Bedouin


The bow of a traditional pearl diving boat // credit: Bala / Flickr

The bow of a traditional pearl diving boat // credit: Bala / Flickr

Bedouin. No, it isn’t something from Star Wars. The inhabitants of the desert and forefathers of the hyper-city that lies before us was no more than a nomadic tribe diving for pearls only 100 or so years ago. Before the discovery of oil in the 1970s and the mass development of Dubai, it started off from fairly humble beginnings. I was convinced before I came here that Dubai had no history at all – it was one of the reasons that I avoided coming here, but there is a heritage. It isn’t something that you are going to find in Dubai Mall or in a 5* hotel (of which there are many). You have to dig a little deeper.

The city tour that we booked ourselves onto this morning was to settle us in. After resting our swollen feet from the floors of the Burj Khalifa, we decided that it was time to sit on a bus. The national museum had told us the brief story of this place, and now it was time to see the effects. Bur Dubai, where the old gold souks (markets) lay were noticeably empty – it was the quietest street market I had ever seen. However, it had a character that did not shine with the veneer of the imported marble that we had seen everywhere.

Jumeirah. You have heard of it. It means chandelier and relates to the most expensive part of Dubai, probably the wealthiest street in the entire world. A road filled with the emirati, descendants and loved ones of the royal family, that own the UAE and its rich contents. Whilst the oil may have dried up, the wealth has never left. Only the distant descendants of the Bedouin tribes are able to open businesses and own property in this country – which means that the only thing that we can take away is what we can carry in our Prada bags – the real wealth in estate and citizenship don’t go any further than the Arabian Gulf.

What struck me about this place is the sheer size. It is like an enormous Monopoly board in which someone has put hotels on everything. From the breathtaking Atlantis hotel as a window onto the ‘Gulf; to the familiar sail of the 7* Burj al-Arab hotel on the Palm Jumeirah; the word ‘luxury’ is ripped out the dictionary and replaced with a map of Dubai. The only place for modesty here is in clothing, with its unspoken yet strict Islamic laws.

However there are contradictions. The pork aisle in the Waitrose supermarket labelled “non-Muslim”. The variety of cigarettes and alcohol on offer to any tourist willing to pay the tax-deductible price. The emphasis on greed and spending, and the absence of humility and humanity. There are thousands that build these buildings and maintain this 24/7 tourist attraction, but they do not exist in the minds of those who come here. The backbone of the populace is almost invisible outside of their uniforms and duties – it is as if they are the ghosts that prosperity left behind.

It is easy to get caught up in the hype. The thousands of shops, crystal white beaches and unimaginable luxury, but it is not real. It can’t be real when 80% of it is dependent on foreigners and there is no incentive to work for the vast majority of residents. Yet, the destructive circle continues. More skyscrapers are built. The world’s largest zoo is in construction. Companies continue to pay no tax. And investors continue to pour talent into this man-made oasis.

For me, a society built on this level of consumerism is a recipe for disaster. Imagine how many people in Syria could be saved if the King sold his solid gold Rolls Royce. Perspective is a very damning indictment. And it doesn’t seem to exist here.

A Massive, Fucking Queue


Dubai by sunset // credit: SimSullen / Flickr

Dubai by sunset // credit: SimSullen / Flickr

I blink and four days have gone by. I kept telling myself that I would get back to writing, but it has been a few long days and very little time to get my thoughts together. We have now left India and moved onto Dubai. It is the first time that we have been here and it is safe to say that we have avoided coming here in the past. Not because it isn’t an exciting place, but because there doesn’t seem like there is much to do except to shop and sunbathe. Well, if Mumbai was a huge traffic jam, then Dubai is a massive, fucking queue.

I’m British. We are fond of queueing when the result of the queue is worth it. Going to a gig, getting some food or catching a bus are all acceptable reasons to join a queue and they are generally well organised and routine. Not in Dubai. Here, there is a queue to enter buildings, to leave buildings, to get into elevators, to get out of elevators, to get into taxis, to get out….you get the gist. There are only 3 million people that live here, but it seems like they all are standing in front of me.

Our first impression as we reached the hotel is the sort of thing you vaguely remember from that George Clooney movie about tomorrowland. Incredibly flat and fast, as soon as get onto Sheik Zayed Road, the various skyscrapers and hotels pop into view as if you were driving on a car simulator in a service station. Slowly but surely, the tall isolated skyline is visible like an oasis in the middle of the desert. Well, it is an oasis in the middle of the desert. All of the grass is imported from Brazil and it is maintained by fountains – the water has to be imported because the climate is too dry to sustain plants.

You would think that this is unnecessary. However, this place is built for the preposterous grandiose. From gold Rolls Royce cars to the tallest building in the world, nothing is done by halves in this live-in amusement park – a haven for the über rich, a plaything to be moulded by the gold-plated Emirati. The 600,000 citizens here (no one is allowed citizenship anymore) are provided with free healthcare, education, housing, amenities and jobs, with the bill being paid by the millions of tourists that visit every year. That’s right, you. When you check into your hotel here, you have already paid your dues.

The sparkling attraction is the Burj Khalifa, named after the current president of the UAE. Standing at over 830m in the air, it is a spike in the every growing skyscape of the Dubai horizon. Taking over $1 billion dollars to build, it offers amazing views of the entire city as well as housing luxuries like the Armani hotel. God, I sound like a brochure. What they don’t tell you is that the £25 ticket includes a complimentary set of queues and checks totalling two hours. Before you have even got in the world’s fastest elevator (are you seeing the pattern here?) you are so tired and your feet feel like lead. Then you see the view and whilst stunning, it really doesn’t live up to its name. Oh and there is a queue back down too.

I forgot to mention the 45 minute walk through the Metro station, through the Dubai Mall that would make Marx turn in his grave. If there was ever a monument to capitalist consumerism, then this would be the high temple. I like a mall as much as the next person, but this place stands like a giant at an ant’s view – apparently it takes three visits (15 hours) to conquer the mall – we swiftly exited for the first time.

If this place is an oasis in the middle of the desert, then for me it stands as a mirage. Not a good start, we hope for a better (less expensive) day tomorrow.

A Backwater Christmas


Gobble gobble

Gobble gobble

You’ve probably just woken up from your post-Christmas meal nap and are either waiting for the Doctor Who or Eastenders special to start. It has been an incredibly alcoholic/calorific day and you can’t remember a time when you weren’t at a dinner table or splayed out on a sofa. The jumper you are wearing has a snowflake or a reindeer on it and you don’t care a little bit. Your dad is probably still asleep, snoring and has forgotten to take his party hat off. This is what Christmas usually looks like. However, writing this in Allapay on the backwaters of the River Periyar in Kerala, I can’t say that we have had the most conventional Christmas.

They don’t really celebrate it here even though a significant number of people are Christian – however, the hotels containing tourists really do make an effort. I managed to pack a couple of Christmas jumpers in the vain hope that I could wear them without melting underneath. My thin “Chilling” jumper was just about bearable for breakfast before it got absolutely ridiculously hot. Considering the weather has always been freezing at home in the last few years, this was a much welcome change. In Greenwoods, there was a beautiful treehouse that we climbed to peer over the town of Thekkady before we left for the final place, Allapay. Then I saw a turkey. A real live, gobble-gobble turkey and I raced down to see it. It was particularly grumpy, but it was huge and the irony was too strong for me to not take a picture with it.

Skipping ahead the three hour long car journey, Allapay was back towards Cochin where we started, and so it was humid beyond belief. However, this was mitigated by the fact that it was bang in the middle of the backwaters, which are like canals and very famous in the area, which cooled the land around them. You could see palm trees, paddy fields and so many house boats – it was almost like a Venice-themed set for Lost. To top it all off, the only way to get to our hotel was to get there by boat. Yes, a boat bus.

We jumped onto the barge and made our way across the lake to the Lake Palace resort. When my Mum said that she was going to organise a five star trip for my 21st I thought she was joking, but this place was literally like paradise in the middle of nowhere. Set up a serious of cottages straddling the river, the entire hotel was completely integrated into its surrounding environment. Our “room” is surrounded by a man-made lake, the centre of which stands a swimming pool. You have to get around here by golf cart and they offer free pottery classes. And when someone offers you claywork on Christmas, you would be an idiot to say no. So I’ve set up a class for tomorrow – go figure.

The highlight of the day though was the boat ride over the backwaters here. They are separate from the rest of the ocean and act like roads for the fishing and agricultural markets. One of the key features are the thatched house boats that were traditionally set by fisherman over week long campaigns where their family could stay with them. Now they are a cool tourist attraction and inevitably everyone has jumped on the bandwagon. To be honest, all of the other things aside, it was nice just having the tranquillity and the sunset behind us as I thought about how different it would have been in England. There wasn’t a television or Shrek re-run in sight.

With only a few more days left in India, it has dawned on me that this is the last time I am going to be here for a while. Having been here three times in two years and seeing over half the country, it is time to take a break. Saying that, it is going to be sad to say goodbye to this, and especially enjoying these last few moments with my family. I will be forever grateful to my Mum and brother for single-handedly putting this whole thing together. I am not a birthday person at all, but this is the best way to celebrate it.

I may not have learned anymore about Christianity this year (it has been difficult to do so with no wifi and few English-speaking churches out here) but I have learnt the importance of having my family around me. It is easy to lose a sense of that at university when you have been away so long.

I may have met turkeys, made pottery, climbed tree houses, swum in a pool inside a lake, ridden on a few boats, worn a ridiculous jumper in the crazy heat and eaten Indian food instead of Christmas dinner. Like I said, it’s been an unconventional festive season. If this is the last thing I get to say about South India, then all I can say is that it really is “God’s Own Country” as they advertise it everywhere.

I think they just have better tea.

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What a sunset

Malayalam Hymns


I told you the costume was odd...

I told you the costume was odd…

I am going to pause in my journey of scheduling posts and jump straight to the now. The clock has just passed 12 here and it is officially Christmas Day in Kerala. Merry Christmas! It is the first time that I have spent Christmas abroad and we could not have picked a more diverse place to celebrate it than here. If you are reading this from any Western country, then you will probably already have your plans laid out and your Christmas tree stacked. The only trees that exist here are of the palm variety and it is actually hot outside…it doesn’t feel like a traditional festive season at all.

Knowing that the day is about to come, let’s have a chat about Christmas Eve. I should say that as a family we do not celebrate Christmas in the form of gift-giving or eating a large meal that means you fall asleep at 4pm. However, we have been going to Midnight Mass since I was 6 and we always try to read a bit of the Bible or learn a bit more about Jesus – yes, we are weird enough to celebrate it as Christ’s birthday and try to open our minds a bit.

The picture of a church and hymns has been etched in my memory ever since I can remember. My Dad has always had respect for Christ and believes that the levels of his sacrifice transcends religion – it is something that we can all take something from. Therefore the agenda was to find somewhere where we could attend Mass. What transpired was finding a church in the town that we have just arrived in, Thekkady (I will get to how we got here later on), and working out when it was a good time to come to the Church.

It turns out that they don’t really do Midnight Mass here. It came as a surprise considering 50 percent of the population of Kerala is Christian, which is possibly the highest proportion of the faith across India. If we were going to celebrate Christmas, then it was probably going to be best to do it here. However, the service consisted of a number of plastic chairs in the courtyard of the church, with the service starting at 9:30 and finishing before midnight (I don’t understand why) and it consisted of a number of hymns completely in Malayalam with a homage to Santa Claus on a banner in the background. We lasted about 45 minutes before we realised that our seats were probably best left to those who actually understood what was going on.

Having said that, it was not a complete washout. The hotel/heaven we are staying in at the moment, Greenwoods, is a small village in the middle of the bustling town covered in greenery and blessed with tranquillity. It reminds me very much of the university in Mumbai. I will get back to the hotel situation in the post on Boxing Day, but for now let’s focus on this resort. For the festive season, they had put on a full Christmas dinner combined with a cultural show to highlight the fantastic talent that existed in Thekkady.

Everything was utterly marvellous. From a beautiful ensemble of classical South India music to the pounding passion of the local drum band and tribal dance, it was a real insight into the reality of Kerala. There was no commercialisation (other than a creepy Santa costume) and it was all outside in the open, surrounded by the beautiful ecosystem of trees and flowers that they had created for guests. It was nothing like we had every experienced before, but we felt comfortable in our skins and Christmas jumpers. It felt much more like a celebration than at home.

When you do the same thing every year, it is easy to lose the excitement. Hell, if I was sitting in my living room watching Shrek 3 for the seventeenth time after a big Christmas meal, then I imagine I wouldn’t feel inspired to open my laptop, let alone write anything down. But I guess that is a missed opportunity even if you don’t celebrate the festive period in the same way that everyone else does. Maybe doing something different might open your eyes to what else is out there.

I am not saying you can jump on a flight here tomorrow (or today – the timezones are still a mystery to me) but maybe there is something back home you can do to get in the Christmas spirit. Maybe it starts with Jesus, I don’t know.

However you are celebrating, all of us are wishing you a warm holiday season from South India! I only hope the weather where you are is as gorgeous as it is out here.

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The Cost of Faith


Madhau Bhag, Mumbai

Madhau Bhag, Mumbai

I wouldn’t say I am religious, but I would affirm I am spiritual. I do not like doctrine and I find the word religion to be incredibly loaded. The practice of religion is very much a currency in India – every place of worship, especially the ones that we have been to, will be surrounded by shops and attractions that require money. It is impossible to estimate how much this brings in, but you can assume it is a hefty amount and it is inevitably mostly cash in hand.

When my parents brought me up, they were not afraid to admit that they did not have the answers to my questions. Whenever we conducted anything religious, there were always holes to be found in meanings and understandings, but it was a challenge to find out the answer – it was not something to be ignored. This inquisitiveness has never left me. In fact, it has probably permeated into every part of my life.

Our last day in Mumbai was important to my Mum. The school of thought within which my family has learnt about Hinduism is based in a small insitution in Mumbai. Early on a Sunday morning we made our way to the lecture theatre and sat in the room where the teaching had first begun over 80 years ago. Having seen it on videos and in pictures, it was like de ja vu when we walked into the courtyard and took to the benches at the back.

The man who started the movement demanded that it should not be outwardly publicised, but instead should be passed from person to person, so I will not name him here. However, this weekend would have been the celebration of his 95th birthday and so there were people present from all over the world. My mother had actually met him when he had been alive, and their first meeting was when she was only a girl, a little younger than me, just 20km away from where we stood.

He was responsible for the development of the first university in the world that was built on the ancient tapovan system of education – focusing on the development of the individual, rather than their future aspirations. This unassuming campus was tucked away in the suburbs of Mumbai and it was the beginning of my Mum’s faith. It would also be the birthplace of mine.

It is difficult to describe. There were very few buildings, but the place itself was inundated with nature. It was completely green and you could barely hear the sounds of the noisy highway once you were through the gates. The intention was to create tranquillity. To remove the impurities of the mind by purifying the landscape around them. It had a profoundly uplifting quality.

The students were mild mannered and wore simple white clothes. There was not much talking and people from all walks of life trundled barefoot through the landscape. It was only open to visitors on a Sunday afternoon for a few hours and so this was a chance for the outside world to creep in and take a peek. There was a point in my adolescence when I thought this could be my destination, but that seems like a long time ago now.

Before we left, Mum stood standing in front of the flowered gateway. She was crying and looking forward in silence. She told me how she remembered the last time she was here and spoke to the man who made this place a reality. He was sitting on a bench and greeted her like a distant uncle – she remembered seeing a twinkle in his eye but was too naïve to understand the impact that he would have in her life at that point. Years later she stood in the same spot and imparted that knowledge to us knowing that this was where it had all begun, where it had all started to make sense.

A stranger looking onward came over to ask her why she was crying. She said they were tears of longing joy. He smiled warmly and introduced himself and his wife. They made polite conversation and reminded us of the reasons why he was there – to reinvigorate his faith. Mum smiled back and looked at me with the same expression. She was not upset anymore. He took his leave and I never learned his name, but I remember his warm smile and the way his eyes lit up when we spoke.

That probably doesn’t mean much, but it made all the difference to me. There are many places here that will measure the size of your faith by the thickness of your wallet. They will try to fool you and capture your belief. However, I am forever grateful for the fact that my faith was presented to me as my decision. I was not told what to believe and not vilified for what I thought. It has always been a healthy process of re-assessment and contemplation.

I am happy to be a part of something that recognises the kindness and dignity of complete strangers. For a man to look at us and offer conversation as a means of solace, with no ulterior motive. When you can instil a thought like that, there isn’t the need for expensive prayers. Humanity is enough.

Congest-jam


Juhu

I was very, very wrong about Mumbai. My first impressions of it being a spaced out haven were thrown out of the air-conditioned window at 10am when we got stuck in one of the worst traffic jams that I have ever seen in my life. In fact, Mumbai is a huge traffic jam. The drivers here add on 30 minutes to every journey between 7am and 11pm to account for being stuck…that is basically all of the hours that we could possibly be awake! No wonder that the air quality is so poor here – they actually have meters to measure the quality when the smog gets critical – but if you looked over the bay, you could probably work this out all by yourself.

When I came here for the first time and spent time with my cousin Pooja, I had made a list of all of the things that I wanted to do. As soon as she saw that list, she laughed at me and then crossed off all but three – you can only do things very slowly in Mumbai. It may be one of the fastest paces in the world, but nothing happens quickly. One great example of this is the bank. It took a total of 1:45 hours for my Dad to check the balance of his account and make a deposit in the government Bank of India – think about the kiosk in your local Natwest and be grateful for your waiting times. In all this time, I was baking in the noonday Sun, realising that I should have eaten breakfast rather than frying outside.

However, things were about to change. Walking past an unassuming restaurant, Gokul Lite stood out with its menu as a takeaway next door. I saw falafel on the menu and decided that my stomach would finally be able to take it. I can only describe it as the best thing I have ever consumed in India. An unassuming roti roll, I wasn’t expecting much, but it was just indescribably amazing and I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone who is in South Mumbai any time soon. Another thing worth seeing is the Colaba Causeway. It is the first time I have seen Europeans in India, and I imagine a huge tourist attraction.

Turning right on the corner of the famous Café Mondegar (the same bar that Pooja and I had visited until the early hours last year) it is a canopied stretch for a couple of kilometres of the best wares that you can get in Mumbai for the cheapest price. If you can live with the constant pushing and the fact that the walkway itself shouldn’t be able to accommodate anything more than a single file line, you can find a good bargain here. Within the space of an hour, we were able to cover the gifts for more than half a dozen of our friends and I managed to nab myself a beautiful wallet. I don’t think we spent more than twenty quid in total and we bought some drinks along the way.

Leaving the Causeway, we made our way to the famous Juhu Beach. Considering how chaotic the city is, and even how busy the beach itself is, there was nothing that compared to looking out over the horizon just before sunset. I am not a beach holiday sort of person, but feeling the sand beneath my toes and the waves lapping up against my ankles, I realised how much I had missed this sort of thing. There was no need to do anything but just stand and admire what was in front of us.

Although as you can imagine, the quiet didn’t last for long. It wasn’t too long before men in red trilbys were asking us if we wanted a photo taken, showing us albums of previous happy customers. Waiters from the nearby street stalls were dragging us away by the arm and telling us how good their food was. Strange men were selling questionable snacks from mobile clay ovens that were strapped around their neck. Indians seem to know a business opportunity when they see one.

Rather than being harangued by the local street sellers, the family we had come to see invited us to the Shiv Sagar restaurant, a five minute walk from the beach. It served the best pau bhaji I have ever had, and I don’t even like the stuff. This is the sort of thing that has started to become quite frequent now. Every time we sit down to eat, it surpasses my expectations and I am shocked how the smallest of places can produce the most incredible food. Shiv Sagar itself is world-renowned and it can’t sit more than 30 people at a time.

I guess that is what I am starting to like about Mumbai. Regardless of it being busy, there are so many nooks and crannies with fantastic things on offer. You just have to be willing to brave the congestion and find them.

The Very Last Adventure


Kemp's Corner

Kemp’s Corner // credit: aromanos / Flickr

Mumbai is a completely different kettle of fish. It took us 12 hours (yes, 12 hours) to drive from Baroda to the busiest city in the world in our not-so-little campervan. I am starting to get a little tired of these long car journeys bouncing on the road, but there isn’t much more travelling to do. Along the way there was some beautiful natural landscapes that made the crucial few hours of the journey more than bearable.

You can hear Mumbai before it comes into view. The sound of horns and engines as the traffic signals the start of the city boundaries. The natural light of the sky gives way to headlamps and neon billboards that line the way like road signs. There isn’t a place in the world that could rival this, as well as being inundated with shacks selling some of the most delicious food you will ever eat, it sits near some of the biggest slums that this country has to offer. India is nothing if not a place of contrast.

Once you get past all of the advertisements and lights, you realise how well structured the city actually is. To house 21 million people is no mean feat, and regardless of the fact that the place is a huge traffic jam, it is fairly well spaced out. Compared to other places that we have seen, from a first glance, Mumbai seems to be a pleasant and welcome surprise.

This is the first time that we are staying in a lavish hotel as well. The Lalco Residency has floors of apartment style hotel rooms so that we can stay together as a family. It is the first time since we left that we have sat down on sofas together, as just the five of us, and talked about our day. I suppose we sometimes forget in all of the running around that this could be our very last family holiday. The last time that we sit around a coffee table and decide what the next day will bring.

It is not always easy to sit in a luxury apartment knowing how difficult it is outside this walls. I make no bones about the fact that we are living in a cocoon that we have built for ourselves. It has been really interesting to speak to and meet so many people already that have shown us that it is not the money that we have that brings them any more pleasure than our company. In fact, as much as many of you might think that having a few bucks is helpful here, what you get for free is far more valuable.

We are going to enjoy ourselves no question. This isn’t a hollow enterprise, neither is it a spiritual epiphany. It is a holiday. But we are always mindful and grateful for what we have. My parents have brought me up with the intention of sharing this wealth (whether materially or otherwise) with everyone that has the capacity to receive it. You cannot take it with you.

It is now 2am and I fear that any more writing, or thinking, will lead to rambling so I will stop here. If this appears to be the very last adventure, then we might as well go out with a bang.

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