Sam-I-am as an Egyptian tout

I do not need to buy an ankh
I’ll keep my money in the bank

I do not want a granite cat
I do not want to buy your tat

I do not need another scarab
Go away you scamming Arab

I will not visit temple Horus
My wallet is not so porous

I do not want to see the Sphinx
Your selling style really stinks

I have no fear of the mummy curse
I worry more about my purse

I know that many tombs were found
I would prefer to keep my pound

I’ve paid for stories of King Tut
Now my wallet is firmly shut!

 

Thanks to Mark, “King of Rhymes” for his invaluable assistance with the couplets.

El Capricho

I spent last weekend in Madrid with some friends from Zurich. Spain is in the same timezone as Western Europe and Switzerland but when returning from a weekend there, it still takes a few days to get over the jet lag. We went for lunch at a recommended restaurant and found the place empty when we arrived at 2pm. We thought that that meant we had chosen an unpopular location. It turns out we had just chosen an unpopular time: by 3pm, the apparent lunch hour, the place was full. Similarly, dinner starts at around 10pm. Bars get active around midnight and night clubs don’t really get busy until around 2:30 or 3 in the morning. After sampling a bit of the nightlife, we were getting to bed at 5am and getting up around noon: just in time for breakfast.

The food schedules were particularly important to us. The driving motivation behind the trip was culinary. Madrid was really the warm-up and a good place to get out taste buds into a Spanish mood.

Our first dinner was a wonderful selection of  tapas. We sampled various sausages, hams, cheeses, meatballs, and tortilla. This was all washed down with a very decent bottle of Rioja. The outdoors restaurant of Lateral in Puerta del Sol lived up to is reputation as some of the best tapas in Madrid and was everything was cheap, cheap compared to Zurich.

Still in the tapas vein, we had an afternoon snack the following day at a small speciality eatery. The menu prominently displayed the 6 items they had on offer. The first was a very pleasant house wine and the other five were Gambons – prawns – prepared in various styles. We placed our order and watched as the prawns were cooked up in front of us. A collection were fried up whole on a grill while another handful were tossed into a small ceramic pot to be fried in a rich garlic sauce. Tasty beyond description!

The breakfast highlight was at San Ginés, a colorful little cafe hidden in a side street near Plaza Mayor. The place is famed as Spain’s most famous chocolateria. They serve over half-a-million cups of hot chocolate a year. The chocolate is served warm in coffee cups and has a syrup-like consistency. The breakfast is completed with churros – pastry deep fried to crispy perfection.

Our ultimate culinary destination, however, lay 300km north of Madrid in the countryside near León. El Capricho is famous for serving the best steak in the world. Working cows are retired at the end of a life of labour and then allowed to live out their latter years being well fed on grass and taken care of. After slaughter, the meat is then well aged and cooked with the greatest care. The result is promised to be the finest beef available.

After a four-hour drive from Madrid we arrived at the restaurant. The entrance of the restaurant overlooked the kitchen, a wonderfully characterful room which clearly showed the owner’s love of food. Capsicum overflowed the baskets in the corner.  Cloves of garlic hung to ribbons trailing down from the ceiling. The main meat-cooking grill was set into to a niche in the wall, with the heat supplied from a wood fire below. On a benchtop by the door, a hoof of an animal leg was held in a vice with the remainder of the leg covered by a cloth. Under the cloth you could see a partially carved leg of ham.

We proudly told the waitress that we had traveled all the way from Zurich to experience this restaurant and had reserved months in advance to ensure getting a place. Somehow, however, our reservation had been misplaced. We waited for a moment as they did some checking. Visions flashed before our minds of traveling halfway across Europe and having to end up eating at a McDonalds roadside diner. Lost reservation or not, the staff were kind us enough to take us in anyway. We were taken into the dining area downstairs.

The restaurant is wonderfully atmospheric as it was converted from a wine cellar. Most of the tables were tucked into alcoves that once housed barrels of wine. Since the restaurant was fully booked, we were taken past these and given the VIP room with statues and ancient wine making equipment on display behind glass walls.

On our way to the restaurant, we had been discussing how willing we would be to push our budgets. We had heard that the most expensive item was a 500€ steak. Would anyone spend that much on a steak? Should we get one to share? When the menus arrived, we had an unexpected shock: the prices were extremely reasonable! Starters and desserts were generally less than 5€ and there was even a four-course-and-wine “Recession Menu” for 20€. The philosophy of the owner became apparent: prepare the best possible quality meat and share it with as many people as possible. After coming such a distance for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, price was not our major constraint. We searched for the most expensive item we could find which was the “Working cow” steak priced at – a still surprisingly reasonable 158€ a kilogram.

Given our confusion over the menu, we were happy when the owner/cook suggested to prepare us a meal based on his recommendations. He presented us a 3kg piece of raw steak that he thought would suit us for the main course. The flesh was a deep red and a thick, thick layer of fat along its side recommended it as a quality piece of meat. The mystery of the 500€-steak was thus solved: rather than being an expensive single dish, this magnificent piece of meat would feed the table. The meat was then taken away to be tempered at room-temperature – an essential step to bringing out the full flavour.

While the main was being prepared, we were given a plate of ham to start. This was delicious. After a few days in Spain, we had already started to become snobby about having great ham. This certainly met our expectations. Dark meat with a rich and pleasantly salty flavour.

The ham was accompanied by a lovely bottle of wine. Since the meal was going to be less expensive than we first imagined, our wine budget grew to compensate. We had an excellent 110€ bottle of 2006  El Bosque Rioja.  As good as it was, I couldn’t definitively say whether it was better that the 30€ bottle of Rioja we had in Madrid. Similarly for the 260€ 2003 La Cueva Del Contador that accompanied the main – a wonderful wine, but not 8-times better than a cheaper bottle.

The main course was our eagerly anticipated piece of beef. The chef brought the cooked steak to the table and proceeded to carve it into thin slices. The meat was cooked rare – the inside raw and the outside seared and salted. The meat was incredibly tender with the crusty surface imparting the flavour from the wood fire and the salt dissolving in the mouth to impart round-out the flavours. The fat was served separately and could be eaten alone (yes, it was that good) or to enhance the flavour of a mouthful of beef. Another combination was to a slice of roasted capsicum/pepper with the beef. Even the hot chips were excellent – cooked to perfection.

The meal was completed by an excellent dessert platter – so good that we shared 3 rounds in the group. Egg custard tart, cheesecake, rice pudding,  and the table’s favourite: the three-chocolate cake.

At the end of the meal, the chef returned once more to ask if we were satisfied with our meal. He received a spontaneous, and well-deserved round of applause from group of very grateful diners.

… on a motorcycle

I pulled the motorbike up to a stop at the T-junction. As soon as I stopped, I could feel the heat and the humidity. It was already too hot and it was only 7am. I checked my map and the GPS on my iPhone and decided to take the right-hand turn. Opposite me a few dogs dragged themselves lazily to their feet and stretched. As a motored by they sprang into action; barking and chasing me down the road.

After a great ordeal I rented a motorbike the previous afternoon. Lonely Planet mentioned that the famous Royal Enfield Bullet motorbike was rentable in Goa. Famous as it might be, I had never heard of them. Still, after bumping around dirt roads on tiny-framed scooters, the thought of a real bike was appealing.

Appealing too was the thought of independent transport. One of the most tiring parts of backpacking in India is the travel. Buses and trains make for tiring long journeys. Shorter distances are covered by motorised rickshaw. This isn’t an unpleasant way to travel, but does involve negotiating the price at the start and, inevitably, renegotiating the price again at the end. If you stop for 2 minutes to take a photo, he – and they are all male – will want more money. If you succumb to the sales pitch and look at his cousin’s hotel, he will want an extra payment if you decide for your original choice. If your driver doesn’t know where your hotel is and gets lost, he will want extra money. It’s exhausting.

My train from Hampi took me to Margao in Goa. I spent an hour unsuccessfully trying to rent a motorbike there. I initially disbelieved the local taxi’s claims that rental was not possible; it’s best not to ask an Indian businessman about the competitor’s options – they tend to lie. After confirmation from a local bookstore, I relented and travelled an hour up the road to rent a bike in Panaji. After a bit more searching – the first dealer assured me there were no Enfields to be had, (because he didn’t rent them) – I laid my eyes on one. It was beautiful.

The rental agent was surprisingly cautious about renting to me. I was stunned that I had to show my motorcycle license and they even took my passport and a cash deposit. Rental in India is usually a bit more relaxed with scooters being handed out to  first-time drivers. Its also common to see the scraps and scrapes that result from the accidents that inevitably.

Also surprising was the state of the motorbike. Most scooters I’ve rented have usually resulted in me insisting on some repairs before I take the machine out. Call me crazy, but working lights and brakes I consider a necessity. The only mechanical fault was the engine backfired. This was perhaps a feature as the sputtering bangs made great sound effects.

Next surprise was the roads. They were all paved and in good condition with few potholes. There were speed bumps! Normally, the road conditions are more than adequate to keep speeds down. There were even signposts! Lonely Planet warned of treacherous conditions, but dogs and cows and buffalo are all part of the fun of Indian traffic.

I finally hit the road around 5pm, just in time for peak hour traffic. Fortunately, the Bullet is an easy bike to drive and I quickly reacquainted myself with the brakes and gears of a real bike.

The traffic was the typical Asian madness. Despite appearances, drivers are quite good in Asia. Western driving depends on strict rules and everyone following those rules. Breaking the rules will often result in receiving a rude and angry honk from another driver. Asia works on a different model. The rules are more seen as guidelines. If you want to overtake the motorcycle that is overtaking a truck, go for it: the oncoming bus will probably try to avoid you. You just need to be courteous about it this is what the incessant horn honking in Asia is; it’s to let other drivers know where you are. This is especially important as most drivers don’t check behind them or use their mirrors. They expect other drivers to be aware of what everyone is doing and honk appropriately. Overall it works rather well and despite the noise and apparent chaos, it’s all quite polite and peaceful.

In the end, the Enfield was a great choice. I could comfortably negotiate my way between the cars, trucks, buses and cows in the traffic. I was able to weave my way between the heavier vehicles and whiz past the small scooters. When I accelerated, the engine gave a satisfying growl. Above all the cooling breeze made the oppresive heat and humidity bearable.

Songs in my head:
Ain’t Going to Goa
m..f.. on a motorcycle (warning: nudity and very few lyrics that aren’t “explicit”)

Expat life

The expatriate scene around Indian tourist areas is an interesting one. Quite a few western women end up in relationships with Indian men. One (unattached) expat woman, Corinne, explained to me that this was about money – a little sex is nice too; Indian women don’t have sex before marriage – but mainly about money.

Before I even arrived in Indian, I had heard a story that seemed to validate this point of view. When I was looking online for my first night’s accommodation, I came across a few blog posts from an Italian woman who had an incredibly bad experience when she started a resort business with a local man. He cheated on her, took lots of her money, forged documents etc.

On the other hand I came across examples that spoke the other way. I met one western woman, Sara, who runs a local business with her Indian husband, Ashley. They are partners in all senses of the word and their relationship seems equitable and very healthy.

Another (unattached) expat woman, Margit, shared the belief that the Indian men often take advantage of western women. She also acknowledged that western women could be just as manipulative and make promises that they don’t keep.

I got to know one woman, Diane, who had been staying in one town in India for several months. Her Indian boyfriend, Avi, worked locally. I have no idea who was using whom. She acknowledged the chance of being used, but said she had no money to be taken and so this wasn’t a problem. She was in an ongoing fight with the manager of her hotel. Her boyfriend had arranged an all-inclusive accommodation deal with the manager’s brother, who was currently overseas. The manager demanded up-front payment, she said the deal with the brother and refused to give any cash.

At a festival, I met an Indian guy, Surej, who had an MBA from a local university and had worked in France for several years. He invited me to lunch at his house the following day and I naturally accepted. I agreed to meet him at the local shop/tea stand/pancake at 11:30. Diane joined me for chai and Surej turned up an hour later (time in Indian is relative). Diane was invited to lunch too and we had an excellent meal prepared by his sister.

After lunch the three of us had a rambling conversation and also covered the difficulties of doing business in India. Diane said that Indian law favoured the locals and there was no way, for example, for a foreigner to own local land. Surej spoke of new law that would allow foreigners to lease land with some sort of support from a local. Surej indeed owned some beachfront land and had a good development opportunity there. Another business opportunity he had was in import/export of bio (organic) beauty products. He also spoke to Diane about helping her boyfriend get an european visa.

After the lunch, Diane was very annoyed and convinced that Surej was attempting to scam us. If it was a scam it was a subtle one. Several business opportunities were mentioned, but none were pushed very hard. It could be a long con: business investments require larger investments over a longer period of time. In any case, the lunch was a lovely one.

I got an email from Surej a day or two later. He warned me to be careful around Diane. An expat friend of his saw the three of us together and passed Surej a warning: she has a reputation of acquiring Indian boyfriends and getting them to cover her expenses. Given the strange and controversial deal that her boyfriend worked out with her hotel, it is possible that there was some truth to this.

Most striking to me was the complete lack of trust people had of each other, even – or perhaps especially – among the expatriates. The level of gossiping got so complex, I made a diagram. Names have been changed to protect the innocent and guilty. In many cases, I’m not sure who is which.

Messing About In Boats

I finally managed to get myself out of Varkala after nearly a week of beach life. I met some other travellers and we arranged a car to take us north to Kollam and from there a ferry onwards to Alleppey. The town of Alleppey is the gateway to Kerala’s famous Backwater – a huge area of freshwater lakes, rivers and canals. From Alleppey one can rent a houseboat to explore this unique area.

The ferry trip was 8 hours and gave us a sample of the life on the water that we were about to plunge into. Chinese fishing nets perched above the water. Boats similar in style to junks sailed by. People on the water’s edge went about their daily business including visiting waterfront churches. One church was adorned with a statue of Jesus with a cross slung casually over his shoulder. One of my traveling companions pointed out a similarity to Buddy Christ of the film Dogma.

Coming off the ferry in the evening, we were descended upon by hoards of touts. There are good commissions to be made in getting tourists onto boats and business cards were pressed into our hands. The other approach is to get tourists into a guesthouse and then up-sell them to a houseboat. Given the late hour, we succumbed to one of the guys who offered us a cheap homestay a bit away from the centre.  The five of us piled into the back rickshaw (a feat previously thought impossible) and weaved our way in between potholes to get to the guesthouse. It was 100INR per person and, unfortunately, worth about that. Simple, but clean (enough).

In the morning I awoke early and had a chat with the owner. A wonderful thing about traveling in India is that many of the locals speak good English. He showed me a local cafe for my first curried breakfast of Paratha and Kadda (I’ve been on banana pancakes to date).

We chatted a bit and after the small talk he gave me some info and a gentle sales pitch for his houseboat. All the guesthouse owners in Alleppy (and pretty much everyone else) have contacts with houseboat crews.

Given that it was low season, our group decided to have a Haggle-Off. We would split up, see a few houseboats each and then meet to exchange notes. Whoever found the best houseboat at the best price would win.

This turned out to be an easier choice than we first thought. Many of the boats are outfitted for Indian tourists who seem to value mod-cons over aesthetics. One boat had air-conditioning, green walls, a large plasma TV with satellite channels and a collection of anal porn. There were nicer alternatives. The first boat I looked at beautiful bamboo panelling and an extremely friendly crew. After a bit of a misunderstanding – is that the price “per night” or for “both nights” – we negotiated a good price and headed on our way.

The couple took one of the bedrooms and the two girls the other. I took a mattress on the upper deck which, once equipped with a mosquito net, became my open-air bedroom. We mixed ourselves some cocktails in the evening and settled in to the pace of life on the waters.

The food was a highlight. We had an onboard chef, Prince, who cooked us sensational Keralan meals. Wonderful, colourful curries were presented to us three times a day (spicy breakfasts are standard, but he was also willing to adapt to our western palates).

Lonely Planet describes the Backwaters as a place to escape modern technology. However, in addition to buying a new 11″ MacBook Air before coming to India, I bought a 3G network dongle and soon had the boat hooked up with wifi. We set up GPS tracking so we could see where our boat was and published a live feed to twitter.

The Backwaters are beautiful with cooling breezes and a thousand shades of green. The villagers live out their lives on the water’s edge, washing and cleaning their clothes in the water. The picture shows a canoe taking children to school.

Another highlight came one evening when the air was filled with the sounds of quacking. Coming down the river was a huge group of several hundred ducks. Two boats were herding the group together and took them onshore for the evening. I had no idea such a thing even existed. Some of the stragglers got nabbed by the herder and were taken onshore limp with broken necks. Natural selection in action I suppose.

I adapted quickly to local life. After getting up early one morning, I found a convenient palm tree for my bathroom (the beautiful onboard en suite bathrooms were the best bathrooms I’ve seen in India, but they were blocked my sleeping co-travelers), took a wash in the river and gave my clothes a wash. For my t-shirts (I have three: a day t-shirt, a new “evening” t-shirt and a spare for when I pay for a wash day) this is a bit pointless. It’s so hot and humid in April, that my t-shirt becomes sweaty within minutes of putting it on. I had reached my 5-day limit of fresh underwear though and gave this a wash and draped it on the deck to dry.

We spent 2 nights on the water. It was barely enough. Boat life was a relaxing way to see the sights and the movement was a good cure for the sweltering heat of Kerala.

Nokia nostalgia

I knew that India – like many developing countries – is mobile phone mad. For the poorest, having a mobile phone can be more important than food: you can live through a bit of hunger and a mobile phone gives you a chance to earn money through business.

My beloved iPhone is with me on the trip and has been doing a great job for many travel chores: wifi Internet, currency conversion, gps mapping, note taking, blog drafting, the occasional use as an emergency flashlight and I find I take more photos with my iPhone than I do with the two dedicated cameras that I brought.

The only thing that doesn’t work so well is using it as a phone. Well, it works, but calls are ludicrously expensive. I decided to get local access and, since my iPhone won’t accept foreign SIM cards, I bought a local phone.

The purchase in itself was an interesting exercise. First a trip to the phone shop to choose a handset, then a trip to the carrier’s shop to sign up for a pre-paid contract, a trip to get my passport and visa photocopied (needed for the contract), and a trip to a photo studio to get some passport photos (again, needed for the contract). The photo studio amusingly went to the effort of touching up my portrait by blurring out my wrinkles and hiding a pimple.

I looked at the cheapest phone option with a black and white screen and also an expensive option with a camera and data access. The model I chose was the Nokia 1800, the cheapest colour phone at a miserly 1400INR. This one had been recommended.

Despite their fading popularity in developed countries, Nokia still have a great reputation in India. I was a loyal and devoted Nokia user from my very first phone in 2000 up until the iPhone came out. I doubt Nokia will ever recover in the western world, so it’s fascinating to see the niche they have carved out for themselves to meet the needs of India’s population.

The Devanagari script on the keys is the first indication that this isn’t your grandma’s phone. Many Indians, though are illiterate, yet numerate. Every menu option has an icon associated with it. There is speaking clock feature. When you add contacts you can also pick from a number of profile graphics (no camera on the basic model). The case mold is equipped to handle a camera though – presumably the higher end models share parts to reduce manufacturing costs.

One standard feature on the phone is an LED torch that works respectably well. I’ve used it everyday since: the path from my guesthouse to the main drag of Varkala is mostly unlit. I can even see the light being practical in-town: blackouts are not uncommon.

Speaking of days, even with the steady usage the battery needs recharging at most weekly. This is a far cry from the practically daily hit my iPhone demands.

On the downside, I didn’t appreciate at the time exactly how crap the Nokia interface is. A numeric keypad is annoying to use and there are lots of unintuitive interface elements. T9 is a clever hack, but a painful way to enter text. There are countless “tricks” that one needs to (re)learn to do simple things like punctuation.

The phone aside, also interesting are the services provided by the mobile carrier. Services are built-in to let you search information on planes, trains, restaurants and even visa status. This Internet substitute works via SMS and does so decently.

Further SMS services provide information targeted to the local needs and wishes. Daily updates are provided on a number of topics for 7 rupees a week. The first service on the list is, of course, Cricket. Not being a fan, and with the World Cup over, I browsed further and looked into the Spiritual Alerts category. Given the choice between the Koran, the Gita and the Bible, I naturally chose the Gita. The quotes are great and I’ve been reposting them to my twitter account.

Today’s quote:

Thus, by constantly trying and controlling his mind, the yogi, completely purged of all evil impulses in him, and made perfect through many *some text missing* [sic]

That’s all it says. Due to the 140 character limit of my phone, the full wisdom of the Gita is obscured from me. I will never discover what the yogi’s path to perfection was and, as a result, my life may remain incomplete. Perhaps I should’ve gone for the more expensive phone after all…

A spot of fishing

With my body clock out of whack, I was wide awake at 6am. I took my camera down to the beach to have a swim and watch the sunrise. As I got there a group of fishermen were heaving their wooden boat into the water. I swam out past them and watched them paddle a huge arc before coming back near the shore. The crew hopped out onto the beach with one man remaining to paddle back out to sea.

The guidebooks mention that even experienced swimmers have drowned in this area. I had swum several times far from shore without noticing any current. Eyeing the boat I had a mild suspicion that maybe those swimmers got caught in nets instead. Not wanting to become part of the catch, I caught a wave back to shore. Watching the fishermen line up on the beach I reminded myself to ask one of the guesthouse staff, Meksin, how the fishing worked – his father, he had told me, works here as a fisherman. It turns out I would get some first hand experience…

The group of men had several younger boys with them. One of them waved me over and asked me to help “just for 5 minutes”. I took my place along the line and helped pull the rope. It was attached to a large net that looped out in an arc offshore. Another crew were a few hundred meters down the beach hauling in the other end. Each person on the rope – including myself – is a Hauler: pulling the rope backwards up the beach until they meet The Coiler. He has the best job and makes neat towering coils from the rope. After handing off to the Coiler, the Hauler heads back down to the front of the line to grab the next section of rope. The worst job goes to the kids, he Bundlers. They stand out in the deeper water and as the rope turns to net, they collect this up and hold it on their shoulders to keep it out of the sand. This involves a lot of heavy lifting and being bashed around in the surf. Finally the end of net is brought in and opened up to reveal the haul: a fairly measly few kilos of small fish.

As I took part in the fishermen’s daily ritual, I realised I was watching economic progress in action. The region of Kerala has make huge progress in education and leads the developing world in literacy. These kids, many of whom spoke English, will be getting a good education and won’t want to settle for lives as fishermen. Many will likely end up in the booming tourism industry.

So who will catch the fish? A job as a fisherman would have to pay more to attract the locals. When labour becomes expensive, it makes sense to invest in capital: instead of 15 people spending over an hour of hard-labour dragging in a few kilo of small fish, the same work could be done by two people and a motor boat. The economic lesson is a simple one. The ecological lesson of plundering the sea for a handful of fish is left to the reader.