Category Archives: India

a final farewell to the land of chaos and charm

The Black Hole of Calcutta

Kolkata street sceneI have been praising the efficiency of the Indian rail system to several people over the last month, every train I have caught in the four months I’ve been here has left on time and arrived on time, if not early. I should have known better. My journey from Varanasi to Kolkata should have taken a mere 14 hours, arriving at the crack of dawn. It was almost two hours late arriving in Varanasi, which was fine by me as I figured it would be nicer to arrive in the city at 8.30am rather than 6! In my hurry to get a cycle rickshaw from the guest house, I forgot to ask them to pack me some food. No worries, I thought, a pack of crisps and chocolate chip cookies and two oranges will do me just fine until I get breakfast in Kolkata. Little did I know that a shooting by police of political protesters in West Bengal had caused the political party to call for a shut down of local trains, taxis, buses, shops and services in the city. My train was therefore delayed by, get this, 13 hours. It just sat at one station for 4 hours and another for about 6, unmoving and stationary. And there were no chai men. Just when I Shoe Shine Kolkataneed India’s no. 1 liquid refreshment of choice, it is cruelly taken away. No chai men, nobody selling samosas, pani puri or anything. In 24 hours I had a packet of magic masala crisps, eight chocolate chip cookies, two pip filled oranges, a packet of bombay mix and four of the world’s smallest bananas. I read through both my books, the Times of India twice and listened to the Tenacious D soundtrack about five times to try and keep myself sane. I finally arrived at Howrah station at 7pm, hot, sweaty, with badger breath that could have stopped a charging buffalo, and in a filthy temper. The prepaid taxi booths were staffed but, due to the strike, apparently not operating. I asked them if they could just tell me how much a taxi would be into town. They refused, meanwhile I have three taxi-wallahs all yelling in my ear. At this point I snapped and wheeling round yelled at the nearest one.

“I have just been sitting on an over-heated train for the last 26 hours, most of it not moving due to reasons I cannot understand and now you are trying to screw me just because you think I have ATM tattooed on my forehead. I DO NOT NEED THIS RIGHT NOW!

“Okay Madam, no problem, 200 rupees.”

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

At this point a French Canadian couple appeared and saved me from committing taxi wallah-homicide on my final days in India, and took me off in their taxi. I checked into my room, went out, got a take-away chicken burger and sat on my bed watching ‘Home Alone’ on Star Movies and finally relaxed. India, it seemed, wanted to give me one final reminder of her fickleness!

Victoria MonumentToday I have walked and walked all around Chowringee and BBD Bagh areas of Kolkata. It’s a fascinating city, from the gardens along the river, the beautiful Victoria Memorial, back streets with pavements crowded with shoe-shiners, vegetable stands, beggars and food stalls to huge crumbling relics of the British rule. The streets are clogged with yellow taxis, white ambassadors and local cars, and despite the notable absence of motorbikes, bicycles and rickshaws on the main roads, every driver sits on their horns the entire time and the city seems to reverberate with the sounds of honking from morning until night. By five I was exhausted and collapsed into the one beacon of salvation in any large Indian city, a My dirrrty Kolkata feet!BaristMy feet after a good scruba coffee house, where I proceeded to order a cookies and cream iced coffee and a blueberry muffin and settled down to read, shielded from the noise and the dirt. When I got back to my hotel I was horrified by the sight of my feet, so much so that I had to take the included before and after photos to show what seven hours of walking through Kolkata will do!

The ending of an unexpected love affair
Well it’s finally time to say goodbye to India and despite a few sense of humour failures and frustrations, I am really going to miss this country. It was the one place I never originally intended visiting, the one place I have spent the longest and, in many ways, have been most surprised to enjoy.

Train kidsThere are so many beautiful and fascinating places, from the deserts of Rajasthan, the beaches of Goa to the hills and snow of Himachal Pradesh. I’m going to miss the noise, the sounds of the mosques, the chai sellers with their long drawn out wails of Chaaaiii on the trains at 5am, people yelling “Hello, Madam” everywhere I go and telling me for the thousandth time that I look Indian. Note, they don’t think I’m Indian, just that I look it! The music from the lilting classical sounds of the sitar to the full bodied catchy Bollywood film soundtracks. The food, masala dosas, chickpea curries, pani puri, thik aloo, fat butter naan and Old Monk rum. The colours on everything from the bangles, the saris, the decorated trucks with their HORN PLEASE signs of the back, the pimped up rickshaws with boom boxes in the back and the piles of puja powder in the markets. The endless amusements and frustrations, the triumph when you finally figure out the train system, how to ship home a parcel sewn up in white cloth with red wax sealing on the seams, or finally get a rickshaw wallah to take you on the meter. Streets of VaranasiThe people who, when they’re not trying to rip you off, can be lovely and entertaining and nearly always want to chat, find out where you’re from, your job, marriage status and why on earth you are travelling alone! And the smells which range from everything to the sewer stench of shit of the railtracks at dawn, to sandalwood incense smouldering in the temples. It’s a crazy country full of more contrasts than I have ever seen before in my life, whether it’s the makeshift tent slums in front of huge new apartment blocks or street kids begging for money outside expensive restaurants where the middle class spend their evenings; the religions that permeate every aspect of life and the Sadhus, holy Hindu men with their long beards and yellow outfits who come up to perform a puja and bless you, right before charging you 100 rupees for the privilege. This is the only place I’ve ever been where you will find monkeys Monks in Sarnathrunning along the electricity wires over the train station, buffaloes by the bathing ghats, and cows dominating the rights of way on the roads and where you are equally likely to find human shit as cow shit on the sides of the pavement. A country where on the same street you can get run over by a car, a motorbike, a tuk-tuk, a rickshaw, a cow, a herd of buffalos, a crazy goat, a bus, a truck, a tram, or simply a guy walking along carrying a fourteen foot column of steel on his head.  A place where you can find Sikhs, Jains, Parsis, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddists and Christians all living in the same cities, albeit not always peacefully, where mosques , churches and temples stand only streets apart and where the symbol of a country that is 82% Hindu (four outward-looking lions) is actually the figurehead from a Buddist stupa.

Goats in McLeod GanjWell, providing India doesn’t have one more bug in the bag for me tomorrow morning, I have managed to survive four months, and the last one with barely anything to drink. Although I’m sad to be leaving, I’m looking forward to being able to show my legs again in public without feeling like a prostitute and hopefully I’m going to a country where looking out of the train window of an early morning doesn’t involve watching a whole community plopping out turds along the rails. There are some things I will miss dearly about India, but that is not one of them! Namaste!

the India effect

Before I left on this trip, after four and a half years of living in London and working for L’Oréal, I had definitely begun to enjoy a certain quality of lifestyle: eating in smart restaurants, staying in five star hotels and drinking expensive cocktails in swanky bars. Now backpacking, and on a budget, it’s amazing how much my expectations have changed. These days I get excited if my guest house bathroom is tiled, if the sheets actually look clean enough to sleep on, rather than in my sleeping bag liner, and if I actually get given my own towel and a bar of soap I am over the moon!

This was brought home to me quite vividly today. Having decided to take a final stroll along the ghats before my afternoon train to Kolkata, I popped into a calm little terrace restaurant called the Lotus Lounge for lunch. I ordered a walnut and mushroom salad, intrigued by the promise of lettuce which is something that never seems to be on the menus in India Halfway through eating the salad, which was delicious, I came across a tiny translucent maggot-like bug tucked away under a piece of lettuce. I picked it up on the prong of my fork, deposited it onto the table, and continued munching away quite happily. It was only a few minutes later when I suddenly thought, maybe I should have stopped eating or complained. I shrugged and finished the salad. Clearly I have been in India far too long!

the monkey watch

My bathroom bothering monkeysAfter four months in India I am well used to the constant staring from Indian men, women, small children and the odd cow, all fine. Things have gone too far, however, when the monkeys start getting voyeuristic too. I arrived in Varanasi after a supremely leisurely train journey from Jhansi. We had an hour delay outside a tiny station half way through the morning. No problem, within ten minutes the chai men had come rushing over to the open carriage doors. Actually I think I’m developing a kind of Pavlovian response. Everytime I hear the long wail of “chaaaiiiii” my mouth starts to water and I have an urgent desire for a hot, spicy, sugary drink. Strange. We eventually got to Varanasi and I rang the guest house who dispatched someone to pick me up and bring me over in a rickshaw, now this is service. My room is on the top, the 6th floor. I hauled my ever-increasing rucksack up the flights of steep steps and collapsed onto the bed, then decided to go and take a shower. As my window overlooked the ghats from very high up I’d opened the curtains to let the sun in. So out I walk from the bathroom, naked, and still slightly wet, to see a rather large monkey sat outside my window regarding me with some interest. I was rather startled and then rather embarrassed to be caught in the buff by a monkey. Hindu Graffiti on the ghatsI hurriedly drew the curtains and quickly got dressed. A few hours later after a huge lunch on the restaurant terrace and an interesting sunset boat ride along the Ganges I popped back to my room before dinner and walked into the bathroom. Now there is an alcove into the wall from the outside that has only a wire mesh in front of it, right above my toilet. In this alcove were huddled two female monkeys and a baby who didn’t react particularly well to being disturbed.  I was considering backing out and leaving them in peace when I remembered this was my bathroom in my room and I had paid to stay there and I was dammed if a couple of monkeys were going to take over. I proceeded to clap my hands loudly to scare them off. They sat there. I shouted. They continued to sit. I swore…loudly and still they didn’t budge. Oh well, nothing else for it. I dropped my trousers and plonked myself defiantly onto the toilet seat trying to ignore them. When I got up afterwards the two adults had their mouths hanging open in what I would swear was an expression of disgust. Sod ‘em, it’s my bloody bathroom!

Sunrise on the GangesVaranasi is probably the smelliest, dirtiest and most fascinating place I’ve been yet in India. Despite my monkey problems I slept well and got up at the ungodly hour of 5.30am for a morning boat ride (free from the guest house) along the ghats. The riverside disappeared into the early morning mist and pollution in the distance and as the sun began to rise over the horizon the smattering of clouds turned from grey to gold as dozens of boats rowed slowly up and down the length of the city. A few early morning bathers were already stripping down to the rather poesy cloth pants the men wear here, and dousing themselves in India’s dirtiest river. Thirty sewers pump raw waste into this river, it may be good for your karma in the next life but it’s not going to do your health any favours in this one! Coming back up the river we passed by the main burning ghat where everyday up to 200 people are cremated. Head shavingHuge piles of sandalwood lie stacked up around the area and grey flakes of ash and smoke fill the air. Bodies were being carried down from the streets on bamboo  stretchers covered in glittering cloths. The bodies are lifted out in their white shrouds and placed upon the piles of gathered wood, carefully weighed to determine the cost and the right amount to fully consume the body. The flames burn for three hours after which the ashed are gathered into urns and the relatives, dressed in white cloth, the men with shaven heads bar a small tuft of hair, scatter the remains into the river. It’s fascinating to watch but rather macabre.

Buffalo stares in VaranasiToday I’ve spent most of the day just wandering up and down the length of the ghats, sitting and people watching. Well I say people watching, there are also goats, buffalo, cows, dogs, cats, monkeys, hawks, pigeons and the odd ferret running around. The whole length of the city is like a bizarre mix between a religious site, a open farmyard, a bazaar and a riverside promenade. There are groups of boys playing cricket, huddles of men bent absorbed over a game of cards, bathers in the river, women washing clothes while their half naked kids run around the steps, Boats on the Gangesbuffalos being herded down to graze the rubbish strewn grass, fishermen, holy Hindu men with their long beards and orange robes gazing thoughtfully over the river, jewellery sellers, head shavers, boot polishers, boatmen, flute sellers, tourists, locals, firewood carriers, beggars and loiterers. You could sit and watch the whole spectrum of Indian life go by for hours.

before sunrise

The Magic of the Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal before sunsetI feel as if I’ve had India overload in the past three days, both in terms of the good, the bad and the ugly, but definitely more of the good. Emily, Melissa and I had a winding overnight bus ride down from the cold hills of McLeod Ganj down to Delhi where we arrived somewhere in the middle of North Delhi at about 7.30am and had to get a very overpriced taxi down to the station in the south. Here we squeezed into a crowded second class carriage for the three hour journey down to Agra where I was finally going to see the jewel in the Indian tourism scene, the Taj Mahal. Agra is definitely not the dump that people make it out to be, really it isn’t that bad. By 1pm we were sitting pretty in a rooftop cafe voraciously eating lunch with the Taj Mahal peaking up in the background. That evening while a still poorly Melissa was taking a nap, Emily and I caught a rickshaw around to the far side of the river where there was a wonderful panoramic view of the Taj and her flanking red sandstone mosques reflected in the low lying river. The sun was setting further upstream and there was just us,a few other people and the buffalo strolling along. Really beautiful.
Taj Mahal before sunsetThe next morning the three of us were up in the cold quiet before dawn and by 7am were entering the East gate of the site. I really expected to be slightly disappointed by the Taj Mahal, you see so many photos, pictures, statues of it in India, it is so hyped and there is also a 750 rupee entrance fee which is a bit of a stinger. Neither Melissa or I were brave enough to try and pretend to be Indian to avoid that one. Taj just after dawnI needn’t have worried, the building is incredible, especially at sunrise where, reflected in the watercourse running through the gardens it has an ethereal fairytale like quality with the misty sky behind and the white-grey marble looking almost unreal against the backdrop. You enter through an impressive set of huge red sandstone gates and there is a mosque and mirror image dark red building on either side of the Taj to complete the monument. The Taj herself was built in the 17th century as a monument of love for the wife of the emperor’s wife who died in childbirth. It took 20,000 people 15 years to build and the result is incredible. Even the flanking buildings with their Arabic engravings, towering archways and white domes are spectacular buildings in their own right. Wandering around the base as a huge red sTaj Mahal engravingsun began to rise over the horizon the white marble began to change colour from a milky grey, to cream, shades of pink and then white against a pale blue sky. Walking up onto the platform the mausoleum towers above you, the arches decorated with flowers and tendrils set with semi precious stones, swirling lines of Arabic script run around the entrances in black and the four minarets strain slightly outwards into the sky. Inside are the tombs of the queen and her husband, buried slightly to one side behind a delicate marble lattice running around the interior. We spent over two hours walking around before heading back through the gardens taking one last look and the marble domes between the trees before finally going to have breakfast!

Monkeys on the roof, OrchhaMinor Transport Traumas
After a frustrating half hour in the world’s slowest moving queues and being told there were no reserved seats left to Jhansi we managed to get 2nd class tickets and catch a midday train south. Physically unable to fit into the 2nd class carriage which was literally overflowing we decided to camp in the inter-carriage area of the sleeper compartments sitting on our rucksacks by the door which actually proved to be fairly comfortable. An hour later the conductor came through and upon seeing our tickets demanded rather crossly that we moved. I pointed out that it wasn’t possible to fit into the other carriage so we were staying here and suggested we pay the increase to a sleeper ticket and stay where we were. “No, move, move!” He yelled crossly and stomped off. We stayed put and when he returned he completely ignored us so that was that. Fifteen mintues before we arrived another conductor appeared and I put on my most English school teacher accent to inform him that due to the overcrowded status of the train we were having to sit here instead of in the correct carriage and how much further was it to Jhansi? “15 minutes” he mumbled and then left! We got to Jhansi and somehow managed to squeeze three of us and all our luggage into a tiny rickshaw to travel across town to the bus station. The girls were heading five hours onto Khajuraho and myself half an hour to Orchha. There were no more buses to their town so they went off in search of money and a plan so I said goodbye and went off to find a bus.

The entire bus station of Jhansi decided to conspire against me. Street food stall in OrchhaI found the bus only to be told I couldn’t get on, despite the fact there was clearly space and it drove off without me. Fuming I stomped off to find another and was directed back and forth around the bus station until, seeing I was about to explode, a kind man came to my assistance. We found the bus saying Orchha but the driver denied her was going there saying I had to take a rickshaw. So my companion managed to find me a shared tempo (a large rickshaw) instead for 20 rupees. Now this isn’t a huge vehicle and I am not joking when I say we managed to fit inside, the driver, my rucksack, two large bags of rice and twelve other people. To say the hour journey was a little squashed is an understatement but it did finally get me to Orchha where I found a guetshouse, was too tired to even haggle the price and collapsed in front of the TV and went to sleep.

Orchha CenotaphsOrchha, the “Hiden Place”
Today, however, has been wonderful. Orchha is a lovely little laid back town squeezed inbetween a number of beautiful and imposing palaces, temples and cenotaphs from the rule of the Bundelas in the 16th and 17th centuries. I had some gorgeous wheat porridge and chai in a roadside cafe before spending the day wandering around the labyrinth like passageways and staircases of the palaces. Each archway and window gives spectacular views out across the green countryside with spires breaking the horizon in every direction. Orchha viewsDown by the river a series of huge incredible cenotaphs, built for the dead kings, lined up along the river bank, noisy green parrots were flying around the spires and I spotted a large weasel running furtively through the undergrowth. As I walked along the banks of the cleanest river in India, the Betwa, a family of huge vultures was watching me from the tops of the spires. I had fried potato patties with chilli and chickpea curry by the roadside for lunch and the owner of this internet cafe has just brought me a glass of chai. It’s days like this, that it is impossible not to love this country and the nearer my departure date gets, the more and more sorry I am to be leaving.

the legacy of occupation?

I visited the Tibetan Museum in McLeod Ganj early this afternoon and it is a really wonderfully constructed place over two large rooms but really quite emotional to absorb. It tells the story of the Tibetan people from when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) marched into the country under the justification that it was part of China and that they were liberating the down trodden masses. China herself lost so much of her history, art, religion and culture during the cultural revolution, and it seems even more tragic that the previously cut-off land of Tibet should have suffered even more so under this regime. Over 6000 monasteries were destroyed, their libraries burned and idols broken, the ones left standing were turned into store rooms and the monks and nuns expelled. Dalai LamaThe country’s natural resources were plundered, forests stripped bare and areas turned into nuclear waste dumps. Over a million tibetans died in the following decades, forbidden to practice their religions, demonstrate against the chinese government or practice their traditional ways of life. As a result many fled to India, Burma and Nepal as refugees rather than remain in Tibet. The 14th Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government fled over the Himalayas in 1959 and were granted refuge in Dharmasala and McLeod Ganj.

The following passage summarises things maybe a little more clearly than I can.

“If the matter of Tibet’s sovereignty is murky, the question about the People Republic of China’s treatment of Tibetans is all too clear. After invading Tibet in 1950, the Chinese communists killed over one million Tibetans, destroyed over 6,000 monasteries, and turned Tibet’s northeastern province, Amdo, into a gulag housing, by one estimate, up to ten million people. A quarter of a million Chinese troops remain stationed in Tibet. In addition, some 7.5 million Chinese have responded to Beijing’s incentives to relocate to Tibet; they now outnumber the 6 million Tibetans. Through what has been termed Chinese apartheid, ethnic Tibetans now have a lower life expectancy, literacy rate, and per capita income than Chinese inhabitants of Tibet.”
Lasater, Martin L. & Conboy, Kenneth J. “Why the World Is Watching Beijing’s Treatment of Tibet”, Heritage Foundation, October 9, 1987.

Maybe with the world’s eyes turned onto China for the Beijing Olympics this year and China’s growing place as a global power in the world’s economy will encourage pressure on them to improve thier Human Rights record and reach a compromise to ensure the future of the Tibetan people and culture.

the monks and the cold

McLeod Ganj view from our balconyI am currently huddled in a warm internet cafe in McLeod Ganj, a small hill top town next to Dharamsala and home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile. On the bus up from Amritsar I ran into two American girls, Emily and Melissa, that I’d met at the border ceremony in Attari and the three of us managed to find a guest house in the dark, after several false starts, and accidentally running into a pack of about fifteen fighting dogs!

View from BhagsuIt is cold here, really cold and especially as none of the buildings have heating. I can see my breath in the air in the daytime! I am currently wearing three layers of t-shirts, a vest, jumper, a rather stylish Tibetan-style fleece I brought on the first day, scarf, bandanna and woollen shawl. Despite the temperature, I really like this place, it’s the kind of place you can easily just wander around all day and contentedly do absolutely nothing. The town is perched on a ridge in between the hills with snow covered peaks in the distance and coloured balconied buildings spilling down the slopes. It doesn’t feel like India, most of the people are Tibetan refugees and there are maroon robed monks walking around the streets, buddist temples, prayer flags and it just feels like I’m in a totally different country.

Girls at the waterfallOur first morning we visited the Tsglagkhang complex, which is the main buddist centre, and houses some very ornate gold statues which all have, bizarrely, offerings of Hobnobs, Oreo cookies and Tropicana orange juice placed at their feet. Prayer wheels surround the man chapels offering up hundreds of silent mantras with every turn. A couple of tourists were walking around and a few Tibetan women were doing the yoga-like bowing prayers on a mat in the courtyard. An American looking guy in a cowboy hat was sprawled out asleep on one of the benches, it is a supremely relaxing place! The monks also run a cafe at the bottom which does amazingly good pizza and vegetarian food.

Yesterday we went for a walk to the next village, Bhagsu, and up alongside a huge boulder strewn dry river bed to a small waterfall tucked into the hill side. We all lay back on a smooth rock in the sunshine and watched Indian guys taking macho photographs of themselves in front of the rocks! I also did a Tibetan cookery course last night as I decided I needed another stab at the Momo making. The guy Lhamo running the lesson was lovely and got really excited when we managed to master the various pinching patterns of the different momo shapes; we did vege ones, spinach and cheese and sweet momos and they were delicious. I am going to live off these things when I finally get back home.

LhamoLhamo himself came to India in 1991 because he wanted to see the Dalai Lama and apparently, at that point, you weren’t allowed to learn or speak Tibetan in Tibet, only Chinese, and he wanted to learn the language of his country, he had to exile himself to India to do that. He can’t return to Tibet now, despite the fact that most of his family is there and he can’t email or phone them but manages to pass verbal messages through visitors who can travel between Lhasa and India. In his kitchen there was a huge panoramic photo of Lhasa which shows just how much building, roads and modernisation has been done in the fifty years since the Chinese invaded, they are doing a horrible job of destroying the culture and traditions physically as well as spiritually. This town is full of DVDs of documentaries on Tibet, posters showing the faces of buddist monks who have ‘disappeared’ or been ‘detained’ and signs calling for China to be held accountable for its Human Rights infringements. So, as a small gesture of support, I am now wearing a red SAVE TIBET T-shirt underneath my many layers!

the unexpected charms of Delhi

Hinglish in its absurdityI strongly suspect that my reasons for rather liking Delhi are probably due to the fact that four months in the country has made me immune to a certain amount of tourist hassle and the somewhat darker side of India. My stomach has become hardened to pretty much anything that I stick inside it including slum water, street food and dodgy lassis (touch wood) and my lovely friend Shuchika has been taking me sightseeing for the past few days with her driver. So, rather than hating this place as everybody else I’ve met in India and Nepal did, I’ve found the city is definitely not without its charms. It is however freezing. 18 degrees maximum (now either I have totally adjusted my heat tolerance to local standards or they are measuring this temp next to a Tandoori oven) and a minimum of 3 degrees which I can more than believe. On the way to the rickshaw stand on Sunday I had to stop in the market to buy a highly attractive pair of toe socks to wear with my flip flops. My feet may not be sexy but at least they are warm!

Lotus templeOn the weekend I began my Delhi adventure by attending a religious singing lunch at Shuchika’s house with her Mum’s friends, musicians, song books and a huge lunch afterwards. Then Shuchika and I went to visit the fantastic Bahai temple built in the shape of a lotus flower by the people of the Baha’i faith. Honestly I’d never even heard of the faith before, they have temples in such different locations as Western Samoa, Israel, Uganda and Germany and of course this one in Delhi. It’s made of white marble and surrounded by clear pale blue pools of water, very relaxing and picturesque. Pigeons in Connaught PlaceOn Sunday after porridge and coffee in, what else, but a German bakery next to my hotel room in the slightly seedy tourist town of the Paharganj, I caught a cycle rickshaw to Connaught Place and sat taking photos of pigeons in the fountain gardens in the centre in the peace of Sunday morning. Later we went to visit Qutb Minar, sight of the first cities built in Delhi in 1193, a huge tower, the first mosque in India and an Iron pillar that continues to baffle scientists with its inability to rust in 1000 years. Qutb Minar and meMost amusingly a mother had decided that, despite the ruins being a World Heritage Site, she was going to ignore the toilet facilities and get her two young daughters to piss against the side of the ancient walls in full view of where we were siting. The youngest girl proceeded to wee all over her knickers and jeans much to the dismay of her mother. Now that is rapid karma in action!

I’ve been shopping around markets, government emporiums, had gelato ice cream in Delhi’s newest mall, visited the shops of India’s best known designers and drooled over some of the most beautiful clothes. I saw India Gate and Parliament, evidence that the English did leave some good legacies behind them. Everything is unfortunately cornered off for the upcoming Republic Day and the Red Fort was closed as the entire city is on red alert due to the terrorist risks. Probably just as well I’m leaving tomorrow morning.

Not exactly slumming it!My final day I took a ride on Delhi’s brand spanking new metro (perfect in every way except the crush when everyone battled to get into the carriage, makes the northern line in commuter hours look positively tame!) and went to see the Jama Masjid mosque and then go happily lost around the bazaars in Old Delhi which are a world away from the modern shopping malls. Tiny streets with networks of maze like electricity wires criss-crossing overhead, goldsmiths, fabric shops, ribbon shops, rickshaws, mopeds and people bustling around everywhere. And, as the markets are wholesale, they are not really for tourists, so you can walk around to your heart’s content and everybody ignores you. After a while I stopped for curry and stuffed parathas in a tiny street stall before heading south for a change of scene to Khan market. Khan market is a diplomats haven in the south of Delhi. You can buy magazines, books and food from all over the western world. They even had hobnobs for sale. I didn’t buy them, I went for the chocolate covered digestives instead! I brought Ganesh headed stationary, cheap DVDs and magazines before Shuchika and I went to a Chocolate cafe for Earl Grey tea, cake and waffles. I was then invited back to hers for dinner with her family which was lovely but I am now completely stuffed to bursting!

Old Delhi bazaarsSo Delhi has felt like a mini holiday from my backpacking lifestyle which has been really nice and I’m glad I got to see more of the city with a friend than I would have done otherwise. It seems such a shame that so many tourists complain what a terrible and horrible city this is. True if you arrive in the Paharganj as your first taste of India it would be slightly overwhelming. The truth is Delhi has fantastic shopping, a huge array of temples and tombs, interesting architecture, contrasts from the crazy old world feel of Chandi Chowk to gleaming new malls and hotels. There are tourist markets, food markets, diplomat markets, craft markets and a surprising amount of green space for a large city. The rickshaw drivers, although prone to thinking you have ATM on your forehead, can be persuaded to take you on the meter and, compared to Pune and Ahmedabad, make barely any effort to provide near death experiences on the roads. So, in summary, a really interesting city to visit, and as for everyone else’s opinion…well they’re just wrong.

Claire v Delhi: 15-0

Arrive at Old Delhi station at 7am, not at New Delhi which was where I thought I was arriving, so I had to get an autorickshaw across town. Taxi driver no. 1 offers to drive me to Paharganj (tourist central) for, get this, 400 rupees. I laughed so hard I started choking and the driver maintained a look of complete innocence.

“How much you want?”
“50 rupees”
“No possible madam, very long way.”
“Bollox, it’s 15 minutes, 50 rupees.”
“400 rupees Madam.”
“Where’s the prepaid stand?”
“No prepaid stand here Madam.”
“What’s that booth saying Autorickshaw prepaid stand over there?”

Silence. I walk off. Another man approaches.

“Rickshaw Madam?”
“How much to Paharganj?”
“150 rupees Madam.”
“50 rupees.”
“No Madam. 150 rupees.”

Madam goes to the booth and gets a prepaid rickshaw to Paharganj, guess how much it was. 50 rupees. Thank you very much, 15-love to Claire.

too much tourist touting

Rickshaw mayhem in JodhpurI’ve got to be honest, not loving Jodhpur. It’s loud, noisy, rude, bustling, dusty and totally lacks the charm, for me, of all the other places I’ve visited in Rajasthan. The rickshaws are quite entertaining though, they all look like they’ve been contestants on “Pimp my Rickshaw”,lots of silver, bling and tassels but they go about half the speed as the normal ones. I think the combination of my cold preventing me from being to breathe through my nostrils and the persistent aggressiveness of all the touts gave me a spot of sense-of-humour-failure yesterday and by 4pm I was thoroughly sick of the whole place and came back to my guest house for a nap!

Mighty fort in JodhpurMeherangarh Fort
On the positive side though Jodhpur’s fort is really impressive and enhanced by the one thing this country does supremely well, an audio tour. As for the last one I used, it was included in the foreign entry price, and it was brilliant. The English narrator had a wonderfully resonant voice in which he departed information on the museum exhibits, stories from the era of the Rathore Kingdom, tales of closeted women, powerful chiefs and bloody sieges. To give the fort some context imagine you are a weary moghul warrior riding your camel across the inhospitable Thar desert, around 1520. The hilt of your curved sword digging uncomfortably into your waist, your nuts getting squashed into the saddle and sand settling on your not-so-immaculately groomed beard. SunsetsAhead of you in the distance you finally see Meherangarh. Dark sandstone rock rises up 400 metres giving way to sheer walls of red with rounded turrets gazing out across the landscape. Huge wooden doors bar the entrance, studded with deadly metal spikes to prevent the charging of elephants. Hidden inside there is a world of opulent luxury, interconnecting courtyards with scalloped archways and elaborate lattice windows hiding the watchful eyes of hundreds of beautiful, jewelled Maharanis.

BirdshotDriving up in the rickshaw the first thing I thought about, strangely, was ‘Mysteries of Udolpho’, although clearly Rajasthan is a million miles away from the gothic intrigues of 16th century Tuscany I though Ann Radcliffe would have been suitably inspired by the impenetrable stone walls and lofty setting.

Blue brahmin houses in jodhpurI spent the rest of the day eating some really good street food from the vendors around the clock tower and tried a makhania lassi, made with saffron, which looks like custard but tastes delicious. Then I ignored the tourist spice and souvenir shops and got lost in the old part of the town between the Brahmin blue painted houses passing the goldsmiths, silversmiths, spice sellers and bangle shops. Back near the clock-tower I got a pimped but slow ride back to my guest house and the sanctuary of my room.

The smell of garlic battled through my blocked nostrils and woke me up a few hours later and I wandered down to the kitchen only to be roped into pea shelling and aubergine chopping for dinner. They cook one mean thali at this place and the owner and his cousins are very amusing. They are all camp as chips, and there is a picture of Elton John in the reception saying “Out and Proud.” And yet they are all married. Very bizarre.

British Exports
Now I know the British have certainly left their mark on India; bureaucracy, imposing architecture, driving on the left, a fondness to create clubs for anything imaginable and ongoing religious and international relations issues with Pakistan due to partition, but given that we all left over 50 years ago explain to me how David Jason and Only Fools and Horses have become inter-twinned in the Indian tourist banter? From the cockney talking shawl selling ladies on Goan beaches, to rickshaws with Lovely Jubbly inscribed on their fronts, to this gem on the road in Jaisalmer. It’s only a matter of time before they start painting the rickshaws yellow and calling each other Rodney!

Only Fools and Horses lives in India

Mr India’s balls and other camel stories

The biggest reason for many people to come to Jaisalmer other than the beautiful Jain temples, Havelis, and sandstone town surrounding a fort cut into the rock rising above the rooftops glowing in the setting sun, is to go on a camel safari and I was no exception.

Me and SheruI went on the safari for three days, beginning with a jeep trip 30km out from the town. The desert is not all sand dunes, it’s a mixture of rocky and sandy scrub land full of sprawling multi-fronged cacti, low bushes, short prickly trees, herds of goats and cows from tiny mud-wall villages dotted around, wild camels, and areas of isolated sand dunes rising up out of the vegetation. I had a lovely and (apart from a few bottom biting incidents) relatively well behaved camel called Sheru. It’s mating season at the moment, and our camels, being boys, kept making these bizarre rumbling throaty sounds (like a Desert kidshelicopter whirring under water) and then they’d pucker their lips blowing their tongues, pink and gooey, out of the sides of their mouths in a sort of gobby fart. This apparently is the camel mating call. How the females find that attractive is beyond me, but each species to their own!

We got to drive our own camels, which consisted of basically holding the reigns while they did and went exactly as they pleased at pretty much whatever speed they chose but giving you the wonderful illusion of control. Ocaisionally I started feeling smug that my prodding and clicking noises had finally got Sheru to manage a slow run or to hurry up, when I would see Dhurgan, my 12 year old camel wallah, running along side nudging him with a stick!

We visited the villages, spent the heat of the day resting under trees eating lunch and lounging around on mats chatting, and in the evening made a camp on the dunes, had dinner around a glowing fire with the camel wallahs singing traditional songs and beating out rhythms on the empty water bottles. We slept on thin mattresses under blankets with the unadulterated nights sky above us showing a brilliant array of stars, the odd shooting one briefly flashing by. Canadians in the sand dunesIt was cold, but very cool. The first night we were a big group of Canadians, French, Americans, Spanish, Turkish, Colombians and Brazilian backpackers, giving me a chance to practice my ailing languages a little although Fatim, the Turkish girl was horrified at all the Turkish swear words I knew!

Dhurgan and the camelsThe others were all heading back for the second day leaving Eric (Denver) , Pierre (California) and myself riding Simon the camel, Sheru and Mr India. Mr India, the biggest camel, had the largest balls of all the camels, so large that they swang out from under his tail from side to side as he walked. Following behind him for a few hours I became quite hypnotised by those swinging balls! We had a really peaceful day, swaying along on the top of our steeds, taking in the scenery, low hills, scrub-land and streaks of white cloud radiating out across the horizon. We came back to the dunes that night and were joined by two Taiwanese guys and a couple from Korea. That night we had desert folk songs, Korean children’s songs and Taiwanese music whilst Eric, Pierre and I contributed ‘American Pie’ and ‘She’ll be coming round the Mountain!’The boys, the camel and I

img_8135.JPG By the time we got back to the jeep on the final afternoon it had been great but my bottom and inner thighs had begun to protest, although according to the boys it was far worse for them having had their nuts squashed for the past three days. We got back to Jaisalmer to hot showers and soft beds and I went out for dinner with the boys to have pizza and wine to celebrate being back in civilisation.

Desert skyToday after visiting the network of Jain temples in the fort, Pierre and I set out on a very innocent trip to buy train tickets from the station outside town. Somehow we ended up meeting a group of very entertaining guys staying in the station’s retiring rooms. They invited us in for food and shots of Old Monk, my favourite Indian whisky. After helping them to drink the best part of a bottle Pierre and I decided it was definitely time to leave, getting pissed in the early afternoon is definitely not a good habit. I do have a pretty bad cold at the moment though, so for me the rum is purely medicinal! This is the bizarre and best thing about India, it is so wonderfully unpredictable. One minute you are being poisoned by carbon monoxide fumes in a huge city, the next learning to fly kites on Rajasthani rooftops or sleeping under the stars in the sand dunes; being surrounded by business-hungry touts one second who view you as a walking cash machine and then being welcomed into the poorest family’s home to share their dinner.