Writing this at the tail end of a brief stay in Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat and a city characterised mainly by a) having even crazier traffic that Bombay and b) having a name that reminds me of one of the faux-Indian names that Richie got the commentary team to practice on the 12th Man tapes.
It’s not a bad town, though – the food here is good, the hotel was lovely (Hotel Volga is the place to be, should you ever find yourself in this part of the world), and the weather’s not as muggy as it is further south. Tonight brings the unalloyed joys of a 10-hour bus trip – we’re heading to a place called Diu, a town by the beach that was a Portuguese enclave until the late 60s. According to Lonely Planet, the beer there is “blissfully cheap”, although that’s not much use to me as I’ve been on the dry since my arrival here – I’ve spent most of my time sipping tonic water like some dissipated Raj-era expatriate.
The train trip here was the first sight we’ve had of the Indian countryside. It takes a good hour to clear Bombay’s outskirts – it’s kinda like Melbourne in that it keeps going and going. We were amused to see Aussie dream style housing developments on the fringes, including something called the Vijay Palace, which seemed to be Bombay’s equivalent of Craigieburn. We also got our first proper glimpse of some of the shanty towns, which are astounding both in their extent and in their ingenuity – people seem to crib housing together out of anything and everything. Wobbling past in the train, we were also rather taken aback by the slum toilets – a huge barren expanse of land stippled with little turds, baking in the sun like some weird crop. Along with people, the slums house goats, dogs, cats, cattle and god knows what else. It’s a way of life so alien and so confronting to the western eye as to be almost incomprehensible. And yet at least half the world lives like this.
Once clear of the cities, the countryside is rather pretty – both Maharashtra and Gujarat appear quite dry, but the expanses of brown grass are broken up by crops of corn, rice and what appeared to be tobacco, along with other crops I couldn’t identify. As we moved north, there was also scrub – not quite forest, but certainly more than grassland. It’s all quite idyllic. In an inscrutably Indian way, there are also various structures out in the middle of nowhere for no apparent reason – I’m sure there is a reason for everything to be where it is, but I can’t begin to guess at them.
This is a recurring theme here – I find myself looking at things and trying to work out why they’re the way they are. Why is there a shrine right in the middle of this field? Why is there a brightly coloured flag flying from that house? Why is everyone clustering around that particular place? In Australia, you generally have a good idea what’s going on, and if you don’t, it’s rare that you can’t make an educated guess. Here, I find myself staring at things and having no idea what’s going on. It’s the first place I’ve ever really felt like this. It’s both exciting and curiously disconcerting.
What else? Indian cable TV remains a blast – most hotels seem to have it, and there’s a wide selection of stuff to see, from the familiarly Western (I’ve been able to watch the Ashes live, and we watched The Goonies last night) to the whacked-out and truly strange. We watched the enduringly bizarre Japanese game show Takeshi’s Castle last night on a channel called Pogo TV, which seems to be cable’s equivalent of the Lilypad Stage. It’s certainly not something I’d have expected to find here.
Anyway, better dash – they’re burning some sort of incense in here, and it’s giving me headspins. Will sign off with an addition to the pantheon of Amusing Signs Seen In Places Where English Isn’t Spoken Perfectly: a sign on the outside of the ladies’ toilets on the platform of one of the stations we passed through, which read “Please Pay For And Use The Ladies Once Only”. Well, quite.