25th September – 5th October
Relaxing in Mumbai
Once in a while, it is a relief to spend four days in the same place, albeit on this occasion in one of the world’s largest, congested and busiest cities - Mumbai.
We are lucky to have a good base here - our friend Brendan Hughes has just moved here on a two year work placement and is temporarily residing in the smart serviced apartment block at the very northern end of the city. Although a decent trek from Mumbai’s main attractions, it provides an ideal oasis away from the pollution, noise and chaos. Mumbai is the largest urban sprawl on the planet: it takes hours to get anywhere and offers no respite from perpetual, swarming humanity and frenzied activity. It would be easy to dislike this city but our bolthole, complete with swimming pool, lends it a far more appealing slant.
We enjoy a morning exploring the city’s stately Victorian and Art Deco architecture and an afternoon wandering through some of the city’s backstreets: the hive of industry that is Crawford Market, the extraordinary laundry at the Mahalakshmi dhobi ghats and the grimy backstreets around the vast Dharavi slums near the airports.
Whilst preservation of our olfactory senses ensures we don’t set out to explore Dharavi’s 550 acres of alleyways on foot, we nevertheless get a pretty good feel of it from it’s outskirts. One million people live within this slum area in northern Mumbai, with virtually no sanitation. Upwards of 15,000 people may share the same loo. Every few minutes, its inhabitants are deafened by planes less than 50 feet up coming in to land at the adjacent airport; its barbed wire perimeter walls directly abut the slums, in much the same way that Hounslow adjoins Heathrow.
Dharavi is a prime example of the extraordinary wealth divide that haunts India and in particular Mumbai, yet it simultaneously illustrates one of India’s great paradoxes: recent attempts to clear the area and regenerate it, with the government ostensibly offering 225 sq.ft. of new built floor space plus compensation to each family, have been unanimously opposed by the Dharavi-wallahs. They are (for the time being, possibly only until the aspirational Indian media filters down to them) content with their lot and they earn more than the average low-caste Indian through rag-picking and recycling. All they want, it seems, is greater access to healthcare and sanitation.
Having enjoyed delicious seafood and fine night life with another friend, Sanjay Patel, and more ferocious colonial strength G&T’s on Sunday night with Brendan, we say heartfelt thank yous and goodbyes, and are on the road by 6.30am on Monday morning. Monday is a bank holiday, the last day of the Hindi Dusshera festival, and we make a speedy getaway from Mumbai. It still takes us nearly ten hours to reach Goa, though – after 9am, the ever-present trucks clog the NH17 that winds its way south through the Western Ghats to Goa.
The scenery changes as soon as we leave the city: chiaroscuros of green paddy fields form verdant chequer boards through the valleys; above them dense forest flirts with wisps of mist that cling to the mountaintops. Amongst all this pleasantry, unfortunately, comes rain – we have caught up with the tail end of the late monsoon as it sweeps south westerly towards the Arabian Sea.
A poor attempt at corruption
At the border we are pulled over by the Goan regional police - for the first time since Kashmir. They seem friendly enough, requesting our passports and driving licences at the rickety wooden registration counter. Conversation briefly turns to cricket before the senior policeman says “OK, now you just pay the baksheesh and you can go”.
Baksheesh is essentially a tip or a bribe and covers a multitude of sins in India, from beggars requesting alms, to guides requesting tips, to officials bending the rules. In this instance we are surprised: there are no rules to be bent. Charlie politely chuckles at the policeman “I’m sorry, no baksheesh - that’s not how we work I’m afraid”. The policemen insist, first politely then a little more firmly. But we are not to be swayed – this is the most brazen and pathetic attempt at extortion we have come across and are determined not to encourage it. Charlie walks back to the car and starts the engine, whereupon a junior acolyte brandishes his whistle, blows it angrily and now proceeds to inform us we are breaking local Goan law by having tinted glass in our car windows – he even points to a conveniently placed, homemade looking signpost stating as much. With a flourish, he demands a 500 rupee (£7.50) fine.
This is little more than flagrant gimmick designed by the Goan police to extort money from (mainly Indian) tourists. We offer to cut a deal, 100 rupees quietly, or nothing. But the recalcitrant individual is now adamant; we offer to comply, but not before writing his name and officer number in our notebook. “Why you writing down these things?” he queries. But before we have time to reply, he skulks away, empty handed. A satisfying victory.
We spend a relaxing couple of days in Goa, but not by the beach. It rains incessantly, leaving us little option but to extinguish the region’s principle sightseeing options and head north again, in the hoping of escaping the endless downfalls.
Old Goa is a memorable site: deserted in the 1600’s due to successions of cholera outbreaks, all that remains of a city that was once larger than Paris or London is a handful of vast Portuguese cathedrals, several convents and a few colourful colonial era cottages now given over to rather seedy looking tea shops.
Heading inland, we spend a second day’s tiresome precipitation putting our lives in the hands of a couple of Indian bikers who take us on their doughty little Hero Hondas, deep into the jungle in the east of the state to look at the 600m high Dudhsagar waterfalls. The journey there and back is almost as exciting as the falls themselves, not least a rather close encounter with a passing freight train as we bounce along a tiny gravel track precariously close to the railway line.
Home cooking and hospitality
Leaving the falls in late afternoon, soaked, we drive as far north as we can before nightfall. Our ultimate destination is Pune, some 500 or so km north, where we have been invited to stay with Jan Ali, cousin of an old friend of Charlie’s, and her husband Rashid. After an uncomfortable night en-route in Kolhapur, we arrive with Jan and Rashid the following day and are immediately treated to proper afternoon tea and homemade chocolate cake – bliss! We spend a happy afternoon chatting on their shady veranda overlooking the lawn before a superb meal of steak, roast potatoes, asparagus and salad. “I thought you may be getting a little tired of Indian food by now” mentions Jan casually. Not only is Jan an excellent cook, but evidently highly astute as well.
Rashid has spent a lifetime in conservation, principally focussing on tigers. Over supper we discuss the parlous state of India’s wildlife reserves – we have now seen several and all appear to be tiny, poorly maintained and suffering constant human encroachment. Rashid informs us that the problem is twofold: one being the obvious sheer number of people living in India; the second being that Indian wildlife reserves and game parks are not economically viable, since they aren’t a principle or important source of foreign derived income. In comparison, Africa has neither of these issues. India has thriving electrical, computer, motor and industrial export sectors: wildlife tourism is a long way down the economic pecking order. Rashid is now working on several carbon trading initiatives as an alternative way to make the remaining forested wilderness economically viable, but it seems there may be a long way to go yet.
We spend two relaxing days with Jan and Rashid, enjoying delightful home cooking, conversation and dog walking with the children Josh and Anusha, before we reluctantly decide we should press on. We have a long slog ahead of us now before we leave India on 14th October, but for the time being, we feel refreshed.
Caves and culture
From Pune, we head north to Aurangabad, a useful point from which to explore the renowned 1st to 7th century caves at Ellora and Ajanta nearby. We really thought we would be far enough north to escape any final flurries of monsoon activity, but no – still it pours.
Ellora and Ajanta are extraordinary works of determination, rain or not. The complexes, about 100km from each other, comprise 34 and 28 caves respectively – and are entirely hand carved over hundreds of years. ‘Cave’ is really the wrong word: these are great temples and meeting halls, carved as deep as 25 metres inside great basalt cliff faces, sometime two or three storeys high. Those at Ajanta are particular magnificent, occupying the side of a dramatic horseshoe shape gorge deep in the Deccan plateau, and containing extraordinarily detailed cave paintings of Buddhist scenes that have survived in excellent condition for the best part of 1,500 years.
Leaving the caves, we spend a night at Lonar, site of one of the world’s largest meteorite craters, 1.8km in diameter. In driving between the caves and then on to Lonar, we have been principally using local back roads, which to date, have been surprisingly good here: well paved, usually straight and free from the incessant trucks and buses that clog up the main highways.
Bloody maps (who uses roadsigns anyway?)
We decide that, on leaving Lonar, we should drive the most direct route via the back roads to our next stop, the old and almost forgotten hill station at Pachmarhi. Driving through colourful agricultural scenery and the laidback towns of Akola, Akot and Betul, all is good. Our map and GPS both display a fine looking back road running direct to our destination, so, classifying ourselves as neither trucks nor tourists, we confidently turn off the main road, despite Pachmarhi being signposted as ‘straight on’, thus cutting some 100km off our journey… or so we think.
For the first 20km, all seems good, except for the omnipresent and now startlingly late monsoon. Alas, after this, things begin to gradually deteriorate. The paved road becomes a sand and gravel chipping affair; then just a sand track. No matter, we tell ourselves: the locals are cheerily waving us on to our destination and surely the road should reappear soon. But no, the sand track becomes a sand quagmire, which we only just make it through, using all our 4x4 toys and driving predominantly sideways.
Time is now against us: it is 4.30pm and we no longer have enough time to retrace our tracks to the highway before nightfall. Feeling that we are now committed (and a little scared), we proceed through four bridgeless rivers.
We push on, through our deepest and most treacherous river yet, and relieved, arrive in Rampur at 5:10pm. But Rampur is barely a village, more a collection of basic thatched huts; its population outnumbered by its livestock. A crowd soon gathers: there is not a single other car in this village, which is cut off from all motorized transport except scooters for six months of the year. Depressingly, the locals inform us in their very limited English that this is the end of line. From here, the road to Pachmarhi, just a tantalising yet infuriating 35km further on, is impassable: the rivers are still too large and too deep because of the late monsoon. The only way is to retrace our tracks to the main road and drive 150km the long way round.
This is a new situation for us and a little depressing, not to mention worrying. It gets dark here at 6:20pm sharp so we tentatively enquire about accommodation. There being none, we hastily prepare the car for sleeping in whilst the rain returns to full strength.
Thankfully, being so remote, the villagers are genuinely friendly and hospitable. As we sit under the convenient veranda of the empty local tea company resthouse at the edge of the village, drinking G&T mixed in an old Pepsi bottle, some chai arrives, followed by simple but welcome food. We spend an hour or so chatting to some of the locals, learning a few useful phrases in Hindi. It’s hard work, but at least it takes our minds off the torrential rain that is only making our return journey in the morning harder by the second…
We go to bed early but the relentless rain, coupled with our anxiety about the state of the river crossings by morning, makes for a sleepless night. First light can’t come soon enough and by 6:10am we are up and ploughing our way through the rain, rivers and mud back to the main road.
Thankfully, our car does us proud. The road is now more akin to a treacherous stream of mud and sand, but we confidently slip and slide our way through. An astonished local, tending his cows, watches open mouthed as we drive through a river that was three feet deep last night; now it is over four feet. We have officially christened our snorkel…
Two nerve racking hours later, we are back on the main road, elated, exhausted, relieved, but ultimately very proud of our little car. Full steam to Pachmarhi and some sleep!