A Long Haul North

Aurangabad, India

Tonight marks the beginning of a course in Vipassana meditation I have chosen to undergo. Part of the package is 10 days without communication of any kind and therefore radio silence for my journaling. Before I begin I wanted to share a brief photo-essay of the 4-day journey up to Jodhpur, Rajasthan.

With a brief intermission to explore the famed caves of Ellora, it was a marathon spread between sleeper buses, trains and a final stint in “general”, the unassigned seating option in passenger trains where I experienced a new blend of Indian bedlam. Aided at every step of the way by welcoming families, humble individuals and patient tellers, I cannot speak highly enough of the warm character shown to me by the Indian people.

Bibi Ka Maqbara is often considered the little brother of the Taj Mahal for its striking resemblance. It was built late in the 17th century as a memorial for Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb's first wife, Dilras Banu Begum.

Bibi Ka Maqbara is often considered the little brother of the Taj Mahal for its striking resemblance. It was built late in the 17th century as a memorial for Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb's first wife, Dilras Banu Begum.

Exquisite marble carvings line the interior of Bibi Ka Maqbara One of the Ellora cave temples: The stunning 'Carpenters Cave', a Buddhist cathedral and acoustic masterpiece thought to have been carved in the 8th century

To the left, exquisite marble carvings line the interior of Bibi Ka Maqbara. To the right, one of the Ellora cave temples: The stunning 'Carpenters Cave', a Buddhist cathedral and acoustic masterpiece thought to have been carved in the 8th century.

Piled into a train with a wedding party en route to Jodhpur. Arms, legs and children strewn everywhere and, though not visible in the photograph, people packed into the rafters above our heads as well

Piled into a train with a wedding party en route to Jodhpur. Arms, legs and children strewn everywhere and, though not visible in the photograph, people packed into the rafters above our heads as well.

Hampi

Hampi, India

Waking with the hangover that follows a night spent on a sleeper bus, I exchanged a weary look with the anonymous frenchman in the berth next to me. We had endured sharing an impossibly tight pair of bunks, rolling into one another at every turn. The reward for our tribulations was a breathtaking glimpse of daybreak over our destination: Hampi.

Surfing out of the bus door and over the jostling crowd of rickshaw drivers, I made my way across the river to a travellers paradise. The guesthouse ghetto of Hampi sits outside the main bazaar, passage to which is earned by navigating a leaky, barrel-like ferry service. “It only cap-sizes occasionally” a local tells me with a grin.

In Hampi, the very foundation of earth itself seems to push through onto the plains. Boulders of incredible proportion are tossed in all directions and the prehistoric aesthetic is further complemented by scattered ruins of an expansive royal palace. In a sigh audible with resignation, a portly tourist from Bangalore tells me that, were it not for the destructive efforts of an invading army some 500 years previous, a great wonder of ancient architecture would stand before us today.

Many visitors come here with the intention of a few nights stay only to leave a month later wondering where the time went. It is a familial environment and those wishing to take stock of this need only spend a moment in any of the small cafes lining the main drag. Cafes which transform throughout the day into living rooms for both tourists and locals to share a boxed-rum, kingfisher or psychedelic experience. In the evenings, melodies of indian flute, drum and the occasional didgeridoo float into town from jam sessions in the hills above.

I rise early one morning to make my way north. The air is cool and calm. I pack my bag quietly and leave before anyone stirs. It is a wonderful feeling this: freedom, perhaps. I slip into a rickshaw out of town and, for a time, nobody in the world knows where I am.

The Virupaksha temple, the only functional one of its kind in Hampi, stands over the town bazaar
The Lotus Mahal: one of the most beautiful buildings in the Zenana enclosure just outside Hampi A young man skillfully paddles his vessel (one of the towns more daring ferries) across the shallow river dividing Hampi
After her morning bath in the river, Lakshmi the elephant is painted with Hindu symbols inside the Virupaksha temple. She collects donations and bestows blessings upon visitors
Prehistoric boulders and fields of maize surround the guesthoust ghetto A local man poses for a photograph
The enduring stepped tank: one of the most stunning monuments left intact inside the ruinous royal enclosure

Goa

Goa, India

Things look grim as I peruse the transit options for getting from Kochi to Goa: A pair of overnight buses back-to-back, broken apart by a six hour layover in Bangalore. Weary from the journey up to Munnar, I commit the cardinal sin of Indian sojourning and book a plane ticket. Later, as I squeeze on to the plane I am seated next to a clean-shaven Israeli man; He introduces himself as Udi and we exchange pleasantries. The plane departs and I drink in the view hoping it’ll stave off the pang of guilt I feel for taking the easy option. It doesn’t.

Udi and I share a cab into Palolem, far down the southern end of the state, making a bee-line for the beach. Goa has all the trimmings of a tourist hot-spot: White, sandy beaches, cheap beer pouring abundantly from beach-front bars and an ocean of tourists taking advantage of the only location in India where western swim-wear is acceptable. A few minutes pass before I spot a German couple I’d met in Chennai. I run out to greet them. Shortly after, to my surprise, Amit & Nuriel from Kodaikanal appear as well. Udi asks if I’m the mayor to which we both chuckle; The stay had become a reunion.

For all intents and purposes, this could have been Tel Aviv. The place was bustling with Israelis on tour, many having just finished their stint in the defense force. Later in the week, Amit suggests we all hire scooters and make for Cola, a secluded beach 15 minutes up the coast. I splash out on an Enfield and agree to meet them later. After blasting through the forests of the Cotigao wildlife sanctuary all morning, I made my way to Cola in the hopes of linking up with them. Turning off the main drag toward the beach, I found Udi traveling hastily in the wrong direction. Amit had come off her scooter and he was in search of bandages. The beach road was a rocky, unkept affair jostling even the sturdiest vehicle and a few miles onward I found her sat in the dust, bloody and grazed. I reflected on the nagging unease I’d felt scootering around Auckland a few years ago and was at once grateful for the tenacity of the Enfield — though perhaps chance alone had spared me the same fate.

Boulders edge onto Butterfly beach
Bursting with chrome and leaking petrol, the noble steed stands proud: A most handsome Royal Enfield. Cotigao wildlife sanctuary in the background A lizard scurries out of sight in the Cotigao wildlife sanctuary
Somewhere between the rust and the branches propping it up, confidence in this ladder was not high. One of the navigable obstacles on the road up to the Cotagio treehut A frog eyes the camera nervously in Cotigao
Palolem beach at dusk
 precarious treehut looms over Cotigao wildlife sanctuary The sun sets over Palolem beach

Munnar

Munnar, India

After a stint in the tea plantations of Sri Lanka, Munnar felt very familiar though it was missing a key ingredient or two. The bus ride up earned a place on the highlight reel: a winding 5-hour ascent, breezing past waterfalls and monkeys alike. Amidst the mist and monoxide, thousands of acres of tea & spice plantations buffered the damp village on all sides; Here was a place where it did not take long to feel drenched down to the very soul.

Embarking on a guided trek through the hinterland, I was accompanied by an upbeat crowd of Germans, Brits and Israelis all marching merrily into the hills. As the day wore on, however, a dark and brooding silence fell upon our intrepid platoon. Exhaustion had us firmly in its grip and even the discovery of Elephant tracks was incapable of breathing more than a moments energy into us. Like the end of a particularly nasty game of Monopoly, we began to despise our jubilant guide as if he held hotels across the board. Seemingly unaffected by the arduous, knee-clobbering descent he had led us on, he chirped on about this spice and that while we longed for rest and sustenance. At the walks end we sat in perpetual silence, collectively defeated, as food was served.

I moved on from Munnar quicker, perhaps, than one should. Having only intended to visit the south briefly, I had accidentally spent more than a month there. The time had come to make my way north.

Firewood stacked high in a shed deep within a tea plantation Every 12 years, this flower blooms in the hills surrounding Munnar
Hiking down through the clouds One of the many botanical delights on display in a tour of the spice plantations
The view from Top Station, a hilltop overlooking the border between Kerala and Tamil Nadu

A timelapse of the clouds rolling off a nearby cliff at Top station, an outlook on the border between Kerala and Tamil Nadu

Kochi

Kochi, India

It’s a rare occasion that you stumble upon graffiti of merit in India, though if you started in Kochi you would find this hard to believe. Fort Kochi, nestled just off the coast of the main metropolitan area, serves as an almost Shoreditch-like canvas for artists; Evidence of this is littered everywhere and, arriving off the back of a hazy night’s sleep in a Sri Lankan airport lounge, I was pleasantly surprised to find such a colourful scene.

Galleries serve art with a distinctive eastern influence and curators will eagerly photograph you as you peruse their wares. In the hopes of collecting a commission, rickshaw drivers will fall over themselves for the opportunity to drop you at one of the many art stores nearby.

More than just an outpost of creativity, Kochi serves as the gateway to Kerala: a lush, green state along the southwest coast of India. Hundreds of miles of palm trees & tranquil backwaters beckon and it’s hard to argue that the experience of punting along the myriad canals isn’t wonderful.

Graffiti on Princess Street, Fort Kochi Graffiti on Bazaar street, Fort Kochi
A face peers out onto Burger street at night in Fort Kochi A sculpture depicting the painted face of a Kathakali actor
Chinese fishing nets at the entrance to the Cochi harbour

Chinese fishing nets line the entrance to the harbour in Kochi. These enormous, spider-like structures take a crew of people to operate them as they are dipped into the ocean to retrieve fish sold on the spot to locals and foreigners.

Punting down the tranquil backwaters in Kerala At a cultural centre in Fort Kochi, a man plays his Sitar skillfully