Nick Brown

Joined May 2016
  • Day8

    Ancient Medieval Times (Hampi to Mysore)

    December 14, 2018 in the United Kingdom ⋅ ⛅ 1 °C

    We had planned to wake at sunrise for a walk. An excellent plan indeed, with the minor flaw being that we neglected to investigate exactly when sunrise was scheduled to occur. Upon reliance that sunrise was one of the standard earliest occurrences each day we thusly set our alarms to go off 'early' so they might wake us and we might rise 'early'. We did and they did and we did, but the sun had beaten us to it.

    We went for a walk regardless, enjoying the sight of further, larger monkeys of a different species to the ones we saw yesterday. I couldn't name the species of either of them however ; I only know of one type of monkey, the spider-monkey, and neither type we saw were those, which at least narrows the pool of potential species they actually were by one.

    Though we'd missed the strict commencement of sunrise, the sun was still in the initial phase of its daily routine so we were still able to witness much of what we'd hoped for. The gently glowing gradually seeped through the morning mist to that perfect stage of illumination when you can look directly at it without harm, though for liability reasons must insist you don't and also I was wearing sunglasses. We captured some excellent pictures across the paddy fields and wove our way through the rocky roads and cliffsides toward a nearby lake. Here we met Roger, who was returning from a morning boat-ride he'd taken, having managed to be up before sunrise by implementing the sneaky tactic of checking when the thing he wanted to see would be happening.

    We collectively wandered back to the 'resort' (read: collection of concrete outhouses assembled around a cluster of wooden shacks), followed by a dog. Experiencing some slight pangs of separation anxiety, having entrusted my mildly cat-shy housemate with care of Figaro, it was nice to be the target of a four-legged friendship, but alas I could not reciprocate. As loveable and needy as the little dog was he/she was as dirty and mangy as they come, looking like it had taken a tumble in a tussle with a hedge-trimmer. Like how dogs might look in The Walking Dead if the animals caught the virus, if they could afford animals in the show, if the comic animator could draw animals of if anything related to that franchise was worth paying attention to any more.

    But as much as we tried to shoo the little dog away, he continued to follow ; I'd decided it was a 'he' by now. He didn't jump at us or pester, just followed behind or alongside with a sad yet hopeful, heart-breaking expression. I wanted to stroke him, but wasn't that committed to discovering the effectiveness of my rabies jab. Poor Benjy, I'd decided his name was Benjy by now, trailed us all the way back to the compound (a more accurate descriptor than 'resort'), where one of the staff violently warded him away.

    Feeling a little sad, there was only one thing to cheer me up; as it cheers me up every day in every circumstance without fail - breakfast(!). Craving a proper English Breakfast I'd spotted a close approximation on the dining-shack menu; 'Enlish Breakfast', which I dutifully ordered. And an approximation it was - fried eggs, ample beans, a tomato and mushroom mixture and toast with butter and jam. Recalling breakfast was still on Oscar's tab and that I had brewing dislike for Oscar given his lies and false promises and how even a week after the event he's still failed to send me the cost-breakdown of the trip I demanded, I ordered a second breakfast of cornflakes and milk. The corn-flakes were Asda Smart-price quality but fine, but notably they brought me a jug of hot-milk for pouring onto them. They tasted great, bringing back nostalgic memories of when I used to microwave my corn-flakes as a kid ; unsurprising given they were the exact same concoction only with the heating applied at a different point in the preparation.

    Side-note, as opposed to everything else being totally on-note, I only recently realised how irregular some people find the heating of certain breakfast cereals. There are genuinely people out there eating things like Weetabix and Shreddies COLD, and they act like I'm the weird one.

    After breakfast we packed up the car, again having to relegate my bag to the roof, then travelled to Hampi. Well, I think we were technically in Hampi, the region, but we were going to Hampi the city, or former city given it was now an unpopulated expanse of former civilisation. We discussed whether this was an 'ancient' city given it 'only' dated back to the fifteenth century, and even now with the benefit of numerous online dictionaries I'm not sure. If it was on the other side of the world we'd call it 'medieval', so for ease, equality and to move on from this tedious contemplation I'll be doing that.

    Hampi is a gorgeous series of medieval monuments, medieval ruins and medieval temples set amongst a picturesque backdrop of rocky hills strewn with boulders, many of which I'm sure pre-date medieval times but I can't be sure (Mark, where are you when I need you?). Features of particular note include the former medieval bazaar, the medieval elephant stables (sadly lacking in present-day elephants) and a medieval stone chariot shrine/sculpture they ensure is impossible to take a tourist-free picture of to support their sales of souvenir postcard-packs (which a couple of us did actually buy). There were also several large statues where the 'big deal' according to our guide, whom we'd picked up on the roadside en route, was that they'd been carved out from a single stone. Personally I'd have though that would be easier than determining some medieval method of fusing together multiple stones. I suppose there was risk of an error meaning starting-over, which might be a problem if there were a shortage of massive stones to carve into but, trust me, that wasn't a problem.

    We weren't the only visitors to Hampi today; far from it! As a historical and thusly educational site there were an abundance of school-trip groups from schools presumably quite far away, given we could see for miles around and there was no civilisation, barring the ruined possibly-ancient possibly-medieval one, in sight. Whilst Indian history was clearly on their syllabi, one topic I'd infer from behaviour was lacking from their curriculum was 'white people'.

    We were fascinating to them; particularly Charlotte whom yeah, objectively of the lot of us, showed decent taste. We couldn't work out whether it was her blonde hair or her freckles or her female-ness, but she was clearly the favourite, posing for more pictures on the day than...I'm going to say 'Kim Kardashian' at a 'movie premiere', presuming that's something she'd do at somewhere she goes for reasons she knows. I've really never understood nor cared to look into who or what or why she is.

    Not to say we, her bodyguard contingent, weren't popular too ; our pasty faces in steady selfie demand and our hands being shook more often than...I'm going to say 'Donald Trump's' at a 'campaign rally', this being something I know he does at a thing he unfortunately goes to for reasons pertaining to the downfall of western democracy. Dick. Still, we were but the sideshow to the main event, our little meet-and-greets routinely wrapping whilst Charlotte's crowd of adoring public continued to swell. I'm going to ascribe it to novelty mathematics; as a group of three guys and a girl we would only ever be, at best, the first white guy they see for a brief moment before becoming one of three, sapping our specialness, whereas being the sole female amongst us enabled her to retain and even enhance her uniquity. I'm sure if I was the only bloke with three ladies I might have been in equal demand. Yeah...I think I can convince my self-esteem to buy that...

    By early afternoon we'd had our fill and were starting to burn, so got back in the car for our onward journey. The roads were far better than the previous day's though still very long; a necessary feature, I was told, to stretch the distance between where we were and where we were going. Possibly tired of listening to our chit-chat, or just tired in general, the driver decided to play his music over the car speakers for this next stretch. The first tune that blasted forth from his playlist was a little ditty by Justin Bieber, which I was proud to not recognise as such. I put in my headphones and watched Brooklyn Nine-Nine, that show I saved, on my phone.

    After battling through traffic, animals in the road and this one point where we literally stopped right in the middle of active train-tracks playing chicken with an oncoming truck, night fell and we stopped in a small town to try and get some dinner. This was far from a tourist spot, with no English spoken by the locals and few clues as to the composition of the delicacies on offer, but we took a gamble on a nearby bakery and lucked-out with some delicious pastry bakes that looked and tasted a bit like spicy filled-croissants and some slices of cake that looked and tasted like cake.

    We arrived into Mysore late in the evening at a beautiful hotel that both reminded us of the West and hammered home just how shabby our previous day's accommodation had been. Roger tried to get a drink, without luck, whilst the rest of us attempted to catch-up on the sleep we hadn't quite managed to accomplish the night before. This wasn't difficult; it was a truly lovely establishment with proper thermostat-driven A/C, consistently warm showers and a mini-bar; like, not just a selection of items on a counter they called a mini-bar or some bags of nuts with price-tags on them but a proper plugged-in fridge keeping things cool and everything. There were no Kit-kats so I gave it a miss, but it was still nice.
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  • Day7

    6. MONKEYS! (Bangalore to Hampi)

    December 13, 2018 in India ⋅ ⛅ 29 °C

    We left a little later than scheduled this morning; one of our number, who shall remain nameless, sleeping through their alarm. Roger finally showed-up and we got on our way, but our lost twenty minutes would have a irreparable impact on our day.

    We had a new driver this morning. I've yet to pronounce his name correctly and can't write it down, but he came bundled with a new car and therefore additional capacity for our onward journey. However, whilst we would each be able to enjoy moderately spacious seating, i was told there wasn't room for my bag inside the car so it had to be tied to the roof. Had we been ready to leave a little earlier I'm almost certain I've had found a way to make it all fit.

    A little ways down what most closely approximates a motorway we stopped at a fair similie of a coffee-shop for breakfast. I ordered some eggy-wrap thing, that was as satisfying as my description of it, and a café latte since I wasn't confident the barrista had properly understood my preferred proportions for an Americano with milk. Unfortunately, contravening what I understand to be an international coffee-house code of conduct, there was no Wi-Fi. I'm fairly sure I heard the staff discussing how there was usually Wi-Fi, but they'd literally just cancelled their service contract twenty minutes earlier.

    Shortly afterwards we stopped at the roadside for some coconut water. I'd never tried this before, at least not direct from the coconut, and it was cool to watch the guy violently slash away the top quarter of the green fruit and casually pop a straw in. It tasted delicious ; much like coconut water consumed via other means only in a more degradable, less ergonomic container. Mind, to me coconut water has always felt like a pre-9AM drink and it was pushing 9:05 by the time we had it. Shame.

    Our first proper, sight-seeing stop was at Chitradurga Fort, an historic site weaving it's way up the side of a hill and home to 19(!) temples. With only an hour to spend here, and Mark not being with us, we saw only a handful of these and intimately photographed even fewer. The etymology for Chitradurga is 'picture fort', rendering Chitradurga Fort a 'Fort-Fort' and placing on my list of phrases including 'ATM Machine' and 'PIN Number' whereby abbreviations are inadvertently and inefficiently elongated by the appending of one of the words being abbreviated, adding bulk to a conversation and delaying the conveyance of any point being uttered. Very much the lingual equivalent of a delayed departure.

    It was an impressive archaeological structure that wound up a hillside to a high plateau. Making our way up in the baking midday rays, having narrowly missed the soft morning heat, it was when we neared the top that we spotted something, or somethings, first in the distance and then up close as we cautiously approached...

    MONKEYS! First one then several then tons. MONKEYS! Ruddy loads of them! Everywhere we looked, mainly as we were only interested in looking at MONKEYS!, there they were; climbing, jumping, swinging, scavenging, generally MONKEYing around and being awesome! We took pictures of the MONKEYS! which I'll try to resist making the only uploads accompanying this post.

    Momentarily, the terrible toils resultant of our twenty-minute tardiness evaporated as we soaked in the live and interactive simian sideshow. They didn't know we were late; monkeys don't know what time it is or even have a concept of time. Sure, an infinite number of them typing on an infinite quantity of typewriters would, presuming a supply of infinite ink-ribbons, eventually write Stephen Hawking's 'A Brief History of Time' and every yet-to-be-written future text expanding on and indeed correcting many of Hawking's claims, but these monkeys were here, bereft of stationary and finite in number. Which is a good job, or I doubt I'd have fit them in frame.

    If only we'd had a little longer to enjoy their company, but alas we were on a strict schedule (far stricter than it should have been) so we hurriedly took some pics then descended the hill and scrambled back into the car. Charlotte and David bought ice-lollies they had to wolf down so quickly they must have suffered brain-freeze.

    Our destination would be Hampi. The only thing standing between us and there was the absolute worst road in the entire effing world. It was under construction, tacitly implying it was somehow previously even worse, and had been chopped into single-lane sections joined by patches of gravel and road-humps of such high elevation to be more akin to be less a sleeping policeman and more a slumbering sumo. This meant our driver would briefly accelerate to the absolute top-speed possible, determined by vehicular capability as opposed to petty concerns such as speed laws, then almost immediately brake as he immediately encountered either a slow-moving (ie. driving at legal limit) vehicle, bump or gravel patch. Add to this the swerving around vehicles he could pass and the necessary left and right shifts across the tarmac-free joining points and you've all the ingredients for a home-cooked course of nausea. Whilst, practically, I can't link this circumstance with our morning delay, as a fully versed chaotician (ie. I've seen Jurassic Park) I believe that any incidence within a deterministic, nonlinear system can have a consequential impact that might appear unconnected yet is in truth the direct stimulus. As such, the onus falls to prove that leaving late DIDN'T cause my sickness, for which I've yet to receive any acceptable proof.

    After a while we stopped at a roadside restaurant for a rest-stop. Whilst the others ate, Charlotte and I just bought water and went to play on the swings in the playground next-door, as you do. My lunch-skipping might have been perceived as being due to the nausea I'd hardly been silent about, but was in fact a valiant and selfless deed of reducing demand on the kitchen and thusly expedite the food-orders placed, recovering for us a few moments of our lost time. Charlotte just wasn't hungry.

    The drive was long but entailed passing through a number of varied, yet consistently interesting, small villages. This was increasingly the furthest we'd yet been from the more-developed zones of India, with many areas appearing to straddle the line between 'simple' and 'poor'. At one point Charlotte remarked on how impressive it was that our driver knew his way through the windy, twisty backstreets of remote Indian villages, so I pointed out the sat-nav that was in full view and been periodically delivering directions at fully audible volume. Expecting to arrive at a fully mod-conned 3-star hotel, because the itinerary said that's where we were going, we eventually arrived at what on first impressions I'd generously have described as a 'simple' and less-generously have termed a shit-hole.

    But first impressions can be deceiving. True, the room accommodations were very basic breeze-block constructions, infested with wildlife, fitted with the first and only mosquito nets we'd encounter for the whole trip and with bathroom facilities you'd contently forgo eating/drinking/sweating lest you actually have to use them, but the location was simply breath-taking. Once we adjusted our mind-sets to the idea we'd be basically 'camping' as opposed to 'hotel-ing' for the night we quickly appreciated our lot but even more quickly got back in the car so as to try to visit a nearby attraction before the day was out. I'd have loved a little time to freshen-up a little, even twenty minutes would have done it, but no dice.

    We drove about twenty minutes to 'Monkey Temple' which, despite some diligent googling, I can't find an authentic, local name for. It's a temple (shocker!) dedicated to the monkey god Hanuman, set atop a hill with a winding stairway/path leading up to it. The higher we got the greater the prevelance of monkeys, but given the name of the place their presence was mildly less exciting. Perhaps sensing this cooler reception, one of the monkeys stole Charlotte's coconut, to some degree restoring the species' novelty-value (MONKEYS!). At the peak we had to remove our shoes to proceed, clambering over the rocks and drinking in the views / posing for photos / strengthening the callouses on our soles. If only we'd gotten here twenty minutes earlier...

    ...we might have taken our pictures, gotten bored and left. As it turned out, we'd arrived at the absolute perfect moment to capture the views then settle down in the area known as 'sunset point' to experience the precise moment of the day for which it was named. Observing the golden sun sink and the light slowly fade across the gorgeous vista, dusk delicately descending upon the visible cliffs, valleys and villages was hands-down the most beautiful and sensory moment of the trip. It transpired that 'late' had in fact been precisely 'on time' after all, which raises the question; were my comments and concerns over the impact of our late-start petty/exagerrated/fabricated? No, not at all, but it's okay to ask.

    We returned to the 'hotel' grounds and went to the 'restaurant', a covered area with low tables and cushions (in lieu of seats). The whole place had a very 'backpacker' vibe, precisely the breed of slacker reprobates I'd hoped to avoid by packing a suitcase, but invoked some pleasant nostalgia for my times travelling around Europe. Only thing missing was the smell of burning incense, which I voiced rather loudly and a few minutes later one of the staff brought some over.

    Our evening meal was to be put on a tab to be settled by the company that made the booking. That is, the company that had persistently messed-up or changed every element of our itinerary post-purchase without notification or apology. We collectively ordered as much as we could possibly eat/charge. We were then told this tab extended to alcohol, so adopted a similar stratagem.
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  • Day6

    5. Bangalore Reception

    December 12, 2018 in India ⋅ ⛅ 27 °C

    For our day in Bangalore, Nam recommended that we visit Lal Bagh. Translated as 'The Red Garden' in English, it is a 240-acre botanical garden in southern Bengaluru primarily constructed during colonial occupation with a Persian architectural style, formerly home to an exotic zoo, still home to various rare bird species and one of the most popular tourist destinations proving, if proof were needed, that I've finally got a decent connection to Wikipedia.

    As an ambassador of the former colonial power, I enjoyed a typically English breakfast. Corn Flakes (invented by American John Kellogg), Tea (Asia import, presumably not imported in this case) and toast with jam (origin disputed, but likely middle-eastern). Toast is as historically ubiquitous as the bread it's made from, coming about when someone had the whiz idea "well it worked out the first time, let's slice it smaller and do it again."

    Our first task for the day was to switch hotels, en route passing by the stunning parliament building and a smaller, newer government building that our driver told us was called something that sounded like "mini banana soda", which I refuse to look-up as there's no way the real name will be as good.

    We checked into the YMCA, where we heard it'd be fun to stay, and met up with Roger; Sid's friend from work who'd be joining our group and thusly my blog and Facebook friends list for the remainder of the trip. Charlotte and I had met him before, but I had no recollection of him. It took little time to recall why. Roger works for bank; quite possibly the most boring industry one can have the misfortune to be connected to. Whenever anybody in the profession attempts to converse with me, be it concerning their work or otherwise, I lapse into a dull daydream of overwhelming disinterest, emerging only once the excruciating mood-murderer had moved forth to their next victim. This does occasionally make my job rather tricky.

    Roger aboard, we crammed ourselves into the five-seater (our bigger vehicle to accommodate our increased number arriving tomorrow) and headed to Lal Bagh. I'm not sure why it's called the 'Red Garden', my Wi-Fi is gone again, but for an area consisting mainly of topiary, foliage and water features even if absolutely committed to a naming methodology incorporating a primary colour I could think of two better choices right off the top of my head.

    Two-hundred and forty acres large with a glass house based on London's Crystal Palace (Wi-Fi's back!), recent plans to demolish a portion of the site to enable the construction of the new metro line has caused controversy, lead to a contingent of citizens to come out in a series of protests against the loss of greenery and recreation space in the city. Initially well-attended, these demonstrations have attracted dwindling numbers as activists became increasingly frustrated with the logistics of getting to the protest site, public transport links being somewhat lacking.

    The park is exceedingly pretty, features of note including a rocky hill offering views of the Bangalore skyline, a stone bust of Dr Mari Gowda (a horticultural hero by all accounts) and a strangely popular abandoned building which had it attracted the crowds to the same degree when it was whatever it was mightn't have ended up becoming abandoned. There was also a Bonsai garden full of Bonsai trees, which I found slightly odd as I'd always been under the impression that Bonsais were popularised amongst those that lacked the space for a real tree/garden setup. It's like filling a cinema auditorium with 32-inch flatscreens. Or a Tamagotchi zoo.

    Our driver next took us to a craft store he presumably had a measure of business arrangement with to browse the available wears. I was genuinely interested in some of the items on offer, being precisely the sort of thing I was looking for as a souvenirial solution, but they went for the hard-sell approach, so I issued a hard-pass.

    Before heading back to the hotel we stopped off for a late lunch at an Indian restaurant. Acknowledge obviously that every restaurant we eat at here, purely geographically, is an 'Indian' restaurant and most have even been 'Indian' by way of specialist cuisine, but this was the first Indian Indian restaurant we'd visited that was making such an effort to apply an Indian aesthetic to such an overt and stereotypically clichéd extent. Patterns on the ceiling, gold-trimmed wall-hangings, vibrant fixtures and fittings, 'that' music playing (you know the sort) and with an elaborate water feature in the centre, it was as if the remit was to distil down every trite touristic expectation as regards an Indian eatery and check every tick-box when designing this diner, becoming an emblemic distortion as to culture it purports to represent. Much like what the Beefeater chain attempts to do with Britishness, or at least used to before they got rid of their 'beefeater' imagery and replaced it with a cartoon cow, undoing a cute visual pun in favour of a reminder of the cute animal whose life is sacrificed for your chips & peppercorn-sauce accompaniment. #veganuary

    Before heading out for the evening, Charlotte, David and I went out for a wander near the hotel, roughly attempting a route Roger had described to us as having completed the previous day; a basic loop round the surrounding area. Had they not been refurbishing the pavement across 60% of the route, forcing us to walk mostly in the dusty dirt, this walk might have been entirely uneventful. Still might be, depending on your personal perspective on the noteworthiness of slightly scuffing-up one's shoes.

    For the evening Roger and I went fully suited, mine being my tailored ensemble purchased on my last trip in Hôi An (see blog post "Hôi An Then...An then, An then, An then..."). David wore a shirt/trouser combo with velvet jacket; apparently Nam's favourite of his wardrobe options. Charlotte couldn't find the dress she'd planned to wear, possibly because she channelled efforts into Instagramming her circumstance of bring unable to find it instead of looking for it, but eventually chose an alternative ensemble that we considered entirely appropriate for the occasion but that, according to Charlotte's reports of a couple of 'looks' she received during the evening, mightn't have been a pan-reception concurrence.

    Were I being reductive, I might describe the reception as a 'catered photo-shoot'. But, located in an absolutely stunning hotel setting with a stage and high-calibre lighting with a phenomenal range of appetisers, mains and desserts this was far from your average point/click/munch affair.

    Once again, there was a refreshing lack of formality to proceedings; the 'reception' just sort-of occurring whilst everyone invited generally pottered about the place, taking their own snaps or filling their bellies. The happy couple spent, as a loose estimate, 99 9% of their evening on the stage as rotating configurations of family, friends and possibly crashers joined them on-stage to be immortalised forever in photographic form.

    Having gorged on ample Indian food earlier in the day, my main focus here was on desserts. In addition to a lovely coconut creme caramel there was a delicious, creamy, custard-like concoction that tasted rather like rice pudding with the rice removed (an odd omission given the prevalence/popularity of the substance here). I was later told it was basically milk with sugar, but then that's probably what rice pudding is too.

    A little later the wedding cake was cut, adding a further option to the dessert table that I dutifully made a second trip for. An apparent custom that differs from what I've observed in the UK is that when the cake is cut, the bride and groom take slices and feed first each other then some of their family. I'm not sure why this is a thing, there was nobody on hand to explain this to us, but I've got to believe it's more symbolic than them all just being hungry.

    After spending literal hours in front of the intense lights, the bride and groom were eventually able to mingle a little. One of the guests, I'm presuming a relative, had been intermittently singing songs, I'm presuming romantic songs, both for Nam and Sid and to entertain the guests throughout the evening. He had an excellent voice but, not to be outdone, as soon as the microphone was transitioned to karaoke-mode Nam positioned herself to deliver a sweet serenade to her husband of 'How Long Will I Love You?'. As usual, her voice was so good that few stepped-up to follow her. One of the younger guests gave us a performance of 'My Heart Will Go On' ; a song I've heard far more times this week than average for a song 20+ years old. Perhaps it has a particular cultural relevancy here in India that we don't relate to. Perhaps Titanic was subject to a delayed release and the country has only recently experienced the beautiful yet doomed obsession between Jack & Rose / pubescent boys & Kate Winslet's tits.

    I haven't yet mentioned the dress. OMG it was, like, totally fabulous. I wouldn't habitually render much comment on a bride's attire, save for an obligatory vague compliment, but I was genuinely taken with Nam's choice. With the wedding feeling like a deeply Eastern experience, the reception overall had more western overtones, without losing an Indian essence. As such, Nam's selection of a fairly traditional-looking western-style wedding dress with undertoned floral patterning felt like a perfect crest for this cultural clash. Sid looked alright too.
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  • Day5

    4) Roadhouse

    December 11, 2018 in India ⋅ ⛅ 27 °C

    We awoke on the houseboat to a lovely breakfast where I attempted to eat my body-weight in toast & jam. Narrowly failing, my effort hampered only by the mathematical impossibility of intake equalling a mass which itself increases in direct proportion to the quantum of consumption, I waddled toward where the car dropped us off the previous day to find the car was not there as expected. Recalling that cars were mobile by design, I deduced it was likely elsewhere so wandered as close as I could to the luxury houseboat company building to pilfer their Wi-Fi so as to contact our travel agent. Connectivity successfully stolen, our car arrived shortly afterwards.

    It transpired that the car would, functionally, be our home/house on the road for the rest of the day. We were in store for a twelve-hour journey as we drove from Kerala to Bangalore. Well our Driver, Mosses, would be driving; cars being single-operator vehicles by design.

    As such, there's little to report in terms of activities. Charlotte and I briefly sang some musical numbers to the extent of our varying abilities and lyrical recollections. I could keep pace with much of the Julie Andrews / Oliver! stuff, but she lost me when she went full-on Phantom of the Opera. David and I enjoyed listening to That Mitchell & Webb Sound from my phone via the car speakers, connecting via USB (the car lacking Bluetooth by design). Charlotte didn't enjoy it, expressing her preference for low-brow comedy scribed by uneducated simpletons to which she can relate.

    As we progressed I perceived a gradual advance in the apparent affluence of the areas we were passing through. This was backed-up by the initially-sporadic then increasingly-frequent appearance of beloved western brands such as Subway, Dominoes, McDonald's and Rentokil. We eschewed, however, the typical British custom of taking a McToilet break and instead sampled the facilities at various other roadside establishments. These occasional stoppages, necessary when all other stoppage had failed, entailed engaging in something of a 'bowel-movement bingo' ; Would there be toilet-paper? Would there be a toilet-seat? Would there be a toilet at all, or a one of those squatting holes I worry I might lack the physicality to actually use, having been seriously neglecting leg-day lately.

    Our only other 'stop' category was those to replenish the stocks necessary to require the former. We purchased and consumed a wide array of snacks to sate our hunger, pass the time and distract from the growing tedium of each other's company. I particularly enjoyed the bar of Dairy Milk Bubbly I bought, which was offered a bulkier and oddly creamier take on the bars offered in England. As a result of thickness, Charlotte initially mistook it for a choc-ice.

    Eventually arriving in Bangalore, we checked into a beautiful hotel where David and I were able to enjoy our first hot shower in five days. Separately, I hasten to add, our flight/room/bed-sharing throughout this week rendering bathroom-moments our only times of actual personal privacy.

    After a day sustaining ourselves on crisps, biscuits and cakes we decided to give our arteries a real run for their money and have dinner at Pizza Hut. Sensibly ordering their most famous dish, David and I's food arrived without issue. Charlotte however ordered some saucy, shaped wheat-dough mixture that arrived cold and wasn't up to much when reheated. Let this be a lesson; all non topped-flatbread offerings are an affront to the Hut's menu and we should vote with our mouths and boycott these imposters (impastas?) and enable demand/supply dynamics to determine their discontinuation. Except Ice Cream Factory.
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  • Day4

    3: Boathouse (Kerala)

    December 10, 2018 in India ⋅ ⛅ 31 °C

    I tend to like things less than other people. Outside of cult television shows, where my passion defect is generally inverted to such an excessive that I'll follow creators like celebrities, stack my shelves with merchandise and sign petition demanding restoration of those cancelled before their time, on average I tend to find more to criticise than praise as regards virtually everything. I don't know if I have unrealistic expectations, ego-driven acceptability requirements or if everyone else is stupidly blind to the crippling imperfections that infect every facet of our existence, but where most folk might mark an 'A' I struggle to contemplate higher than a 'B-', must try harder. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I helped save Brooklyn Nine-Nine and exactly none of you have thanked me yet.

    As such, my experience of the Sleeper Bus was relatively excellent. I mean, I really didn't like it ; there was too much light seeping through the thin curtains, the pillow was too small, my usb charger ports didn't work and it was way to bumpy a ride to achieve consistent sleep. But, given those with comparative knowledge of both described the sleeper bus as significantly preferable to the train we had originally booked, if we apply my general-distaste delta-drag factor to the experience we ended up having I can only imagine what a fucking nightmare the sleeper carriage would have been.

    Charlotte and David thought the bus was fine.

    The bus eventually, only a couple of hours past the scheduled arrival time, dropped us off at not the scheduled arrival stop. Apparently the bus doesn't actually go where the ticket said it did. No reason or excuse was given for this.

    Fortunately where the bus was supposed to go to, where our car was waiting for us, wasn't too far away. Even for India, where the relative vastness of the landmass might see 'not far' interpreted as a couple hundred miles. We flagged-down/were coaxed into three of the ten-or-so waiting tuk-tuks and in five minutes were where we should have been five minutes earlier. Of the unanticipated deviations from plan so far, and there's been a few, this was my favourite as it meant we got to ride in tuk-tuks!

    We then met Moses, our driver, and the car, our car, which we proceeded to load-up with the luggage, our luggage. We then went on what I was going to describe as a long drive through Kerala, but it's already tomorrow when I'm writing this so, spolier-alert, my perception of what constitutes a long drive has shifted quite significantly.

    After what now amounts to a 'lengthy while', we arrived at a really fancy-looking houseboat company with a swanky office and the word 'luxury' on the signage. We unpacked the car as directed and entered the office to be told they had no record of our booking. After a few frenetic back-and-forths with our travel agent, piggybacking on the 'luxury' complimentary Wi-Fi, it transpired we'd been brought to the wrong place and instead should have gone to the place over the road; a vague, office-less patch of ground near the shanty snack-shack beneath the bridge.

    However any momentary concerns as to the luxury, or lack thereof, were allayed once our bags had been collected and we had tottered down the bank to our boat. The vessel appeared perfectly seaworthy from the exterior, an over-qualification for a purely river-bound excursion, and within aptly conveyed suitability for habitation. There were beds, for we'd be staying the night, a kitchen and dining-room, for we'd be eating, and a furnished upper-deck, for we'd be lounging around all afternoon, taking in the views, drifting in and out of sleep and working our way through a pack of HobNob biscuits.

    This demanding afternoon schedule was briefly interrupted by the boat staff (sailors?) who surprised us with an unexpected, and delectable, late lunch. Fortunately we had little helpers on hand to continue in our stead; we returned to our lazing after lunch to find that crows had devoured the remaining half-packet of HobNobs, leaving only sweet, oaty remnants in their wake.

    The boat passed (sailed?) through the twisting 'river', I didn't catch it's name and had no data to load my location on Google Maps, past gorgeous greenery scenery and the occasional pocket of civilisation. We stopped at one of these small settlements and were advised to go ashore and pick what we wanted for dinner from the local fisherpeople's (presuming 'fisherman' is no longer PC) daily catch. We liked the look of the massive tiger-prawns on offer. Well, that's slightly inaccurate; the look of them was grotesque from a purely aesthetic perspective, with spindly tendrils and antennae-like protrusions spouting from every partition of its gangly form.

    After expressing our interest we were quoted a price that implied we'd inadvertently selected special, potentially famous tiger-prawns whose custodian would need handsomely compensating for their loss. After a mild but stern balking on our part, there was instant and significant price deflation on the fisherpeople's part. Following some savy, yet coincidentally true, conveyance from ourselves that we were low on cash the price dropped even further, from insulting to merely extortionate, before I determined an acceptable strike cost on the condition of a quantity increase. I mean, this is clearly one of those things where the stall-traders are in business with the boat-people and they bring you to an isolated place and hold sustainance to ransom and share the mark-up. I wouldn't go as far as 'scam', but 'racket' possibly. 'Scheme', most certainly.

    Tiger-prawns in hand, though thankfully not literally, we returned to the boat. Perhaps in appreciation for our seafood purchase the crew brought us deep-fried bananas, though presumably out of anger for our deep haggle they added onions and curry-spices to the mixture, rendering them awful.

    We then docked/moored/stopped for the day and went for a walk down the bank whilst the chef prepared our dinner and one of the other staff trekked off to a shop someplace far away on the instruction of purchasing as much beer as was possible with twenty of my finest English pounds (my local currency having been exchanged into tiger-prawns). The sun was setting by this point and the incoming moonlight cast upon the gentle ripples of the flowing river produced an environmental serenity resonating peace and tranquillity, in which David and Charlotte took plenty of great snaps to 'gram.

    Darkness fell and we returned to our boat, devouring our delicious if damn-well-should-be-for-the-price-of-those-prawns evening meal. Concurrently our booze arrived and we latterly retired to the upper deck for some drinks where Charlotte performed her party trick of asking my views on a controversial topic so as to bask in my lengthy and passionately-recited point of view. Brexit came up, so that occupied most of the evening.
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  • Day3

    2: The Wedding! (Cultural Disengagement)

    December 9, 2018 in India ⋅ 🌫 29 °C

    A 'mundu' or 'dhooti', both/either of which I reserve the right to edit the spelling of post-publication, is what the garment David and I had been purchased to wear for the wedding was called.

    Now, in fairness, it's not like a pair of trousers comes with instructions. There's no manual included when you buy a cuff-link shirt nor a step-by-step guide provided for knotting your tie.

    But these comparators, I feel at least, possess a form factor which at least implies their correct usage. You'd be hard-pressed to fit trousers over another part of your anatomy, shirts are patently torso-shaped and ties, quite clearly, should be wrapped tightly round the forehead so you look like a ninja.

    A mundu/dhooti is a big sheet. Rectangular with imprinted golden lines around three sides, it bears more resemblance to a tablecloth than an item of clothing. Harnessing our resources, David and I scoured the web for tutorials, finding that it needed to be wrapped round the waist like a long beach towel, however the outcomes of our attempts were insufficiently tightly wrapped to remain in place. Wearing only boxers underneath, I wasn't keen on this risk as I'd hate to detract from the formality and spiritual reverence of the occasion by inadvertently flashing my Calvins.

    In a momentary flash of genius I realised we could wrap our belts, objects where their usage is clearly apparent from design, inside the sheets and use these to keep the mundus/dhootis secured affixed. We did this and they looked fine. We went down to the lobby and the receptionist decided mine didn't look fine, so he re-did it for me. Throughout the day, Charlotte would be complimented on her stunning attire which she purchased from India, got tailored in the UK and was perfectly suited to the occasion. David and I received a few raised eyebrows and a polite 'well, they tried' expression.

    All sorted, we were off to the wedding. The mini-bus took us to the venue ; a lovely building with an entrance adorned with flowers within beautiful grounds of vivid greenery. We were given another albeit different fruit drink on our way in and took seats within the vast hall. Bigger than the engagement ceremony room it was set-up similarly, but with the elevated stage far more elaborate; four huge golden pillars holding aloft flower-laden beams framing the centre-stage. Somewhat like an Emporer's four-poster bed, only without a mattress. Or an Emporer.

    After a while people stood and exited the room, so we followed. They, and therefore consequently we, were headed to receive the bride and groom. The groom arrived first, surrounded by his family, with Nam following closely behind. Sid was very smart and Nam looked beautiful. They genuinely did, but it's their wedding so I would have said so regardless.

    And so the ceremony began, which I'm going to attempt to capture here in an overall sense rather than a play-by-play ; I will miss things out and get things in the wrong order because I was present and observing and not taking notes. Fortunately we sat alongside some people who were happy to explain some of the intricacies, however they didn't grasp all of it either. I was informed that the wedding was a blend of multiple styles and traditions, with influences from Nam's family merged with individual traditions from both of Sid's parents, who themselves were from different regions. By way of foreword I felt truly honoured to be present on such a special day for my amazing friend Nam and her new husband Sid and hope my dry, occasionally wry tone does not infer any retraction from the utmost respect and reverence I had and have for the occasion.

    Similarly to the engagement ceremony, the room doesn't actually go quiet when the wedding starts ; the marriage just sort-of 'happens' whilst everybody else is present.

    There was musical accompaniment at times provided by two distinct instruments, a nadaswaram and thavil. One is a long-ish, trumpet-y clarinet-y sort of thing and the other was like a horizontal big bongo-drum device, though I can't for the life of me (nor without data, Google and check) which was which. There were a lengthy series of pre-wedding chants delivered in Sanskrit by some shirtless priest-equivalents to thank/bless the gods which I obviously didn't understand and I'm told many present probably didn't understand, but presumably the priests did.

    One notable distinction from christian weddings is that the bride first positioned herself on the stage and the groom walked down to her, which I felt was both a rather modern statement on gender neutrality but also probably an ancient tradition. Sid was flanked by his father and Nam's brother, with this apparently being a measure of symbolic permission on the part of Nam's family granting Sid blessing to wed Nam. Again, I'm doing my best here to join the dots of what I saw and what I was told with a perplexion-leaded pencil.

    With both Nam and Sid and various family members and religious officials on the stage, the wedding ceremony got underway. At least I think it did ; one of the first things that happened was that Nam and Sid washed the feet of their parents to express their thanks and respect, which I'm not sure whether was a pre-wedding ritual or a mid-wedding ritual, or if the wedding even can be split into distinct pre/during/post sections.

    At a few points before and during, which per what I just said mightn't truly be categorised as such, there was occasional interspercement of a sort-of 'woooh' sound being made by a few of the guests. I'd initially misinterpreted this as an oddly-muted and inemphatic celebratory cheer, however I was later told that this practice was intended to ward-off evil spirits. That this sound was so similar to the sound ghosts/spirits typically make themselves in western cartoons, (see Scooby-doo), I felt to be an interesting association. (Post-publication edit : actually there weren't really spirits/ghosts in Scooby-doo, it always turned out to be the janitor/owner/businessman the gang met at the start with only a tangential connection to the haunted premises who would have gotten away with it were it not for those meddling stoners and their munchies-craving canine).

    There's no rings involved in the wedding ceremony, they were exchanged at the engagement ceremony yesterday, so the marriage was accordingly finalised with the tying of a thread around Nam and Sid. There were three knots tied with each knot symbolizing something different but, try to contain your shock, I don't know what. Does this custom have anything to do with the phrase 'tying the knot'? The answer may surprise you. It may not. I personally don't know what the answer is.

    Rice was then chucked about a bit, more incredibly-intricate flower garlands exchanged and valuables/jewellery passed between them all. At some point I think Nam suddenly acquired one of those forehead-pendant things, though I just might not have been paying full attention earlier. Bells were rung, a stick was tied to a pillar and the still-bound bride and groom, which I think by now were husband and wife, went for a wander round the pillars a few times. Incense was burned, or something else was burned and there was a coincidentally concurrent release of incense-like fragrance. We were then told we should go up with other guests to give our well-wishes, but when we reached the stage were told otherwise so retreated. I'm certain by now they were definitely married and so therefore no-longer engaged, thusly 'disengagement' was complete (lolz, wordplay innit).

    Then came food, which I'm 99% positive is a post-wedding thing, but not the full official proper 'reception', which isn't until later in the week. It was another buffet, which was somewhat fortunate as we were told we might be getting a 'leaf meal' (food served on large leaves) which, though it would have been cool to see, our proven inability to eat with our hands would have rendered consumption troublesome. In general, I enjoy a fair balance between novelty and practicality ; there's little point in something looking incredible and delicious if it's inedible. Like wax fruit. Or Papa John's Pizza.

    After shovelling in another delicious mixture of various Indian dishes, rice, breads and ice-cream (this time with a delectable sweetened carrot accompaniment) we went to do what we thought we were supposed to be doing earlier and issue our well-wishes to the married couple. The queuing system left a little to be desired; we joined the back of the primary queue to the left of the stage so as to reach Nam/Sid then exit stage-right, but it appeared some people invoked a 'fast-pass' approach and started queuing up the exit. Perhaps it was our innate Britishness that rendered this rather loose queuing affair somewhat unsatisfactory. Perhaps, and more likely, it only bothered me because I have a sixth-sense for spotting anything worthy of even slight complaint. Either way, it didn't take long for us to reach the front and convey our congratulations and thanks to Nam and Sid. I was also able to off-load the card that I had brought and been holding onto all day to Nam, with apologies that clearly a card is not a traditional thing to bring to an Indian wedding and so my gesture amounted to a a paper-enclosed cardboard redundancy.

    Following this we had to head quickly back to the hotel as our check-out time was impending. As our bus wasn't until half-past-midnight, we transferred to a hotel across the road where there were some block-booked rooms for the wedding no-longer in use. Whilst considered an improvement on our original plans, we we remained sceptical as to the likelihood of actually sleeping on the sleeper bus so had some sleep for a few hours, waking early evening for dinner. We decided to try the hotel's restaurant, which turned out to be on the top-floor with open side-walls offering gorgeous views of the city. The menu and food was good ; so as to take full advantage of the culinary authenticity of actually being in India, I ordered a tikka-masala.

    After dinner we went for a walk through the surrounding area; Charlotte needing hair products and us all needing cash. Eventually locating an ATM we remarked that it would be good to have a drink, but recalled we'd been forewarned by Nam that the wedding would be dry and alcohol difficult to come by in Madurai. Fortunately my seventh sense, the one after finding things to moan about, came into play and we found an appropriate intoxicant dispensary in the form of a bar not too far from the hotel. Behind big heavy doors and fairly inconspicuous from the outside, inside it was fairly typical with soft lights, decent and low-priced beers and Indian music video channels playing on the multiple television sets. I ordered a Kingfisher Blue beer, which I was initially concerned would be a low or alcohol-free variant of the Kingfisher beer brand but in fact transpired to be a 'strong beer' version instead, so I was pleasantly buzzed by the time we headed to the bus.
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  • Day2

    A Cultural Engagement

    December 8, 2018 in India ⋅ ⛅ 31 °C

    Following my spring spent in Vietnam I wasn't expecting to really 'travel' again this year, yet here I was/am/are embarking on a fresh mini adventure determining the appropriate tense with which to transcribe my experiences.

    I'd usually dedicat some space to describe my means of arrival, however so much has happened over the past thirty-six hours since touchdown it would seem a shame to waste word-count reviewing my in-flight entertainment (Mission Impossible 6 : 8 out of 10, Antman & the Wasp : 7 out of 10, Tag : 6 out of 10, various episodes of Family Guy, American Dad and Rick & Morty : 7, 6, 8, 7, 5, 6, 9, 8) or pass comment on the planes themselves (ranging from nigh-luxury aboard our first upgraded flight between Birmingham and Dubai to our patch-job, refurbished, lucky-it-landed internal transfer to Madurai) or mention our observations within the airports themselves (Dubai is fancy though not as fancy as you'd expect, Chennai has KFC but with a heavier emphasis on spice and rice), so I won't.

    Upon landing we collected our baggage, kindly advised the Thomas Cook currency rep offering us only 70 rupees to the pound to sod-off and took a taxi to our first hotel, which as far as Madurai goes we'd expected to be our only hotel, but I'll get to that. Nam greeted us at reception and it was wonderful and emotional to see her so close to her big-day, albeit expression of this emotion was suitably reserved in adherence with what we're informed are the more conservative attitudes of Madurai.

    By this point it was Saturday afternoon and David and I, who had travelled here together, hadn't slept since Thursday night (aside from a brief ten minutes I'd managed during the second-half of the 5-rated Family Guy), so we resolved to kip for a couple of hours ahead of the engagement ceremony in the evening.

    This we did, then threw on our glad-rags for the sundown shindig. Nam's brother sorted the transport and we clambered into a mini-bus with a gaggle of other guests whose names I briefly learned then promptly forgot. This was to become a pattern over the following day which in no way infers those I met weren't memorable, I thoroughly recall my fleeting association with each of them, but is instead symptomatic of my personal memory issues which in fact necessitate my keeping of blogs such as this. Names are my particular Thingy's heel.

    Upon arrival at the hotel venue we were handed a mildy-minty slightly-limey very-greeny fruit drink and asked to dunk our forefingers into a small pot of yellowy-paste and pop a dot on our foreheads. I know this has a proper name and is imbued with symbolism/context that my basic description likely undermines, but I don't have a mobile data connection in India so my standard-but-silent co-authorship partner, Wikipedia, is sadly unavailable. We met up with Charlotte at the ceremony who one-upped our dots-on-the-forehead with beautifully sketched patterns all over her hands and wrists which I'm fairly confident in calling 'henna'.

    The room was arranged in an unsurprising layout, rows of chairs adorned with pretty seat-covers with an aisle down the centre leading to an elevated space where the 'main event' was to occur, but something that did surprise was that when the ceremony began their was no ask or expectation that the guests be quiet or remain in their seats. Indeed, conversations continued and folk generally wandered around the room, as did I so as to get a better view of what was happening. From what I could tell there was some symbolic exchange of foods between the two families, the putting-on of elaborate flowery garlands and, as finalé, the exchange of rings between the betrothed. I'd have instinctively asked Nam what exactly was going on, but she was somewhat busy being the focal part of the thing I didn't understand.

    Following the ceremony several bowls of sweets handed around to the audience before we headed across the car park to a reception room where a buffet was being served. The selection was incredible and the plates fortunately vast enough to put a bit of everything on. As the serving staff dolloped on the helpings of rice, meat, veg, sauces and breads we looked around the room with mild alarm, noticing that the guests were eating all this lovely nosh with their hands. Fortunately we didn't need to display our trepidation for long ; we were soon spotted as the incapable Westerners that we are and metal cutlery was brought swiftly to us. Noting further that our ability to use cutlery to eat whilst standing was also lacking, they then quickly delivered to us some chairs so we could incospicuously sit in the dead centre of the room amongst the standing crowd and fork-feed ourselves. There was ice-cream for dessert served with a delicious gooey, syrupy dough-ball thing, of which I had seconds.

    A number of the guests asked us the typical questions I'd no-doubt be asking them if they'd flown across the world to a foreign wedding; where are you from(?), which football club do you support(?), is this your first time here(?), what are your plans(?) etc. As we shared our travel plans we noticed a particular reaction as regards the news we would be travelling to Kerala via night train in a 'sleeper' carriage. It was one of surprise, mild horror and an impetus to gently advise us we might want to rethink our plans fairly pronto. Concern was mainly being expressed in relation to the restroom facilities ; insomuch as they apparently technically existed, but it was highly discouraged to actually use them. There was also to be no air-conditioning, only a small window for ventilation, little room for luggage and quite compact bunking arrangements that might render sleep difficult to achieve. As keen advocates of sleeping, air, taking our luggage with us and using the toilet, we decided to look into other options.

    Our plans briefly, became the 'hot topic' for the room, with multiple people with data connections scouring the net for alternative options. In a period of fifteen-or-so minutes our schedule shifted six-or-seven times back and forth. We were briefly finding a carriage with A/C, then there weren't any, then we were flying, then we weren't, then we were going to grin & bear the sleeper carriage, then we were taking a cab until, finally, we were booked on a sleeper bus, with A/C, at half-past midnight the following night.

    In celebration of a job well-done, entirely by other people, and also partly in respect of the successful engagement of Nam and Sid, we went back to the ceremony room for a bit of dance. Charlotte was commended for here dancing prowess, effectively taking part in the Indian manouveres and movements to the extent of full assimilation, whilst I was there too.

    We headed back to the hotel in an OLA, India's better-named Uber equivalent, by way of another hotel to pick-up Charlotte's humongous bag, which was more problematic than it should have been. But the journey was necessary in order to pick up the 'outfits', a term I'm using loosely, David and I would be wearing the next day.
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