. 
We went to a restaurant for lunch by auto-rikshaw. The four of us crammed in the back, the small tricycle overloaded. A kamikaze ride through crazy traffic, steering left and right to avoid collisions, diving into each gap, braking and acceleration. Scruffy males cheerfully waved at us from other rickshaws and freight cars. For contrast two beautiful girls in modern dress, all made up, sat on the back of a motorcycle. When we stood still in traffic we inhaled pure exhaust fumes. 

Stepwells 

A stepwell is a well with stairs dug until the ground water level. That sounds easier than it is. To gradually descend to the depths required, 20 to 50 meters, you either have some sort of spiral stairway, or build a long straight slope. This one was of the latter type. The slope and the pit themselves were fully ornamented with statues, arches, platforms. Over the full length that gave beautiful vistas, the full depth of about five floors with balconies above the well. Deep underground it was a relatively cool place, and thus a sort of village square, where gossip and news was exchanged. The overall design, the elegance and the details of the stonework were gorgeous. Actually, it was a kind of three-dimensional, inside out, underground, oversized artwork.

We visited seven stepwells in Junagadh, Amdavad and Patan. 950 to 500 years old, simple to richly decorated, in good and in bad condition, with slope and with spiral staircase, deeper and shallower. This variety gave a good idea of the differences and similarities.

What we were really concerned with

All these sights are a good excuse to travel through Gujarat, but actually we were more concerned with: Where can we buy dahi (yogurt for breakfast)? What are the toilets of the bus station like? How clean is the bathroom in the hotel? Is there hot water for the shower? Where do we have lunch? Did we get bananas? Do we have Wi-Fi? How hot / cold is it? What time do we have breakfast? How often have we been addressed / stared at / photographed? Who is sick, weak or nauseous today? How much can we get off the fare of the auto rickshaw? At what time does the bus leave?

North - South

Amdavad was a worthy conclusion of Vibrant Gujarat, as the slogan of the tourism office goes. It’d been a long time since I've experienced India so intensely, and we were ready for a quieter stage to digest it all. No better time or place than our friends down south.

The sheer size and diversity of India was evident once again. Language and ethnicity in the north is close to European, while the south is Dravidian. Even though the Muslims are a minority in Gujarat as well, they are much more visible there, both in architecture and dress – maybe because of several centuries of Moghul rulers.

Gujarat is semi-desert rather than tropical. Wheat and cotton in stead of rice paddies and coconut plantations. Camel carts in stead of oxen carts. The infrastructure was better  and the road discipline was even better (that is: less suicidal than in the south).

On average the ladies in Gujarat were dressed more  modern, their hair done more fancy, and blue jeans were no exception. People spoke less English, but as they were more extrovert, you engaged in a conversation more easily. But once you got to know them, people were equally as friendly all over India.


The weak instant coffee was no match for the real filter coffee in the south. Then again, the Gujarati thalis were much better than the Tamil meals.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Travelogue 2017, Episode 2, Gujarat, feels like the first time

Our trip through Gujarat was very intense. All the impressions and adventures were overwhelming at times. It felt like the very first time I had visited India.

Some parts of the journey went smooth, the people were very friendly and helpful. Transport was easy, and (in the beginning) the distances were shortish. The food was superb, espescially in Junagadh. The weather was sunny and dry. Midday temperatures of about 25 degrees, nights and mornings were cold (15) and windy.

Sometimes we’d encounter Indian bureaucracy or lose track of what was going on. Especially the shortage of cash was an issue. Credit cards were rarely accepted.

Junagadh

Junagadh is a medium sized town in the middle of Gujarat, full of palaces and mosques in Islamic architecture, a 23 centuries old fort, a mountain with holy Hindu and Jain temples, and lots of people. Lots. I don’t know whether it was because I was more familiar with southern India, or because I was so tired, but everything felt as overwhelming as the very first time I had been in India. The lively colours, the countless people that greeted us, the crazy traffic, the fantastic shops, the cows in the street – it was just too much.

We picked a hotel in the old town, but the air pollution in the narrow streets was so bad  we had to move to the newer part of town, next to the bus station. It was slightly better. And just as noisy. It made you wonder how long this could go on. The smog entered your throat, eyes and head.
The old town was an endless collection of old palaces, mosques and mausoleums, surpassing each other in how neglected and crumbling they were. In between the vibrant city life. If you are afraid  good old India is disappearing, go to Junagadh.


Sasan safari

It was an enchanting and magical sight in the headlight beams. Trees, bushes, giant leaves, trunks, boulders  - everything looked like an animal. Later, in the morning fog, they looked like grey ghosts. It was dry forest, not very dense, with some slopes, creeks and tribal villages.

With all our sweaters and coats on, it was still cold in the back if the open Jeep. We saw a rabbit, deer and peacocks. Then, some Jeeps that were parked on the side of the road. Something had to be there. Yes, very vague behind the bushes was a lion’s head. Then a lion got up. They walked closer to the road and we got a better view. As grayish-brownish as the  shrub and dirt, and above all, huge, gigantic. One adult female and four adolescent children. Ignoring our presence they strolled around, laid down for a moment, walked on. Majestic!

The second half of the safari the sun came up and we saw lots more deer and peacocks. Also an antelope, some black faced monkeys, a crested hawk eagle, a common hoopoo, and two spotted owlets. One female on a branch and one male opposite hidden in a tree trunk, really you just saw its eyes.

Somnath town

Somnath is an important Hindu temple on the Arabian Sea that draws pilgrims from all over India. 

The old town of Somnath was a maze of narrow alleys. Most of the houses were made of concrete, the older brick ones often run down and deserted. Cows and pigs roamed the streets or the open sewers. There were just some small shops, until we reached a wider street with a street market. Old women sat on the ground with vegetables in baskets in front of them. The veggies looked good and varied. Old men sat in tiny rooms, open to the street, with a sewing machine or performing other crafts.

We visited an old mosque with an ancient Persian stone inscription. In the back was a beautifully tiled room with a grave, covered in clothes as tradition wants it. The caretakers were most welcoming and friendly. Down the road was a Hindu temple with a silver fa├žade and a black marble statue inside, hardly visible underneath all the cloths. Men were performing rituals, women were praying. A little further again was a big Jain temple, beautifully maintained, colourfully painted, with decorated pillars and coves with statues of wise teachers. A group of women was performing rituals but could spare us a friendly nod with the head.

This street had some larger, older houses with wooden balconies, maybe of merchants. The old town was pleasantly quiet without traffic, and the pilgrims for the big temple didn’t bother to come down here. No other Western visitor even considered visiting this faraway corner of Gujarat.

Portuguese Diu

Diu is a small island on the south side of Gujarat. Until 1961 it was a Portuguese colony, and the Portuguese had left a far better legacy than the British. The contrast with the mainland was huge. Everything was better kept, cleaner, neater, quieter and more peaceful. The architecture was quite different, in Portuguese style, with churches, monasteries and chapels. A welcome change after ten hectic days.

The street pattern and the curved shoreline provided total disorientation, and we regularly lost our way. Thanks to the wonders of GPS all ended well. We did see several other western tourists, but in the end it turned out to be only a handful who were there for a long time and who we bumped into again and again. On weekends it was very busy with domestic Indian tourists, coming to get that drink that is illegal in Gujarat.
We fully enjoyed the "holiday within the holiday" with, among others, a motorcycle tour around the island and a walk on the city walls.

Palitana

Palitana is a provincial market town, a regional centre where people from all over the region come to shop. Farming tools, rope, cables and provisions.



Money troubles

November 8,  Prime Minister Modi declared almost all banknotes invalid, as per immediately. It was a move against black money and corruption. However, without additional structural measures, it was a senseless action which inflicted a lot of damage to the Indian economy, which runs primarily on cash. Especially the poorer half of the country does not even have a bank account. Farmers cannot buy seeds and miss a harvest. It means bankruptcy and starvation. Since then, new banknotes have been distributed sparsely.  There are way too few, and people can only withdraw very limited amounts.

We could take small amounts from the ATM, at relatively high cost. The first two days that sort of worked, after that we didn’t see any ATM's that worked for a week. Slowly I began to worry. We tried regular ATM's and bank offices, but all we got was zip, zero. In Veraval we were referred to Somnath. In Somnath we were referred to Veraval. One bank pointed  to the other, and vice versa. Credit card and even cash were refused by  the banks.

In Diu I walked into an office of ICICI Bank, and the manager said at half past one the ATM would be filled.  We happened to walk past the office again at 12pm, when the guard waved us over and said  the ATM would open in ten minutes. So we started queuing. After twenty minutes, the shutter opened and a man came crawling underneath. An hour delay, he said. We decided to split. Two of us went for a bite to eat. After twenty minutes the others came over: the machine was broken, it would take another hour. While they had  lunch, I went to look at the SBI  across the street. There was a queue and something seemed to happen. I joined and was immediately waved forward. White privilege. That helped me jump at least 15 places, only 10 people left in front of me, inside the booth. Then came an Indian lady in sari who was immediately allowed all the way to the machine. Ten minutes later it was my turn, and sure enough, I got money. Wow!

When the others had finished their lunch, they tried the SBI. But they were not waved to the front and the line barely moved.

We walked back to the ICICI - there too was action. We joined the queue, but were directed to the front by the guard – after all originally we had been the first in the queue. Two of us took money out. When the other two moved in, the machine was empty. All in all it had been operational less than half an hour…

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Travelogue 2017, Episode 1, Two nights at Mumbai airport

Take your mind back to New Year’s Eve 2016-2017. Where were you? At midnight we were on an escalator towards Bombay airport departure hall.

Seldom an outbound journey has been so adventurous and the arrival so overwhelming


In spite of the early start - we were at Schiphol at 5am - the journey started well. After days of fog and cancellations there was a brief window of visibility, in which we took off. Changing in Zurich was easy and the flight to Mumbai was comfortable. We had the first row in economy with extra legroom but no noisy toilets or freezing emergency exits. The veg meals were delicious.

No long queues for immigration and customs. The brand new, huge terminal "T2" wasn’t exactly beautiful, but a huge improvement. In the arrival hall we had some trouble getting money. Because of the recent demonetisation there was a huge shortage of cash, and you could take just 2500 rupees out of the ATM. With  a 230 rupees service charge. That was, if you found an atm that actually had money, about 1 in 10.

Midnight. We spent the night sitting, walking and waiting. At 5am our domestic connection should depart. At 5:05 the pilot announced a delay due to poor visibility in Rajkot. The fog had caught up with us after all.
We had to deboard and received new boarding passes for the same flight one hour later. Which was then cancelled three hours later. By that time we were too exhausted to wait around for the evening flight, so we decided to wait until the next day. Getting our luggage and getting out of the airport was a true ordeal. Clearly departures was a one way process, and to backtrack we needed special assistance and authorisation.

There we were, in front of the airport. No travel desk, no travel guide, no clue where to go. Airport hotels were 200€ per room, the city centre was too far away for an early departure the next day. So much out of character, I ended up with a shady guy offering a taxi and rooms nearby. Negotiations and exchanging money on the back seat in a dark parking garage. On my own I would have felt uncomfortable,  but with the four of us I felt safe.

Within 10 minutes the guy dropped us in a narrow winding street full of tiny shops, street stands, potholes, colourful people, cows, goats and a small hotel. Which wasn’t too bad really, except we paid way too much as the guy obviously took a large commission.

It was a fascinating little neighbourhood, very poor, one step above a slum, very lively, the tiniest shops, and people dressed in their Sunday Best – after all it was New Year’s Day. At the beginning of the alley was a main road with an elevated metro line, some expensive restaurants and hotels, and a middle class neighbourhood on the other side.


The rest of that day and night we slept, we ate, we slept, we ate and we slept. The next day at 11am we flew to Rajkot, Gujarat.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

A people hidden in the jungle


This was real jungle with lots of trees that sprouted up to 50 meters straight up to catch a little light where their crown expanded. Thick lianas and parasitic plants growing around it. Withered leaves of half a meter mixed with bright red leaves covered the ground.
The trail was held in place by shallow roots, except for a stretch that was washed down, where we had to climb. There the vines and roots came in handy to hold on to. Traces of wild boar, thorny rattan, large butterflies, loud high-pitched chirping of insects - the forest was full of them.

We walked along a path through the Thale Ban National Park in the far southwestern corner of Thailand. According to the sign this was an evermoist forest, almost but not quite as impenetrable as the tropical rain forest that we had seen further south in Malaysia. This was an inhospitable area of swamps, mountains and jungle. That's why we had crossed the border with a cargo boat on the Andaman Sea.
But now we were near the only land border in the region, a small road with little traffic and certainly no public transport. The last 20 kilometres we had hitch-hiked with a border guard in uniform, in a big pick-up truck on his way to work. The National Park was two kilometres from the border with nothing but jungle between.

It was shocking, but not unimaginable, when we read in the newspaper a few months later that exactly here they discovered secret refugee camps where Rohingyas had been detained, extorted by traffickers and left for dead.
Thailand and Myanmar share a long border, and some 150.000 Karen have been stuck for 30 years in refugee camps just across the border in Thailand, 1500 kilometres to the north. They are now a major destination for cultural visits and volunteer work by Western tourists. In contrast the Rohingya from western Myanmar are virtually unknown. They are not accepted because their religion is different from the majority, the Buddhists. They cannot flee over the border with Thailand through the jungle, but need to sail across the Andaman Sea. Their goal is Malaysia, where Muslims are the majority. But often their boats land in southern Thailand, where on their way to Malaysia they fall into the hands of human traffickers.

At open sea, their boats were chased or towed away by the Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian coast guard. In May 2015 the case received so much international attention that Malaysia decided to allow them in temporarily.
We were especially touched by this case since seven years ago we were in Rakhine, the Myanmar region where the Rohingya come from. For a short time the area was accessible when Myanmar was just beginning to be more open and the regime sought rapprochement with the opposition and the world. But soon a new domestic conflict was sought and found in this minority. Although they have lived in Rakhine for many generations or centuries, partly descendants of Persian and Arab traders, partly migrants within what was one British colony in the 19th century, they are now seen as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Looking back, it is astonishing that at that time we did not recognize the region as Islamic. Apparently they already had to keep a low profile. The streets of Sittwe were dominated by monks, nuns and temples. The scarce tourist did not bring prosperity to Mrauk U, which was clearly a dead poor corner of the country. Cell phones had no cover in Sittwe, Mrauk U did not even have a land line with the rest of the world.
Mrauk U was an ancient capital of a 16th century empire that stretched over parts of present Bangladesh (whose proximity was illustrated by imported cookies in the store) and the current Rakhine State. There were a lot of temples and pagodas of that time left, located half way between the village and the fields, sometimes dilapidated and overgrown. Again and again you'd see another temple on a hill or around the corner. The setting alone was stunning, but the chedis themselves were also beautiful.
We walked around, occasionally accompanied by groups of children who should have been at school. Further away from the village there were no more children shouting "bye bye" or calling after you, but vast fields and women who walked with baskets on their heads. There wasn't a meter of paved street, not a wall of stone. All was wood and bamboo and dirt yards.

This last paragraph of my 2008 travel diary, and the paragraph from my 2015 travel diary this piece started with, join a bizarre circle around two places that we visited in ignorance, and then briefly made the world news. Only to be forgotten again.

Amsterdam, May-July 2015, June 2016