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Trip Report Dogster: The Great Stumble Forward - India

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Having drunk a perfectly fine Pouilly Fume and, with no thought at all, having booked a three month trip in a matter of minutes, Dogster fell into India.

Those interested readers, already anxious to know, in lurid detail, the events that led me here could do no better than refer to the thread ‘Dogster gets drunk and books a trip to India’. [Should you be even more interested in previous travel adventures and wish to know what the type of tourist I am, the thread ‘Dogster? Bhutan’ will provide you with altogether more than you need to know.]

Remember, if there’s an idiot thing to do, a wrong way to turn, a mistake to be made, the dog will do it. But, courtesy that fine wine, destiny, the time, the cash and the innate stupidity required to embark on such an adventure at short notice, I found that the many Gods of India were [mostly] on my side.

Melbourne to Bangkok to Chennai on Thai business class. An easy transfer to the domestic airport where, quite by surprise, I found myself surrounded by young men in red T-shirts, grabbing for my bags...

The Kingfisher Airlines experience:

I can’t speak highly enough of Kingfisher. All up I flew with them seven times. If you want to fly in India at staggeringly cheap rates and avoid ALL the hassle of the airport, then I gotta say – fly Kingfisher.

No stress – no tipping - the absolute minimum waiting time, no confusion, no arghhhh where do I go, what do I do, where’s the check-in, arghhh, I’m hot, tired, I’m juggling fifteen bits of baggage, I’m in India, it’s strange, I’m stupid, old and should never have left home…. Impressive.

Your taxi/auto-rickshaw arrives at the airport. Instantly, and I mean, instantly, there will be a young man in a red T-shirt at the kerb-side. He’ll load your bags onto a trolley and escort you into the airport. Those of you who know Indian airports will also know that your first stop will be a security check for your luggage. The young man will handle that, while you show your documents to the soldier at the door, and wait, as long as it takes, for your checked luggage to emerge from a fierce-looking X-ray machine. Then the red T shirt will escort you to the check-in. Which won’t take very long at all.

If there’s a queue, if there’s madness or a delay, then another young man, or woman, in red will pop up beside you, check your paperwork and, courtesy a little machine at their waist [like an old-fashioned tram conductor,] punch out your boarding pass while you’re waiting – so, once you hit the desk, there’s nothing to do but wait briefly while they tag the bag [and your credit card if you’ve booked over the net.]

If you look completely overwhelmed, I’m sure someone else in red will pop up with a valium and a shoulder massage – but I may have dreamt that bit. This is for economy class. Travel Kingfisher First Class and they pick you up in a palanquin and carry you to the plane. Dancing girls in red saris strew the tarmac with rose petals. A band plays.

Somehow, they’ll manage to serve you a perfectly acceptable full meal, even if the flight is 45 minutes long. They’ll even give you a menu, a free pen, headphones and smile. And somehow, they’ll manage to be calm, extremely pleasant, supportive, look after the old, the young and the infirm and manage to control those passengers who clearly have never been on a plane in their lives. One man, on my Goa flight, stood up and wandered down the aisle as the plane was about to take off – blissfully unaware that it might be best to sit down and buckle up. One young lad managed to tip the entire meal in his lap, he was so excited. This was a test of the stewardesses – given the overwhelming lechery of young men in India, his curry-soaked crotch was left to him to attend to.

Some of the passengers will take anything that isn’t nailed down off the plane with them – the in-flight magazine, the shopping guide, the sick bag, the plastic envelope they came in, the headphones, the pillow, the free pen, the bottles of water and, if they can get away with it, the meal; food, knife, fork and spoon, menu, sugar, salt, the cellophane wrapper, the napkin and, very possibly, the tray. I thought I saw one man trying to prize the television off the seat in front of him – but I may be mistaken.

Watch and wonder.

Then, when you get off, there’ll be more young men in red at the baggage pick-up with a trolley to escort you, and your luggage, to the door. If you’re smart, there will be a man with a sign ready to zoom you to your hotel. If you’re not, there‘ll probably be a pre-paid taxi booth. If you’re unlucky, then you’ll be cast to the wolves – the taxi drivers waiting outside. If you’re stupid, you’ll pay too much, end up in something that once resembled a car with a total stranger heading into town.

But you know, you’ll arrive. The amount of stress you go thru will entirely depend on you – there’ll be no reason for most of it. [not that that’s ever stopped dogster] It’ll dissolve – particularly if you head to the Taj Hotels, the Oberoi’s, the Leela’s. In this instance it was the Taj West End, Bangalore.

And a classy joint it was. Mr. Dogster was picked up in the hotel limo, given cold towels and a whole lotta love, an upgrade and a room with the nicest, marble-est bathroom in the world. [Admittedly Mr. Dogster had to do just a tiny bit of complaining to achieve all this, but no matter – things worked out fine]. I wish I could’ve stayed there longer – but I was to return...

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    The Golden Chariot

    A sense of adventure and occasion drew me to this particular voyage. It was to be the very first, world premiere journey on a new luxury train.

    http://www.theluxurytrains.com/en/india/the-golden-chariot/

    The website will fill you in on the details. The pictures do not lie. But they don’t tell the real story of that first, remarkable ride. Not everything went to plan: but then, I didn’t think for a moment that it would - which was more than fine by me. I’ve long learnt that once things settle into a routine that corruption sets in – the staff become bored, blank-faced, the grovel for tips supersedes the desire to serve, events become habit, the freshness of it all can disappear – not on this trip.

    There was a real desire to provide a great adventure – and this they did. Like all touristic, group endeavors, a lot depends on the other passengers. A train load of elderly British tourists, for example, can be like a journey into a dull, colorless hell. On this gala occasion we paying tourists were very definitely in the minority. Seven of us, two Brits, two Germans, two young Belgian backpackers and one idiot Australian [me] huddled in the midst of eighty Indians – and a very lively bunch they were. All freebies – journalists, many, many photographers, executives from the various companies involved with the running of the train, heavies and lightweights hurled together in a confined space for a week, drinking, laughing, chattering, eating, touring: a volatile, energetic mish-mash of personalities, all full of themselves and the joy of life itself.

    What a lucky man I was to be in the midst of them. They embraced me and the other tourists, drawing any of us who were interested into the great debate of India, the politics, the pain, the joys of just being Indian. There wasn’t a moment when I wasn’t joined by someone, anxious and eager to hear my opinion on their new venture – some for professional reasons – some just for fun. My words – and picture – kept appearing, daily, in the newspapers – many of them were filing daily stories. The Times of India featured my ugly mug three times in a week – I was a star.

    Not really – the train was the star – and a lushly decked out diva she was. Fresh, new, clean, luxurious, smooth, stylish – this was a classy gal. Not everything worked... but bit by bit things clicked into action as the days flew by. By now it’ll be ticking over like clockwork.

    None of this bothered me. I fully expected things would go, occasionally off the rails – and they did. But this was the first trip, remember. Trying to corral eighty crazed Indian journalists etc onto a sightseeing bus at the same time was no easy feat. Trying to attend to their quirks and oddities, their needs to meet their print deadlines, their peculiar dining habits [dinner at 11.30 p.m., late breakfasts, a great deal of booze, shmooze and revelry – to name just a few].

    We seven tourists were thrust into the middle of it. A better introduction to India I could not imagine. So often tourists to this country meet only receptionists, concierges, drivers, room service boys, guides - and every breed of low-life hassler, taxi-driver, rickshaw man and con artist that India seems to produce in millions. There are, of course, another zillion or so people in this extraordinary country who have absolutely no interest in ripping you off: educated, intelligent, passionate, professional, articulate people – I had the great good fortune to be in the company of 80 or so of them. That gave me a glimpse into the other realities of India, the ones it’s sometimes difficult to remember when you are being harassed by yet another opportunist, yet another con-man, yet another taxi driver who wants to rip you off. I met quite a few of them in the ensuing two months.

    But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll need a day or so to write up the next chapter in this enthralling adventure. Stay tuned....

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    As I said, not everything went to plan.

    As I wandered down to reception ready to check out, ready to head off to the train around 4.00 p.m. I was careful to let them know where I was heading. It was a big deal, this train, everybody knew about it, all Karnataka was proud of their newest, grooviest attraction. As they squeezed my credit card to extract revenge for that massage, that dinner, those drinks, all the little rewards I given myself after my epic voyage, I noticed a large bus pulling out of the drive...

    No prizes for guessing where that bus was going. It was, as I later discovered, jam-packed with all those freebie Indian journalists and photographers heading, I thought for the train. This tragic paying passenger had somehow been left off that little list. A brief grey cloud passed over my face. Perhaps an unkind word fell from my lips – but, no matter. Bangalore had taxis.

    A grubby vehicle, held together by string, screeched to a halt outside the Taj, I was loaded in it and careful instructions given the driver by the concierge. We hurtled out through the streets of Bangalore, a mayhem of all the sights and sounds of India. Crowds pressed up against the car, children threw themselves at the tourist; clammy, grasping hands clawed at the window. One long traffic jam finally ended at the station. I fell out of the car, fully expecting a man in a turban and the words ‘Golden Chariot’ to glide me to the train. Foolish me.

    Not a soul. Not from the Golden Chariot, anyway. Just 8,000 other people, all waiting for their assorted trains. I dragged my bags up a flight of steps, found the right platform and a kindly station master who ushered me to an empty waiting room and dumped me there. His hand gestures indicated I should wait. The 8,000 people peered in at me. I peered back. I felt faintly stupid.

    Luckily Dogster has been around. I knew I was in the right place, it was the right date – but very clearly, not the right time. Not by a long shot. Nothing to do but settle in and either laugh – or cry.

    I chose the former.

    The next five hours would be some of the most entertaining of my life. Never a boring moment in an Indian train station. My luggage was safe – so, I felt, was I. We went exploring - me and my camera. It was my first experience of Indian railways.

    This suburban Bangalore train station was a vast melting pot of sights and sounds, the flood of people waiting, eating, talking, watching – me, mostly. They were delighted to have a tourist attraction in their midst. Secret photos were taken, smiles exchanged. There was laughter and conversation, winks and glances – I was the object of considerable fascination – they, in turn, provided me with a passing parade of continuous entertainment – it was a fair bargain and both sides entered into it with glee. The Golden Chariot was conspicuous by its absence. I was conspicuous by my presence.

    Little by little, signs that the train would, one day, arrive appeared. A vast banner was laid down along the platform, then slowly attached to a frame, laboriously hung upside down, taken down, taken off the frame, reattached and re-hung. Men dangled from the roof, smart-looking P.R. people arrived with clip-boards, made notes, then left.

    The sign read: MANY WORLDS. ONE VOYAGE. How right they were – and it hadn’t even begun.

    A line of men in floppy white trousers, yellow shirts and purple turbans wandered in and sat in a perfect line along one wall, just waiting for me to take pictures, a troupe of young dancing girls in orange pants, bright green blouses and a lot of jewellery headed for another waiting room, giggling like crazy, excited. I took their picture, too. Matter of fact, I took hundreds of pictures. Polystyrene statues appeared and were distributed around a flight of steps. Cardboard disks on sticks were arranged in a line, looking for all the world like gold lollypops. Somehow I thought that this was all for me. I was just a little early for the party. No matter.

    All this was watched with increasing interest by the passing population of the platform. After a while I ceased to be their main object of interest – which, I confess, was rather a relief. Trains came. Trains left. Crowds of people, almost all young men, lined up in a disciplined fashion along the edge of the platform – disciplined, that is, till their train arrived. Then the mayhem began – that’s when the men in strange slouch hats and khaki uniforms appeared with long truncheons and beat the mob into submission. Whack! went the truncheon. Another young man was walloped into compliance. Whack! A group scattered, laughing like drains. Whack! A dozen children fled for cover. Whack! Whack! Whack! And the train was loaded. I wondered just what was in store for me.

    It was a long but fascinating five hours. That missing bus full of journalists had been wined and dined somewhere else entirely - the train wasn’t scheduled to board till 9.00 p.m. Nobody told me. One by one, other lost passengers arrived and were sent to the waiting room. None of us had the faintest idea what was going on – none of us was overly fussed, though, I have to say. It was kinda exciting. I was getting a little tired, a little hungry - but the adventures of this railway station were so bizarre that I certainly wasn’t bored...

    The sun went down, the dancing girls, the men in purple turbans emerged, garlands were placed in a pile ready for distribution, flower petals scattered. Little by little, more passengers arrived, police gathered, a gaggle of photographers and T.V. crews turned up. A ceremonial flower arrangement with oil lamps was plonked on the platform. Through all of this trains arrived, passengers were bludgeoned, trains departed, their desperate cargo hanging out the windows, watching events. The television lights sprang into life. The bus of freebee [probably drunk] journalists finally drew up outside the station, important men in expensive suits gathered in clumps at the foot of the stairs, the dancing girls danced, the men in purple turbans produced drums from their pants and let rip – and at last, long last, the Golden Chariot pulled in to the platform.

    It was Showtime.

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    I was ushered from the platform, taken outside the station and, probably because I was the first to arrive all those hours ago, turned round and, in full glare of T.V. cameras, lights, many photographers and the assembled throng, shoved up the steps as if I had just arrived. No policemen were needed to bludgeon me: I have no problems with minor fame, no hesitation in featuring on the National News – as long as its not in handcuffs.

    Drums pounded, pretty girls danced and smiled enthusiastically, I smiled inanely back, was garlanded, given assorted blessings, a bunch of unwieldy flowers and a large pink tikka on my forehead - everything BUT my luggage and some indication of what to do next. No matter. There was a train in front of me – clearly all I had to do was get on it. I relaxed, took many photographs and watched as the rest of the passengers went through their baptism of fire. It was fun.

    The British lady wasn’t so lucky, poor thing. She was so excited she fell flat on her face coming up the steps, her demise probably captured live on Indian T.V. – but there was such an air of festivity, such an air of occasion, that she was picked up, dusted off, her face glowing pinker than the tikka planted lopsided on her forehead and carried, laughing to the train.

    So – I was the very first official passenger on The Golden Chariot – and I certainly won’t be the last. This train is going to be booked out and famous pretty damn soon – for all the right reasons. My garland, my bunch of flowers and me, even, eventually, my luggage, all found their way onboard. And what a sight awaited me. Wow.

    This train is a knock-out. The pictures on the website say it all. Huge double bed, flat screen television, flowers, a bottle of wine, assorted presents [including a stupid hat too big to bring home], robes, wi-fi – need I go on... Then, just down the corridor, massage rooms, a computer room, two restaurants, a gym, a bar car – there was probably a swimming pool as well – all shining new. Even the staff seemed spotless. The passengers were the grubbiest things aboard.

    Everybody headed for the bar, the journalists to continue their vast free booze-up, the photographers to take many more pictures of me, the heavies to congratulate themselves and the British tourists to pour gin down their throats. It was a splendid scene.

    Strangely, the rest of the evening is a bit of a blur. Dinner was served [I think], new friends were met, conversations began – conversations that seemed to continue, unabated, for the next seven days. Everybody got along famously. Eventually I remember retiring to my bed, falling on to my deep mattress with a sigh – confused, over-excited and happy. The bed was moving but not because of the wine. We had begun our travels, the train had already set off, an event I seem to have missed in all the excitement, heading for the next place – wherever that was.

    Let me confess my ignorance right now. I knew I was on a train and that the train left from Bangalore - but, in my enthusiasm, had forgotten to look on a map. Recall the circumstances in which I had booked the trip and the speed with which I had arrived. Frankly I had no idea where I was.

    Bangalore, as I later discovered, was in a state called Karnataka - which is kinda down the bottom of India. This train was to visit every wonderful thing in that state – many amazing places - not one of which, to my shame, I’d ever heard of. It was a perfect way to start: muddle-headed, confused and not a little drunk. I let the itinerary unfold – like a child – without preconception or plan. Next morning I woke up in Mysore.

    This trip report will never stop if I try to describe all the extraordinary things I saw in the next seven days – one day tumbled into another, a cavalcade of sights and sounds that I simply would never have seen had I not been on this train – we were escorted on and off buses, in and out of temples, palaces, cultural events, a game park, a thousand railway stations, cities, towns, countryside – a vast blast of beautiful things, a few boring ones, enthusiasm, irritation when things got completely out of control - a melange of Karnataka, all accompanied by the supremely odd mix of passengers, animated conversation, new instant best friends, kindness, the occasional glass of wine...

    It’s all a bit of a blur - and there’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes that’s just what you want – a rush of the unfamiliar, a crash-course in sensation, a scurry through the culture. Right now I was hungry for everything in the shop. It was quite a delicatessen. There were many things I loved – and, of course, some I didn’t much care for. I’ll try and separate a few of them in my next installment.

    But, for this first few days of my adventure, like the greedy child I was, I allowed it to wash over me, taking in as much as I could, a tasty tourist thali of Karnataka – exactly the kind of the trip I, in my more politically correct moments, DISCOURAGE people from taking.

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    Definitely fabulous! I'm SO looking forward to the rest of this! Your railway station description is priceless. I'm going to put a pointer to this over at Smart Travel for the solo travelers (we got merged into Smart Travel - does that say we're smarter?)

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    You're all very kind. Very generous. Despite my seeming attitude I'm a bit of a sook when it comes to this stuff so your comments are much appreciated

    And Kathie, unless you had asked, I don't think this would have appeared. Strange, isn't it, how we hold all this detail in our mind until the moment comes to unload? Not a note taken, not a list, not a phrase - all locked away in memory, ready to be downloaded.

    My infamous Bhutan report [thanks Craig] occurred the same way. This is not quite such a purge. Yet.

    As I said, a day by day rundown of the trip would take forever. Here are just two of many moments that stick in my mind – then tomorrow we’ll rapidly move on to Goa – and a whole different adventure.

    I still have to tell you of my fabulous, luxury cruise... heh. Echoes of Bhutan, coming up.

    Here goes.

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    The biggest willy I ever saw, in fact probably the biggest willy in the world, is attached to a gigantic nude Jain statue in Shravanabelagola, about an hour out of Hassan. The giant dong and its owner, Gommateshwara, stand perched on top of a VERY large hill and the only way to get there is up, up, up one million steps. Even the prospect of a huge naked statue was not enough to make that grind worthwhile.

    Four thin Indians came to the rescue, carrying a sedan chair on poles. I cast my pride aside and stepped in. With a lurch we set off – by the time they hit the steps I was leant back at such an angle I thought I’d fall backwards off the chair - but once I got used to it, once I relaxed and decided to embrace my humiliation, I quite enjoyed it. It was apparent, by the grunts and groans of my bearers, they were not quite so enthusiastic.

    Luckily, Dogster is a greyhound of a man – with a few changes in personnel and the distribution of a vast tip all parties got to the top quite content. I walked through the entrance and into the courtyard. There it was. Willy Wonka. What a sight.

    The statue is 58 feet tall, chiseled from a single piece of rock, a boggling act of faith that, every 20 years is drowned in lorry-loads of milk, watched by mega-thousands of devotees. Today just a few of them were content to pour cow-juice over his big toe presided over by a chanting Jain priest, sitting bare-chested between his two enormous feet. It was a delicious scene, somehow profound, very moving – once I could take my eyes off the equally gigantic appendage hanging high over his head.

    The others wandered off on various guided tours inside the rest of the complex – I was so taken by the epic simplicity of the scene I held back, took many photographs and tried to take it all in. Beside the priest was a young shaven-headed woman in a white robe with a look of such doe-eyed devotion, such dedication, I was mesmerized. Soft chanting, hands clasped in prayer... it was a beautiful scene. Everybody was in white; the statue was grey stone, the sky was light blue – the electric orange of the chrysanthemum garlands the only splash of colour in sight.

    I was joined by the German tourists, fresh from their guided tour. His prayers finished, the priest stood up. To nobody’s surprise at all, except ours, he was stark bollock naked. Mrs. German let out a strangled squawk and fled. She had to be carried down the hill in my sedan chair and then fed schnapps.

    I, on the other hand, rather liked it – not the priest’s willy, that was an image I didn’t really need to dwell on – but the Jain philosophy behind it all – the abandonment of clothes, possessions, home, family, wealth... I had a lot to think about on the long bus ride home.

    Hampi

    Hampi was hot, dusty and, to my stupid eyes, at first sight rather dull. Main street of Hampi Bazaar was lined with backpacker hovels, their dreadlocked inhabitants splayed in various attitudes of ‘coolness’ in the restaurants along the road, waiting, no doubt, for their daily dose of diarrhea to prove just how cool they were.

    An elephant blessed tourists with its trunk inside Virupaksha temple, rather tall, multi-layered Shiva structure, more impressive outside than in, surrounded by stalls selling tourist tat that overflowed onto the dirt. Huge, barren boulders made up a surrounding landscape that, seen in the right light, with the right drugs, must have been impressive.

    We were zoomed round the sites efficiently enough, lectured, corralled and bused to the next one. I like my sites to be living, not ruins, generally. As I never listen to the guide, nor read a guidebook in these situations, I had no idea what I was seeing. Just ruins. I was having an attack of ignorance at the time. On another day, in different company, perhaps I would have found it fascinating but for the first part of the day I was distinctly underwhelmed.

    We trundled from place to place, like a giant tourist caterpillar, in and out of buses, hot, bothered and tired. Eventually, late afternoon we headed for the piece de resistance – the legendary Golden Chariot, the very object our train was named after. You’ll see the pictures on the website. It’s famous – rightly so – as is Vittala temple surrounding it.

    Nearby, on the river-bank, blankets had been spread out, refreshments provided while five dancers did their Indian thing, very gracefully, very beautifully, as the sun set behind the temple. It should have been sublime but I was in a grump, thinking that perhaps we might be allowed to see the most famous site in Hampi BEFORE the sun went down. So I demanded a car, left the group and went inside.

    I was the only one there. The sun slid down behind the hills and my spirits slid up. Just me and the Golden Chariot and my special temple, covered with delicious carving, the details etched sharper each second as the shadows grew. An ancient frangipani tree covered in new white blossoms stood silhouetted against the sky, night slowly tumbled around me and, just for my private thirty minutes, I was lost in awe. One of the pictures I took that evening is my screen-saver. I look at it every day.

    After sunset the group arrived. That was fine – I’d had my moment alone – that’s what I’d been craving all day - my soul was at peace. We were gathered for a special occasion, the illumination of the temple – a special event, just for us - if only someone could find the key to turn on the lights. We waited – and waited. Ten minutes turned into an hour and the bonhomie started to fade. New best friends got a bit bored, the photographers started to fret. There was nothing to see.

    Then, just in time, just before the troops turned rancid, in a single instant of wonder the illuminations were switched on. If there was a high point to the train trip – this was it. The main temple and the surrounds were lit in a pure white light, every detail of the sculptures, the pillars, the friezes glowed gold - gold, gold, wonderful gold. For one stunning hour we wandered, each of us just lost in awe. We were allowed inside the forbidden area, the guides played the musical columns, we stood and stared and felt very small, very poor, very humble. Well, I did, anyway.

    I could weep just thinking about it. Incredible India.

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    Hi Marija, and thanks: here's my chance to compliment you on your India report which I re-read just the other day. I was thinking about you and your husband in Varanasi - room 304 at the Rashmi Guest House overlooked the Jantar Mantar observatory you visited.

    Now, back to the grind.

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    I'm awaiting the next installment. As fabulous as the train looked, I was wondering how it would be for you to be touring with that huge group... I'm now learning how you coped with it.

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    Not everything was quite so sublime: there were the ups – there were the downs. Here’s a couple of the latter.

    By the last full day of temple touring the schedule was getting a little bit out of whack. Well, to be honest, it had collapsed. It was quite impossible to keep the group together. The journalists and photographers could no longer be controlled, neither, for that matter, could the Dog.

    This was a long, long day – one that by next year won’t be a problem, when the train will stop at Badami, not Gadag - but for us maiden voyagers it was interminable. A time and motion study says it all: total bus travel, faffing around, cups of tea, lunch and wee breaks: 12 hours. Time spent at the three sites, Badami, Aihole and Pattakal: 2 hours, 40 minutes. Point made. All three sites were very fine but, by the time we got to them, I was ready to kill. The travel I could deal with – it was our turn for the Guide From Hell.

    Each place we visited had its own separate guide, a local man who knew his topic thoroughly, who launched into his routine like a clockwork toy. Our guide for today had been wound up too tight. He joined us after three hours and forty minutes of solid driving on the bus. We still had another 45 minutes to go. We were tired, hungry and trapped like startled rabbits in a cage. He stood in front of the bus, grabbed the microphone and, in a high pitched monotone, shrieked at us for exactly 45 minutes while we travelled to the first site. He paused to draw breath for a total of exactly 45 seconds. I know. I counted. Excruciating.

    I have no idea what he was talking about. History, culture, religion, I neither knew – nor cared. He was impossible to understand. This was not giving information – it was force-feeding. Not one of the foreign tourists listened to a word. Nor could we turn him off. He was a misery – and, you know, I suspect he was an expert. The Indians on board all understood what he was saying, had some background, some innate knowledge of the blizzard of facts and gods and history – the foreigners had no idea at all. Being screeched at, non-stop, all afternoon was appalling, like a drill boring [and I mean, boring] into your brain. That, coupled with his impenetrable accent, created what was, in 67 countries, the worst guide experience I’ve ever had. Knowledge [apparently] 10/10 – people skills – zero.

    The only thing I remember was him pointing out the penis fields on our way. [They were, of course, ‘peanut’ fields – but that didn’t stop me hopefully looking out the window for a row of little pink sausages – anything to divert my attention from the relentless shriek piercing my ears.]

    Memo for the guide: do NOT clap your hands and screech ‘hurry up!’at the guests when at temples. We are not dogs.

    At Pattadakal, a world-famous heritage site and last stop for the day, he corralled us outside the gates to the temples, standing between us and what we’d come to see.

    ‘Fifteen minutes for explanation, five minutes for photographs!’ he shouted, then launched into the next speech. I just pushed my way past him and went in, leaving the rest of the group meekly listening while he droned on, and on – and on.

    But this where he was coming from: for him the history, the explanation was far more important than the site. He couldn’t SEE the beauty. The art, the carving, the ambience all faded into a dim insignificance beside the meaning - perhaps he had a point, but one entirely lost on me. I’d come to see, to experience - not for a lecture.

    I had a choice between ignoring him - or killing him. Luckily I chose the former – but only just. There was a brief explosion of rage that may, or may not, have come from Dogster, just at the end of the day when he announced angrily, his temper also at breaking point after trying to control eighty-seven witless tourists, ‘You have two minutes for a toilet break – hurry up or we’ll leave without you - and you’ll miss your train.’

    Goa

    It was the last full day of the trip. Spirits were high – everybody looking forward to day in the sun. After the familiar kerfuffle and a longish drive, we tumbled out of the buses at Calangute. The road led straight down to the beach, a road lined with a thousand shops, all selling the same hideous tourist crap. Wandering down that road were over-weight European tourists in skimpy bathing costumes, their voluminous flesh imprinted with the sunburnt impressions of the clothes they’d worn the day before. I just wanted to take some of them aside and say, gently, ‘Go home. Look in a mirror. Don’t ever come out like this in public again. You’re scaring the children...’

    Alas, there weren’t many children in sight - just mountains of white European flesh intent on a good time. I wandered further, down to the beach, a vast, crowded strip of what once was sand, covered in hundreds and hundreds of Indians lads ogling sun-baking European women, hoping for a glimpse of that forbidden foreign skin. Seemingly oblivious to all this attention, the French, German, Russian,British package tourists lay spread out on the sand, legs akimbo, sunglasses askew, staring contently at the sun. Obviously, coming from Europe, they only saw the sun for a week or so a year so had piled in their thousands on to cheap, discount airlines and arrived, en masse, in Goa.

    I was to reflect on the allure of Goa at length on a later occasion. It occurs to me that when those hippies set out on their voyage of discovery, all those years ago, they came from Europe, Great Britain – from the cold, from the snow, the grime and horror. Goa must have been the first place they saw a beach, a palm tree, felt heat and some form of contentment – so they stayed: the myth grew. Plentiful quantities of marijuana and cheap alcohol fuelled the fire. The myth grew some more.

    For those of us from Australia, having passed on our quest through Asia, having actually seen a palm tree before, having spent a childhood on the beach, having seen the sun at least once before, the beaches of Goa look pretty damn ordinary.

    I’ve spent some considerable time on the beaches of Sri Lanka – I know what they are used for in this culture: illicit sex and defecation. At the time of my arrival in Goa the media was full of shock about the case of that unfortunate fifteen year-old British tourist, Scarlett Keeling.

    Now Goa could add another use for the beaches: underage gang-rape and murder.

    I fled. Quite by accident, all seven foreign tourists found ourselves huddled in the same beach-front bar – horrified at what we found. We’d lasted fifteen minutes. I think the rest of the train was having a wonderful time. To us it was hideous.

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    The train trip was over – after an overnight trip from Goa I was suddenly in Bangalore, back at the Taj West End. This time I was famous.

    The concierge came running, brandishing a sheaf of press clippings.

    ‘Look, Mr. Dogster, look! Your picture – here – here – here!’

    I could tell there was an upgrade coming up. Now the illustrious Mr. Dogster found himself in a Club Suite of such magnificence that I was sorry to have to leave. Inexplicably [that Pouilly Fume again] I had booked myself on a flight the following day – back to Goa.

    I fell into the massage room and Bongo, the portly masseur, pounded my train trip away. I was suddenly on my own and, no question about it, a little sad. When these things are over – they’re OVER.

    But you know, I would NEVER have travelled to Karnatika, to all those amazing places on my own, I would never have bothered with Kabini, Belur, Harebidu, Shravanabelogola, Hampi, Badami, Aihole... I’d never heard of them, let alone want to go there. I’d never have met that extraordinary group of crazy Indian journo’s, that mob of photographers, had those conversations, those many drinks in the bar: never have been part of that unique first voyage – and certainly never have featured quite as much as I did in the newspapers. Only false modesty [and the wish to preserve a modicum of anonymity] prevents me giving you the links to all that press coverage. I had a great time, one that will never happen again.

    I recommend this trip – remember, if you go it’ll be totally different. The train will be full of well-behaved tourists, not 80 crazy Indian media, it’ll have sorted out the occasional glitch – who knows, they may even have re-arranged the schedule so that you get to spend more time ON the train and a little less being bused around to see every square inch of Karnataka. At the moment the schedule seems a little like it was designed by a committee, so proud of their state that they want you not to miss a second of it – forgetting, of course, their next greatest tourist attraction: the Golden Chariot train.

    That’ll sort itself out. Yes, it is expensive – but, given the outrageous prices of 5 star hotels in India, the cost of a guide, a driver and car, quality food, taxes and the like - let alone the relentless hassle of traveling to and from these far-flung sites - the lack of quality accommodation, the risk of lousy food – maybe it’s not quite such an extreme price to pay. I don’t regret it for a moment and I’m a dedicated solo traveler by preference, design and circumstance.

    Anyway, it was done: time to change channels. I had a couple of days in Panjim coming up and then my next epic voyage – two weeks on the M.S. Ocean Odyssey: Goa to Mangalore to the Lakdashweep Islands to Cochin, Colombo and Trivandrum before coming back to Goa.

    I’ll deal with Panjim later for reasons that will become clear. Let’s jump to the next adventure.

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    This is brilliant. Your sense of humor shines through in every word. Did you reallt spend three months in India?

    I note that this was done two weeks afterwards. hence, no penalty.

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    Hi Gpanda - thanks for the compliment - and phew, no penalty.

    It was a three month trip - but not every minute in India - 9 weeks in that country this time. I was there late last year for a month or so: Kolkata, Darjeeling and 2 weeks in Sikkim. Then another fortnight in Kathmandu. I never did get around to that report - that's still stashed in the memory banks, waiting to be unplugged.

    As well as India on this trip there was my traditional 3-4 day Bangkok stopover on the way there and back - one of the fringe benefits of living in Oz - I'm trying out every known boutique hotel in BKK, one by one.

    I haven't bothered with this in the report - there's quite enough about BKK on these boards to satiate anybody interested...

    On this trip India was followed by another strangely extended stay in Kathmandu - the reasons for this [well, some of them] I'll eventually get to - if you guys haven't run, screaming with boredom by then.

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    P.S. Gpanda: I've just realized that last trip to India was immediately before my [in]famous trip to Bhutan. The sheer awfulness of my time in Bhutan completely eclipsed my memory of Darjeeling, Sikkim etc.

    And as every grisly detail of Bhutan was certainly covered in this Forum [see 'Dogster? Bhutan']no late penalty applies. O.K.?

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    The penalty provisions have not been waived, but you make me laugh so hard with your prose that I can't be troubled to calculate them. Sort of like a verdict for the plaintiff with damagages of $1. Consider it a Pyrrhic loss.

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    Hanuman: I really haven't the faintest idea. I was too busy guzzling them to notice.

    Too much, probably - but certainly no more than you'd pay at say, the Oberoi's or Taj's. I have a dim memory that the soft drinks and local beer were included in the tariff.

    My bar bill at the end was no shock to the system - that much I remember.

    And thanks for the compliment. Here's the next instalment.

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    M.S. Ocean Odyssey

    The heavens opened just before I arrived at the transit hotel in South Goa, ready to be transferred to the ship for my glamorous, luxury cruise. Unseasonal storms were rolling in from the West drowning out the Holi celebrations. Limp banners hung from the houses, brightly coloured revellers dripped pink and green - and purple - and blue - and orange on the veranda floors as I drove by.

    I was happy just the same, excited, enthusiastic – nothing could stop my stately progress: I wasn’t stumbling, I was STRIDING across India - on a roll, my canine spirits high.

    This was a real punt, this cruise, a last-minute Pouilly-fuelled decision based entirely on the extraordinarily cheap rate I found on the internet. I’d researched it, as much as I could – but there was a strange, almost mysterious lack of information about the trip. Not a review, not a comment on the net.

    I took the chance, just for fun - and swiftly learnt that the immortal phrase ‘If you pay peanuts - you get monkeys.’ applies to cruises as well.

    The taxi slithered to a halt in front of the main entrance, a sloping roof covering the steps into the lobby. The deluge beat down on the roof and tumbled in a perfect waterfall between me and safety. The taxi-driver wasn’t getting out of his car – he was no fool. The staff from the cruise ship huddled inside. They weren’t going to help. The hotel staff couldn’t give a damn - I wasn’t one of their guests.

    With a weary sigh, I paid my fare and got out of the cab, hauled my suitcase out of the trunk and walked slowly through the waterfall, lugging my bags. Soaked, I stumbled into the foyer. The two men from the ship were sitting on a couch, playing with their mobile phones. They didn’t look up. I just sat and dripped, surrounded by my luggage.

    The foyer was full of elderly British couples, nodding off in their chairs. As I later realized, they had just flown in overnight from the U.K. The poor sods had been sitting there for seven hours. Not one of them had thought to get a day room at the hotel – they just sat meekly, exhausted, doing what they were told, enduring with that stupid stiff upper lip.

    The bus was late, of course. Conversations were had, watches checked. Tourists bonded, as they do in these circumstances. No one was going to tell us what was going on. Eventually, with maximum confusion, the men were prized from the mobiles and we were herded to our transfer. Half an hour later we arrived at Murmagao, the Goa dock. What little conversation there was on the bus was silenced as we all stared grimly at the ship. She was not a pretty sight.

    Later, much too late, I found out her history – this next paragraph is from Google search.

    MS Ocean Odyssey started life in 1965, as a passenger car ferry named MS Eros cruising the Greek Islands. However, she was sold to Sun Lines just twelve months later and rebuilt to become the luxury cruise ship MS Jason and was placed under the management of the popular Epirotiki Cruise Line, although she later returned to her Sun Line colours. In 2004 Epirotiki and Sun Lines merged to become the doomed Royal Olympia Cruise Line and whilst most other of the other older ships were sent to the breakers, MS Jason was sold in 2005 to the Derwent Ocean Ltd. S.A. of Panama and was renamed Ocean Odyssey. She received an extensive refit in 2006.

    Alas, this refit was not extensive enough.

    The transfer man stood up in front of the bus.

    ‘As we have arrived at the vessel my services are finished,’ he said, angling for a tip. ‘If you wish you can compliment me now.’

    ‘It was a great bus ride,’ I piped up. ‘You were fabulous – will that do?’

    They didn’t get the joke - nor, strangely enough, did they get their tip.

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    I was first off the bus and up the gangway to the rust-bucket they called a ship. I stumbled into the foyer. There, standing in a line, neatly dressed and coiffed, were twenty sullen Ukrainian housekeepers.

    ‘Well, good afternoon ladies!’ I said, ‘you all look very splendid.’

    One of them squeezed out a tiny smile. The rest stared at me as if I’d shat in their hand.

    I was dragged off to the front desk as the rest of the passengers wheezed their way up the gangway behind me. Formalities. Documents. My passport was whisked away, my credit cards swiped. I was issued an unsmiling Ukrainian brunette to escort me to my ‘deluxe’ top deck cabin and swiftly left alone to ponder my fate. Two thin single beds, a porthole and a bedside table. Neat. Clean. Antiseptic.

    It all reminded me rather of a prison cell – still, it was friendlier than the staff.

    I went into the bathroom and turned on the taps. Brown smelly water gushed out. I turned on the shower. More brown smelly water. I won’t even tell you what it reminded me of - there was no way I was washing in that. Not once. Not ever.

    That’s when I first noticed a very strange thing. The cabin vibrated. The ship vibrated. I vibrated. I felt as if I was sitting on my washing machine on full spin cycle. It wasn’t, despite all you might hear, a pleasant sensation.

    ‘What have I done,’ I said to myself, ‘what have I done... ‘

    I had to get out of the vibrator, so went exploring. Empty corridors led to empty rooms, the occasional Ukrainian stewardess passed by with towels and a snarl. I found one antique passenger standing stock-still on the stairs. She was lost and dishevelled. All were other passengers had vanished, doubtless locked in their vibrating cabins, weeping.

    I directed the confused old lady to her cabin, as fate would have it, right next to mine, then squelched upstairs to the upper deck, a flat expanse of horror upholstered in plastic grass matting, still soaked from the torrential downpour. Huge puddles dotted the deck. A pile of plastic chairs stood off to one side, a row of plastic sun-lounges on the other. Somehow I didn’t think they were going to get much use.

    The swimming pool and hot-tub stood empty, two yawning aquamarine excavations staring glumly at the sky. I huddled in between the puddles under a grubby plastic awning, trying to dry my shoes. I was surrounded by plastic – everywhere plastic.

    Outside the docks were deserted, empty cranes swinging uselessly against the sky. A boat chugged lazily by, the crew daubed in bright colours. Everybody was having fun at Holi – except for me.

    In the lounge the passengers slowly gathered for afternoon tea. The chief-steward met me at the door. He was Indian, middle-aged, friendly and pleasant enough, the first man I’d seen on board.

    ‘Are you on your own?’ he said.

    I nodded.

    ‘We’ll have to find you a lady,’ he leered, as he escorted me to my tragic singles chair, ‘someone to keep you company...’

    Frankly, that was the last thing I needed. Now, having been cast in the role of lecherous roue, I faced fourteen days of the crew thinking I wanted to jump the Ukrainian chamber-maids. Without wishing to labour the point, this was very definitely not on my agenda. Quite the reverse.

    My lip curled. He thought I was smiling. Actually, I was contemplating murder, there and then. I scanned the buffet for a knife, a fork – anything sharp. No such luck. He smiled brightly back and winked slowly, then ran off to find me a serving of stewardess.

    A kindly Lancashire couple invited me to join them. We made the predictable small talk as we stuffed stale sandwiches into our mouths. Crumbs flew, weak tea was served and we settled back in our seats, bonding as best we could. I had a strong need for gin. Just as I raised my hand to order it our little threesome was interrupted by Jane, the cruise director. She made a beeline for our table and plonked her tight British arse down beside me.

    She didn’t stop talking for the next twenty minutes. After introductions were made she launched into a lengthy description of every passenger that had ever been on the ship – it wasn’t complimentary. Somehow I knew that, next trip, I would be added to her monologue.

    She was bright, breezy, bitchy and banal. I listened, amazed, as she dished the dirt. This is not, generally, considered good form. She launched into a series of well-practiced anecdotes of seasickness, rough seas, horror voyages, hideous passengers and gruesome shipboard romances that she had witnessed, all the time imagining that we found her prattle fascinating. She was common as muck and about as much fun.

    Jane XX wasn’t her real name, of course, it was her stage name. She was, as she was quick to explain, really an entertainer. I could see her already, stuffed inside a green lurex frock, belting out of tune Shirley Bassey hits to drunks in Working-Men’s clubs in the North of England, telling off-colour jokes and introducing the dwarf-throwing as the next act.

    Now I needed a bucket of gin.

    All the other passengers had arrived in the lounge. They sat in isolated clumps on plastic leather chairs, being fed savouries. I’d met a few in the hotel – they were nice enough, good, honest people who’d paid hard earned money for what they hoped would be a good, honest holiday. They were probably all on the same cut-price off-season rates as I was; mostly elderly British and a couple of Germans who spoke little English looking about with staring, terrified eyes. I just knew it wouldn’t be long before somebody mentioned the War. Luckily there were three bright Americans whose company I already enjoyed. The ship was barely one third full.

    Jane launched from our table to the dance floor, a sheaf of papers in her hand, grabbed a microphone and stood, glaring at the passengers. They fell obediently silent. For one terrible moment I thought she was going to sing – I could feel a ‘Go-o-o-ldfingah-h-h...’ coming up but, to my great relief, instead she made the welcoming speech.

    I lasted a minute or so, then excused myself and ran to the bar, desperate for gin, beer, metholated spirits – anything to block out the pain.

    I hovered up the back, half-listening, half trying to blank out the gush and gibber as our Jane ran through the rules, the schedule, the so-called entertainment, mostly starring her – all the wild excitement that was to be ours for the next two weeks. If it was possible, my spirits sank even lower. There were altogether too many references to rough seas, seasickness and bad weather. That unseasonal storm was turning nasty.

    The handsome Indian masseurs were paraded, amidst a series of lurid jokes for the ladies, then eventually the microphone was passed over to the substitute excursion director, a youthful Indian lad who fumbled through his notes in a desperate attempt to pre-sell the ludicrously overpriced tours. The poor child was stricken with stage fright, his hands trembled, the notes shook as he ran relentlessly through the list of the horrors on shore. There were long, excruciating pauses, gulps and shudders before he finally sat down to a kindly smattering of applause. Gee, I felt in safe hands.

    The gin arrived. I skulled it then ordered another. Reeling, I retired to my deluxe cabin. It was still vibrating. I lay down, hoping the mattress would absorb some of the movement - fat chance of that. I watched as the curtains shuddered, as the door to the bathroom slowly swung open, as the liquid pooh dripped steadily from the shower.

    It was intolerable. I was being shuddered to death. Every atom in my body was being shaken apart. The gin in my stomach lurched. I felt sick.

    After half an hour I pottered down to the front desk. With a deadly smile on my face I asked the obvious question.

    ‘This vibration is really dreadful... when is it going to stop?’

    The concierge, a glacial British lass of tender years, had heard this complaint before. Many, many times. She looked deep into my eyes with an expression of utter contempt.

    ‘Get used to it,’ she said steadily, then returned to her computer.

    I’d been on the boat for two hours. Only another fourteen days to go.

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    The next adventure was the Captain’s Welcoming Cocktail Party. All over the ship glad-rags were being slipped on, crumpled coats dragged out of cheap suitcases, false teeth dunked in Steradent. Alas, as I hadn’t listened properly to the welcoming speech, nor read my schedule, I had no idea the fiesta was happening, so, like a fool, turned up at dinner promptly at seven o’clock.

    A gimlet-faced Eastern European Maitre ’D stared glumly at me as I approached. No flicker of a smile, no attempt at a pleasantry. There, in a distant corner of the empty dining room, was a table for six, already occupied by three similarly punctual passengers who had wisely chosen nourishment over a social life. Staring straight in front of them, desperate not to catch my eye, was a young British couple we’ll call Ben and Betty and, on the other side, a very elderly single lady. This was my next door neighbour, the woman I’d seen lost on the stairs. Her name was Ethel.

    Ethel was still lost and dishevelled – abandoned in a conversation only she could understand. She was in full flight. Ben and Betty appeared trapped, like two bunnies in Ethel’s headlights, silent and desperately polite in that limp British manner, pecking at the bread and sipping their water. Betty was making an attempt to be nice - and she was genuinely a sweet young thing - her husband, on the other hand, had abandoned all pretence. He sat mutely staring at Ethel as she raved on.

    All of them had just arrived in India after that overnight flight. Ethel was rambling, her two pink eyes rolling vacantly from side to side, lost under eyelids of such extravagant complexity that they threatened to snap shut at any moment. This was a face of such great antiquity that her skin had forgotten where to go. It hung in folds, compelled by years of gravity further and further towards the floor, desperate to escape its owner’s prattle, dangling around her neck, wobbling there like turkey gobble as she went on - and on - and on.

    Of course, this was to be my table for the next one hundred years. Betty’s eyes brightened briefly as I sat down and introduced myself, hoping somehow for rescue. Ben nodded bleakly and returned to his bread. He knew there would be none. Ethel waited impatiently for the niceties to end then resumed her story.

    ‘I’ve been in every chorus at Covent Garden for the last fifty-two years,’ she announced grandly.

    ‘They must be missing you,’ I said. My irony escaped her. One ancient eyebrow attempted a manoeuvre but was held in place by the tumbling folds of skin.

    ‘How lucky you are.’ I whittered on, ‘you must have seen all the great stars, all the great conductors... ‘

    She appeared suddenly confused. The poor darling had completely forgotten what she was talking about. I turned to the couple beside me.

    ‘So, you’re unusually young to be on a cruise. What brought you here?’

    Betty began to blurt out their story; she was a teacher with relatives in India, a penchant for the sea, school holidays, blah, blah, blah... I feigned fascination. She didn’t get very far before Ethel was off again.

    ‘I hate computers,’ she said, out of the blue. ‘All those brainless people sitting there, staring at their screen for hours on end - loathsome, stupid addicts. What can’t they just write a letter? All they really need is a pen and some paper. When I was a girl we didn’t have computers...’

    It occurred to me that when she was a girl they probably didn’t even have electricity. She continued on her Luddite agenda for quite some considerable time. I attempted a few comments about the glories of the internet, the advantages of E-mail but she wasn’t remotely interested in anything anybody else had to say. I gave up and turned to the waiter.

    ‘Bring me one hundred large Kingfisher beers, line them up on the table and I’ll drink them all.’

    My humour was lost on the staff.

    The Ethelogue was interrupted briefly as she ordered dinner. I turned to Ben.

    ‘So Ben, what is it that you do?’

    He didn’t answer.

    I repeated my question.

    Again, nothing - he remained fixed on his breadstick, eyes firmly locked on his plate.

    ‘Ben,’ I hissed, ‘I know you don’t want to talk but try and squeeze out a sentence or two, O.K.? This is difficult enough as it is. Help me out here, pal.’

    He looked bleakly at me.

    ‘Computers,’ he said finally. ‘I sit, loathsome and stupid in front of a screen all day.’

    At that deathly moment, as if by fate, we were joined by another elderly British couple. I’d seen them earlier in the day, dozing in the lounge back at the hotel. They were of a breed: in their early 70’s, paragons of limp British politeness, stoic compliance, with all the social grace of a wet dish-cloth. They introduced themselves with the minimum of fuss then sat, silent and disapproving, as Ethel resumed her oration.

    Mrs. Brit. ordered some water then, once it was poured from the bottle, sent it back.

    ‘I want to see this opened in front of me,’ she said grandly, ‘I want to see you break the seal. Take this away.’

    The waiter did, rolling his eyes. She was off to a great start with the staff. They’ll be gobbing in her food by the end of the trip, I thought.

    I turned again to the waiter on his return. I looked him dead in the eye.

    ‘Please. Bring... me... one... big... beer.’

    This time the Kingfisher arrived, but not before my feeble attempt to usher the new arrivals into the conversation.

    ‘Well,’ I said brightly, ‘you look like a well-travelled couple.’

    There was a shocked pause.

    ‘How dare you say that,’ she blurted.

    ‘Well, if you’re going to say something like that, you’d better justify yourself,’ he hurrumphed.

    ‘Outrageous,’ she sniffed.

    Gee, this was going well.

    ‘I’m just trying to work out just which part of ‘you look like a well-travelled couple’ could possibly be offensive,’ I said, trying to keep the edge out of my voice.

    Of course, I should have used the word ‘seem’.

    ‘But, as I can’t,’ I continued gaily, ‘I’ll just continue on as if nothing has happened. Obviously I’ve gone mad.’

    Ben chuckled. A brief shudder of amusement flickered across his face. Poor Betty schoolteacher didn’t really know which way to turn. She dived desperately into her lamb biryani, pulled a face, then suddenly announced to the table that this was unlike any biryani she had ever tasted before in her life.

    ‘It’s very dry – very bland, very tasteless.’

    Mr Brit. looked up.

    ‘Perhaps this is how it’s meant to be in India. Maybe we have it wrong in the U.K.’

    ‘Maybe it’s just crap biryani,’ I blurted.

    ‘I wish you wouldn’t say that word,’ snorted Mrs. Brit.

    ‘What? Biryani?’

    ‘I hate those dreadful words!’ Ethel exclaimed suddenly, then proceeded to spell them all very loudly. ‘I never want to hear S.H.*.T. and F.U. *.K... and especially that awful C word... ’

    My new American friends looked up startled from the next table.

    ‘He-e-e-elp!’ I mouthed.

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    I’d already sent back my first course, a limp green salad that had languished in the cold store for a very long time. The main course, Chicken A La Something was dry, tough and inedible. I pushed that plate away too, leant over to the waiter and asked for more bread and some cheese. This was the first meal of many, many more. If they couldn’t get this right I knew I was in trouble.

    ‘I was in the movie where Doris Day first sang ‘Que Sera Sera,’ announced Ethel, quite apropos of nothing. ‘We were in the chorus at the climactic scene!’ It was an Alfred Hitchcock movie made in 1954, starring Jimmy Stewart, details that eluded her at the time.

    ‘Ahh,’ I said, trying to change the subject, ‘my mother used to sing that to me as a child...’

    ‘I can’t think what that has to do with anything,’ Ethel said blankly.

    ‘It was just a desperate attempt at conversation, Ethel,’ I found myself saying. ‘Don’t worry, I won’t bother again.’

    I turned to Ben. He was ploughing through his main course with great concentration.

    ‘I can see why you’ve gone quiet,’ I said as an aside. ‘This is the most bizarre dinner I’ve ever had.’

    ‘Horrific,’ he whispered and rolled his eyes...

    Silence fell around the table. Even Ethel had run out of things to say. Knives and forks clanked against our empty plates, a glass shuddered on the vibrating table. Around us the staff stood serene, uncaring, staring at the battlefield in front of them.

    ‘Do you think we look battered?’ said Mrs. Brit. suddenly. She was still mulling over my ‘well-travelled’ comment. ‘Do you think we look old? Is that what you’re trying to say?’

    ‘Bring me a crate of anything alcoholic,’ I hissed at the waiter.

    ‘Well,’ sniffed Mr. Brit, ‘you’re stuck with us.’

    There are those moments in life where further conversation is futile, where less is infinitely preferable to more. I’ve travelled enough to spot them fast and act quickly. The thought of fourteen more days, fourteen more dreadful dinners flashed through my mind. The vibrating cabin, my vibrating stomach, the awful food, the surly service, the unsmiling Ukrainian maids – all combined in a moment of pure perception.

    I’d gone into another zone: that fatal place where, all of a sudden, regardless, you just don’t care.

    I turned slowly to the new arrivals, unexpectedly composed, deadly.

    ‘I have no intention of sitting at this table ever again.’ I said calmly. The words tumbled out of my mouth unaided by rational thought. ‘Life’s way too short.’

    Four British mouths popped open. Eight British eyebrows flew up. Ethel was stuffing dessert into her gob. She had no idea what was happening.

    ‘Now, if you’ll excuse me,’ I said with icy politeness, ‘I just have to go upstairs to my cabin and kill myself.’

    And with those fine words hanging over the table I was gone, leaving I know not what in my wake. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the waiter, doubled over with laughter.

    My first stop was the front desk. Nothing would stop me now.

    ‘Hello,’ I said, smiling to the poker-faced receptionist, ‘I just need your help for a moment.’

    She levered her gaze away from the computer screen, staring at me with a face of utter disinterest.

    ‘Yeeees,’ she said lazily, ‘how can I help you?’

    ‘I’m getting off the boat.’ I said sweetly. ‘Now.’

    I certainly had her attention by then. I’d been on board for six hours. We hadn’t even left port. Now I was getting off. Her mouth opened and closed like a goldfish gasping for air. She was trying to frame a question but I gave her no time.

    ‘Could you get my bill together and arrange a car? I’ll be down in fifteen minutes.’

    I hadn’t unpacked, so there was no re-packing to do.

    Her question finally emerged out of the confusion.

    ‘Wha.. wha.. why?’

    ‘I don’t think I have to explain that to you.’ I said evenly. ‘Just do your paperwork and get me off.’

    As I turned away and walked upstairs to the vibrating cell I was aware of a flurry of phone calls behind my back. I didn’t care what was going on.

    When I returned, bags in hand, the Captain was there. He was tall, strong and Russian. Strangely, at that moment, I felt much taller and stronger than him.

    We shook hands in a manly fashion.

    ‘Can I ask your reasons for getting off?’ he enquired, just a hint of Slavic concern on his face.

    ‘No.’ I replied bluntly, staring him full in the face.

    He wasn’t expecting that reply.

    ‘Now boss,’ I said firmly, ‘may I get off?’

    ‘Oh, you’re the boss... ’ he replied, trying to suck up to me.

    ‘Yes,’ I agreed, ‘I am.’

    ‘Is there anything we can do to change your mind?’

    ‘No.’

    ‘Is there any complaint you would like to make?’

    I hesitated briefly, just enough for me to read my mind. I glanced slowly round the ship and took a breath. He was waiting for the litany of abuse.

    ‘No,’ I said steadily, ‘if you don’t know what’s wrong with this boat by now – there’s no point in me telling you.’

    I held the pause - and his gaze - for a long time. He knew not to push that particular issue.

    ‘Is my car here?’

    ‘Yes.’

    ‘Then it’s time for me to go.’

    And so I did. We shook hands in that same manly fashion, my passport was returned, my credit card slid gratefully back in the wallet. No complaint. No refund. No explanation. I just got off the boat, walked down the gangplank and got into the waiting car with not a glance behind me. We drove away.

    It was 10 p.m. - I hadn’t an idea where I was going, nor what I would do for the remaining fourteen days – but, you know, it was the smartest thing I ever did.

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    Oh, dogster - too funny! But at least you're very good at cutting your losses!

    I hope Goa got better for you - Calangute sounds just awful too. Maybe it was the time (early Dec. '01) or the beach (Vagator) but I had a much more peaceful experience.

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    Millions Hanuman.

    What would you like? A picture of the biggest willie in the world? The Guide From Hell? How about Ethel? [heh - now there's a dame to conjure with... ]

    Actually, I don't know how to do that [share pictures, I mean] so, just now, I think I'll stick with the words. Later with the happy snaps, eh? I have a bit more writing to do.

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    Hi thursday.. didn't see you there.

    It's the relentless march of time, the arrival of gut-bucket airlines, a million more package tourists - AND that particular beach.

    But Goa ain't just Calangute Beach - as you well know. It's about thirty different places, up and down the coast - or, as I found out, inland. Choose the beach - and you've chosen your scene. Laid-back or party-time. It's all a question of which is the stimulant [or sedative] of your choice.

    Goa gets better [in a most unexpected way] - you'll see.

    And thank you so much for your comments - I'm glad you're enjoying this - just as I've enjoyed your trip reports. I hope, one day we bump into each other on the road. I think we'd get on.

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    From the press:

    THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Inclement weather and rough sea prevented foreign tourists aboard M.S. Ocean Odyssey, a luxury cruise liner which reached at Vizhinjam, near here, on Tuesday from disembarking to visit the beach resort and tourist attractions of the capital.

    The four-star vessel carrying 36 tourists, as against its capacity of 290 passengers, and a crew of 110, arrived off Vizhinjam harbour around 1 p.m. The rough sea delayed the arrival from Colombo by six hours and got anchored over five nautical miles off Vizhinjam.

    A three-member team led by Chief Engineer Joseph, a native of Tuticorn in Tamil Nadu, Harby and Jimmy came in an inflated boat ‘Zodiac’ to take the customs, immigration and port authorities to the vessel for the mandatory clearance.

    The customs authorities who accompanied Harby and Jimmy in the inflated boat to inspect the vessel returned back soon as the rough sea prevented them from reaching the vessel.

    Incidentally, a vessel belonging to the police carrying presspersons was able to proceed near the vessel braving the rough sea. After the port authorities held discussions with Captain Jimmy Press, it was decided to abandon the mandatory inspection by the customs and emigration personnel. The passengers onboard the vessel were also not interested in disembarking. Finally, the team led by Mr. Joseph returned to the vessel around 1.50 p.m.

    The 105.6-metre-long vessel boasts of standard and deluxe cabins, a swimming pool, two Jacuzzis, a dance floor, a spa and a beauty salon, a bar, a library with 200 books and a fitness centre.
    Ravi Nair of J.M. Baxi and Company, agents of M.S. Ocean Odyssey, said the ship cancelled its trip to Cheriam islands in Lakshwadeeep and is voyaging back to Goa due to the inclement weather. The vessel will visit Vizhinjam on Tuesday every fortnight.

    Meanwhile, the arrival of the cruise liner put the port, customs and immigration authorities on tenterhooks for over six hours. Chairman of Kerala Tourism Development Corporation (KTDC) Cherian Philip came to the harbour representing the government to welcome the tourists.

    The locals, who assembled in large numbers to welcome the ship were also disappointed as the tourists could not disembark.

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    Oh. My. God.
    I can't even begin to tell you how much I enjoyed your story about the ship.
    The entire time I was reading it I was thinking, "how can he possibly get through 14 days of that?" and I was praying you would get off the boat. What a nightmare.
    I'm just surprised you didn't spark a mass exodus of people leaving with you (at least maybe the Americans).
    I hope you didn't lose too much money. OTOH, I don't think any amount of money could have kept me on that boat!

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    Thanks so much, both of you.

    Lol Pauline: I do sound like a bit of a soak, don't I? My personal habits did calm down considerably after all that stress - I was in Goa, after all - the old hippy in me crept out of hiding and I became a lot more.. how shall we say.. laid back.

    Kristina: yup, I guess it was an expensive six hours. But sometimes, regardless, when you gotta go - you gotta go.

    I left discretely in this instance, didn't talk to a soul. The other passengers, in the brief moments they weren't throwing up, probably wondered just what had happened to that strange fellow they thought they saw on the first day...

    The real issue here was that the boat was leaving port the next morning, headed out to sea. I knew if I didn't get off THEN, I was trapped. So a decision had to made, in my estimation, there and then.

    The three Americans weren't stupid, limp and passive - they were actually a lotta fun in the brief time I knew them - BUT it takes a brave man to jump ship before it has sailed, blow the dough and have to re-invent one's trip on the spot - in India, of all places.

    MUCH much easier if you're a single traveler - and much easier if you've learnt to cut your losses - fast. See 'Dogster? Bhutan' for a totally different [yet kinda similar] situation.

    Not everybody has the luxury of travelling as much as I can. Not everybody is prepared to admit quite so rapidly to themselves that they've made a DUMB decision - and, to cut to the chase, not everybody has the luxury, financially, to walk away.

    Whereas I already KNOW I'm capable of great stupidity - extensive travel [and life itself] has taught me that. Like I say, at the top of this report 'if there’s an idiot thing to do, a wrong way to turn, a mistake to be made, the dog will do it.'

    The more I travel, the less I realise I know. Dammit.

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    Your first impression about Goa..the overweight Europeans and crowded beaches of Calangute...is soooo true...

    However...we found a lighter side to Goa... and while we have friends there...we have done mostly local things and go there to have a great time, eat good food....get a little off the beaten track...(u will find it if u look hard enough!!)

    I never wanted to go to Goa...but we met someone in Kerala whom lived in Goa, and he invited us to visit, and we became very close with he and his family...

    So now, it is a yearly trip (always combined with other parts of India or other countries) and i am constantly searching for the Goa that used to be!!!

    And we always have such a good time, that we can't wait to come back...

    Anyways, i think no matter where u go, if u look hard enough...u will find something you like....and if u don't then there is no need to go back!! And if u have a good time...u will probaby go back again!!

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    TracyB - don't worry - I found it. In my own funny Dogster way.

    I ended up spending 10 days there. Once I get the next instalment up - you'll see. I'm just a little exhausted right now - it's been a big burst of writing over the last 36 hours - so bear with me.

    BTW - I love that last paragraph. You're absolutely right. Sometimes circumstances point me in the wrong direction - it can take a real effort of will to turn myself round again. As Mango7 noted [heya kurt] I get lost quite often.

    Particularly traveling on my own. You have to be a REAL self-starter then.

    But then, somehow, the scales fall from my eyes, I see it from a different perspective and things, all of a sudden, fall into place.

    My mantra when travelling is 'everything is interesting,' a phrase that, sometimes, I have trouble living up to.

    But I try. I stumble forward.

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    Dogster, when you first wrote about having booked that cruise, my immediate thought was that it sounded like a disaster. I couldn't imagine what possessed you to book it, but then I remembered the Pouilly Fume. Your description of the ship and it's occupants was even worse than I'd feared. Let me recommend a different wine before booking your next trip... perhaps a lovely Puligny Montrachet?

    It's clear from your report on Bhutan and this report of the "cruise" that you have no hesitation to cut your losses. Very wise, I'd say. Very, very wise.

    Fabulous report! Keep it coming!

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    Lol Kathy: well, you were absolutely correct - even I kinda knew that, I guess. The problem with drunkenness and the internet is that once you've entered in your credit card details and pressed the button - it's all over, Red Rover.

    And, if you do it at short notice, as I stupidly did, you're already in the 100% cancellation zone. No point making a fuss - you've already blown your dough.

    But, I got a [I hope] funny story out of it... even if, due to my own idiocy, I was ultimately the butt of the joke.

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    Awww smeagol, that's SUCH a great compliment - but, nope.

    I don't do nuttin' for a living now - I had the great good fortune to be able to retire early. That's how come I have the freedom to travel.

    But your kind works have inspired me to attack the next instalment. I just need a night's sleep [it's 3.00 a.m. here] and I'll be fresh to go. The next bit is a little more serious... that's harder to express.

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    "I just need a night's sleep [it's 3.00 a.m. here]" - sleep, when you've gotten us engrossed in the story and ready for the next installment? What do you mean, you're in another time zone?? [grin]

    "I hope, one day we bump into each other on the road. I think we'd get on." - thanks, great idea, but hopefully not on a "cut your losses" expedition! I've realized it's been four (!!!) years since I was in Asia, so definitely time to go back.

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    Hiya Dogster. I'm guilty of having a couple bourbon and cokes and then booking a trip. Its awfully fun and intoxicating to do. Your writing style is pretty wild--you should consider writing if you don't already. Glad you had a great time.

    Kurt

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    your experiences at the ship's table was just about like my fort nite in bali with gpanda...my only mistake was that i did not have the guts to leave before the ship sailed...

    i am enjoying your report...

    AO lives!!

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    Ahhh, so I'm not the only one with a guilty little [liquid] secret, eh?
    It's a relief to know I'm not alone in my idiocy. It's a fatal mix, alcohol and the net.

    Now I feel in good company. Thanks for your support TracyB, kurt..

    And perhaps, judging by AskOsena/macintosh's post - there are a couple of other guilty little secrets yet to be explored...

    I've been censoring some of my extra-curricular activites. But perhaps, now that the cat is out of the bag, I can relax just a little bit - and fess up to a few more of the naughty bits...

    But then, on second thoughts, maybe some information is TOO MUCH information. Dogster, on occasion in foreign climes, is no saint. But I want you to think well of me.

    And, on a more serious level, there are some ISSUES with all that - of exploitation, of greed, power and corruption. Some of them are being dealt with in the Patpong post right now.

    I'm off somewhere else in my head right now - contemplating religion, as we speak. The next chapter is coming right up once I check it thru.. a little more reflective, this one - fewer jokes. I hope that's O.K.

    That'll get thursday's daughter and Smeagol off my back... heh.

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    Good Friday in Panjim began with a bang.

    I was tottering off to the bathroom in the Panjim Inn, as you do, just before bed. I switched on the bathroom light and there was an almighty explosion. The light bulb exploded, showering every inch of the place with minute pieces of broken glass and plunging me into darkness. I let out an oath of surprise which went unheeded - Panjim at midnight is deserted - I could have hurled myself from the balcony screaming and no one would have appeared.

    I put on my shoes and crunched inside to attend to my every need.

    First thing next morning I called the lads to my aid. There’s not you can do in a bathroom covered in broken glass. It was apparently a normal occurrence – when the humidity reaches a certain point moisture gets between the bulb and the socket and Bam! It explodes.

    I knew how that light bulb felt. Panjim was bloody hot and sweaty this Good Friday. A storm was building up and the place hovered in steadily increasing humidity. Something was gonna blow and it wasn’t just the fuses.

    The heat built steadily upwards as the streets shut down for Easter. In a fiercely religious town like this one, Good Friday was a serious event. No point going into town – it would be deserted. Restaurants, shops shuttered, roads empty. I sat on my balcony and contemplated life.

    ‘When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
    I, all alone, beweep my outcast state,
    And trouble deaf Heaven with my bootless cries,
    And look upon myself - and curse my fate... ‘

    I was feeling a bit solitary today. All the excitement of the past few weeks had caught up with me. The flight, the Golden Chariot, all those conversations, all that social life... now, here I was, back on my own.

    ‘On the road again... ‘

    Only the Dogster could jump from Shakespeare to Willie Nelson in the space of sixty seconds - it was that kinda travellin’ day.

    I’d better back-track a bit or we’ll all get lost. I’d arrived in Panjim, the inland capital city of Goa a few days earlier – fresh from Bangalore. I had four days there before getting on the M.S. Ocean Odyssey – then another three when I got OFF the M.S. Ocean Odyssey while I worked out what to do.

    I was staying, as I noted, in the Panjim Inn – or, more correctly, just over the road in the Panjim People’s – their up-market property. I was on the first floor, directly overlooking the Inn courtyard and restaurant. I could keep an eye on them and, whenever I was sprawled on the balcony, they could keep an eye on me. Not they were in the least concerned what I was doing. It wasn’t that kind of place.

    www.panjiminn.com

    People came, people went, the staff did what were meant to do, the waiters waited, the cleaners cleaned – everything ticked over just fine. This was a popular joint with a wide, interesting range of travellers – presided over by the patron, a portly Panjimmer of aristocratic stock.

    He sat, silently, in his special patron’s chair just inside the door, looking out - just as I was - on all he surveyed. He was always neat and tidy, relaxed, laid-back – a faintly regal figure in a wide-brimmed Panama hat. He’d seen it ALL over the years, the ups, the downs, the highs, the lows – I’d grown accustomed to his face.

    [Yup, now I’ve slipped into ‘My Fair Lady...’]

    Now he was content to let his son run the property, his staff do their duty, to sit and think and dream his dreams.

    He’d barely acknowledged my presence when I arrived. That was somebody else’s job. A nod, a grunt, the flicker of a smile. He’d seen a million guests come and go, a thousand thousand back-packers, upmarket and down - the good, the bad and the ugly. [Gawd, Sergio Leone now] There was nothing he needed to say that hadn’t been said, not a stranger’s conversation left in the world he hadn’t had, not a question he hadn’t answered a hundred times.

    He was content.

    But yet he wasn’t quite ready to let go. The Panjim Inn and its children, the Panjim Pousada and my temporary home, the Panjim Peoples, were all still his babies. He’d restored them, built the business from scratch, watched as it grew from one to two to three, raised his sons and daughters, mourned his wife and parents and witnessed his town turn into a city. He’d also seen Goa turn into a nightmare.

    On this Good Friday he was watching me, up on my balcony, as I relaxed and thought of Shakespeare, watching the world go by.

    By mid-afternoon I noticed the streets getting crowded. Families were walking along the road dressed in their best Sunday clothes, all heading somewhere special. I learnt a long time ago that when I see a crowd heading somewhere - follow.

    That’s an attitude that has, in my more bohemian days, got me into a lot of trouble: I’ve been tear-gassed in a squatters riot in Amsterdam, run screaming from police on motorbikes in London, even just recently, nearly beaten by Nepali policemen during one of the many Free Tibet demonstrations in Kathmandu - but somehow I didn’t feel the today’s Good Friday service at the Church of the Immaculate Conception was going to be particularly risky.

    So, behind the crowds, one very impious tourist tagged along.

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    Like all religious sites, this great white confection of a church stood proudly at the top of a mountain of steps, a morsel of Portugal plonked in the middle of somewhere else, the kind of cultural confusion that religion delights in. Jaded eyes would see the intrusion, the culture-clash, the sheer brute force of a religion that once thought it ruled the world – but that’s another story. I thought it looked rather pretty, in an odd kinda way. To the people trooping towards it, this wasn’t a church – this was a Faith.

    By the time I got there the service had begun, the pews and any other available area jam-packed with worshippers. I peered over the heads of the crowd, into the soaring blue, white and gold cathedral. The back wall was hung with black drapes covered in stars. Huge European chandeliers hung above the centre nave and along the side aisles. The wooden altar was surrounded by candles and priests, in the middle of it all stood the Bishop making a very, very long speech, not one word of which I understood.

    Men in red satin cloaks hovered around him while he talked. Pillars of gold held up a host of plaster angels whose fate it was to listen, into infinity, to this dreary, unctuous drone. The congregation alternately sat - or knelt - or stood when it was time to sing. Their faces were those of the faithful everywhere – respectful, simple people for whom this public demonstration of their belief was both a duty and drudge. Some were more attentive than others – they sucked up those words as if they were life itself – some were clearly bored - but all were paying public respect to something bigger than themselves. Everything went ahead very, very slowly - solemnly – which was no surprise – they weren’t after all celebrating a win at the soccer – rather the crucifixion and death of their Lord.

    Outside the church, listening on speakers, were as many people again – their numbers growing by the minute. These were the more pragmatic of the worshippers – they knew it was important to be SEEN worshipping than to actually DO the worship. They sat wherever they could, mostly on the walls surrounding the church, silent, devout, severe. About the only sign of levity were the frilly white socks their children wore, little girls on their best behaviour clad up in their confirmation dresses looking for all the world like pious kewpie dolls.

    The crowd prayed, knelt when appropriate, listened as the speech continued and whispered amongst themselves when the sermon got too dreary to bear. Which was often.

    This was probably great devotion – but it was lousy theatre – to my eyes, at least.

    It went on and on for what seemed like hours. I was practicing a Zen response, standing off at the side – serious, respectful, head cocked as if I understood every word that was said. My body was there, to all intents in prayer, but my mind and my eyes were racing, taking in the crowd – and not a few secret pictures as well. This was not an occasion to bring out the flash.

    The hymn singing was, frankly, woeful. I particularly remember ‘The Old Ragged Cross’ sung so slowly it sounded as if on valium. There was no joy in this particular religion, I had to admit - this was tedium of the highest order; no style, no pace, just a grim, deathly slow plod through the service.

    Finally – mercifully - it seemed to be over and there was a gentle movement in the crowd. Those outside took off their shoes, lined then neatly beside the entrance and formed two huge lines either side of the church. Inside the congregation stood up and began to shuffle into the central aisle, each on a slow-motion mission to greet the priest, get their blessing, touch the altar and then file outside again to be replaced by those outside. This process must have taken an hour but my attention was suddenly diverted by the sound of drums, recorded music and car horns.

    Down the street, directly leading to the church another, rival procession had formed. The Muslims were having a birthday party. Prophet Mohammad was born in the month of Rabi' al-awwal, the third month in the Islamic calendar, in the "year of the Elephant" - probably 570 – and, however you work out the dates, in Panjim, this Good Friday, this particular event seems to have been celebrated on this day, right at this moment, just to piss off the Christians.

    As an act of provocation it very nearly worked. Their drums and car-horn drowned out the amplified hymns, that Christian dirge disappeared beneath the joyous cacophony of 5 or 6 thousand Muslims, all shapes and sizes, all ages, waving banners and flags who marched down the main street right up to the front of the church.

    Cars were covered in plastic flowers and red and green flags - lorries were cunningly disguised as minarets, young children dressed up in brightly coloured costumes – everybody wearing a hat, a scarf, even a handkerchief wrapped around their head. Groups of fierce youths stood proud on the roofs of buses, waving their flags wildly, chanting and shouting their love for their Great Prophet Mohammed. It was fine little party - and as a piece of pure theatre left those dreary Christians for dead.

    I stumbled down those flights of stairs - of course – stood at the bottom of the steps, balanced precariously between two great faiths – the hymns in one ear, the shouts of the parade in the other. It was a delicious cross-cultural moment. Then I moved even further, right in the middle of the procession, smiling broadly, taking many pictures, walking with the crowd.

    I’d left ‘The Old Wooden Cross’ far, far behind.

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    Having made their point, the Muslim parade came to an end, the trucks were parked, everybody disbanded and went off happily to their homes, doubtless to celebrate some more.

    By this time the skies were dark, the humidity thick, threatening grey clouds formed above the cathedral as if the sheer melancholy of the proceedings inside had attracted all the surrounding psychic gloom in the air. Something had to give.

    Then, just as the Muslims had dispersed, out from the front entrance of the church came the entire congregation of the church, a sea of white and black and blue. There must have been a thousand of them, walking silently down the many steps to the street. Behind them came a hundred men, dressed in red. Each wore a half-length satin cloak with a hood over their shoulders, just covering a see-through lace curtain cum cloak that nearly reached their shoes. They formed two lines, making their way down the three flights of stairs to the street.

    About half-way along this procession I could just make out the plaster figure of a weeping plaster Mary Magdalene, her hands loosely clasped in prayer. She wore her traditional blue shawl, an expression of pure, blank piety and a halo of stars. In front of her a dozen men carried a black awning that sheltered a palanquin, open on all four sides, carrying the plaster body of the dead Christ, lit from above by a neon tube.

    Jesus lay there dead, the painted blood running down his plaster face. He sported a lifelike black beard and thick, long black hair with an embroidered golden band around his forehead where the crown of thorns had been. A bunch of bright red flowers lay on his chest on top of a gold robe. He looked almost life-like, and at peace – which, I guess, was the point.

    Just as the palanquin made it down to the street the rain began. Jesus was safe – He was undercover - but Mother Mary, by the time she got to me, was spotted with great gobs of rain.
    All around them the priests and attendants were getting soaked - but not for an instant did they break ranks. Their red satin cloaks hung limply round their shoulders, the rain ran in streaks down their face but the slow march continued. The parade continued down the main street of town, unhurried, unaltered - almost defiant - as the sky turned yellow and green, the thunderclouds moved in and the storm broke.

    My faith was not quite so strong. I huddled undercover, with the rest of the onlookers, content to watch as Jesus and Mary headed off into the distance, sodden, solemn, serene.

    Perhaps they held off the worst of it with their faith because, by the time the procession had would its way around town and was heading back up the steps of the church, the rain had briefly stopped. Those clouds grew darker, seemed even blacker as the floodlights around the building were turned on. A single red neon cross flickered bravely at the top of the tower as the procession returned inside, ready for more lengthy services, more slow-motion hymns.

    Enough public piety for the day.

    I needed some food, a beer – and some conversation.

    I knew just where to go.

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    Kingfisher. Fly the airline – drink the beer.

    Old-timers in India know not to drink wine. It’s expensive, usually crap and doesn’t go well with Indian food. I’d developed quite a crush on those large brown bottles of Kingfisher beer – and, to my constant amazement, Indian food.

    What a revelation, what a delight – every day a new sensation. How I’d managed to get to this great old age without fully appreciating this extraordinary cuisine, in all its variations, is beyond me. I guess I’d never been in India before – that could be why. But what a waste of all those years when I could have been stuffing thalis in my mouth – what a loss. I’ll add that to the long, long list of sensations I managed to deny myself in my youth – out of fear, probably.

    Dumb, dumb, dumb.

    Oh well, nothing to do but make up for lost time and guzzle this new addiction from morning till night.

    Just down the street from the Panjim Inn I discovered a thriving little restaurant. I wish I could remember its name. It’ll come to me. Not only was the food great, so was the company.

    And here is the rub. Solo travel can get solitary, one can turn into a sook at the flip of a dime – one bad word, one hassler too many, one accident of fate – but there are adventures waiting just around the corner, adventures that could never happen if you were NOT on your own. Some you can choose – some you have THRUST upon you.

    It was impossible to go to this place and sit on your own. It was too popular, too buzzy – the waiters too young and keen. In this culture a solo traveller looks all a bit pathetic, tragic and alone. Indians live their lives en famille, surrounded by a great host of people, family or friends – it doesn’t really matter. Life is not a solitary thing. You might arrive at *** alone, but pretty soon the place would be full and another solo traveller would be plonked down opposite you, like it or not. That was just how it was – if you weren’t up to it you faced a grim dinner with a total stranger – or you could both choose to embrace the accident, more than make the most of it and dive in deep, both to the food AND each other.

    You’d almost certainly never come this way again, never see your companion in a million years – you had a choice – darkest secrets could be spilled, topics uncovered, explored – the whole amazing world was there for the asking if you have the nerve – and the skill – to go there.

    I was much practiced in the art in drawing out strangers, an expert in dishing the dirt – there was almost no topic I couldn’t run with – and those I couldn’t, I was happy to listen and learn. Not so long ago, the scales slipped from my eyes and I learnt that it wasn’t necessary to talk just about me, that the detritus of my life was no longer of interest, either to me – or, as it turned out, them. We could go somewhere else. So we did – if they were able. Almost always they were. They were, after all, OTHER solo travellers mostly. There was nothing to fear – but fear itself. The whole world opened up.

    When in doubt, ask questions.

    But then there’s a most important thing – you have to listen to the answers AND run with them - not just wait for a gap so that you can snap back and talk about yourself – some more.

    A conversation is just that... not an interrogation – but not a monologue.

    Gawd, that took me a long time to learn.

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    Panjim was not just a collection of quaint old Portuguese houses, not just the Panjim Inn [much as I loved it]. It was a succession of amazing meals and extraordinary conversations. One by one, dropped down at my table [or me at theirs], visiting from Planet Mongo, came some of the oddest people in the world.

    Remember – the travel mantra is: ‘Everything is interesting.’

    Interesting can be good.

    Interesting can be bad.

    But ‘interesting’ is everywhere – if you have the eyes to see, the ears to hear – and can stop, for an hour or so at least, thinking that YOU are the most interesting person in the place.

    That also took me a bloody long time to learn.

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    i have been in the tourism business in india for over 25 years. NEVER NEVER EVER have i ever come across india the way you continue to bring it out - realistic, living, right there in your face,as it actually is. we should replace the Incredible India campaign with Dogsters India campaign. amazing. keep it going and if you don't mind can i have your permission to quote parts of what you write to others? no commercial intentions - just sharing great writing on india with others. if u want to write a guide book on india - i can be your local support !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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    Somehow, without any problem at all, my accidental week in Panjim cruised by. I’d forgotten all about the M.S. Ocean Odyssey and the voyage that never occurred. The extra days at the Panjim Inn passed just as the first four had – lunch, beer, conversation, a wander through the streets – into town for a shave, an ice-cream and a coffee – a massage, a chat – more wandering, a bit of internet, a shower – then dinner at my favourite restaurant, beer, a new companion, another amazing conversation – a think – a wander, then bed. I’ve learnt that when fate, Pouilly Fume and stupidity combine to drop you somewhere strange – best to relax and enjoy it. Sometimes one needs a holiday from the holiday.

    I was completely content.

    My rather dull-sounding routine was of course interrupted by Good Friday, The Prophet Mohammad’s birthday party, the rest of Easter, the multi-coloured festival of Holi, the abortive voyage to nowhere, a rather dull afternoon in Old Panjim and the Church of St. Francis, a museum or two and an adventure that doesn’t bear repeating – so it wasn’t quite as middle-aged as it seems.

    The staff at the Panjim Inn had grown friendlier by the day – I was an easy guest, non-threatening, undemanding, rather elderly to their youthful eyes – they gradually adopted me, called me ‘Uncle’ or ‘Papa’. [When that starts to happen, then you KNOW you’re getting old].

    The breakfast guy, the guard on the door, the room-boys all stopped by for a chat. Even the patron started to talk. He was the kind of man who could not be approached – I knew I had to wait till he came to me – and, gradually he did. Little by little, day by day he warmed to me – and I to him. Every day at breakfast he’d drop by for conversation. We discussed the news – the Scarlett Keeling case – two old guys with quite a bit of wisdom between us, one way or another. We were straight with each other, as guys like us tend to be. No need for bullshit – anymore.

    One morning, late in our acquaintance, he gently enquired about my life. Up until then he’d respected my privacy - and I his. We knew to take it slow.

    ‘So,’ he said gently, ‘where is your family...’

    It’s the inevitable question – as discussed, in India a solo traveller is still a bit of an oddity - a self-contained, seemingly content, benign and friendly older one, one who smiled, seemed relaxed – one not apparently angling for sex – or drugs – or rock ‘n roll - even more so.

    I looked at him over my glasses and shrugged.

    ‘They’re all dead, my friend.’

    And they were.

    He nodded and smiled – then his eyes filled with tears.

    We didn’t talk for a while. He’d been there too.

    On my last day he strolled over.

    ‘I want to give you a discount,’ he said. ‘You’ve been a good guest.’

    ‘My friend, I’ve already paid my bill,’ I smiled, ‘but thank you. That’s very kind.’

    ‘Then take this,’ he said gently – and produced a beautiful little miniature, painted on a thin strip of marble, about the size of a small postcard. On it, a pink, blue and orange sari, a gentle woman holding a lute. She’s holding out one hand to the peacock standing behind her – in the background a blossoming tree - blue sky.

    We shook hands.

    'Come back,’ he said simply.

    I will.

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    Okay..your report is starting to be like a novel, that u just can't put down cause u can't wait to see what happens next!!

    Love that u stayed in Panjim...instead of the crowded beach hotels..The Panjim Inn looks beautiful, i will check it out when we go next...

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    Siolim

    I didn’t really have much idea what to do next - the Calangute experience had scared me off the beaches – but then, exposing this skinny, white fifty-eight year old body in public has never been a favourite occupation of mine.

    Imagine an albino Stick Insect sprawled abandoned, gently frying on a beach – you get the picture. I know when I’m past my use-by-date.

    Fate - and a rather interesting sounding boutique hotel - directed me to Siolim – a tiny inland town about an hour north. I fed myself to the small army of taxi-drivers stationed outside the Panjim Inn, paid the inflated tourist price and - a few million rupees lighter, arrived at Siolim House.

    www.siolimhouse.com

    The pictures on the website lie. It’s even nicer.

    I was in Macassar – the first floor suite, not the provincial capital of South Sulawesi – and spent the next three days pretty damn content. I had one of the best meals of my trip in Siolim House, sitting, all alone with a Kingfisher and plates of the most delicious food. I was in heaven. The rest weren’t quite up to that standard – but I didn’t care. I was strangely relaxed by then...

    When in Goa..,

    I wanted to see where Scarlett Keeling was murdered. Well, not the exact spot – but the beach, the scene, the famous ‘rave’ culture for myself. My car and driver set off for the coast, about half an hour away. First stop Vagator Beach, an unimpressive cove that has been drawing the counter-cultural crowd for years. This was not filled with package tourists - not at all. There were Indian families there doing what Indians do at the beach - which is mostly to run fully clothed into the shallows, wait till a wave hits them and then run squealing back to shore.

    I’ve never really understood this behaviour but I’ve seen it many times.

    Perched around the rocks were a couple of restaurants made of sticks and string; perched on the restaurants were the Beach Boys. Not the Sixties singing group but a breed of handsome young men who prey on every beach in a straight line from Goa to Sri Lanka.

    There were plenty of ‘Go-o-o-od, go-o-o-o-d, G-O-O-O-D Vibrations’ to be had from these young fellows – probably a good dose of the clap as well. Not that the prospect of that ever worried the hundreds of young, middle-aged or even elderly women they’d serviced over the years.

    Or, for that matter, the young, middle-aged and elderly men.

    They saw me coming – but I saw them first.

    This was a phenomenon I was not unfamiliar with – the dog had been around. He knew another dog when he saw one.

    You know the first thing two dogs do when they meet each other?

    Well, I wasn’t gonna do THAT.

    I look in the mirror when I’m shaving each morning. I’m perfectly aware that some miracle of youth didn’t happen between the bathroom and the beach, that those lines and wrinkles were still etched on my face, no matter how big the smiles from the Beach Boys are.

    This is not a uniquely Indian phenomenon.

    Friends of mine once wrote a song. It was entitled [forgive me Ladies] ‘S.H.I.T.’ - an acronym for ‘Suddenly Handsome In Thailand...’

    I discovered LONG ago that my sudden attractiveness on the beaches of Sri Lanka was in direct correlation to the size of the bulge in my pocket – and by this I mean my wallet, not my willy – so I was strangely unmoved by the phalanx of young men who snapped to a rather louche attention on my arrival at Vagator Beach.

    It was off-season. I was only game in town.

    I have a stock routine in India, whenever I’m accosted by someone who wants to sell me something – which, for the run-of the mill tourist, is pretty much everybody you meet. I pause and wiggle my head, smile benignly and, after a second, say:

    ‘How’s your business today?’

    It puts things on an even keel.

    They know that I know what’s going on - despite all appearances, despite the smooth talk and that ‘oh, so friendly’ smile, despite their need to ‘practice their English’, to take me where I really don’t want to go. That doesn’t stop the conversation – I’m often happy to chat, pass the time. They’ve got nothing to do – often, neither have I – but I ain’t buying.

    ‘Can’t buy me lo-o-o-ve...’ somebody else in the Sixties once sang.

    Still true.

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    Your report has had me laughing and smiling and also a little misty eyed.

    I have copied a few of your words to take with me when I embark on my solo trip to Asia.

    Please keep it coming, am anxiously awaiting the next installment.

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    Thanks Nywoman:
    What a lovely thing to say. I kinda like the idea that there's a little bit of me travelling around with you on YOUR great adventure. I hope I can keep you good company..

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    Thanks Kathie -
    I'm kinda surprised myself at just how much was sitting there in my mind, too - at how much I HAD absorbed - and already processed.

    This is all pretty much just first draft stuff - I write it, re-read it, then download it - but it seems to be coming out nearly fully-formed... it's a great mystery to me how I even walk around with all this trapped in my head, just waiting for someone just like you to simply ask...

    Then out it comes.

    I do seem to spend hours at the end of each day when I'm on the road tho', lost in thought, downloading my pics and processing the events of the day. I hardly even look at a television. Maybe that's when I do it all. The rest is memory. Dunno.

    Bed now. It's late.

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    I didn't get to read all of this this morning before I went off to be a guinea pig, but after a lunch-time Viognier it reads even better. Such a great trip, dogster, I hope it more than made up for Bhutan! (And none of it possible on the Tuesday-it-must-be-Jodhpur kind of trip being pushed on that other recent thread!)

    "not just the Panjim Inn [much as I loved it]" - that's a relief (lol), after all those posh digs in Bangalore and on the train,
    I thought there might be some recriminations coming up for recommending the Panjim Inn. Of course, the Palace bit didn't yet exist when I stayed there.
    Glad to hear the owner is still doing well.

    Your Easter mass reminds me of Christmas Eve mass in Kochi, which was in Latin, would you believe - unlike the Anglican service I went to earlier which was in Malayalam and English.

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    Ahhh thursday - it was YOU! I was racking my addled brains trying to think who had recommended the Panjim Inn. Thank you, thank you so much for that. Yup - it was perfect.

    Dog moves happily up and down market on his travels - I love the contrast. By no means do I NEED the suck and grovel - but it's perfectly fine when it occurs.

    Gawd, the places I've laid my weary head in the past few years...

    Here's one final installment just before I sleep. If I don't post it now I'll have second thoughts in the morning. I may as well propel myself over the edge. You'll see what I mean.

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    I left the Beach Boys for the next lonely tourist, drove past the hokey masseurs and souvenir shops, past the coffee-shops and rickety restaurants. Those same dread-locked back-packers from Hampi had evidently moved up here. The looked exactly the same - sprawled in cane chairs staring blankly at the road, sucking on their lhassi, feeling oh, so very cool.

    Perhaps they cast a sideways glance at the old sun-burnt tourist whizzing down the road, curled their unshaved lip and rolled their bloodshot eyes.

    ‘How could that guy know - how could that guy see the REAL India, stuck inside his hired car, with his hired driver and his expensive boutique hotel...?’

    Perhaps they turned away with a ‘Pffffft!’ of contempt, a twitch of their grubby face, pushed themselves out of their chairs and wandered down the road, stopping to scratch their mosquito bites, pick their hairy nose.

    Perhaps they pushed that rickety door aside, stumbled into their shacks, battled with their mosquito net and lay down on that filthy mattress to roll another joint, all the time congratulating themselves that they were having a real-deal Indian experience, that THIS was the way to go....

    Just like me, a hundred years ago.

    It was bloody hot, a scorching midday when I sauntered along the main drag at Anjuna Beach. This was where Scarlett met her end. The street [can you call it that?] was just one long tacky shop: sarongs, shorts, beads: the same hippie shit that I could have bought in 1968. Even then I thought it was crap. Clearly I was in the minority – someone must have bought it otherwise they wouldn’t still be selling it.

    The shopkeepers were barely awake – there was nobody around to sell anything to. I was the only thing moving and they could sure see at a glance that I wasn’t their target audience – this guy wasn’t gonna buy – I was just some old fart wandering down the street. It was quite a relief.

    There were a few half-heated entreaties, a few ‘you wanna buy...’ but their heart wasn’t in it – nor was mine. The occasional gap-year adolescent passed by, fresh faces, tangled hair, baggy Indian pants and Goa T-shirt, a back-packer or two lugging their life, bent over under the strain, extra shoes dangling from their back-pack, a water bottle in their hand.

    I saw two lads inspecting hovels, reeling back from muck and flies, closing the door behind them with a look of mild distaste – heading off to the next one, anxious to stretch their 100 rupees a night to a castle by the sand.

    That same sand where 15 year old Scarlett was murdered, that same sand that clogged her nose and mouth, that same sand that witnessed five – or was it six - local brutes rape her from behind - then leave her to drown in the incoming tide.

    Ahh Goa... what a heart-break shithole you are.

    But - if you’re a gap-year baby, if you’re a student child - with the whole world in front of you, if you’ve discovered sex and drugs and India in one glorious moment, found freedom and the sun – Goa’s a pretty damn fine place, I guess – till the scales fall from your eyes.

    But that’s not gonna happen for years and years – in the meantime the Goa tourist industry will eat your very soul – suck your youth and rot your teeth and you’ll have a wonderful time.

    “You want Manali? Grass? You want powder? Cocaine? Ecstasy? You want Smack? Acid? Speed?’

    I was feeling old.

    So - of course - when the next young man whispered ‘Manali Hash?’ I nodded like the fool I was and followed him down a lane, into his room, just like a thousand fools before me - sniffed the black lump in his hand, paid too much, stuffed it in my pocket and scurried straight back to the car.

    When in Goa...

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    hmmm...u really had a different experience than we did in Goa...maybe because we mainly ate, drank and toured with the locals that we know...and spent alot of our time in Mapusa and Betim and ate at restaurants mainly where the locals go..

    Infact, nobody ever offered to sell us any drugs in the 3 times we were there!! Interesting...

    However, when we go back in November, we are gonna explore Anjuna and Vagator, as i don't know when we will be going back next....so i will see if we see the same picture that u have painted in my mind!!!

    I looked into staying at the Siolim House on our next trip but found another place called Presa di Goa, which also looks very nice.

    Wow..u sure have a way of explaining things..i feel like i was on the trip with u!!






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    You know, I think I feel cheated! I spent four nights at Sterling Vagator along with the Indians at the north end of Vagator beach,
    and hanging out at the sticks and string cafes, and nary a Beach Boy in sight! There were a few stalls selling clothes up above the beach at the south end, and I bought a couple of books, but not one offer of drugs or sex to be had.

    Maybe it has to do with when you're there - the season hadn't quite started then, and there weren't that many westerners around. Young or old, although I vividly remember one portly middle-aged gent with an attache case headed north up the beach. Unfortunately, his only other acoutrements were a hat and a g-string. Not a pretty picture.

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    Lol ladies - I appreciate your comments - it's good to hear some balance: I know I'm talking about a place you both love - but, you know, our different experiences of the same place may say just as much about US as about the place. Probably more.

    I'm glad neither of you have those particular eyes to see those particular things. Sometimes I wish I didn't.

    I don't much want to sidetrack myself in the middle of this report for a discussion on the merits, or otherwise, of 'Goa' if that's O.K... I've already moved on to Mumbai in my mind. I'll get confused [as if I'm not that, already] Maybe we can do that at the end - if that day ever comes [heh]

    I also don't know either of you at all - other than thursday's wonderful trip reports - but a couple of things do occur to me: you're not going to get offered drugs travelling in a group, a happy American[?]couple with their local Indian friends: it's a solo pursuit - and one generally restricted to tourists of a certain kind.

    You're not going to get offered drugs if you don't remotely look like you even know what they are. Perhaps my raddled look of experience, a certain glint in the eye has something to do with it. It took me about three minutes. Less.

    Goa has a thirty year reputation for drugs [and cheap booze]- I wonder where that came from? You know those famous full-moon parties, the trance dances, the raves? What do you think they are doing at these events? Sipping lemonade?

    Little dead Scarlett's autopsy revealed she had 'a deadly cocktail of alcohol, cocaine and morphine' in her blood [Times of India, March 21] She was fifteen.

    Those rather odd looking people you must have seen at the Anjuna market, those young folks in their funny hippie clothes and dreadlocked hair, those old raddled miscreants who came to Goa 20 years ago and never left, those clean cut young Israelis, letting their hair grow after their compulsory years in the Army, those Russians who have bought up complete areas and turned them into no-go zones, those wide-eyed German back-packers - what do think they are doing in their spare time? Playing chess?

    It takes a certain kind of sedative to loll around in a beach-front hovel for a month or so, a different kind of drug entirely to dance like crazy all night.

    Somehow, I suspect neither of you would choose to even GO to the kind of places that provide all this, in company - or alone. Neither would I. Not in a thousand years.

    But they are there - all around. You just have to have eyes to see. And if you can't see it - then it ISN'T there. [Which is by far the most preferable choice - one we either make for ourselves - or have made FOR US in a strange way - by our upbringing, our education, our professions, our friends..]

    Again, I don't know you, so forgive me if I'm wrong, but it's also just possible that on these topics [and these alone] we are ALL past our use-by-date.

    But I'm sorry thursday you didn't find a Beach Boy. Perhaps they were all busy when you were there [heh]- maybe their appointment book was full - or most likely they were where the crowds are.

    Goa, as I said, is not ONE place, but many different scenes. I think we all agree on that. Each beach has its own personality. Some are benign, some carnivorous. Inland is a whole other thing.

    Your perception of 'Goa' is absolutely correct. So, perhaps, is mine. The real truth probably lies somewhere hidden between the two.

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    Hey, me and my husband...(we are from Canada) are very laid back and we look very laid back as well......that's why we are surprised we have never been approached to buy drugs!!!

    I guess, u are right though...cause we are always with locals in the evenings....and that is probably why we have never been approached!

    But oh well!!! Maybe in Kathmandu (lol)

    Anyways...i don't love Goa or hate it...It is a fine place to chill out after a trip through India, other parts of Asia or the Middle East...and it certainly beats going to Mexico every year like most of the people here do!!

    Plus...it really is fun to go out with our friends and their friends to find we are all exactly the same...plus we get all the local prices!!!!

    Not to mention the beer is sooo cheap!!

    We really have had a super time in Goa, and i guess that's what has drawn us back!!

    But keep me away from the beaches in Calangute...unless i am dying of thirst and have to stop for a quick drink!!

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    Well I'm upset now - this idiot Chinese spammer has snuck in and done a great pooh in the middle of my nice clean report.

    I've gone off in a sulk and I'm not coming back until someone comes in and takes it away!

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    Now, now don't get upset, it has been reported and hopefully,will be taken care of.
    In the meantime I don't want to be deprived of your writings so you have a choice. Let it be all about you:) and sulk, or all about me so I don't sulk.

    Bu the way did I read somewhere that you went to Vietnam, did you post?

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    Well, the spam is gone. The editors have the magic to rid your report of the spam.

    Tracy, in case you are feeling too left out, (LOL) you might well be approached to buy drugs in Kathmandu. My ex and I were way back in 1994. All you have to do is wander through Thamel.

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    You are amazing Kathie. Lol.

    So, for you, the thought of that bottle of S.A. Sauvugnon Blanc and Nywoman, who, if she's heading into this extraordinary world on her own, needs all the help she can get - here's the next bit.

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    In Colaba, the tourist area of Mumbai, the hasslers come thick and fast. The main drag there is a minefield of every known variation on that single theme. Money. It’s a real test of both patience and endurance. I saw it as a challenge.

    When I knew, deep in my heart, that I truly wanted to batter that tiny beggar child to DEATH - that cute, grubby little girl who stuck to me like glue, who couldn’t be diverted, sweet-talked, cajoled, bullied, threatened, in ANY way made to stop – I knew I had failed the task.

    I think we all have those moments in India.

    Sometime, sooner or later, no matter what, some human straw will break this tourist camel’s back. India can be a haystack of human straw: hustlers, hasslers, pimps, beggars and thieves piled one upon the other - straw stacked higher than life itself - a MOUNTAIN of humanity. This avalanche of flotsam and jetsam seems just waiting for the tipping point – the moment when the tourist breaks with a snap, a crack and a roar – just enough to bring the whole damn thing down on his head.

    Show compassion – it will be abused. Show kindness – it will be taken advantage of. Be rude – be met with rudeness back. Ignore – and be pursued.

    It’s a no win situation – for us - as well as them.

    Life is precious – mine – as well as theirs.

    Everything is business. They have a right to eat, live, survive - as I do I have a right to walk down the street unharassed.

    But I am a rich man. In India, in the tourist zone, that marks me as a target.

    I am a rich man by the very fact of being there. I am a rich man who spends $250 a day just for a night’s accommodation. I am a rich man who sits in Leopold’s Bar and pisses more money up against the wall in one night than they earn in a month. I am a rich man...

    I KNOW I’m a rich man.

    I know they are not.

    But I also know that I could give and give and GIVE till my pockets are empty and not make one jot of difference in the cosmic scheme of things – that all the money in the world would not change those desperate lives, ease that burden.

    I also know that nothing is what it seems: that those children see little of what I might give them, that that milk powder for that listless infant will be re-sold, that mummy is a drunk, that Fagin and his moppets live just around the corner, that the boy clawing at my window, one stump for a hand, may have been made that way, not by God but by his desperate parents. Nothing is real – and, simultaneously, everything is desperately, horribly real.

    Is there one of us who have been to India who hasn’t wrestled with this dilemma the first time around? Is there one of us who hasn’t thrown their hands up in despair? Is there one single traveller who hasn’t been reduced to occasional fury by the relentless pursuit of our dough?

    Drip, drip, drip – for the tourist on the streets, a hundred times a day, a thousand grasping hands - one after the other after the other – a steady stream of need that reaches into infinity: ‘Where you from?’ ‘What you want?’ ‘See my shop – looking is free.’ ‘Let me show you...’

    Or that simple, stunning demand... ‘Maaaa-neeeee....’

    In that immortal Indian phrase: ‘What to do?’

    MUMBAI:

    It was all the fault of that block of Manali hash - and a couple of lawyers from Munich. Oh, and a Kingfisher beer - or two.

    I should never mix my drugs.

    Remember, I was in Kathmandu in 1971, long hair flying and an even longer joint hanging from my youthful lips. I’ve done this hashish kinda thing before – and, I confess, perhaps a couple of [hundred] times since. But I forgot the golden rule. Alcohol and hooch can spin you out.

    Add fine Indian food, a great hotel, decent company at dinner, interesting conversation – it’s a recipe for, if not disaster, at very least - another idiot decision.

    I still had no idea where to go next. In terms of my initial plans, I was on the M.S. Ocean Odyssey, throwing up in the high seas, somewhere north of Colombo. There were another eight days to fill before my schedule kicked back in and I took Kingfisher flight Number Three to Kolkata...

    What was that phrase again?

    What to do?

    Dinner with the lawyers was accidental fun. They were bubbly, enthusiastic, intelligent and full of their package trip to India.

    ‘Go to Mumbai,’ said the German lawyer, advocating on behalf of his latest enthusiasm, ‘that looks like a MOST interesting city.’ He leant back, cigar smoke trailing from his mouth. ‘We very much enjoyed Mumbai...’

    So, on a whim, I did.

    It was only later, just before I nearly murdered that beggar child, that I realised the couple had been in Mumbai for all of twelve hours – and eight of those they were asleep.

    We instant tourist experts – we catch a glimpse, grab a loose opinion, based on God knows what - the quality of breakfast in the morning, the taxi-driver’s smile, a sight, a smell, an adventure – who knows what presses our buttons and makes us say that Mumbai is more interesting than Delhi, Kerala more fun than Karnataka?

    Comparisons, someone smart once said, are odious.

    But we all do it.

    A little knowledge is, of course, a dangerous thing. So is a block of Manali hash.

    Just like Goa – different eyes see different sights - what is obvious to one, is invisible to others.

    Alas, Mumbai’s charms were hidden to me – squashed flat under a barrage of hustlers. Things picked up – but first I had to conquer that haystack, pick my way slowly through the straw.

    That took a week – but what a week of little wonders it was.

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    Dogster,
    Just got an e-mail from Fodors they removed the spam.

    Yes I am living and traveling in this extra ordinary world on my own.

    Nobody has offered hash to me since the mid-sixties in Beirut, now I get a offered a seat on the subway.

    The urchin I wanted to kill was in Udaipur, reading your post alleviates a little of my guilt but not all.
    How I dealt with it in Mumbai was I took the children to a food cart and bought them lunch. This way they got food, and I felt a little better. Needless to say also got some great pictures.

    Am really looking forward to your impressions of Mumbai, to me it was a city of greater contrasts than most.

    One block from the most exclusive and expensive shops were tent dwellers. To read in the local paper that people who sleep on the streets, actually pay rent for the space.

    All totally amazing and fascinating.

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    I am thoroughly enjoying your report. Your writing style and sense of humour are wonderful.

    India has never been high on my must-see places to visit but your experiences are giving me pause.

    Please have some more wine and carry on.

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    Nywoman: I'm bashing it out now. Yup, I agree - Mumbai is right up there with Kolkata for contrasts - difficult to write about for some strange reason - it was a thousand tiny moments that I'm trying to string together.

    Great idea about the food cart, by the way. I hadn't thought about that.. but even then, like all of India, it's a mixed message for me. I'm still trying to nut it through - maybe I never will.

    In fact, most CERTAINLY I never will. Could be why I'm heading back there [to Kolkata and the Hoogly, Sunderbans and god knows where else]in precisely 28 days...

    Anyway, I'm trying to eat and write here. I have a little Oberoi diversion to nut my way thru first. Give me an hour or so to write that up, then I'll be back on the streets of Mumbai battling scarecrows.

    Gawd, I feel like Charles Dickens - didn't he write his stories in weekly installments for a magazine?

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    And hi robmac - you snuck in while I was writing to Ny. Your comments are much appreciated - sometimes I slow down, run, not a little dry, but I need a bit of encouragement. So your words kick me on. Thanks.

    And yup, pause and reconsider - there is a way to do India - many, obviously, but you can REDUCE the hassle - kinda..

    Now I gotta jump back into it.

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    You are right, Chas Dickens did write a number of his books as serials in the newspaper.

    Off topic, have you read Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts? It's a novel/memoir by an Aussie mostly set in Mumbai. A real page turner, and one I expect you would appreciate, Dogster (and all the rest of you enjoying this thread).

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    "Could be why I'm heading back there [to Kolkata and the Hoogly, Sunderbans and god knows where else]in precisely 28 days..." - oooh, jealousy, jealousy! But that will mean another wonderful trip report for us, right? [grins]

    My snapping point with the hassles came in Agra. I thought Agra was the absolute worst, and I'd just come from Rajasthan, which was the next to worst. So I finally yelled at one particularly persistent souvenir seller (I'm tempted to say pusher, lol) outside the fort. He acted like I'd gone mad! (I suppose for a few seconds I had.)

    The beggars are harder to deal with, of course. I think deciding ahead of time to give to an Indian charity might help. I still found myself giving to the infirm elderly, though.

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    Kathie: I bought 'Shantaram' in Mumbai after a similar recommendation - I carried that brick of a book around for the whole time in India and, in my strange manner, never had time to read it. I was living my own minor version at the time. It's on the list.

    So thursday - I'm not the only one to snap eh? I'm glad to be in such fine company.

    And thanks to you, Marija, too. Gawd, this is coming in thick and fast.. here's some more, more, more...

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    Kathie: I bought 'Shantaram' in Mumbai, lugged that great book around with me all thru the rest of India - and never once read it. I was too busy living my own very minor version.

    thursday: so I see I'm not the only one to snap eh? I think we all do sometime. At least I'm in good company.

    And to you Marija, thanks again - here's some more, more, more...
    not particularly profound this one, but part of the reality, never the less.

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    Not all of travel is the ‘Big Picture’ – not all of travel is profound. We have to hack our way through the detritus: the check-ins, the flights, the taxis, the receptionists, the new hotels – the boring stuff – before we get to the core of the matter. Sometimes the detritus can take up so much time, effort and mental anguish there no moment left to enjoy the destination. Trip Advisor, Fodors, Lonely Planet et al are full of travellers whose holidays have been wrecked by a lousy hotel, a rude member of staff, a bad breakfast, surly service or a crap concierge.

    Before you’ve even got out the door you’ve been spiked, sabotaged or worse. It ain’t just solo travellers who can get in a snit when their well laid plans fall apart around them. Complaints fly, letters to the General Manager, all the minge and grizzle of disappointment as high hopes come tumbling down around your ears.

    Not all of it is deserved, of course. Pay peanuts, get monkeys – we’ve already observed the truth of that. If you pay $50 for a hotel room it would be an idiocy to be disappointed when you don’t get five star service - but people do. Pay much more and things should get a little bit different. I’ve learnt though, in India, even that doesn’t guarantee you a smooth ride.

    Talking of rides...

    The taxi from Mumbai airport to the Oberoi downtown takes a thousand years. Well, two plus hours, at least. And that’s not even with the Taxi-driver From Hell. [I met him later, in Kolkata]. It’s just a bloody loooong way. Had I looked on a map I might’ve realised that - but Dogster wasn’t thinking particularly straight around this time...

    It was late on a Friday afternoon when I checked in – I had pre-booked for four days with every intention of staying another four. This put me back on schedule. The foyer was besieged by businessmen, they rushed about in that businesslike manner, all self-importance and suits, wheeling and dealing, demanding drinks and attention – and they, of course, got it. The Oberoi in Mumbai loves a businessman.

    Apparently they are not so keen on Dogs.

    I pushed my way thru to reservations, was greeted with that practiced Oberoi smile – but there was no heart to it. I wasn’t in a $500 Armani suit. They did what they had to, checked me in efficiently enough, pushed me through the businessmen storming the concierge and sent me up to the 15th floor with their latest trainee, all youth, unctuous grovel and no particular skill. Everybody has to learn their craft, I guess – I just don’t particularly see why they should learn on ME.

    The room was bland, dreary, dull – the kind of room you’d pay $100 for at a reasonable hotel in any mid-American city. Nothing very special at all – nothing particularly ‘Oberoi’ about it – no, wait – I lie. It was a bit special - this room had The Smallest Bathroom In The World. It was very nearly laughable and perhaps I might have had a chuckle or two, had I not been paying through the nose for the privilege.

    There was a knock at the door. Two maids came in to do the evening turn-down, to primp and faff and pretend that this was, indeed, an Oberoi.

    ‘Is there anything else we can get for you, Sir?’ they said, on leaving.

    ‘Yup. Bring me a bigger bathroom.’

    Exit two maids, giggling. They knew.

    Time for Dogster’s Hotel Strategy Number One. Call the front desk and grizzle, nicely.

    Grizzling in India is a different art form than in Asia. One day I might compare the two but, in any rate, it didn’t work. Not even remotely.

    ‘Is this really a deluxe room? Do you really think a bathroom only big enough for a dwarf is appropriate? That kinda thing.

    I was speaking to the trainee child who’d shown me up to my room. He did his trainee thing and fobbed me off, explained profusely that the hotel was nearly full – those damn businessmen had spiked my plan. While they were smoking cigars in the rooms I should have been upgraded to, I was clearly gonna be stuck in the outhouse, where dogs like me have to go.

    Fret.

    Fret some more.

    Get pissed off.

    The joys of solo travel - no one there to say ‘calm down, shut up, relax.’

    Time for Dogster’s Hotel Strategy Number Two. After an hour or so, ring the Duty Manager.

    ‘I’m really disappointed. This room, this bathroom, is this really an Oberoi?... blah.. blah.. blah.. ‘

    That got me nowhere. Only in India, at a five star hotel, can you be met with such a wall of polite indifference. She’d heard it all before. They were jam-packed with businessmen – their bread and butter. Dogs came and went. They didn’t give an Indian rat’s arse.

    Time for Dogster’s Final Hotel Strategy Number Three.

    Still on the phone to the Duty Manager. Still trying. Failing.

    ‘O.K., I can see we’re not going to get anywhere on this tonight.’

    ‘Grovel, grovel, I don’t really care, I’m just tolerating you because I have to, will you please put the phone down and die,’ said the Duty Manager [in Oberoi code, of course]

    ‘Let’s just discuss this pre-paid booking, then.’

    I’m calm, collected – but I have a plan.

    ‘Tell me Miss [insert Oberoi slave name here], when I check out and change hotels in the morning, are you going to insist I pay for four nights? Are we going to have an argument over the reception desk - or will we come to an agreement now?’

    There was a pause.

    This wasn’t in the instruction manual.

    There was gush of Oberoi grovel-speak, a clatter of computer keys as she checked the booking – a gulp, a sigh, a half-hearted apology – but the bathroom remained the same size, the Dog stayed in his kennel – and the Oberoi Mumbai lost 8 nights of Mr. Dogster’s custom, there and then.

    I checked out in the morning, having easily booked a room at the Taj. I love my laptop. As I was leaving, I was handed a feed-back form by another grovel-slave who hadn’t the faintest idea what had been going on.

    ‘Please Mr. Dogster, would you fill this in for our records?’

    I looked him dead in the eye.

    ‘I don’t think that’s in your best interests, my friend. No, I won’t.’

    It was a hop, skip and inexpensive jump to the Taj – and what a smart move that was.

    Such is the detritus of travel. Such are the diversions of the Dogster’s touring life. This is just an example of dozens of similar, silly moments, little glimpses of the ticks and scratches that divert you from the REAL business of travelling.

    Take care, my friends, beware. Keep the main topic in sight. Don’t get side-tracked into snits and sulks and grief. If you can, cut your losses and go. Go back to the reason you came. Go back into India.

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    Hey...we took a train from our aiport hotel to the city centre of Mumbai..so u can just imagine what a wild experience it was for us...Taking a tuk tuk to the train station...in all that traffic...then trying to find out where to buy tickets.

    One person points one direction..and then the next a totally different direction!! And we finally get down to the platform!!

    Imagine...two very white Westerners with a billion Indians staring at at us..I felt like i was in a movie...and it got better when we got on the train...as we were crunched in the middle of a compartment..the only white people...for 1 hour or maybe even more...we were stared at profusley!! At one time i started to laugh, cause as i looked around and saw all eyes on me...it just cracked me up...and i literally laughed my head off!!

    And for awhile, we were harassed...and at that moment i hated India and wanted to go home!!

    But we survived..and finally got off the train, amd met up with a guy i met off of India Mike..and he took us on a walking tour...i must say, it was one of the most
    adventurous days of my life and i was never so happy to meet up with Aadil...i felt very safe and comfortable with him and nobody hassled us after that..

    It was about a week later, that the train was bombed!! So i don't think i wanna take the train again..but it was a great experience...

    So anyways, that is my tale of Bombay...



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    Regarding street people -- we've learned the hard way, too. But food carts can also be a problem. On one of our very early trips, years and years ago, we were in a large city in Siberia, spotted an ice cream cart and decided to each of us one, and also one for the dirtyish little girl who had glommed onto our daughter as her "new friend." Surveying the selection, we spied Dove bars and became excited to see a little corner of western civilization (we had been away from our home comforts for awhile). So, we forwent the 200 Ruble local ice cream cones and went for the good stuff. (Ice cream is enormously popular in Siberia, even in 40 below weather). So we plunk down $5000 Rubles each (20,000 all together) for our ice cream bars. Anyway, a huge group forms around us and intently, with puppy dog eyes everywhere, watches us eat the Dove bars. They start moving in closer and closer. We huddle closer together and finally decide, with ice cream dripping down our hands, that we need to get away from the crowd. Somehow, we force our way through the hordes and literally jog up Leninski Prospect to get away, gobbling on our ice cream bars as we run. It was only later that we found out that we spent more on those 4 Dove bars than most people earned in a month (an acquaintance there, a university professor, informed us that she made 30,000 Rubles a month!) Yikes! We felt terrible about it -- had no idea, and if we had, of course, would have never done it. Over the years, we've given money to beggars, sometimes to see them an hour later passed out with a bottle in their hands. What a sick feeling to see that. Have offered our own food several times and been turned down -- can't support the habit with food I suppose. Anyway, now we always shake our heads no, avoid eye contact and move on as with a purpose. Ruins the ambling walk through some places, and makes you feel like a lout, but you just can't give in without repercussions. Now we do our best to find charities to donate to, and give to our local food bank. It doesn't fully assuage the guilt of being born into better circumstances than most of the world, but we hope that it helps some who are in need.
    Dogster, thanks for the report on Mumbai -- as you know from another thread, we are headed there later this year. Now we will be heads up on what to expect.

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    Hiya travelaw:
    Yup, it seems like a no-win - but you can do it - but it takes a lot of time and patience - then the cloud lifts. I'll be writing about it tomorrow. And also about the Dharavi slum tour - now there's an interesting possibility for you. See what you think.

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    I just need a day or so to get ahead on this report. It's no good sticking it in in little chunks, broken up by lengthy conversation - I can't get a flow, and neither can you - better is BIG chunks - but I just need a bitta time to get a stock in reserve. So bear with me - this is a lotta writing. But I'm having fun... I hope you are.

    ahh lol - I'm such an diva.

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    Dogster, I confess – I'm addicted to your trip report, and keeping fingers crossed and tossing the Dog a juicy bone, to encourage a continuation of all your flavourful (and often belly-laugh) details – and your remarkable, insightful travel philosophy.

    Not to side track you – but for other readers of your marvellous journey – I highly recommend Mumbai-born Rohinton Mistry’s novel A Fine Balance which encompasses much of the contrasts of which you write.

    Not surprised you have a beard – so does Bill Bryson!

    Keep tappin’ away,
    Jackie

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    Ahh Furry: That's a lovely thing to say - your words are just what I needed right now. It's turning in to a bit of an epic, rather more than I thought it would be.. without some kind words of encouragement there are times I just feel like stopping, overwhelmed with what is still to come out. Sometimes this report seems as long as the trip itself - and just as intense, in the writing of it.

    But then I get a letter like yours and I remind myself what an amazing opportunity this is. To re-live and re-love my time in India, to write and share and receive such friendly support and encouragement - within minutes of my last post, sometimes.

    It's a wonderful thing, the internet - and this Forum as well.

    But no beard, furry, the dog is clean shaven. I think you got me a little confused with another poster. I'm a svelte and smooth old greyhound, despite your kindly image of me. But, gawd, I wish I could write like Bill Bryson - hairy or not.

    I'm in Kolkata now - in my brain, at least. A day of tapping - I'll be back.

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    Oh my Dogster, 'twas the other 'greyhound' in your report who ...

    "...sported a lifelike black beard and thick, long black hair..."

    And I blended the Dog and the ahhh goD.

    ... yes, I can relate to reliving an experience with greater intensity and unearthing forgotten - often disconcerting - details when committing it to words;
    it's as if the mind regurgitates images/impressions in a much sharper focus and sometimes the process is exhausting.

    But soooo appreciated! There are many here, just like me, who are waiting impatiently for your next chapter. And your entire report floats forevermore in cyberspace, accessible to all netusers for all time. So your audience is infinite. Including Bill Bryson checkin' out the competition, lol.

    Jackie

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    Dogster you can not stop. Your tales are too wonderful. Your keen observations, inner conversations and very great sense of humour makes me want more and more.

    This is probably one of the most entertaining and engrossing travel tales I have read.

    Rohinton Mistry's first novel Such a Long Journey about Gustad Noble is set in Mumbai and I made a point of covering some of the sites mentioned in the book. It made for some entertaining afternoons.

    Am not sure how you will be able to top:
    "Ethel was rambling, her two pink eyes rolling vacantly from side to side, lost under eyelids of such extravagant complexity that they threatened to snap shut at any moment. This was a face of such great antiquity that her skin had forgotten where to go. It hung in folds, compelled by years of gravity further and further towards the floor, desperate to escape its owner’s prattle, dangling around her neck, wobbling there like turkey gobble as she went on - and on - and on."

    Then again I have complete faith in you.

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    Dogster you really should gather all your trip reports & put them together in a book as a series of short travel stories. I would buy it. I love reading your reports. Wish we were still in Melb could get together & hear your tales in person,
    J

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    Wow - that's a whole lot of lovely thoughts from you all.

    I'm a bit lost for words right now - but it's 7.00 a.m. and I've been up all night trapped in Kolkata - you'll see tomorrow. I want to put the first Kolkata adventure here in a slab and there's a bit more to go. Soon.

    What a saga this is...

    But here's a little bit more on Mumbai.

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    The Gateway to India: how apropos of the British to erect a monument to an idea – well, I lie. The British never erected anything in India that wasn’t in some way in praise of themselves – their system of justice, transport, politics, religion, their armed forces, their monarchy – a parade of columns, domes and monumental arches just to underscore their general sense of self-importance, cultural superiority and the blinding, absolute certainty that they were RIGHT.

    Well, look what’s happened to them.

    That’s karma for you.

    But The Gateway to India IS what Mumbai means to many people, tourists in particular. It’s where many of us get our first brief taste, the sights and smells, the highs the lows of India. Not for me – I crawled in through the back door, through Kolkata and Karnataka, Goa, Assam and Sikkim – I’d made it to Mumbai by accident, more as a by-product of a smooth talking Munich lawyer and that lump of Manali Gold.

    I still had some of that hashish in my pocket as I stormed the Taj Mahal – the Taj Mahal Palace and Towers Hotel that is – and, I better confess right here and now, that little black gift from hippie heaven had quite an effect on my stumbles, bumbles and odd adventures in Mumbai. Dogster was perhaps more prone to mistakes than usual, more likely to be swept away by circumstance, by a chance encounter – of which there were many – more likely to find himself in situations that perhaps a grown man of certain years should avoid.

    Alas, I must draw a curtain over certain of my extra-curricular activities – reluctantly, to be sure, but wise. The days passed by like quick-silver, a million encounters – not, I rush to say, of the Biblical kind, these were close encounters with street-life, those beggars, whores and thieves I referred to earlier, those seemingly millions of hustlers that crowd the streets of Colaba, that surround the unwitting traveller with instant friends and cronies, to draw you into their embrace.

    Solo, single, solitary – call it what you will, the crows will spot you coming from a hundred yards, leap onto your lonely carcass and pick at it till it’s dry. I don’t need to go into details, far better men that I have written big, thick bricks of books on this topic. Loneliness, greed and stupidity are aphrodisia to these vultures – qualities that the Dogster has in spades.

    But he’s not an idiot, not a total fool – to each their own agenda - and the Dog had one of his own. For every shark that took advantage, for every dud deal and ropey purchase there was an adventure to be had, a picture to be taken, an alley to be explored. Some of them led to disaster, some to unexpected joy – all led to knowledge, of myself or many others – ultimately this dog DID have his day.

    Mumbai seems a two-note Samba – poor, rich, poor, rich, poor, rich, poor – ad infinitum. The first a single note of desperation, played out in a thousand ways on the streets – the second in the Oberoi, the Taj, the clubs and gourmet restaurants, the film studios, in late-night dance bars crowded with the Rolex-wearing, Prada-loving sons and daughters of privileged parents – but both notes are actually the same.

    Money, money, money,
    It’s the rich man’s honey,
    Makes the world go round.

    You don’t need me to tell of the children, the shanties on the streets – nor of my five star suite in the Taj Palace and the great gulf in-between. Such stories are commonplace in Mumbai – every traveller has them – it’s all we see at first. The stark wide gulf of contrast is easy fodder, the stuff of many tales, all much more profound than mine.

    But I’m learning that there’s another side to Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and all the places travellers gather, one that most of us never acknowledge. Yet it’s there in front of us every day, staring us in the face – going about its business, completely unconcerned with we flash-toting tourists trapped in our five star enclave.

    It’s the working face of India, the hard-slogging honest poor. You can see them in their millions – they’re all around - but they’re ordinary: neither shocking nor beautiful, neither offensive or colourful: they’re honest battling people who wouldn’t think for a moment of hustling you – matter of fact, they don’t think of you at all.

    They’re too busy making a living, feeding a family of three kids or four, caring for aging mothers and fathers, repaying that parental debt, completing the cycle of life. They’re sending their children to school and making a life – one that, for the first time in their history might just be better than the one before. India, it appears, is changing, the past is the future no more.

    So next time you travel to India, spare a thought for the millions who pass by you, reflect on the commonplace. Remember that it’s not all beggars and thieves - nor colourful Rajasthani dancers and turbans and temples and bells. Invisible – yet right in front of you - is a THIRD India - it’s millions and millions of hard-working people going about daily life, burdened with responsibilities, just like we are, but most with a much harder race to run.

    They stumble, they walk, they crawl through the life that was given them, they smile and they laugh and they cry – and our life is richer for noticing them – of giving credit where credit is due. We ignore the obvious as travellers: tell tall stories when we return home of the wild extremities of ugliness, of deformity, beggars and chaos in India – or wax lyrical about devotion and beauty, of temples, five star hotels and luxury - while the real magic passes us by - a multiple, magical harmony with those two notes mere stumps either side.

    I’m just learning how to look in the middle, in the gap between the remarkable and the sublime, to see beauty in the normal, in what I once thought of as mundane and banal.

    Remember that mantra for travel?

    'Everything is interesting.’

    Every single thing.

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    KOLKATA:

    Dog-paddling.

    That’s the best I can do in India, a flurry of two limp paws, a desperate battle to keep afloat. Then something comes along and pushes me under: some unexplained weight, some odd psychic anchor – and I’m drowning.

    Kingfisher flight Number Four, first class got me to Kolkata without feeling any pain. The dancing girls strewed my path with flowers, the marching band played, gilded attendants brought me caviar and brandy [I lie] and, before I knew it, Prince Dogster was thrust out on the roadway and into the arms of my driver, a sour young lad dressed in a grubby white uniform who attempted a running tourist commentary on the sights of Kolkata until I told him [nicely] to shut up, then pulled a face at the meagre tip he received for his efforts.

    I didn’t care. I was still battered from Mumbai, saw every intrusion into my personal space as a tactic, remained stuck on red alert, devoid of trust, vigilant and aware. India can do that to you. It’s a phase.

    On my first stumble around the globe, as a hippie fool in 1971 I’d experienced Kolkata. I was twenty-one and couldn’t WAIT to get out again. It was my first glimpse if India and I was, like the millions who followed, horrified at what I saw. But that was a hundred years ago – what shocked me once did no more. On that trip I thought those people huddled under blankets on the street in the morning were dead, not sleeping – that’ll give you an idea of the crushing weight of my stupidity in those days. It was a different time: fresh from Europe, I’d never SEEN such a thing before. I was but a puppy, still sucking on the teat of Western thoughts and values, a silly fretful fool.

    Sometimes I wonder if anything has really changed. The streets of Kolkata are just as crowded, the sights and scenes of the drive just as intense - but now I was becoming accustomed to them – as much as a mere visitor ever can. India is still a shock to the system, but the squalor doesn’t surprise me anymore, the subtleties have started to appear.

    I was to get out of the cab in another part of India – in its own way just as foreign, just as frightening and just as strange as the streets outside. This was the Bengal Club of Calcutta, established in 1827, a remnant of the Raj and bad times gone by.

    I hope Maria Misra won’t mind too much if I quote a little part of her book ‘Business, Race, and Politics in British India 1850-1960’.

    ‘One observer of pre-First World War Calcutta considered that the prime purpose of the clubs was to separate the British from ‘Indians’ and prevent the British from ‘becoming oriental’: clubs certainly seemed to have contributed to the member’s sense of racial superiority and with [one] exception... all the British Clubs were exclusively ‘white’ until the 1940’s....

    [Lowell Thomas] noted that it was: ‘one of the most cliquey places in India. They dislike the society of foreigners, adventurers, upstarts and natives. You must convince [Calcutta] society that you belong to none of these undesirable classes before you can cross the threshold of the Bengal Club, even as a guest.’

    Well, I fitted three of the above categories before I’d even begun; a foreigner, an adventurer – AND an upstart. Then I dared to cross the threshold. It was all downhill from there.

    Times had changed since 1916 - now at least they let the ‘natives’ in - but to look around, not much else was different. Sitting behind the reception desk was an Indian woman of ‘indeterminate’ years. When she saw me a look of pure loathing flickered across her face, but that was too much effort in the heat - so she relaxed into her natural expression: sullen contempt.

    ‘Sign,’ she said and pointed to an enormous ledger with one pudgy finger.

    I did so, obediently, all charm, all smiles. My efforts were wasted on the Lizard Queen, gate-keeper of The Bengal Club. She knew an ‘upstart’ when she saw one. Two piggy eyes looked me up and down, her cheeks dimpled with distaste then, with a rasp, she drew breath - just enough to expel the words: ‘Room Six.’

    She didn’t even offer me the key. They were lined up beside the ledger, dull, slightly tarnished silver: old fashioned keys for an old-fashioned lock in an old-fashioned door. Each had a small brass tag on it. The key to my humiliation said either 6 or 9, I couldn’t tell – so I took the one between 5 and 7 and hoped for the best.

    ‘Lurch’ appeared from the shadows for my luggage and led me away from the gatekeeper of doom, along a corridor and wrangled open a grille that led to a small, wooden room. He stood aside in a slovenly imitation of deference and ushered me in. For a moment I thought that this was where I was to stay - but it was the only the elevator.

    The grille crashed to a shut, a button was pressed and we whirred slowly up to the second floor.

    ‘Right, Sir,’ he wheezed and I did as instructed until I was stopped below a sign that said ‘Gentleman’s Lavatory’.

    ‘Left Sir,’ he said, so obediently I turned in towards the gentlemen’s lavatory. In an alcove facing me was a dreadful choice. Two doors. One led to the lavatory and one to Room 6. Luckily I made the right choice.

    After a month in India I just KNEW what was behind the other one.

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    Lurch left me fifty rupees happier, a look of contempt on his face. I’d tipped too much in my confusion but I was grateful to be finally in my room. It was huge, decorated in the style befitting a guest of my magnificence – a light vomit yellow on the walls, green ceiling, brown chairs – a small bar-fridge, circa 1952, stood gurbling in the distance with a tray, a jug and a cup standing guard on its laminex top - a faded red sofa leant sleeping against the wall, a coffee table standing guard in front of it, its four rickety legs just holding up a scratched wooden top inexplicably graced with three lace doilies. On each was an opaque brown ashtray, in each brown ashtray a box of dead matches. A desk and chair stood in the corner, next to long purple drapes that were drawn tight shut.

    The double bed was just as vast as the room but compensated for its size by having a mattress of such spectacular thinness that I thought, as I sat pondering my outcast state, there were just bare boards under the faded regency bedspread. Three pillows lay side by side at the head of the bed just waiting to swallow my face.

    There was a knock at the door.

    ‘Sah! Sah! Let me in!’

    It was Bongo, the room-wallah. Thin, wiry and full of friendly contempt. He entered and nearly turned inside out in his attempt at an introduction. Bongo probably wasn’t his name, but by this point in my travels, they were ALL called Bongo. It was easier.

    Bongo lived in a box outside the door, ready to leap into action at my every command. He was mine and mine only, Room 6 was his sole domain.

    ‘Anything you want, Sah, anything at all, just shout ‘Bongo!’ and I’ll be here.’

    ‘Thank you Bongo,’ I said, hoping he’d go away. But no, Bongo had a calling – his mission in life was to make me happy. First stop on that journey to bliss was my own personal bathroom which he led me to enthusiastically, me protesting all the way. He explained the miracle of running water, the bliss of a ‘pulling-chain’ loo, the mysteries of the hot water system, the black and white tiled shower, the magic hole where the water went away.

    ‘Down the plug-hole, Sah,’ he said proudly, ‘down the plug-hole and far away.’

    Bongo’s father, and his father’s father, and his father’s father’s father had all looked after Room 6 – since the dawn, apparently, of time. I was one more of their honoured guests, it seems, another foreign object flung headlong into the family trust. I was a lucky man, as he was to remind me many times, lucky to be in Room 6 where he could watch over me and serve me as his father had before him – and his father’s father and – well, you get the picture.

    He scurried the hundred yards to the other side of the room, threw the purple curtains open with a flourish.

    ‘There, Sah! Your personal veranda!’ he said proudly and led me out into the crisp Calcutta sun. Kolkata was still Calcutta in the Bengal Club, time had stood still here for years. We toured the veranda extensively; I admired the crumbling view, watched as a hundred black crows swooped on a dead rat in the car-park, breathed in the rancid air. There was a strange smell.

    I thanked him profusely and pushed him out of the veranda, across the room to the door, back to his box, ANYWHERE as long as it was away. I urgently wanted to piss – or escape - I don’t know which was more urgent, but he relentlessly stood blocking my way. He was still talking as I pushed the door shut, still talking as I snapped the lock, still talking as I turned away.

    ‘Just call for ‘Bongo, Sah!’ he was shouting, muffled through the door.

    ‘Thank you, Bongo,’ I shouted.

    ‘Piss OFF!’ was what I wanted to say.

    I took a deep breath and retreated to the magic lavatory, ‘pulling-chain’ to block out his cries. Nothing was going to stop him - I was sentenced to be Bongo’s reason for living for the next four days, subject to intimate scrutiny and invasion, epicentre of the Bongo Universe: Room 6 in the Bengal Club. I was his newest acquisition, another insect trapped in the web woven by his father and his father’s father and his father’s father’s father back into infinity – a sticky steel net stretched out to catch a foreign fly.

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    Of course, once again, I had no idea where I was. Everything had been booked in such a flurry, in such a drunken state there was no pre-thinking – and, once I hit India, events and the Dog collided with such magnificent rapidity that I was living entirely in the moment. Most of the time I had no idea what day it was, let alone the date: Easter came as a complete surprise, for example - local festivals, cultural events were a matter of happenstance, certainly not planning.

    The trip was made easier by the self-contained chunks I’d set aside: The Golden Chariot, the M.S. Ocean Odyssey - and we’ve seen what happened to THAT – a cruise down the Brahmaputra [still to come] and a few more excitements I’ll keep in reserve to surprise you with.

    I had my typed-out itinerary – a work of which I was very proud, a sheaf of pre-paid Kingfisher flights, a wad of internet hotel bookings, a jumble of notes and files and my laptop.

    But, did I have a guidebook? No.

    Did I have a map of Kolkata? No.

    Did I know just where the Bengal Club of Calcutta actually was? Well – you know the answer to that.

    I ran the gauntlet of Bongo – and all the other Bongo’s from Rooms 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 - 7, 8 and 9 – all of whom ran from their room-wallah boxes to set eyes on the new foreign fly. They chattered loudly about me in Hindi, knowing full well I couldn’t understand, discussed my shoes, my great old age, my haircut, my every single movement as I waited desperately for the ancient lift to try, try, try to make it to the second floor. They whittered and giggled like over-excited school-girls as I tugged at the grille limply, cheered as I tugged it open, waved and whittered some more as my blushing tourist head finally disappeared downwards - into Hell for all they cared.

    I walked down to the reception desk and stupidly asked the Lizard Queen if she had a map.

    ‘Phhhht,’ she said and returned to her fatness, one corner of her thin lips curling slightly as if I’d farted in her face.

    No luck there, then.

    I beat the retreat. Lurch opened the front door with a flourish, expecting another tip. His face fell back into its customary snarl as I walked past him without pouring rupees into his pocket. There was another burst of Hindi sarcasm behind my back as I walked out through the driveway and into the street. I thought I heard him spit.

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    The Bengal Club, as I discovered, is in Russell Street - apparently the site of The Largest Public Urinal In The World.

    Or perhaps Kolkata, as a whole, is the Largest Public Urinal In The World and Russell Street just a suburban franchise. I saw more men take a piss there than anywhere else in India. Men were letting fly at every open space of wall they could find – standing, squatting, out of cars, windows, doors – if there was a clear stretch of plaster, a square inch of concrete - they pissed on it. Quite where they went for their other excretory activities I did not find out for a day or so - but the briefest of sniffs was enough to know that it wasn’t far away.

    All of life lay before me – spread out like a display along the street. No hasslers, no hustlers, no beggars – I wasn’t back yet in the tourist zone – just ordinary people doing ordinary things, living the Indian city life: pumping water from the pump just outside the front gate, washing cups and plates from the food-stall right next door: that same stall frying god-knows-what in a rancid pan and selling it to passers-by, the old men sipping chai and sitting on benches, students, smokers, dreamers and jokers – just the normal daily grind.

    There was nothing special about this scene – it occurs a thousand times a day in a thousand, thousand streets in a thousand cities. It’s India and I was slap-bang in the middle of it.

    An old man crouched on the root of an ancient tree that defiantly grew through the footpath. He looked up at me through cracked spectacles.

    ‘Welcome!’ he said and smiled broadly. His eyes were bloodshot, his few remaining teeth stuck out like bleached fence-posts after a storm. He was grubby, drunk but friendly - that smile was warm, fuzzy and completely sincere.

    ‘Welcome my friend. Welcome to India.’

    I wondered WHICH India he meant.

    The India of saris and beautiful dancing girls, drums and dances - the one the tourists come to see? The India of the Oberoi chain, the Taj Resorts – five star glamour and grovel at $700 a night? The India of the beaches, drugs and hippies - and the ghost of Scarlett Keeling, lying dead on the polluted sand? The India I had just left inside the Bengal Club, the colonnaded remnants of the Raj, the crumbling ghost of snobbery, exclusion and contempt?

    The India of the hustlers, beggars, the thieves and pimps that that feed off the wide-eyed tourists? The rural India of the countryside, the farms, the wandering cows, the poverty and grind? The honest India of the streets, the smells, the urine - like the one I was standing in right now? Or the guileless India of his simple, drunken smile?

    All of them, I guess. I really didn’t know anymore.

    Russell Street led to Park Street, just a hundred yards away: a boulevard of shops, banks, offices, coffee-shops – all the inner-city detritus. This was another India – of businessmen, rich families, smooth ice-cream in tall, frosted glasses, expensive book stores, prosperous kids off to party all night, Kentucky Fried Chicken and lines of would-be diners piled up outside fancy restaurants. An India with the fastest growing economy in the world, the biggest I.T. sector, a rapidly growing, affluent middle-class, of millionaires and entrepreneurs, Bollywood and broken dreams.

    Mr. Dogster, the intruder to all this, sat and sipped iced tea at Flury’s and watched it all go by. The tables were full of fat, spoiled children, doting parents, happy families, young couples and groups of chatting friends all guzzling the indifferent Flury food.

    For the first time in India I was suddenly homesick, out of my depth - and feeling quite alone.

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    In this mood I returned to The Bengal Club for another pre-paid dose of humiliation.

    Bongo leapt out of his cupboard as I returned from my jaunt on the streets.

    ‘Welcome back, Sah,’ he oozed.

    Afternoon tea, Sah?’ he chimed enthusiastically.

    ‘Why not,’ said his victim in reply.

    I was tired and beaten and tragic - any port in a storm was fine by me. I ached for the Manali hashish but alas, it was finished, just when I needed it most. Bongo was to be my special friend, I could see, and there was no way out – and, in that limp moment, he was welcome. Perhaps I was having drug withdrawal, perhaps a sooky attack – but Mr. Dogster needed some company and Bongo was glad to provide. It was his duty.

    The fly fed himself to the spider, in the way that solo travellers often do.

    He vanished and re-appeared five minutes later with a huge silver pot of tea and some biscuits then hovered and faffed in the room. He rearranged the boards in my bed, plumped the pillows, ran taps mysteriously in the bathroom, brought a towel, took one away, emptied the empty ashtrays and shook the dead matches to make sure they were still there. We chatted as he did so. I asked the obvious questions – ‘How far to the Victoria Memorial? How long does it take in a car? How much is a taxi to Howrah Bridge? ... blah tourist blah tourist blah.

    He ran through the list of services he could offer: the taxi, his friends with a car, the masseur that could come to my room in the morning, the treats he had waiting in store. He stopped somewhere short of a blow-job but I had the distinct feeling that, for a paltry ten million rupees, that was on the cards as well. It was all a question of ‘Sah’s’ wallet and where ‘Sah’ wanted to go.

    ‘Sah’ was getting increasingly nervous as Bongo recited his list. I was trapped, like a rat, in Bongo’s cage and, like the predatory carnivore he was becoming; he circled and toyed with his prey.

    Then he stopped, stood still and hovered over me.

    ‘Are you happy, Sah?’ he asked with a frown.

    ‘I’m perfectly happy, thank you, Bongo,’ I sighed.

    ‘Are you perfectly happy?’ he repeated and stood there.

    It was a strange frozen moment. I was tired and sick of him – but I truly had no idea what he talking about.

    It hit me in a moment of clarity.

    Bongo wanted a tip – and he wasn’t going anywhere till he got it.

    ‘Ahhh,’ I said, ‘Now I must thank you, Bongo,’ and reached for my wallet. A sly smile crept over his face. I dragged out one hundred rupees and held it out. He didn’t move. Like an idiot, I took out ANOTHER hundred rupees and thrust the two notes in his pocket. There was not a flicker of response on his face. He bowed slightly, with a smirk, then was gone in an instant.

    The real lesson in this transaction was not how to get him out of the room; it was, of course, not to tip TOO much. In my tiredness, I had allowing myself to be bullied. After a week of hustlers in Mumbai, my guard was suddenly down. I knew to be on alert in the streets, but I’d forgotten to be vigilant at home. Now I was a REAL target.

    The foreign fly was a fool as well.

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    Time for dinner.

    While the guest rooms in this establishment might be less than extravagant, the public areas on the First Floor are quite the reverse. This was once THE place to see and be seen and, to those who believe the bullshit, may well still be. I never really saw anybody else use them so it’s difficult for me to say.

    I arrived at the restaurant at eight p.m., not early, not late - so I thought - and made my stately progress toward the door. Inside I could see a large Victorian room of epic proportions, crystal chandeliers dimly lighting the ceiling, a gallery of large oil paintings blanketing the walls. Tablecloths that looked from a distance to be white were neatly laid over a number of empty tables, each set for four.

    The ghost of the Raj was evidently having a huge dinner - with a hundred invisible guests. There was not a soul in the room.

    Then, from behind a pillar, a middle-aged Indian wearing a grubby tunic and a uniform that was last washed in 1964 leapt out and blocked my way. He was looking at me as if I’d pissed on his shoe.

    ‘Oh, you can’t be coming in here, sir, dressed like that.’

    He was apparently the Maitre ‘D., obviously employed specially to be rude and condescending. What were those words again?

    Foreigners, adventurers, upstarts and natives... which one was I tonight, I wondered?

    Something worse, apparently – I was a man without a jacket and tie.

    ‘The rules, sir.’

    ‘What rules?’

    ‘THE rules, sir.’

    He looked at my feet. His eyes travelled slowly up the length of my body, stopping somewhere short of my neck. He sniffed and sighed. His eyes sank back into his head and both nostrils flared with distaste.

    I’d come directly from the piss in the street to the piss-elegant in the dining room.

    ‘A jacket, sir, at least’ he sneered, ‘do you have a jacket?’

    This whole scenario was so bizarre that instead of beating him to a pulp I smiled in that limp British manner and actually went up to my room, changed from my perfectly clean clothes, clothes that I might add cost more than his yearly wage, and returned dressed ‘appropriately’ for what was going to be some considerable occasion.

    Tonight I would eat The Worst Food In India.

    Worse, I would eat it in an empty dining room with a row of eight waiters watching my every move.

    There was a buffet standing covered on a long table down one end of the room. After I’d returned, been seated with a flourish and sneered at by each waiter in turn, I was led to this magnificent spread. Each lid was whipped off each bain-marie with a flourish, each dish explained as if I’d never eaten a curry in my life.

    The first contained mouse droppings in a rich, uncomfortably brown sauce, then came a dish of what once might have been sausages but probably came from the penis fields of Badami, next a vegetable creation which looked like braised turd floating in brine, a rogan josh made apparently of lamp that reminded me of something my dog once threw up... need I go on. This had all been sitting there since six o’clock, just time enough to grow enough bacteria to kill a giraffe.

    A lump of horror from each was dumped on my plate and I was escorted with great ceremony back to my table. A napkin was laid altogether too carefully over my groin and, while the whole staff watched attentively, I gainfully attempted to stomach the muck.

    In moments like these – and they have happened before – I lie.

    Tonight Mr. Dogster’s great fabrication was his terrible upset stomach, the cramps of diarrhoea that threaten, the traveller’s curse that is about to cut him down, just as he’s about to eat this DELICIOUS, but too spicy, food...

    ‘Ahhh,’ cooed the staff in unison.

    ‘Ahhh,’ said the Maitre ‘D.

    ‘Ahhh,’ said Mr. Dogster and rolled his eyes, ‘how sad, what a pity... what to do?

    Tip TOO much and run, was the answer.

    Now I’d done it TWICE in a row.

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    Dogster, this TR just keeps getting better and better. I echo those who have said you have a talent for writing -- it really IS that good. I can't wait for the next episode -- and I have to admit that I find myself a bit miffed that you need sleep and we all have to wait until you wake up and post before we get to see what happens next!!!

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    Marija - yes, that last Mumbai post was definitely tantalizing!

    Glad to see my daily dose of dogster before serious withdrawal set in!

    That "third" India is why I advocate taking the train. Especially if you avoid 1AC class, you stand a good chance of meeting "ordinary" Indians.

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    I know, everybody is already saying this...but u must write a book on your travels...It is just excellent writing, and sooo real...and down to earth...Are u sure u aren't a writer or journalist or something in that field??

    You have definately added some life to this forum!! And i just love the way u express yourself...





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    BTW, the web site for the Bengal Club offers proof positive to Dogster's narrative. The web site, which appears to have been created in 1951 and has not been updated since, features lots of photos of white men and includes statements such as "The Bengal Club is an exclusive club and much of its brand is shaped by the quality of its members. While embracing diversity, of which we are all proud, we must systematically attract more applicants who are successful in their professions and businesses."

    Good grief. No wonder Dogster got some strange looks. He's probably the first person the staff had ever seen who'd ever voted Labour.

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    Like everyone else, I'm hooked. The Third India - you've perfectly captured what to me was most touching, memorable, and the best part of our brief visit to India - not the monuments, or the temples, or the food -- as good as it was -- but the people going about their daily lives. Thank you for posting.

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    Bongo jumped out at me in the corridor as I was passing the Gentleman’s Lavatory on my way back from dinner. The braised turd in brine sat uneasily in my stomach. I was lost in space, trapped in The Bengal Club, depressed, humiliated and all alone.

    ‘Bed tea, Sah?

    ‘Mmmm, sure Bongo. Nine o’clock.’

    ‘Is there anything else, Sah?

    I just didn’t NEED Bongo, right now. It had been a long day – one that began in Mumbai, through airports, aeroplanes, taxis and the outskirts of Kolkata. I was beat, bashed up and feeling bullied - not that Bongo cared. The more under-par I was the better his chances. He probably wanted a bed-time tip.

    “I’m tired, Bongo – I have to sleep. My shoulders hurt, my arms hurt, my back hurts... let me go to bed.’

    ‘Ahhhh,’ he suddenly smiled broadly. Some kind of cosmic light-bulb had just switched on his sharp, greedy little mind. ‘I know what you want, Sah. Nine o’clock! I’ll fix everything, Sah!’ he said brightly and to my surprise, opened the door, ushered me in and left me quite alone.

    Even the bare boards of my bachelor bed didn’t stop me. I was out like a light.

    Nine a.m., on the dot, there was a knock at the door.

    ‘Bed tea, Sah!’

    ‘Mmmm. Grhhhh. Arghhh.’

    With no other warning Bongo appeared. He had a key, of course - a key, apparently, to my life. I stirred, looked up, and there he was, holding the tray. I was lying naked in my bed, the covers strewn around me in disarray, bits of Dogster sticking out uncovered, stark, white and skinny - I covered my vitals, still somewhat in shock.

    He placed the tray on my lap and moved across the room. With a flourish he whipped open the curtains. All of the glory of Kolkata flooded into the room: murky sunlight lit up my prison cell. He opened the doors to my private veranda so I could get my first whiff of last night’s urine then returned proudly to the side of my bed.

    I was sitting up by now, probably looking as cadaverous as I felt. One scrawny arm reached for the tea.

    ‘No, no, Sah! Let me do that!’

    And he leant on the bed, just a little too close, picked up the pot and carefully poured out my tea. I could smell his breath. Probably he could smell mine.

    I was feeling distinctly uncomfortable: naked, vulnerable, still half-asleep – trapped in my bed by a tray of milky tea, a rack of toast, a chipped plate and a small silver container of butter. Trapped, also, by the constant presence of my room-wallah, for whom this was apparently a perfectly normal part of his daily life.

    One has to think back to those limp, stupid British at the turn of the century – that idiot colonial assumption that one’s ‘native boy’ would attend to their every need. Wake them up, pour tea down their stupid British throats, butter their toast for them, cut it in four, feed it slowly to them – probably grab their jaw and move it up and down so they didn’t have to exercise a stupid British muscle to masticate their food.

    He moved to Sah’s bathroom and briskly wiped the floor, arranged the towels and toiletries, turned the taps on in the shower.

    ‘All ready, Sah!’

    I looked at him through bleary eyes.

    ‘Shower, Sah!’

    Then he stood there, waiting.

    Gawd almighty, I thought he was going to come in with me and wash my back.

    I was stark naked under the off-white sheet. Clearly he wasn’t going anywhere. I wasn’t thinking clearly. What on earth did he want me to do?

    Get up - obviously - with him standing there watching.

    ‘Errrr... ahhh... Bongo... ahhh – I’m a bit trapped here.’

    He didn’t understand at all. He was hearing my words, but not my meaning.

    ‘Ahhh, Sah, sorry, Sah,’ and he leapt to my rescue, flying to my side. He lifted the tray from my lap with great ceremony and stood at attention by the bed, holding it stiffly in front of him.

    Those men reading this will understand when I say that, for a million perfectly natural reasons, Bongo and the tray weren’t the only thing stiff that morning.

    I, as the saying goes, was between a rock and a hard place. The shower beat a tattoo against the black and white tiles, the water was escaping down the plug-hole, down the plug-hole and far, far away. Bongo stood and waited. Somewhere in the distance a clock struck nine-fifteen and I knew, with all the certainly I could muster, that only a lightening strike could save me. I would have to get up – right now – parade naked in front of Bongo and make my stately progress across the room to the shower.

    I waited as long as I possibly could, hoping against hope that my wayward willie would deflate then - when I felt the moment appropriate, looked up at Bongo with crinkled eyes.

    ‘Well,’ I sighed defeated, ‘you’re a man, Bongo. So am I. Same, same – but different.’

    ‘Yes, Sah,’ he said and averted his eyes.

    I rolled back the covers and stood up, naked, vulnerable, sachayed slowly towards the bathroom, Bongo’s wayward eyes watching my every move. I closed the door with a sigh of relief and stepped in to the shower.

    The water, of course, was cold.

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    Shower, shave – all the deeds were done, the dog was fresh and clean. I heard Bongo gaily cleaning the room while I was attending to my needs – I wrapped a damp towel round my waist, opened the door and stepped out to see a pristine newly made bed – with one surprising addition. There, laid neatly on top, was a rather manky grey sheet.

    Bongo stood by the door looking rather pleased with himself.

    ‘Here he is, Sah!’ he said, took one step to the right and in to the room walked my masseur.

    As I didn’t recall ordering one in the first place I was just a little taken aback.

    ‘Ahhh...’ Gulp. Deep breath. Change channels. Go with the flow.

    ‘ For your shoulders, Sah, your back – as you requested, Sah!’ He seemed just a little too happy. I could tell that his commission fee had been negotiated. ‘Four hundred rupees, Sah,’ he said, ‘four hundred for an hour.’

    ‘Ahhh... thank you, Bongo,’ I said, as politely as I could muster, still dazed.

    ‘Sah!,’ he snapped to attention, bowed discretely and, with that, stepped out of the room, closed the door firmly behind him - my masseur advanced with a glint in his eye.

    This was a wise-looking man in his late thirties wearing a stained white shirt and blue trousers. Somehow I knew where those stains had come from. His face was calm and serene, a face that had seen a thousand bodies, felt a thousand lives beneath his hands. He produced a small bottle of oil from his pocket, placed it carefully on the bedside table and stood silently beside the bed.

    He had no English – other than ‘yes’ or ‘no’ - but none was really necessary. He gestured at the sheet. Obediently, completely confused, I went to lie down, towel still around my waist.

    ‘No, no, no,’ he said lightly and, as I stood there uncertainly, reached over and gently removed the towel.

    ‘Ahhh,’ he said and smiled. With one hand he guided me to the bed and indicated I could now lie down - and just rela-a-a-a-x, face forward on the manky grey sheet.

    He moved to the window and closed the curtain. I could still hear the Kolkata traffic beeping and screeching. In the streets around The Bengal Club life continued apace - the city went about its business: men pissed on walls regardless, the food-stall fryied its god-knows what, the students sat chatting with their chai. The old drunk man slept soundly against his tree, snoring quietly through the gaps in his teeth.

    Welcome to India.

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    Oh by all means Sah, stay focused and continue your masterpiece!
    Please, do not let the Fodorite posting-wallahs with their comments be distracting you.

    Cried with laughter at your last contribution - oh Sah, you are being very, very, very excellent!
    ((f))

    Jackie

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    Best not to dwell on the massage.

    He left with a hefty tip.

    I was still only clad in that reeking towel – but, strangely, feeling a lot happier. Bongo hurtled in with a broad, dirty smile and swept the oily sheet from the bed.

    ‘Now, Sah, will you be touring?’

    Somehow the thought of a day spent in the company of more members of Bongo’s extended family didn’t appeal.

    ‘No, no, thank you Bongo – today I’ll wander on my own.’

    ‘Are you happy, Sah?’ he leered. Obviously I wasn’t the first of his clientele to be serviced by the masseur.

    ‘Yes, Bongo,’ I said calmly, ‘very happy, thank you.’

    This was my cue for the morning tip. I hesitated, suddenly feeling a bit angry, somehow abused – but I relented. It was easier to pay him to go away than to have him faffing around me all day. I just needed some time alone to collect my thoughts – there had been not a moment of solitude since I woke up. Now I needed another shower to scrub the oil from my newly Ayurvedicated flesh.

    The streets of Kolkata spread out around me like theatre. I made it past the Russell Street pissoir to Park Street, my shoes un-splashed, my spirits surprisingly high. I noted that the minute I escaped the clutches of Bongo and The Bengal Club I felt like ME again. It felt like I was let out of jail. No time to reflect on that though, just now. Suddenly, like a switch had been clicked, I was engulphed in the living landscape, in the multiple lives, the multiple dreams of the city.

    All I had to do now was work out how to cross the road.

    Like thousands of travellers before me, and thousands still to come, I took a deep breath and hid behind a group of locals - on the down side of the traffic - reassuring myself that, when the inevitable carnage occurred, that Indian bodies would go flying through the air before mine. That got me to the other side. I took a left and wandered along till I came to the end of the street and found Chowringhee Road. It looked large to get lost in so I turned right and a block or two away through the masses, quite by accident, I found the Indian Museum.

    Fate had placed me at the gates – therefore, I must go in.

    I picked my way through the machine-gun toting guards, queued and paid my special tourist price then wandered up a grand set of stairs. There, around a courtyard packed with Indian families, was gallery after gallery of crumbling display. I loved it. I loved the room crammed with stuffed animal heads, hundreds and hundreds of them arranged from floor to ceiling, covered in dust, looking down soulfully at the display cases, sticky with a million fingerprints. Crowds of children gazed in awe at the dinosaur, poised rickety on its stand – a group of youths played hide and seek around stuffed tigers, lions, some peculiar animals I’d never seen before – and would probably never see again.

    The most fabulously awful was a room of what appeared to be stuffed people – arranged carefully in a series of large dioramas, one glass-fronted room for each ethnic group, the inhabitants dressed in ethnic costumes poised in similarly ethic postures, frozen plaster moments of an imaginary India, all the painted diversity trapped in time, brightly lit by invisible fluorescent tubes.

    This led further into an even more magnificently dreadful display of India’s Natural Resources, perfectly arranged in a series of showcases that led off into the gloom of a huge gallery: a mausoleum of the mundane lit by shafts of light that battered their way through windows that must last have been cleaned when the Raj still ruled.

    This was the museum of museums. Here was pure kitsch, a last living remnant of what museums once were before all those bright, keen young curators came in altered them all. This was a museum from my youth. Endless displays of worthy things so riveting in their dullness I found myself fascinated– the spell-binding story of how matches are made, the life history of a tyre - from rubber tree to the highways of India, a special wing devoted to food products, another for oil and oil seeds, an extravagantly dusty collection of tropical fruit - each lovingly moulded in plaster, painted and placed in row after crumbling row, preserved forever under glass.

    I reeled from all this wonder and staggered back into the street. There I saw an equally extravagant display of humanity, equally dusty, equally unique. These, I thought, were India’s REAL natural resources.

    A block or so further up Chowringhee Road I saw a magnificent colonnade: white pillars reached far into the distance. I set out to see. It should have been stunning and - in its own strange way - it was, but for the two million Indian shopkeepers who had set up their business along every inch of the route.

    I walked slowly through the gauntlet then noticed, off to my right, a gap in the multitude, an escape guarded by three smartly dressed, vaguely military looking men. Inside - an oasis: a neat, freshly swept driveway of warm, brown bricks, a portico of white columns glowing clean in the sunlight, an entranceway with a dozen uniformed flunkies standing at attention, large doors leading into – who knows what?

    This, of course, was the Oberoi Kolkata.

    I stood at the entrance and stared.

    I sighed and thought of Bongo, sitting anxiously in his box.

    Somewhere, in the back of my defeated Dogster mind, a plan formed.

    No prizes for guessing what.

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    From my room at the Oberoi Kolkata – yup, you guessed it – I could see the streets outside.

    All of a sudden, I was very content just to watch from my window, just to sit in the comfort inside, to bounce on my bed and watch the television, just to stuff myself with a room-service Thali of such silver, multi-bowled magnificence that I took a photograph of it.

    I would have put that THALI in the Indian Museum and paid good money - just to look at it.

    My reception when I arrived could not have been LESS like that at the Oberoi Mumbai. Handsome lads lifted me bodily out of the taxi, warm brown hands carried me and my luggage into the foyer, sat me down under a bowl of flowers bigger than the bathroom in Mumbai. Two beautiful Oberoi maidens brought me water, fanned my sweating brow and, with the stroke of a pen and the squeeze of a credit card, I was placed on a luggage trolley and wheeled, weeping, to my room.

    Best of all, the Oberoi was a No-Tipping Establishment. Buckets of money could be poured into a staff-tip box at the end of the stay should you so choose – but the luggage handlers, the room-service staff, the cleaners, the concierge all did their duty because – well, it was just that, their DUTY.

    I once met the celebrated Mr. Oberoi, just three months before, a brief and accidental encounter at the Uma Paro in Bhutan. He was kind and unnecessarily gracious, waved a be-jewelled hand at the Bhutan-battered Dogster while I sheltered from a Blue Poppy storm. [Only those who’ve read that accidental trip-report in this Forum will understand].

    I mentioned this to a young man called Ashi whom I met by the pool while sipping a refreshing beverage later that day. Ashi, another of the Oberoi trainee management youths, could not have more different than the gauche lad I met in Mumbai. This was a lad of great promise, a smooth-talking paragon of customer service, a schmoozer and cruiser of considerable skill whose ‘duty’, it appeared, was to cruise the customers, making sure that were not just happy, but ecstatic.

    We had one of those conversations, the kind that solo travellers and keen young men anxious to please have, in the course of which I mentioned not just Mr. Oberoi but my kerfuffle in Mumbai, my switch to the Taj, the fact that I’d love it if I could open the window in my room - the this, the that – of hotel life.

    I wasn’t complaining, not even remotely. I was perfectly content with my lot. After what I’d just been through at The Bengal Club I was in Oberoi HEAVEN. Unexpectedly, another Oberoi angel had arrived pool-side to cater to my every whim.

    I found out later that Young Ashi, as he will henceforth be known, had called the Oberoi Mumbai, found out the truth of what I said - then called the Taj Palace and verified that I had, indeed, spent the next eight days there. What’s more, he’d looked up Mr. Dogster in the register - then done a Google search on my name.

    I thought this was very smart of him, very intelligent and not in the least intrusive - not everybody tells the truth round the swimming pool, there are liars in every game. I’ve learnt to keep my tall stories to myself these days – the internet is a powerful thing: it turns lies into truth – but, of course, it also turns truth into lies.

    Without wishing to dwell too much on this, Mr. Dogster [no, that’s not actually my real name] features rather heavily on Google search – one click and there are enough references from my previous life to keep you very busy for quite a long time - too MUCH information, in fact – but that’s another story...

    Armed with proof and information, Young Ashi sailed forth on a mission. Within minutes, it seemed, the celebrated Mr. Dogster was sitting, like a pig in shit, in the largest Junior Suite Young Ashi, the duty manager and the spirit of Mr. Oberoi could find. Bongo and The Bengal Club were suddenly far, far away.

    I mention this minor incident by way of balance.

    There are Oberois – and Oberois. There are trainees – and trainees.

    But Young Ashi made me feel like there was only ONE Mr. Dogster.

    And that’s India, too.

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    Phew: I'm exhausted. What a saga it's been so far.. and such a lot of praise! I'm not sure I'm deserving of it all really - but it's really, really nice. Support like that has given me wings - I'm only sorry that I've been so far down this trip tunnel that I havn't responded more in the last couple of days.

    Despite your comments I'm not a writer - nor have I ever been. This report has all been a bit of a mystery to me - it's poured out almost fully formed, all because Kathie asked. If she hadn't it would still be tumbling around in my head - rather the way Bhutan hid in there - until jules39 asked a similar question.

    I think I've rather got in the habit of keeping it all to myself - I've learnt that my pals just don't want to know. I bet I'm not the only one to come back from an epic voyage to find a raft of blank faces on return. When did you last sit down and say to a pal - 'tell me about your trip,' and then LET them? None of us really do. Most of my pals give me about three minutes. I have to sit a couple of them down and say 'You're my best friend - now, as your penance, you have to tolerate ten pictures of my trip.'

    This they do, then, slowly, nod off. It's the cyber-equivalent of the holiday slide show - and we all know boring that is.

    It's partly because they mostly haven't even heard of the places I travel - have no idea what it is - or where it is. It's partly because they have lives... and the daily preoccupations of a family and a profession take precedence over travel - for about a million damn good reasons.

    So the trips get stored in the Dogster brain and sit and moulder away - untouched, unexplored in public - my own private little Idaho.

    So sharing is a joy to me - tho' hard work, as I've discovered. Your comments have spurred me on and given me enormous pleasure. I'm a fortunate fellow to have such kindly people with a kindred enthusiasm for all the sights and sounds of the world - it doesn't happen in my world at home.

    Katrina asked what I used to do - and you know, I've quite forgotten. Just at this point in my life it's not overly important. I'm lost in the world and live in the moment - there are bigger fish than ME to fry. Right now I have all of India on my plate. I'm a lucky, lucky guy.

    I'll try and finished off Kolkata later tonight and move on into Assam - but bear with me if that takes a day or so. It's a whole different channel, Assam, a world away from chaos and crowds, a dream.
    I'll need to find another way down that strange, surreal Brahmaputra for you - and me. It'll come.

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    Hi CTW - what's that saying about a picture and a thousand words? I'll do the words - you guys do the pictures. That's way more fun.

    Here's some more, while I'm in the mood. I got no more Kolkata. Let's move on.

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    ASSAM:

    It’s the silence I remember – that awesome silence.

    At night, when the ‘Charaidew’ stopped by the river bank, at precisely eleven p.m., the generator was be turned off and the silence fell - a great brick of peace swamped the boat, an absence of anything - a sheer wall of... nothing.

    I’d sit with my windows open and suck it up. The stillness – perhaps a slap of water up against the bow, the occasional cough of the crew down below me, a cabin door opening, closing – but that was all. Or up on the deck, late at night – a wonder of stars over my head – just Dogster and the Brahmaputra. That’s when the real conversation began. Words between no-one and nothing.

    This was the Fourth India and I was lost inside it. Everything else was dust.

    The days were spent exploring, the villages, towns and shore, the ship moved slowly down the river – or did the river move slowly up the ship? There was days when each mooring seemed exactly the same as before, as if we hadn’t travelled at all. There were hours when, while sailing, the landscape stayed the same – we sailed and sailed and stopped and sat and nothing had really changed.

    Imagine a blank sheet of paper. Turn it on its side. Draw a line across the middle. Add a thin stroke of sandy white above it, a shimmer of water below – and that’s the mighty Brahmaputra, wide and flat and long, a fast-flowing desert, a mirror. We slid along the surface, moored and stopped and sighed. We were on the moon. Sandbanks stretched flat into the distance, a tuft of grass – no more: a cow, a boat, two children – nothing more - all the way to the distant trees, a thin strip against the horizon. Life went on around us – the theatre of river-life in India.

    Sometimes it was crowded, sometimes not. There were fairs and festivals and the music of prayer, dancing and singing and more. But always that sound of silence, always that moment at night when the sky and the stars and the river melted into one and pulled this old dog into space.

    This adventure was surreal and solitary, my social life was nil. Maybe I needed a break, to think, to process and discard, to slide through rural India with style and calm, well fed, well looked after and well slept aboard my floating world of dreams.

    www.assambengalnavigation.com

    I was the only white man in Assam.

    From the moment I arrived - till the moment I left eighteen days later - I saw not one other Caucasian, fair skinned guy - which, in its own funny way, is a whole other destination in itself. The only problem there was just that, looking out, I forgot I was the only one of a kind. Looking in at me was the rest of Assam.

    They noticed.

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    Let me backtrack for a bit and set up this strange little scene.

    My mission in this latest phase of my life has been to sail down every navigable inch of all the major rivers in South East Asia. First I attacked the Mekong, next came Burma and the Ayerwaddy, then the Chindwin. All up, I spent forty-seven days on the rivers of Burma – there wasn’t anywhere much left to go - but I still had the bug – the river bug – and the rivers still had me.

    Once, not far from Homalin, as close to the Indian border as the Chindwin went, I looked out and saw a range of cloudy mountains and knew that just over those peaks, across an impenetrable border lay the Mighty Brahmaputra. I decided then and there to go. Here was my opportunity.

    First I had to get there.

    Kolkata to Dibrugargh was easy. I blinked – I flew – I arrived - and found myself late one evening sitting in Mancotta Chang, plonk in the middle of tea-fields somewhere in the North of Assam. There wasn’t a sound. The air was fresh and full of tea. I’d eaten a delicious dinner, drunk a bottle of Kingfisher Beer, the only guest in a spruced-up Heritage Tea Bungalow – and I was content. The more I sat, the more I drank – the more content I would become.

    Mancotta Chang is all very Fifties, a large planter’s bungalow in the tea district of Assam. A silent staff of Assamese whisk food and drink to your side – but, I confess, after the cities, it seemed all very tentative, very polite and kinda quiet. I loved it – but I couldn’t focus - there were just two nights: one to arrive and eat dinner - then the next day a tour of the neighbouring tea fields before a picnic lunch and a funny guided wander around the town that ran out of fascinating sights almost before it began. If I said that snapping a picture of the sign outside the ‘Ayurvedic Piles Fishure Fistula Chamber’ was the highlight of the day - you probably get the idea.

    Jorhat – Thengal Manor –and then I met Miss Jill. We met on the banks of the Brahmaputra. It wasn’t romantic at all.

    She was seventy-six, an ‘unmarried woman’, dressed in sensible clothes: dark blue slacks, a crisp striped blouse - her pure white hair somehow boofed up and neatly tucked in a roll. Her face had a lot more yesterdays than it had tomorrows but retained a freshness – she was one of those old ladies who still looked like a girl: rather like the elderly Lillian Gish. Her face was soft – well, I assume it was – but those fleshy pink cheeks were the only thing soft about her – she was sharp as a tack and occasionally twice as dangerous. She had lived a considerable life.

    As she was man-handled down the bank, a Charaidew slave flanking her on each arm, it was clear that my companion wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry. She gingerly pottered down to the gang-plank and wrenched one arm from her slave. She held out one imperious hand.

    “Pleased to meet you,’ she said with a smile, ‘Miss Salmon – and what is your name?’

    That clipped British accent gave it all away.

    ‘Ahh,’ I thought, ‘I’m in trouble now...’

    ‘Mr. Dogster,’ I replied and shock her proffered paw. The merest touch and she withdrew but then, with a conspiratorial smile, leant towards me and smiled.

    ‘I’m sooo glad that you’re Australian. In my experience, they’re always the best companions on a voyage.’

    Well, she was right, of course. The one thing we both had staring us in the face was that I was her only companion on the voyage - for the next ten days. Miss Jill was the only white woman in Assam. We made an odd couple.

    I’d somehow jumped from the remarkable crowds of Kolkata to a vast multitude – of one.

    Here we both were, at the pointy end of our trip - and there wasn’t going to be anyone else – just us, three guides and a boat full of crew – sailing slowly down the river from Jorhat to Guwahati, stopping off along the way. This could be a very long ten days.

    We swiftly worked out how to co-exist. Every day there would be an excellent lunch at which Miss Jill and discussed the world for precisely an hour – then dinner time and we’d do the same again. Provided I stayed within her barriers, all was fine. She couldn’t speak of personal things, of sex or drugs or beggars, she refused to enter certain discussions then was fulsome about others. It was my job to try and work out which was which.

    This was process of trial and error – one in which I had no control. At moments of crisis – if I mentioned an ‘unmentionable’ thing, whatever that might be, she would simply bow her head, close her eyes and refuse to continue. Conversation would leave that zone of death, pause and then resume as if nothing had ever happened. It was quite a ride.

    We both had social skills, we both had stories, we both had a wish to get on fine – so we did. If, by the end of ten days, it was becoming a burden, we didn’t let on. It was probably just as much a burden for her and it occasionally became for me – but we made more than the best of it and parted friends. That she forgot me within an instant was par for the course. That I walked away with not a thought for her [till now] was also part of the bargain.

    We were not companions - at all, just two completely self-contained travellers in the same boat – literally. We chatted away - when we did - and were completely happy, when we didn’t. She wasn’t in the last bit needy – and nor was I. We got on fine and got off the boat fine. The days on shore were mostly spent apart, not by any mutual choice, but by the circumstances we found ourself in. I was a solo wanderer by nature, she needed an attendant – so she was escorted by her guide and I wandered off with mine.

    Baba was his name, an upstanding, clean living twenty-five year old with a wife and a child - I was his ‘duty’. He stoically followed where I would go, stood off to the side and let me run – perfect. He had adequate English, my Assamese wasn’t coming along too well, either. Deep conversation wasn’t gonna happen. We barely talked, but that was fine – he was happy to stand – I was happy to wander. I didn’t want a new Assamese best friend, nor was he offering. His ‘duty’ was to guide where appropriate, facilitate movement from A – B, make sure I wasn’t mugged and get me back alive. This he did perfectly well.

    On the last day I turned to him.

    ‘Baba?

    He looked at me with a perfectly blank, dutiful face.

    ‘What’s my name?’

    Inside that dutiful exterior I could see the battle raging. It wasn’t long before he knew that I knew that - he hadn’t the faintest idea. I let him wrestle with that.

    ‘And how long have we spent together?

    ‘Ten days.’

    ‘Mmm-m-m,’ I said evenly, ‘mmm-m-m...’

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    SIBASAGAR:

    Sibasagar was having a party - Assamese New Year had arrived and the festival was raging down the river. The Dogster had stumbled into luck. He’d been there before: just two days ago. It’s about half way between Dibrugargh and Jorhat, a town with an interesting temple complex and some uninteresting ruins – the dog was in two minds whether to return. But, just for fun, he did.

    I wandered off into town while Miss Jill was being shown the uninteresting ruins. Baba trotted along behind me while the I went this way and that. I was like a child. If I saw a door or an alley that appealed I went through it, down it, to it - relishing the strange freedom that being the only white man gave me.

    We came across a gathering. There was stage on which sat a great many important men all dressed in white, perched patiently on red plastic chairs, waiting for the event to begin. Twenty or so young lads dressed in baggy yellow silk trousers tied with a red scarf, loose silk shirts and material wrapped around their heads began dancing in the street while the crowd grew. Within minutes there must have been five hundred watching, another hundred or so sitting on more red plastic chairs in front of the stage.

    I moved in amongst them, being a tourist, taking pictures, trying to be as unobtrusive as I could. Luckily, for the most part, the dancing was far more interesting than me - but not to the sharp eyes of the important men, stuck there on the stage.

    One came over, some local dignitary dressed entirely in white - and invited me up on stage. I didn’t have much say in the matter, to tell you the truth. The white man was going up on display whether he liked it or not. He was hauled up to the platform and sat, still taking pictures, on a spare red plastic chair in the second row. The dancing built up. Five sweet girls joined in. They were dressed in national costume as well. It was all very playful, energetic and pure. The lads were more enthusiastic than talented but when the girls joined then all twenty-five performers really got their mojo working. There were whoops of joy and happiness, a bang of drums and whirling silk. I thought it was great – if lengthy. But the great Mr. Dogster – the only white man in Assam - was stuck on a podium, rather than down there in the middle of it.

    Little did I know – in a few minutes I would become the entertainment.

    The dancing threatened to get out of hand. It was going on – and on. One of the men held up his finger and suddenly there was silence. He lifted a microphone to his lips and began to speak. I had no idea what was happening. Baba was out of sight, I was out of his reach, anyway. Then, as smiling faces turned to me, I became aware of a subtle change - I was being introduced.

    This is like those dreams when you find yourself suddenly naked in public.

    The man in white approached me, sitting quiet in the second row and held out his hand. I stood up and he gently propelled me to the front of the stage. He reached back to a table and grabbed a stupid hat, placed it on my head with words I could not understand, hung a white scarf around my neck, then stood proudly aside - and handed me the microphone.

    ‘Perhaps you’d like to say a few words,’ he whispered in English.

    Did I know who these people were? No.

    Did I know why these people were here? No.

    Did I know what was going on? I didn’t have the slightest idea.

    But here I was in front of several hundred of them wearing a stupid hat and a scarf with a microphone in my hand.

    So the celebrated Mr. Dogster made a speech.

    It was brief and very gracious – he thanked them all for the privilege of being there, wished them luck in all they did, told them all how fortunate he was to be in such a place on such an auspicious occasion, complimented them on their beautiful town and thanked the organisers profusely for inviting him up on the stage. He was magnificent – even he agreed with himself on this matter.

    The speech was brief but meaningful - with a slight bow to his host and a wave to his adoring public he concluded the performance. They all seemed very pleased and clapped warmly. Pictures were taken. He returned to his red chair, removed the stupid hat and sat down, flushed but happy.

    ‘That was the governor of the province,’ Baba said as we left, ‘and the chief of police.’

    Mr. Dogster blinked and smiled and wandered on, still just as confused as ever.

    He was in the local paper the next day - the most famous white man in Assam.

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    Dogster, you have now become my reason for getting up early in the morning to real the next tale. Do you think you could manage another pouilly fume night then book a trip to China before we go in October?

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    Malt does more than Milton can
    To justify the ways of God to man.

    Similarly:

    Wine moves Dogster to Indian dreams
    So he writes in magnificent reams.

    Too bad Jill was not with you at the dance eclebration. The photo in the newspaper would have been entirely different.

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    Dogster, I think for many of us, our fellow Fodorites are our best audience for our travelers tales. I am fortunate to have a few friends who love travel as much as I do, and we can sit and talk about our travels together. But I know what you mean about most people not even having heard of the places we visit. The question I get from non-travelers is typically "Why would you go THERE?"

    The cruise on the Brahmaputra has been on my list since I read Mitch's report on his experience.

    I'm loving all of the visuals you paint with your words.

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    "I think I've rather got in the habit of keeping it all to myself - I've learnt that my pals just don't want to know. I bet I'm not the only one to come back from an epic voyage to find a raft of blank faces on return"

    That comment is sooo true...i thought it was just me that came home to have my friends & family say "how was your trip" And i say "good" and before i am finished the word.. they are already talking about something else!! So i rarely say a word about my trips to anyone..And pictures..forget about that...

    But on occasion, i meet a total stranger at work, whom has taken an interest to my travels...and then i babble!! It is like i finally get to let it all out...

    So..this is why these forums are soo good as u can share your travel stories and experiences with other travellers, who actually wanna hear about it!!

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    The most common response to my attempts at recounting my travels is:

    How can you spend that much time on a plane?

    I always tell them that it's a good thing the plane ride is so long. Otherwise, the place would be overrun with Americans.

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    The responses from friends when we told them we were going to India(years ago) were of complete astonishment that anybody would even consider India a "holiday" and it's so much more than that. Love this report and feel like I'm right there with you.

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    "I bet I'm not the only one to come back from an epic voyage to find a raft of blank faces on return" - I send my trip reports and links to my photos to people who have signed up on my web site. This includes a number of friends and although they are free to read or discard them, some of them actually bring up things I've written when I get back!!! But since I've already told them about the trip by email, and I don't know who actually read the reports, we can just skip the whole trip thing and talk about what happened while I was gone.

    I mostly talk travel with just a few people who are planning their own trips.

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    Dogster
    I've not had so much time to read your TR these last few days, so i made my self a cup of tea and finished what you have written so far.. i can only concur with my fellow fodorites, i would pay to read your tales....

    I also found some of your life obeservations have really made me stop and think.
    Looking forward to the next instalement.
    Smeagol

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    Now that I have gpanda writing poetry in my praise I know I've truly arrived at my destination - lol

    But I'm glad to see I'm not the only one to meet blank faces when I get home. Kathie's point is particularly apropos to me: my travel choices are getting so obscure that nobody in their right mind would even think of going. I'm on a mission and someimes that leads me to strange places. My pals certainly havn't heard of them - quite a lot of the time, neither have I.

    After reading Smeagol's lovely post I've realised that this trip report is, indeed SO long that you need a day off and a calming beverage to get through it - but this [sigh] is the penultimate epistle. Suitably graphic and bloody: look away if you love animals.

    Just Varanasi to go...

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    GUWAHATI:

    The Kamakhya Mandir has been on top of a fine hill outside Guwahati since 1655 and has grown like Topsy ever since. Today was an auspicious day but I’m not quite sure why. All through this New Year Festival there were anniversaries, occasions, the significance of which were quite beyond me. By happenstance this temple was charging at full tilt the first day I was there. I threaded my way through one long street of shops all selling religious items, materials, spiritual tat with hundreds of red, purple, orange bridal veils hung from each shop front, each veil covered in thousands of gold sequins. Then, outside the main gate, a million shoes, piled in racks that reached the sky, each somehow sorted, somehow catalogued by a team of shoe-wallahs [for this, in 21st. Century India, read entrepreneurial young men] who ran a tight, tight ship. Mine joined them.

    Inside a sea of red - red seemed to be the colour of priests and acolytes, of sadhu’s and weddings. It was everywhere, draped on and around hundreds of men. One enormous line of people lolled in what looked like cages – apparently the only way of controlling the huge flood of Guwahatis who had come specially today to exercise their faith. The cages led off to the side wall, then upstairs, then more stairs, then more - crawling up and around the walls overlooking the temple. This long stairway was also crammed with people, patiently watching from above as the events unfolded inside. It was all one enormously long queue that disappeared somewhere up above me, curled round, I later discovered, to flank two huge pools where, first cab off the rank, all these worshippers came to bathe and ritually cleanse themselves.

    I was somewhere in the middle of it all, just abandoned to the occasion. I could tell that I sure wasn’t going to get inside the main temple on this occasion so was content to roam around the complex outside. I passed a dozen goats. It didn’t take long before I heard that familiar refrain... ‘maaa-a-a-aah’, chop!

    Goats went to God with a bleat and a chop. Some were carried up the hill and through the temple grounds in their owner’s arms, sweet little white bundles, perfectly happy to be taken off on a ride, each christened with a vermillion tikka. Others waited in a line outside, contently sitting, looking around quite unconcerned – killing time before they were to be sold, tikka’d and slaughtered.

    Amidst that crowd of happy, red-swathed men, one in particular seemed to be the designated goat-chopper. It was all very efficient. The goats were carried or led to a small path of bare earth. Sticking up from this patch of earth was an off shaped block of stone, looking rather like an elongated stone slingshot. This patch of earth was enclosed with concrete, covered in bloodied light brown tiles. It was a floor of considerable gore. Maybe the goat-chopper said a brief prayer, I really couldn’t tell but with little ceremony and maximum speed those little goat necks were swiftly placed in this ‘slingshot’ device, effectively trapping their heads and those deadly little horns in a pincer – then their bodies pulled back, all in the one movement.

    I learnt to recognise the quite distinct sound of an assassin’s knife chotting through a young goat’s neck. There was always a last desperate ‘maa-a-a-aaah’ and then this particular, clean, quick thud. Bye bye goat.

    The heads were thrown onto that disgusting tiled floor. Seven or eight of them lay in a line, all with the same startled look, those staring wide eyes, spattered with their own blood, a lurid little cameo against the light pink tiles of the back wall. The bodies were swiftly disposed of, hurled by their back legs onto a small area just outside – a little open box paved with a distinctive blue and enclosed with a tiled wall on two sides. There was blood everywhere, walls and floor: a shiny explosion of colour against those light blue tiles. The goats were still twitching as their owners picked them up, drained them out, then neatly popped them into a plastic bag and carried them away. It would be goat pie tonight.

    I must have seen thirty or more goats go their goat heaven in my three visits to Kamahkya Mandir. I’ve observed the goat sacrifices from pretty much every available angle: up close, far away, over the wall, through the window, from above – I’ve pretty much had the goat sacrifice experience. The sound of ‘maaa-a-a-aaah – chop! - was everywhere. Nobody turned a hair.

    The real theatre came with the buffalo slaughter. That attracted quite a crowd – including me. Baba was right beside me but looking decidedly green: he was dutifully guarding his client who demanded a ring-side seat – but clearly Baba would have preferred another client right at this moment. He didn’t care for this blood and gore, just didn’t like this whole sacrifice thing. Like most of us, I guess.

    I found it fascinating, strangely unmoved by the blood and the muck – I stared right into this extraordinary thing happening right in front of me, was amazed at how it all worked. I was invisible in the midst of a powerful piece of theatre that’s been going on for a thousand years.

    We were inside the slaughter hall. Outside, ranged on rows and rows of tiered steps reaching up thirty or more feet, sat hundreds of onlookers looking down towards us through large open gaps in the wall. They were seeing everything inside framed inside a box.

    The buffalo was led in, protesting. Twenty or so men swathed in red went into action – they were quite a team. The beast was lead forward to a two wooden stakes fixed in the floor at an angle and led through the barrier. Both stakes were jammed together in a pincer movement and its head pinioned between them. A bar was jammed down on it from above, locking the animal’s neck.

    There was usually a ‘Mwww-e-u-e-u-egh!’ at this point. Ten or so men simultaneously threaded poles through the buffalo’s legs then, at a signal, they pulled those surprised legs out from under him. I couldn’t see exactly how they did it, it was all happening very fast, but before I and the buffalo knew it, he was pinioned by the neck, his back legs splayed out behind him, just about to die.

    I was barefoot, standing on a very disgusting floor, right in the front row. Everything was happening very quickly, just three metres from my amazed face. People pushed all around me as the show got under way. Tiny children squeezed around my legs, picking their thin bodies in the gaps between grown- ups, anxious to see.

    Ropes were slung around the bull’s horns and, as the men behind pulled back on their poles, the men on ropes all pulled forward. This, I think, took a few heave-ho’s before it was mission accomplished. This wasn’t a moment to be taking photographs, everything is a blast of confused memories - but I saw that buffalo neck get longer and longer and longer. His bloated tongue poked out its mouth.

    I was quite lost in the theatre of it all. The neck was stretched out by more than a foot. Suddenly the intensity changed, the excitement leapt up a notch or two. The drumming increased dramatically, there was a surge from the crowd as the priest raised his knife - a tangible current of what I can only describe as ‘blood-lust’ ran through the building – then the heavy thud as machete sliced through that stretched buffalo neck - in a millisecond it was done.

    Head and body fell apart. A splash of arterial blood slashed across the crowd as the torso collapsed on the ground. There was a collective gasp of wonder from the crowd – then suddenly it was all over. The men on the legs casually unthreaded their poles and walked away, quite relaxed - in a few seconds they were chatting to each other, unconcerned. The crowd dispersed. The buffalo’s body just sat there on two bended knees – about as dead as a dead buffalo can be.

    The head was already being carried round the temple, bleeding droplets on the floor, taken in to where I cannot go, to be blessed and boiled, for all I know. The crowd had gone - instantly melted away, their attention diverted in the endless sideshow of this place - just another buffalo gone to Lord Shiva’s great herd in the sky.

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    SILGHAT:

    The greatest goat I ever saw, the most transcendent of her race, was performing in a circus in Silghat, a tiny town about half-way down in river that, once a year at New Year, becomes flooded with tens of thousand of the surrounding locals, all drawn in to town for one reason. The carnival had come to town.

    Perhaps ‘carnival’ is too strong a word. ‘Fair’ might be a better one. There was a Ferris-wheel, tied together, as usual, with string. A Wheel of Death where fearless Indian motor-bikers drove round and round a wall while a hundred spectators crammed above, looking down, waiting for their advertised Death. Two of the worst sideshows I’ve ever attended – one of which featured a tableau of Lord Shiva, come down from heaven and floating in a flimsy tent – unaided [gasp] by mortal hand.

    This was, of course a young man sitting on a platform that extended, miraculously, from the back of a nearby truck. He was dressed rather like Father Christmas, with a thick cotton-wool beard and wiggled his head ferociously when I opened the flap to see my ten rupee miracle. I waved and feigned great wonder. Lord Shiva knew as well as I that it was the most pathetic miracle he’d ever seen, too but felt compelled to keep up his part of the bargain. More head wiggling and what have been a broad Shiva smile – it was impossible to tell under the cotton-wool.

    Under another flap of canvas was the second promised miracle – the two headed man. Hold on to your hats. Why, gosh, halleluyah, truly I believe in miracles! Here was another unfortunate carnival lad whose punishment it was to sit pressed up against a [totally invisible, gasp] mirror. One visible leg on one side, his striped shirt up against one edge of the mirror, his head stuck out at an angle. My God, it truly was a two headed man! Incredible!

    The two headed man may just have been smiling but the whole thing was so... woeful, I couldn’t really tell. The poor lad looked very uncomfortable I beat a hasty retreat. I didn’t want to put his neck out of joint. Baba was waiting outside.

    ‘Amazing, ‘I said very seriously, ‘truly amazing.’

    Baba thought I was obviously a bit of a retard. I then made him take me to the Rock ’n Roll Bollywood Pop Star Tent. The show was just about to start. Woo hoo! Poor Baba.

    I paid for our tickets – twenty rupees a head for this one – and we made our way in through an iron corridor, divided down the centre by a railing with two locked gates at the far end. Above was a sign. It read: ‘LADIES IN JEANS’. Make of that what you will.

    We sat towards the back inside a large plastic tent. There was quite a wind outside. Suddenly a great chunk of yellow plastic roofing flew up, flapped then settled in a not very gentle cloud, on top of our heads. People ran for cover but the emergency was swiftly rectified. Lithe bodies clambered directly over us and yanked the offending plastic back into place. The show could begin.

    The wayward sheeting was certainly the highlight of the next thirty minutes. In front of a painted backdrop of somewhere that looked vaguely like Korea appeared a ‘groovy’ young couple who absently mimed and danced to a recorded song blasted out over the speakers. They finished to a smattering of dazed applause then yielded to another couple who did the same thing – then another – and another – each dressed in progressively more ‘groovy’ and ridiculous outfits. Top of the bill was some ‘stunning beauty’ who appeared in rather fewer clothes than the average Assamese audience is meant to appreciate. Her tiny mini dress was hung with plastic pearls under a pink sequinned belt, her back totally bare but for two thin straps, one holding a pink sequinned brassiere, the other holding up a see-through red creation that covered up the front of her. Baba visibly puffed up with the erotic charge. It certainly didn’t take much to get these guys off. I looked around. My guide wasn’t the only young man suddenly glued to the action on stage. She pranced around limply for her mimed moment in the sun then, as the grand finale, the whole cast came out on stage to join her. They all mimed badly to another song. I clapped enthusiastically and stood up to go. Baba looked over and nodded. He loved it.

    We wandered from stall to stall and looked at everything, we rode the Ferris-wheel - three of the most terrifying minutes of my life - we shot at balloons, I threw darts at more balloons, then watched fascinated as carnival con-men did that dice under the tumblers trick. Then all of a sudden a stray Superintendent of Police bore down on me with a broad smile and an offer I could not refuse.

    ‘Welcome to Silghat!’ he barked with one enormous hand stuck out in front of him. Soon I was strolling hand in hand with him up the police station to view his carnival feifdom. It was all a bit of a surprise.

    I was Mr. Dogster, the only white man in Assam – again - and about to be shown off to every official in town. I can only assume that I was earning the Superintendent some kind of cosmic brownie points by my company on his extended guided tour - but that was fine by me. It was very strange - but I was going with that constabular flow. He fed me, forced tea on me, water, conversation – I was interviewed by another nervous young man and his microphone, reeled away quite overwhelmed with his hospitality – but, really, I wanted to be back in the crowds.

    I wanted to go off and join the Circus.

    The Great Performing Goat was the star of the show – at least as far as I’m concerned. Now, you don’t get to see a performing goat much in these politically correct days – and I’m all for that – more power to goats, I say, but when a performing goat is thrust upon a man and he does not watch - then the world, as we know it, should come to an end.

    The Great Goat was not the only performer, of course, but after seeing her goatly magnificence– the jugglers, the trapezes, the contortionists – even the dwarf with a painted face and a clown costume – just didn’t get me off. I had seen the glory, I had been to the Promised Land. This was the Maria Callas of goat performers, the Edith Piaf – a beautiful white goat with a perky white tail and a look of great concentration.

    Ms. Goat, artiste, was dragged unwillingly into the arena where she stood, looking stupidly around. In front of her was a steep wooden plank that led from the floor up about five feet to a tiny steel platform on a steel triangle, held up by more Indian string. She was given the traditional pre-show whack around the ears to get her started then took a few steps up the plank. She promptly fell off. Now she was lying on her back with all four legs waving wildly in the air with her trainer bearing down. A kick and she was upright, trotting back along that plank, up and up to her perch in the sky. The plank was removed and there she stood, hit by a shaft of sunlight, her four thin goat legs meeting in a pure point of contact with the perch.

    What a thing of beauty: Ms. Goat, paragon of balance was standing on a platform no bigger than my palm - she then turned a full 360 degrees, still perfectly poised on this tiny surface and, as I watched, walked slowly along a piece of narrow steel not half an inch wide, stretched between her first perch and a second weeny perch - then one second strip of steel that culminated in one final tiny destination.

    I confess I was the only man in this circus tent that found this quite so thrilling. I could see about five hundred of the rest of the audience in the cheap seats on the other side, staring down with confusion at this very peculiar sight – a white goat standing on a platform, turning circles. But that’s exactly what this talented goat did – but this time with a variation. Now the goat could lift one leg, crook it and lower its head – in a perfect little bow.

    The Great Performing Goat of Silghat walked all the way across to that third tiny platform, turned in a circle, bowed, then walked calmly back all the way to the first one, paused for her applause - then leapt into freedom with one joyous bound. Her trainer grabbed the rope around her neck and they both trotted proudly out of the tent to – well, I do have to say it – ‘less than generous’ applause.

    But I loved it. That goat: beaten and abused, bashed into submission: that damn goat got up and did its thing regardless – with a goat-ish resilience and a modicum of style.

    I liked to think that old goat was a bit like the Dogster - and Dogster was a bit like that goat.

    I get a kick in the head, I scramble up that travel plank, I tumble off, make a fool of myself, cop a thrashing – then pick myself up, dust myself off - and start all over again. I make it to the little perch, I sit, I balance or fall – then scuttle across a tightrope to another safe five star perch, do another 360 degree tourist turn for a week or so - then, if I’ve survived, allow myself a little bow of congratulation. The next day I’m on another tightrope, in another taxi, another airport, making another landing to reach another tiny perch, another tightrope.

    Stumbling forward across India.

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    Genius.

    Thank you for sharing.

    A personal favorite ...

    "Jane XX wasn’t her real name, of course, it was her stage name. She was, as she was quick to explain, really an entertainer. I could see her already, stuffed inside a green lurex frock, belting out of tune Shirley Bassey hits to drunks in Working-Men’s clubs in the North of England, telling off-colour jokes and introducing the dwarf-throwing as the next act."

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    I just thought I should bring this back to the top before it fell into 51st position and out of sight....out of mind. Eveyone should get the chance to read this entertaining tale before it becomes a "Made for TV mini-series"

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    OK Dogster, I'm only halfway through your India thread, but I had to post a remark. I started reading last night (haven't been here in a while, but got a nudge email from Bob in BKK last night telling me that I was being paged in the forum--I love that Bob watches out for me :)

    So, I was laughing so hard when I read this line (after it was suggested you might want "company" on the ship)"Frankly, that was the last thing I needed. Now, having been cast in the role of lecherous roue, I faced fourteen days of the crew thinking I wanted to jump the Ukrainian chamber-maids."

    Seriously, tears were running down my face I was laughing so hard.

    I wanted to keep reading, but I decided I needed to go to bed (it was after midnight and I do have a job). When I got up this morning, I read the line again and burst out laughing--again. I started reading your stuff this morning rather than the NYTimes. How's that for addiction to your wonderful writing! I am now with you in Goa, but alas must head off to my source of income for the day. I'll be back tonight.

    You are one of the best travel writers I have ever read--professional or amateur (in the latin sense of "ama" teur) . I'm not kidding. You need to pull together all your stories into a compendium, have an editor take a swipe at it and get it published. You are an absolutely addictive writer--a unique and rare talent.

    "Travels with Dogster" or "Dogster Tracks" could be a big hit, and I'm not kidding.

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    Wow - I come back after a couple of days to find extravagant praise - that's so kind. I love Gpanda's phrase 'You are a goat amongst men.'

    That's why I thought this would be a good place to stop. There's more - but then, there always is... how long is a piece of string? But its been an excellent ride - writing this in real time and just posting has been great fun. A real challenge - with a few limitations - now I'm diving back and correcting the bad punctuation! And a few cuts and corrections... and some additions.

    Funnily enough I've found reading my words back quoted as favorite phrases is a real blast. So thanks for the feedback Boston, Chicago, Ny. Everybody really..

    I've found the whole exercise strangely empowering. What a group of supportive, enthusiastic people! I'm a lucky guy.

    Now I'm planning the next trip. I leave in two weeks.

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    "What a group of supportive, enthusiastic people!"

    I think that Dogster has hit the nail on the head.

    I find this forum to be very helpful and informative with none of the backbiting and caustic remarks--apart from the "Great Furry One"--of some of the other travel sites.

    It seems that every poster on this site has a desire to share their travel experiences and support newbies and not so newbies.

    I'm so glad that I found this site before my trip to Thailand--it helped immeasurably.

    PS. Gpanda, you know I'm only joking!

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    Dogster, we look forward to the next adventure. Have you ever thought about exploring the wilds of Massachusetts?

    R-mac-it's sort of quaint reading that you were actually concerned with my reaction to your aspersions. Our fur is thick.

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    In October/November 2007 we did a very similar trip to Dogster’s but on the Sukapha, a sister ship of the Charaidew. They try their best to follow the Pandaw formulae but like so much in India, they don’t quite manage.

    I’m happy to report that when we visited the Kamakhya Temple they were not performing animal sacrifices, but there was ample evidence, both to the eyes and the nose, that animals were sacrificed on a regular basis.

    The Hindu community are not the only community in India that engage in animal sacrifice; the Muslim community also does. Some years ago when I was working in Bombay I found myself passing through a Muslim area where there were dozens of goats, all of them needing a good wash, particularly around the nether regions. Those were the lucky ones, the previous day had been the Muslim day of sacrifice and many a goat found itself with its throat cut. This feast day commemorates the story in the Old Testament of Abraham being prepared to sacrifice his son to God.

    The really scary thing about reading Dogster’s reports is the knowledge that later this year I am due to spend twenty three days cruising through India with him! All told I have spent over seven months in India, but I have never encountered anything like the adventures that Dogster seems to encounter daily. The nearest I have been to a riot was being in a Bar, when Pakistan beat India at Cricket.

    I think it likely that we will be flying into Calcutta on the same flight. I wonder will the Devil of Calcutta be meeting the plane? Will Dogster want to go off and see how Guru Bloody Mary is getting on? Will he want a companion?

    Ouch!

    Oh well that is still a few months off. We are off tomorrow to spend a few days in Kuching and are then cruising on the Rajang. A chance of encountering the odd head hunter I guess, but I’m sure there will be nothing to compare with a jilted Indian suitor!

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    I too have become addicted to your reports. The description of the scene at dinner on the aborted cruise is one of the funniest things I have ever read. Thank you for this.

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    WOWOWOWOW! I came across your travel journal, dogster, and what a wonderful gift you are, and it is.....now I just sit on my couch, computer in lap, and don't ever have to travel anywhere again. I too am an addict - I surrender - I am all yours Dogster, whether you want me or not:>:>

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    I can only echo the praise from others. Twice you have been "accused" and then denied being a writer dogster. Well I think I have you rumbled;I think you really are a famous writer and just enjoy being somewhat anonymous/infamous here. I bet we may all know you our local bookstores?
    Seriously,you need to get published. I want to read more and more and more and more and more.

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    Tangata - you are blessed to be spending that time with the Dogster! Oh if only I could travel with him in his back pocket or be a fly on his wall to experience all the wonders that await him at every turn. What a report!!!

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    Ah, dgunbug, it all fell apart. Tangata was banned from the boat for reasons that remain mysterious, dogster had leg repairs done and couldn't arrange a suitable palanquin for the cruise. So they never did travel the mighty Ganges together as planned. Dogster did go later and you can follow along on his joyous journey here:
    http://thedogster3.wordpress.com/20-death-on-the-ganges-front-page

    To sign up for Travels with Dogster, go here:
    http://www.fodors.com/community/asia/the-love-boat-175072-2.cfm

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    Wow. How amazing that this report has surfaced. Only two years old - it seems a lot longer. I've been back multiple times since then. Thanks dgunbug for resurrecting it. What a long strange trip it has been.

    www.thedogster.wordpress.com

    reveals all [rather better written that this first gush of amazement]. As dgunbug is about to discover, there are pictures, too.

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    Lol, Marija! I'm a walking pharmacy when I travel in Asia. Although the upset-stomach medicine I bought in Damascus last year actually worked better than my western antibiotic, so you never know.

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    I'm falling behind with the stories, I know. I'm not sure my lurch thru South India would be of any use, thurday - I was a crazy man.

    Just back from the Jayarvarman today. I stayed on another three days. The story is forming in what is left of my head.

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    They may have forgotten to release him from the brig until the ship sailed again, three days later. That explains why he didn't know where he was. Fat chance we'll be allowed on that boat.

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    Hi Dogster, you seem quite the India expert, so can I ask:

    Going to Kochi, Kerala in Nov. ... one concern for me is ensuring our hotel is rodent-free, as had unfortunate experience of seeing one in our room in Kandy, SL and therefore wary of places near lakes, lagoons, etc. (such as Kochi backwater lands!)

    Did you see or hear from other travelers anything about this in areas around Kochi (esp. around Lake Vembanad, Kottayam, Mararai Beach?)

    Thanks!

    Tara
    Please copy reply to: tmahtafar@gmail.com


    Thanks!

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