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Last day India [Apr. 14th, 2017|03:25 pm]
It was my final full day in India, so after a few hours lazing on the beach, topping up on my 'tan', it was time to do some souvenir shopping.

I'd promised Pradash, a friendly chap who runs the small shop just along the beach from my hotel, that I'd pop in to his place. Every available inch of wall-space was filled with colourful T-shirts and baggy trousers, most of which had pentacles, buddhas or stars adorning them. Goa is that kind of place. Yesterday I saw a dread-locked woman wearing a top with 'Spiritual Gangster' written across it. Lanterns and lamps hung from the ceiling and there was a rather fetching selection of fedoras. I just don't suit hats.

After 15 minutes of browsing I selected four items I wanted to buy, including a sparkly elephant rug for Evie and a loud shirt for my brother. Jess added a kaftan to the pile, making five items in total. Time for the negotiations to begin. As is always the case in touristy places like this, no prices are displayed which gives the seller a huge advantage.

I turned to Jessica and said "Hasn't Pradash got a kind face?" before turning to him and asking "since we're friends, what is the best deal you could do for us?"

"You tell me, how much you pay" he said smiling.

They always start with this line. If you quote big he'll rub his hands together, if you quote small he'll tell you about the family he has to feed. It's all a game and I find the haggling can be quite good fun, as long as you approach it in the right jovial spirit. Haggling is part of the culture here in Asia after all.

I managed to get him to state his price for each item. The total came to 3400 rupees, a small fortune in India. I could tell by his slightly sheepish demeanour that he knew he was trying his luck - for example he quoted me 450 rupees for the shirt when I knew it was a cheap item that locals would probably pay 100 rupees or less for. I expect to pay more than locals but I knew if he got 200 rupees for it, he'd make a good profit.

So I haggled hard, putting items back, umming and erring with Jessica - good cop, bad cop - until Pradash and I finally shook on a price of 1600 rupees for all five items. Over half price! He's still make a decent profit, so everyone was happy.

At lunch we went for an Ayurvedic massage each. My masseur was the same man who gave me the free go yesterday. He asked "hard or soft?" as I lay face down on my bench. With strong hands he began working on my shoulders, harder than I anticipated, but it felt really good. My right shoulder is often sore, probably due to being on a computer all day at work. He magically homed in on the sore point, digging his knuckles in with eye-watering effect, repeatedly going over the area, tendons and ligaments clicking as I closed my eyes tightly and told myself this was good pain, this was good pain.

He worked on my shoulders and back, then my feet and calf muscles. To finish he cracked each of my knuckles and dug his knuckle in to the fleshy part of my thumb, which almost made me scream it was so painful. Nevertheless my whole body felt fantastic afterwards. It cost 800 rupees for an hour.

After spending another relaxed afternoon on the beach, swimming in the warm ocean a couple of times, we decided to watch the sun set at the small bay over the rocks, just like last night. As we descended the rocks from one beach to another we passed a shop.

"Hello" said the woman standing outside. We returned her greeting.

"You come inside?" she said, gesturing to her shop.

"Maybe later" I replied.

As we walked away she called afterwards "See you later, you promised".

We went to the same bar as last night, got a wobbly table overlooking the beach and watched the sun go down on our last full day in India. As the final slither of orange disappeared in to the Arabian Sea, I reflected on another fantastic four weeks in India. Udaipur was the undoubted highlight, living up to its reputation as the most beautiful city in the country. I'd definitely had my share of culture on this trip, visiting the spectacular caves in Ajanta/Ellora and the temples in Hampi. I'd been on safari in Ranthambhore, where sadly I didn't see any tigers but enjoyed myself anyway. I saw the mother of all forts in Chittorgarh, watched a Test Match in Pune, Mumbai was a really interesting place to explore and I even enjoyed Delhi this year. We ended in Goa for convenience but it actually turned out to be the perfect way to end the trip.

Cities, temples, mountains, great food, animals, spectacular scenery, monkeys, beaches, classic cars, friendly people, boat-trips... and a million photo requests. A fantastic four weeks.

On the walk back to the hotel I passed the shop I'd, ahem, 'promised' to visit earlier. The lady wasn't outside and I considered tip-toeing past, but I quite liked the idea of buying myself a T-shirt or two, so entered. She was pleased to see us, smug that her underhand guilt-trip tactics had worked. A 'promise' is a promise.

The selection wasn't so great but among all of the palm tree prints and religious iconography I saw a T-shirt I really liked, in green, my colour.

"I'll take this please. How much?" I said.

"How much you give?" she said predictably.

"50 rupees" I joked.

She laughed and said the 'real price' is 500 rupees. I told her she had a kind face, my favourite line, and we settled on a price of 250 rupees. Back in the room I tried it on and it was so tight it almost cut off circulation to my arms. Medium indeed.

We had dinner at 'On the Rocks' restaurant, nestled on the rocks jutting out in to the sea. It's a nice spot and gives great views of Palolem Beach in its entirety. It proved to be the best meal of the trip. Jessica and I shared a Goan kingfish curry and the aloo gobi was the best of the trip. "Best food in India!" I told the waiter. It was a nice way to end our time in India.

Next day was a very long day of travel. An hour taxi ride to the airport was followed by two hours in departures, then an hour-long flight up to Mumbai. The longest part of the day was next, a seven hour wait at Mumbai airport for our international flight home. It passed relatively quickly as Jessica and I chatted. I'd been impressed with her since she joined up with me for the second half of the trip. We'd had some VERY long travel days but she didn't complain once, just had the get-up-and-go attitude you need when backpacking. It had been nice to visit amazing places and have someone to share it with. It was also enjoyable having someone to chat to over dinner - usually I just have my Lonely Planet for company.

As we embarked on the four hour flight back to Dubai (to be followed by a seven hour flight to UK) I wondered whether I'd ever return to India. I've been two years on the run and absolutely love the place, the people, the culture and the food. It's so diverse and interesting and there are still so many places I haven't been yet. But I think somewhere new beckons next time.
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A lazy day in Goa [Apr. 12th, 2017|02:09 pm]
Drama this morning. Jessica and I wanted to spend time on the beach but all four beach umbrellas on the stretch of sand in front of our hotel were being used. We would fry without one.

A helpful guy from our hotel, big shoulders and wearing a Rolling Stones T-shirt, saw our predicament and pulled up a parasol that was between two loungers with a hotel towel spread across them. I'd noticed over breakfast that the towel had been there for over half an hour with no sign of its owner. Obviously someone had used it to try to reserve their place on the beach.

Ten minutes later Jessica and I were lounging on our loungers, beneath our newly acquired umbrella, when a young couple sauntered up to the brolly-less loungers from a nearby beach hut. The guy was chunky and sported a mullet beloved of Russian men. He glared over to me, bristling with the injustice that his reservation technique hadn't worked.

Jessica and I read, sunbathed and swam, before deciding to go for a walk to the other end of the beach. I enjoyed taking my sandals off and getting my feet wet on the mile-long walk, stopping to watch tiny little crabs scuttling around and then disappearing in to the sand. Palolem is a really picturesque beach. There are no modern hotels, just lots of colourful beach shacks on stilts and boats moored up on the sand. I had wrongly imagined high-rise hotels and swimming pools, the silence broken by music from noisy bars and jet-skis, but it's not like that at all. It's unspoilt and peaceful.

Following the crescent shaped beach as it swung around, we waded through thigh-deep water to some interesting rocks that were painted with art (one was painted like Jaws on the film poster). Our plan had been to get a drink at a bar on the rocks that jutted out towards Canacona Island but when we got close we realised that the bar hadn't been open for quite some time. We were gasping for a drink so turned around and headed back to Palolem beach.

We had lunch at Café Del Mar, a rather rustic version of its Ibiza namesake. As I drank my Sprite and Jessica her lassi, an Indian woman approached us, carrying a tub of pink powder.

"Holi!" she said breezily, dabbing our foreheads with pink powder in celebration of the colourful Hindi festival that would be taking place in a few days time. How nice I thought.

"Money" she demanded two seconds later, her tone now serious, hand thrust out in our direction. Beggars come in all forms in India! I shook my head and she stayed there for ten seconds, hand held out, like a Western stand-off, before trudging away to celebrate Holi with someone else.

To keep out of the midday sun, we went souvenir shopping on the back-streets. Stalls sold colourful T-shirts, kaftans, sandals and jewellery, while others sold decorative lampshades, Indian tea or spices. Jessica bought some cushion covers from one place and an ankle bracelet from another. I bought my niece a pretty dress and a turquoise kaftan for my mother. Outside I spotted a place that does Ayurvedic massage and the owner offered me a free five minute taster. I sat down on a plastic seat and he kneaded my shoulders like firm, unproven dough, for five blissful minutes. Jessica and I both booked an hour-long massage for 1pm tomorrow afternoon.

We spent the afternoon on the beach. The thriller I was reading was plodding along in a predictable manner. After an hour Jessica went to a nearby shop to buy herself a kaftan, emboldened to do her first hardcore bartering of the trip. She was a bit nervous but came back 15 minutes later with a smile on her face and told me she'd got 30% off. Result! The female shopkeeper had played hardball, no doubt seeing Jessica as an easy target due to her youthful looks but when Jessica feigned sudden disinterest and shaped to walk away the price came down.

An English lady from a nearby lounger told us that she was a regular at Palolem and recommended a small bay over the rocks near our hotel. We decided to go there to watch the sun set. We took the steps up over the rocks and descended to a small beach where a dozen people were sat cross-legged on the sand meditating, eyes tightly closed, as the instructor repeated "Life is goooood" in a soothing, encouraging voice. I find hippies hard to take seriously sometimes.

The bay was small, just a half dozen beach huts and one bar overlooking a tiny stretch of beach. We sat on bean bags and I ordered myself a pot of chai as Jessica ordered a lassi ("mango, sweet or salty?"). It was a nice, relaxing way to end the day. A kayaker splashed around in the orange waters and when the sun slowly disappeared under the horizon, we hauled ourselves to our feet and returned to our hotel.

I love our room but whenever either of us has a shower, a puddle seeps under the wall in to the narrow walkway beside my side of the bed (not only did this mean that some of my clothes got soaked but I almost went flying when I went to get changed!).

We ate at another restaurant on the beach, by moonlight, waves coming in worryingly close, a stray dog lazing under my chair, and got cocktails afterwards at a nearby bar. We were in bed my midnight.

I'm hugely enjoying my time in Goa. If I were a phone, I'd be nearly fully recharged.
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Palolem beach [Apr. 10th, 2017|05:52 pm]
Staying in a wooden shack next to the beach is all very idyllic but it does have its down sides. At 7.30am I got woken by the creak-creak-creaking coming from upstairs as whoever was up there walked around non-stop for at least an hour. In a strange way it was a nice, gentle alarm call (along with the lapping of nearby waves) as we were planning on an early rise for breakfast anyway. I made the waiters day by saying he looked like Sachin Tendulkar.

We spent the rest of the morning on the beach. As opposed to the year before when I got charged a ridiculous price by a man who held the monopoly in Varkala, loungers were free to guests here. I slapped on some suntan lotion and read my book, my greasy fingers smearing the pages. A nice sea breeze took the edge off the heat. After an hour we went for a swim. The water was warm and the waves gentle.

Back on my lounger I attempted to sunbathe for a while, to give a bit of colour to my standard luminous white skin tone. I got bored after ten minutes so continued to read my book instead. After a while we ordered cocktails. All food and drink can be charged to our room so we don't need to have any money with us on the beach. As I was sipping my mojito, enjoying the view, a friendly guy called Pradash strode over from the small shop next to our hotel. He was very chatty (too chatty I thought when conversation turned to politics) so I promised I'd call in to see his wares some time.

I had spicy tom yum soup for lunch and then once the fierce midday sun had subsided a bit we were back on our loungers again. I never quite know how much suntan lotion you need to rub on to sandy feet.

I enjoyed people watching. Our hotel is located at the far left end of the beach, next to a rocky headland. It's the law that everyone must walk from one end of any given beach to the other, so I sat back and watched as they walked past, touched the rocks, then turned back. I saw two girls taking it in turns to take pictures of each other, posing for photo after photo in various poses that belonged in a lads mag. One of them was wearing a tiny red bikini. I bet her money shot - the all-important social media profile pic - will be the one with her knees on the sand, legs spread, chest out, one hand behind her head, the other pretending to adjust her huge sunglasses (she repeated the poses the day after, in different swimwear).

Normally I get bored easily on beaches. I enjoy swimming and boat-trips but sun-bathing definitely isn't for me and I get restless, itching to do something. But having Jessica with me changed that. I enjoyed relaxing with her, chatting and occasionally clinking cocktail glasses. The only decision that mattered was picking where to have lunch or dinner. It was a nice change of pace. Palolem has plenty of other things to do, from tiger reserves to kayaking, boat-trips to islands or visiting other beaches or forts. I'd also researched a spectacular waterfall nearby called Dudhsagar Falls which looked like an interesting half day trip. But I was enjoying the beach so much I wondered whether I'd feel the need to do anything different. I've spent nearly four weeks racing around sight-seeing, now is the time to relax.

My relaxation was shattered when a band marched past with about 40 young kids dancing behind it.

After showering and shaving I put on my glad-rags to go out for a nice meal. Then I thought that we'd be walking along the beach and I'd get sand in my nice shoes, so I put my sandals on. Then I realised I'd look daft wearing sandals with my trousers, so I put on a pair of shorts.

We walked along the beach, illuminated silver by a full moon, and chose a restaurant that had lots of tables on the beach, most of which were already taken. We ordered a 'sea food sizzler' which I was told would be ignited when it was put on our table so I had my camera at the ready for the theatre. He poured rum over the fish and then BOOM, held a match to it. A fireball whooshed up from the table and our hearts had only just stopped racing by the time we'd finished the meal. It was really tasty though.

One negative of Palolem (in fact every beach I've been to in India) are the stray dogs. Every restaurant seems to have a couple of them, milling around between tables for any scraps that get thrown their way. They're very well behaved and obedient, just staring up at you with big dark eyes as you eat your meal, but you can't help thinking about fleas or rabies or both. But as anyone would tell you, I love dogs, so I tossed it some of my leftovers which it devoured in a few seconds.

Walking along the beach to the restaurant earlier I'd seen a sign for an internet café. I hoped they might do international calls, so after our meal we walked down a narrow walkway sandwiched between two bars, past a busy kitchen for a restaurant, lots of pots and pans bubbling away and found the internet café. They did indeed do international calls and 30 seconds later I was chatting with my parents, filling them on my time in India.

I must admit, I expected Palolem to be livelier at night. I imagined lots of bars and at night people dancing on the sand, but actually the reality is different. There are lots of restaurants and places to buy cocktails but by 11pm places are shutting down. I don't mind this at all.
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Goa [Apr. 6th, 2017|04:31 pm]
One of the advantages of taking a taxi to Goa is that we could choose whatever pickup time suited us. We decided to arrange our lift for 10am, to give us chance for a lie-in and a leisurely breakfast.

However at 10am our driver hadn't arrived. I gave him a few minutes before flagging it up to the receptionist. He fished around for a card on the desk and then dialed a number. After a brief chat he looked up to me.

"Driver is having breakfast" he said, "will be here in 15 minutes".

I was annoyed. The journey would take about seven hours so leaving at 10am would ensure we'd arrive before it got dark which is always nice, especially whenever beaches are involved. But unexpected delays could jeopardise that.

We set off at 10.15am and before long we were leaving Hampi behind. We paid the fare at Hospet and then the scenery opened up in to nice countryside. It was hot so I asked the driver to turn the air-con colder. He obliged but then turned it back up five minutes later. No tip for this driver I thought. We passed a large dam and a few hours later pulled in to Hubli. A crowd of people gathered alongside the street as a famous Hindi actor was doing a public appearance to promote his latest movie.

The second half of the journey wasn't particularly pleasant. The scenery became more rugged and soon we were winding our way up and down valleys, the driver racing around blind corners like a rally driver. We held on tightly in the back as he disregarded 'Accident prone route' signs and overtook lorries on sharp corners. I figured he was probably in a rush to drop us off in Goa and then get back to Hampi on the same day. He didn't want to have to fork out for accommodation.

I also needed the loo. I had presumed there would be a break on this seven hour journey but apparently not. After about six hours I was getting pretty desperate. I had a dilemma. I didn't want to ask him to stop somewhere and leave Jessica in the car on her own, and neither did I want us both to get out and leave all our luggage in the car. The driver seemed erratic and I didn't fully trust him. Call it paranoia but it pays to be careful. To my relief, the driver stopped without me needing to ask, next to a small chai stall. He went for a cup of tea, Jessica stretched her legs and I ran to the loo.

Afterwards I decided to buy myself a mango juice. I noticed some curly crisps hanging above in clear plastic bags, so bought myself a packet. Jessica told me she didn't want one but ended up having half of mine instead.

It's always a thrill to see the ocean appear on the horizon. The water was deep blue and soon we were driving parallel to the coast, catching tantalising glimpses of lovely beaches and rocky coves. A new two-lane duel carriageway was being built to cater for demand, which backed up my preconceptions about Goa being busy. I needn't have worried though.

I'd researched thoroughly where to stay in Goa before the trip. The airport is in North Goa so beaches nearby, particularly Candolim, are busy with package holidaymakers. I wanted somewhere peaceful but not sleepy, somewhere we could relax but have plenty of options of places to eat and drink. Anjuna gets good reviews but I was put off when I discovered it's the hippy heartland of Goa. I wanted somewhere that felt authentically Indian, not a cosmic version full of drug-addled people finding themselves, man. I narrowed it down to two beaches. Sinquerim has an interesting fort stretching in to the sea but I opted for Palolem as it is one of most southerly beaches in Goa.

It was also Jason Bourne's hideaway in The Bourne Supremacy. If it's good enough for Matt Damon, it's good enough for me

It was one of those magical moments when we walked out on to the beach and the view opened up in front of us. It was a mile long sweeping beach of white sand framed with tropical hills and rocky islands. The early evening sun glimmered in the deep blue water and I knew I was going to like it here.

Marron Sea View Resort is a collection of wooden bungalows surrounding a central open-air restaurant. We were shown to room 101, which was right at the front. We could literally step outside of our room on to a veranda and then on to the beach. Perfect. The door to the room was open and a white curtain billowed in the soft sea breeze, like a soft rock video. We pushed our way through in to a spacious room, very wooden, like a Swiss chalet but with the log fire replaced with a ceiling fan and air-con.

It was 6pm so we went for a walk along the beach, getting our feet wet in the Arabian Sea. The water gently lapped around our ankles, the perfect water to swim in (in contrast to the rough water of Varkala last year). There were plenty of tourists but it didn't feel busy as they were evenly spread along the beach. This is the end of the tourist season in Goa.

We passed fishing boats lying on the sand and a cluster of kayaks. As we walked I noticed plenty of restaurants and bars spilling out on to the beach. The sun turned orange and then pink and we turned around and leisurely walked back to our hotel.

I spotted a small stall selling sandals so decided to buy myself some. The ones I have been using were bought in Jodhpur last year and aren't just uncomfortable but look scruffy too. After umming and aahing and using Jessica as my fashion consultant I opted for a pair of pink Nike flip-flops. I also needed a new pair of swimming shorts, so got a decent deal on the two items. I enjoy bartering for a good price in India.

After a brief power cut (no fan, arrgh!!) we went out for dinner, opting not to venture too far but to show loyalty to our hotel. Now we were on the coast I ordered my first fish of the holiday, which was disappointing. I had two greasy kingfish fillets but followed it up with a banana split for dessert. As Jessica and I sipped cocktails we reflected that our night-bus would only just be leaving if we had decided to take that option to get to Goa. I shuddered at the thought.

I've really enjoyed this holiday but at times it has been exhausting, with long days of sightseeing and longer days of travel. The last four days here will be a complete change of pace.
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Hampi day two [Apr. 4th, 2017|03:27 pm]
After breakfast we were ready for another day of sightseeing. This time we were going to explore some of the sights to the north of the Tungabhadra. I was a bit disappointed we didn't get to utilise the coracle to cross the river but the half hour drive past goat-herds and banana plantations and through rustic little villages was really enjoyable. We received lots of waves from smartly dressed children at the side of the road, waiting to be picked up for school.

We crossed the river over to Kishkinda, the Kingdom of the Monkey Gods, which I thought sounded very Indiana Jones. Our first stop was Hanuman Temple, perched high on top of a rocky peak. After stocking up on drinks at a shop at the bottom we began climbing the 575 steps up to the top. We passed lines of cheerful and surprisingly nimble older people walking in the opposite direction, presumably on their way down from morning prayers. I bet they pray for good health each morning but I reckon the 1150 steps up and back down ensure their prayers are answered! 'Namaste' I said to each person I passed.

A lot of them wanted selfies with us. These weren't kids, they were elderly people! We posed for lots of photos, despite the fact that at times we were melting in the sun. We always got a firm handshake from the men afterwards or a beaming smile from the women. We hadn't been asked for many photos yesterday but Anegundi is a bit more off the beaten track.

The climb was hard work so it was nice to get to the top and find some shade to get a drink from our bottles of water. There was a nice breeze but it was hard to relax as we were asked for about another 30 'selfies'!

The views of the rugged surrounding terrain were excellent. The patchwork of paddy fields below looked like a solved jigsaw puzzle and red rocky mountains stretched to the horizon. The temple itself is dedicated to the money warrior God Hanuman and is apparently home to 'hordes of chillum puffing resident sadhus' but we didn't venture inside to find out. In front of it was a tree wrapped in colourful ribbons like those you see in Nepal.

On the 575 steps back down we passed a young couple, South American I think, who were posing for selfies with half a dozen Indian men. Jokingly I said to them "can we have selfie please?" and they laughed knowingly.

We'd got quite a sweat on by the time we got back down to the bottom but we cooled down in the back of the rickshaw as it raced alongside rice fields to our next stop. It seemed a popular spot judging by the number of parked rickshaws outside but it just seemed to be a rectangular pool of rather grimy looking green water. We weren't told what it was or what it signifies, so we sat in the shade and had an ice lolly as we watched monkeys playing in the trees. There looked to be a small temple so we took off our shoes and walked inside. There were brightly painted walls and fabrics hanging from the ceiling but as we wandered in to a second room it dawned upon us that this appeared to be someone's house. Fortunately nobody was around. We quickly left.

Next we drove up a rocky hill to Durga Temple, which was fantastic. It was a peaceful old shrine in front of an old tree which had colourful cloths hanging from the branches. We watched as a dozen old local people walked inside, rang the bells hanging from the ceiling and chanted in front of the resident monk.

But best of all was Ganesh Temple, situated further up the hill. It proved to be quite an adventure.

I had already taken my sandals off to visit Durga temple, so I decided to leave them off - a decision I would soon regret. The ground was blisteringly hot and it transpired that the temple was not quite as close as advertised. I literally ran from one patch of shade to the next, past laughing locals. Jessica was wearing her trainers on and suddenly remembered she had her sandals in her bag, so let me use them. Ah, the relief. And personally I think I rocked the pink flip-flop look.

Eventually the path got rockier and we climbed out on to the top of the hill where we found ourselves jumping over rocks and following white arrows. The scenery was fantastic, looking out over lush valleys and red-rocked hills. We could clearly see Hanuman Temple perched on top of its hill in the distance. We continued following the arrows but suddenly reached a dead end. The arrow pointed left in to some rocks. Confused, I went to investigate and spotted a small hole, leading in to darkness. I knelt down but couldn't see any light.

"Surely we aren't supposed to go in there?" I said. I've seen too many horror films to know what can go wrong in situations like this. But that was exactly where the arrow seemed to be pointing.

"Wait here, I'll go and check" I said, getting my knees dusty and crawling underneath the rock.

It was a tight fit but I crawled through to a cavity where there was some light filtering through a crack in the rock above. I spotted another arrow so I knew it was the correct route.

"Come through" I shouted to Jessica.

The path continued to meander through the narrow gaps between huge boulders. Soon it opened out in to sunshine and a metal ladder led downwards, hot to touch in the midday sun. Beyond the ladder a large crack in the rocks led further downwards. We lowered ourselves carefully and stepped out in to a large cavity with a small colourful shrine sat in the middle. We'd made it. It was little more than a sculpted rock with a collection of items placed in front of it but it had been quite an adventure trying to find the place! We sat in the peaceful cave, drinking our water and enjoying the tranquility.

We retraced our route and on the way back to the rickshaw passed two hippies, red dots painted on their foreheads, sat cross-legged in front of a chanting monk. I think it's insulting to locals when people convert to Hindu or Buddhism in the name of tourism.

It was lunchtime. Our driver Viru took us to an outdoor restaurant where I ordered a plate of Nepalese momo - vegetable dumplings in a sweet spicy dip. Chocoholic Jess opted for a Nutella pancake. Our waiter was a very wide-eyed chap called Lucky who looked like a young Kumar Sangakkara. He told us that locals had seen a leopard killing a goat last night near sunset point. I remembered that my guidebook had also warned against wandering at night as large sloth bears have been spotted.

Speaking of wildlife, a large peacock roamed the restaurant in a stately manner. There was a cage of about a dozen cute rabbits near the entrance and a huge bee had Jessica ducking for cover.

Our first stop after lunch was Vittala Temple, built in 1509 and described as 'the undisputed highlight of Hampi'. I had mixed feelings. Firstly it required a 500 rupee entrance fee - which in fairness would also allow entry to several places later in the afternoon. After paying at a small booth, we splashed on our suntan lotion and wandered inside. It was a large temple surrounded by pavilions with an unusual carved stone chariot standing in the courtyard. Despite the steep admission fee (twice the price of Ellora or Ajanta) it didn't impress me as much as Virupaksha temple yesterday.

However, there was one very unusual thing about the temple which I loved. One of the pavilions had 56 'musical pillars' of different widths that can be tapped with your thumb to make weird echoey bongo type noises. Different columns made different notes. Back in the day I presume lots of people would have played them at the same time to make music for special occasions.

After I had played a very passable version of 'My Heart Will Go On' a big group of young men came over and wanted their photo taken with me. There were ten of them so we looked like an IPL cricket team with me the overseas pro.

The ticket also granted entrance in to the walled ladies quarters known as the Zenena Enclosure. All that remains of the Queens Palace are the foundations as the palace itself was built from wood. However in the corner is the Lotus Mahal, a very beautiful, delicately designed two storey pavilion with ornate balconies on the second floor. This was supposedly the Queens recreational mansion. Beyond a crumbling watch-tower are the Elephant Stables - a long building with 11 domed chambers that housed the state elephants.

I bought Jessica and I a coconut each outside. I'd told her how delicious they were but the milk was warm and sour - I presume they'd probably been in the sun for a long time.

It was early evening so our driver asked whether we'd like to go to another sunset point. Jessica wanted a shower and I was keen to have a swim in the hotel pool (which oddly closes at 6.30pm) so we declined. He dropped us off and we tipped him 400 rupees on top of the 3000 rupees we'd previously agreed. His face lit up and he added me on Facebook.

I swam for thirty minutes and it was the perfect way to cool down after a long, hot day of sightseeing.

Afterwards I needed to work out to get to Goa. Before the trip I read about a train that left from Hospet but was surprised when I was told it was sold out. I'd also read about numerous buses but was amazed to hear that they are all sleepers leaving after 8pm. That would effectively mean arriving in Goa one day late and since we had already paid for our hotel, it would be money down the drain. My Lonely Planet had promised an abundance of ways to get to Goa but none were practical. I had no choice but to book a taxi again, this time for 8,000 rupees (£80). Taxis are pricey but they are a comfortable way to travel and in this instance it would mean arriving in Palolem on the day we planned, hopefully before the sun set. We might even get some time on the beach.

At dinner time our plan was to find a restaurant in Kamalapuram but we walked down the street and couldn't find anywhere promising. Aside from our hotel the place felt a bit down-trodden. On reflection staying in Hampi Bazaar would have given us far more dining options but to be fair, our hotel had been excellent and the restaurant hadn't let us down. We went there again and the standout was a delicious lamb rogan josh. "Compliments to the chef" I said to the jovial manager who offered me a formal handshake when I told him we were leaving tomorrow.

I was sad to be leaving Hampi. The scenery is superb and there are lots of interesting temples in what was once the largest Hindu empire in India. If we had a more leisurely itinerary there are lots of other things to do, for example rock-climbing, trekking, boat-rides or even visiting a bear sanctuary.
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Hampi day one. [Apr. 1st, 2017|01:42 pm]
At 9am we went down for breakfast. As usual I side-stepped the big urns of curry and rice and got myself some toast, coffee, pineapple slices and yoghurt. Next to the various varieties of fruit was a dish of tiny green shoots. I studied them curiously and was informed they were sprouts. It seemed odd they were in the fruit section but then I tasted one and it was sweet, like a pea from a pod. Waiters lingered, surreptitiously watching the India v Australia cricket match on TV.

We crossed the road outside the hotel and agreed to pay a rickshaw driver 3,000 rupees (£30) for his services for two full days of sightseeing. It was a good price for us but great for him too - he'd get nowhere near 1,000 rupees for two days of local drop-offs.

We jumped in to the back, our driver pulled back on the throttle and we set off in a puff of smoke. Straight away the scenery was fantastic. We passed through valleys of palm trees and banana plantations, overlooked by hills piled precariously with giant boulders. The undulating road passed crumbling ruins before we stopped in front of Virupaksha temple, one of Hampi's main sights.

It's a temple complex built in the 7th Century. Above the main gateway is a spectacular 50 meter tower, nine storeys high, each decorative layer diminishing in size as it gets higher. We walked beneath it in to a courtyard but before we had chance to look around, a TV crew approached us and asked if we'd mind answering a few questions. We agreed. A man with a large camera on his shoulder pointed it at us.

"So, you like Hampi?" one of the four men said, thrusting a microphone in our direction.

"Yes, it's very interesting" said Jessica, before floundering a bit, unsure of what else to add. We'd only just arrived so it was difficult to be too in-depth.

"The temples are very beautiful" I chipped in. There was a pause and a tumbleweed quite possibly rolled past as the interviewer waited for a more interesting soundbite. "We love all the monkeys" I added.

There was a pause and then the interviewer asked "What is it you like about Hampi?"

It was basically the same question as before. Jessica started to say something but her mouth couldn't find any words, so I said something about the 'fascinating culture' and added how friendly the people are. I was just saying what they wanted to hear. More media training required!

The temple was full of lots of lively langur monkeys, climbing athletically over all of the shrines. It made for an interesting sight. In the centre of the courtyard was a pillared hall, in which we spotted the cutest little monkey rolling around. Jessica took a few photos but then the monkey ran towards her and wrapped its arms around her leg, bear-hugging her tightly. I would have loved a photo of this touching moment but Jessica was a bit concerned about either being humped or bitten, so gently shook her new friend off.

To the left of the entrance was Lakshmi, the temple elephant. In exchange for a few rupees he blesses visitors by placing his trunk on their heads. I love getting up close to elephants and stroking the rough, bristly skin on their trunk. His head was painted and he was munching on some grass.

Overlooking Virupaksha temple is Hemakuta hill. We climbed up the smooth slope which was dotted with massive boulders, seemingly a gust of wind away from rolling towards us. I imagined re-enacting Raiders of the Lost Ark if one of them started to move. We climbed up to a decrepit ruin at the top and looked back down the slope. The views were superb over Virupaksha with the red-rocked martian landscape behind it.

The rest of the day was spent going from one place of interest to another. We went to two temples in close proximity with large Ganesh statues, a Hindu God with the head of an elephant and a rather tubby stomach that suggests he's always first in the queue at the buffet. Ganesh is known as the remover of obstacles, the patron of art and science and the deity of intellect and wisdom - a useful person to know.

Nearby was Sule Bazaar which in its day would have been a marketplace and hive of activity but now is two long rows of colonnaded pillars that would have contained the market stalls. They're flanked on one side by lush palm groves and the other by a rocky hill. Under the hill is 'pushkarni', a stepped pool, that in wet season is full. It was dry now which was a shame because I could have done with a refreshing dip.

We chatted with an English couple Matthew and Lauren, veterans of four trips to India. They met in Jaisalmer a few years ago and have been a couple ever since. We said goodbye but saw them both ten minutes later in Krishna temple.

"Did you see the bats?" said Matthew. We hadn't so he lent us his torch and we went back in to the dark hall and pointed the light upwards. I saw numerous black blobs hanging from the ceiling and then suddenly one took off, fluttering around quickly in circles before perching somewhere high above.

We visited Lakshmi Narasimha which had a rather comical statue of Lord Vishnu, a man lion with a crazed smile, seated on a seven hooded cobra. Next to it was Badavi Linga, a small shrine standing in water. Three Indian women prayed in front of it.

By this point Jessica and I were melting in the sun so it was a relief when Viru told us it was lunchtime. He took us to Hampi Bazaar, a small village where most of the backpackers stay. It's full of cheap guesthouses, internet cafés and places to eat.

We pulled up in front of Mango Tree restaurant and took our sandals off to walk inside. It had a travelers vibe, with lots of drapes, dreads and braids on show. People were sat on cushions and blankets on the floor but we opted for a table. Normally I eat lightly during the afternoon but a combination of not having dinner last night and a long morning of tomb-raiding meant I'd built up an appetite. I ordered myself a thali, a large metal tray of different curries, breads and pickles. The highlight was a bowl of suet which had a sweet aniseedy taste.

Every holiday I phone my parents roughly at the three quarter mark of the trip. That was today and a backpacker place like this seemed the perfect opportunity. It was 1am which would mean the time was 7.30am back in England. Perfect. I went to an internet café but their phone was out of order. The owner pointed out another place nearby, between touristy stalls selling kaftans, but they didn't do international calls. I went to another place but it was third time unlucky and I decided to give up for now. Maybe I could find somewhere this evening.

In the afternoon we visited the Kings Palace, a sprawling enclosure with lots of crumbling walls and ruins. It was pretty decrepit and the type of place it would have been beneficial to have a guide. Our driver did show us a hidden underground enclosure that apparently was a treasury. We lowered ourselves down steep steps in to a pitch black corridor which looped around a central hall. The driver illuminated the way with his phone. Back outside, there was a large raised platform where Kings once sat on gem-studded thrones to watch processions marching past. It overlooked a stepped footwell which was interesting but a baby in comparison to the one I saw in Jodhpur last year. The sun was beating down strongly so Jessica and I wanted to descend a few steps and sit in the shade, but a grumpy guard blew his whistle to tell us not to. Suitably chastised we found shade under a tree instead.

One of my favourite places of the day was a sunken Shiva temple. From well-tended gardens we descended down a flight of steps and I had to take my sandals off and slosh through knee-deep grimy water to explore the atmospheric dark chambers.

Next we went to the Queen's Bath which despite being surrounded with nice lawns and gardens, looked pretty uninspiring from the outside - just a rather modern-looking square building. But inside it had graceful arched corridors and balconies projecting over a central square pool which is now dried up. Lotus shaped fountains would have spouted perfumed water in to the pool. Six cheeky young boys followed us around practicing their English on us. "How do you do?" and "nice to meet you" they said. The tried to photobomb my photos and said "so long" when we parted company.

Outside Jessica and I bought ourselves an ice lolly to cool down. As we sat on the lawn a woman wearing a hijab walked over and passed me her young boy. "Photo?" she politely asked. I was happy to oblige despite the fact my lolly was melting in the heat but the little boy burst out crying and hid behind his Mum's leg.

It was early evening and the sun was dropping in the sky.

We were close to Kamalapuram, the village we were staying, so Jessica decided to head back to the hotel. I felt like joining her but decided I wanted to see the sun set. After dropping Jessica off Viru took me to a large hill covered in rocks and I watched the sun slowly set above the weird and wonderful landscape. A hippyish couple sat in the lotus position on a large boulder nearby, as their young daughter jumped the gaps in the rocks. When the sun had dropped sufficiently in the sky, I hopped back across the rocks and down to my rickshaw. Ten minutes later I was back at the hotel having a shower.

What a brilliant day. We'd visited so many interesting places and we'd be doing it all again tomorrow.

We ate at the hotel restaurant, as usual sharing two curry dishes and a plate full of paratha and naan. Back in the room we flicked through the channels on the TV for something to watch and among all of the Bollywood and Hindu movie channels, we found 'Shaun of the Dead' playing on Star Movies. Result!
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Drive to Hampi [Mar. 28th, 2017|05:30 pm]
My alarm sounded at 5.30am and 30 minutes later I was down in reception, bleary-eyed, pacing around because the taxi wasn't outside as arranged. It pulled up fifteen minutes late and we were soon on our way.

The roads were quiet at this hour but the traffic picked up as the sun slowly rose. A long day on the road lay ahead but in a strange way I was excited. This day had loomed over me ever since I planned this holiday and now I was finally ticking off the hours one by one. By the time it was light we were well outside the city, overtaking the never-ending stream of lorries, our driver seemingly playing 'dare' with the oncoming traffic. At first it was a bit of a white knuckle ride being sat in the back but within an hour we became immune to it.

I've never known a country with so much unfinished construction. Half complete buildings line the roads with rusting metal rods poking out of the roof. Likewise roads disappeared at regular intervals and the stream of traffic would follow a dusty diversion on to gravel. It kind of figures. Soon is never soon enough for Indian people. It's easy to imagine a scenario when in their eagerness to get stuff built they worry about the money later... and judging by the number of half finished buildings and roads, presumably this money often fails to materialise.

After a bumpy two hours, cutting through rather flat, unremarkable scenery, we pulled in to a town and parked in front of a restaurant for breakfast. It was nice to stretch our legs. We entered and sat down at a table. I think it's fair to say that the service wouldn't have scored highly on Trip Advisor. The surly owner, a bearded man in his forties at a guess, took our order with a furrowed brow and a series of grunts, telling me that whatever I pointed to on the menu wasn't available. Cheese toastie? No. Omelette? No. French toast? No.

"Perhaps you could point out what is available?" I suggested, hiding my frustration.

He looked at the laminated menu and pointed to 'cheese sandwich'. Underwhelmed with choice, I agreed.

The owner didn't smile once - it was almost as if he felt inconvenienced by our custom, which was strange as we were his only customers. He relayed my order to an equally surly waiter who trudged off to the kitchen like a teenager who'd been asked to tidy his room. I wondered whether these people were cut out for a job in the hospitality trade.

We finished our breakfast and ploughed on. The next leg of the journey was more enjoyable than the first, as we had some open road ahead of us and more interesting rural scenery to look at. Jessica and I chatted for a few hours and I was pleased for the company as it helped to while away the time. Fields stretched in to the distance and I splashed suntan lotion on my arms as midday came and went.

At 1pm we pulled in to Solapur, a major town that roughly signified the halfway point of our journey. I was pleased - we were on course for an early evening arrival in Hampi.

In contrast to our disappointing breakfast, lunch was terrific. We had fried rice and fried noodles as well as a plate of really tasty spring rolls. Ideal travel day fare. The portions were massive but we finished most of it and with great excitement noticed a chilled cabinet selling Cadbury chocolate bars. We bought one each for the road. In contrast to earlier the staff were extremely friendly and waved us goodbye.

The second half of the journey flew by because we pulled on to an actual motorway with overtaking lanes. 'No bullocks' signs lined the road and this being India, every 15 minutes we slowed down over suspension-rattling speed-bumps. There is no chance of sleep on Indian roads - as Jessica found out when she was repeatedly jolted awake. After a chai stop for our driver, I asked him to put some music on and he played some catchy Hindu tunes.

We passed Bijapur which is home to Gol Gumbaz, a building with the second largest dome in the world after St Peters Basilica in Rome. Later we crossed a long bridge which spanned the Krishna river. As we passed each landmark or town I consulted my Lonely Planet to check progress. By now we'd be on the road for over ten hours and it seemed we'd be arriving a little later than I anticipated.

Jessica and I needed the toilet so we pulled up next to a motorway toll station and went to the toilets round the back. Four smiley women were sat on the ground washing their feet. Presumably they'd been working in the fields all day. They seemed fascinated by Jessica and I so I had a bit of banter with them and held my foot out to wash. The eldest lady found this particularly amusing.

As we approached Hampi, the scenery began to change. It became more hilly and the arid landscape was covered in red rocks, like a Roadrunner cartoon. It made me excited for what the next few days would offer. We arrived in Hospet which I knew was about half an hour from Hampi. The driver stopped and asked for directions four times and eventually, exhausted, we pulled in to Hampi. The time was 8pm and the journey had taken 14 hours.

It can be quite uninviting arriving at a new place in the dark, so it was nice when our hotel appeared like a mirage in the desert. I stepped out of the taxi my legs felt wobbly - it's amazing how doing nothing all day can be so exhausting!

We tipped the driver generously. He was a friendly chap and I was extremely impressed with his concentration levels. Before the trip I'd been concerned about hiring a driver for such a long period but he came up trumps. I was also impressed with Jessica. She has never done backpacking like this before but she didn't complain once.

Our hotel is nice and I was excited to see a swimming pool opposite the reception desk. Our room is very spacious although the window looks out across a corridor so the curtain will remain closed. After a long shower each we went to the hotel restaurant on the ground floor. Neither of us felt particularly hungry so we just ordered a drink and a snack and took the opportunity for an early night. We had a lot of sightseeing to do tomorrow.
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Ellora [Mar. 24th, 2017|03:50 pm]
The taxi picked us up outside the hotel at 8am. The drive to Ellora lasted just half an hour and it was really interesting, climbing out of Aurangabad up steep winding roads, past gorges, valleys and forts. I love these kind of drives.

Ellora has 34 Buddhist, Hindu and Jain caves carved out of the rock, similar to Ajanta. We paid the entrance fee of 250 rupees and walked straight towards Ellora's undoubted highlight...

Kailasa Temple was built in 760AD and is the worlds largest monolithic sculpture, taking 7000 labourers 200 years to complete, painstakingly carving out over 200,000 tonnes of rock to create a temple that represented Mount Kailasa, Shiva's Himalayan home.

We walked inside and I was awe-struck by the size and sheer drama of the place.

The first thing I noticed were the tall rockfaces towering above, further highlighting the incredible feat of carving Kailasa out of the hillside. The centrepiece is a massive multi-layered structure with stairways, shrines and walkways, decorated with scenes from Ramayana. It looked like a movie set. On the upper deck are Jain temples carved with statues, including some rather erotic ones of male and female figures cavorting. Tsk. In the courtyard below in perfect symmetry are two tall columns also carved from the rock where they stand. The courtyard is surrounded by dark galleries, dank with the smell of bat urine.

I've been lucky to see some amazing places like Angkor Wat, Bagan or Borobudur, but this topped them all. Wow. It was amazing to think that it was all sculpted from rock. Nothing was built. Imagine the care to make sure they didn't remove any rock that needed to remain in place. It was a 200 year project with zero margin for error.

But we didn't get long to admire it. We were inspecting a life-size sculpture of an elephant in the corner when a group of old Indian women approached and politely asked for a photo with Jessica and I. We obliged. First a group shot, then individual shots with all six women resplendent in colourful saris. By this time, a group of other people had gathered and were taking pics on their phones. "Selfie please?" asked a man, putting his arm around us before we had chance to answer. We posed for more and more photos and the crowd in front of us got bigger and bigger. There were more than 50 people at one point with multiple cameras clicking. I didn't know where to look.

It was fun at first and I'm always happy to oblige on my travels as I suspect it's their way of experiencing different cultures but I found it funny. Here they were entering this majestic temple, one of the most amazing engineering feats imaginable, and almost everyone made a beeline straight for us when they entered like we were the main attraction. As Jessica and I posed for our umpteenth group selfie I whispered from the side of my mouth "are we ever going to get chance to see the temple??" After a while an attendant came over and shooed everyone away from us, perhaps through sympathy or perhaps because the crowd was causing an obstruction near the entrance. Jessica and I quickly circumnavigated our way to a quieter part of the temple.

After exploring - and posing for numerous other photos - we took a path to the right of the temple up the hillside, which gave great views over Kailasa. The scale and ambition of the project was even more impressive, tourists just colourful dots down below. Interestingly Kailasa was carved downwards, not from the front of the hill, which meant it was never necessary to use scaffolding.

I snapped lots of photos but in doing so, we wandered off track. We followed the brow of the hill, past lots of cactus planets, assuming it would lead back down to the temples but the trail soon disappeared which meant Jessica and I had to do some impromptu rock-climbing back down to terra firma. We felt like Indiana Jones and Lara Croft when we got back to ground level.

Ellora has many more cave temples to explore. Although these were built 800 years later than those in Ajanta and didn't boast the same level of decoration inside, I found them more interesting and varied to explore. Light flooded inside too, which made them easier to admire.

Cave 5 was massive inside, pillars stretching in to the darkness. The rows of stone benches indicate that this may once have been an assembly hall. Cave 10 is a beautiful monastery. A guide was demonstrating the acoustics of the place to a group of Indian tourists, his chants echoing around the tall domed ceiling. Cave 12 is a three storey cave that from the front resembled a multi-storey car-park! It was far more impressive inside though. A man guided us around for ten minutes, leading us past rows of statues to a huge Buddha at the far end. Excitingly he ducked us down a dark hidden passage behind it and pointed out murals with his torch. We gave him a tip for his troubles.

A young woman in a beautiful glimmering green sari handed me her baby daughter and asked if I'd mind posing for a photo. The baby looked a bit bewildered.

The heat was immense. Not only was it approaching midday but the rock absorbed the sunshine, making it even hotter. Our water bottles quickly emptied. Unusually for Asia, there weren't many people selling things. A few people walked past selling tour books, a few kids sold postcards and another man was selling carved items, but no-one was selling drinks. Or ice-creams even. A missed opportunity.

The caves were more derelict north of Kailasa and despite the fact that 'temple fatigue' was beginning to set in, impressive nonetheless. We saw large groups of langur monkeys and a strange red dragonfly darting around a pool of water at one of the temples. By now Jessica and I were very thirsty, very hot and low on energy, so we decided to get some lunch. We found a place on the main street and devoured some fried rice and noodles, gulping down our drinks. A Chinese tour group took up five tables and three maroon-robed monks sipped tea nearby.

Our driver then took us to Bibi Ka Maqbara ('Tomb of the Lady') which is Aurangabad's very own version of the Taj Mahal. A prince called Azam Khan conceived the whole building in white marble, just like the Taj Mahal, as a mausoleum for his mother, but was thwarted by his frugal father who didn't want to drain the state coffers. So while the building looks strikingly similar from a distance, it is finished in lime mortar up close.

Jessica and I posed for photos on Bibi's very own Princess Di bench and then got talking to a South African couple as we walked towards the mausoleum. They told us about their time in Mumbai and said that Elephanta Island wasn't worth visiting, so we didn't miss out. We would have talked with them more but three Indian men wanted a selfie. We entered the mausoleum on to an octagonal walkway and the tomb below was covered in a blanket of coins and notes.

A few minutes later Jessica and I were sat on some steps in the shade, gulping down water, when I noticed a group of three girls and a boy edging closer nearby, mobile phones clutched in hands, obviously wanting a selfie with us but too shy to ask. They were nervously giggling and glancing over.

"Would you like a selfie?" I asked and they all came over with a spring in their step and posed for various pictures on the steps. We should start charging!

When planning this trip I would have loved to organise for Jessica to visit Agra, to see the Taj Mahal in its spine-tingling glory, but it is just too far away from the beaches we plan to end the trip. So it was nice that she got to visit Aurangabad's version.

When we got back to the taxi we asked our driver to take us back to the hotel. He seemed surprised as the days itinerary was also meant to include a visit to a water mill and also Daulatabad, a hilltop fortress. The latter in particular seemed fascinating. The sultan of Delhi marched the entire population of Delhi to Daulatabad ('City of Fortune') in 1328 to populate it as the capital but a water crisis forced him to march the weary inhabitants all the way back not long afterwards! I bet he was popular. The fort is 5 kilometers long and it's possible to climb Devagiri ('Hill of the Gods'), through spike-studded doors which prevent charging elephants, and up a pitch-black cave in which you need a flame-bearing guide to lead you up further.

It sounded like hard work though and our feet were already screaming submission. Plus the time was already 4pm and we had things to do, so we asked to be taken back to our hotel. He seemed pleased as it meant an early finish.

Back at the hotel I needed to organise how to get to Hampi, our next port-of-call. I had researched this at length prior to the trip and there was no easy answer. There are no flights, or direct trains or buses. If we were willing to backtrack seven hours to Mumbai, we could get a flight to Bengaluru and then a six hour train to Hampi, all of which would take about 24 hours. By far the quickest solution would be by road (approximately 12 hours). I asked at reception whether it was possible to take a bus to Solapur (a major city halfway between Aurangabad and Hampi) but he tapped on his keyboard and confirmed there are no direct buses. We therefore had no other option than to hire a taxi. The price was 14,000 rupees (over £140) but bear in mind that any other route we decided to take would cost in excess of £100 and take at least twice the time. Taking a taxi would mean reaching Hampi in the quickest way possible so we wouldn't lose a day of our holiday. It would also be the most comfortable way to travel as we could ask the driver to stop whenever we liked and break the journey down in to bite-size chunks (not so much for us, but for the poor driver!). We paid the money and the taxi was booked for early tomorrow morning.

We also had a few chores we needed to do. Jessica wanted to buy a few items from a chemist (hand gels, tissues) and I bought myself some suntan lotion. Alongside the street a man ground sugar cane. We also needed to withdraw money from an ATM. At one point two little girls ran up to us and said "hello". When we said hello in return, they said "goodbye" and ran away laughing.

By the time we got back to our hotel the sun was setting. We ate again at the excellent hotel restaurant. There were other good dining options only a short rickshaw ride away but we'd both enjoyed our meal so much on the first night, we decided there was no need to venture out. Plus it was important to eat somewhere we could trust with a huge day of travel ahead tomorrow. I had palak paneer again, one of my favourites, mopped up with paratha.

The taxi was picking us up at 6am tomorrow morning, so we had an early night. As I dozed off I reflected that I had really enjoyed my time in Aurangabad, visiting the stunning caves of Ajanta and Ellora. I could quite easily have stayed here longer, exploring some of the places nearby. I'd read about Lonar Meteor Crater about three or four hours away, which has a diameter of over 1km. Sadly we didn't have time. I'd love to be one of those people who travels for a few years, for whom time is no object.
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Ajanta Caves [Mar. 23rd, 2017|04:18 pm]
We finished our packing and took the lift down to the ground floor. When the lift doors opened the nice old Indian lady we'd given the flowers to last night was waiting to get in. She was really grateful and once again complimented Jessica on how pretty she was.

On the pavement in front of the hotel were a line of taxi drivers but we couldn't see Panday, the jovial man who gave us a lift on our first day and subsequently said hello to us every day since. Another driver rushed over and ushered us over to his cab. We got in to the back but before we settled down I pointed at the meter on his dashboard and asked "meter?" He shook his head and said "not use meter". He obviously saw us as lucrative targets, a couple of tourists going to the airport, so intended to overcharge us. We got out and walked to the next cab who was happy to switch his meter on.

The driver spoke little English but I liked him. He took us on the Sea Link Bridge toll road which links the airport with Southern Mumbai and offers some of the best views of the skyline. I was surprised when the driver asked for 40 rupees to pay for the toll as the driver we used on the day we arrived in Mumbai asked for 200 rupees! As always in Asia, taxi drivers are the people you have to watch most carefully.

As we neared the airport, the taxi spluttered and a few moments later ground to a halt. The driver turned the ignition key but it barely ticked. "Broke down" he said eventually but I had previously noticed that the needle on the petrol gauge was a long way below zero. He seemed genuinely embarrassed. He got out and called over a rickshaw to take us the rest of the way. Despite the fact he'd ran out of petrol, we gave him a tip on top of his fare as I liked his integrity.

It meant that Jessica had her first experience of a rickshaw/tuk-tuk in Asia. We both squeezed in to the back with all of our backpacks and hand luggage and held on tightly as we sped off. Jessica seemed to enjoy it, despite the heat and fumes and how cramped we were.

After a half hour delay, our Air India flight took off at 3pm. It lasted less than one hour but the rather hassled looking stewardesses still managed to serve everyone a box containing a sandwich, biscuits and carton of juice.

In the Arrivals Hall at Aurgangabad there was a tourist information counter, so I enquired about a driver to take us on day-trips for the following two days. The price quoted was 4000 rupees. As I was deliberating he threw in the taxi-ride from the airport for free. Sold! £20 each for our own driver during our time in Aurgangabad was a fair price.

I enjoyed the 15 minute drive to our hotel. Immediately it felt less chaotic and claustrophobic than Mumbai, with wider streets and less traffic.

I didn't have particularly high hopes for Hotel Green Olive as it was the lowest star rating I'd booked on the trip, but aside from its location in front of a flyover, it was a really nice hotel. The room was excellent and I soon discovered it had one of the best showers I've experienced in Asia. I could have stood under it all day. Best of all was the very attractive restaurant downstairs which served tasty curries. Jessica enjoyed a 'sizzling brownie' for dessert, which came in a rather theatrical molten chocolate sauce.

Next morning I woke to the sound of the phone ringing on the bedside table. Our taxi driver had arrived and was waiting outside. We'd arranged for him to pick us up at 8am but it was 7.30am - he was half an hour early! Sometimes drivers in India are leisurely to say the least but this one was raring to go. We quickly got ready and scrambled down to the lobby.

The two hour drive to Ajanta was very enjoyable. It took us through lots of nice countryside and quaint villages, past chickens, goat-herds, cows with painted horns and even a few camels. It felt a world away from Mumbai. To pass time Jessica and I played my patent-pending 'Spot the Temple' game which I won 17-1. Being honest, I'm not sure she was even trying. Most of them were painted in gaudy pinks, yellows and greens - they looked like cupcakes.

We stopped at Viewpoint Hotel for a cold drink and to stock up on snacks. Indian men drank milky chai from metal urns on each table. A friendly man behind the counter, Mohammed, gave us good advice about how to get the best from our Ajanta experience. We followed his recommendation and took the taxi up to the viewpoint, then arranged to meet our driver down at the bottom in two or three hours time.

Ajanta is a horseshoe shaped gorge formed by river Waghur with 30 Buddhist temples carved out of the rock, some of which date from 200BC. As we admired the view, four guys came up to us and offered their tour guide services. Guides add an extra dimension but sometimes they can be quite exhausting, especially when you just want to see things at your own pace. Since I had lots of info in my guidebook, I said no thanks. One of them did tell me that this exact point where we were standing, the viewpoint, was where a British hunting party led by John Smith discovered Ajanta in 1819 purely by chance when hunting tigers. It had been overgrown with jungle as the caves had been deserted for over 1000 years.

We took lots of steps down to a secondary viewpoint, this one right above the bend in the river. The river was dry as this is hot season but it was interesting to see how it had carved out a route through the steep cliffs. On the far cliff face were the entrances to all of the caves, looking like something from Indiana Jones. In monsoon season waterfalls cascade over these caves which must make for a spectacular sight.

We descended lots more more steps, crossed a metal bridge over the dry river bed and purchased our tickets from a small ticket office. It cost 250 rupees each (30 rupees for Indians). We were hot from all of those steps so went to the restaurant next door for a quick Sprite (me) and lassi (Jessica), plus some spring rolls for energy.

After another steep climb, we came to our first cave, the aptly named Cave 1. It is a 'vihara' (monastery) from the 5th century and is renowned for being the most beautifully decorated inside. After taking our shoes off, we stepped out of the fierce sun in to the cave. We entered a large pillared congregation hall, with doorways along each wall entering small chambers. It was cool inside and the floor was smooth due to all of the visitors. There were small potholes in the floor that once would have contained the natural minerals that were used to paint the frescoes.

At the far end was a large Buddha sitting serenely in its own chamber. It was incredible to think that this was all carved out of the rock. Colourful frescoes adorned all of the walls and ceilings and given how old these caves are, it was an interesting glimpse back in time. The walls were illuminated by a soft glow from pigment sensitive lighting. No flash photography was allowed inside so I had to use Jessica as a tripod.

We stepped back outside and I put my shoes on. Normally on sightseeing days I wear shorts but I'd arranged a laundry drop yesterday evening and my shorts were looking decidedly grubby so I decided to get them washed too. As a result I was wearing my combat trousers today, which look daft with sandals so I had trainers on. As I tied my laces up I thought to myself, do I have to do this for all 30 caves?

Cave 2 was another monastery. According to my book one of the murals depicted a six tusked elephant that heralded the birth of Buddha but we couldn't find it. The caves were dark and atmospheric and it was difficult to make out some of the murals, even after our eyes had adjusted.

We walked in and out of the caves, one after one. I got tired of doing my laces up each time, so decided to go barefoot. It was a mistake. The rock outside was scorching hot and I found myself sprinting towards shade. Two Indian men walked past carrying an old Chinese woman in a sedan chair. Tame langur monkeys sat on the walls, taking it all in.

Cave 9 looked very grand from the outside although was slightly ruined by the modern addition of wooden windows, presumably to stop animals and birds entering. This cave was a tall, narrow chaitya (prayer hall) with thick pillars each side leading to a domed stupa at the far end. The arched ceiling was supported with now decayed wooden beams, giving the impression of the inside of a ribcage.

Cave 10 is thought to the oldest cave in Ajanta, dating to 200BC, while Cave 17 has paintings of a princess applying makeup and a prince using the old trick of plying his lover with wine. Intricately carved statues stood sentry-like along walls. Cave 24 was unfinished and demonstrated how the caves were carved out with long galleries cut in to the rock and then the rock between them broken through. It gave a real sense of the manpower and brute force just to create one of these amazing temples.

My favourite was Cave 26. It looked very similar to Cave 9, a long domed prayer hall with a large reclining Buddha along the left aisle but what made this one magical was that a monk was sat cross-legged in front of the stupa, leading prayers to a dozen people, heads bowed. The acoustics inside the cave were incredible and listening to the chanting was spine-tingling. It's sometimes easy to forget that these are active places of worship.

All templed out, we went back down to the restaurant for a much-needed drink and then took a bus down to the car-park. The drive back to Aurangabad took two and a half hours and I even somehow managed to sleep in an upright position. Why can't I manage to do that on flights? Once back at the hotel I let Jessica shower first and went to find an internet cafe to update Facebook. I enjoyed walking down the roads as the sun lowered in the sky, saying namaste to people I walked past.

Later we ate at a restaurant which I'd spotted on the walk home from the internet cafe. It had fairy lights outside and looked very welcoming but it was a little more rustic than we first thought and Jessica was the only female. A scrawny cat sniffed from table to table, hoping for scraps of food. It made me wonder whether cats prefer spicy catfood in India. Our meal arrived and it was okay, although my palak paneer (spinach with paneer cheese) looked a bit like pond grime. The bill was cheap, we paid up and went back to the hotel to try the cocktail bar. The cocktails were nice but there were four Indian men on a table on the corner and one of them belched loudly every few minutes - not my favourite Indian trait. I wouldn't mind if they just belched naturally, but there's a certain ceremonial arrogance to belching in India.

I really enjoyed today. The temple were amazing and Jessica seemed to really enjoy it too. She'd also seen her first wild monkey and Buddhist monk of the trip!

More of the same tomorrow...
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Last day in Mumbai [Mar. 21st, 2017|02:27 pm]
I decided to treat Jessica to a nice meal as a late Valentines treat. We chose a hotel just a few blocks away on Marine Drive called the Inter Continental. I knew I was in trouble when I walked in to the lobby. Everything about it said 'high end', from the black marble, the large water feature and the three receptionists looking ever-so-slightly disapprovingly at my (smart) jeans. Not to worry, I had plenty of money in my wallet. We took a lift up to the third floor and were shown to our immaculately laid out table. Before we had settled we were served a bottle of water that looked unnecessarily expensive in my opinion (you can't ask for "tap water" in India!). We ordered Jessica's favourite, chicken korma, as well as a northern India mutton dish.

Both arrived with a lot of pomp and ceremony as the waitress made a big show of dishing them on to our plates, one gloved hand placed behind her back. We ate some and the waitress rushed over to spoon more on as if we were incapable of doing this ourselves. This continued for the whole meal - it was like we had our own private servant! I could feel my wallet wincing in my pocket.

Both curries were very tasty, especially the mutton which came in a rich, smoky sauce. Neither dish had a great deal of meat on the bone but that is fairly standard for India. Depressing jazz music played that reminded me of Homeland.

We'd had a really nice time but then the bill was placed in front of me (bills are never placed in front of women in India I've noticed). It came to 5,600 rupees - just over £56. That's about three times as much as I've spent on any meal in India (and bear in mind that before Jessica arrived I always ordered myself two main courses). Although the food was very tasty, it was no better than other places I've eaten on this trip.

Of course in places like this you're paying extra for the swanky service, not to mention the fact we were eating at one of the swankiest hotels in the swankiest part of Mumbai.

I didn't mind splashing out but feared the worst as I pulled my wallet out. I never carry lots of money when I eat out in Asia and don't carry cards either. Trying to look as casual as possible I counted the notes in my wallet and felt like banging my head on the table when it came to 5,500 rupees, just 100 rupees short. That's just one pound! Jessica normally carries money with her but on this occasion I'd told her not to bring any as tonight was my treat.

So embarrassingly I had to explain to the waitress that I didn't have enough money and rushed back to my hotel for extra funds. Not my greatest moment.

Next day was our final full sight-seeing day in Mumbai. One of the popular touristy things to do is to visit Elephanta Island, a short boat-trip away that apparently has some interesting caves. I quite liked the idea of a boat-trip but the caves themselves look nowhere near as impressive as those we'll see in a few days time at Ajanta. Also the boat-trip leaves from a jetty near The Gateway of India and I noticed huge queues when I was there a few days earlier. We decided to give it a miss.

Instead we opted to go somewhere a touch quirkier - Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat, a 140 year old village which does the laundry for the majority of Mumbai's hotels and shops (Dhobi Ghat means 'place where clothes are washed'). After a 20 minute drive in slow-moving traffic, our taxi driver dropped us off on a busy bridge overlooking the ghat. It was interesting to see all of the clothes hanging on washing lines stretching in to the distance. I saw white bed-sheets in one area, jeans hanging in another and colourful clothes in another, all drying in the relentless sun. Jessica, who is particularly fond of laundry, was especially excited.

Our driver had suggested we just take photos from the bridge but I was keen to visit the ghat to see it up close. We descended the stairs to the side of the train track and entered from a narrow alleyway. Young men carried big bundles of clothes on their back as others beat the dirt out of soiled items in one of the 1000+ open-air troughs.

A small man approached and asked for a 200 rupees admission fee. My research didn't mention anything about an entry fee and I didn't see any signs, so I assumed he was just an opportunist hoping to boost his daily wage. Big cities in India aren't short of these kind of chancers. He followed us around, repeatedly asking for money but sure enough he gave up after a while. We arrived at a bottle-neck - a film crew were recording something (perhaps a sequel to Slumdog Millionaire - I seem to recall the original had a scene in one of these ghats). As we were stood waiting I made friends with three young men sat on bundles of bed linen. I high-fived them when filming stopped and we were allowed to walk on.

We decided to do something more relaxing during the afternoon, so asked the taxi driver to take us to Malabar Hill, Mumbai's most exclusive neighborhood.

On the way we passed Mukesh Ambani's $1 billion skyscraper which is said to be the second most expensive residential property in the world after Buckingham Palace. It's a rather ugly looking building that in my opinion was not money well spent.

Our taxi driver dropped us off outside Hanging Gardens on Malabar Hill and we paid him the agreed fee plus tip. After stocking up on water and a few cold Sprites, we wandered around the park for a while, large dragonflies darting around the flowerbeds. Jessica was particularly wowed by the dragonflies. It's funny how you see things through someone else's eyes when you have a travel companion.

It was a very hot day so soon we sat on the grass in the shade of a tree. An impressively moustached father walked his smartly dressed son and daughter over to us and asked whether we'd mind having our photos taken with them. It was the sons birthday. We obliged and I got the impression the father wanted his son to have a conversation with us, so I asked him what his name was, how old he was and other questions I could imagine him being taught at school. He answered with aplomb and his father looked suitably proud as they walked away. Twenty minutes later when Jessica and I left the park, I made sure I gave the little boy a wave. He enthusiastically waved back, so a game of 'wave tennis' ensued as I disappeared down the road.

We whiled away another half hour at Kamla Nehru Park nearby, which offers nice views over the beach and across the bay.

The Malabar Hills are on a short peninsula and I read that on the southern tip are the medieval alleys of Baganga Chowk, a 'good place to wander'. I checked my Lonely Planet and it seemed to be 1km away, so we walked there. Vines shaped by traffic dangled above and we passed a Jain temple sandwiched between an electronic stall and a food stall. Nearby we spotted a European style bakery so dropped in for a smoothie each.

Banganga Chowk was indeed an interesting place to wander. It was like a step back in time with lots of quaint houses surrounding its centre-piece, a large water well called Banganga. Local legend states that Lord Raman, the hero of the epic Ramayana, stopped at this exact spot in search of his kidnapped wife Sita. Feeling thirsty he shot an arrow into the ground and water gushed from the ground creating, he thought, a tributary of the Ganges hence its name, Banganga - the Ganga created by a baan (arrow). It sounds a tall story to me, as the Ganges flows over a thousand miles away. A tall pole stood in the middle to signify where the arrow landed.

It was late afternoon and the sun was mercifully dropping in the sky, so we took a taxi back to our hotel, along Marine Drive. We passed a park with lots of pink and white balloons which signifies a wedding party is taking place. It must have been a very wealthy family. One of the great things about my time in Mumbai is the hotel room - it's always a pleasure to return to after a long day in the sun.

So far Jessica and I had only eaten Indian food so we decided to try out a nice looking Italian place located opposite our hotel. The food was good but came in monstrous sized portions, so we asked for a doggy bag afterwards and gave our leftovers to a homeless women and her daughter sitting on the street outside.

We went back to the Inter Continental for cocktails. The cocktail bar on the roof has lots of comfy couches and nice night-time views over Marine Drive but two cocktails came to an eye-watering 3,100 rupees. This would be an expensive place to get drunk.

When we arrived at the hotel a few days ago we shared a lift with a lovely old Indian lady (who it turned out lives in Bath, UK). Jessica was carrying the roses I had greeted her with at the airport and the lady had said "oh what beautiful flowers". Since we were leaving Mumbai tomorrow, I gave the flowers to the receptionist and asked whether they could be given to the old lady.

Tomorrow we fly to Aurangabad for a bit of culture straight out of Tomb Raider.
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