Sunday, February 8, 2009

Diu - Good For The Soul, Bad For The Liver

What, and where is Diu? A tiny island on the southern tip of the Saurashtra peninsula in Gujurat, Diu packs a whole lot of history into a small space. Like Goa, the area was a Portuguese enclave in India right through until the mid-20th century, but now it's more famous as a tropical holiday destination for slightly more alternative Western travellers and really drunken Indian men (Diu is the only place in Gujurat where alcohol is legal).

Before we go any further, let's look at a picture (and specifically, a t-shirt) that summarises my feelings about Diu:

I Heart Diu

I got down to Diu from Bhuj in a relay stretch of sleeper buses. I meant to spend some time in Rajkot, but it turned out to be just another crowded Indian city with nothing to offer, so I jumped straight onto the overnighter to Diu (although not before getting kissed by a ridiculously stoned local teenager). I arrived at the government bus station at 5:30am, well before sunrise, and cooled my heels there for a good hour or two before getting a rickshaw to my intended accommodation - a converted church on a hill above the main town. The room was expensive for what it was, but the fact that it was a twenty-second walk up the stairs onto a roof with an amazing view sold me. I dropped my pack and settled in.

One of my first actions on the island was to rent a motorbike (albeit a piss-weak 100cc runabout, which was still the most ballsy thing I could find for hire), which gave me a much greater range than normal in India. Thus it was that I was able to roam the island at will, often topping 90kmph on the main roads, equipped with the standard Indian safety gear: a t-shirt, shorts, thongs, and a blatant disregard for the road rules. The following shot was a surprisingly difficult self-portrait to get - the church in the background is my guesthouse(!).

Self-Portrait With Bike (2)

I'd intended to stay in Diu for my birthday, and maybe two or three more days. As it turned out, I stayed for almost two weeks. The place is laid-back, chilled, friendly, reasonably cheap, tropical, and an absolute gravity well for travellers. The people in the rooms on either side of me both stayed for roughly the same period, so basically we turned the guesthouse into a non-stop two-week social event. Think fresh seafood barbeques every second night, parties on the roof, and cheap beer (about $1.30 Australian for 650ml bottles). All in all, Diu is probably the closest thing I've ever seen to a tropical paradise.

On one side of my room, there was Gabe and Liv, from Canada and England respectively, and on the other side, Anders from Denmark. Joining us later were Tori and Elise, both Melbourne girls, one of whom went to college with my little sister. (Who says it's not a small world?) In between long bouts of doing nothing at all, some of us spent our time being creative - Anders and I took photos, Liv played banjo (including a concert one night), and Gabe painted crazy things on pretty much any available surface.

Sunset Banjo

Sacred Geometries (2)

Wall Painting

As well as being a playground for Western tourists, Diu is also a popular holiday destination for Indians, particularly Gujurati men who flock there for legal booze, clean beaches, and the opportunity to spend all day looking at Western titties. The latter represented the only seriously negative side of the island: India is horrendously repressed sexually, and most Indian guys (who've seemingly been raised on equal parts of the Bhagavad Gita and Baywatch) have absolutely the wrong idea about Western women. Literally every woman I spoke to under the age of forty had been followed by drunken Indian men, who frequently propositioned them for sex, made suggestive gestures, and generally went to extraordinary lengths to see them in bikinis. It wasn't so much a problem when Western guys were around, since a few threatening gestures and words usually sent them scurrying, but it was definitely a downer hearing the constant stories of inappropriate behaviour.

There were other, less wankerish Indians around: Diu is a favourite place for weddings, and so almost every night I drifted off to sleep listening to the sounds of banging drums and fireworks. Weddings actually form a road hazard - it was a common occurrence to round a corner on my bike and suddenly come face-to-face with maybe a hundred people dancing in the road, throwing money around, and generally acting the fool.


Radiant Bride

Once you got away from Diu Town and Nagoa Beach, however, it proved easy to find small, tucked-away places to get lost in for a few hours. My favourite was Vanakbara, a fishing village at the far western end of the island, which was always a bustle of activity and a fascinating place to walk around. I spent an afternoon there taking photos, and turned out some nice ones of life on the waterfront:

Hauling Her In (1)

Hauling Her In (2)

Ice Crushing





Catch Of The Day

And now, I must away - off to Ahmedabad again, and there to board a train to Mumbai. I'm not sure what I'm going to find there, but I'm pretty damn sure it's going to be interesting. Until then!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Bhuj - An Antidote To Real Life

Kutch, and especially the wild-west regional capital Bhuj, may well be my favourite place in India so far. It didn't start off too comfortably - after a few days running on empty, I crashed out so hard on the overnight train west from Ahmedabad that I completely failed to wake up when we arrived, and it wasn't until a policeman came through half an hour later and poked me awake with his lathi stick that I realised where we were. After an hour spent trudging through the early morning streets looking for a hotel (or even someone who spoke enough English to tell me where the hell I was), I found a small place called the City Guest House that seems to be pretty much the only cheap hotel in town. Fortunately, it's a friendly place and the room price didn't take the piss too much.

Bhuj itself is small by Indian standards, with a population somewhere in the area of 150,000. Perched between the Little and Great Ranns of Kutch (or Kachchh, to give it the proper unpronounceable transliteration), it sits in an area of dubious agricultural quality and is prone to natural disasters - in 2001, on 26th January (Indian Republic Day) an earthquake devastated the area, killing a staggering 10% of the city's inhabitants. It recovers, and has recovered quickly, though - apart from comments by the locals, you almost wouldn't know that a catastrophe of such magnitude occurred here. The people are friendly to the point of fierceness, and the local children are absolutely charming; everyone I've met on the street seems genuinely happy to see a foreigner, and I've spent a lot of pleasant time trading a few words of butchered Gujurati for a few words of butchered English.

Night Cauliflowers!

I spent a day looking around the city, taking in the old (and now earthquake-ruined) Aina Mahal and Prag Mahal. These half-palace-half-mansion residences are eerie as all get up, with cracked, broken chandeliers dangling from the ceiling and unsteady gilt-skirted statues leaning out from the walls. The buildings have a kind of Italianate architecture, which is unusual in India (to say the least).

Prag Mahal (2)

Prag Mahal (1)

The day after, I had a day off - unintentionally, since although I'd booked an autorickshaw to tour around the countryside, a message got lost in the pipeline and no-one turned up. This was for the best - I lay around in the sun, went for a walk, read a book, at lunch, did some laundry, and basically chilled out. The next day, I sorted out the mess with the rickshaw, and proceeded to take a tiki-tour around some small villages near Bhuj (I would have liked to go further, but it seemed like the rickshaw was one of the dodgy ones with a top speed around 25kmph).

The villages proved to be a photographic goldmine. I got some local kids on my side, who hauled me around the small villages of Dhori and Kotay, persuading all and sundry to get in front of my lens. I've put together a set on Flickr called Village Faces, of which here are some of my favourites:

Village Faces (2)

Water Carriers (1)

Water Carriers (3)

Village Faces (7)

Village Faces (10)

Village Faces (13)

Village Faces (15)

And now, I must continue moving - this time to Diu, an old Portuguese enclave in the south of the state. Photos of beaches and beers to come soon!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Ahmedabad To Worse

Actually, that's an unkind title. Ahmedabad, the bustling capital city of Gujurat, is relatively pleasant compared to many of the massive urban sprawls I've passed through. Still, whenever you cram four million-odd people together into a small area on the banks of a river, you're going to have problems, and for some reason I found it difficult to look past those of Ahmedabad during the twenty-four stopover hours I spent in the city.

First off, the traffic is horrendous, snarling through the city like animate tendrils of metal. Crossing any road, or even walking along one, requires stainless steel nerves and a certain disregard for both the safety of oneself and (especially!) other people. Even the traffic in Delhi, fabled for its insanity, seemed mild compared to this.

Secondly, and most importantly, is the poverty evident throughout the city. Ahmedabad is a city that has fought its way through numerous economic down-times, and there are many people visible who have fallen along the wayside. Slum areas squat wretchedly next to the river, hemmed in by polluted water on one side and ugly concrete office blocks on the other. Most street corners are populated by beggars, and street kids are everywhere.

I normally avoid taking photos of people living in poverty, but as I walked down the street in the middle of the day, I ran across a scene that has burnt itself into my mind. Two ragged street kids lay sprawled on a concrete island amidst the manic traffic, occasionally raising themselves to stretch out filthy hands on stick-thin arms to the cars that drove pass. I watched them for a while, and not once did I see anyone in a vehicle give them anything, or even acknowledge their existence. Eventually I walked them off the middle of the road, and gave them the change from my pocket for food - although it's likely to be stolen by a bigger child or appropriated by one of the so-called "beggar pimps", I couldn't just walk away without doing something, and I couldn't see anywhere around to even buy them food (by far my preferred form of charity, since it is so much more direct than giving money).

Street Kids (1)

Street Kids (2)


The worst thing is that this is not at all unusual - I have seen similar things all across India and Nepal, and I fully expect to see worse in Mumbai. As a human being from a wealthy country, the poverty in India is something I struggle with everyday; the worst thing is that I can't even come up with a fraction of a bad solution, let alone a good one.

But Ahmedabad did leave me with a couple of better memories, and some less heartbreaking photos. At sunset, I went to the local Jama Masjid, a beautiful courtyarded area amidst the downtown chaos, and found an island of peace. As I walked around enjoying the afternoon sunlight, Muslim men began filing in and crowding around a pool in the middle of the courtyard, washing in preparation from prayer. As the azan sounded, no-one paid me any mind, content to let me sit quietly and watch (an unusual event in Islamic India - generally, non-Muslims are kicked out as soon as the muezzin opens his mouth). Although I don't like Islam as a moral (and especially legal) framework, I find the rituals and sounds of the religion deeply moving, and it was a great pleasure to enjoy it without feeling like I was intruding.

Bathing At The Jama Masjid


Afternoon Prayers

As the sun finished setting, I walked back to my cheap hotel room near the station, fingering the ticket in my pocket. Another overnight train, second class sleeper of course, to Bhuj, the regional capital of Kutch. I didn't even really know why I was going there, but I was ready to escape the touristy bustle of the big city. As it turns out, Kutch may well be my favourite area of India so far - stay tuned for the next post to find out why.