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Back To Northern India Pt. 3

Onto Indonesian Pictures

Onto Vietnamese Pictures

Onto Malaysian Sailfishing


Palin has a lot to answer for... a visit to the hell hole that is Amritsar to see the beautiful Golden Temple, a cab ride over to the Pakistani border at Attari, one final push to finally nobble a living, breathing Goonch (yes!). And then bolting from the madness of mainland India as it threatened to turn into some kind of scatological caper, finding sanctuary in the tropical paradise of the Andaman Islands... just before the monsoon made too big a mess of things.

Amritsar, and we're at the centre of the Sikh world at the stunning Golden Temple. Unfortunately, like the Taj Mahal, its another gleaming jewel in another steaming turd of a town.

I like Michael Palin and I like his travel programmes. In Mcleod Ganj one evening, Lynne and myself somehow found ourselves watching one of his enticing little Himalayan jaunts on the telly. During the programme we saw him travel up through Shimla, have a bit of a chinwag with the Dalai Lama up in the 'Ganj (not a few hundred metres from where we currently sat, which was kind of surreal), and then he slipped over to Attari and Amritsar near the Pakistani border for a look at the incredible Golden Temple, the epicentre of the Sikh universe.
"Wow!" said our Lynne "that looks nice", and even I had to shuffle out of Cynic's Corner to agree. When we found out that Amritsar was just a 6 or 7 hour bus ride away, we immediately decided to go and take a look. 

Looking back, the very fact that Mr Palin could actually see out of his train window should have aroused a little suspicion. After all, all the ones we'd sat next to were so grimy it was like squinting through inch-thick cataracts. And the very fact that Shimla appeared to be completely devoid of litter and bubble-noses really should have at least set a couple of alarm bells gently chiming. Finally, the confine of the Golden Temple itself was the only thing that actually featured of Amritsar in the programme. And this very fact should have shot me straight back to the safe-haven of my bean-bag over in Cynic's Corner. A few days later I was left scratching my head and wondering if 

"Please what is your good name madam?".
"Erm... Colin".

 

And you thought Axel Rose looked a bit of a knobber?

And while we're on the subject of pervading aromas... Back at Mcleod Ganj Lynneth and myself did a couple of yomps up and down some of the peaks surrounding the town, which included a beautiful spot (keep looking up...) called Triund. All very nice, and I suppose it was only partially spoiled at the end. 

As we wandered downhill, a well-to-do Indian family in front of us merrily sprinkled their trash around them as they walked- something that is one of my pet-hates and it irritated me like mad. Then as we got closer up behind their happy band we discovered that "rather hefty mum" had one or two "personal hygiene issues" which left us following a scent trail not a million miles off boiled prawns with pickled onions as we wound down the path. She was dressed head to toe in luminous blue man-made fibres, and clearly that many layers of viscose and polyester weren't really ideal gear for a hike, as she wobbled along and her frock crackled like a Van De Graff generator, and I was dying for her hair to fur up like Don King in a sari.

Senor Palin had found his India steeped in a pervading aroma of disinfectant and Dulux. 


Golden Temple by night.

Pesky birds. A Hitchcock moment as the Sikh sentry shoos the crows from his beard.

 After a bit we had to get on and push past them. Her, erm, 'bouquet' was getting far too tangy, and my bag was rammed full of their rubbish that I'd been picking up in a little fit of self-righteous indignation. And then we finally had to make a run for it when danger levels soared as we crossed back under the tree-line; what with less breeze to disperse the pong, and that many dry leaves laying about, the static build-up was becoming far too much of a fire hazard to be hanging around. I think the poor dear could have caused a stampede at a petrol station. V nasty indeed.

Luckily we survived the long hike in the slipstream of Sally Sebaceous, and next day we lumbered aboard a taxi down to the bus station at 4am to get the first tin crate of the day heading roughly west in the direction of Pakistan. All passed without incident until reaching Amritsar itself. Peering out of the cracked pane to our side, we viewed another red hot, dusty, filthy, and incredibly crowded Indian city. A frenzied hive demonstrating yet again that the caste system is alive and well out on the streets of India- as the pedestrians dived out the way of the mopeds, the mopeds dodged out the way of the rickshaws, the rickshaws ducked out the way of the cars, the cars dodged out the way of the buses, the buses honked and got out the way of the trucks, and then finally the trucks all gave way to the cows, which milled about in the road grazing sedately on

Carp and Goldfish in the temple pond. No, they didn't do day tickets.

The awesome Border Security Force at Attari, ready to hit Lahore with a volley of chapattis at the first hint of trouble.

their lo-carb diet of cardboard and carrier bags, oblivious to their privileged position at the top of the highway food chain.

The chaos was aided none by half the main roads in town being in under repair, and this resulted in our bus driver getting a bit lost and crawling round the back streets asking for directions. 

By the time we rolled up to the bus station, there were already half a dozen touts hanging off the side of the crate like spiders, and another two or three had already infiltrated the aisle, clambering over people and sacks of rice with gay abandon. It was clear that they were searching for their preferred diet of western tourists, and seeing as Lynne and I, along with another couple wedged in further back between some bales of rags and bags of chick peas, were the only farangs on there, this put us right in the firing line. 

One of them fixed me with "the look" and pushed between a couple of passengers. 
I felt the pressure rise a notch. 
I looked again at the millions around the gate of the station that we were going to have to batter our way through in just a moment's time. 
Pressure up another half a dozen bars. 
The bus stopped, no breeze. 
Pressure and temperature up another ten degrees. The plastic covers on the Indian bus seats were really playing havoc with my jock rash (hi girls...).
Pressure up thirty bar at least. 
I looked back at tout No.1, now closing in, a few feet away - eyes locked in on his prize like a hawk on a three legged rabbit. 
Pressure up about.... Nggghhhhaaaaarrrggghhhh...!!
"You are wanting hote....?"
"NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I actually screamed. Completely involuntarily, like a tin kettle hitting boiling point on a camp fire. The tout jumped six feet back down the aisle, shock scratched right into his scrawny face. Lynne's head sank into her hands:
"Oh my God. For Christ's sake. You are so bloody embarrassing". 

But it had quite a desirable effect, in that Toutface wouldn't come near us now, and I clearly saw him pointing and explaining to a couple of others how I was obviously mental, which meant they left us alone too. Spot on! We pushed off the bus, and I clambered onto the roof to claim our bags, and as I

 

 

Who's the Dhadi?

 

was passing them down Lynneth was completely surrounded in a melee of turbans and beards. We beat our way through the throng, just shouting "No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No..." on repeat until we finally burst clear, wriggled our way through the grid locked traffic, and collapsed into some plastic chairs at a filthy chai shop growing out of the dust across the road.

I felt bad. Bad at my reaction, and, well, just bad at feeling bad. I was really wanting to like India, but some days (particularly in the tourist havens I have to say) it was bloody hard to do so. The happy, kind and generous people out in the sticks at Pong Dam seemed a million miles away. We sat silently over a Coke and then brooded about, (and dreaded) the next task- finding the hotel.

You find yourself doing some pathetically childish things in the end. We ignored half a dozen more touts all angling to get us on a rickshaw, just to deliberately find one who didn't hassle us (he was asleep). Price negotiated (nicely!), he only took us to the wrong hotel once before he finally got us to the right one. We paid up and I entered the reception, asking a big, bearded Sikh fella if he had a room. 

He wobbled his head, and we were in. Phew, again. 

Back out in the street, I went to help Lynne with the bags. As we loaded up again the manager came back out to us: 
"Excuse me sir. Were you asking the driver to be bringing you here, or was it that he recommended you were staying with us?" he asked.
"No, he took us the wrong way first", I replied.
"Thank you sir". And he disappeared back inside. Three seconds later, our rickshaw man came launching sideways through the doors and landed in a heap on the street, with manager man following and dishing him up the octa-bollocking of a lifetime.

Filling out the quadru-triplicate registration forms I asked him what that was all about.
"That man is saying he is bringing you here and he must be paid commission. He is liar and cheat, sir". Fair enough then. I felt a bit better about myself because of this, cos at least I wasn't the only one in a bad mood with it all- and it seems the only thing that treats an Indian rickshaw driver worse than a western tourist is another Indian. 
Yup, the caste system is alive and well on the streets of India - illegal or otherwise.


Spa facilities seemed at a premium.








No shortage of these fellas- even if the Goonch were still being a little contrary.

The Golden Temple, or Harmandir Sahib, really is a beautiful place. No, honest, it really is. Sitting almost as a mirage above the carp, goldfish and bathing Indians in the lake, the gold-clad temple is considered the holiest of holy by Sikhs because their holiest of holy literature, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (thank you, Wikipedia!), is always inside. But although
central to the Sikh world, it was built as a place
of worship for anyone from any walk of life
and any religion to come and worship 
God (generic term), and so is a refuge 
of peace within the pandemonium of 
Amritsar. This caste thing obviously 
hasn't spread over the walls.

In fact, the only thing faintly disturbing the tranquillity was
the odd local wanting to practice their English. 30,000 a day
come to claim their free dhal and chapatti happy-meal from the
 canteen. In my book, this is an operation which relegates that other
religious food phenomenon, the feeding of the five thousand, into the
Beazer Homes League of catering operations on a daily basis. Truly amazing,
and the clattering of the steel plates going into the dishwasher is the only thing that 
comes close to drowning out the rickshaws just over the temple walls. We milked the peace for a while and kicked back, took some photos and watched the (Sikh) world go by for an hour or two. It was like a two hour 

Here's one I chewed earlier. Before-Before, Before-After and After-After!

sigh of relief. But when we stepped back out into the darkness of the streets, the mayhem was still there.

In reality it looked worse than ever, with the headlights of vehicles streaming like searchlights through the swirling dust, casting silhouettes of the thousands of pedestrians desperately trying to avoid being run over. With the heat, the dust and the crowds it began to feel like appearing in your own nightmare. So we chickened out and scarpered back to the sanctuary of room 304 at the Grace Hotel. And there we stayed, shrinking under a wobbling ceiling fan until the next day came round and we decided to finally leave the room and give it another try. 

We hung around and managed to wile away the hours during the day at the temple, and then come evening we got a taxi over to the border with Pakistan at Attari, some 30km away. Again, we need to have another word with Palin, because with 10,000 people a day heading there to watch the border ceremony (and flick Vs at the Pakistanis of course), we couldn't get near enough through the masses to actually see the goose-stepping, let alone get a ringside seat. I've said it before, 1.2 billion is a lot of people! 

Leaving the scrum to it we occupied ourselves with a beer in the shade, beating off bubble-noses by the dozen, who were trying to flog DVDs of the ceremony (I guess they knew no one could ever get close enough to see it...), green, white and orange visors, chewing gum, miscellaneous tat and Indian flags. One of the poor lads looked a bit puzzled as



























Not pretty, but th
e kids are cute when they're little...
Awww.







But look!!
It's a bloody Goonch!!!!

Lynne asked him if he had an English flag. And another  nearly dived under the table when he asked "where is it you are from good sir?" and I told him "Lahore". If getting to Amritsar had been a bit of a ball-ache, getting away from the place proved to be one of the most harrowing days of travel we've had in a long period of working up a very large carbon footprint. What, according to our nice manager fella at the hotel, should have been a 6 hour train ride directly back to Haridwar turned into a 15 hour epic involving a taxi, three trains, a bus and two rickshaws.

It didn't look good as the rickshaw dropped us off in the dawn at Amritsar railway station. Even at five am the place was crawling with bodies (well, some were crawling, but most weren't even moving). We found the ticket office and joined another scrum. Seeing a bench become vacant over to the side, I told Lynne to hold position in the log jam while I chucked the bags on it for her to sit with while I did the queuing. As I dragged the luggage over, I marvelled at the mess yet again. Filth up the walls, green, brown and red splashes of spit and paan squirted up the column behind the bench, and crap all over the floor. I looked again... Jesus H.... that really was a lump of crap on the floor! I couldn't believe it. I mean, I'd seen the lines of squatting people doing their ablutions on the railway tracks, but this was a new one on me. What kind of country was this, one where it's quite

Need clean water... Now!

acceptable to lay a huge turd right in the middle of a main-line, big city railway station full of people? I wondered what would happen back home at King's Cross, if someone casually squatted down in the queue at Burger King and flipped a Flame Grilled Whopper of their own? I have a hunch we'd see the CCTV footage on Crimewatch. It's just wrong. All wrong...

This lump of dump should have been taken as a sign of things to come, cos after that things just got worse. A dispute with a corrupt train guard (we refused to pay an arbitrary 'fine' he made up on the spot as he checked our tickets) meant the 'direct' option went out the door early on. For hours our train







That'll be the monsoon then.

(all three changes of them) then sluggishly creaked through the baking panorama of burnt yellow, occasionally passing through one small town or another, all of which looked as desperate as the last, while I took to doing a running commentary of "Ooh, this looks nice hun!" to Lynne as we scraped into another ramshackle cluster of derelict buildings, rubble, plastic bags and oily black ponds - usually with pigs wallowing in the effluent to try and keep cool. Obviously, this amused her greatly for at least 3 minutes. 

The final station for a train-change involved Lynne in an incident which would probably have seen the culprit on the sex-offender's register back in the western world (and no, it wasn't me), before we sat crammed onto a wooden bench on a stationary train dripping with sweat for an hour or two. Forty pairs  of eyes stared intently at us- as we stared just as intently at another immobile train at the platform opposite, watching the faces pressed against the metal grilles of the windows, as bottles, polystyrene and lumps of phlegm showered onto the tracks through the gaps- and blokes stood in rows pissing up the wheels of the carriage, which was nice.

15 hours after leaving Amritsar, a crusty Ambassador taxi with a 3hp engine and seats stuffed with cutlery finally crawled into Rishikesh, where we got a room on the hill and crashed out under another wildly oscillating fan, glad it was all finally over.

Really I've glossed over that day here and not told the half of it, because I already realise I go on  and on (and on) too much. But it really was one of those days. Problems with the GNER service to Leeds will never seem the same again. 

After that, I needed some rustic isolation again. Some clean water, some peace and quiet and some fishing. So while Lynneth stayed on in the haven of Rishikesh to practice her half-nelson and regain a spot of cosmic inner karma or something, once I again I left her to it. I'd had quite a lot of Mahseer by now, but there was one thing that had eluded me thus far- that mutant of the riverbeds, the Goonch... So I headed off Ramganga-bound again- because it was the loveliest river I'd fished in India, it held a few Goonch, and I reckoned we'd got about a week or so left before the monsoon swept in and would ultimately sweep away the valley.


"It is having one lady owner and full servicing history sir".

It's strange how even if you've only been to a place a couple of times, it can so quickly become familiar. Rickshaw to the bus station, hour or two on a bus to Haridwar, change at Haridwar, 6 hours to Ramnagar... I even recognised some of the towns and villages and smoking brickyards along the way. All the villages had large conical piles of dried cowpats along the side of the road. They're only used as fuel supply for the camp fires, but they usually look sturdier than the huts housing a family of fourteen. I also amused myself for a couple of hours by watching the two girls in front of me clambering over each other to take it in turns to puke out the bus window- though it has to be said I did have a couple of lucky escapes with a splash of "dhal blowback". Honk on, ladies!

It was great to be back by the lovely Ramganga again. I checked into the tent up near Marchula, washed the dirt and dust from my nostrils and ears, and then prepared my gear for battle before kicking back on my bed to hatch a plan for the following day. I was only disturbed by a request to join the owner of the camp for drinks. I have to say I (very) politely declined, just for this once; for one has to be up early to catch the worm, doesn't one?

At 5am I was down at the bridge pool, sat on my rock, and soaking dead chilwa and atta on the riverbed. Mr Anand found me later that morning, just about the time where the thermometer hit 45 degrees and I couldn't sit on a rock anymore cos it was burning my arse through my shorts. He seemed pleased to see me and wobbled his head lots and lots before taking up his crouch on his perch behind me. Although the Goonch didn't find me, I did catch 6 nice Mahseer on Hing paste and small chilwa, which was pleasing. I stayed on until well after dark too, and was kidnapped by a search party in a jeep as I walked back home. Whoops.

This evening I was formally requested to join the owner for drinks down on the lawn. I took it that this meant I was being told to get myself down there, like, now! And so I did. And what a great evening it turned out to be. Beers and spicy barbecued chicken served under the light of a big moon and paper lanterns, with the sounds of the rushing river and the jungle as a backdrop. My wise, grey haired host proved to be very charming company- as long as you weren't staff, of course. I just wish I could remember his name.

"You British left a fine legacy", he smiled, waving an unopened bottle of Haig at me.
"Yeah, that and bloody paperwork", I replied.
He laughed; "No, no, no. Sir, that was here long before. We used to say at the time of partition- 'Give a Pakistani a full stop and an Indian a comma and they'll go on all night'..." This amused me very much. 

We supped a few glasses of "water", as he insisted on calling it, and then stuck another bottle in the back of a jeep and headed off "on safari" for an hour or two in the darkness. As we watched deer and boar by torchlight in the bush, and drank some more "water", he told story after story about life in India. It dawned on me, that this day, and this evening, was why I love travelling so much. 

 

It's what makes all the Agras and Amritsars of this world worth trawling through and all the knackered buses worth all the jock-rash. We sat and hoped to hear a tiger or leopard, but unfortunately without luck. But it mattered not, to be quite honest. 

As the whisky took hold his stories got funnier:
"You know why almost all people eaten by leopard are women? I tell you why. It is because of toilet. Women cannot be doing toilet in daytime. They must not be seen doing toilet. So they are taking shit in the jungle after evening and before dawn. Leopard is mooost active this times. Woman is lifting sari, 

Mr Anand, this is for you!
Look, he insisted, right?

taking shit, leopard smells shit, eats woman. All gone! Nothing! All that is left is a pile of shit, I'm telling you! This is all they are finding!"

Like I say, charming. I crashed into my tent after midnight, about pissed, and dreading the 4.30am alarm; albeit with a big, fat smile spread across my face. Next morning at 5, the same fat, sweaty, tired face gazed down into the pool below the bridge, and through the half-light spotted a large Mahseer up near the surface. It was probably over 25lbs in weight, and I watched it gracefully drifting 

On the basis that India had already driven us round the bend and back, 3 foot of floodwater sloshing around the streets of Kolkata was finally enough to persuade us it was time to leave- before it was all just tooooo late...

 

back and forth in the current. Oooh.  I dropped half a bread roll into the ravine, and then watched it drift down. The Mahseer lined itself up, and then devoured the whole chunk in one loud slurp without a care in the world! Blimey. So I dropped in the other half... schlurppp!! Gone! 

I'd have rolled down the steep cliff face if it hadn't been covered in turds, but I slipped down as fast as I could anyway, hastily tied a hook, and then stuck on a chunk of bread as fast as my trembling hands would allow. I crept into position, flicked out the bait, and then mended the line... heart pounding in the chest. It snaked down about ten yards... and then disappeared with a loud "pop!". In an instant I smacked the rod back, picked up the slack line, and set the hook... I stopped breathing... waiting for the reel to start emptying of line... but instead a junior of about 2lbs came splashing back across the top. Bugger. And I saw the big one no more. Ho hum.

There were many more of these bigger Mahseer in the river now than my earlier visit, you could see them occasionally from the cliff tops, milling around in groups.

But they were very, very shy. Any disturbance saw them melt away, never to be seen again, which was very frustrating. 
"A lot of big Mahseer here now, Anand. Not hungry though", I noted to my erstwhile nemesis, as I sat

Lets play Loophole! A new law has just been passed that wearing helmets on motorbikes is now mandatory in the Andamans, but what they didn't write in the rule books was "motorcycle helmets".

 

And I'd be this happy if I was an Andaman concrete contractor.

pulling out my silken curly locks one morning.
"Yes sir, rain is here soon. Mahseer is coming from Dikhala up to mountain for breeding in monsoon. In four days time, river is here, sir", he replied, pointing to the top of a rock about 6 feet above his head.
"What? Four days?"
"Yes sir". To me this was unbelievable, a bit like saying "On the 5th of June next year it's gonna rain in Spalding". Little did I know how spot on he was going to be.

It was a pity he wasn't so accurate about some of his other prophecies. Like the morning when I'd watched some monkey bastards drinking from the river's edge at dawn. When he turned up later on, he persuaded me to try the tail of a pool a little further downstream: 
"Come. Leaving bag, sir".
"But what about the monkey bastards?"
"No monkey here morning. Night time only".
"But there were loads here half an hour ago!" I pleaded.
"No monkey here in morning sir. Coming quickly please". So I reluctantly followed...

About 30 seconds after my bait hit water, I heard a commotion and a load of screeching, and looked up up to see my bait bucket and rucksack in the middle of a heap of scrapping primates. Nothing was damaged once Anand finally got all the bits back, but most of the bait for the day went AWOL.

The kids were on hand with the local knowledge for Wilko at the Havelock jetty.





















"It's a plane boss!" Fantasy Island down at Havelock.

"What were they Mr Anand?" I laughed.
"Monkey Bastard, sir"- cue big head wobble.

I'd also spotted a nice looking pool- very similar to a miniature version of the one at High Cliff in the Corbett Park where all the Goonch had lain like fat gravel carpeting the bottom. As we caught a couple of small Mahseer from it one morning, I turned to The Oracle again:

"Are there Goonch living in this pool Mr Anand?"
"No sir. Goonch not living here". 
"Ok", I thought, and left it at that.

I spent another afternoon and evening turning into a fried egg on a rock, waiting and hoping for a dumb Bagrus to suck in my offerings of putrid chicken and festering trout. For days- hours and hours I spent, in the end. Wishing and dreaming, praying and frying. 

The heat was almost unbearable in the middle of the days. I don't know how hot it actually got, but I do know that over in Lahore at the same time, 16 people died when there was a power cut and the red 

of the thermometer hit 54. And that's proper hot, by my reckoning. So I'd guess it may have been mid-40s perhaps? But still I stuck at it. What a mug!

It was during one of the baking afternoons that I suddenly heard the Baitrunner burst into life...! I leapt forth and grabbed the offending rod. Something had swam off with the rotten chilwa... but it had stopped. I paused, rod shaking in my hands... nothing. And so it stayed. I left the bait in position for another hour or so in the hope the culprit would come back for it's meal, but with no such luck. When I wound in the bait to check it, the body was limp and squashed with a few puncture marks to the skin, and the head had been nearly ripped from the body. Undoubtedly a Goonch.
"Goonch, sir", pointed out Mr Anand by way of confirmation. My heart sank. Would this be my only chance? Was that the only feeding Goonch down there? Would I ever get one? 

Grimly I hung on until well, well after dark, but eventually left empty handed, bright pink and not in the highest of spirits. As I reached the top of the steep cliff face near the bridge, the River Pixies had one more stab, as in the darkness I slipped in one of the numerous "obstacles" in the poo-slalom- never good, but even worse in sandals... bugger.
"Mr Anand? Why do people shit here? Why? They can see it's a pathway, so why do they shit here? It's filthy- disease, it's dirty, it smells bad! People walk here, so why do people shit here?!" I nipped, not happy. 
Anand thought for a second in the darkness:
"But sir, it is a bus stop also". Of course, of course. How stupid of me...

Time was running short. With but a day or two (maximum) left, I took a midday sabbatical and caught some of the small black spotted chilwa in the aim of trying one more time for a Mahseer, before one last evening of attrition with the Goonch.

With half a dozen of them flitting about in my bucket, I set off in the direction of Mr Anand's "No Goonch" pool, feeling sure that it must at least hold a Mahseer or two. 


"I reckon it's goin' tae feckin rayin!!"

And it did. Putting on a brave face and sheltering from another monsoon downpour with the Paneerhead and Irish Mark.

The ever-smiling face of my Cheesehead buddy from Rotterdam who greeted us on the island.

Arriving early for an evening session for a little me-time without Mr Anand, I crept into position. I noticed that a breeze had sprung up. In fact I wasn't even sweating as much as usual- the temperature had really, and quite suddenly dropped. Wow! I bet it was only about 38 degrees! Crouching well back from the edge of the small pool, I flicked a small chilwa with a small stone tied to the swivel into the tail of a plume of white water. After carefully tightening up, I laid the rod across my rucksack and sat back to await developments. In seconds, the rod folded over and I was in. 
But into what?

Not to be out-stared, even with the Trevally Goggles on!.

It just swam around the pool in circles, not feeling too heavy- with none of the initial head-long rushes of a Mahseer. A bit like hooking a crisp packet really. A moment or two later, a strangely shaped item looking like a shovel shaped patch of carpet came into focus on the end of my line. And then I realised what it was! A bloody Goonch!! The next couple of minutes were spent begging the thing not to fall off, and finally I scooped the strange creature from the margins. A bloody Goonch!!! 

Ok, so it was only a juvenile, but dead, dead cute, with tiny orange eyes and patches of turmeric coloured skin in the bands of olive and graphite, big flappy whiskers hanging down like a kind of handlebar moustache. Yes, yes, yes! I punched the air- yet again demonstrating the art of disproportionate celebration. I piled up some rocks to make my own pool, and carefully placed the prize inside- wanting to show Mr Anand when he eventually searched me out- as he most surely would. When he turned up, I grinned. 
"Look in there" I said, pointing at my tiny little man-made dam.

 One for the album. Happy days.


























Home Sweet Home in the coconuts!

When he peered down, he started to jump around, then he turned and shook my hand gleefully:  
"Goonch sir! Very good! Very good! Where are you catching it sir?"
"Here!"
"No sir?! No Goonch here!"
"Right here... I'm telling you." And The Oracle looked a little confused, before shrugging his shoulders, wobbling his head and shaking my hand again.
"Very good..." 
If anyone asks, I wonder if this is now Mr Anand's best Goonch spot? I can hear it now:
"Please casting. Many Goonch we are catching this spot, sir..." Wobble, wobble, wobble...

Mr Anand insisted on having his photo taken with the little catfish, and so, once it had become the most photographed juvenile Goonch in Indian history, we watched him waddle off back into the depths. Happy days. Walking down to the bridge pool, I managed one small Black Mahseer on Hing, but precious little else happened that evening. I don't think even Goonch like chicken so rotten that its nearly liquid. I baulked as I threaded it on the hook (my hands still stank of it two days later)- it reminded me of eel fishing in New Zealand- and I hadn't smelled anything that bad since... well, Dehra Dun.


Big Eye & Jaco: separated at birth?

I said goodbye to Mr Anand that evening for the final time. Somehow, over my time on the Ramganga I'd become quite fond of him - despite all the head wobbling, misinformation and just hanging around getting in the way. I gave him an envelope with a spot of Baksheesh in, and as we shook hands again, he handed over a piece of paper with his name and address written on it.
"Sir. Please, would you be posting me picture of Goonch and Mahseer. I would be liking this very much. Please." Bless his little cotton Y-fronts. Of course I sent them as soon as I got home, while also making a promise to myself to go back to Marchula again, to see if he actually received them... I truly hope so... And to try for some more of those beautiful Golden Mahseer... and a proper Goonch. 'Tis a lovely place.

I was awoken in the early hours by clattering thunder and huge raindrops thrashing the canvas above me, signalling the arrival of the monsoon. And as I sat in the dawn watching the rain thrash down through the tent flaps, I remembered it was now four days after The Oracle's monsoon prediction- he was indeed accurate to the day. By the time I began my journey back to Rishikesh later that day, the river had already started rising. Time to go; although when I arrived back at Rishikesh, the monsoon clearly hadn't arrived there yet as it was still scorching nicely under a shimmering sun.

Monsoon meant time to get out, as far as we were concerned. And to this end, because another of our mates from the heady days of the Perhentian Islands, The Paneerhead himself, Dutch Jaco, was in India, we'd arranged to meet up with him on the Andaman Islands over in the Bay of Bengal.



Night fishing with the locals turned into the usual debacle- but Jaco came good with a couple of nice snapper that found their way onto the table the next evening. Spot on.


A spot of GT success out on the ocean as bait fish sprayed around the boat (and realisation dawns that a thinning mullet is maybe not the way forward).

In retrospect, although the Andamans are "in India", it would have been as easy to meet him in the Falklands.

First things first, taxi to Haridwar, and then a train to Delhi for a train to Kolkata some 1500km east. What can you say about Delhi railway station? It was a fitting finale to our time in this neck of the woods, and a kind of microcosm of life in India arranged over several platforms. The monsoon hadn't burst there yet- so the heat was unbearable, and any piece of skin poking out from under shade turned to cheese on toast in minutes. My T-shirt was soaked in sweat, my hair looked like I'd just got out of the shower, and my rucksack was even soaked through too. There was the lack of information, with seemingly just one information board to the whole station. There was the chaos and disorganisation. There were the touts and hawkers. There was the litter- tons of it strewn everywhere. There was the abject lack of any facilities- 2 seats per thousand, the ubiquitous broken, filthy toilets, and the canteen facilities needed to be seen to be believed; a filth encrusted kitchen, with filth encrusted fittings and 

filth encrusted staff- some of whom seemed to be taking turns to stand barefoot on the work surfaces. Toe Cheese was on the menu. One quick glimpse was enough to convince us a hospital visit would probably be needed after a mouthful of it. 

But most of all it was the people. Thousands upon thousands of them cramming every square inch: sweating, stinking, pushing, shoving, pissing, shitting, spitting, littering, shouting, sleeping, hocking, scratching, belching, nose-picking and farting. It was like opening Pandora's Box, and was the most overwhelming display of the human condition I've ever had the displeasure to be stuck in (yup- even worse than Amritsar!). The only expression I couldn't see- anywhere- was joy, or even laughter. I looked around and couldn't see one group of friends having a laugh, one husband and wife sharing a joke, one group of kids playing and giggling. Nothing. 

Don't get me wrong, I understand why - hell, being rammed onto a platform at Gas Mark 6 with another 50,000 of the great unwashed is not much fun for anyone. I certainly wasn't laughing. But surely someone must have been embarking on a journey they were looking forward to? Or sharing a trip with a group of good friends? Maybe not.

After four hours, we finally mounted the train and sank into our seats on the air-conditioned sleeper. We'd turned down the cheapest train because we were told it would take almost three days to get there. It was obviously going via Beijing or something. And this was perhaps the best decision we could make, as almost a full day later we rolled into Kolkata station, having had a decent night's sleep and about 13 games of Travel Scrabble.

Despite the usual dilapidated suburbs, the torrential rain (I wrote in my diary "126mm - 4 hours - 6 dead"; now that's a downpour), and the big sign telling passengers to "Mind the Rat" in the hall, Kolkata station was nothing like as traumatic as Delhi. We got another decrepit taxi and drove through the main streets, while most of those off up the sides were sloshing about under three feet of dirty brown water. Handcarts and rickshaws sat axle deep, while dozens of kids played in their impromptu paddling pool and the adults stood around waiting for it to go away, I suppose. After 9 months of baking heat and zero rainfall, it seems that the good lord Shiva deems that all the shit should be washed away by 4 foot of rain a day, every day, for three months. And let's face it, the drains have no chance of coping with that much shit. 

We headed for one of the budget hotels near the airport, which turned out to be about as knackered as the taxi. 

Kids from the village take it easy down at the beach. Who needs a chuffing Nintendo?



A double header of Big Eye Trevally and it's dinner time for our laughing boatmen. Top fellas.

The Weeble-like owner stood naked but for a white(ish) lunghi round his waist, his massive honch hanging over the front, showing us a concrete box of a room with bars for windows. I looked down at the sheets on the bed, which obviously last got washed in 1973. More filth.
"Jesus. The last person who stayed here?"
"Yes sir?"
"What happened? Did he die or something?"
All the owner did was laugh... and show us another room. This one was at the back of the building, and we took it on the basis that the sheets were last washed in 1977. Much better.

Our stay in Airport City, Kolkata coincided with a massive plague of million upon millions of flying ants that evening. A few of these up your nose, in your eyes, down your shirt and down your throat was enough to persuade us that the best place to be was in our shitty room watching shitty programmes on a shitty TV. But at least we fell asleep secure in the knowledge that early next morning we'd be on a plane and heading to a tropical paradise. At long last.

Lynne and I both smiled broadly as we saw the first turquoise fringed islands islands stretch out below the plane window. At last indeed. A beach and clear blue seas, no cities, and after weeks of dhal and chapattis- some seafood. We could hardly wait. And if the plane flight felt good, for yours truly the three hour ferry journey from Port Blair to Havelock Island the following day felt even better: out on the sea, a sunny afternoon with a cool breeze off the ocean, lush tropical islands off to port and starboard, and squadrons of flying fish spraying across the surface. It was so very good to be out of the madness and out on the sea again. When we docked at the Havelock jetty, the smiling face of Dutch Jaco was there to greet us, so we got a bamboo hut with him at a lovely place call the Emerald Gecko, ate the best fish curry I've ever tasted (I ended up having it five nights running, so it must have been good!), and then got Kingfishered and talked utter drivel for hours. Life was suddenly very sweet!

With only seven travellers staying on the island at about that time, it could never be described as either a party or an adventure.

We had a ball out on the sea... Tuna, Red Bass, GTs, Big Eyes. And for a couple of hours I had my heaven.

 But after all the bus miles and hassles of recent times, it was great to relax, unwind, eat fish and get some sand between the toes. And there we stayed- just Jaco, Lynne, me, Janice and Mark from Belfast (who I thought had Superglued Bran Flakes round his mouth, but which turned out to be sunburn), plus a Welsh mentalist called Fred with his Aussie surf chick called Mandy at another place further up the beach- who we'd see around-about most days causing a headache for the locals. Oh, and I forgot the few million mosquitoes too.

With it being rainy season, however, most days had a downpour, there was a lot of cloud, and even when it wasn't raining nothing ever got dry due to the 90% plus humidity. Just tying on a hook made me drip like a knackered fridge, and mould soon began to appear on any clothes or luggage not left in the air. 

So it wasn't all idyllic... But when the sun came out, it was pretty much picture postcard. We found a beautiful small cove at the end of Radhanagar Beach and went there several times between squalls to catch some sun and do some snorkelling- while Jaco tried something called "schnorkelling" (?). We fished from the jetty and caught mostly small fish- though I did lose my magic pink Pong Dam Mahseer Special lure (R.I.P.) when something bigger than average grabbed it and shot under the concrete and bust the line. We also amused ourselves with watching the local stray mongrels, one of which used to run by with her saggy teats dragging in the sand each day, and was duly nicknamed "Pamela". 

spluttered from turquoise water to deep blue, Jaco put out a rod to troll. For some reason he selected a red-head lure from my box:
"I've never even had a hit on that", I told him.
"No. Always use the red-head", replied my Cheesehead friend.
"Up to you", I said, and left him to it. Full speed ahead was too quick for this lure, and Jaco frowned as he tried to get the thing to run true and stop popping from the surface. Suddenly, the lure's vane bit, the lump of plastic dived and the rod tip nodded rhythmically for a second... and the rod was nearly wrenched from his grasp. The 65lb braid screamed from the spool, I screamed at the fisherman to cut the engine, and in seconds whatever it was had put 150 metres between itself and the boat... and it kept going at lightning speed... on and on. Looking at the emptying spool, I realised we were going to have to go after it, but "Stop boat, turn round, turn round...!" made no impression on our fisherman friend, and with but a few turns of line left on the spool the line was cut on the reef- thankfully near the leader. Which was a bit of an arse!

We were truly gutted, Jaco stood a second and wondered what the hell had just happened, and I made a mental note to learn the Hindi for "follow that f***ing fish!".

I did very little fishing that evening, spending most of it either untangling hand lines from my end tackle, or retying Jaco's rigs because he'd forgotten his glasses. Mind you, he caught a couple of lovely snapper, so that made it all worthwhile.

The manager, Menaj, promised us we could do some fishing with their fisherman, but due to the boat being repaired, days of bad weather and a bout of tennis elbow for the skipper (eh?), this got put on the backburner on what seemed to be a manana basis. So we got ourselves sorted out for a night session with a local fella out on his wooden boat. Price negotiated (including bait, no hand lines allowed), we turned up full of optimism. The fisherman turned up smiling.

"Smiling", said Jaco. "Good sign". I could see some small silver fish in his carrier bag.
"Bait", I said. "Good sign". Then the bloke turned up who'd translated and brokered the deal, complete with his mate who'd decided to tag along with a basket full of hand lines.
"More people. Hand lines", said Jaco. "Bad sign". Oh my how we laughed, realising already it was all probably not going to be quite as agreed... again.

It very nearly went right though. I rigged up the rods as we chugged out to sea - full speed ahead. As the old boat 

"A Tuna and Cheesehead Toastie, please".

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is a proper hermit. The hippies and Saddhus up in the valleys were just playing at it.

We carried them back at midnight, through another torrential squall, all the while looking out for the packs of dogs roaming the tracks. But they had more sense than to be out hassling tourists for fish and were nowhere to be seen- which was good. Shivering, we woke the cook back at the Gecko. The poor fella looked dazed and confused as he got up off his mat, but our fish needed ice, and he didn't seem to hold it against us when the following night he produced a fantastic meal with them... fried and grilled, with garlic butter on some, and lime and chilli on the rest. Phenomenal- a terrific chef, and all from gas burner in a bamboo shack. 11/10. Gold Star.

Finally, after many days of inactivity and precipitation, Mr Menaj came up with the goods. The boat was repaired, the captain's tennis elbow had cleared up (?), and given fair weather we'd be out on the ocean the following afternoon (our final day!) when the tide was on the up. 

I have a recurring dream, as they say. And for better or worse (usually worse), mine is to fish on beautiful foreign waters, for beautiful foreign fish, with the local blokes on their local boats- while trying to avoid paying the biggest, fattest white man, with the biggest, fattest white boat, the biggest fattest wedge of cash to lay it on a plate for you. I confess that after trying this for so long now, my advice to any passing readers of this dribble would be to just get the cheque book out, cos it ain't worth the heartache. But for this one day, I think I nearly had my dream.

The weather was fine as I prepared the tackle the following morning, patching together the strongest of everything I had in the hope it'd be good enough. As the tide got high enough to launch the boat, we set sail at lunchtime, into the bright blue sea under scorching sunshine. We were on a long, brightly painted wooden long-boat with a spluttering and chugging diesel engine stowed somewhere aboard. The boat may have been 'rustic', but the boys on board really, really knew their stuff. Oh happy days. We set a couple of lines to troll our way out to the reefs and bommies, and about halfway there, Jaco found himself attached to a powerful fish on the Yo Zuri- which after a 15 minute fight (and sunburn to his forearm), turned out to be a nice Tuna. A good start... and we decided to see what our chef could do with that and stuck it below the duckboards.

But that was just the fluffer. After running out for about an hour and a half, suddenly they cut the engine and stood up, palms shielding eyes and scanning the ocean. We'd wound in the rods and I was tying a leader and Halco Roosta surface popper onto Jaco's rod, when the boys jabbered something very urgently. I looked up and saw a shimmering patch of 'living' water about 40 metres from the boat. I lobbed the rod to Jaco and shouted to him to chuck it in there... first cast, two strikes... both missed. Second cast, another strike... missed:
"Come on you w**ker!"
Third cast... Bosh! And he was in, and he set about having a run-around with some lively reef fish. While he played it I was scratching in my lure box for which one to put out (I wanted the popper really, but it was busy!). As soon as I laid my hands on a bright yellow, fire-tiger pattern Rapala Super Shad, one of the fellas hissed a little and wobbled his head:
"Yes... yes! This!" he said. Again he was spot on. 

First cast, out she went, right into the middle of the melee... half a dozen turns on the reel handle it all went very tight and the 25lb mono started to peel from the spool. Jaco landed his fish- a lovely Red Bass, and a few minutes later, after a strong and stubborn scrap I tailed a lovely GT aboard, which had absolutely inhaled the plug. We were well chuffed, and after a few pictures we set about getting some more. It was action all the way while it lasted, with multiple strikes, misses and hook-ups. Yours truly had another lucky escape with a hook, as a GT Jaco had at the boat went nuts as I grabbed it's tail, and for a few seconds I had 15lbs of Trevally hanging from a size 8/0 SSW in my arm, until it flapped and the hook came out with an audible "pop"... very lucky, especially when we noticed that the hook had actually straightened out a bit. Ooh. 

It really was the sort of fishing I truly love, chasing fish over the ocean, searching, casting... an adrenaline rush all the way...

This meant we were so wrapped up in chasing fish that we didn't notice the weather. The sky had gone leaden and there was the odd white-cap building up. All too soon our boys signalled it was time to make a run for shelter. I really didn't want to go, but by the time we'd been chugging back 20 minutes the rain was tipping down again and the waves were crashing over the side of the boat- which I confess made for one or two hairy moments. But once back in the lee of the islands we could run out a couple of lines again. Even then we weren't finished, when as we followed the edge of the reef a squadron of Big Eye Trevally launched an attack- at one point we were trolling along quite merrily when I saw four or five flying fish take to the air at once:
"Flying fish" I said. "Good sign".
 
"Bollocks!" laughed Jaco... And 10 seconds later we were playing knit one, pearl two with a double hook-up of the cantankerous little swines. As we waded ashore a little later, it was smiles all round. Our boys in the boat took a couple of Big Eyes and a few Rupes home for their trouble- top fellas, we'd had a great session out on the sea, and we'd got fresh tuna for tea. Masterchef back in his shack excelled himself that evening, each of us being presented with about a 2 pound loin of the stuff, barbecued with garlic butter and chilli... oh to die for... And as it was washed down with another tub of Kingfisher, I knew that just for one day I'd truly found my heaven.

Yes, Mother India had followed true to form on the last day on Havelock Island... 

Just when it was time to go, just when trench-foot was setting in, just when we'd had enough, she'd lifted her sari and given us a little flash of something worth hanging around for... Or coming back for.

Oh bugger. Not again.



















Radhanagar Beach, Havelock Island. Once again now: "My Life Is Shit".

Back To Northern India Pt. 3

Onto Indonesian Pictures

Onto Vietnamese Pictures

Onto Malaysian Sailfishing

 

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