DREAMING IN DIU

img_6189And again, for something completely different… Hearing conflicting reports, we decided to pay a visit to Diu, a tiny coastal island, formerly a Portuguese colony and held by Portugal as a protectorate until 1961 when India lobbed a shell at them and they belatedly joined India. It still has special status however, like Daman further down the coast, and the much better known Goa.

This special status allows it to be a tiny “wet” area in the midst of the very “dry” state of Gujarat. Therefore we had heard it to be full of drunken Gujaratis on weekends, roaming the beach at Nagoa and generally making nuisances of themselves. An unfortunate side effect of prohibition, I guess. However the lure of fresh sea food, cold beer, and a holiday from the “pure veg” breakfast regime was too much to resist so we made our visit during the week.

IMG_6270.JPGOf the many notable and extremely pleasant things about Diu, the first to strike us was the cleanliness of the streets. They have instituted a ban on plastic bags and have encouraged restaurants and hotels to put in water purification plants to stem the flood of plastic bottles. That plus putting up garbage bins in public spaces and discouraging litter has had an astonishing effect on the place.

IMG_6280.JPGSecond the food is so good, especially after 5 weeks of the Indian diet, a good deal of that time in pure veg places. Pure veg doesn’t just mean no meat, it means no eggs or dairy either. Breakfast is particularly brutal for those who can barely cope with the level of spice in lunch and dinner. And did I mention the cold beer? Any kind of alcohol actually, though your correspondents stuck to the beer.

We stayed at a cute guesthouse out of the town itself beside Nagoa Beach. As Indian beaches go, Nagoa is pretty clean, but not really what foreign tourists have in mind when visualizing a beach. However very good for walking, people watching, and relaxing which we appreciated after 5 weeks of travel.

IMG_6264.JPGIt was easy for us to take a tuk tuk from the guesthouse each morning for a ramble in the charming streets of the town. There are a couple of lovely old churches, one called St Paul’s, reputed to have the best church facade in India, though spare and minimalist inside with an all white interior embellished with shell designs at the roof. Very peaceful and much in use.

IMG_6240.JPGThe fort is very old, dating from the mid 1500’s and fun to ramble over. The views over the ocean with fishing boats and bigger wooden boats plying the water are lovely. Lots of Indian tourists, and as usual, no foreign ones. We are having to harden our hearts to the cries of: “Selfie, selfie eck (one) eck” especially with school groups as it soon becomes a mob scene.

Strolling through the usual market at the quayside as always provided endless fodder for the photographer. Some good examples of the body tattoos that women sport were recorded along with the vibrant hues of the produce. An interesting melange of fish boats tied up at the quay which we enjoyed watching from an overhanging restaurant we lunched at.

IMG_6260.JPGWe loved the streets, relatively quiet for India, though one still has to be constantly vigilant to the wildly careering scooters and motorbikes. The architecture was really attractive, sort of Portuguese influenced haveli style with ornately carved verandahs. One, where the family still lives upstairs and runs a business downstairs, has been gorgeously restored. How I wished for a tour! IMG_6302.JPGThe others range from partly restored, to decaying, to decrepit but are charming nevertheless. We loved our daily ramble through the backstreets. It was so nice to be surrounded by ocean, we always seemed to turn a corner and see the sea waiting for us.

IMG_6352.JPGOne day we took a tuk tuk in the opposite direction to a small fishing village at the other tip of the island. Huge fishing boats were pulled up on the quay for repairs and refurbishment, quite the sight to see a crane hoist one up, while a gaggle of young men steadied its dangling passage to a spot where more young men were hastily piling random bits of wood to hold it steady for the work to take place. It appeared to be the most perilous of operations, and the ship balanced on piles of scrap lumber to be so prone to topple, but this is India, they’ve done this before, and most people have survived…

IMG_6399.JPGSkipping through the piles of fish detritus — had to wash our Tevas again after this outing — we wandered through the twisting web of tiny streets, blissfully too narrow for vehicles, enjoying tiny views of the lives of these villagers who, as usual, were fascinated by our novel appearance and eager to be friendly, their only English phrases being: “What is your good name?” And “From what country are you?”

The happy crew of young men running our guesthouse grew to love us, as always happens when you stay 5 nights, and we loved their food. We felt relaxed and ready for the last leg of Gujarat when we sadly waved them good bye. Next stop, Bhavnagar where we are going mainly to climb 3300 steps to the massive Jain temple complex at the top. I have been in training for this ever since we left home, with my trusty cane in hand I am going to give it my best effort!

PUJAING IN SOMNATH

img_6151Down the road again for a one night stop in Somnath to view yet another great pilgrimage site before heading on to Diu. How many noteworthy temples are there in India? Do not even ask! As we rolled into town we passed a harbour crammed with fishing boats, seemingly moored in a roiling brew of blood and fish guts. The boats were an arresting sight, but could not compete with the overwhelming odour of the place.IMG_6128.JPG

Somnath about whose founding a mythical story is told of it being rebuilt 3 times, first in gold, then in silver, then in wood, was first mentioned by an Arab traveller in 1026 and described in such glowing terms that Mahmoud of Ghazni a legendary looter was inspired to sack the place and murder thousands of its adherents. That was just the first of such sackings, every time the place was rebuilt, someone blew through and tore it down. Finally after 200 years in ruins, the present reconstruction began in 1950 and so far it continues with no further challenges.

It is a lovely temple both outside and in, with its intricate carvings and motifs from three major religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. The resident deity is Shiva, seen as both the destroyer and paradoxically the renewer of life. Shiva is represented by a lingam, a penis like object, which in this case is huge and black with two eye like projections on the front. Wherever one finds a lingam, a yoni representing the female genitalia is nearby. Shiva’s vehicle is Nandi, the bull, and a half life size statue graces the inner temple area. Other gods are represented in niches in the walls — Ganesh, Hanuman, Laxmi, to name a few well known ones.

Unfortunately for amateur photographers, cameras and cell phones are not allowed inside the temple. In fact you have to deposit your bags in a lock up far from the entrance to the temple, then remove shoes and deposit them in another check room. Then, through separate male and female gates, visitors enter a security area with a metal detector like the airlines have, and are physically patted down to ensure compliance with the rules. Tough luck for the photographer!

IMG_6141.JPGWe got dropped off by our tuk tuk near the gate but decided to wander in the winding back streets of tiny Somnath before entering the temple. There Doug could photograph other small temples and shrines, and we enjoyed the relative calm of the tiny streets without tuk tuks and cars — though no one excludes the ubiquitous motor bikes.

 

Somnath is on the sea’s edge and to access the beach one wanders through a carnival like melange of small shops and vendors, including a tattoo artist who was inking people as they sat on the filthy path, using an electric needle plugged in by an extension cord to a light fixture. I watched as one young woman had hers finished and rinsed off, then he turned to the next customer with nary a swipe at his used needle. A lot of the tribal women here are covered with tiny spidery tattoos on their arms from shoulder to wrist, and sometimes on neck and shoulders. These are not pictures such as we are used to, but symbols done in black ink. Many of them look like fish skeletons or insects, this young woman seemed to have chosen a scorpion. I imagine they are charms. It’s a wonder anyone has a liver left what with the hygiene conditions.

IMG_6148.JPGWe had come to the temple for the “arthi” a puja ceremony held at 7 pm to honour the deity with light and fire. We entered the temple half an hour before and joined the others processing up towards the altar of the deity, with crowd confined between two rows of brass railings, one side for men, the other for women. The priest was on the altar, busying himself draping cloths here and there at the base of the lingam, with a more physical depiction of the black faced deity dressed in elaborate brocade behind. As each person passed the large bull, he or she stopped to whisper in his ear — wishes and requests for wealth, health, help with examinations, pregnancies, job searches and so on. A large turtle draped in brocade was stroked for luck I assume . Large metal boxes waited for the essential donations, and people offered garlands, gold plaques, and I think ghee, directly at the altar. As soon as everyone had gone up, each took a place beside the rails on each side of the aisle. Doug and I wedged ourselves near the rear with our backs to pillars to ease our aching backs from the lengthy period of standing, each on the gender appropriate side of the temple of course.

Just before 7 a tremendously loud blast from a kind of bugle sounded from a kind of choir loft above and behind the congregation. Immediately the whole band struck up with a discordant braying of horns, clashing of cymbals, banging drums and the occasional loud peal of bells. Everyone leapt to his or her feet and rushed the rail, fortunately I was wedged into my spot and tall, as no one is better at pushing and shoving than a certain type of very short Indian woman. Everyone began clapping with raised arms and chanting a short mantra over and over, prefaced by “Shiva-ji”, quite hypnotic. I felt compelled to join at least with the clapping because it was too crowded to keep my arms at my sides.

The priest emerged and ignited a large brazier which emitted choking clouds of grey smoke, then taking up a couple more braziers he made his way through the crowd wafting smoke at all the peripheral deities. When he had wafted a great deal of it towards Shiva, he lit a very large candelabra and repeated the routine with that. During all this time, the crowd’s chanting became louder and more insistent, until people began to rush up the aisle towards the deity to deposit more offerings, pushed along by the usual brusque temple keepers.

At that point we decided to decamp, and slipped out our respective doors. I emerged to find Doug plunging frantically through the crowd, frightened of losing me in the crush and the darkness, though thousands of glittering oil lamps on every external niche of the temple lit the scene in a most glorious fashion. Outside a great many people were sitting on benches to watch the scene inside on a giant suspended TV screen!

We made our way the lengthy route back through security limping a bit in our bare feet towards the shoe lock up. There we encountered a hysterical little girl who had lost her family in the melee. The shoe attendant had seen it all before — “Missing” he said to us to calm our alarm and he hoisted her up on the shoe counter where she could wait to be reclaimed along with the family shoes. Another remarkable experience such as India is famous for!

IMG_6134.JPGOn now for some Portuguese culture and the first beer in 5 weeks in the tiny island enclave of Diu.

SASAN GIR: LIONS & LUXURY

IMG_6025.JPGLeaving the cacophony that was Junagadh behind, we headed to Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary. We had been undecided as to whether to visit this park, as in our experience such places are generally not what we think of as national parks and the wildlife far from protected, but when we were at Devpur Homestay both our host, Krutarth, and the motorcycling man from Bangalore insisted that we could not miss it.

They also told us that we had to book the park passes well ahead as visitors are limited each day. It was necessary to book online, on a government site that did not accept foreign credit cards so Krutarth kindly booked for us and we paid him in cash. We then had to plan the next phase of our trip as we were limited as to where we could go by the passes we could get.

IMG_5922.JPGI booked us 3 nights in the Gateway Hotel, a former Indian Government rest house now run by the Taj group. Indian rest houses in the past usually had good locations but were horribly badly run and maintained with staff that frankly discouraged people from staying as they did not want the work of making up rooms and feeding guests. After all, that was why they were government employees in the first place. When we were here before, these places were resorted to only in desperation.

IMG_6064.JPGGujarat and some other states have since given up the running of these places to private operators. The Taj group is famous in India for their luxury hotels and excellent service and most are far beyond our budget, lax as it is these days. This one, though not in the luxury category and still a simple guesthouse in style, was completely renovated and immaculately maintained, and the staff were fabulous. Excellent food and all mod cons in working order. The location was wonderful, on the edge of the park, very secluded and overlooking a river bank, no tuk tuk, motorcycle, truck, bus, etc etc noise, just blissful peace.

IMG_5946.JPGWe were so ready for a “too much India” day, and I took in the view and the peace from the balcony, then fell on the comfortable bed, and passed out for an hour. In a complete reversal of roles (usually it is Doug who sleeps and I amuse myself) Doug went out onto the river bank with his camera and wandered for the hour, shooting photos of birds, monkeys, spotted deer, herds of goats, women washing clothes in the river, and men bringing the buffalo home for the evening. When he came back I told him I was not moving except to go on the safari next afternoon and for meals in the dining room!

IMG_6008.JPGIf you are set on seeing lions the guide books suggest booking 2 or 3 safaris, but we decided to just take our chances on one. The passes are quite expensive for foreigners, $50 each compared to $10 for Indians, and adding jeep rental and mandatory park guide (a deal at $3) we decided that one would have to be enough. Our time was 3 to 6 in the afternoon, as the most popular time, 6 am to 9 was completely booked out for 3 weeks. In the end that turned out to be a good thing as it is still extremely cool at that time of the morning and it did not seem that those who went on the early safari saw any more lions than anyone else. One American woman did see a leopard though, a very unusual sighting and only possible in the early dawn since they are nocturnal. She was on her third safari though when she saw her lion.

Our hotel provided a jeep for us, otherwise you had to rent one from the park office, we picked up our guide Apu and registered with our passports and our online permits at the park entry. We were randomly assigned one of 10 possible routes, unlike in Kenya when we went on safari, the jeeps have to stay to the tracks and cannot drive on any other route than the one assigned. So that too makes luck a factor.

IMG_5963.JPGApu was bound and determined that we were to see a lion even though we told him we were also interested in birds, and the other smaller animals residing in the park. But he was insistent because, as he said, the domestic tourists would have more chances but we had come so far we might never get to Gir again. He spoke good English, self taught, and told us a lot of interesting things about the park management, the protection of the lions, the local villages that are within the park, and conservation efforts. Now that the lion population has gone from nearly non-existent with18 remaining when the park was established in about 1900, to more than 500 now, and with lions leaving the area as the territory is too small, there have been suggestions that the Gujarati government share a few with Madyha Pradesh, the neighbouring state where Asiatic lions were once resident. I asked Apu what he thought of that.. “Nonsensical idea,” he said (as I knew he would, all Gujaratis feel the same according to the Times of India, Gujarat editionn) — “Those people have let all their tigers get poached how would they look after our lions…”

IMG_6032.JPGThe park employs “trackers”, labelled as such on their jackets, who go around on motorbikes and check on the animals’ locations, with the emphasis being on the cats of course. One of them came by and told Apu that two lions had killed a buffalo (according to Apu the villagers are delighted to share their buffalo with the lions?!) and so we might see them if they left the kill to drink at the river. When we came to the spot the tracker drove slowly and quietly off on his bike to see if they were there, and then returned to say that he would call another tracker and they would see if they could encourage the two lionesses to come for their drink earlier rather than later. I wasn’t sure that was entirely sporting, but Doug assured me that all the best big game hunters had employed trackers and beaters so it would be fine.

IMG_6023.JPGAfter a fairly lengthy wait, during which Apu described how “very risky” this activity was to the trackers, and tried to insist that two other jeeps crammed to the gunwales with Indian families should be quiet for a bit — didn’t work — he excitedly pointed to movement in the bush. Since the dry teak forest is exactly the same colour as the lions, they were amazingly hard to see at first, despite their huge size. They both emerged from between the tree trunks, moving in an elegant and unhurried fashion towards the water. The younger one stopped when she saw us, had a good look and decided to lie down and think about things, but the older one whose face was heavily scarred and whose jaws were still gory from her lunch, stalked superciliously by and down the bank to the water’s edge. They are really glorious looking animals, like all big cats, rippling with power, and imperious in bearing. Asiatic lions differ from African ones in that they do not eat carrion, so Apu said they would work on the buffalo for a day or two then abandon it to the hyenas, jackals, and raptors to finish it off.

IMG_5971.JPGWe saw lots of spotted deer, though none of the other types of antelope that reside there, lots of beautiful langur monkeys, which because they are never fed or coaxed to come near are not the horrendous nuisances they are in most places in India, lots of bird species including some remarkably well camouflaged small owls, horrendously ugly wild boars not that different looking from the feral pigs in the Junagadh Fort though the boars had tusks, and a very laid back jackal, somewhat like a coyote but far less nervous. Since we had waited a while for the lions to emerge, we had to drive like mad over the bumpy track to reach the end of our route before sundown — Apu said he would get into a lot of trouble if we didn’t make it — but they still stopped if we came to an interesting animal or bird. All in all a very satisfying expedition, and I was glad we hadn’t booked two.

IMG_6116.JPGWe so enjoyed the relaxing ambience of the hotel, reading on our balcony and going for little walks. A very pleasant break for us and we feel re-energized for the last lap of our Gujarat journey.IMG_6108.JPG

HIDDEN GEMS: JAMNAGAR AND JUNAGADH

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The “little visited” (according to Lonely Planet) cities of Jamnagar and Junagadh, though traffic choked and rife with air pollution, proved to be good for a couple of days of nosing about. We are now in the region of Gujarat known as Saurasthra, separated by an inlet from the Khutch area we have left.

In Jamnagar we had a pleasant hotel in a former home of one of the distant relatives of the former ruling famaily. Only the gracious staircase and a large upper landing had resisted the renovator’s zeal, but it was nice to have a modern and completely working bathroom for a change. We were very comfortable there, and their restaurant was very good, hence the pictures of the Gujarati Thali previously shared. In the evening the outside garden restaurant was pleasant, and though all the Indian guests wore warm jackets and the children toques, I felt comfortable with a wool shawl and Doug with a light sweater. After all, 23 degrees is not exactly cold to us!

IMG_5540.JPGThe congested old city market is, as usual, the most interesting area to foreign tourists like us. Hectic and seething, with a cacophony of blowing horns, crowded with rude tuk tuk drivers, oblivious cows, and determined shoppers, it still has a most attractive central core. Three beautiful Jain temples amongst the melee are a real bonus.

img_5613At the turn of the 20th century the city was part of a princely state ruled by Jam Ratsitsinjhi who had been to England and brought back a love of English architecture. He was also a good manager so Jamnagar was prosperous at the time.

IMG_5521.JPGHe decided to replace the city’s worst slum with the elegant Willingdon Crescent, rather reminiscent of the English circles including the one in Bath. The grand arcaded building was across from his palace, and retains a faded glory with stone walls softened by the erosion of weather and years, the pale blue shutters fading and cracked while the bottom level is stuffed with small shops. His best idea was to make the street wide enough to include sidewalks — you have no idea what a novel idea that is even today– so even though the crush is intense, it is possible to walk without fear of immediate demise. Unfortunately his palace, the Darbargarh is badly decayed and suffered serious damage in the earthquake. We tried to sneak into the grounds to at least have a look but were immediately apprehended by a rude young man who probably just wanted baksheesh but we didn’t bother.

img_5661The city is blessed by a small lake with a fort in the middle of it, reachable by a causeway once they get the earthquake damage repaired. Its most interesting feature however is a temple dedicated to Hanuman (the monkey god) whose devotees have been chanting “Shri Ram, Jai Ram, Jai Jai Ram” 24 hours a day since August 1, 1964!! If that’s not crazy enough, consider that the earthquake in 2001 levelled the fort in the middle of the small lake on the shores of which this temple sits! Imagine how they kept chanting throughout the quake. No one I asked was clear on the details, but all agreed that the chanting has been going on continuously for 52 1/2 years and is, of course, in the Guinness Book of Records.

img_5658The park surrounding the lake has an entry fee of 10 rupees (20 cents) which means that we could walk there in the pleasant gardens unharassed by beggars, but still prey to the ubiquitous photo snappers. Since they don’t usually know English, they have a habit of simply moving in, saying “picture, picture” confident that we will pose happily. By the time they have rearranged the sometimes sizeable groups 4 or 5 times we are getting heartily sick of it. Polite Canadians that we are, we do not seem to be able to refuse. However I am beginning to think we are contributing to a problem like the “one pen, one pen” or “Bon Bon” which has caused me over the years to curse those tiresome tourists who gave out pens and candies. The cell phone camera is the new curse I guess. In the evening many citizens are out taking their exercise on a rubberized “jogging” path around the lake.

img_5864On we went to Junagadh to what was apparently one of the only decent hotels in town. It’s a dirty, traffic plagued small city whose economy is dominated by the more than 2 million pilgrims who descend on the place every year to climb the sacred Girnar Hill. One particular yearly event attracts 1.5 million pilgrims who circumambulation the hill, camping as they go, over a 5 day period. Doug was determined that we would climb it, but it was not only the 9000 plus steps that eventually caused reason to prevail, but the rugged terrain which twisted over rock faces and up and down several layers of hills to the austere temples up top. It is possible to be carried up by “chowli” a kind of swing like affair suspended between 2 men, the price of which is determined by one’s weight. We did see these, but even if we had wanted to do this, after reading that the trail cut in the rock face is so narrow in spots that the chowli hits the overhanging rock face and is in a perilous situation, I flatly refused and Doug realized he could not sit cross legged for 8 hours.

img_5883We did go and walk through the temples at the bottom, then take about 300 steps up. It was about 5 in the afternoon and we met a couple of family parties coming down. One man stoped to chat — “what is your name, what is your country” the usual, but had enough English to tell me that his family had started up at 5 am so were 12 hours into their journey. His mother and aunt were being supported on either side by his teenage children and looked virtually moribund, his wife did not look too well either. The older women collapsed to the steps every 20 or so, and lay across the stairs with their eyes closed, seemingly in an awful state. I left then, but since they were so close to the bottom (another 150 steps or so) I figured they would make it by nightfall. Such devotion!

IMG_5782.JPGA tumultuous road leads up a hill that challenged our tuk tuk to the Uparkot Fort with its extremely interesting Buddhist caves, two unusual step wells and a granary which supposedly held enough grain to sustain the inhabitants through a siege that lasted 7 years.img_5774

img_5802Very unusually, Doug took to a guide who offered his services at the gate, and he proved to be a real gem. Excellent English, (completely self taught) and a way with an anecdote made the history of the place come alive. Maybe I just need to let Doug choose the guides. After 2 1/2 hours during which he showed no signs of impatience, never tried to direct “sir” to the best spot for a photo, we doubled his requested fee of $4 and he demurred, saying “I told you only 200” which only made him more special!

img_5835In the end we had a great time on the tumultuous streets of Junagadh since they have the most lovely neglected and decaying mausoleums with absolutely gorgeous carvings sprinkled about the place. Sadly neglected and only viewable from through the impossibly intricately carved window openings, the insides full of pigeon droppings and broken stones, they were a gorgeously romantic reminder of the past Mughal times. One we accessed through a house, as taking refuge from the chaotic street, we had turned into a small lane and around the corner found a group of woman at a water tap filling their brass vessels to take home (on their heads of course.). As usual, they were excited to see such strange specimens, though blessedly without their cell phones, and when we pointed to the minarets of a mausoleum we could glimpse over the buildings but could not seem to access, two of them dragged us to their house where we disturbed grandma’s rest, and opened their back door which communicated with the overgrown but still lovely graveyard. We picked our way through the grass and brambles, peering into the interiors with their creepy silk draped tombs until a graveyard dog took exception to us and we beat a hasty retreat. Luckily the girls had left the back door unlocked for us!

When India’s independence was declared in 1947, the ruler of this princely state who was Muslim could not decide whether to join India or Pakistan. His subjects, all Hindu, were not in favour of the Pakistan idea. He took weeks deciding while the area was in limbo. This man’s father, an inveterate big game hunter had a change of heart in 1900 after the Asiatic Lion population was down to 14 in all of India after severe over hunting, decided to declare a Lion Wildlife Sanctuary and thus we are now off to the Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary, where with a bit of luck, we may see a lion, since the population is now over 500.

THE GUJARATI THALI

img_5634We have of necessity, become very familiar with Gujarati food.  In appearance it is similar to the Punjabi cooking we are most familiar with, but flavours are quite different.  It can be quite spicy, in fact sometimes overly so for my tender palate, but in general it makes gentle use of chilli, and depends more on such spices as cardamom, cloves, cinnamon bark, and there is often a sweet undertone.  The thali, served usually at one p.m is the main meal of the day and is an absolute bargain.  It is much like the “comida del dia” or meal of the day we found all over Latin America.  

Apologies for the doltish looking memsahib who modelled for this post, in my opinion her photographer has much to answer for.

When entering the restaurant, one is confronted by a sea of thali trays on every table.  You don’t HAVE to have the thali but anything else will be the same food and cost way more anyway.  This restaurant is in the pleasant Hotel Aram where we stayed in Jamnagar, the did a huge business in noon hour thalis, it is quite like Latin America in that many people see to eat this main meal out.

img_5637The first visitor to the table is the man with a little holder holding four vegetable dishes.  He scoops some of each into one of the four tiny bowls.  Examples are potato, lady’s fingers, mixed vegetables, beans etc.

img_5640Next comes the raita, a papadum, and a couple of types of fritter (hiding under the papad.  These are really tasty.  The pickles and relish in front are a staple and come with most meals.  We’ve never done more than sample gingerly, they are really hot!

img_5642A sweet dessert is added and our glasses filled with delicious buttermilk, most refreshing if the spice gets a bit too much. The dish of salad contains chopped cabbage, chopped red onions, a lime, sometimes cucumbers and on top the ubiquitous whole chili which your correspondents draw the line at.

img_5643Now comes the man with the “curry” a white, milky looking liquid, which contrary to expectations is sweet not spicy, and the Dahl which varies every time we get it.

img_5644Next comes the chappati, essential as this whole meal is eaten with the fingers, the spoon only necessary for scooping up the raita, curry, dahl etc to add to the dishes or to slurp up.

img_5648Here’s Doug digging in.  I have not mentioned that the essential characteristic of the thali, whether you eat it in a restaurant or in a roadside stand, is that it is bottomless.  You no sooner pick up a piece of your first chappati than the man who doles them out comes by with a basket of hot ones and adds one or two to your plate.  The little fritter appetizers are so good I can never resist getting seconds of them.  If you can’t eat any more you have to physically defend your plate and even then someone will likely swoop in and add to the bowl you have removed a few dabs from.

img_5649For Doug who adores the breads, it is a terrible temptation., which he does not bother to resist.  As you can see from the picture above, this thali includes 4 kinds of breads, a puri having been added when we thought it was all over. Unfortunately for me, one of these meals is enough for the rest of the day.  Sometimes I skip dinner, but often I try for a “light dinner” which is pretty much impossible to manage.  High class problems I realize!

img_5647It’s really the full meal deal, they come around with rice at the end to fill up any little corners in your stomach. The price varies (so far) from between $2 at a roadside place which did not have as many dishes but hit all the same bases, to $5 which the one above cost, to $15 for a glamorous dinner on the roof of the House of M.G.  To tell the truth, the one pictured was better than that one to our untutored palates.

 

I am not sure if I have mentioned a very interesting fact about Gujarat state.  It is completely dry.  In fact there are huge fines for possessing alcohol and a law is before the state legislature to impose a 10 year (yes you read that right) jail sentence on those caught in possession.  This is good news for the Botting livers and also for their budget, but a cold beer would be a welcome way to soothe the burning mouth after a run in with an errant chili.  Fortunately the buttermilk works really quite well.

 

Also most of our hotels have been completely vegetarian, and many are “pure veg” which means no eggs either.  I feel a bit protein deprived, as breakfast is a variant of the same dishes as lunch and dinner which can be a bit hard to take at times.  Usually I ask for some curd which they usually have and cut up a banana on the top.  Not bad, but when we reach a place that relaxes the egg rule, we are the first in line for an omelet!

Munching away, all in the line of research, we remain your dedicated correspondents.

DHOWS AND PILGRIMS

IMG_5386.JPGMandvi sits on the shore of a long inlet, its foreshore littered with great wooden dhows in various stages of construction. These ships are made completely of wood, and constructed by a crew of 100 men without benefit of engineering blueprints, only experience to guide their hands. It takes a couple of years to construct one, and then the job of getting it to water starts. They build them on tidal flats, held up by scaffolding, surrounding by a low dyke for when the tidal area has water. When the water is higher during the rainy season they dig a trench from the bow to the deeper water where they can be launched, a distance of a kilometre. One thing they have here is manpower, as this is done by men with shovels. They then attach the ship to ropes and at 100 metres per day, they painstakingly drag it to the edge. If it tips over, it is toast, they just have to burn it!  If the launch is successful, the ship is towed down the coast to get the motor installed.

img_5417These ships ply the west coast of India and travel to the Arab states.  A crew of at least 30 is required, as they take cargo on and off as they go and have to re-balance the cargo in the hold each time. This goes on for 9 months, at which point they return to Mandvi, haul the thing up again, and do a refit for 3 months. This process is hundreds of years old and one wonders how much longer it will be viable. We have seen dhows like this in eastern Indonesia, particularly Sulawesi, and years ago in Kenya. Fascinating.

The Rekmaviti Guesthouse was another basic deal — very different from the comforts of our lovely home in Devpur, but again a very helpful management drew us there. Vinod arranged our boat tickets to get across the gulf to Dwarka on the Saurasthra side, and helped me find a hotel in Dwarka, which was a bit difficult as unbeknownst to us we were arriving the day before the anniversary of the adoption of the Indian constitution in 1950, hence a national holiday. Kind of like Canada Day with flag raising and parades. However Dwarka is all about temples and pilgrims so celebration was muted, just more pilgrims than usual. Vinod had maps, directions, suggestions — really it is too bad you always have to go to these super cheap places to find traveller assistance! Also a very pleasant terrace where we enjoyed sitting.

img_5283We went out to the Vijay Vilas Palace on the beach, the summer residence of the current Maharani and her nephew the Maharao, though as she is now very elderly she only visits a few times a year and lives in Mumbai. Our host at Devpur is a distant relation of this maharani and had written a book in honour of her 75th birthday, filled with photos and stories collected from relations and friends over the years. It was in our room and I found it very interesting reading so a visit to the palace was in order. Quite the fly in amber situation, built and furnished in the 1920’s, all is as it was. The pictures of the royal family, their dogs, and their cars on the wall, along with those of safaris of old were entertaining.

IMG_5361.JPGThe nearby beach was entertaining in another way. Scads of people everywhere (this is India, there are always scads of people) dozens of drink stands, camels and ponies offering rides, dozens of strolling cows and dogs (watch where you step with all the livestock. Most people strolling or taking camel rides, but some were in swimming, fully clothed as is the Indian way. Screaming their heads off with every tiny wave, a whole school group seemed to be on a trip to the beach. I really cannot understand what happens to a sari after it is soaked in sea water…

IMG_5434.JPGAfter a couple of days, we took a small launch over to the other side of the gulf, a 4 hour trip. The service is new, though the boat is not, and saved as a long bus ride back the way we had come. Vinod had arranged a “4-wheeler” (large sized tuk tuk) owned by a friend of his to pick us up at the dock, which was nice as night was falling as we disembarked. What was not so nice was his total inattention to the road as he talked and texted, and finally got out a pad and paper to make notes, at which point I threw a fit. Trucks roar along here and only turn their lights on as they approach you, there are motorbikes, bicycles, cows, carts and pedestrians on the road and no lighting. We never drive at night if we can possibly avoid it.

 

The temple at Dwarka is one of the 7 most revered in India and the town is pretty much devoted to the pilgrim trade. The Dwarkadish Temple is large and rambling, and contains the “actual” image of Lord Krishna, this having been his first settlement in India. However a man from Manchester who, like us was battling through the seething crowd to get near the image, told me that the real one is actually in safe keeping and this one is a copy. People get a few seconds at the brass rail in front of the image to offer money, flowers, coconuts, and gold badge-like things that you can purchase on site. You are supposed to ask for your heart’s desire – “Money and health” said the man from Manchester. Sadly for the photo nut, no cameras or cell phones allowed, they had to be checked along with our shoes, and we were frisked and bags searched at the entrance to the temple. Doug was quite put out to see that the priests had cell phones in the pockets of their robes and broke off in the middle of ceremonies to take calls.

Quite the visual extravaganza as usual, and we enjoyed walking below the temple along the water where people were bathing in kind of mini ghats, the water was not what you or I would call sanitary, but a lot better than the Ganges.

 

We were excited to stay in a pretty much brand new one star hotel for a change, with an actual shower apparently with hot water, all shiny new with marble tiles. After letting the water run for a good five to ten minutes to get it hot, I leapt happily into the shower only to have the handle come off in my hand when I tried to adjust the water. A moment of panic ensued until Doug was able to rush into the bathroom and stick the tap on in a haphazard way so that the water could be turned off. Bathrooms are really a weak link in this country.

img_5338On now to Jamnagar, will keep you posted!

BHUJ: ART AND HISTORY

img_4844Our five hour drive from Little Rann to Bhuj took us through a heavily industrialized part of Gujarat, surrounded by wind farms and immense factories including Suzuki and Taya. Gujarat is the most prosperous state of India now after ten years under the direction of Mr Modi before he became Prime Minister of India.

img_4827We entered Bhuj at the end of the day as the Sunday market was being dismantled, and what a grimy, dust blown, littered first impression as we drew up to the Gangaram Guesthouse. We chose to stay there because the guide books recommend the helpful staff which we needed to arrange our planned expeditions into the surrounding area to see the villages of artisans. After the luxury of the House Of MG, and the rustic elegance of Rann Riders, it took a slight readjustment to get back to guesthouse living.

The room was tiny, lucky we didn’t have a cat to swing, but clean, and the bathroom tinier still with definite water issues, including the hated sopping wet bathroom floor. At first the toilet, which had no tank, appeared to require the bucket flush method. However a day later I discovered that an innocuous tap set at floor level beside the toilet when turned, produced a Niagara Falls of water that flushed the toilet. I let a couple of other travellers in on the news and they all rushed back to their rooms to try it. None of us, in extensive travels had ever run into such a phenomenon before!

img_4873Very soon though, we completely mellowed to the place. The young men running it were supremely obliging and helpful, the food was quite decent, and meals were served at big tables where we got to know a very interesting variety of travellers of various ages and nationalities. Mornings were interesting though — our room looked onto the palace next door whose wall, though tumbling, was sufficiently solid to reflect the cacophony of morning sound into the hotel. First the mosque would start up just before six, then the employees would raise the huge metal shutters that covered the front entrance of the hotel at night, then a small truck parked below our window would crank his engine over and over before starting with the sound of a tractor and roaring off, by now the tiny street was really busy with roaring tuk tuks all sounding their horns just for the heck of it, then the coup de grace — the tiny Hindu temple at the corner would turn on their loudspeaker with an immense din of drums, cymbals, trumpets, bells and heaven knows what for a good five minutes. By then it was time to rise and shine…

IMG_4859.JPGWe had a great time in Bhuj and the surrounding villages. The old partially ruined palace and Darbar Hall (where the raja would meet with people who came with complaints and concerns and receive the British officials back in the Raj era) was fascinating. The earthquake of 2006 which killed 50,000 people and devastated the town and flattened several surrounding villages severely damaged the building but restoration work has been ongoing and some of its former splendour restored. The palace of the Rani is beyond redemption but the exterior with its lattice work bay windows and ornate carving is stunning still. Inside the main palace, one can see the maharao’s famous bed with its enormously fat solid gold legs. He auctioned it off each year where it would be snapped up by more minor princelings and then he promptly purchased another one. He mirrored his room to reflect his glory with particular attention being paid to the ceiling. Oh to have been part of his entourage of wives…

Doug made me take his picture with a moth eaten lion surrounded by dozens of highly uncomfortable looking mahogany chairs for seating all the dignitaries, where they sat under enormous crystal chandeliers. All was an interesting mix of Indian and European artifacts, even two or three Hogarths amongst the Indian miniatures of the kings.

IMG_4742.JPGFrom there it was a direct route into the bustling market with its labyrinth of little streets and lanes packed with people, tuk tuks, motorbikes and the occasional car. When we were in India before, all the cars were black Ambassadors, a type of Morris, now all are tiny white Tatas, Hyundais, and Suzukis. Tata makes 3 sizes of Neos including one about the size of a Smart Car but carrying 5 people. Unfortunately the honking is still constant, and particularly enrages me when gridlock has occurred and everyone sits leaning on their horns despite the impossibility of anyone being able to move!

IMG_4816.JPGWe hired a car with an Italian woman we met at the guesthouse and went 90 kilometres north to see the White Rann, a gleaming expanse of pure white salt stretching as far as the eye could see to the Pakistan border. Odd to be somewhere other than on a boat where the unbroken horizon meets the sky in all directions. Modi and his friends were assembling to view the White Rann the very next day so no one was to be admitted for four days after our visit. All the other travellers we met were so disappointed to have missed it but truly it was a bit over rated I felt. The interesting thing really was that 10,000 Indians were walking the 2 kilometre long roadway out to the viewpoint at the end, some being transported by camel or donkey cart. We were again the subject of many many photos.

IMG_4820.JPGA more satisfying day was spent in a tuk tuk touring a number of unique craft villages near Bhuj. We were joined by a lovely young French woman currently teaching in China. We felt we had a daughter with us again. We went to a workshop of type of block printing combined with a resist using the most lovely muted vegetable dyes. Ten generations of the family have worked in the craft and they have been recognized by UNESCO among other agencies. The son of the family toured us through the whole process, very painstaking and complex and quite different from the more simple block printing with wax that I have seen. When he asked us where we were from and we replied, “Near Vancouver” he said “Do you know a shop called Maiwa? We ship to them and they bring groups here to learn the craft every year.” I had to laugh, I suppose my large block printed cushions from Maiwa came out of that workshop.

Over the last few days we have seen many types of weaving, dying of various types including Bandhani, a method of tie dying which can be either simple or complex, and some gorgeous Rabari embroidery of a quality I had not seen before, another dying art. There is also a type of fabric painting using mineral dyes worked with castor oil to make a thick paste which is then dripped off a needle like stylus to make impossibly intricate patterns on cloth. It takes months to complete some of the most complex ones. Modi presented Obama with one during a visit to Washington. I hope he appreciated its value! All these are arts that are passed from generation to generation and in many cases only one or two families are still involved in the craft which is understandable considering the labour intensive nature of the work.

We were sorry to say good-bye to the lovely boys at the Gangaram as we moved on only a couple of hours to Devpur where we had booked into a “homestay” in a lovely old family home. The house, built in 1905 by the current owner’s great grandfather was large and took us a step back in time. Our huge and comfortable room was furnished with vintage furniture from the 20’s and 30’s and our room filled with family memorabilia. Kind of like staying with a kindly Indian grandmother! The hosts were so good to us and fed us lovely meals.

The property includes a 300 student private school for children from the village and outlying area, as well as a mango orchard in which they are developing “farmstay” accommodation. As we found in Rajasthan on our last trip many old families have developed sidelines including taking paying guests to assist with the upkeep of these vast and crumbling properties. Krutarth, the owner, suggested two great day trips which we enjoyed very much. The best stop was at a Banhani (tie dying) workshop where we finally understood how complex this art can be. Some of the designs included circles about 3 inches in diameter into which the women tying the knots fit 600 tiny knots, taking 3 to 4 days to complete one motif. Silk saris made by this method can take over a year to painstakingly tie, then dye, then tie again, and so on. They also use a technique originally Japanese whereby cones of fabric are wound with threads, looking like little volcanoes, and then are dyed in a rainbow of colours. Very striking.

One of the other guests, a fellow we enjoyed very much, is on a 2 month motorbike trip from Bangalore where he lives. Just decided to take a dream trip for his 50th birthday. He was with us for the Bandhini place as he wanted to buy his wife a gift before he meets her in Mumbai to return home. We were lucky to arrive at the same time as a large American couple whose guide had booked them a special tour, as they have a serious interest in fabric art. So we and the man from Bangalore got in on the full meal deal, and then the showcasing of the finished product began. The table was 3 feet deep in silk and wool pieces by the time we called a halt. Such fun, even the man from Bangalore admitted he had never sat still for such a shopping exhibition in his life, as he paid for his 5 silk pieces! We did okay too.

IMG_5244.JPGWe were sorry to leave our comfortable room and our gracious hosts. We had planned to “not do nothing” for at least one day but we were very well and pleasurably occupied. On now to Mandvi to see enormous wooden dhows under construction as well as the Maharani’s summer palace. Then we will take a boat across the inlet to Saurashtra, a completely different section of Gujarat.