I've seen a lot of places, and tried to get off the beaten track - away from the other tourists. That's where the real country is: with the people.
There's never been any danger I could sense. At least, not to mme personally. Sure, I got a little lost in Howrah: not a part of Calcutta people recommend you go astray in. But everyone was kind, helpful, and that's been the story of my travels in general. If you're lost, then ask.
And getting lost is half the fun. Then you're forced to interact with people. You cross the U-Bein bridge near Mandalay, and end up at a temple complex in the middle of a jungle. Take a path, then another, another still, and before you know it, you've lost sight of the bridge and no-one speaks English. That's when the fun begins!
Most places are amenable for getting thoroughly lost in: Beijing is good, as is any Indian town or city. Moscow's good for wandering (or at least it was in 1986 - not sure about now). Capri is so beautiful that wandering could have you miles away before you realise it. But then, you're not restricted to abroad: Avebury, Pembrokeshire, St. Ives - a million points of interest, few of the best ones in any guide book.
This page shows a glimpse of some of the travels I've been on. I'm willing to give recommendations and advice (for what it's worth) to anyone exploring these places for themselces. Just e mail me: firstname.lastname@example.org
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MAN IN CALCUTTA.
Because his spine is twisted,
because his mouth utters no cry,
because his knees bend
he cannot hope to ever
Because his twigged limbs
hug the kerbstones
because his tongue sweeps
dust from footsteps
your passage through life
will be without incident.
Because he is low enough
to escape eye contact,
he will see your
head in Heaven's clouds, and
presume he has been
forgotten, which he has not.
Poetry will not heal
RAJASTHAN, or, HOW I FOUND BARRY ISLAND IN INDIA.
The warning shot "Expect the Unexpected" has fallen into misuse. True surprises are so rare these days as to be an endangered occurence. They might just be extinct at this Millennial juncture.
Some places seem to throw open a rift: a deep split in normality that bears the very core of life. While everyone living within walking distance of this chasm has learned to step over it without a second thought, the stranger to these parts, the tourist, is stopped in his or her tracks before it.
Until one becomes complacent to the extraordinary again (and it takes time, believe me), the rift will surprise and often amaze.
It all came to me one day in the Rajasthani hill station resort of Mount Abu, 4000' above sea level and part of the Aravalli Hills range: it is, apparently, the son of the god Himalaya.
I can place the exact moment of this enlightenment, in fact: it was as we passed a camel wearing a pink plastic spaceman strapped to its forehead. As if the animal was bearing the weight of the Modern World on its head, it stood stock still with a mixed air of stupidity and pride about it.
Actually, the camel was sitting. Looking very cool, I now realised, imagining it wishing it had on a pair of Ray-Bans, and maybe an outsize Harley Davidson between its knonnly knees.
Following me with its bloodshot eyes as I walked past, dodging the (Indian) holiday-makers, it seemed to be saying (telepathically, of course) "Yeah, so I've got an astronaut between my ears - what have you got there, punk?"
A few days before this, travelling through desert-to-be in the Bus That Knew No Suspension, we'd stopped at the Midway Restautant that wasn't so much the border post between heaven and hell, or even between Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, so much as it was a sort of interim Green Room for the Theatre of the Absurd.
Actually, I lie again; the place was pretty standard Indian strangeness. What made me think otherwise there for a moment was that the last thing we saw as the Crate On Square Wheels drew out of sandsville was another camel. This one was wearing a silk scarf, and smoking a cigarette. (Gauloises? Woodbines? Camels??)
Back to Mount Abu...
If any place so far from home could be so much like Barry Island at August Bank Holiday weekend, then surely this was it. Gujaratis, fed up with good food but no beer, had come here for a day or two. The fact that it's a couple of days' journeying each way, the last hour this end being a roller coaster bus ride up a cliff supposedly crawling with leopard and bear (plural) did not seem to deter them. In fact, it created a purpose above the hedonistic pursuit of Rosy Pelican lager.
Indians will take their kitchen sink (or its local equivalent) with them even if they're popping out to the corner shop for a pint of milk. To travel light in the sub-continent means to leave the actual framework of the house behind.
People were flocking to buy ice creams, silly hats (which admittedly stopped just short of Kiss Me Quick), milky tea and sweet biscuits with flies in. They were even queueing for candy floss, I swear! Crowding around stalls by the lakeside selling the most awful tacky junk this side of, well, Barry.
The lack of sea must be a disappointment for them. But then, Gujarat has its surplus of paradisical beaches albeit peppered at regular intervals with handsome nuclear power stations. At Abu they have Nakki Jheel (Finger Nail Lake), so called because it wasn't excavated by McAlpine or British Nuclear Fuels, but by the bare hands of gods with time to spare, and a mission to fulfil. And a decent local manicurist, one presumes.
It is a holy place, featuring, like parts of Brittany, weathered rocks that supposedly resemble all manner of living things. Under the influence of certain drugs I suppose Toad Rock might remotely pass for an amphibian, but what chemical assistance is necessary to make Nun Rock, Bulldog Rock, or Naked Rock (!) look like their namesakes I wouldn't care to contemplate.
The lake is best appreciated not from Junktown but from the hallowed ground of a red, white and blue pedalo, driven with all the skill and finesse of a Delhi cab driver with hives.
It's a small lake, not like the Bristol Channel. Circumnavigable on foot in half an hour, it throws up its fair share of interesting sights, most of which you don't see at Cold Knap, some of which you unfortunately do.
The morning I decided to ealk off my breakfast there, dozens of semi-naked woman were standing about chatting on the ghats. Having bathed, and laundred their saris, females of every conceivable age were waiting for themselves and their clothes to dry. Stretched out on top of a levelled privet hedge (the clothes, not the women) by the time the ladies had towelled their long black hair dry, the saris were being lifted by the gentle breezes coming off the blue algae, and were ready to wear.
One small man with a waxed moustache was brushing his teeth in the lake, another was lovingly soaping his bicycle amidst the bathers.
Eager to tear myself away from this debauchery, I left, passing as I went a group of gardeners whose torsos were swamped by a forest of triffids, and who were cantering towards me blindly. I escaped from certain death by slipping into the public gardens. These were full of dog turds and men having a shave.
We bought our souvenirs in ChaCha ("the museum-like shop!"), along with the beaming Gujaratis. I wore my embroidered hat (40p) with dislodged pride, but must have loked a right wally, and they stood and admired the gold plastic Shiva With Removeable Trident ornaments waiting there to be snapped up for a song.
The sun went down behind Man On Bicycle Waving A Stick Shaped Like A Parrot rock, the camels drank their horlicks, and we went back to our nine-room suite at Bikaner Palace. And there a man of at least seventy, announcing himself to be our "room boy" brought us a hot water bottle (unasked for, but graciously accepted).
You never got that at Butlins.
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