India

Bollywood translated

Two dozen expectant eyes bore into my face, waiting for me to move. I scanned them all in one long pleading sweep, looking for an escape route. ‘Go on!’ urged my traitorous boyfriend, who’d sided with the crowd. My only other ally shrugged at me. He was conveniently pinned down as his hand was tattooed with henna. I was out of excuses and my audience didn’t understand English anyway. The swirls up my forearm began to prickle.

It was a simple misunderstanding. The Indian family who had ushered us into their home had been nothing but hospitable. With only a few broken phrases of Hindi exchanged between us, we had spent hours being painted as we sat on low mattresses. Shy children scurried in to offer us curried treats, steaming sweet chai and treacle dumplings, before lingering in the doorway to stare at their visitors with round caramel eyes. Three generations shared this single room, and the sisters who had brought their families together laughed with their toothless mother, the grand matriarch of the house, who sat in the only chair swathed in green and gold.

The room was decorated with faded tins and packets that sat on a small raised ledge, paintings of dancing women in silk saris were pinned to the white walls. A bright Hindi calendar hung from the wall with no appointments scrawled in the dates. A bulky grey television propped up in the corner emitted a shrill warbling voice that somehow charmed the listener after a few minutes. The accompaniment of the clinking sitar and drums countered the street noise that entered through the open window, the wooden shutters fastened back to welcome the breeze and dust in. The camera panned across the magnified face of the heroine, her eyes of seductive black kohl innocently lowering at the bold advances of a young slick man. Behind him, a staircase filled with men with jumping eyebrows encouraged his futile wooing.

In the traveller’s spirit of charades, I gestured to the young girl who had finished wiping off my peeling chocolate paint to reveal delicate orange flowers underneath. I signalled to her to show me some Bollywood moves, and pointed to the leading lady in the box who was now curling her hands with a female army in unison behind her. I tried to wiggle my head, but instead jolted it from side to side like a nervous tick. She called the rest of her family, who reappeared in droves from the communal kitchen and wash area outside. Even her father silently joined the procession, wearing a serious expression under his clipped beard but the same smiling eyes. My translator crouched down on the floor, but I knew she and her siblings could hold that stance inches off the ground for hours without a wobble. I was alone on the newly evacuated stage, and I realised I had to dance.

Trying not to shake my hips or jiggle anything in particular, I began bopping to the plinks of the strings and swaying side to side with the rhythm. I’m not sure any movements below my hips registered – my harem pants simply rippled. There was an uncomfortable pause as the song ended and I could no longer imitate the Bollywood stars. I reverted to my own ‘unique’ style and my audience began laughing and sharing jokes in their mother tongue. I beamed at them, abandoning my worries and dancing freely. I pulled the girl up and spun her in circles, and did not notice my scarf falling from my shoulders. I upheld the British tradition of dancing badly that day, but it was a small concession for the privilege of experiencing a family portrait in Udaipur.

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 Never tease a monkey with a peanut

Unlike the playful Disney animation, in Rudyard Kipling’s novel The Jungle Book, Baloo the bear gravely warns the young Mowgli about monkeys and their status in the jungle:

“Listen, man-cub,” said the Bear, and his voice rumbled like thunder on a hot night. “I have taught thee all the Law of the Jungle for all the peoples of the jungle–except the Monkey-Folk who live in the trees. They have no law. They are outcasts. They have no speech of their own, but use the stolen words which they overhear when they listen, and peep, and wait up above in the branches. Their way is not our way. They are without leaders. They have no remembrance. They boast and chatter and pretend that they are a great people about to do great affairs in the jungle, but the falling of a nut turns their minds to laughter and all is forgotten. We of the jungle have no dealings with them. We do not drink where the monkeys drink; we do not go where the monkeys go; we do not hunt where they hunt; we do not die where they die.”

The Monkey Temple, Galtaji

A one-armed Indian Langur monkey sits guarding the site

Our tuk tuk driver promised us that he would wait for us and trundled off to enjoy a pack of cigarettes with the other idle men. We arrived at the top of the green mountain in awe – the tuk tuk with an engine as powerful as a lawnmower was able to carry us from Jaipur, through the imposing carved red city gate, navigating through seven lanes of organically moving vehicles, past immovable masses of cows, and up a steep broken road to where we stood now.

The road to Galtaji was once a path that many pilgrims undertook to visit the Hindu temple, known as the Temple of the Sun God. Golden sandstone merges into the mountainside as if it were lovingly carved by a giant, and seven pools of emerald spring water entice religious bathers to enter. As we stood at the rough iron gate with a toothless woman offering us brown paper bags of peanuts, we saw that this once splendid place had been colonised by an army of monkeys. It was now, more than ever, the Monkey Temple. Drawn in by the playful cackles of the primates, we did not realise that our driver had not dropped us off at the intended stop, but had instead deposited us at their gritty gang den.

The brown rhesus macaque monkeys of the area shot to fame in 2008 for their rebellious and tribal behaviour in the National Geographic series ‘Monkey Thieves.’ Blood brothers of the original ‘Galta Gang’ strolled the parameter, launching clumps of rocks from high ledges at unwitting tourists and snatching food. Babies clinging to the furry underbellies of their mothers swung precariously whilst sucking at the bright pink teats which protruded out like extra fingers. Other babies gripped the furry haunches of their rides, covering the ground at speed and leaping from the walls. There was a Dorian Gray phenomenon at work here: the young faces appeared grey and sagging whilst the older faces were tight and shot with youthful crimson.

Crumbling stone facades, piles of rubble and a DIY playground

Crumbling stone facades, piles of rubble and a DIY playground

The site’s former splendour had collapsed into a dusty pile of rocks and metal. The carved stonework and latticed window frames were crumbling from the constant climbing, and the surface of the stone began to peel away from its ugliness in disdain. Cream walls were blackened by gradients of grime, and the trails of a million monkeys were written on their skin. A couple of white cows with ribs popping out from their sides mildly walked away from any promises of food. Tall rubble piles allowed the fiercer monkeys to assert their power, and every craggy ledge was filled with large black eyes that tracked our moves.

We learned to stay clear of the missile range of the ledges and wandered the open expanses of concrete. The brown bag, eyed so keenly by dozens of monkeys, was partially hidden to suppress their excitement. But it was too late. The rustle and promise of shelled peanuts drew the monkeys in until they surrounded us. I knelt down and slipped a couple of nuts into my closed palm. Holding out my hand at arms length, I waited for the first monkey. A monkey with a baby ambled my way, and I let the nut go as she swiped for it and turned to make away with her bounty. The second nut remained clenched in my fist. Another monkey began hopping my way on two legs in a jaunty jive, and just as he went in for a diving snatch I recoiled my hand back in surprise. Bared teeth, blood-red gums and a sudden flattened brow. I released the peanut and stumbled backwards to my feet.

This refuge was a place where monkeys stalked and swung with ravaged instinct and no decorum. Lost limb, clumps of fur, scratched flesh and skulls lay strewn about the dirt. It is difficult to argue with Kipling’s Baloo. During the process of creating the animated version, the writer Bill Peet wanted to convey the dark animalism that Kipling envisaged in the original stories of Mowgli. Walt Disney rejected this realism and replaced their writer in order to preserve only the playful elements. The character of chimpanzee King Louie, a self-proclaimed ‘King of the Swingers’, was born, but without the gangster tendencies of his real cousins in Jaipur.

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A monkey skull lays ominously on the ground, a clump of fur still clinging to it.

Notes 

Disney's Baloo and King Louie

Disney’s Baloo and King Louie

‘Monkey Thieves: The Temple of the Sun God,’ National Geographic, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eN3ailpo1Uc

‘The Galta Gang: Monkey Thieves’ National Geographic, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ic9fYB_WYg0

‘Reel History: Disney’s The Jungle Book,’ by Little Orphan Annie, http://norlinreelhistory.blogspot.sg/2011/09/jungle-book.html

The Haggler’s Handbook

Good haggling is an art that takes time to master. The best deals are struck when you build a relationship with the trader and find a mutual price that suits you both, usually within minutes. Naming your price may seem daunting if you are used to paying set costs, but once you start sparring amounts you’ll soon get the hang of it. After spending time in India, Peru and Asia, I have picked up a few tricks which will help you in your bid for a bargain:

1) Confidence is key
Stand by your offers with conviction and a smile. It’s not a battle to try and rip off local traders, but you should be willing to dance a few rounds with them before settling on a price. Newbies reveal themselves within a moments hesitation or duff bid, so you should enter the deal with a maximum price already set in your mind and work upwards towards that. Once a starting point has been established and you’ve assessed the quality of the goods, typically go in at about a third of the price you are willing to pay. Be reasonable if you are offered a fair price, but don’t be afraid of seeing where the trader’s cut off point is. Even if you can’t find middle ground, you’ve at least found a biting point which you can use as leverage next time.

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2) Learn the local lingo
Always try to learn a few words of the native tongue. This will help endear you to the locals and work miracles with your bartering prowess. Useful phrases include ‘how much?’, ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘that is too expensive’, ‘can you lower the price?’ and if you’re not too hot with numbers, ask ‘can you write the price, please?’. I once asked a Peruvian store owner if I could try on a bottle of rum, rather than take a closer look at it. She laughed and explained what I had said to her, and then rounded down the price out of pity for my poor Spanish.

3) Be cool
Those patterned harem pants will be an essential addition to your wardrobe, but the last thing you should do is show how much you want them. If the trader sees you gushing over something, the game is over and they can charge you what they like. I found the trick is to act slightly disinterested, or even better feign enthusiasm in their neighbour’s wares. You might even need to walk away and return another day to be extra convincing. The sell becomes their challenge, and you are then free to negotiate a lower price.

4) Good things come to those who wait
When arriving in a place it’s easy to go loco with the exciting local fares on offer. Traditional handcrafted panpipes, llama wool boots and cocoa bean jewellery are beautiful souvenirs that will remind you of your trip, whilst supporting the local economy. If it is a golden purchase that cannot be bought elsewhere, like freshly ground coffee beans or an instrument crafted by tribesmen, then go for it. Otherwise resist the temptation to splurge on your first few days. If you wait, you won’t have to carry it for the rest of your trip, you’ll work out how much things roughly cost, and you might find cheaper alternatives elsewhere. In Cusco, we discovered local women on the mountainside near Cristo Blanco were selling similar woollen jumpers for half the price of their counterparts down in the city.

20130727-165920.jpg5) Do the math
On a couple of occasions I’ve been so carried away with the process of haggling that I’ve come away feeling happy with my purchase, before realising I’m not sure how much I really paid. Converting the currency to your local dinero beforehand is important, and you don’t want to waste time working it out on the spot. Knowing the average cost of local amenities/products is important, and travel guides such as Wanderlust and online forums can provide practical information. Carrying small notes and coins is essential, as some sly traders will insist that they have no change.

6) Never be a tight tourist
In Delhi, we were playfully debating the cost of a tuk tuk ride with the driver when my friend realised that we were fussing over about 30p. As a visitor, you should expect to pay more than locals, especially if you’re flashing a fancy camera or iPhone as you shop. I always think of how much the same thing, such as a taxi or lunch, would cost me back home, and the comparative price usually seems much rosier. For many places, tourism is a pivotal factor so don’t be too reluctant to contribute and tip where appropriate.

Happy haggling!

Notes

‘How to Haggle Like Your Old Man’, The Art of Manliness,http://touch.artofmanliness.com/artofmanliness/#!/entry/how-to-haggle-like-your-old-man,502ecf86444f6789471f30cb

‘How to Haggle Like a Pro’, by Cameron McCool, Travel.NineMSN,http://travel.ninemsn.com/holidaytype/budget/8239861/how-to-haggle-like-a-pro

Practical information on a variety of countries, Wanderlust,http://www.wanderlust.magazine.co.uk/

‘Comparing Prices Around the World’, Chicago Tribune,http://my.chicagotribune.com/#section/-1/gallery/p2p-48874057/

‘Tips for Tipping Abroad’, The Independent Traveller,http://www.independenttraveler.com/travel-tips/passports-and-international-travel/tips-for-tipping-abroad

An Unexpected Indian Massage

After hauling a rucksack that weighed three quarters of me, a massage seemed just the ticket. A group of us had just rattled off a small minibus that had shaken us all the way from Delhi to the northern mountains of Old Manali. We’d travelled for a full day past miles of slums with flapping blue tarpaulin walls, past villages filled will tropical fruit and steaming meat and people that never slept, and past cattle herders that manoeuvred their animals around the potholes we couldn’t. We arrived at a muddy roadside, the tree-lined mountains smudged out by wet fog. Wooden huts framed the muddy narrow lanes, but were brightened by stall owners showcasing striped wools, meditation singing bowls, billowing harem pants and handcrafted guitars. A secret staircase made with shards of wood and flint led to handmade rug shop that wove elephants into rich royal blue threads with blood orange and yellow. Incense thickened the air, and clinging beads of perfumed rain clung to every fibre, every hair. Locally carved chillum pipes fanned out at every surface, encouraging visitors to unwind in a different way.

harem pants

We found a wooden sign advertising massages, and the girls and I signed up before dropping off our bags. Refreshingly, there was no haggling involved. It was set at a reasonable rate of under £10 for an entire hour of any massage: ranging from the traditional Indian head massage, deep tissue, full body, to the mysterious Swedish variety. Later that day after stocking up on some warmer clothes, we were relaxing in a café playing cards and drinking frothing lassi milkshakes and sweet chai. We then wandered down the lane to have our 60 minutes of therapeutic kneading, feeling like three slabs of stiff bread dough that needed serious softening.

Entering the tent by lifting a plastic sheet, we stumbled into a miniaturised big top. A girl with dark shining hair that fell to her waist welcomed us and pushed us towards an adjoining room with henna inked hands. Before we split into the three adjoining rooms, our host turned to face us. She explained to us that there was only two female masseuses available. The three of us looked at one another, thinking we would have to pull straws. The girl, noticing our predicament, quickly interjected that there was another masseuse who could do it…but he was a man. We sighed in relief, thankful that we didn’t have to sacrifice a friendship over a massage. Now we had to choose who got the man, which was easy. Two of us were in relationships, and had boyfriends sitting in the local restaurant with the guys down the road. We turned expectantly to the singleton.  ’No chance.’

smoke

My cheeks squashed down on the table as I tried to slow my mind down and relax. I wished I’d asked the girl about how much I needed to remove clothes-wise. There must be etiquette for this sort of thing- what had my friends decided to do? I’d left my underwear on for decency. It’s better to over-dress as my Mum always says. I sat with my eyes closed and let the curling purple smoke from the burning incense sticks fill my head. At last, two oily palms landed on my skin and began to push down into my back. I’m not able to control my body in these types of situations. Just as my dentist politely asks my tongue to step away from the mirror wand, my masseuse asked me to stop arching my back at every sweep. I was told to remove my straps, so I prudishly wriggled each one off my shoulders but it wasn’t enough. It had to come off.

Starting at my shoulders, my muscles were squeezed and coaxed and separated in layers. I’d opted for the deep tissue back massage instead of a mere ticklish touch, which perhaps was a mistake given the fact that I ended up with the hairy male masseuse. His fingers escaped up my neck and greased my hair, before trailing down my spine in forceful squiggly lines, writing words of pain across my forehead. I reminded myself of how relaxed I was. He then started to work on my arms, oiling them until his hands slid up and down them so fast I thought he might set me alight. Then his hands found my own, and as he separated each finger with small yanks, and smoothed my palms repeatedly, my little voice finally stopped complaining and exhaled a long silent ‘ahhh.’

contortionist

Next, he began to bend my floppy arm until it rested across my back, as if he’d arrested it and was about to ‘cuff me. He gently exerted pressure on my elbow until I felt my numb hand suddenly appearing above the opposite shoulder. It was miraculous. My other arm repeated the trick, and I felt pleased that I was able to perform the part of the contortionist in the big tent. Following this mind-boggling feat, he continued to work on my back until suddenly it was no longer my back, but by bottom. I lifted my head, which suddenly weighed five times the normal amount, and mumbled something about ‘Back only, back only.’ He replied that this was my back, and I understood he meant my entire back side (if you will), rather than the front. I grumbled in submission but insisted I kept my knickers on, and he promptly gave me a wedgie. But I have to admit, it was probably the best part of the massage. My legs were squeezed and prodded until they too relaxed, and I prided myself on not kicking out when he touched the ticklish arch of my feet.

I must have fallen into a light sleep as I became suddenly aware it was over, and started from my slumber. A young boy stood in front of me then walked through the thin veil into the next room containing my friend. I felt at once very bare with my white bottom sticking up in the air, and dressed hastily. After paying, my friends and I walked up the hill together, covered in oil but smiling. I asked them what level of nudity they reached, and whether their masseuses touched their bottoms too. It was a relief to hear they’d had the same treatment in their rooms. We decided not to tell the boys.

Notes

Picture credits:

Harem pants, http://www.localsmile.com.au/Brisbane/Listing/IndianBliss

Curling smoke, http://www.cauldronsandcrockpots.com/2012/03/holy-smoke/

Contortionist, http://www.tumblr.net/tagged/circus-performer

Deal with the Devil 

Deal with the Devil

There’s something almost Faustian about signing a disclaimer for an extreme sport, especially in India where ‘health and safety’ has hardly been adopted into the local psyche. Nevertheless, I scribbled my signature without hesitation, imagining myself soaring on the thermals over the Himalayas for just 5200 Rupees (roughly 60 GBP). Paragliding in the Solang Nallah valley, around 14km north of Manali, was on the bucket list for me and my two travel companions. If you had asked me beforehand, I would have told you that the most dangerous part would be the flight, or perhaps the landing. I would have been wrong.

Before us sat a modest white Séat – a five-seater with no obvious space for three bulky paragliding chutes. One of the instructors, who doubled up as our driver, was a lean tanned man wearing a dark bomber jacket despite the glaring sun. He beckons us in and we realise there are no seat belts, and with greater disappointment, no air con. My friend takes a photograph of the numberplate, purely for precautionary measures. As we pile in, more men follow until there are seven of us shoving limbs wherever we can to fit. Thankfully, another instructor was going to meet us at the launch site. I ended up poised above the gear stick, but fortunately our driver barely found a use for it.

Our little car of bodies hurtled up the jagged mountain road, swerving around potholes, cow herders and chanting school children. A technicolour daze of brightly painted lorries, each with their own decorative horns, Hindi messages and Gods blazed passed on either side of us. Redundant saggy ski suits waved us by, impatiently waiting for the next snow season to appear. On our dashboard, Vishnu encouraged our driver onwards as he deftly slalomed his way around spluttering hulks of metal, defying both the narrow road and its blind corners.

White sunlight bleached our vision. A lorry speeds towards us on the outside of the bend as we hug the rock face on the right, leaving only inches for clearance. Our car turns slightly towards our adversary and he does the same, locking eyes to avoid staring at the craggy edge and solid mountain. A second bumper appears directly ahead. Nowhere to go. Our driver slams the brakes, his eyes transfixed on the diminishing road ahead. Dull horns echo in the valley. The first lorry hasn’t completed the bend yet. A hit is inevitable. I shut my eyes, thinking Solang could so easily be mispronounced ‘So Long.’ Bracing ourselves, a throttle grumbles and a cloud of yellow dust is kicked up to our left as a motorbike dives in between us all, creating space that simply did not exist a second before.

Laughter erupts from one of the men at the back and it reminds the rest of us that we can exhale. He recognises the motorcyclist. This daredevil is apparently my tandem pilot.

A yellow warning sign at the side of the road finally forces us to stop: ‘Sinking area ahead. Drive carefully.’ Stiffly departing from the car, we become heady in the cool thin air. The vivid colours so synonymous with India drain away as the green tree line dissipates into grey rock and white snow. The dominating skyline of the Himalayas silences the horns and engines as we creep over the broken road in single file.

Before I can properly absorb the view, ascertain the wind direction or even remove my flip flops I find myself strapped to the daredevil shouting, ‘Run to the edge! Don’t stop running!’ and we are flung up into the air. Safe.

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