Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Seeing More of Incredible India: Goa, Hampi and Mumbai

Let the Train Take the Strain

We have just got back from our winter break, and were lucky enough to be able to visit Goa, Hampi and Mumbai (formerly Bombay). Because of Kirsten's condition (she is heavy with child), we were unable to fly, so we let the train take the strain.

As I have mentioned before, the Indian railway system is highly impressive, transporting 25 million passengers a day in 2012, which equates to 9 billion people a year! It covers the whole of India and has 7,500 stations and 40,000 miles of track. It is apparently the ninth biggest employer in the world with 1.4 million employees just behind the People's Liberation Army in China and McDonalds. Unfortunately its safety record is not brilliant, and there were two fatal fires on trains in recent weeks, but by and large it works very efficiently. It's also a great way to see India.

Being a train geek, I was delighted to have to spend two days travelling down to Goa. Our second train from Delhi to Goa, the Radjhani Express, took 26 hours, and in total the distance of our journey there was the equivalent of transversing the length of England and Scotland twice! The ultimate destination of this train was Trivandrum, which takes about two days and two nights!

The trains are comfortable in the air conditioned second class carriages which we travelled. However, the majority of people travel third class, and hundreds of people cram into carriages for these long journeys (these days sitting on the roof is banned). I don't think I'd last two minutes in there!

I also went on the suburban rail system in Mumbai which is very efficient and well-used, see photos below.

On the suburban service in Mumbai         TAMARA PHILIP
The Rajdhani Express which took us to Goa


We spent a couple of weeks in Goa which I suppose you could say is India's Costa del Sol, but thankfully not full of English tourists getting drunk on stag weekends. It is very popular with Russians now, with many signs in bars and restaurants in Russian, and some local waiters even speaking the lingo!

It's India's smallest state and very chilled out, and its beaches are lovely. It still retains its Portuguese influence, as Goa was a Portuguese province for about 450 years until it was annexed by India in 1961. You can see clues of this former history with Indian-Portuguese names such as Dr Varun Carvalho (sign spotted in the town of Margao), and the design of the houses which have a definite Iberian feel. The historic churches in Old Goa also highlight the Roman Catholicism inherited from the European invaders.

Another great thing about Goa is the food! The fresh fish is delicious, and we enjoyed browsing around the fish markets in Margao for freshly caught delicacies for our supper!

A Portuguese-influenced villa in Goa


After Goa we spent a couple of days in Hampi, a ten hour bus ride from Goa in the neighbouring state of Karnataka (relatively close in Indian terms!). Hampi is one of the most extraordinary places I've ever visited in India, and reminded me of Pompeii set among boulders.

Formerly called Vijayanagar, it is the ruins of a kingdom from the 14th century, with many temples, elephant stables and a plethora of other amazing buildings remaining, some in very good condition. What makes it more remarkable is the natural geographical setting among incredible boulders. It almost seems like you're on a different planet at times.

The scale of the remains is impressive, there were large areas of the site we did not get to see. A river also runs through the ruins, and one morning we were able to cycle up to a beautiful waterhole for a refreshing dip from the scorching sun.

I would say Hampi is a must-visit for anyone going to southern India.

A ruined temple at Hampi with ornate carvings on pillars
On the moon: Boulders at Hampi
Having a dip in a waterhole at Hampi
The Hampi crew: L-R: Jonny, Abner, Ed, Tim and Christina
More beautiful carvings on a wall
The Elephant Stables at Hampi
Another ruin from above

Mumbai (Bombay)

Finally we wound up in Mumbai, India's financial and cultural capital. The city has a real European feel, and many of the old buildings in south Mumbai are impressive, particularly the fantastic colonial era Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus) railway station, one of my favourite buildings in India, a UNESCO world heritage site. And yes there are Routemaster type red buses in Mumbai (see photo below)!

Just like London: Red bus at Chhatrapatai Shivaji Terminus

Like everywhere in India the sharp divide between rich and poor is clear to see. When you visit the Gateway of India, next to the sumptuous Taj Mahal hotel (scene of the awful terrorist attack in 2008), you are approached by street children begging. And as you drive to some of the more swanky parts of the city, you pass by many slum areas (blockbuster film Slumdog Millionaire was set here).

I went out to see the Elephanta Caves situated on an island just off Mumbai, which contain statues of Hindu gods in caves hewn out from the rock, dating from the 7th century. The day I went was a cold one by Mumbai standards (the newspaper said they were "shivering in temperatures of just 13 degrees"). It was a foggy day with a bit of drizzle, but I still boarded the boat to the island hopeful we would make it within the hour we were told it would take.

About half an hour in and limited visiblity, it turned out the boat driver (skipper?) was lost and had been going round in circles. Unfortunately he did not have a GPS, radio, or any other sort of navigational aid to help him find our destination. Thankfully a group of Danish tourists on our boat had GPS on their phone, and were able to point him in the right direction, and we finally arrived about 40 minutes late. Not sure that boat operator would pass health and safety regulations in the UK, but chalta hai, this is India!
India Gateway in the rain
The GPS-less boat to Elephanta Island
Statue at Elephanta Island

Time to Get Back in the Kitchen!

We were forced to partake in an activity that has become completely alien to us in the last couple of years - cooking! It's fair to say that baking, roasting and frying have become somewhat foreign concepts for us - largely because we have a cook!

Some of you may at this point be falling out of your chair thinking we are a couple of neo-colonialists harping back to the time of the Raj. However, having an ayah (maid) or cook is actually very common in India. It's win-win situation for employer and employee. We provide work for Vimla our outstanding and hardworking ayah, and in return she is able to supplement her family's income and pay for her grandchildren's schooling. I sometimes think if we had a similar system in the UK there would be fewer people on the dole.

So it was something of a blow when Vimla announced last month she was going to Delhi for a week for a wedding. Shamefully, we resorted to takeaway most of that week, highlighting how much we rely on Vimla. We really need to start doing some cooking again, otherwise we're in for a shock to the system when we leave India!

Christmas video

We made this video for our family for Christmas, and it gives a snapshot of our life here in Mussoorie. You can watch it here: