Saturday, November 30, 2013

[The Life of Shaun #489] Behind the Sundevil

A funny thing happened tonight while watching "Behind the Candelabra", a story about Liberace.  Midway through the movie, my flatmate, Marco, came in and we talked a bit, during which I mentioned how fun it was to see the film because I remember growing up and Liberace being a part of Vegas.  I never saw him perform, but he was there, on billboards and TV, in conversations and the newspapers, Mom would go see him with visitors from out of town.

Whenever I tell people I grew up in Vegas, they have two reactions (often both, in succession): surprised that anyone lives in Vegas; what an interesting place it must be to grow up.  At the height of my loathing of Las Vegas, I would draw on a well-rehearsed vocabulary in response: vapid, soulless, conservative, stifling, unhealthy.  As my physical and emotional distance grew, I toned down the vitriol (especially in Europe, where Vegas seems to most as magical and remote as any place could), politely acknowledging its unique character, while mentioning the less uplifting aspects of being under 21 and gay in the world's second-largest Mormon city in days before Glee.

Marco's reaction when I said I remember Liberace (including where he lived - everyone knew which house was his) took me aback, and a few images of Vegas came to the fore: Liberace, Siegfried & Roy (for whom I played "welcome back" music for in Eldorado High School marching band regalia after a world tour), Kenny Kerr, Casino, living with the showgirl from the billboards - and suddenly I understood a little bit better people's reactions to my roots.  

Not that I knew, or had even met all these people, but these were the people that made Las Vegas, what made up the colour and character of my hometown - this was my normal.  Other cities have their mayor, the birthplace of a president, a baseball team; Vegas has the Rat Pack, Elvis and Bugsy Siegel.  Perhaps there were conservatism, homophobia and ugly stripmalls, but where didn't in America?  At least ours sparkled with a little neon and glitter.  

I always say I'd love to see Vegas through a non-native's eyes.  Tonight, for an instant, I did.


Too much of a good thing is wonderful.


My flatmate (in Vegas, not Marco). 

__________________________________________________________________________

Shaun H. Coley | Shadwell | Tower Hamlets | London E1 | UK | shaunism.blogspot.com
--
--
You received this message because you are subscribed to the "The Life of Shaun" group.
To unsubscribe from this group, send email to The-Life-of-Shaun-unsubscribe@googlegroups.com
For more options, visit this group at http://groups.google.com/group/The-Life-of-Shaun
---
You received this message because you are subscribed to the Google Groups "The Life of Shaun" group.
To unsubscribe from this group and stop receiving emails from it, send an email to the-life-of-shaun+unsubscribe@googlegroups.com.
For more options, visit https://groups.google.com/groups/opt_out.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

[The Life of Shaun #488] The end of the line

Last, but certainly not least, in my whirlwind tour was Kerala.

When I went to India last time, I looked into taking an overnight train for one of the journeys.  India has an extensive train network, with routes crisscrossing the entire subcontinent.  The order of the cities we travelled, however, would have meant an unbearably long ride, though (up to 30 hours), so I stuck to the air.  However, the journey from Chennai to Alleppey crosses the narrower point of the Indian peninsula and allows for a manageable 14-hour ride.

The journey itself neither lived up to any romanticised notion of train travel, nor down to any horror stories.  The quarters were more cramped than I'd supposed, but tamer.  There's not a whole lot to do on the train, especially as there are unspoken rules that, once 10:00pm hits, if someone decides to go to sleep, their "room"-mates do as well.  So I spent some time with an old man and his wife and who I think was their daughter, with her child (sharing one bunk), before the wife decided to turn in.  I got to catch up on The Economist and fell asleep easily to the rocking of the train, and had a pretty good full night's sleep.

Awaiting me at the end of the journey was the highlight of the trip, a boat ride through the backwaters of Kerala.  The backwaters "...are a chain of brackish lagoons and lakes lying parallel to the Arabian Sea coast (known as the Malabar Coast) of Kerala state in southern India. The network includes five large lakes linked by canals, both manmade and natural, fed by 38 rivers, and extending virtually half the length of Kerala state."  The scenery was awesome, just trees, rice paddies, water and people going about their lives.  The surroundings and leisurely pace of the boat lull you immediately into serenity, and the boat itself is a small house, complete with driver and two personal chefs at the ready.  It's not fancy by any means, but totally and completely comfortable and relaxing.  A perfect way to end a holiday.

Unfortunately, it wasn't quite the end - I had a day in Cochin city before heading back to Mumbai and onward to London.  There was a general strike in Kerala that day, so everything was closed.  I did get a few sights in before heading to the airport, but my mind and heart were really still back there on the water.

Till next time, India, namaste.



At Chennai train station, not everyone waits to board to sleep.


My AC sleeper car.  Each cubby on the left of the hall has a set of four beds, two up, two down, and on the right two perpendicular bunks. 


Me waking up in my luxury bunk.


The houseboat!


Living room


Bedroom


And the dining room, upstairs, with delicious South Indian food.


There are a number of houseboats out at any one time, squeezing together where the canals narrow.


And spreading out in the lakes.


Along the canals, you see people going about life, working cooking, cleaning...


...or commuting in paddleboats.  I didn't have my camera to hand at the time, but the best thing I saw on the water was one of these little boats with a mother, father, two kids and a cow.  The cow was just standing there, looking around, completely unconcerned by its circumstances.  It'd obviously made similar journeys many times before.


As it's a living community along the water, the shore is punctuated with restaurants, temples and other services.



Cochin and its environs aren't particularly remarkable - the area really just serves as a port of entry to tourists on their way to more bucolic parts of Kerala - but it does have some pleasant areas.


And also some signs that jar against modern native English-speaking sensibilities.


The city abuts a large port, so traditional wooden boats and fishing nets compete for space with container ships and industrial cranes.


But you are never far from modern urban India and its wonderful sights, such as families riding together on a single motorcycle, including a sleeping toddler.

__________________________________________________________________________

Shaun H. Coley | Shadwell | Tower Hamlets | London E1 | UK | shaunism.blogspot.com
--
--
You received this message because you are subscribed to the "The Life of Shaun" group.
To unsubscribe from this group, send email to The-Life-of-Shaun-unsubscribe@googlegroups.com
For more options, visit this group at http://groups.google.com/group/The-Life-of-Shaun
---
You received this message because you are subscribed to the Google Groups "The Life of Shaun" group.
To unsubscribe from this group and stop receiving emails from it, send an email to the-life-of-shaun+unsubscribe@googlegroups.com.
For more options, visit https://groups.google.com/groups/opt_out.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

[The Life of Shaun #487] Tamil Nadu

The next destination on my Indian tour was Pondicherry, which was the French colony in India.  To get there, I had to fly into Chennai, the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu, and take a bus onward to Pondicherry, so I decided to spend a day in Chennai as well.  Even the most supportive travel guides say there is not much to see in Chennai, so one day was enough.


Chennai is most known for having the longest beach in Asia (and second longest in the world); it runs for 13 kilometres and is around 400 metres wide, separating the city from the Bay of Bengal.  The driver told me that, as we were there on a Wednesday, the beach wasn't very crowded; it's much busier at weekends.


Any water near an urban centre in India is likely polluted, so I limited my seafaring to my feet.



Chennai is pretty much a sprawl of typical urban India (Anyone who's been there will know what I mean - kind of how American cities outside downtowns are all very similar, India has a very uniform urbanity.), but this new government building is breaking that mould.



Tucked inside a city-centre shopping complex is "Snow World".  India, South of the Himalayas, is a very hot country,  Indians will pay to go into a room chilled to -6° and play in "real" snow, ride on a sleigh, and go down ice slides.  At £2, it's a lot cheaper than a trip to Switzerland for a Winter experience.




Pondicherry, affectionately known as "Pondy", was about three hours away by bus.  The outskirts of the city are (again) typical urban India, but the core of the city, the old French colony, is distinctive.  It doesn't feel particularly French, other than the street signs in French as well as Tamil, but it is ordered, clean and colourful.  The fact that I can tell you street signs are in two languages is itself an oddity in India; in most cities, there are few if any street signs, in any language.

The city is seaside and has a promenade along the length of the original colony.  Quite remarkably, it is blocked off to most traffic, so it is a viable public space rather than a congested thoroughfare.  The core, encircled by an oval-shaped ring road, is very walkable, and there are hotels, restaurants, bars and other standard tourist fare throughout.  The pace of the city is noticeably leisurely, and its streets are remarkably free of traffic, a first for me in an Indian city.  The city is quite popular with the bohemian set, possibly owing to its proximity to Auroville, an experimental town of sorts which  "...is meant to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity."  You see a lot of tie-dye and oversize cotton trousers in Pondy.




Typical Pondy street.


The buildings are often painted in vibrant colours, giving the city a bit of a Carribean feel.



Multilingual street sign on another flashy building.



The original French colony was bisected by a canal.  Originally, only the French were allowed to live on the Eastern side, between the canal and the beach.  Indians lived West of the canal.  Since independence in 1963*, the canal has had a hard time of things and is now more a sewer/drainage ditch.

*I was surprised to learn that not all of India became independent when it ceded from Britain in 1947.  French India maintained its interests for another sixteen years.  They don't cover that in "Gandhi".


The small beach and promenade, a storm rolling in behind.



And the storm arrives!

__________________________________________________________________________
Shaun H. Coley | Shadwell | Tower Hamlets | London E1 | UK | shaunism.blogspot.com
--
--
You received this message because you are subscribed to the "The Life of Shaun" group.
To unsubscribe from this group, send email to The-Life-of-Shaun-unsubscribe@googlegroups.com
For more options, visit this group at http://groups.google.com/group/The-Life-of-Shaun
---
You received this message because you are subscribed to the Google Groups "The Life of Shaun" group.
To unsubscribe from this group and stop receiving emails from it, send an email to the-life-of-shaun+unsubscribe@googlegroups.com.
For more options, visit https://groups.google.com/groups/opt_out.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

My Mumbai

Mumbai was my first city in India, and the one that made the greatest impression on me, so I was quite excited to get back.  As soon as I left the plane and felt the warm Mumbai air, and smelled its salty aroma, it felt like all the bad from this year was behind me, worlds away.  It was relieving and comforting, an emotional homecoming.

Last time, when I travelled with Russ and his Mom, we went full Western style, staying at the posh Trident in South Mumbai.  It was great, and the most pampered I've ever been.  I wanted a more authentic (and cheaper) experience this time, so, other than my birthday stay in Chennai, I stayed in "local" hotels.  In Mumbai, I stayed in the Bandra neighbourhood, which is a very popular with Mumbaikars for a night out on the town.  It's a bit away from the city's heart in South Mumbai, which meant I got to go local and commute on Mumbai's famous trains; a 20-minute ride to Churchgate (the terminus in the South) costs 10p.  (Cheap, until I learned a monthly pass is £1.30.)

Mumbai was originally an island city, but the gaps between islands were long ago filled in, creating a long, thin peninsula that the city is squeezed onto.  Since I visited two years ago, Mumbai has grown by about two million people, but the city, constrained by its geography, has gotten no bigger.  Though there are developments akin to Britain's new towns, such as Navi (New) Mumbai across the harbour, most of those people are jostling for space in old Mumbai.  More than half of them find that space in slums.  The result is a relentless crush of humanity; everywhere you go, any time of day or night, there are just so many people competing for space with you.  I knew this from my first visit, but sequestered away in my citadel of a hotel, ferried from sight to sight in a private car, I didn't truly feel it.

Having done the Dharavi "slum tour" and main city sightseeing last time, this trip was more about random exploring, and drinks at The Dome, my favourite spot in the city.  I took the "Mumbai by Night" tour, which was tame and overlapped with what I'd seen before, but it was nice to see the city through a different lens.

It was a great start to my holiday, and I will definitely keep it my port of entry when I go back; this city deserves more exploration.

Cheers,
Shaun



Late-night Mumbai.



Khar Road station, with a familiar design.



Me on a non-peak train.  I was surprised by how wide they were after the tubes we squeeze through in London; they are even wider than New York's.



Even when cars aren't packed, people stand near/at/out the doorless portals, gaining a modicum of relief from the ceaseless heat.



In India, it's perfectly acceptable for same-sex friends to be physically affectionate.  All over the city, you see guys walking holding hands, arms wrapped around each other, or, as above, sleeping on a shoulder.



Mumbaikers make the most of every inch of space.  In this underground footpath, alongside the rivers of people, others are flogging goods from food to clothing on the tables they have set up as a casual marketplace.



I visited Haji Ali Dargah (readers of Shantaram will remember this as the mosque the protagonist lives near), and you cannot have an exposed head in the mosque, so I adorned this very fetching bandana.



Everywhere you go, there are hundreds and hundreds of people.  This is the walk to Haji Ali Dargah.



At the rocky beach behind the mosque, families and friends looking for a place to enjoy the cooling effect of the polluted waters of the Arabian Sea.



The vast majority of Indians work in the informal economy, and people live, work and sleep anywhere they can.



Whole families live, and socialise, on the streets. 



These are some of the slums that make up the homes of more than half the city's people.



And just down the road, is Antilia, the world's most expensive private residence.



Ancient walks side by side with modernity in Mumbai.



Stroking a street cow for good luck.



Tony residences and offices spread back from Marine Drive (aka, The Queen's Necklace), in South Mumbai.



And I enjoyed a snack and cold beer above it all at the Dome.



Girgaum Chowpatty, Mumbai's beach, is always crowded with people.  Lovers sneak there for a kiss away from their crowded homes and nosey neighbours.



Me at Bandra Bandstand, Bollywood's own Walk of the Stars.



And in front of the Sealink, a rare piece of modern infrastructure in the city.


Thursday, November 21, 2013

[The Life of Shaun #485] Dubai

After the horrible start to 2013, I wanted to do something to end the year on a good note.  I decided to go back to India, which had been calling me back ever since enamoring me two years ago.  Again I had a superb time in Incredible India, and rather than sating my fascination with the subcontinent, this trip has only increased my desire to return and see more.  I'll break down my picture posts, for those who are keen, to avoid an inbox flood.

I ended up flying via Dubai.  Upon researching tickets, I discovered that Emirates was significantly cheaper than any other airline, and I've wanted to see Dubai - once - and go up the Burj Khalifa, so I decided to take the opportunity not to have to make a special trip and extended my layover for a day.

I have a bit of a morbid fascination with Dubai as I imagine it a sister city to Las Vegas, an improbable desert city built on hubris, hyperbole and tourist dollars.  Indeed, take away the neon and replace it with oil reserves and the comparison isn't too awry.  Some people might call it impressive, still more garish.  Very few would say it's endearing.  Layer on top of that legal homophobia, and it's certainly not a city for me.  Once was definitely enough.


Looking towards the city from anywhere, the superlative Burj Khalifa is omnipresent.  Almost every tower in Dubai is on or adjacent to Sheikh Zayed Road, creating a singularly highrise spine up the middle of the city.


Lowrise neighbourhoods with unfriendly wide roads, strip malls, apartment blocks and McMansions spread out East and West from Sheikh Zayed Road. 


Like Vegas, Dubai gets wicked hot.  Unlike Vegas, its bus stands are air-conditioned.


The Burj Al Arab, the world's only "seven star hotel" and Dubai's original icon, is still impressive and imposing.  You can't enter the grounds without a room or dinner/drinks/tea reservation, and you can't get one of those without serious damage to your bank account, so I admired it from the outside only.


The Palm Jumeirah is a luxury development on landfill in the shape of a giant palm tree.  I found it much less than chic in person; its monolithic, barren streets gave it more the feel of an Arab council estate than exclusive enclave.


The overground metro and clunky signage don't do anything to help.  


As you get closer to the Burj Khalifa, its striking design and height really become apparent.


And it puts on a good shine in the sun!


However, once you are up on the observation deck on the 124th floor (39 floors below the highest occupied floor), you see how quickly the city gives way to the shifting sands of the desert (and the economy, one could add).


Another luxury development, The World, can be seen off the coast.  The World will be a collection of private islands, reachable only by boat and helicopter.


This is what I look like after an overnight flight and 124 floors up.


I read an article while there where an expat who'd been in Dubai for four years said "I've never spoken to an Emirati.  They pretty much keep to themselves."  I don't know how genuine that is, but there certainly aren't a lot of obvious locals about town, though you do find occasional packs of them (keeping pretty much to themselves).


I preferred "old Dubai", a less refined and shiny area, with hardscrabble buildings, water taxis and souks, where many of the immigrant workers live.


A large portion of the immigrant workforce is South Asian, and like their countrymen back home, they use all available public space, giving the streets of the area a lively, colourful buzz.


Dubai has a small, two-line metro to help its cleaners, cooks, drivers and builders get to work.


Through it all, there were a few lovely sights to be seen!

__________________________________________________________________________

Shaun H. Coley | Shadwell | Tower Hamlets | London E1 | UK | shaunism.blogspot.com
--
--
You received this message because you are subscribed to the "The Life of Shaun" group.
To unsubscribe from this group, send email to The-Life-of-Shaun-unsubscribe@googlegroups.com
For more options, visit this group at http://groups.google.com/group/The-Life-of-Shaun
---
You received this message because you are subscribed to the Google Groups "The Life of Shaun" group.
To unsubscribe from this group and stop receiving emails from it, send an email to the-life-of-shaun+unsubscribe@googlegroups.com.
For more options, visit https://groups.google.com/groups/opt_out.