With our business orders placed in Jaipur, Delhi and Varanasi, we are
now in the “Let’s go somewhere until they are completed” part of the
trip. Last year we skipped this phase, trusting they would do what they said (and some did), and went straight into the “Let’s go to the best beach in the world”* phase. *(See our archived blog “WHERE THE GIANT DUM DUM TREES GROW”). While we wait for the orders our destination is quirky, like the Andamans, but not as distant.
The 1500’s were a good century for Portugal. Maybe their last good century. They were discovering that Asia offered lots of potential for exploitation, and, OK, there weren’t the cities of gold and the mountains of silver that the Spanish were cashing in on in the Americas, but those might still be out there, and in the meantime there was lots of other good stuff like silk and spices and slaves. In the long and perilous journey to get to Asia, one of the most important locations for them to secure was Diu, a little island off the tip of a
peninsula jutting into the Arabian Sea, on the western edge of India. Along with two other strategic enclaves down the Indian coast – Goa and Daman – Diu remained a Portuguese possession until India “liberated” it in 1961.
The Portuguese left Diu the usual sinister-looking forts and thick city gates protected with icons of the saints, the massive basilicas much too large for a tropical village, their whitewash blistering and moldy from too many monsoons, a few old families with flowery and flowing names – and lots of bars selling port and cheap beer. The last point
is especially important, considering that Diu is surrounded by Gujarat, a state of over 50 million people, in which the sale of alcohol is prohibited. Not only that, but Diu also has the lowest taxes on booze in India, making it a bastion of cold beer in a large dry land. It is probably a good thing that Diu isn’t easy to get to. It is almost impossible to access without going through Ahmedabad, a vast, grim metropolis of close to 5 million, and in my opinion the loudest city in India. But there is one way.
Once a week a train leaves Dehra Dun in the Himalayan foothills, passes through Jaipur and terminates in Dwarka, on the south coast of Gujarat, about 300km west of Diu. Given the state of the roads, that would be three tolerable days on buses. The problem is that the berths on this train are full, and we are “wait-listed” to #6 and #7. The train is scheduled to leave Jaipur at 7:15 pm., but we won’t know our status until the “reservation chart” has been prepared – about 2 hours before departure. We check out of our hotel at noon, and I am quite optimistic that over a couple of thousand kms at least nine people will somehow not make their sleeper. When we phone the station the charts are in – and we didn’t make it. We are still W/L #1 and 2. Now the question is whether to get on the train and hope that two people will cancel at this station, and risk spending 20 hours sitting in cattle class, or refund the tickets and try another approach. I make one last-ditch journey to the station to see if I can plead/pull strings with someone, but to no avail. We make the decision to cancel the tickets – and do the journey to Diu one day at a time, by bus.
Day 1. Udaipur. 9 ½ hrs. That wasn’t so bad! They weren’t kidding when they said it was a deluxe bus, and even I have enough room to stretch my legs. The road is great – a divided highway – almost all the way, and the bus doesn’t stop every 100 m for every roadside flag-down. The lunch stop is clean-enough looking to actually contemplate eating in, and we are for the most part spared the litany of bus grievances that usually afflict us. We have phoned ahead and reserved a room at the Panorama Hotel – recommended by our friend Peter who was just there – and it is quite lovely.
Udaipur is built around a lake, and our room has a view of one of its arms – which unfortunately is drying up due to a couple of years of bad monsoons – and the arches and temples beyond. An extravagant Maharajah, Udai Singh, started a tradition of palace building, culminating in the famous gleaming-white Lake Palace in 1754, superbly aloof on its own island. You might recognize it from the Bond film Octopussy, where is served as the redoubt of a harem of scantily-clad ninja babes. The film for that reason alone is a cult here, and sure enough, our restaurant is showing it when we go up to the roof for dinner. Having just come with a maniac from the station, Roger Moore’s rocket-propelled auto-rickshaw ride through town doesn’t seem too far from the truth.
Day 2. Udaipur. Too nice to leave. We’ve been in Udaipur before, but it’s far more pleasant wandering around town looking for photo-ops than getting on another bus.
Day 3 and 4. Ahmedabad. 5 ½ hrs. Yes, we are in the City of Noise. The main drag is the totally-inappropriately named Relief Rd, and our hotel is just off it. The last time we were here our room actually rattled due to the traffic. Now we have gone a little more upscale, and it is worth it. Since we are in the textile business, and since our hotel is alright, we decide to see if there is anything in this town we might be interested in. Ahm’bad, after all, is the capital of the state where much of our tribal embroidery comes from. We visit a night market and find a lot of cheap-quality knock-offs, but also some old and/or good pieces. The prices start out astronomically high, but competition is so keen that they quickly come down to absurdly cheap. I’m not interested in doing business this way, and no one, of course, has any of the commercial licenses necessary for exporting, so K buys a couple of blouses and we leave.
Day 5. Junagadh. 7 hrs. I was dreading this one, but it was alright. Up until now we have been leaving from heavily-touristed towns, and finding information in the bus stations was easy. Ahm’bad’s station is a big mess. I know enough Hindi that I can make out place names on buses when they come in, but with Gujarati I am totally lost. This means that everybody else knows where a bus is going before we do, and can get on it and get the seats first. We have to abandon taking two buses because by the time we get on they are full. The good thing is that we’ve made some allies, and a kid selling newspapers tips me off that the bus backing in is going to Junagadh. K piles in with the shoulder bags to get seats, and I follow with the packs. On the better buses, luggage can be stowed in the compartments underneath. On these, anything less than a motorcycle, say, or a herd of goats (which would go on top) comes inside. My pack doesn’t fit into the narrow roof rack, so it has to go on the floor in front of me. Even with this cramping the already-cramped leg room, it’s not a bad trip.
Day 6. Junagadh. Exceptional architecture lies all over this town like crumpled up chip bags. An eccentric Maharajah (is there another kind?) built extravagantly in the 19th C, and his creations are in that distinctly-Indian state of disrepair that is part decomposition and part incorporation into something else. The truly great buildings, like the spiraling lines and bubbling domes of the Mahabat Muqbara mosque, the Archeological Survey of India has declared protected, which means they are only benignly neglected. The others don’t fare so well. The towering, horseshoe-shaped city gate, which wouldn’t be out of place fronting a fountain on an Italian plaza, is occupied by squatter families who live a few steps away from the highway in rooms that were once (on one wing) for the palace guard, and (on the other) their horses. As we wander through the streets we stumble on a square of grand four-story buildings – the tallest in town – that look like they belong in Whitehall, but which are now encroached upon by tailors and mechanics – and even for them the upper stories are too run down to use. People aren’t used to foreign faces here, and everywhere we are greeted by smiles and kids calling out their text-book English phrases. K makes the observation that a group of sari-clad young women who giggle and say “Hi!” are black, with frizzy hair. Soon we are seeing local “blacks” everywhere. When we are back in our room I do a Google search (in case that went by so quickly that you missed it – for the first time in all our travels we have wifi in our room. In Junagadh! Our swish hotel is actually a christmas present from Marianne – Thanks again! ) and discover that many blacks came to this part of India from Ethiopia and East Africa to work in some capacity for the Maharajahs. They are called Sidis, and now dress and talk like the locals, although even after 200 years inter-community marriage is uncommon.
Day 7. Somnath. The roads are starting to get bad, but at least the distances are short. Today we came down to the sea, past the dividing line where the betel palms of the dry interior give way to the coconut palm of the coast.
Speaking of displaced peoples, Somnath plays one of the most important roles in history. A thousand years ago a massive temple stood here, and over the course of centuries it had grown incredibly rich. In 1024 an Afghan ruler, Mahmud of Ghazni, decided for the glory of Allah he would sack this famed temple. Whatever Allah got out of it, Mahmud did very well. He returned to Ghazni with a mile-long ox-cart train of loot, and more importantly for our story, the entire captured population of the area – some 30,000 people- as slaves. When Mahmud died his kingdom descended into turmoil, and his slaves simply walked away. They’ve been walking ever since, with different branches going in different directions, who we collectively know as Roma, or Gypsies.
Over the centuries the temple was rebuilt, and re-destroyed. The last time it happened was at the hands of that old scoundrel, the Moghul emperor Aurangzeb, in 1706, and it stayed that way until 1950. In my opinion, they should have left it. I guess it’s a faithful reproduction, but as reproductions always do, it looks fake. What draws pilgrims here, however, is not the architecture, but the “jyorti-linga” inside. There are 12 of these strange icons in various temples in India, which are said to be self-created, to have manifested from nothing. After a thorough security pat-down at the temple gate, we are allowed to see it. I have seen a few of the other jyortis, and like them this is a very unusual object. It actually looks more like a torso than a linga, and it has a kind of stylized face that seems to be looking at you.
Everywhere we have been off the beaten path in Gujarat, people are fantastically friendly. The best part of Somnath (now that the ruin is gone) is the beach. It’s a happy carnival, even if the beach itself is unattractive and covered with garbage. It’s here that we meet Raju and his handler, Abdul. We can’t resist a ride on the garishly dolled-up camel, even though, when Abdul goads Raju into a trot, it’s the most uncomfortable stretch of transportation that we’ve had yet.
Day 8. Diu. 2 ½ hrs. Diu is a charming place. Unlike its big sister Goa, the foreign tourist scene has had a minimal impact on this out-of-the-way spot. Part of the reason is that the beaches leave something to be desired, although we haven’t done the full tour yet. This is the holiday in India part of the trip, and we are treating it that way. We start the day with a coffee on our balcony, looking out over neem and palm trees to St. Paul’s church. Then we find food, wander around the picturesque old city, and finish with cold beers on a roof top with our friend Peter. It may not be sleigh-rides and sitting on Santa’s knee, but I am quite happy to spend Christmas this way. And on that note: Seasons Greetings to you all, may your Christmas be joyful and may good things come in the New Year!
You Foreign Devil Corespondent
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