The Cynics Guide To Travel Part Two – India – Mumbai

•June 15, 2010 • 1 Comment

Most non Indians will know Mumbai from the film Slumdog Millionaire, the Oscar winning movie that depicts Mumbai as a colourful yet dangerous and poverty stricken city, or from the glossy slick adverts from the Indian tourist board

Incredible India shout the glossy brochures and commercials whilst showing pictures of beautiful landscapes, sunsets and colonial buildings. Of course what they don’t show you is the poverty, the children begging, the pollution, the heat, the people pissing in the street. Yes, of course it reminded me of London, apart from the heat and the fact there are more Indians in London. Also in London its a little unusual to find cows walking down the street. Well at least not the bovine, milk able kind anyway. The London cows are usually in Matalan buying clothes for their next trip to exotic Benidorm

Water Supply Indian Style

Of course when in India for the first time the very first thing you must do is go for an Indian. Its the rule, written in law. Now everyone in England will tell you that the Indian food in India tastes very different from your local Star of Bengal. Bollocks, it tasted exactly the same, the only big difference is it costs three times less. And get this, for fuck sake, the famous Indian Cobra beer you drink in Bombay curry houses is brewed in England. Exporting Indian beer to the Indians, it like selling sand to the Thieving wankers (Egyptians, in case you don’t know)

Tania and I proceeded to the Gateway to India, no that’s not the name of an Indian Restaurant, its kind of the Bombay equivalent of Marble Arch. Built at the height of the British Raj, its an imposing edifice overlooking the Persian Sea. Its also, on a Friday night, the meeting place for hawkers, beggers, pimps and Bollywood talent scouts. I kid you not, three times near the arch, Tania and I were approached to be extras in a Bollywood movie. Now normally, being a cynical, world weary traveller I would dismiss this and add it to my list of 1001 international scams (to be published soon), but this is actually genuine. Many Bollywood movies need western looking extras in the background and they approach tourists in the Gateway to India area to do this. I would have done it, too, if we had had time but it takes pretty much a whole day at the studio we didn’t have that to spare. Oh well, back to mundane obscurity.

The next day we spent exploring the city. Of course ten minutes after we left the ship, we are completely fucking lost and wandering through a shanty town. I thought I had seen poverty but nothing prepares you for the sight of shack after shack lining both sides of one of the busiest roads in Bombay, malnourished children, toothless grandmothers and Danny Boyle with a movie camera. The air is black with pollution from the thousands of cars, many built in the 1950’s, the noise is incredible yet the people just exist. I was surprised by the fact that very few asked us for anything, they have a dignity and pride despite their conditions. I talked at length with Tania about this, for me, these people given a chance would make something of their lives, they are just victims of a circumstance that sees them on the periphery of a society that has a class system that is unlike any other, they are the true and original outcasts unlike the unemployed, homeless people begging on the streets of London, who if they had an ounce of fight in them would be able to pull them up out of their situation, these people no matter what they did, will propably die in the same shack that they were born.

Ok, lets lighten the mood slightly, cows on the street. Yes its true, Tania and I were returning to the port area when I noticed on the pavement about 100m in front, two cows walking. At first I thought there was somebody leading them but no, they were just out for an afternoon stroll, wandering where they liked. We gave chase and followed them to a street market where one stuck his head in  bucket of leftover oranges and had a light afternoon tea. Tania had a couple of apples in her bag so we decided to feed them. They were docile, domestic and friendly, wandering the streets of this chaotic, frenetic metropolis without a care in the world. They bought a sense of calm to the city streets. This was no one off occurrence either, all over the city cows wander the streets like cats do in England. The cow is a sacred animal in India  and no-one mistreats them, street traders feed them, children pet them, car drivers give them space. In England of course we just milk them and eat them.

I spent our third day alone, it was a hot and humid day so I decided to return to the ship early, but on the way back, a little cafe caught my eye. Small, and air conditioned, breakfast beckoned me and so with an appetite and a few rupees, I went inside. The waiter, a youngish guy in a shirt and tie, bade me good morning and presented me with a menu. I ordered an omelette, a fresh orange juice and a hot tea as I had been in India for three days now but had yet to sample the national drink in its home country. Now if this waiter has any ambition to remain in the catering industry, he better start to work on his act. Think back, can you remember the three items I ordered. Good, you remember, and its not even your job. This guy arrived with the omelette after 25 minutes, I expected the other two items as well but no. I reminded him the next time I saw him.

“Oh yes, sorry” he offered, disappeared for another 10 minutes having poured my orange juice “freshly” from a carton.

“My tea” I asked.

“One moment please” He returned to the bar, where to my horror, he put a tea cup under a machine and pressed a button. So there you are, my first India tea came from machine that had automatically added powdered milk and sugar (I never take sugar in tea) and was served by a waiter who only remembered one of the three items I asked for. Maybe he was stressed because he was so busy, after all there was at least two other people there, one of whom had also made a large complicated order of three items.

At the bottom of the menu, it said Service Not Included. It was right, it wasn’t.

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The Cynics Guide to Travel – Chennai India

•June 11, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Having now been to over 140 countries worldwide, I would like to call myself an experienced traveller. Today I am starting a series of blogs chronicling some of my adventures in destinations around the world. Its called the Cynics Guide to Travel simply because after 15 years on the move, there are some place that really need to be re-examined as popular tourist destinations. I start the series with a look at Incredible India and the city of Chennai

Is there any other way in Chennai

CHENNAI

Chennai a few years ago had a Prince moment, and is now it is the city formerly known as Madras. Ask most Englishmen if they have ever been to Chennai they would say no, ask them if they have ever been to Madras they would also say no but have had a good Chicken Madras at the Bombay curry house (now known as the Mumbai curry house). In Chennai Tania and I encountered perhaps the world most idiotic and bureaucratic immigration service.

We had arrived as crew members on the ship Princess Danae at around 8.00 in the morning. It took the immigration until 4.00pm to clear the ship for the crew. Now bear in mind that there were 40+ officials on board this means each official cleared 5 crew members each over an 8 hour period, nearly one every two hours. The reason for this was plain and simple, whilst examining the passports for the telltale signs of being a terrorist such as occupation – suicide bomber, they were systematically drinking the ship dry of coffee, juice and coke then sauntering off to the bog for an hour to try out this new fangled stuff called toilet paper.

Eventfully we were allowed off and strolled over to the main Port entrance

At the dock gate, we give our immigration forms to the soldier on duty.

“This is not signed by the immigration officer” he said

“ This is  what we were given” I replied.

This continued for about 5 minutes, until he demanded that we open our bags.

“Have you got any cigarettes?”  He asked

“No”

“Alcohol?”

“No”

By now we realise he is looking for a bribe, I am totally pissed off and look him straight in the eye

“You know what, fuck your city, I am going back to the ship”

I turn to go but Tania looks at him and says

“What’s your name?”

“Why do you need my name” He is a little unsure.

I look at him, look at the large gun then look at Tania.

I see her game. She is good at this.

“What is your name?” She repeats loudly.

The guard buckles. “Ok you can pass”

And so we enter the city of Madras. Ironically, it is republic day today, millions of Indians are celebrating independence from Britain by not working. Of course the street peddlers, plastic Ganesh salemen, and rickshaw drivers are still working and taking every opportunity to make our stay in the city as uncomfortable as possible but we run the gauntlet and eventually find ourselves at Marina Beach. This is apparently the second longest beach in the world, and despite the tens of thousands of Indians on the beach celebrating “birth of bureaucracy day” there is acres of spare sand to see. It was such an enchanting evening, Tania and I decided to see exactly how long the beach was, we wandered along watching all India at play, eating deep fried banana chips, and other assorted Indian delicacies, a cool breeze tempering the balmy Asian heat. In the distance we were transfixed by a veritable “Times Square” of neon lights, and flashing signs. We decided to make for the biggest and brightest. It simply said MGM, so we naturally assumed it was some sort of cinema complex. When we finally arrived we were confronted with a seedy run down hotel, with the biggest neon sign in India. It said MGM Grand Hotel. Now I have been to the MGM Grand in Vegas and apart from the name, and it had bedrooms, I could see no similarity at all, it did however serve ice cold Kingfisher for less than a Euro and so in my books it beats it’s Nevada namesake in every respect.

Russian Roulette in Singapore

•January 10, 2010 • Leave a Comment

The Russian being Tania, and the roulette being the luck we would need to replace a faulty camera from Sim Lim square, the huge technology mall in Singapore. A little background for this story, on the 3rd of January I went looking to purchase a Canon EOS 7D camera with a L series lens. For those of you that know me to be a Nikonite, I will explain my reasons for buying Canon in a another blog. Anyway, after trooping around most of the stores in the city for the best price, I settled on one on the ground floor of the (in)famous Sim Lim. After some hard negotiations, I got a good deal on a 7D and duly paid and signed the receipt. Happy with my purchase, I returned to the ship to get ready for work. When I got to my cabin, I put the camera and lens together, charged the battery and began to play around with the features. All was well for three shots, then I got an error message (err 30). I checked in the manual which simply said switch off, remove battery and then try again. Which I did and still I had the problem. I had a look to see if the shutter was firing and to my horror it wasn’t. I checked the receipt and to my further horror found that in small print at the bottom, it said no refunds, or exchanges. Cue on very sleepless night.

And so the next day, with Tania in tow, I returned to the shop, Canon in hand. The salesman that had dealt with me the day before saw me and looked nervous. I explained the problem and his first question was did you drop it? Ah here we go I thought, and so it proved. The next question was “was it working in the shop?” Of course it was, I might be daft enough to buy from Sim Lim but I am not so stupid I would not check the camera thoroughly in the shop. They then called Canon service who had no idea what the problem was. Then the not unexpected hammer blow, we cannot replace it, you need to take it to Canon. This was a huge problem as I had bought it purely for videoing our trip around Asia. Since we were leaving that evening it was unlikely that Canon would replace it, only send it for repair. I remained calm but Tania was brimming with Russianess and we slowly slipped subconsciously into a good cop/bad good routine. As I explained calmly that I was not leaving without a replacement, Tania meanwhile was setting upon every salesman in the shop. She demanded names, shouted stomped, screamed and cried. The staff told me to get her out to which I replied she is Russian, its her culture. At one point whilst I was explaining that I was leaving Singapore that evening and it would be with a camera, Tania was taking photographs of the salesmen on my iPhone. As potential customers came into the shop, she was talking to them, not saying anything about our problem but with the obvious veiled threat that it would be potentially mentioned in the near future. At one point the mall’s rentacops were called, but when Tania demanded their names as well, they left. Two young guys from Moscow came in and Tania started to speak in Russian to them. The salesmen were getting very nervous and slowly started to crack. One, who seemed to be the floor manager, was actually a lot more helpful than the rest, he had called Canon several times and eventually called his wholesaler. They, he told me would replace the camera, and gave me an address.
“Fine, one of you will drive us there” I said. At first they were reluctant, but after I said I would take a taxi and Tania would stay in the shop, the salesman who originally sold me the camera offered to drive us there. And so after about 90 minutes of fighting, I received a new 7D body, heavily tested at the wholesalers, of course.

The moral of this story, is whilst you may get a very good price at Sim Lim, you may have to fight very hard if something goes wrong. By the way, if you do need help, I will hire out Tania, she is very effective but doesn’t come cheap.

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Mumbai in Five Senses

•January 10, 2010 • Leave a Comment

After Aqaba we continued our journey, stopping at Sharm el Sheikh to annoy the taxi drivers, then through Salalah and Muscat in Oman before reaching Mumbai, India on the 19th December. If you haven’t been to India before, Mumbai is a crash course in all things Indian. Fortunately I have been to India so I was prepared, and in my opinion, the best way to get through an Indian city is to become like a pebble in a stream, just let everything flow past and keep cool. Mumbai is truly an assault on the senses and perhaps the best way to describe it is to tell you how the senses are assaulted. I will start with SMELL

The smells of Mumbai are like no other in the world, powerful, aromatic, gagging and subtle in the space of 100 meters. Of course the smell of spices seeps into the air more or less everywhere that food is being cooked. That of course means everywhere. If you like Indian food you will walk the streets with permanent hunger pangs, its more than a smell, its an atmosphere. Unfortunately you can walk a street smelling the infinite variety of spices, breathing deeply, savouring before gagging on the smell of stale piss. This too is everywhere, not surprising in a country of such extreme poverty, however it is difficult to determine from which animal it has come from, of course it could be human, probably is but there is also a wealth of stray dogs roaming the streets and marking their territories with pungent odours. It could also be cows, who tend not to mark territories but also beed the more than occasional slash. Add the two smells together and you have your first sensory overload.

There is one sound of Mumbai that prevails, it is everywhere, persistent and headache inducing. You see, all cars, especially taxis in India are fitted with a high tech low band sonar system. Its called a horn and heres how it works. You drive your car in a straight line pressing the horn every two seconds. If you get no reply you continue driving in which ever direction you want. If you get a reply from the left, you steer slightly right, from the right you swerve to the left. Its a bit like bats in a cave and it works, cars drive along the roads with what appears to be no set rules or regulation yet everything seems to just flow. Now imagine a road with thousands of cars all using their sonar every two seconds and you will begin to get an aural image of what the cacophony of Mumbai sound like. On the second day in Mumbai I found the only taxi in the city with no horn. There was just a big hole in the steering wheel where the horn should be. We however arrived safety, because like immunisation, if you have 95% of cars using their horns the system will still work.

The taste of Mumbai for me can be summed up in a cheap meal from the Leopold Cafe. Chicken tika wrapped in garlic nan. Pure heaven, succulent chicken marinated for several years in a gorgeous tika sauce, the freshly baked nan dripping with chunks of garlic and of course washed down by an ice cold Kingfisher beer all for about £4. If your nasal orifice has overloaded from the street smells, your toungue will drag you back to a spice filled niverna.

Touch. If there is a touch to Mumbai, it could be one of two things, the feel of a beautiful silk sari or the polluted grime that seems to cling to everything outside.

The last sense, is of course sight. It is here that you get a true sensory overload, from the intense poverty, to the rich colours of the clothes. From cows walking in the streets to the fumes belching out of the back of a 40 year old taxi. Mumbai is a visual smorgasbord with something for everyone both good and bad.

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Its enough to give you high blood pressure

•December 14, 2009 • Leave a Comment

We finally sailed from Barcelona on the 30th of November, two days later than scheduled. The drydock had over run for various reasons and this now meant we would miss two ports, Valetta in Malta, and Alexandria in Egypt. Now I am sure many off you will remember my fondness for Egypt and its culture and will realise how disappointed I was to miss an Egyptian port.
Still we had 3 other ports in Egypt so ample time to catch up on sleep.
Jordan, however I do like. Not the busty bimbo type, the middle eastern country type. We had one day in Aqaba on our journey east and I spent most of the morning in hospital. Don’t concern yourself too much, it was for my bi-annual medical exam nothing more sinister.
The port agent collected me and 4 of my colleagues at 10.30am off we went to the “Aqaba Modern Hospital” I have used the quotes to emphasis a visual oxymoron. Fortunately no needles, blood tests or other potentially skin breaking procedures were required so I didn’t concern myself to much with the state of the place.
In the UK, the seafarers medical is called the ENG1. Its pretty basic, piss in a cup, weight, blood pressure, breathing eyes, ears, just a general look over. It costs about £80 so when I was informed my Jordanian medical would be $100 it expected a similar if not higher standard of examination.
So I was called into the examination room and was greeted by a doctor who clearly had an allergy to shaving. He shook my hand introduced himself and invited me to sit on the bed. After asking me five questions, did I drink, smoke do drugs etc he run a stethoscope lethargically somewhere in the vicinity of my lungs and then took my blood pressure.
“your blood pressure is high” he told me, “check for 4 days and if it is still high you will need to take medication”
No account was taken of the fact I was sitting in a very awkward position on the bed or that he did not extend my arm fully to do the test. However I am inclined to concur with his prognosis, after all who wouldn’t have high blood pressure after paying $100 to answer 5 questions.
To celebrate passing my medical I wandered off to Gloria Jeans coffees shop, where I drank two caffeine laden cappuccinos whilst googling on the wifi the common causes of high blood pressure. Oddly enough high caffeine intake was one of them.

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Kill all vegetarians!

•December 2, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Just a short blog today, based on a brief but potentially interesting thought that went through my head last night whilst drinking my third Spanish beer.
We are often told, how trees and plants are the lungs of the world, removing carbon dioxide and replacing it with oxygen. We hear how the destruction of the Amazon rain forest is contributing to the rise in global warming and if we do nothing we will all be living in a much warmer world by July 2011. Well, here is the chance for every sane person to do their bit for the environment, kill a vegetarian. It makes sense, vegetarians are systematically eating the very organism’s that could save the planet and at the same time contributing carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Remove the veggie, remove the problem as one famous dictator nearly said.
Of course this will have a double benefit because the remaining humans will all be carnivores, eating all the worlds animals who are of course another huge contributor to global warming.
So next time you are driving home from your local Beefeater in your 4×4, and a veggie steps onto the crossing in front of you, just apply those brakes a fraction to late. Sure you may get a 12 month suspended for driving without due care but the planet’s lifespan will be improved long enough to support the next generation of carnivorous Range Rover drivers, and that can only be a good thing.

Dry Dock

•November 23, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Do you know what a drydock is? Well I am betting many of you that have worked on ships do but the rest have no idea at all. Our ship, Discovery is currently in drydock in Barcelona. We arrived on the 13th of this month, disembarked our passengers on the 14th and made the short trip across the port to our new home for two weeks. For those of you that have no concept of how a ship drydocks, I will embellish you with a brief description. Imagine if you will, a large canal lock. A bloody large canal lock. The ship sails into the lock, the gates shut behind and then instead of raising or lowering the water, it is drained completely, all 21,000 tons of it for those of you up on their Archimedes principal. Obviously the water doesn’t exactly gush out, it is let out slowly over a period of several hours. As the water drains, the ship begins to settle on huge concrete blocks strategically placed to support the weight. The engines are switched off, water, power, sewage and other services and switched from the ship to shoreside, air conditioning goes off and an army of contractor embark. Over the next few hours the ship moves from its once docile tranquility to a hive of seemingly chaotic activity. Within 24 hours, carpets have been covered or stripped completely, wallpaper taken off walls, the swimming pools removed of their tiles, the huge propellors weighing many many tons are lifted of to be refurbished. Underneath the ship holes are cut to remove and replace equipment that will not fit through shell doors. The hull itself is scrapped clean of two years of oceanic grime and within two days been repainted, apart from the aforementioned holes of course. Huge bearings are loaded into the engine rooms, a dent in the bridge wing caused by a Russian bunker getting a little to personal in Antarctica is straightened out. A new pontoon for tendering is delivered in the morning and fitted by the afternoon.
With the aircon off, the ship rapidly becomes warm and stuffy. Water is intermittent. If you need a big dump pull the chain first or you might be adding significantly to your cabin’s unpleasant odours. Food is now on plastic plates and plastic knives and forks. No water in the galley, no electricity for the ice machine you begin to get the picture. Tania and I are among the lucky few onboard. Although we have a small amount of work to do in the two weeks we have time to enjoy the delights of Barcelona, a beautiful and inspiring city but thats a blog for another day.
When Discovery emerges from the drydock with her bum painted, interiors refurbished and engines all spruced up, she will set sail on her winter adventure. This time we head east, for an incredible season that heads out to Asia around India to Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok. In February she will start to head west again, across the Indian ocean, to South Africa before heading up the East African coast to Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya. Hopefully I will find the energy to write blogs on these places but again thats for another day. So from the stuffy confines of a ship in Barcelona, I bid you farewell.