ALBUM REVIEW: J Cole – KOD (2018)

“Truthfully, J Cole is vanilla ice cream.”

Hip-hop has always had an obsession with rankings. Call it a symptom of competitive masculinity, or of a genre born in poor urban areas that has found itself rising to complete cultural dominance in 2018. Rappers have always gone to great lengths to tell you why they are the number one, or top five, or top ten, and the idea of the ‘king of the game’ is one that has always sparked a great deal of conversation.

I think part of the reason for J Cole’s mysterious popularity is the way he has co-opted this conversation, and through sheer quantity of self-mythology has placed himself at the top of the pile, at least in the eyes of his fans. On Cole’s breakout 2014 Forest Hills Drive, he repeatedly spouted a bizzare rap hierarchy in which he was a god and everyone below him only a king – as if he had ascended to a higher power level in Dragon Ball Z.

But, truthfully, J Cole is vanilla ice cream. He makes relatable, middle of the road rap music that is well produced and appeals to a wide audience, but really lacks any kind of personality or character. If he has one defining trait, it’s his awkwardness – the eye-rolling bars about folding clothes and taxes, where Cole reaches for something deep and introspective but misses the mark completely. Sometimes that awkardness is endearing, like on Forest Hills‘ ‘Wet Dreamz’, but most of the time it’s just clunky.

And so proves to be the case for KOD, an album which isn’t likely to change Cole’s reputation as something of a critical punching bag. It kicks off with a desperately cringey intro, in which a woman’s breathy voiceover tries to set up the albums themes of addiction, telling us that “life can bring much pain…”. It’s ridiculous, and has more than a little whiff of To Pimp a Butterfly to it.

Unfortunately, Cole can’t even come close to Kendrick’s ability to put a conceptual record together. KOD purports to be about addiction, and was released on 4/20 with a particularly psychedelic cover, but in reality only a handful of tracks address the topic. ‘Photograph’ is about having the hots for somebody on Instagram, ‘The Cut Off’ is about fake friends, and ‘BRACKETS’ is about…uh…taxes.

The production is solid, again taking cues from Kendrick with some spacious, modern jazz-rap. And a handful of tracks here contain some sticky if slightly obnoxious hooks, like ‘ATM’ and ‘Kevin’s Heart’. But ultimately what puts me off KOD is the cringe-worthy bars and awkward flows: how Cole rhymes ‘diploma’ with ‘all over’, or how he ends ‘FRIENDS’ by suggesting meditation as an alternative to drug use, probably for the sole reason that it rhymes with ‘medication’.

Nothing about KOD is offensive, really. It has a few good tunes, and Cole’s technical abilities are stronger than most rappers at his level of popularity. But that’s the problem with vanilla ice cream: the fact that it’s inoffensive is exactly the reason I never want to eat it. Now excuse me while I go and enjoy some of Ben & Kenny’s Haagen Baarz.

5.9/10

 

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FILM REVIEW: Ponyo (Miyazaki, 2008)

Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo is a gorgeous elemental fable more explicitly aimed at children than some other Ghibli movies. The animation in this movie is absolutely breathtaking, particularly the underwater scenes where each frame is full of hundreds of colourful flowing fish and lights. I would say this is a close third behind Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away in terms of beautiful visuals, but the pencil-drawn backgrounds really make this film stand out among the Ghibli catalogue.

The scene in which Ponyo escapes her father and rides a tidal wave of colossal golden fish just had my jaw on the floor: this is surely the stuff animators wet dreams are made of. The scope of Miyazaki’s endlessly generous imagination never fails to amaze me, and it’s in full force throughout Ponyo.

The story here is a touching family drama with some splashes of the mystical/supernatural, and is most effective when it keeps its feet on the ground. If I have one slight complaint about this movie, it’s that the epic scope of the ending (‘save the world, restore harmony to nature’) feels a bit forced, and the environmental moral of the story a bit simplistic when compared to classics like Mononoke or Totoro. Oh, and the English voice actress for human Ponyo is pretty annoying. As always, watch in Japanese if you can.

Even despite a couple of minor flaws, Ponyo is a spellbinding watch. I find it hard to believe that this is supposed to be one of Miyazaki’s least acclaimed films, if I’m honest. I keep expecting to find at least one dud in the man’s catalogue as I explore it, but I’m starting to think he might just really be that consistent. Ponyo is a more than worthy addition.

8.4/10

Why Fortnite isn’t an E-sport, and Never Will Be

The Twitch record for concurrent viewers was broken this past weekend, as top Fortnite streamer Ninja hosted Ninja Vegas, a tournament which was watched live by 667,000 people at one and the same time. It’s the first attempt to turn Fortnite, the battle royale free-for-all which is currently the biggest game on the planet, into a competitive spectator sport.

But this event only served to highlight the problems that battle royale games have in transitioning to the huge, stadium-filling spectacles that Counter-Strike, DOTA, and League of Legends have become. We saw it with the invitational Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds tournament last year which failed to take off, and many of the same issues were prevalent here.

First and foremost is simply the format. Battle royale games do not lend well to the kind of tightly controlled play environments that high level e-sports require. They are about bringing order to huge, chaotic maps, with a healthy amount of luck to boot. Often the smartest way to play is the least exciting – that is, crouching in a PUBG bush or camping in a 1×1 Fortnite tower – and that doesn’t bode well for serious competition.

Then there’s the problem of who to watch – with 100 concurrent players, how can you meaningfully invest in any one of them, or allow storylines to grow? The team at Ninja Vegas handled this better than at the PUBG invitational, where large parts of the action were missed by the cameras, spectating somebody running across an empty field while plays were happening elsewhere.

Here, the viewers were watching and rooting for Ninja at all times, while a collection of other prominent Twitch streamers and Youtubers fought alongside him. Anyone who killed Ninja earned $2500, which rolled over to the next game if he survived, and another $2500 was awarded to the winner of each game. This worked reasonably well, but there were still a couple of occasions where Ninja died in the middle part of a match, and we were left watching an unknown player nobody particularly cared for.

Then there was the fact that, because of where monitors were positioned in the arena, some players could clearly see the screen which was broadcasting Ninja’s gameplay feed to the crowd. One particularly hilarious shot caught a player who had just killed Ninja turning to look right at it, betraying the fact that he’d obviously been following it and camping for a chance to earn $2500.

There were also technical issues, which are understandable in a game still in early access, but completely unacceptable if we were to take Fortnite seriously as a sport where huge prize pools of money are on the line. Players (including myself) experienced rage-inducing skipping all weekend, as what appears to be an issue with Epic’s servers would leave them frozen in place for one or two seconds at a time – enough to turn the tide in a frantic shootout.

The introduction of TSM_Myth, Fortnite’s second most popular streamer, was also brought to a hilariously anticlimactic end after a physics glitch sent him flying off the edge of a mountain, where he abruptly fell to his death. And players also reported sound issues, with opponent sounding as if they were above rather than below them – probably more an issue with the venue’s setup than the game itself.

‘More carnival than competition’

None of this is to detract from Fortnite, or to suggest the event was poorly run. The production was high quality, the casting was very good and the whole thing ran very smoothly, bar a couple of awkward interviews and transitions. The issue is just with battle royale games in general, and the way organisers have attempted to fit their sudden and explosive popularity within the confines of existing e-sports formats.

There are other ways it could be done – perhaps we’re heading towards a sci-fi future where viewers will watch 100-strong battle royale leagues inside an Oculus Rift, flipping between different gameplay feeds at will while listening to dynamic commentary that somehow makes sense of it all. But the technical challenges of pulling something like this off would be enormous, and I wonder if the battle royale genre has the longevity for it.

Fortnite certainly has a high enough skill ceiling to support competitive play, and its building mechanics have helped to make the battle royale less defensive, and more exciting to watch. But Ninja Vegas was more compelling as a carnival than as competition, whether it was the pon-pon dancing, the look on Ninja’s wife’s face when he almost said ‘fucking’ in an interview, or the kid who gave him a hug on stage while wearing matching Lil Xan hoodies with his mum. A ten year old in a hoodie that had actual fucking Xanax pills on the back! Did she not Google that shit???

I’d love to be proven wrong, but I just don’t think Fortnite will ever work as an e-sport. This is a game that is best played socially, in a team of friends or broadcasting via a Twitch stream. It’s chaotic and silly nature is precisely the reason for its enormous popularity in an age of memeable Facebook clips and oddshots, but is counterintuitive to both playing and watching the game at the highest level.

Still, that same popularity has the potential to push Fortnite forward as an entirely new kind of viewing experience. Battle royale games are still in their infancy, and as they grow they could become an ever bigger buzzword than e-sports has been for the past decade in the games industry. Only time will tell, but one thing is certain – in the free-for-all that the battle royale genre itself is currently conducting, Fortnite is definitely winning.

The City with Two Faces – My North Indian Adventure, Part 3

In the centre of Akshardham, an enormous temple and cultural complex in Delhi, is an eleven foot tall, solid gold statue of revered Hindu teacher Swaminarayan, set on a diamond-white plinth. Behind, around and above him, the walls are completely lined in jewels of every colour imaginable, gleaming gold silver pink blue as the sun filters in through the high ceiling. On the outer walls of the temple, impossibly intricate carvings and statues line every inch of free space, with so much detail you can see each deity’s fingernails.

It’s an awe-inspiring sight, and one that set the precedent for the last stop on my Indian adventure: a week in the nation’s capital. I arrived into Delhi after a comparatively short train journey of just a few hours, which was uneventful except for the discovery of a small mouse living underneath my train bunk. After an evening planning my week’s itinerary and transitioning into full tourist mode, I set off the next morning on the metro and arrived at Akshardham.

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As I walked through the shrine doors, the entire room felt infused with spirituality in a way few places I’ve ever visited have. There was a palpable sense of wonder and reverence which, even as an atheist, I felt strongly as I walked around. Although I don’t subscribe to any religious views, the beauty and intricacy of Akshardham was a reminder of just how important a role religion still plays around the world, and how strong is the faith that inspired it.

The more I explored India, the more it seemed the only place that could have given birth to a body of mythology like Hinduism. The chaotic streets, the speed and colour of life…it all reflects, and is reflected in, the seemingly endless array of gods, deities and stories. And Hindu gods are fascinating: flawed and complex, creating and destroying at one and the same time, giving in to temptation and displaying actual emotions. I was glad to have the opportunity to learn about these things as I walked around the peaceful halls of Akshardham.

Yes, this picture has been Insta-fied

Unfortunately, my visit to the Lotus Temple the next day was considerably less peaceful. The building itself is stunning, both from the inside and out, and I managed to catch it at a picturesque moment of sunset. But almost the entirety of my visit was spent in long, single-file queues, cooking alive in the last of the afternoon heat. It took close to an hour to get inside, and when I finally did I was so annoyed at being jostled by tourists and herded like cattle that I found it impossible to be even slightly thoughtful or spiritual, and didn’t stay for long. As I left, I put on some angry hardcore punk music to channel my frustration at shitty crowds.

 

“I felt like Nathan Drake in Uncharted

On my third day I went to explore the Qutub Minar and surrounding ruins. This is the largest minaret (tower, like those in each corner of the Taj Mahal) in India – 73 metres tall and 1000 years old. The tower itself is immaculately preserved and so huge that you can’t even see the top when you look up from the base. As I wandered around the sun-baked gardens and crumbling relics of ancient civilizations, I felt more than a little bit like Nathan Drake in Uncharted, and was half hoping to discover a secret lever which would lead to a cryptic puzzle and some buried treasure.

The Qutub Minar

I’m sad to report that I didn’t find any secret treasure, but I did manage to catch a cold. A cold, of all things, in Delhi! It flattened me for a whole day with a terrible headache, blocked sinuses, a chesty cough and a very sore throat, which I suspect was caused by air pollution. I decided I needed a break from tombs, temples and the sun, and spent my next day paying a visit to the National Museum of Delhi and the National Gallery of Modern Art, where there was (at last!) air-conditioning and the sweet sound of silence.

Here I learned more about the artists who made the first visual representations of Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma, essentially creating the long-haired, blue-skinned image of divinity that has become the standard today. And I was amazed by the Tanjore and Mysore paintings, which use real gold, silver foil, beads and powdered metals mixed with paint to create bright, jewel-like colours. In the National Gallery was a huge variety of incredible modern art, with bits of cubism, Japanese art, twisted sculptures and abstract expressionism.

Tanjore & Mysore Painting

 

The City’s Second Face

Up until this point I had only been exploring New Delhi, given that my hostel was based quite far in the south of the city. Of course, ‘New’ is relative: even here there are hundreds of ancient tombs and temples, so frequent that you could run into one just walking down any random street. But these sites are in the middle of carefully manicured parks, or between wide highways, or just around the corner from huge malls full of Western brands. The conquest of capitalism, which is still in progress around most of India, feels almost complete in New Delhi.

Old Delhi, as I discovered on my last day in the country, is almost entirely untouched. When I got off the metro in Chandni Chowk, just a handful of stops on from the central plaza of Connaught Place, I felt like I’d gotten off in a different city. The roads are narrow and dusty, the brands replaced with local businesses, the cars replaced by opportunistic tuk tuk drivers all quoting me prices for a lift to the spice markets and Jama Masjid.

The ruins around the Qutub Minar

I turned them all down, as I wanted to wander the streets on foot and see it for myself. I made my way down the main road and towards the Red Fort, another of Old Delhi’s main tourist attractions. Unfortunately, I found the Red Fort pretty disappointing after seeing the Agra Fort: it was much smaller, and large parts of it were either fenced off for repair work or covered in ugly scaffolding. There were officials in fluorescent jackets everywhere, and they obviously took great pleasure in blowing their whistles at tourists, exercising some tiny modicum of power in their boring jobs.

As in the Lotus Temple, being told where to go when all I wanted to do was explore annoyed me quite a bit, so I decided to scrap the rest of my sightseeing plans for the day and just get lost walking around the markets of Old Delhi. I was glad I did: once I stopped looking for tourist attractions and things to do, I felt like I saw a more authentic side to the city.

The markets of Old Delhi

The narrow, maze-like market streets were bustling with life in every inch of space. Vendors were shouting, gesturing and spitting, sitting hunched over circuitboards and tiny batteries in phone repair shops, frying parathas in sizzling pans of oil beneath colourful strings of packaged tobacco. Rumbling motorcycles were careening wildly around people and potholes and dangling wires, while brightly coloured storefronts shouted KAPOOR JEWELLERY AND KRISHNA SECURITY SYSTEMS. Turning a corner, I stumbled into a large open area where hundreds of expensive TVs and radios were stacked on top of each other, all for sale. And then around the next corner a scene of pure chaos as traffic came to a complete standstill in the most narrow road I’d ever seen, and people dogs cows tried to weave their way through the cars.

This was amazing.

I had lunch in a local restaurant, paying just 100 rupees (about £1) for some of the best food I had in the country, before eventually arriving at the entrance to the Jama Masjid, one of India’s largest mosques. I took off my shoes and walked barefoot into the sandstone courtyard, then sat down cross-legged in the shadow of the mosque, listening to Ravi Shankar’s ‘A Morning/Evening Raga’ for an entire hour.

 

The End of a Journey

In the shadow of the Jama Masjid

Watching the setting sun and the flocks of birds and the Muslim families eating picnics while their children ran around playing tag, I had another moment of international freedom – a slightly out of body, how-did-I-get-here feeling, but mixed with a sensation of total independence and self-reliance. I was sad that my journey through India was coming to an end, but as it did I felt a newfound desire to explore the world, and a confidence in my ability to meet the challenges of travelling.

That day was my last in Delhi: a fascinating city with two faces, one Old and one New, where the convergence of history and modernity is more pronounced than anywhere else I’ve ever visited. And it was also the end of my six week adventure in India, as I packed my bags and got myself ready for the long flight back to London Gatwick. There are many places I still want to travel to – Japan, Canada, South America, Germany – and I hope I can continue to share some stories from future travels with everyone who reads this blog. But for now it was back to the UK, where I got off my plane into driving rain and a snowstorm.

I guess some things never change.

Sex Scenes, Guns, and the Taj Mahal at Sunrise – My North Indian Adventure, Part 2

“Selfie? Selfie?”

Throughout my six weeks in India, I was asked this question more times than I could count. Usually while visiting tourist attractions, but sometimes even in supermarkets or simply walking down the street – complete strangers would stop and ask to take a photo with me. The first time it happened I was walking around Calcutta’s Victoria Memorial, and I was more confused than anything else. I accepted and posed for an awkward photo, only because I couldn’t think of a good reason to politely say no on the spot.

By the second and third time, I stopped caring about being polite and got into the habit of quickly declining anyone who approached me for a picture. If people thought I was being rude, it didn’t bother me: in my eyes, asking a total stranger for a photograph just because they look different is far ruder. In front of the Qutub Minar, I even asked one man why he wanted to take a picture of me just because I was white and bald, when there was a 1000-year old, 73 metre-tall monument behind him. He skulked off awkwardly, not sure how to reply.

I bring this up now because the first thing that happened when I boarded my train from Lucknow to Agra was – you guessed it – my seat neighbour asked me for a selfie. Given that I was about to spend nine hours sitting next to the guy, I decided to swallow my pride and do it, if only to avoid making things unbearably awkward.

As it turns out, the man (whose name I have unfortunately forgotten) was a father of three and on the train with him was his entire family, grandma included, making their way to Firozabad outside Agra. His youngest daughter, no older than five and absolutely adorable, introduced herself to me in very shy English as Minal, after a bit of encouragement from her dad. And when I opened up Midnight’s Children again, she was sat reading it over my shoulder, trying to make sense of the English words.

“A pair of barely concealed royal boobies”

Later, I was watching an episode of The Crown on Netflix when I realized the dad was also watching it from the seat next to me, so I gave him one of my headphones. To my infinite horror, almost as soon as I did this a sex scene started playing, and I found myself holding up my phone for a stranger on a train to watch a pair of barely concealed royal boobies. I was just about ready to die of embarrassment, but he broke the tension by laughing and then nudging me in the side, raising his eyebrows suggestively.

I couldn’t help but find it hilarious then, and I ended up having a nice conversation with the man and his family afterwards. It was the kind of brief but memorable encounter that travelling is all about, when people whose paths would never otherwise have crossed get to meet and briefly catch a glimpse of each other’s lives. I regretted not asking them in turn for a picture, because that, to me, is what photos are for: capturing a shared moment with somebody you want to remember. Not collecting trophies of weird-looking foreigners.

The family got off in Firozabad and I continued on to Agra. My seat was a window seat, and I was pleased to discover that Indian train windows open right up, meaning you can shove your head all the way out of them and feel the wind rushing into your face while staring up at the stars. I passed the final leg of the journey in this way, and arrived into Agra, peacefully tired, at two in the morning.

Geometric Gardens & Exotic Birds

My hostel was called Zostel, a lovely place with a very relaxed atmosphere that was just five minutes away from the Taj Mahal. I spent the whole next day lounging in bed, recovering from my long journey while soaking up the sun. And I met two very friendly guys sharing my room, Ricardo and Jim, who also had plans to visit the Taj the next day.

The gates opened at 6am.

The following morning Jim, Ricardo and I woke up at 5:30am to see India’s most unmissable tourist attraction at sunrise. Few places in the entire world attract so many travellers, or have so much hype behind them, but the Taj Mahal easily lived up to, in fact surpassed, all my expectations. It was an incredible experience which I won’t ever forget.

LOOK EVERYONE I WAS REALLY THERE!!!

The moment you step through the enormous gate is enchanting: the building’s architects repeated the same dome shape throughout the entire complex, so the main structure is perfectly silhouetted through the doors as you approach. And then you come out into the courtyard, where the geometric gardens stretch off into the distance, and exotic birds fly overhead.

The pale blue light of morning shrouded the Taj in a misty, mystical cloak, and as the sun came up onto its east side, the white marble turned a gentle shade of dawn-yellow. The scale of it is just unfathomable, and until you get right up close it’s hard to comprehend just how much of an achievement its construction was, and how well preserved it still is today.

“There were people photographing bushes”

But what fascinated me just as much as the Taj itself were the people visiting it. Something about the building inspires a unique kind of tourism, one where people seem compelled to photograph absolutely every single moment of their once in a lifetime experience. There were people photographing bushes, and I noticed that whenever someone in the front of a group would stop and take a picture, everyone else in their group would suddenly scramble to take their own, as if they were terrified they would miss the perfect angle.

I think the reason for this bizarre behaviour is that, in 2018, we all feel so much pressure from social media to turn our lives into stories, and everyone who visits the Taj Mahal senses that it is an important chapter of that story. You have to tell it perfectly – whether it’s the sexy backpacker girls all practising the same pensive Facebook profile pic pose, or the guy trying to perfectly time his kooky mid-air jump picture.

For my part, I was trying to appreciate the moment as much as possible while I was in it, rather than recording every second of it through a phone screen. I think it’s important, in the twenty-first century, that travelling doesn’t just become a social media slideshow. But I can’t pretend I didn’t get some snaps of my own, so maybe I’m just a huge hypocrite.

Israeli Potheads vs Monkeys

After the Taj, we found a rooftop cafe where we ordered some sandwiches and tea. But when the waiter came to deliver our food, he also gave us something which none of us had ordered: a gun. Answering our baffled looks, he explained it was an airgun to defend our food from monkeys, who had been known to sneak up and steal people’s bacon butties while they weren’t looking. There was nothing inside, it just made a loud noise to scare them away.

Gap year or russian roulette??? You decide

We were joined on the roof by a group of Israeli backpackers who were about to visit the Taj, and swapped some stories about where we’d travelled to and what to see in Agra. As we were talking, two of them casually pulled joints out of their pockets and lit them. I didn’t expect to find myself shooting at monkeys on a roof in the company of Israeli potheads, but life is like that sometimes.

Exploring An Ancient World

Agra Fort, where we headed next, was just as impressive to me as the Taj. The whole complex felt infused with history as we walked around it: in enormous courtyards there are lavishly decorated pulpits where I imagined ancient kings making oaths of war and peace, and in lavishly decorated palaces full of mirrors, plaques told stories from another time.

The entrance to Agra Fort

There was the king who built a solid gold chain from his chambers to the entrance of the fort, which his subjects would shake if they mistreated. And then there was my favourite – the Musamman Burj, an octagonal marble temple at the top of a tower inlaid with precious stones. Shah Jahan built this temple for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, much like the Taj, and the two of them used it to worship the sun every morning. With a twist of the most beautifully cruel poetic irony, Shah Jahan’s own son Jahangir exiled him into this temple when he seized power from his aging father, locking him away with one of his daughters, who cared for him until he died.

Musamman Burj

There were countless stories like this inside the Agra Fort, and exploring it really did feel like walking through an ancient world. The Fort and the Taj are probably the two most impressive tourist attractions I’ve ever visited, and my day exploring them both was one of the most memorable I had in India. After it was over, I retreated to the hostel and zonked out for the remainder of my short time in Agra. The next and last stop on my journey to the north of India: Delhi!

Transcendental Happiness and Roundabout Cows: My North Indian Adventure, Part 1

25 hours on the train. That’s how long it took me to get from KOAA station in Calcutta to Lucknow Junction, where I was making the first pit stop of my two week journey into the North of India. It was a bittersweet goodbye, having spent four fantastic weeks in the city completing my internship with The Daily Telegraph, and making some good friends along the way. But the adventure was not over yet, and I boarded the second-class sleeper train that was dropping me off in Lucknow, before I continued onwards to Agra and New Delhi.

I had expected train travel in India to be stressful, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Upon arriving at the station almost three hours early, I found all the information I could have needed clearly signed in English, Hindi and Bengali, with my train arriving in plenty of time. Once I found my seat, I was delighted to discover that, at least for the first part of the trip, I had an entire four-person carriage to myself.

I took off my shoes and sat cross-legged on the bottom bunk, munching on a big can of Pringles and listening to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, while staring out the window at the passing Bengali countryside. The album’s title track offered me up a moment of transcendental happiness when Van sang the words: ‘I’m nothing but a stranger in this world / I got a home on high / So far away / Way up in the heaven…’

I watched farmers herding bulls and goats along shallow seed-ponds and paths cut into the bushes. I saw colourful villages where houses were painted bright pink and yellow, and lakes just beyond the village where people were bathing in the morning sun. And I saw, for the first time in a month, a sky that was actually blue, unlike the sickly grey, translucent smog of Calcutta. It filled me with a sensation of complete and utter freedom.

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This is what ‘complete and utter freedom’ looks like.

“We never got lost, and nobody got maced.”

I know, of course, that it’s easy to idealize rural life when you’re a stranger catching a brief glimpse through a train window. I’m all too aware that poverty is as much a problem in these small villages as it is in Calcutta: the Indian government has failed to deliver on promises it made before the 2014 election about fair rates for farmers, and conditions in many areas are bleak. The unpleasant influence of industrialization, too, is as visible here as it is in the city.

Outside the towns and villages are small-scale factories and steel plants where spires of gas spew out pollution, looking like stubby fag-ends that have been shoved into the earth bottom down. Something about this kind of homemade pollution was more distressing to me than seeing an enormous industrial complex, and I couldn’t help but feel a little pang of guilt on behalf of the planet – the same kind of complicity I felt every time I got stuck in one of Calcutta’s noxious, gas-guzzling traffic jams at 1pm on a weekday.

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The train toilet. NO THANKS

I turned away from the window once my carriage filled up, retreating to my top bunk and getting lost in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, before settling down with a blanket and trying to get some sleep. The train bunks were surprisingly comfortable, although my long legs poked out over the end and kept brushing the heads of people who passed our carriage through the curtain.

In the morning, I had a conversation with a doctor who was also getting off in Lucknow, and was curious to know what I was doing on the train. I ate a very, very spicy breakfast. And then, finally, we arrived. 25 hours is one of the longest single journeys I’ve ever taken – second only to flying from London to Melbourne – but the journey was comfortable every step of the way. If I was expecting something more chaotic, it’s probably only because I watched Wes Anderson’s Darjeeling Limited before travelling to India. But we never got lost, nobody got maced, and we touched down in Lucknow at around 11 O’clock.

The worst hotel room I’ve ever stayed in…

The first thing that struck me about Lucknow was bikes. Bikes and cows. On the city’s narrow, dusty roads were roughly sixty percent motorbikes, thirty percent cars and ten percent cows. That figure is no exaggeration: for every ten vehicles I spotted at least one cow, poking around in the dirt or chewing on some stray weeds. At one point, I was flabbergasted to spot five cows sitting right in the middle of a roundabout, while queues of usually impatient taxi drivers slowed to a crawl to accommodate the holy animals.

Unfortunately, ‘holy’ is not the word I would use to describe my hotel room, unless it was in the phrase: ‘holy shit, this is the worst hotel room I’ve ever stayed in’. The Hotel Rana International was a budget venue that looked passable for a couple of nights on bookings.com, but in reality it was a complete dump.

The walls were mouldy white with stains on them and no windows, and the connected bathroom had no ventilation so the room was perpetually muggy and smelled like damp. The shower didn’t work, so I had to clean myself with a measuring jug and a bucket. They didn’t provide toilet paper, or soap. And the TV, when I tried it, made a hilariously broken buzzing noise until I turned it off, at which point it never came back on again.

…And one of the best meals of my life

I was hungry after my long journey, but a quick trip to the local supermarket was a disappointment. ‘Supermarket’ might be a bit too grand a term for a grocery shop the size of my hotel room which didn’t even sell bread – not something I had ever seen before. It meant I had no choice but to live off snacks, and my diet for three days consisted of jam on muffins for breakfast, and oreos with crisps for lunch. In other words – a nice and healthy, balanced diet.

Dastarkhwan the  Mughlai delight. Lalbagh ,Lucknow
A hidden gem.

Thankfully, I was able to have dinner in the restaurant which was twenty seconds away from my hotel’s front entrance. Dastarkhwan Lalbagh was a little hidden gem that served traditional Mughal cuisine, and the food here was the best I had in India, without doubt. It was so good the first night I had to come back the next, and on this occasion ordered a plate of grilled Afghan chicken with zeera rice that was so delicious it made me want to cry. On the side, too, was the most perfectly crispy  ‘Muglai Nan’ topped with pineapple and pomegranate – far and away the best naan bread I’ve ever eaten.

It was enough food to feed three small people, but I sat and chomped my way through the whole thing solo, blissfully ignorant of the locals’ curious stares while I ascended to the astral plane of spice. This meal alone was enough to justify my terrible choice in accommodation – if I hadn’t stayed at the Hotel Rana I definitely wouldn’t have eaten at Dastarkhwan Lalbagh, and I’d have missed out on one of the best meals of my life.

“How the fuck did I get here?”

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The next day, I went for a wander in the streets of Lucknow. On a second impression, I discovered that bikes really were everywhere – some side streets were so narrow they contained almost no cars at all, just wave upon wave of motorbikes and scooters. And when I rounded the corner, I stumbled across an amazing sight.

A road in which both sides of the pavement were lined with hundreds upon hundreds of bikes, both broken down rust-buckets and gleaming new machines alike. Dusty signs hung above repair shops where groups of men sat banging at pieces of metal with hammers, or fiddling with screwdrivers. And store fronts closer to the road made makeshift walls out of tyres, stacked in three metre-high piles, while vendors holding shiny new engines and spare parts shouted prices at passers-by.

As I stood at a four-way intersection, trying to cross a dizzying rush of traffic moving in all directions, I felt infused again with the brilliant madness of India and had a slightly out of body travel moment. I looked around and asked myself: “how the fuck did I get here?”

That evening was my last in Lucknow, and after another trip to Dastarkhwan Lalbagh I waddled back to my hotel, where I made one last little discovery. The stairs leading up from my floor didn’t lead to another set of rooms, but straight out onto the roof of the building. Here, I could stand and watch the cars passing under streetlights, and look out over the distant skyline of Lucknow. It was a peaceful conclusion to my trip through a very chaotic city, even if I did get eaten alive by mosquitos.

The adventure continues!

The next day, I packed my bags and got out of my terrible hotel room as early as I possibly could, catching a taxi to Lucknow station. The next stop on my two-week adventure was Agra, where I was staying in a hostel five minutes away from the Taj Mahal. But if you want to hear about that you’ll have to tune in to the next part of this post, coming in a few days time. Thanks for reading!

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The sun sets over Lucknow Junction.