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Bill's India diary
|New Delhi, December 2,
The cable people hit town
Well, here we are then. After much anticipation (and a fair amount of trepidation) we've finally made it to India, and have had a great time so far. The food, the music, and the wildlife have all been wonderful. Maybe taking the reverse route from Nepal helped acclimate us - or maybe we've been living too long in New York - but the horror stories we heard about India seem to have been somewhat exaggerated. And, after spending our first couple of weeks way out in the middle of nowhere, we now seem to be having culture shock in reverse - at first I couldn't understand why all the traffic in Delhi would stop at the same time, and then I realized: traffic lights! Wow!
Royal Nepal Airlines have something of a reputation for poor service, so when our flight from Kathmandu to Delhi was delayed we were hardly surprised. The masterstroke was when we had to leave the departure lounge, walk across the runway to the plane, and identify our luggage before it could be loaded into the hold. Actually, the cool Nepali night was a pleasant change from the hot air and fuming passengers of the departure lounge, so that was OK with us. And not having a connection to make, we were able to be relatively relaxed about the whole palaver.
Not so the irate Indian businessman I got talking to while waiting in line. (He was kind enough to tell us that there were separate check-in lines for men and women, which was a good thing because Kathmandu airport works only on the rumor principle - no announcements, no information screens, just a gazelle-like following of the herd). The businessman had to make a connecting flight to Mumbai, and his chances of getting home became increasingly slim as the night wore on. He was a nice enough guy, but as he bitched and moaned about the inefficiency of everything Nepalese, he began to remind me of a stereotypical Englishman complaining about Ireland. This matched a certain anti-Indian sentiment we had already encountered in some Nepalis - a familiar resentment towards their bigger, richer, bullying neighbors. That 15 minute time difference is very important to Nepal, where so much else of their culture is dominated by India. (Of course, we can't go too far with this Britain/Ireland comparison. After all, India and Ireland were both mercilessly exploited by the British empire for centuries, so the analogy falls apart right there. Yes, it's me. I'm the bad guy. I admit it).
Meanwhile, while not panicking about the late departure, I was becoming increasingly worried about whether or not there would be anyone from our hotel waiting to meet us at Delhi airport, a location not high on our list of favorite places. I'd made the mistake of checking my e-mail correspondence with the Raja Hotel just before leaving, and they hadn't actually confirmed they would send a car to pick us up. Would we find ourselves the Out-of Towners, fresh rubes for Delhi's ruthless taxi drivers to drive wherever they fancied?
In the event, there wasn't one person waiting to pick us up, there were two. It seems some hotel to we'd e-mailed a vague inquiry to several months before had taken this as a booking, and faithfully sent someone to meet us. What efficiency - we felt guilty, but not guilty enough to go with the driver, especially as the name of the hotel on his card wasn't one we'd heard of. Very strange. Must be an indication of multiple ownership. His sign was very nicely printed, though.
The little man from the Raja ran off at great speed, leading us through a maze of unlit tunnels, rather like the ending of Westworld. We chased after him, huffing and puffing, clutching the bags we had refused to relinquish and hoping we were running to a taxi and not to meet our fate. It began to remind me of some archetypical rite of passage. Or maybe I was just overtired.
If it did symbolize our rebirth, then the new world was pretty strange. The lobby of the Raja Hotel was very posh, but the initial impression faded when we found ourselves in a windowless yellow tomb. Well, what the hell - it was clean, we were leaving the next day, and at eleven dollars a night it was hard to complain about. Especially as it had cable TV and we were able to watch our first American movie in over ten weeks, appropriately enough The Cable Guy. It's a film we'd been less than thrilled with back home, but it worked a lot better in Delhi after we washed down our Lariam with Indian whisky. When, over the next couple of weeks, we discovered what unbelievably bad American detritus ends up on Indian cable, we realized how lucky we were that night - or, god help us, we might have ended up enjoying Mr. Wrong. The mind reels.
The splendor of Indian pop
As part of our intensive planning for this trip, we'd spend rainy Saturday mornings flipping between the two Indian TV channels you get on Manhattan cable. They would mainly feature musical clips from the latest Bollywood movies, and we got to know some of the hits that we're hearing here now. We may have been nervous about what India would really be like, but we knew two things for sure: we loved the food, and we really enjoyed the music. We've found that in India, unlike Nepal, you nearly always get a TV in your hotel room, and apart from BBC world and Star, (the network that specializes in Matt Helm films), you get dozens of channels playing nothing but music videos. What's even better is the fact that, since every Bollywood movie ever made is at least partially a musical, the video channels show clips that span several decades - even Indian MTV has no evidence of a generation gap. It's great to see the current, svelte pop stars being played back-to-back with their chubby counterparts from the sixties. And there doesn't appear to be any age discrimination either - some of the pop stars even seem as old as Mack Jigger. It just means you need a few extra attractive young people dancing about, (as seen in the video for Life Is a Highway - you know, the one with the stubby Canadian in tight jeans who claimed to do it his way all night long).
I have no knowledge of Indian pop whatsoever, other than the fact that it's all highly enjoyable. (With the deadly exception of the current hit that rips-off a Billy Joel tune. So tragic). It's like a gigantic sponge that omnivorously absorbs everything in its path, and yet consistently manages to retain its own identity. You get flashes of all kinds of music, but nothing seems out of place. Our current favorite is a Cabaret-like clip from the seventies that, while drawing heavily on disco, incorporates Spanish trumpet, tap-dancing, swirling synths, and a rapping Superman. So ahead of its time. I have yet to find out the name of this song, although I could attempt the tried and true method of singing it in a record store. Might get some funny looks, but where do you start? How do you jump into a genre this big? It's a lot like India really. Tourism is Nepal's biggest industry, and you can't help but notice how everything there is geared towards your comfort and your dollar, but India is a world unto itself.
New Delhi, December 4, 2000
The wonderful world of Dilli Haat
One myth which was put to bed within hours of our arrival in India was the one about the Indian food here not being as good as it is elsewhere. Don't you believe it. The food is great, and the gravest danger facing lovers of Indian food such as ourselves is the threat of stuffing ourselves silly. The hardest part is ignoring the delicious scent of street food that constantly wafts by - it might smell great, it probably tastes great, but the standards of hygiene almost certainly leave much to be desired. So we find ourselves denied the temptations of samosas and bhel puri, two favorites which, for some reason, never appear on any restaurant menus. Probably because they are so indelibly regarded as street food. Too bad for us. How long until we crack, relinquishing to the almighty samosa and throwing caution to the winds?
Luckily for our intestinal systems, Doreen discovered Dilli Haat, an Indian tourist board sponsored market that sells handicrafts and, more importantly, safe street food from all over India. Praise the lord - we were saved. We've just got back from indulging in what I've long considered the perfect meal - a smorgasbord of bhel puri, panni puri, sev puri, and vegetable samosas courtesy of the Rhajasthan restaurant. It was all excellent, especially the sev puri which was the best I've ever tasted. (OK, so I've only ever had it at Diwana's before, and it's really good there as well. Maybe I just have no critical faculties when it comes to sev puri). If you ever find yourself in Delhi, you really ought to check out Dilli Haat. Unless you're brave enough to go in for the real street food, it's a unique experience. And of course, if I get violently ill in the next twelve hours, discount everything I've just said.
Panaji, December 25, 2000
The elusive Ibisbill
How dreadfully remiss of me not to have written anything for this website for three weeks. What have I been doing with my time? Well, we've pretty much been birding our brains out, which hasn't left too much time for other pursuits - especially when you're supposed to be keeping extensive notes and uploading your trip reports for the delectation of all the other globe-trotting birders out there. That's my excuse, anyway.
In fact, looking back I don't seem to have written much about anything anyway. Not much of a surprise there, really, but perhaps I should fill in some gaps. Here we go then: after our cable night in Delhi we hopped it to the Corbett National Park area. We spent some time at a couple of nice places on the beautiful Ramganga river, and then spent a night in the government rest-house located slap-bang in the middle of the park. A great location, admittedly, but the rest-house itself veered so far left of seedy that it ran right into skanky. We were very happy that we only spent the one night there although, inevitably, it was the Lariam night. Oh dear. The restaurant was pretty good, oddly enough, so we were able to maintain our continual diet of tasty Indian food. We also spent a couple of nights in Corbett's gateway town, Ramnagar - or, to give it its proper name, Butphekaiderhoe, a place where even the banks won't change hard currency and the only entertainment in town is birdwatcher-watching. You have to admire it though; despite housing the HQ of one of India's main tourist attractions it just doesn't give a toss about tourists and maintains a stubborn integrity.
We also spent a few days in India's Switzerland (it says here), staying in a cool little town called Nainital. Our birding book rather tartly describes it as "a shabby relic of the Raj", and it did indeed have its origin as a hill station where gin-swilling colonialists would escape the epidemics of summer - rather like Newport Rhode Island, in fact. Nowadays it's a charming little town that's very popular with Indian tourists seeking the same cooler temperatures. We were there a little off-season - our hotel was lovely, even though it got as cold as an English bedsit in the evenings, and had the same obligatory one-rung electric fire. But the birding was great and it was interesting to be in a touristy town that was touristy for Indians, not for foreigners.
After this we returned to the questionable charms of Ramnagar in an effort to find a particular bird called the Ibisbill; the river that runs right through the center of town is reputedly one of the best places in the world to find this rare species. Barely a day goes by when some sad nebbish doesn't pick his way through the garbage on the riverbanks in search of this damn bird. And since Ramnagar is, not to put to fine a point on it, a dump, there's isn't much for the locals to do except poke fun at these peculiar people who stare intently at rocks though high-tech optics. And indeed, many would argue that a) it's their town in the first place so they can do what they like, and b) birdwatchers are pretty comical anyway. Nor would I disagree with either of these propositions. I am constrained, however, to point out that it's not much fun to birdwatch while assorted kids and adults stare at you from a distance of three feet. And so we bravely ran away. (I am also constrained to point out that certain sources have argued that the Ibisbill does not even exist, and people only say they've seen it to piss off other birdwatchers. Paranoid? Me? What are you talking about?)
The elusive pre-pay booth
From Ramnagar, we took the sleeper train to Delhi. What fun to spend eight hours on a freezing train with the world championship of snoring going on while the Lariam makes your hands feel like they belong to someone else. Believe me, if you're expecting Marilyn Monroe to jump into your compartment and start making Manhattans, you've got another thing coming. Since the train was scheduled to arrive in Delhi at four a.m. this was one of the only times in my life when I was praying for the train to be late. Luckily, we'd booked a hotel near the train station. Unluckily, we booked it near the wrong train station.
Whenever we fly into a new city, we try to book a hotel in advance and have them send a taxi to pick us up, thereby avoiding the inevitable melee of clamoring cab drivers. It can be the worst part of any trip, so why deal with it if you don't have to? Somehow we missed this step when returning to Delhi, possibly because we were arriving by train, possibly because we'd been there before, I don't know. Anyway, it was an error, and when the train managed to arrive only an hour behind schedule we were on our own. Fortunately, airports and train stations in Delhi are supposed to have pre-paid taxi booths where you can pay for your ride in advance and just hand the receipt to the driver, neatly sidestepping the possibility of being ripped off. It's an excellent idea and, whenever you arrange for your hotel to have a car waiting, you see these pre-pay booths all over the place. Naturally, in this instance it was impossible to find one and we spent several minutes in a fruitless search, trying to avoid hordes of screaming cab drivers while we leapt over banks of sleeping people (I told you living in New York would come in handy. This place is a lot harder on people from civilized countries. Denmark, for example).
We picked an auto-rickshaw (or tuk-tuk, if you'd prefer) at random, brandished the card of our hotel as if it was a magic talisman, and sped off into the night. And while Old Delhi station was a hive of industry at this time of morning, the streets around it were awfully deserted. We were both suffering from lack of sleep, and had also cunningly planned the journey to coincide with our Lariam night, so our nerves were a little jangled well before a couple of scary looking guys wrapped in blankets flagged us down at a makeshift roadblock on an otherwise empty street. They exchanged some words with the driver, smiled, and then one of them leaned in the rickshaw. This is it, we both thought, and as our lives flashed in front of our eyes neither of us could believe that we still hadn't seen the Ibisbill. Scary guy number one looked a little like Klaus Kinski circa For a Few Dollars More, perhaps if he'd been cast as a baddie in Lawrence of Arabia - or maybe it was just the blanket. He proffered his hand, smiled encouragingly, and asked where we were from, as people around here tend to do. In a voice which may have had some of the vibrato of adolescence I bravely enquired who he was, at which point he stepped back and the auto-rickshaw resumed its journey. The driver told us they were cops. Well, perhaps. But where were the uniforms? They might have been a bit chilly in the night, but those damn blankets certainly made us a little uneasy. When we finally arrived at the hotel we capered across the reception area like two jolly escaped asses.
Captain American and The Falcon
From Delhi (and Dilli Haat) we moved on to Bharatpur, where we enjoyed the extraordinary selection of avifauna on offer there, not to mention the wonderful hospitality of the Falcon Guest House. The owner, Rajni Singh, has the rare gift of bringing total strangers together, and instead of working on this web page we spent every night hanging out by the fire and discussing the state of the world with the assorted oddballs that passed through her doors. We had the rare opportunity of exchanging views with people from all over the world, people with whom we would never normally communicate. We met tons of interesting people - Vikings, lawyers, even a Nader voter. Even a man who, upon graduating from medical school in the fifties, had been posted to the furthest outpost of Uganda where there was nothing to do except drink and hunt fowl. Sort of a living Graham Greene novel. It was good to meet all these people, all of whom had a fascinating story to tell, none of whom we would ever have met in our normal life and circle of friends.
The Falcon really brought home the difference between a guest-house and a hotel - you really did feel like you were a guest in someone's home, and all the patrons would remark on what an unusual place it was. Several people abandoned their itineraries and spent the rest of their vacations holed up at the Falcon, and none of them were even birdwatchers. Crazy. We'd gone there because the owner's husband was a naturalist and, even though he had retired from guiding himself, he was able to hook us up with an excellent guide. But it was the force of Rajni's personality that really made the place unique. She was tough, smart, and funny in a way that many Indian matriarchs might be behind closed doors, but which, as an outsider, you rarely get to see. (One shining moment: the Australian who refused to touch Kingfisher and would only drink Bullet beer being loudly addressed as "Excuse me! Bullet-man!")
We got a hard insight into the differences between Indian and western culture when Dinesh, one of the kids that worked there, suffered a family tragedy. His brother and two other men were run down by a truck as they were riding their bicycles across a busy road at night. The brother was killed outright, another died at the hospital, the third lost his legs, and the driver sped off, never to be found. Rajni told us about the life that lay ahead for Dinesh's sister in-law. A woman of twenty, she would have to live the rest of her life in mourning, never leaving the house of her in-laws. That was it for her, unless she could remarry, and the chances of that were very slim due to her having kids. According to Rajni, this was probably because she did something very bad in a former life - this was karma in action. That certainly put paid to all the warm and fuzzy, half-digested, new-age notions of karma that I'd been half conscious of carrying around until now. All that instant gratification crap of what goes around coming around was completely missing the point. Hinduism now looked like the same old shell game as Christianity, where a lifetime of suffering is worth it to get points in the next - except this one works in reverse as well. Pretty sophisticated, as indeed it must be. They've been keeping down the underclass here for millennia. (Of course, Hinduism has also produced such great thinkers as the Buddha, so it must have something going for it. Too bad I'm far too shallow to gain a fuller understanding of this very complex religion. I'll have to stick to the Church of Bob).
When we waved goodbye to Delhi and Dilli Haat, we took the expensive tourist train to Agra to see the world's most beautiful building. (Mainly because you can't go to India and not see the Taj Mahal, no matter how much of deranged birdwatcher you are. It'd be like going to New York and not seeing the statue of liberty, something I really must get around to one day). Attempting to learn from our mistakes, we'd booked a hotel in Agra and asked them to send a car. For some reason they'd asked us to call from the station when we arrived - at least that was the end of the stick we grabbed. When we arrived at the station, we couldn't find a working phone, so we found a cab ourselves and spent twenty minutes listening to the driver's friend trying to sell us a tour of all Agra's historic sites. Having been in Agra for less than an hour, we were able to fend off his advances in good humor, naive fools that we were. When we arrived at the hotel, a disgruntled employee demanded to know why we hadn't taken the taxi that was waiting for us at the station. Well, we would have if we'd known he was going to be there - but even if we had, it's debatable if we'd have known that the sign for "Mrs. Spare" was meant for us. Although it was quite an appropriate name in the light of future events.
About a month before we got to India, the government considered doubling the entrance fees to all its national monuments, and then put the increase into force just a few days later. Understandably, this enraged many tour operators who now had to go and ask for more money from their clients, making them look a bit shifty. It didn't make independent tourists very happy either. This hike was, I think, on top of another price spike at the beginning of the year, but I could be wrong. Either way, India was a lot cheaper a year ago, but it's still a pretty good deal for westerners. It's just that this kind of thing only adds to your general, (not entirely unfounded), paranoia about being ripped off all the time.
Specifically: when you get to the Taj, entrance is listed at $10, but when you pay it turns out to be $20. Quite steep for the budget traveler, but what the hell. Apparently the extra ten bucks is for admission to various other attractions, which is of course no good if you get to the Taj at the end of the day. Also, in an interesting twist, it doesn't really get you into the other places. Just sort of. But there it is, it's the Taj, what the hell, so after forking over what, on a good day, would be our daily budget, we walked to the obligatory frisking point. After this - a good way to get to know people in India - the chap who searched my backpack found my laptop and told me that it was forbidden to take electronic devices past the gate. I found this a little annoying. After all, if there had been a sign alerting me to this fact I could have made other plans, but I now had the choice of either eating forty bucks or leaving an extremely important object with a bunch of guys at the gate to the Taj. Not a likely scenario - we're too paranoid to even leave it chained up in a hotel room.
At this point a strange thing happened, and I turned into a carrot. Or, to put it another way: this really pissed me off. The world class badgering had already thwarted our attempt to walk the single kilometer from the hotel and this was the final nail in the camel's back - I'd had enough of Agra. My mind went on hold and my mouth worked purely on the adrenaline being pumped into my blood. It was your basic fight or flight mode, and although I was planning to leave and chalk the entrance fee up to experience, a fight was what my viscera wanted. So Mr. Spare went into action and I said what I felt. India's good like that - it gets you in touch with your inner feelings. And while I was being unmediated, he just waved me in, which was hardly an ideal solution from his point - what if I'd been carrying a bomb?
The whole thing was, as our older friends might say, a bit of a downer. It's never much fun to get that pissed off, and even though I was now able to revel in the glories of Mughal architecture, I wasn't in much of a mood to enjoy it. There's that song about someone being unable to concentrate on the giant albatross, the singing trees, etc., because all he can think about is the hole in his shoe and his wet foot. I seem to be thinking about that song a lot lately, as I observe the wonders of the world and find myself letting little things get in the way of the moment. It's not so much my inability to throw myself more deeply into direct experience that I regret - the really annoying part is having to listen to the feeble psychedelic leftover playing in my head.
Panaji, December 26, 2000
The some clichés are actually true dept.
The image of Goa as a laid-back, chilled-out oasis is one of the most common clichés you hear when traveling. After five weeks in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan we began to doubt that any part of India could justify these labels. We were wrong.
We arrived in Panaji, Goa's sleepy state capital, the day before Christmas Eve. It certainly looked different - the palm trees, the Portuguese architecture and the oddly Hindu looking Christian shrines immediately alert you to the fact that you're not in Delhi anymore, Toto. And, amazingly enough, it is a laid-back, chilled-out oasis. Incredible. We suspect that the beaches in the northern part of the state are not so peaceful now that they are a Mecca for pill gobbling Euro-ravers, but have little desire to find out for ourselves.
But Panaji (or Panjim, if you prefer) was a great place for us to spend Christmas. We're staying in our first real hotel for some time - so what if they've doubled the rates for the holiday season? A little bit of luxury is our Christmas present to each other. The towels are white and fluffy, the air-conditioning works, and fresh toilet paper magically appears in our room ever day; the pool pales into insignificance beside these extravagances. We're checking into a cheaper hotel tomorrow, but we're not leaving town. (Besides, we've found a really good bird guide with his own jeep).
Delhi was really interesting, not least on a purely architectural level. Designed by an Englishman who despised Indian architecture and completed in 1931, it was intended as a symbol of Britain's enduring presence in India. No wonder there's something distinctly Nurembergian about the place. Panaji is a perfect contrast. You know you're know still in India, but the Portuguese heritage lives on in the beautiful white churches, sweet baked goods and even sweeter port. People in south India have a reputation of being more laid back than their northern cousins, and it's yet another cliché that seems to be really true. Combining this with a Mediterranean culture instead of a northern European one seems to have created a truly nice place. Merry Christmas.
Bangkok, January 18, 2001
Last thoughts on India
We've been in Thailand for a couple of days now, and there's just a couple of things I should write down before our time in India fades into distant memory. So here we go then... Our two weeks in Goa were great. Initial impressions held up, and the only problem was that we were unable to change the date of our flight out - either to get to Thailand sooner or to stay in Goa longer, just so long as we could bypass Chennai (Madras). Why were we booked to spend two weeks in Tamil Nadu anyway, you might ask. Good question. An unhealthy fondness for south Indian cuisine might be one explanation, although discovering that it was widely available in the north made us aware of the redundancy of our original flight plan. Ah well, the last pre-booked flight was to Bangkok, so from here on in we can make it up as we go along. Besides, not that many people seem to visit India's south east, so it was a chance to see a relatively untouristed part of the country.
Our Goan sojourn was a holiday within a holiday, a chance to recreate after the rigors of Rajasthan. The serendipitous discovery of a little camp catering to hardcore British birders - a kind of club paradise for twitchers - made Goa even more enjoyable for us. By basing ourselves in Panaji and then spending a few days at the wonderful Backwoods (not Backwards) Camp we were also able to avoid the quasi-Costa del Sol ambiance of the northern coast. We did, however, end up spending our last two nights up there - we had to, because there's a Cinnamon Bittern that lives by one of the hotels. Sad, aren't we? Only then did we run into the hordes of lager-quaffing e-heads that we feared Goa would be full of. (Nothing wrong with quaffing lager of course, it's just that we birding quaffers tend to keep earlier hours than normal people). And the massed hordes of lobster-red fun lovers were a pretty quiet bunch overall, at least while we were up and about. They probably only got going long after we were safely tucked up in bed. And contrary to expectations, we were not kept awake by those pounding techno rhythms that the youngsters seem to love so much. (Reminds me of the fearsome war cry of the Philistines - "what's wrong with a tune you can whistle?")
So there we were - we were only able to move forward our arrival in Thailand by two days. This gave us ten days in Tamil Nadu. What to do? We booked a couple of days in a business hotel in Madras (Chennai) so that we could update our web page. (Since Kathmandu we haven't been fortunate enough to find an internet cafe that lets us connect with the laptop, so if we can't find a hotel room with direct-dial, we can't update the website). Unfortunately, once we'd checked into the hotel we discovered that the direct dial didn't extend as far as an internet connection, even though it was a local number. Why this was , I don't know, other than the fact that India tends to come up with many unexpected challenges for the intrepid traveler. After banging our heads against a brick firewall for a while, we simply gave up. It could have been the hotel, the local IPass provider, the phone lines in Chennai (Madras), or all three. Instead, we concentrated on trying the old air-conditioning cure for prickly heat. (It doesn't really work, but at least the rash seemed to be prickly heat and not a nasty side-effect of Lariam. Biggest downside: having to listen to Cool for Cats running through my mind as I tried not to scratch).
Madras (Chennai) is an interesting place to pass through, but it's too big to really get to grips with if you don't plan on living there, and we had a hard enough time crossing the road in front of the hotel. (Delhi's roads were more negotiable, even if the people are less aggressive in the south). Instead of trying to get to know Chennai (Madras) we headed down the coast to Mamallapuram - a nice little town that the Tamil Nadu tourist board are trying to turn into the Goa of the south east. It's ringed by beautiful temples dating back to the eighth century, hewn from the living rock (I've been dying to say that. While I'm at it I might as well say "vast Gangetic plain". Thank you). It's a center of stone carving even today, and wherever you go you hear the tap-tap-tap of stone carvers at work - not to mention the entreaties of shop owners trying to persuade you to buy the stuff. Our hotel had many interesting life-size statues in the forecourt, including one of JFK that was dwarfed by an adjacent Gandhi. I really meant to take a picture of that.
I have to admit, we ended up in Mamallapuram more of less by mistake, and given the choice would have proceeded straight from Goa to Thailand. However, it was quite a pleasant place to relax and do our version of a Corona commercial. The real reason we picked it was that it's quite near a bird sanctuary, so we were able to happily spend our days gazing at Spot-billed Pelicans and baby Openbills. Ah, the action-packed life of the inveterate birdwatcher. Back in Mamallapuram we amused ourselves by stuffing our faces with excellent south Indian food (we're going to miss it) and sniggering at the other tourists. (I bet you think that's funny, coming form birdwatchers). Since we're not strong enough to carry the Lonely Planet's India bible, we don't know what it says about Mamallapuram, but it's probably along the lines of how out of the way and unspoiled it is. Every edition for every country has a few of these places noted, and eventually they all get filled up with people questing the unspoiled. It's like club culture, where everyone looks for the happening place, which then ceases to be happening when they all find it (or so I've been told - I wouldn't know, being in bed with my cocoa by nine every night).
Whatever the reason, the typical tourist in Mamallapuram strolls around wearing little but an ill-fitting chadar, fake dreads, and an attempt at a beatific smile - I hadn't seen this many cosmic wazzocks since the '79 solstice at Stonehenge. I'm no fan of Zappa, but the tart lyrics of Flower Punk rang through my mind as I observed a psychedelic gleam in every eye. The fact that all the nick-nack shops sell a variety of chillums may have something to do with this, or maybe it's the abundance of ashrams in the immediate vicinity. They probably account for the other major species of tourist, the New Aged - silver haired questers for Truth who wear a greater amount of ill-chosen Indian clothes but still fail to blend in - possibly due to their imperialist habit of loudly shushing Indians at the local dance festival (also a big tourist draw, apparently). It may have just been that we were champing at the bit to get to Thailand, but there was an overwhelming sense of smugness about Mamallapuram's tourists that we didn't see anywhere else in India. Maybe we were just jealous because they were where they wanted to be and we weren't.