Home  Blog  Travel  Party  Free software  Writings  About me  Contact

Arto's Blog

Pages: 1 ... 18 19 20 ...21 ... 23 ...25 ...26 27 28 ... 30

Mumbai, city of contrasts

Posted: 2007-03-06 15:23:02, Categories: Travel, India, 581 words (permalink)

A view of the Walkeshwar temple area in Mumbai. Mumbai, also known as Bombay, showed itself to me as a city of contrasts. It had a touch of British glamour from the 19th century and modern highrise buildings, but also large slums spreading haphazardly in every direction. The local commuter trains were the most packed I've seen anywhere but it took only a short boat ride and a few steps away from the beaten path to escape the city and be alone inside a forest.

A walk through the Fort district clearly showed that Mumbai was an important city under the British rule. The Victoria station, main post office, public works office, high court and other buildings in the area were constructed during the 19th century in grandiose style. A few details such as double decker buses still remainded of Britain, but otherwise the atmosphere was very much Indian: the mix of small shops, street vendors and beggars told loudly that it wasn't Europe no matter what the buildings looked like.

I stayed in Mumbai with Gaurav, another Indian friend from my INSA year in France. He lived 20 km north from the center and a ride there showed the more recent development of the city. The road went through vast areas of slum dwellings, dotted with islands of modern highrise buildings. Construction companies are actually making big money from these so called slum rehabilitation projects, where they get valuable land in exchange for arranging housing to the people whose homes are bulldozed away. The constructors proceed by building high towers containing dozens or even hundreds of apartments each and arrange them around a western style shopping area. Security guards sit at the gates watching that outsiders don't come in.

Gaurav lived in one of these newly developed areas which are housing increasingly larger numbers of Indians. Many of them are singles or young couples who have moved away from their parents' house and are working for multinational companies. They do long days in the office and spend free time in the shopping malls, which try to mimic their American and European counterparts in almost every way. One particular difference which still tells it's India is the smaller number of household appliances in the apartments — it's cheaper to hire a maid to do cleaning, laundry and dishes than to buy machines for those tasks. Gaurav told that the daily maid service for him and his two flatmates was 1500 rupees per month, less than ten euros per person.

A completely different and very enjoyable experience in Mumbai was a day trip to the Elephanta Island. Boats to the island leave from the city center and take about one hour to reach the destination. The island is famous for caves which were carved some 1200 years ago and used as temples. The Hindu sculptures in the caves were impressive, but there was also a less known side of the island. It didn't take many steps away from the main walkway to be inside the surrounding forest without anybody else around. I walked a couple of kilometers around the western half of the island, partly along the shore and partly following a small path going through the bushes. Some of the trees with lianes were quite impressive.

After Mumbai I resumed cycling and rode about 150 kilometers east to Pune. On the way I saw some more temple caves in Karla and crossed a small mountain range. In Rajasthan it was quite flat but from here onwards there'll be more hills and small mountains ahead.

India from the back seat of a white Hindustan Ambassador

Posted: 2007-02-26 19:45:29, Categories: Travel, India, 785 words (permalink)

My car and driver in Kota, in front of Circuit House. In Bundi I decided to take a train 700 km up north to meet Ankur Garg, an old friend who was exchange student in France at the same time than me. Ankur had mentioned in an email that he now had a senior position in the government, but I didn't pay too much attention to that. However, soon it became clear that in addition to meeting a friend I would be treated to a whole new kind of experience in India.

The adventure started already in Kota, a medium-sized city in Rajasthan, conveniently located along the main western railway line and near Bundi. Ankur Garg had arranged that I could leave my bicycle there. I got his friend's phone number, and upon calling was asked to ride to the Circuit House, which turned out to be an old palace converted to a government guest house. I was guided to a room where I could take a shower and rest before my train would leave; I had a ticket to an overnight train the same evening.

Later in the evening my bicycle and part of my luggage was transferred to Ankur's friend's garage. When it came time to leave, I had a car and driver waiting to take me to the railway station. As most of the goverment cars, it was a white Hindustan Ambassador, shown in the picture in front of the guesthouse. An observant reader may note that it also has a red light on the roof, indicating a VIP car.

When arriving to Chandigarh it got even better. Now there was not only a similar white car and driver but also a man in police uniform who would escort me to the car. We drove to the government guesthouse of Chandigarh, occasionally using the blue lights and siren when normal honking of the horn wouldn't be enough to make clearance. At the guesthouse I was led to a two room suite, guided how to use the room service and introduced to my personal servant...

Oh yes, then I finally met my friend Ankur and his wife Swati, who had both been busy first at work and then meeting some relatives. We could compare how different paths our lifes had led us to since the time together at INSA in France. While I had continued with computer science, Ankur had abandoned electronics after graduation and taken a series of exams to be selected as an officer in the Indian Administrative Service, IAS. There he had met his wife, who was also an IAS officer.

Almost half a million people try the first IAS exam every year, and after three rounds of selection including additional exams and an interview 35 of the candidates are chosen. They go through two years of hard training and after that are appointed to be in charge of various goverment offices across the country, a couple of years at a time, and later high level government functions in the capital. The salary is a decade lower than the same people would earn in the private sector, but benefits, respected position in the society and a network of IAS friends around the country more than make up for it.

After the overwhelming experience of being a government guest we spent some nice time together without the official side, including a relaxing weekend at Ankur's parents' home in Patiala, some 50 kilometers from Chandigarh. There we sat out in the garden enjoying the sun and cracked jokes around the dining table. We were also just in time for the Patiala Heritage festival so I got a chance to hear some Indian classical music. In Chandigarh I must mention the fantastic Rock Garden, an art park constructed entirely from rocks, stones and various kinds of waste material.

After Chandigarh I took a train back to Kota via Delhi, picked up my bicycle and boarded another train further south to Mumbai. Getting the bicycle transported was quite a lot of hassle, but it eventually arrived 12 hours after me in another train with minimal damage. Sleeper class for overnight trains was exceptionally good value, by the way. Indian Railways manages to pack 72 passengers in one wagon while still giving everyone a comfortable place to sleep. As an example, 450 kilometers from Delhi to Kota cost only 204 rupees (about 3.5 euros). For Kota-Mumbai I took 3A class, which cost almost triple compared to sleeper, but only noticeable differences were air conditioning, curtains for the windows and provided bedsheets/blankets (in sleeper class you need to bring your own). Perhaps worthwhile during hot summer season, but in winter I'd advice either traveling in sleeper class or splurging for first class, which should offer real additional comfort — haven't personally tried that yet.

Watching monkeys in Ranthambhore and Bundi

Posted: 2007-02-18 08:11:42, Categories: Travel, India, 697 words (permalink)

A man feeding monkeys in Bundi. After Jaipur I rode 160 km in two days to Ranthambhore, a national park famous for its tigers. The only way to access the park (at least the only officially permitted way...) was in a jeep or an openroofed bus called Canter, so I also booked a three hour safari in one of them. Unfortunately the tigers didn't show up that time, the most we saw of them were pawprints in the sand. Similarly to Sariska, deer, peacocks and monkeys dominated the fauna, with the addition of a few antilopes. The landscape was also beautiful featuring hills, rocks and ancient trees. Just outside the park entrance it was possible to climb on top one of the hills to explore fort ruins and visit temples. It was interesting to follow the monkeys climbing in the trees, eating fruit and taking care of their babies. You had to be careful though, as they were not afraid of people and could come to grab food and other items even from your hands or from bags.

About 120 km west of Ranthambhore lies a town called Bundi, where I stayed for six days. Along with Alwar and Sariska it became one of my favorite places in India during this trip. Pittoresque old houses lined the narrow streets of the old town and surrounding hills offered places to enjoy great views in solitude. The town was touristic enough to offer a range of guesthouses, restaurants and Internet cafes to choose from, but shop owners and others offering their services were less pushy and generally friendlier than those in the more frequented places like Delhi, Jaipur or Agra.

Perhaps the most well known attraction of Bundi is the Garh Palace, which looked great from the outside and had beautiful wall paintings inside. Up from the palace on top of the hills were fort ruins which were much less maintained: one had to occasionally go through bushes or climb small walls to get the best views. At the fort, tourists were few but monkeys numerous and sometimes protective of their territory. I picked up a stick from the ground to be able to fight back in case of an attack, fortunately I didn't have to use it.

Back down in the old town it was fun to take peeks into the narrow alleys which started from the main street. Most of them were dead ends but had interesting views of the old houses. The only clearly unpleasant thing was the lack of a proper sewage system. Many houses released dirty water and flushed toilets directly to open ditches which carried the waste slowly downhill by the streetsides.

I rarely mention any particular hotels by name but in Bundi I can warmly recommend the Hadee Rani guesthouse, which was everything a guesthouse should be. It was a 350-year old haveli, a typical old house, but had been renovated and opened as a guesthouse less than a year ago. The whole place was beautifully painted and decorated in hindu style, there was a personal touch to every room and even the smallest one had a sympathetic mini temple in the corner. You could climb on the roof terrace to have a view towards the hills or to watch stars during the night. The family running the place cooked great food and was generally nice and helpful, ready to engage in conversations but also understood privacy, which is not always the case in India. I just hope they'll continue the same way also after the place gets included in popular guidebooks. ;-)

I would have probably stayed in Bundi still longer but two things drove me away: the family of Hadee Rani left for a marriage party in another city closing the guesthouse (I moved to another which wasn't so good), and more importantly I had a chat with an old friend who was an exchange student in France at the same time than me. A short moment of planning, a call to confirm that the timing was suitable, and I booked a ticket to travel 700 kilometers by train to meet him. It has been again a different and fascinating experience, but I'll save that for the next time.

Mixed feelings in Jaipur

Posted: 2007-02-05 09:45:31, Categories: Travel, India, 656 words (permalink)

View over Jaipur from the Nahargarh fort. I spent four and a half days in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, and left the city with mixed feelings. It's a big and busy city but certainly more pleasant to walk around than Delhi, has forts and temples on the hills around the city offering great views and becomes full of positive energy at the time of a good festival. I had the chance of encountering there my first fellow bicycle travelers in India, a couple from Switzerland and a guy from Andorra. On the other hand, Jaipur is also a city where the jewerly mafia is having fun in nightclubs while homeless children are begging for food on the streets.

My favourite place in Jaipur was the Nahargarh fort, situated on top of a hill in the northern part of the city. It was high enough to escape the noise and dust but you coild still hear how the city hums below while admiring the view over the rooftops. The ruins of the fort and the more recent palace section were also worth exploring and not packed with tourists.

The Valley of the Monkeys with several temples in the east had an equally attractive location in a valley just behind a small hill range. However, it was already too popular with visitors and had become a money-making exercise. It's customary to make small donations in temples and I also do so fairly often, but when priests start requesting larger sums just after I've put in a small note it doesn't make me feel good.

Third monument worth visiting was Jantar Mantar, an ancient observatory in the city center built during the first half of 18th century. Many of the instruments were for measuring star movements and the exact method of how to interpret the readings was not obvious, but they were beautiful! It was fascinating to see a marble sundial large enough to reach the precision of seconds rather than minutes.

My best experience in Jaipur was participating in the Muharram festival. It's a muslim festival commemorating the date prophet Mohammed's grandson died. Jaipur has a large population of muslims and many hindus are flexible enough in their habits to join the celebration too, so it filled the streets with great vigor. Although the festival was modeled to commemorate a funeral, on the street it looked like a fairly joyful event. Several hundred handmade floats were carried through the center to be disassembled and put to big holes in the ground beside the main mosque at the outskirts of the city. Groups of drummers accompanied the floats stopping in front of spectators to show their best talent and collect some tips on the way. Again foreigners were warmly welcomed: we (I was with two Canadians that day) were invited to the doorsteps of a shop for the best view and offered a chance to participate in the drumming too.

The less pleasant face of Jaipur was that it was hard to tell whom you could trust there. In two separate cases probably by two completely separate groups a friendly encounter of a local led after some time to shady business suggestions being made to either me or to my friend. Bumping to the same people again on the street after cutting contacts made me want to get out of the city as soon as possible.

Events like this make you think how easily and what kind of personal information you give to strangers on the street and in the Internet. About one month ago I read an article warning about divulging too much private information (focusing on social networking websites) and the fairly different Slashdot response where several readers argued that the young Internet generation knows and lives with it, pointing out also positive aspects. While I've been personally fairly open and would like to keep it that way I also strongly support the right to privacy for those who choose a different approach.

Keeping up with the news

Posted: 2007-02-05 09:29:56, Categories: Travel, General, India, Free software, Politics, 303 words (permalink)

People often ask me how I keep up with the world news while traveling. The short and honest answer is that I don't keep up very well at all. :) Occasionally I do check out a newspaper or some websites, and my folks at home inform me if something really groundbreaking happens, at least if it is related to the area where I'm traveling in. Friends sometimes tell by email what has happened to them lately and it's always nice to read those mails.

For the traveler who likes to keep up to date, India is one of the easier places. Good quality English language newspapers are readily available, sometimes also in restaurants or hotels avoiding the need to buy the paper yourself. I discovered that the editorials and opinions page of the Times of India is particularly interesting. The articles are also available on the web so I'll share two good pieces with you. One of them is about urbanisation and overpopulation while the other takes on the state of science in India:

I currently don't have a source of general news which I'd check regularly. Browsing the sites of major newspapers would be too time consuming because I'm not connected to the Internet daily and would have to go back several issues each time to get the full news flow. A weekly summary delivered by email would be optimal, suggestions are welcome. I'm still passionate enough about Free software to read the weekly issues of Linux Weekly News, and for some reason I find it fun to read the Ask the Headhunter newsletters although I'm not currently searching for a job. Otherwise my search for information in the net is usually reduced to current practical needs such as visa information and weather forecasts from the Weather Underground.

1 ... 18 19 20 ...21 ... 23 ...25 ...26 27 28 ... 30

Creative Commons License
Copyright Arto Teräs <ajt@iki.fi>, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
(Unless otherwise mentioned in individual photos or other content.)