India

Days spent – 18 days (13 December 2016 to 24 December 2016 and 29 December 2016 to 6 January 2017)

Places visited – Delhi, Jaipur, Mumbai

Books read – Shantaram

Things done – Red Keep, Jama Mosque, Nagarwhal Fort

Highlight(s) – Shantaram

Lowlight(s) – Ill!

Cost – £536.40 (£29.80 per day)

India was quite similar to China in that you hear a lot of stories before arriving.  It’s the kind of place that everyone likes to talk about because they either love it or hate it.  I hear how dirty it is (heard that about China too), I hear how unfriendly the people are (heard that about China too).  But things happen before I go that lead me to believe that perhaps I should approach India with trepidation and caution.  Firstly, the visa process is a bit of a nightmare and I end up having to get two.  Secondly, there’s a cash crisis in the country.  The government have banned 500 and 1,000 rupee notes in an effort to crack down on fraud.  Very altruistic except the new notes won’t fit in the ATMs!  Oh India…

So to conclude, I’m a little nervous about going.  This is country number seventeen on this trip and it’s the first time I’ve felt like this.  To start with, my fears are allayed.  Delhi airport is every bit as modern as other Asian airports that fight their way to modernity, it puts the airport in Kathmandu in the dark ages where it belongs.  There is even a direct railway link to the main railway station in the centre of Delhi and very close to where I’m staying, easy (except getting cash to pay for it!).  It’s quite fast, it’s clean.  As it turned out, it’s the only place in India with rules.

I get off the train and am hit by an onslaught of craziness.  The smells of what-on-earth-is-that, the drivers of what-are-those-things all clamouring for the trade of the foreigner that’s clearly just arrived, the why-are-these-people-without-shoes begging for my money.  I’m suddenly thankful that my pockets have zips.  I must also give thanks to Cat – for once I arrived at my hostel she was the voice of reason.  She said things such as “The cash situation isn’t as bad as it was.”, oh good and “The trains are always cancelled or late at the moment because of the weather”, oh India…

But that said, two of the three things I did in India I did in Delhi on day two with Cat so thanks for that, my second best day in India!  After Delhi I decide to head to Jaipur as it’s quite close and on the way to Mumbai.  Because the trains are a problem I think a bus is the best idea but I’m advised against it by the people in the hostel.  It’s nine hours and I’m going for it, I head to Dhuala Kuan which is supposedly where the bus leaves from.   I head outside and look for it but I can’t understand the writing nor do I have any language skills…  I head back in to ask security and they say it’s outside.  Ok.  I go back out thinking how the hell am I going to find this bus?  I go to where I was before which at least looks like a bus station.  Upon arrival this time there’s a guy leaning out of a bus door shouting “Jaipur, Jaipur, Jaipur, Jaipur, Jaipur, Jaipur, Jaipur, Jaipur, Jaipur…!”  Hmm, maybe this bus goes to Jaipur.  I go over and ask in a questioning tone “Jaipur?”, he nods.  What a stupid question, he’s only just said it fifteen times.  He must think I’m stupid, perhaps he’s right.

Anyway, I get on.  It doesn’t stop but that’s just the way things are here.  I think there must be a rule, maybe unwritten, that means people can only get on buses that are moving.  After getting on I have second thoughts, this bus is older than I am!  It soon becomes apparent that the indicator system is people shoving their arms out the window.  I have visions of the acceleration system being Flintstone’s style.  I shouldn’t complain, indeed I won’t because it got me Jaipur.  It even stopped on the way so I could relieve myself which I’d heard is not always the case.  Near the end of the journey, on the outskirts of Jaipur I see the slums for the first time, oh India…

I’m not quite sure what to make of the slums.  On the one hand they appear to be the depths of human misery and suffering, but on the other hand it’s just like every other form of human settlement.  There’s a shop selling goods and children are playing in the alleyways.  Instead of playing with iPhone 7s, they’re playing with a plastic bag tied to a piece of string.  I’ve seen poverty before but not like this.  Before, the phone in my pocket has been worth about what people these people made in a year.  Now, the same value can be attributed to the shirt on my back.  Oh India…

Jaipur is a little different from Delhi.  The few creature comforts that were on offer in Delhi have disappeared. The only form of solitude here is the hostel, it becomes a sanctuary, it’s an oasis of calm in a desert of exhausting effort.  Walking down the street is an effort itself, not only does one have to contend with the stifling heat but the people selling you things, the traffic that tries to kill you at every turn and the people that want to rob you if you let your guard down.  It’s here that I wander to the centre of town, there’s a park there with an impromptu game of cricket.  The game halts to let me play…

I have to bat first, that’s bad news of itself because I’m more confident regarding my bowling.  Everyone has crowded round because there’s a white guy batting so I have about thirty fielders to contend with, I feel my only option is to go over the top.  The first ball comes down and it’s quite full outside off stump, I have a chance.  I take a massive swing, and miss it.  To my indignation, I get a ferocious round of applause for that, I thought it was a dreadful shot!  I nick another in the third-man region (maybe I do take after my Dad!) but before long I’m caught by one of the fifteen-or-so fielders stood at cover.  Ah well, language is a problem so I’m beckoned for a bowl rather than asked, ok here we go.  I manage to keep them relatively straight, indeed one even hits leg stump.  I say stump, it’s the nearest vaguely straight tree branch stuck into the ground.  It was nice of the batsman to just leave it, I sense some favouritism to the white guy.  At least England managed to get one up on India somehow last winter, I had not much else to cheer about.

Onwards from Jaipur is to Mumbai as this is where I fly home for Christmas from.  I land at the airport and head for the taxis to take me to where I’m staying.  There appears to be an efficient system where I get a ticket at a counter.  Ok, now I have to find the number plate of the taxi to take me there.  I find it, the driver asks me where I’m going, I thought I’d already done this bit.  I show him on a map, but he refuses to take me.  “Hindi, Hindi” he keeps saying, yes because I look like a guy that speaks excellent Hindi, let alone Marathi which is the actual language spoken by the Maharashtrians. I have to argue with someone that speaks vague English, the driver agrees to take me to the nearest landmark which is a big shopping centre.  Upon arrival, he wants more money, yeah right mate!  Oh India…

The lowlight: I was in India for eighteen days and I was ill for thirteen of them.  It was just Delhi Belly I presume but I never recovered until I left the country.  Travellers talk about places being dirty and I’m glad I’ve been to India because now everywhere else in the world will seem clean.  It’s horrendous, people say you either love India or hate it, well I hate it.  But people said the same about China and I loved it.  I was also ill on entry to China, I thought about not going back but I’m glad I did.  So stupidly, I applied the same logic to India, it’ll be better the second time around.  Err, no it won’t.  Oh India…

But it’s not all bad, although it’s not great either!  When your highlight is the book you were reading you know you haven’t had a good time!  In terms of food the best thing is probably lassi, but in Delhi I had one of the best coffees I had on the entire trip.  It was apple crumble coffee which sounds weird, but was divine.  Anyway, the book, is wonderful.  It’s another one, along with Wild Swans, that I’d recommend to anyone.  It tells the [true-ish] story of an Australian convict’s escape from prison and flee to India. He experiences life living in the slums and meeting his friend’s family in rural India.  It’s a wonderful read that covers all aspects of humanity, he eventually ends up working for Mumbai’s equivalent of the Mafia.  But I’m going to quote one of the main characters from the book, “[In India] sometimes in order to win, you have to surrender.”  My response is why would I do that when I can go somewhere and win without surrendering?

After my sixth or seventh straight day of being ill I’ve decided to go home.  Flights are now booked and it’s cheaper for me to go via Paris.  The main problem is that I’m still ill, I take some pills to try to stop… that…  It’s a bad idea…  The pills are trying to stop it but I want to go.  As a result, it’s like my intestines are playing snake with themselves, it’s turmoil in there and horrid, especially at over 30,000 feet.  We land at Charles de Gaulle; I’m tired, ill and pretty irritable.  It then gets worse, much worse!  

I get off the plane looking to connect to my other flight to London.  I ask they security guys where everyone goes through the visa checks and am told to go straight ahead to connections, that makes sense.  I can’t get my boarding pass printed off the machine so I go ahead anyway.  At this point I go through security, I don’t know why. I ask the security how I’m supposed to connect to terminal three and I’m told I need to catch a bus.  On arriving there I’m told there is no bus to terminal three and I’m sent back to immigration. Once there, I can’t get through because I don’t have a visa at which point I say “I don’t need a visa because I’m British.”  The guy looks taken aback that I know what I’m talking about.  I wonder why he’s so unhelpful and then I remember he’s French, it seems to go with the territory.  Oh France…  

I see red and storm off, by now I’ve missed my flight.  I unhook the things that makes everyone queue in a snaking fashion and throw them over my shoulder and storm towards connections again.  The police catch up with me and take my passport number.  Fine, fucking have it.  At this point I’ve had my little toddler tantrum meltdown and calmed a little, but only a little.  I then spend about ten minutes talking to the police and security.  The security speak English, the police don’t.  They say I need to calm down before I can achieve anything, they’re right.  I say if you weren’t so useless I’d have no reason to be frustrated in the first place, I’m right.  I get security to translate a message to the police that I have no problem with them and accept they’re just doing their job.  I then tell them that they’re completely useless.  To this day, I don’t understand what they do.  I say “security”, is that necessary when everyone goes straight to immigration?  I wish I’d done that, I would have caught my flight!  Their purpose certainly isn’t to be helpful anyway. 

I go through the rigmarole of going through security and heading for the buses again.  This time the guy at the desk there escorts me through the airport to the train that links the terminals.  Why couldn’t that have happened the first time?!  By the time I get to terminal three, I’ve missed the flight so I have to book another (€100) for tomorrow.  That means I have to stay in the airport hotel (€100).  I crash on the hotel bed, tomorrow is another day…

On the plus side, I got those amounts refunded as France accepted responsibility for being idiots.  Of course it took several emails without reply before they actually paid me the money. Oh France…  Oh India…   It was honestly like they were competing for which country can piss me off the most.

But I don’t want to leave my last blog on that note.  Instead I want to say thanks to everyone that made the trip special, I had a blast.  Now, as I write this blog, I’m in the same city as one of them!

Strawbs – written 17 to 23 April 2017, published 23 April 2017

Jama Mosque

The Red Keep

France

Days spent – 10 days (18 June 2016 to 24 June 2016 and 11 July 2016 to 15 July 2016)

Places visited – Amiens, Paris, Marseille, Arles, Nice

Books read – Homage to Catalonia (unfinished)

Things done – Amiens Cathedral (including light show), Jules Verne’s House, Picardy Museum, The Somme, The Somme Battlefield tour, Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower, The Louvre, Catacombs, Notre Dame Cathedral, Sacre Coeur, Arles Theatre and Ampitheatre, Nice beach

Highlight(s) – meeting Jiong, Amiens light show, Catacombs

Lowlight(s) – (most) French people and cost

Costs – £780.39 (£78.04 per day)

So, bonjour France, my first stop is Amiens.  I try not to have a closed mind and stereotype a place before I get there but the first thing I see in France is a man walking out of a boulangerie with a baguette.  Yeah, I’m in France!  It turns out I’ve accidentally booked a hotel that is about three miles from the centre, this equals a blister, damn!  The worst thing is, after dumping my pack because there’s nothing to do where I am I decide to head out for a beer.  The first place I find that’s suitable is… all, the, way, back, to, town…  Where I find a suitable Irish bar and get chatting to a Northern Irish guy called Phil.  After the football has finished he mentions that there’s a light show at Amiens Cathedral so we pop along.  You may have seen the video I already posted on this but it’s very impressive, to see it in its original thirteenth century state is really something to behold.

By day it is also quite impressive and it’s actually the largest church in France (Notre Dame, Paris is actually fourth behind, Reims, Strasbourg and obviously Amiens).  After that I head to Jules Verne’s House, where I get inspiration to read ‘Around the World in 80 Days’, more on that to follow as I read it in Spain!  Subsequently, it’s such a nice day that I choose the even longer route back to the hotel via the Somme, thankfully, one hundred years on it looks like this…

The following day I arrange to go on a Somme battlefield tour (more Irish people here!).  The weather is dreadful, proper horrible English day, which I think is appropriate somehow.  We visit a museum, some memorials (Thiepval and the Australian memorials are both very impressive, if that’s the right word to use, I’m not sure it is), a battlefield left as it was after the war and Lochnagar Crater.  It’s quite humbling to see it all when you think about what happened there.  Thankfully, I don’t have to walk back to the hotel as I’m off to gay Paris.

First things first, it’s to an Irish bar as England are playing, there are many more Irish people here oddly enough! After celebrating a 0-0 with Slovakia (because it meant we got through) an Irish guy laughs at me and says “You’re celebrating that?  That was poor and you’ll get a difficult draw and you’ll go out next round…”.  Well, the joke’s on him because we get an easy draw with Iceland…

At the Arc de Triomphe I meet Jiong.  I need to thank her for a lot but firstly for finding the underground passage to the Arc, without her I would probably have risked life and limb crossing the Arc de Triomphe roundabout!  We do some other sites in Paris together and when at The Eiffel Tower Jiong says “Would you like a photo here?” Which translates to ‘Please could you take a photo of me here?’.  So I take a few and we have a look at which point she says “The Tower’s not straight”, I look up and think ‘hmm, it looks pretty straight, I’m not in Pisa yet.  We scroll back through some photos then I say “Look, that one’s straight!” followed by the awful reply from Jiong of “That’s because I took it!” Ah bugger…  Oh, how we laughed! Anyway, also thanks for being an awesome travel buddy and see you in Barcelona…

Jiong heads off for Spain and I head for the Catacombs.  You can’t really get an idea of the scale of the place without being there.  Six million Parisians, that’s twelve million femurs!  The history of it is also quite interesting.  The mines that yielded the stone to build The Louvre and Notre Dame et al. were starting to undermine the city so they gradually reinforced them to stop this happening. After that, Paris had another problem in that its cemetaries were full, so King Louis XVI decided to move the people into the former underground mines and start a new cemetary on the outskirts.

It seemed a shame to go to France and not have escargot (that’s snails to you uncultured folk!), I wouldn’t say I’d have them again but the remainder of the starter was divine.  I also tried foie gras which is very nice but quite pricey.

Speaking of pricey, if I had to sum up France with one word I’d probably use that one!  I paid €9.60 for a beer in Paris and what makes things worse is that that may have been for a half litre!  The cost in the summary shows the contrast between France and London (and Spain, Italy etc. to follow), although the direct comparison is a little unfair.  In France, I did some costly tours that I didn’t really do in the UK and I also ate at places with Jiong that I wouldn’t normally have eaten at.

You may have noticed I haven’t talked much about French people yet, this is mixed!  On the good side when travelling via Blablacar to Barcelona from Paris with three French people I didn’t understand much.  But when we hit traffic outside of Barcelona I exclaimed “Merde!” and got congratulated on my good French!  On the bad side when ordering a beer in a bar in my best French the bartender may have asked me something about glasses (it was my second) which I couldn’t understand and she got annoyed.  But I won’t get on my high horse because us Brits are bad in this regard also.  In fact, we aren’t all that different really.  Sure, they drive on a different side of the road and speak a different language but we both seem to be trying to win the ‘who can be the most pompous and obnoxious’ competition.

Strawbs – written 21 July 2016, edited 24 July 2016, published 24 July 2016

You weren’t expecting me to post a normal photo of the Tower were you…?!

The Louvre

Felt bad for this ‘guy’ whilst I was there…

Catacombs bones

Lochnagar Crater 

Actual WWI trench

A Roman ship they recently found in sediment of the Rhone,  quite interesting

Napoleon’s dining table!

Nice by night and to finish on a very sour note, the attack was about one mile up Promenade des Anglais.  How dare he do it on a road named that.  Not in my name!