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Saturday, 29 May 2010

Day 25-31: Seven days

Apologies dear blog-followers for the recent lack in postings from your intrepid explorers, the right honourable members of the newly-expanded 365.

By way of an apology I had intended on re-writing the lyrics to that all-time classic by his royal respectness, Mr Craig David. But on closer inspection and much humming on a recent bus journey it turns out none of us know any of the verses and it seems that he of chin-strap facial hair fame only did four things in total in his 7 Days. Needless to say: yours truely have done much more.

After escaping the canine wrath of Agonda we indulged in some further beach chilling in Benaulim and then met up again with our Bollywood buddies, Rosie and Behnam, en route to Hampi.

If we were sad to leave Goa, and let us be honest, we were sad to leave Goa, all upset soon melted away as we rode into the stunning landscape in Hampi. No words can describe exactly how beautiful rolling hills of huge ocre boulders and magnificent temples look when the sun is setting, or rising, or indeed at anytime of the day.
Maybe less so when it's raining, and I mean raining...what we were assured was 'pre-monsoon' soaked us through on more than one occassion and took the liberty of taking much of our newly-washed clothing off the line outside our room one night. I didn't think I'd ever have a little Indian lady hand me back my knickers one morning, but I did. Which was nice.

Hampi is a peaceful place, a beautiful place, and we stayed here for a few days before crossing the river and staying in even more relaxed Viru Puddi Gaddi which came with the added benefit of beer and for the carnivores amongst us, meat; both of which are banned in Hampi because of its religious significance.

Then it was out of the hillside and into the big smoke as we made our way to bustling Bengaluru!

...I will try to add a photos as soon as possible for those keen to see some of what we have via Robs wonderful photography and those keen get jealous of our ever-darkening skin (sisters mdt-I'm talking to you)

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Day 24: Things that go bump in the night

A day late, but a tiny bit richer, we made it to gorgeous deserted Agonda Beach and the coco huts that were to be our home for the next two days.

Our shack was #3, a lovely one-room shack on stilts with a bed, a bathroom and a verranda with a hammock and two deck chairs. All in all about 13 square meters of joy.
This is a town in post-high season deconstruction. Literally. Huts that would not withstands the monsoon rains were being taken down around us, so apart from the odd bit of banging, we had the beach to ourselves.
It was great to pass the day swimming and snoozing and seeing no-one else. I'm not going to lie and suggest that the past (almost) month has been difficult but if one was lookin for total relaxation; here would be the place.

These were our thoughts as we lay in bed watching the purple sunset turn gold and feeling the soft sea breeze through the double doors as we drigted off to sleep.

A loud crash from the verranda woke us suddenly. It was pitch black in our shack with only a thin shard of light cast from the moon crossing the room.
I reached for Rob - we were both instantly alert and before we could speak we became acutely aware that we were no longer alone.

As I mentioned earlier, the shacks are built on stilts - this means that any steps onto or inside the shack reverbarated in a comforting groan on the stilts. Now however, in the dead of night, these rumblings were anything but comforting.
We lay in silence.
Then into the moonlight, just a meter from the bed, a shadow emerged. First the outline of a head, and then two feet. Moving accross the room towards our rucksacks our guest paused, as if he had felt our eyes on him. The air was still for surely neither Rob nor I had breathed since the shadow had crept along the floor in front of us.
The intruder stayed rigid. What would he do? How could we stop it? What should we do? Panic had taken hold but it seemed our visitor was perfectly relaxed. Turning slightly, causing the softest of creaking in the floorboards, he tuned, sat, drew his tail around his neck and lay, motionless.

It is true that Agonda Beach, like all of India, is full of stray dogs. We hadn't undertaken three rabies jabs for nothing. But in that moment, as we lay behind a thin mosquito net staring at the outline of a wild and potentially rabid animal - the fear was tangible.

If there was one, how many more? Had they entered already without knocking over a deckchair? Was our floor lined with sleeping canine landmines? Would we be attacked if we left the safety of the bed? Should we make noise to scare it or would this provoke it?
The lightswitch was on the otherside of the room by the open doors, out of reach, and Rob quickly became convinced that there was also another dog directly below him, under the bed.

At length we passed a bottle of water that was nearby along the floor against the one exposed side of the bed. It made it from one end to the other without htting any obstacles but our intruder started to growl in a low and menacing tone. Deep noises that I imagined passing through foamy lips and ino our room.
Again we lay still and nothing moved.
We spoke in whispers: should we just leave him there til daylight? No. Then Rob, and I am sure no braver thin has ever been done with a water bottle, stamped the container against the floor. The beast flinched, obviously put out by the clamour.
Again our hero thrust the bottle against the floor, again and again, until with a breif growl we saw the skinny shadow of the animal step out into the moonlight.
Now to the light switch.
We surveyed the damage. Nothing had changed. Our room was as if nothing had happened but our hearts were racing.

Even with the doors closed, the howls of the dogs stopped sleep for me that night and when the sun rose the bodies of three dogs lay in peaceful slumber on our verranda.

The saying goes that a dog is a man's best friend. Let me tell you: this has never been said by an Indian.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Day 23: Frankie goes to Hollywood

And we hope that Frankie had a lovely time, but we were in India - and we were going to Bollywood, baby.

In the first bit of paid work that Team 365 had done in a month: we'd secured ourselves the illustrious position of EXTRA on a Bollywood movie set.

That's right. And Golmaal, which will no double go straight to DVD in that cornershop down the road that you didn't realise even did DVD's may well contain the fleeting image of your favourite travelling twosome.

In reality the day was spent lazing on a private beach with some friends we'd made and had introduced us to the right Russian lady that was in a position to give such employment. We were served breakfast and lunch and then, just as the sun was setting and our hopes of stardom fading our extra skills were called upon! And so we walked up and down a faux road infront of a faux house while the stars sped past on scooters for about half a hour while camers rolled and a stuntman explained to us that he'd been in Slumdog Millionairre too.

And there it was: a hard days work and two crisp 500 Rupee notes each later, delirious with excitement, we toasted to our success and planned our onward journey.

Day 20&21: On the road again

Well it's been a while! Apologies for the gap between posts, readers, but truth be told we've been rather busy so I'm going to try and tell you a little bit about everthing.

Where did we leave you? Ah, yes, Baga - well we've been going further south to Palolem, which we'd heard was quiet and non-touristy but in fact was definitely not so after some more very pleasant beaching and eating we hit the road again - on scooters!
Needless to say - all of the driving was left to Rob.

On the first day we explored the Cotigoa Wildlife Reserve and got very lost, was very little life that was wild (they had a cool python, it was in an enclosure though) and some beautiful sights.
On bike day numeros dos we drove north to a town called 'Betul' (pronounces 'beatle', but only to us so we could sing "Back in the USSR" as we scooted along the highway) where the Lonely Planet (hereafter: LP) had told us a 'tin-tub ferry' crossed a pretty river to Cavelossim where pristine beaches lay. This was the LP's first error of the day.

The ferry (it was tin tub) actually left from Assolna - but driving to Betul and through the fishingport with all the bright boats, pungent smells and waving fisterman was a pleasure of a detour. We made our way on the free ferry and headed to Cavelossim beach which was, team 365 are sorry to report, is not pristine (LP error #2) We had a dip but it was nearing lunch so we hit the road south to Mobor (pronounced 'Mordoor' but only by us- much to the confusion of those we asked for directions, who apparently weren't well acquanted with the whereabouts of Middle Earth.) We were heading here because the LP had pronounced "The Blue Whale BeachShack" to have the most picturesque views in all of Goa.

Driving past all the 5* resorts we rounded the peninsular to see, finally, the sign we'd been looking for seemingly standing alone in the dunes. Dutifully we followed the arrow on the sign over the red hot sand to a deserted and downtrodden hut which sat by another sign informing us that this was "a gift to Goa: as recommended in the Lonely Planet..." Not quite. (LP error #3)

We stopped in Cavelossim for a long lunch and almost definitely outstayed our welcome trying to keep out of the sun. Back en route home we JUST made the ferry - actually driving on as it was departing and followed the coastal road back to Palolem.

First, however, we found Agonda. The beach we'd been looking for - no tourists, barely any locals, just miles of actually pristine sands. Here team 365 would like to note that we think we've got pretty good at spotting a hard-sell when we see one, but as we left our bags in an almost-closed looking restaurant and the man casually asked if we were looking for a hut: "oh no no no". That was fine - we could use one of his to change in: "really? oh, that'd be great..." we approached a line of beautiful doll-houses of stilts "sure - use the shower, leave your stuff, however long you like". We were hooked. "Why don't we live here?" Shortly after we agreed to stay for two nights in two days time. Best. Sell-in. Ever.

Before heading back to Palolem we made another LP-inspired detour to Patnem, in search of "the best coffee and brownies in Goa" at a place called Home. Unfortunately another sign but a closed venue. Which begs the question: why not take the sign down when you close? Either way, we had a drink on the beach and watched the sunset.

We drove back to Palolem and ended up watching the cricket with some friends we'd made in Baga and getting quite drunk on 2for1 cocktails before, absolutely shattered, going to bed.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Day 16: Spice up your life

When we rose early on Sunday 9 May, neither Rob or I had really known what to expect. What followed was a series of amazing events proving that we are not only the happiest 365ers in town - but also the luckiest.

We were going on a drunkely-arranged trip to Mass in Old Goa with Peggie and Jihan. That was all we knew.

The Church of Bom Jesus, as well as holding Mass every Sunday, also holds the glass coffin of St Francis Xavier - the patron saint of Goa - and, miraculously his in-tact corpse a mere 462 years after his death.
As a child, Peggie had visited this church at the annual festival of the Feast, in a time when the coffin laid open and had touched the saint. The coffin had remained open until, about 30 years ago, when an over-zealous believer had bitten the toe of the body and, apparently, the wound had bled. After attending Mass (unfortunatly all in Hindi but beautiful none the less) we saw the saints coffin and a lovely, if bizaarely surrealist, set of paintings depicting his life.

Our trip continued and we headed to a stunning temple which, embarrassingly, now neither Rob or I can remember the name of. But please let me assure you that it was indeed a thing of beauty.

We then headed to Sahakari Spice Farm; which did exactly what it said on the tin...and some. We were greeted by four girls performing a Goan dance, a garland of flowers, a cup of lemongrass and ginger tea and home-grown cashews. Our tour guide introduced herself and we headed off round the luscious green farm being shown all the spices and plants that were grown there. The tour ended with the 'traditional' cooling practice of ladelling cold water down everyones backs. Then the buffet lunches to end all buffet lunches began!

Well fed and feeling suitably knoweldgable we drove around to the other side of the farm which has, not spices, but elephants! Three beautiful elephants which we were lucky enough to be able to admire, feed, stroke and even kiss (photos to follow: there's some absolute winners). I think I have probably seen an elephant in a zoo before, but to be standing next to one, just after it had had a wash and to touch it's rough skin and look into it's tiny and peaceful eyes was really a magical experience.

And so we headed back to Baga, giddy with excitement and eternally thankful to the days wonderful hosts; Peggie and Jihan without whom none of these experiences would have been possible.

Day 14: P A R T Y? the infamous words of Billie Piper: because we want to, because we want to.

And party we did - but the sight of russian girls dancing on tables with a mixture of sunburnt tourists and professional local gawkers looking on in a club that resembeled a great glass elevator was not the best thing to come out of our night out in Baga.

Let me start at the beginning: after arriving and checking in at our lovely seafront hostel we heading to the beach to watch the cricket (that's right readers; thanks to the T20 I am now an avid fan) since India were playing. To get further into the spirit of things we first decided to order Goan's very own liqour Fenny (pronounced feee-nny), available in the inviting coconut or cashew variety. We opted for coconut and were greeted with a large measure of, honestly, one of the worst smelling things I have ever smelt (this from someone who hasn't washed a single of item of clothing since the trip began.) We washed it down with dinner and as India lost we made our way to Tito's - a street of bars and clubs owned by Mr. PartyKingofGoa, apparently.

In a bar we got talking to an amazing ex-Mumbian, now Canadian, mother and daughter duo Peggie and Jihan - who would have guessed Jenga could have been the start of something? Well it was! And after some competitive play we hit the club - yes with a mum, coolest mum ever? (don't worry els, trish - you're still right up there) and danced the night away to some seriously average hip hop. Well, you can't have everything.

Happy to have got our party on we exchanged email addresses and, with talk of a day trip on Sunday, we said our goodbyes and headed back over the river and by the sea to bed.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Day 13: Oh what a perfect day

There was a time in my life when I would have argued that a beach without sand was not a proper beach. Croatia changed this pebble prejudice.
Equally so, there would have been a time when I would have argued that the sea was enough water on a beach. Mandrem and Arambol have now changed this too.

After a few days of beautiful sunsets, amazing food (I found humus and Rob's bid at vegetarianism was well and truely demolished by the local speciality: sea food) and, disappointingly,"nights out" that were closed down and the music switched off at 10:30pm in Anjuna. Team 365 decided to hire a bike and explore further north in Goa. Yes, I said bike, one with a motor.

Now followers of 2005's Chronicles of Australia will know that those with two wheels and an engine have not always been a friend of mine, but this time I had brought my diver, sorry, I mean boyfriend.

So with Rob firmly at the reigns and a speedometer fixed firmly at zero (this didn't change throughout the day despite some definite acceleration) we headed off early on our scooter.

Mandrem beach, of the whitest sands and leaning palm trees, lies between the sea on one side and a gently flowing river on the other that we were lucky enough to have had almost to ourselves.

We paddled in the shallows - of the river and the sea - where one began and the other stopped was fantastically difficult to tell, before getting back on the scooter - this time with me driving - to further our adventure.

And, let us be honest, I was never going to come off a bike compleletely unscathed. But in a moment of small road meets large truck and the emergency stop that followed I feel pretty pleased with only having lost the skin from the top of my big toe.

Anyway. Onwards and upwards. Literally. Arambol was a much more lively town and we were advised to head round the cliffs to a "sweet water lake" - and sweet it was.
Who would have thought that a lake on a beach was a good idea? Certainly not us, but converted we are and so after a refreshing - and disctintly not salty dip - we paused for a moments reflection on what a beautiful place we were and how lucky we were to be on this trip.

Before the sun set we rode over hills and along rivers through winding roads home to Peace Lands, our lovely hotel, before realising we had lost our room key and a man had to literally saw off the padlock so we could enter. That's karma for you.

All in all - our best day yet. (quick check with Rob that it was fair to say....yes, "agreed")

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Day 9&10: On a midnight train going...

well; nowhere, for a long time actually.

After much delay and sleeping on the platform our train to Vasco da Gama, Goa due to depart at 12:30 actually arrived at 3:19 and after usurping some sleeping men from our bunks we slept through the mobile phones that rang or played music (honestly; the 134 to Camden has nothing on the Indians) and the cries of the venders.

My favourite is what can only be described at beginning with "chai" and then sounding much like "hullabaloo", but with 15 extra syllables. This is shouted repeatedly and without pausing for breath imbetween calls, even when a chai is being bought.

After the shakey start to the trip we actually became - and I don't think I'm going too far when I say this - good friends with our travel companions which included the best old man. Ever.

All dressed in white, he lounged proped up by pillows with ghandi-esque glasses and a magnifying glass reading the newspaper that could not have been more than 4cm from his face. We exchanged riddles and discussed English literature - he liked poetry and prose and happily quoted Shakespear and Wordsworth.
Then I left Rob's copy of the Motley Crue's biography 'The Dirt' on my seat and he read a bit of that through his magnifying glass too. It is a sight that I shall never forget.

Team 365 were in transit for (yes we calculated it) just over 46.5 hours from the Bandvangarh National Park to Anjuna Beach in Goa - and actually, we met some great people and even (dare I say it) had fun. Now the 'holiday' leg of the trip begins.

Day 8&9: Eye of the tiger

After much delay in exiting Varanasi, we arrived at the Bandvangarh National Park at a sleepy 2am and took the long and bumpy road to our wonderful residence, The Kum Kum House (pronounced 'kom kom', actually) and agreed to take the early morning safari leaving in, at that point, 2 hours.

We did not make this safari.

But we did get to - perhaps for the first time on this trip - relax. Barely any cars, no horns, nothing to was bliss. Actually the manager of the Kum Kum House turned out to be something of a hero and showed us round to his mates' pool (a very luxury resort next door to ours) where we had the pool to ourselves!

We set off in hunt of the tigers that this area is famed for bright and early the following morning. Realistically what this entailed was getting in a jeep and hunting for one of 65 needles in a 11,000 squared km of haystack - make that one well camouflaged, naturally shy, solitary needle in a haystack of cliffs and grass planes and watering holes.
The odds were not with us - but almost as soon as we entered there one was! I suspect that only in India could a traffic jam form in a national park but every jeep and telephoto lense was focused on the sand bank of a stream as Japanese tourists squealed through their dust masks with delight.

As well as a snoozing tiger we saw elephants, white spotted deer, alot of cheeky monkeys, peacocks, wild boar, vultures, samba deer, king fishers and - my favourite - the red-bottomed monkey as well as some spectacular views.

All in all another 365 success! We lunched with a great couple that had checked in while we were away, picking up some good hints and tips and prepared ourselves for the scheduled taxi to Umaria train station, train from Umaria to Katni, 7 hour wait for the 36 train from Katni to Goa...

Day 6: Take me to the river

Continuing our voyage east from Agra, we arrived in Varanasi after a typically Indian train journey - delayed, hot, busy and at one point so dusty I couldn't open my eyes. The quintessential India that we are looking for could not have been more apparent in transit to Varanasi. We hoped for an equally honest portrayal of life from the destination itself and as one of the holiest places in the sub continent we thought we'd be able to learn a lot about a completely new way of life. It turns out that on this occasion the 'real' India is harder to come by and less obvious than the rail networks into it.

The place seems to be surrounded by a tourism created force-field that makes it very difficult to discover the true culture of Varanasi. It soon appeared that is near impossible to talk to locals and find out a bit more about the heart and soul of the place as they'll quickly ignore your questions and inquisitive nature by just trying to sell you something. And they try really hard, trust me.

Don't get me wrong, this place is beautiful. We took a pre-sunrise boat trip down the Ganges, explored the ghats and the town, had a seriously special moment witnessing a cremation and took back many great memories. And when the survival of the locals pretty much depends on westerns like us coming to visit with more money than most Indians can imagine, you can't get angry or annoyed when they try and sell you a postcard. Perhaps this is the quintessential India we are looking for, just a 21st century version of it.