India Holiday – Day 16: Ranthambore and New Year

Our hotel is only 1km from the busy train station and intersection at Sawai Madhopur where we tomorrow will take the train towards Agra, and this is evident from the number of trains that stop or pass through there. In true India driving style, every train hoots when it approaches the station, and some of them seem to keep it going until they have passed through, presumably to let people and livestock know to get off the track. (Not that it’s too dissimilar from home – we get the same when trains pass Acton Yard!)

We are woken at 5:30am to a particularly long and loud HOOOOOOOOOOOT, and as the alarm clock is set for just 15 minutes later, we roll out of bed to prepare for our second safari. It’s true: it really does get cold in winter, even in India. It’s no more than 5C outside and we cover ourselves in multiple layers, scarves and blankets and climb onto our jeep after a quick cup of tea. The drive to the park itself is particularly cold, as wind chill makes itself felt through all the layers. Brr.

It’s a great morning: the haze is less thick than usual, the guide is helpful, friendly and thorough, and the landscape through which we drive is mesmerisingly beautiful with everything from rugged cliffs and narrow ledges in mountainous areas to fairly dense forest in the lowlands, surrounding both natural and artificial watering holes and small lakes. There are also several dried-out rivers that we bumpily drive across, and we enjoy the sunrise and the rich colours of the morning landscape in spite of deep-frozen feet, hands and noses.

However much we enjoy the rest of it, we do not see any tigers and return to the hotel at 10:30 to get breakfast, to get warm, and to get a much-needed catch-up nap. It’s hard work to stay alert on a 4 hour safari, trying to hold onto everything through a cold and very bumpy ride, but we all agree it’s a huge amount of fun and want to do it again 🙂

For our afternoon safari starting at 2pm, the guide and jeep driver are really engaging and promise us that Sector 5 – our destination – is full of tigers today, including a mum with 3 cubs. I up the ante by promising them that I’ll give them 1,000 Rs for each tiger we see, and that really gets their attention!

Once again we are struck by how beautiful the nature is, even though it can hardly be called unspoilt. The “core” area of the park is off limits to tourists, and if I was a tiger that is where I’d hide most of the time too I think; some of the dirt roads are so much used that all of the trees and leaves in a radius of several meters are completely covered in a thick layer of the same fine, red dust that also starts covering cameras, shoes and of course cars.

We see lots of wildlife and take lots of pictures that I hope will be good for the album. Spotted deer are common and dot the landscape, and the shortsighted Samber deer that make up most of the tigers’ diet are also present in many places, chewing leisurely.

Just after we enter the park, the guide spots a series of very fresh paw prints that look very tiger-like to me, and we set off following them. A tiger has clearly walked on the road recently, and we follow the prints through several branches of the road network; the excitement of the hunt is definitely real – it feels like there may actually be tigers in the park after all, and perhaps we are about to get lucky!

Other than paw prints, the main way to find a tiger is to listen for the warning calls the animals make when they spot a tiger, so we stop and listen for such calls several times. The guides are not carrying walkie-talkies so any coordinated search is out of the question – the main information sharing happens when drivers meet on the road and tell each other what they have or have not found. Odd, I think.

There are also lots of monkeys in the park, usually hanging out in groups of 10-20, sitting either in the treetops (particularly if they think a tiger is close!) or on the ground, grooming each other. The tigers don’t like the monkeys much: they are fast, and can run to the top of trees where tigers can’t get – and they also have an excellent sight. When they spot a tiger, they emit a characteristic sound that the other animals also listen out for. It’s hard to be a tiger here – they want to be sure their attack works and so don’t attack their prey when they are no more than 20 meters away from it. This means that most of the time they sit very still in a hidden position, waiting for prey to get close before pouncing.

We do hear both the Samber and the monkeys issuing warning calls, and continue our mad dash towards where we think the tiger is, lose the trail, pick up the trail again, but in the end do not manage to find one. Perhaps it’s watching us, but we can’t see it…

The main piece of excitement came when I spotted something running fast and shouted “There! Over there!” loudly, only to discover it was not a tiger nor a chase, but just a spotted deer in a hurry. Iain claims his heart stopped for several beats, and Mamta and Iain both spent much time ridiculing me by pointing out other “exciting” finds in breathless voices. I deserved it 🙂

Towards the end of our time slot, the guide and driver try several unusual things to get that elusive tiger into our sights. First, they let much of the air out of the tires to allow us to cross even bumpier ground than usual, to get us to some secluded spots where the tigers sometimes hang out. Then, they change the number plate of the jeep to Sector 4 – each jeep has to stick to one sector or risk a big fine or a ban, so they look quite furtive doing this. And finally, they take us up a very steep and rocky “road” close to a steep cliff in Sector 4, at the top of which we have an excellent view over a large area – we really ought to be able to spot a tiger from here.

The jeep gets quite close to the edge a couple of times, and none of us a really comfortable with it; seeing a tiger is not worth risking our lives over! Iain sums it up when he says “I am NOT enjoying this anymore!”, and I wonder if I should have promised them a smaller incentive after all 🙂

Alas, even with desperate measures we have no luck and head back to the hotel just as the sun sets and it once again starts getting cold. The trip was not at all wasted though, as we also see loads of birds – peacocks, owls, and kinds I don’t recognise – as well as several large crocodiles laying in wait either in the water or on rocks.

Ranthambore Park is not completely closed off, and in the night it is common for the tigers to venture outside where they can be seen on roads and in the surrounding countryside. Villagers don’t tend to like this for obvious reasons, but our driver tells us that he’ll keep an eye out for them and give us a call and pick us up if he spots one – anything to win that 1,000 Rs prize!

At the hotel, preparations for New Year’s Eve are under way, and we look forward to trying another festival in Indian Style. Once again it’s all outside: strange, since it gets quite cold in the evening and Indians consider anything less than 25C pretty cold, so we decide to stay in our safari gear (including blankets!) to not risk getting too cold during the party 🙂

It starts off with a show that involves music, singing and a dance troupe exhibiting several of the usual Indian styles of show dancing: belly dancing, formation dancing with pots of fire on the head, and dancing with a huge stack of pots on the head. There even is a pretty convincing fire eater, and we are having fun. (Iain is reading Catching Fire and can’t put it down, so misses most of the show – I can recognize myself as a kid here quite clearly, except that we did not have any e-book readers then 🙂

During the show, we are served canapés in the form of various tandoori snacks, and they are served by so many waiters that we quickly fill up. There are vegetable skewers, mushroom thingies, fish cakes, prawns, chicken, and much more. There also is an ample supply of the Sula brand of Indian wine we have come to like, and we finally sit back and relax, enjoying the show and the wine.

We get talking to a jewish couple who live in New York, and they tell us that they cannot eat most of the food as it’s not “kosher”. They describe themselves as “conservative jews”, which means that they adhere strictly to scripture, just not quite as strictly as the even stricter “orthodox jews”.

The way in which they interpret the commandments and the seriousness with which they treat them is interesting to me; fortunately I manage to mostly hold my tongue and just listen as Mamta discusses and questions them about how the old rules are applied to modern living. If I had said something, it could easily have led to a big argument I think, so I’m glad I stayed quiet 🙂

One example they gave is that there is a clear commandment to rest on the Sabbath, which includes a command to not make “new fire” but only make use of existing fire. That makes sense to me: it was probably quite a chore to make fire back in the day, and the rule encourages proper preparation the day before rest day so it really van be restful. However, the question of how this applies to electricity arose as it’s kind of a “modern fire”. After much deliberation, the rabbis eventually decided that closing an electrical circuit is equivalent to creating something new, i.e. “new fire”, and therefore is forbidden on the Sabbath. As a result, elevators in high rises where orthodox jews live stop on every floor so no button needs to be pressed, for example.  Talk about taking an ancient rule about fire to the extreme!

Another example is the old rule that “you must not cook a goat in its mother’s milk”, which is taken to the rather large conclusion that dairy must never under any circumstances be mixed with meat. Consequently, jews have separate jars and utensils for dealing with dairy and meat, and a dish like a cheese burger is completely out of the question. Again, feels rather extreme to me, but it’s their life, so hey.

Many of the jewish traditions seem quite similar to Eastern ones, such as Hinduism, and it’s easy to spot similarities that hint at a common origin in the cultural or environmental circumstances behind them. When Mamta points out a couple of these, it doesn’t seem to resonate though; it’s not a topic we pursue either.

Reaffirmed in our knowledge that conversion to jewdom isn’t for us, we head off to get dinner, thankful that the only restrictions we have on our diet are ones dictated by either our palates or by our own moral code.  Dinner consist of a lavish spread of mainly Indian dishes (although many are confusingly given western names), and the ones I sample are all delicious, including the barfi and many ice cream I have for dessert.

The tables laden with food are decorated in a special and unique way: several large vegetables and fruits are intricately carved or sculpted and in many cases lit from the inside, making for a festive and interesting display. I hope the pictures turn out well.

There are also fireworks that are set off all throughout the evening, at irregular intervals. The fireworks are large and impressive – every time one is set off, it sounds like a large bomb just exploded next door, so we are not likely to miss them when they go off in the sky 🙂

We round off the evening with a dance at the disco set up in the hotel’s conference facilities, and it’s a fun mix of old Indian pop hits and new entries like Psy’s Gangnam Style that see us rocking into the new year. We can do horse-dancing as well as anyone!

With 2012 sent off properly, we crawl into bed and set the alarm for 5:30 again.  We have one last safari on January 1st, and we really hope to finally see some tigers!

Happy new Year! 🙂

India Holiday – Day 15: Ranthambore

There is so much poverty on display in India it is hard to fathom, while also considering that some are very wealthy. According to the OECD, income inequality has grown in the last 20 years: today, the top 10% make an average of 12 times as much as the bottom 10% do.

Of India’s 1.2 billion people, 65% live below the poverty limit, a staggering figure, particularly when you think about what the criteria is: 66.1 Rupees per day in cities, or 35.1 Rupees per day in rural regions. The higher figure translates to £0.76 per day, or around £277 per year – and 2/3 of India’s vast population does not meet this meagre “survival” threshold. It is definitely not a “comfort” threshold!

To put the number in perspective, an employee at a good hotel in a rural area (like the Shapura Bagh we just left) will have a salary around 3,000 Rupees per month (100 Rs per day) and at a super hotel like the Taj Lake Palace, the salary may be 3-4 times higher, at perhaps 10,000 Rs/month.

Even a salaried employee must therefore depend a lot on additiona income such as tips received from guests like us to support themselves, let alone a family. It puts into perspective the impact decisions on how much to tip must have – whether 50, 100 or 500, it really matters to the recipient.

I ask our driver Mr Prakash about his tips too, and he just smiles and says it’s a bit like gambling for him – sometimes you’re unlucky, sometimes you are more lucky, such is life. How hard must financial planning be in such circumstances?

I am convinced that a major thing that holds back India’s progress and furthers inequality is corruption. It is pervasive as every time you need to interact with or get a service from the government, a bribe is necessary to make things happen. A few examples give a taste of just how pervasive it is:

  • When you need to pay car road tax of perhaps 500Rs, the form is just not processed if you don’t also pay a bribe of 100Rs.
  • If you go to a public school, most teachers run “private tutoring” sessions afterwards. Students that don’t pay for those simply don’t get high marks.
  • If you go to a government hospital, there is no guarantee that you will see a doctor or a nurse or get medicine if you don’t pay to get it. Hospital-employed doctors also run private clinics to supplement their income, and encourage patients to use them.
  • If your electricity or water supply doesn’t work, complaining doesn’t help – only money does.
  • If you are stopped for a traffic offence (speeding, polluting, no lights), you are almost always given a choice of “ticket or money now”.

I have asked several people for examples like these and asked if it’s really all the time or just sometimes. One of them summarised it like this: “Donations are definitely compulsory, not optional”.

The above can explain why teachers and doctors are “absent from their workplace” for as much as 40% of the time: they are simply busy making money elsewhere. And because those government jobs are so desirable because they pay well, often come with a place to live, and are hard to lose, they are very expensive to get too: you can only be considered for an opening if you have enough money to pay the right people enough of a bribe.

To my mind, the whole system is rotten from top to bottom, and is a big impediment to things getting better in India. Once again I must plug the book Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which in spite of the odd title gives a great if occasionally depressing glimpse into corruption and its effect on social mobility.

Privatisation seems to be the only option for getting rid of corruption: you can’t typically bribe employees of a private company and complaints have a noticeable impact. In areas where utilities have been privatised for example, service is now much, much better. Can you privatise teaching? Traffic enforcement? The police? What else? Government itself?

As you can perhaps tell, I am feeling better today 🙂 After a bumpy ride, we do arrive safely at Ranthambore and start by packing what we need for the next few days into a single suitcase: when we leave here, it will be by train to Agra, where our driver will meet us with the rest of the luggage and we want to minimize what we need to take on the train.

After a brief lunch, we start the first of several safaris or “Game Drive” tours we have booked – we’re off to the reservation to go Tiger Spotting as Ranthambore is home to the Royal Bengal Tiger! Today’s trip is in an open-top Jeep-like car and we are joined by a couple from Germany/Belgium. They went on a trip this morning and are hoping for better luck this time…

The park is around 400 square km and is divided into 9 sectors that each have a few tigers and where strict limits on the number of cars entering are enforced, to make sure the area does not get overrun by tourists.

At least that is what we are told by the guide – I wish had a TransIndus one, but instead we got one from the hotel. As we approach the park, we are told we have to also have a guide from the park itself even though the jeep clearly doesn’t have room for him, but are told “it’s compulsory!” It amazes me that some silly rules appear unbreakable, whereas other more important ones are broken with impunity…

Our “official park guide” thus ends up wedged between the driver and the hotel guide on the front seats, half on top of the gear stick. He ends up saying exactly nothing during the tour, so I’m not sure what value he was meant to add, but given how many Indians it’s normally possible to pack into a jeep it’s probably ok 🙂

I am happy that we got a Jeep: the other way to enter the park is on a “Canter”, which is a much larger 20-seater. In such a vehicle, some of the narrow winding trails are inaccessible and it is surely impossible to hear what the guide might say if you are not in the first couple of rows.

We enter the park’s Sector 7 and drive around for a couple of hours, occasionally pausing to listen for animal sounds or warning cries to help spot tigers or leopards, but sadly hear nothing of the sort. It’s not quite what I expected: the park has a public road running through it, and most of the time we can hear the usual India noises: car horns, lorry horns and throaty engines. Sigh.

The park is also not quite the unspoilt nature we were hoping for; there are people waling around on foot on the well-worn tracks, and there are even people living inside houses and a small farm inside the park!

We don’t see any tigers, nor much sign of any other animals, sadly. A couple of gazelles and antelopes is the only slightly exotic wildlife – and although we do see cows, monkeys and peacocks as well, we see more equally disappointed tourists than we see animals 🙁

We’re booked for another tour tomorrow morning at 6:39, and we’ll go for that, hoping it’s better in the morning. Are we being stupidly naive, or tenacious and persistent? Time will tell; tune in tomorrow for an update that hopefully has better news 🙂

India Holiday – Day 14: Shapura Bagh

Breakfast in the Taj Lake Palace is a perfect conclusion to our stay.  We are given a table in an alcove that on 3 sides is surrounded by water, and the food and service are as always outstanding.  As I’m still recovering from Delhi syndrome, I have just a little toast and banana, but at least the view is good 🙂

We get ferried back to the pier where our driver is waiting, and I decide to lean my seat back and rest for most of the trip with headphones and an audio book to block out the world. The last thing I need is to have to go to the bathroom before we reach our destination, and bad roads are promised…

The road starts out well, but the last couple of hours it really is in a terrible state. Very narrow, very busy, very very bumpy, and with many lorries competing for the space, it is a veritable smorgasbord of horns and beeping, most of which I thankfully avoid by being inside my book.

The hotel in Shapura is a wonderful relief; outside it is in a nature area with forest and lake, and inside it has a very high ceiling to complement the huge room that we stay in. Relief at last, and the dizziness from the morning has also largely gone – I believe I may be fully recovered tomorrow!

We rest for a while by the beautiful outdoor pool, and Iain tries desperately to have a swim.  After many attempts, he finally manages to get into the water, but only for a second, and is then deep frozen – it’s just too cold for swimming.

The hotel is known for the bird life, and we take a walk around the bird trail in the late afternoon and are not disappointed.  We see a lot of different birds both close by and far away, and the highlight is definitely a Kingfisher that sits on a branch not too far away, on top of a lake where local fishermen work a few hundred meters away. Amazing.

After enjoying a wonderful relaxing dinner, we call it a night and mentally prepare for one of the last places we will be seeing on this tour: the Tiger resort of Ranthambore. We leave tomorrow morning.

India Holiday – Day 13: Taj Lake Palace

Fortunately, the Taj Lake Palace is beautiful not only in the courtyards, restaurants, rooms and pool areas, but also the toilets. Fortunate as I spent much of the night there, and am still a bit queasy in the morning; I guess it’s time for me to get the obligatory Delhi Belly.

Anyway, after a delicious breakfast in the well-appointed restaurant, I felt well enough to go on our tour of the City Palace and surrounding areas. The Maharan has opened about a third of his palace to tourists, and it’s – as we have now come to expect – impressive, if nowhere near as well kept or lavish as the Taj Lake Palace!

However, I quickly realized that it might not have been a good idea to go out and so I let Mamta and Iain complete the tour while I returned to the room to rest and recuperate.

I can’t think of a better place to do that though! It’s so peaceful and tranquil… except in the evening and in the morning: like clockwork, around 6am and 6pm, thousands of Myna birds descended and started peeping, quite loudly, for about 45 mins. Amazing, actually.

Dinner was a small portion of high-fibre in-room dining, in place of the lavish 4-course menu we had planned to eat at the rooftop restaurant. Oh, well 🙂

To compensate for the short post, I have included a few pictures from the Taj Lake Palace – hope I’ll feel better tomorrow 🙂

The Taj Lake Palace

The Pool and Jacuzzi Area

The Winter Palace seen from our room

The courtyard immediately outside our room

India Holiday – Day 12: Udaipur

With traffic being so chaotic, I made the mistake of looking up accident statistics for India this morning, and almost wish I hadn’t. India accounts for something like 16% of all road deaths in the world, yet accounts for just 1% of the world’s cars. As that number doubles every decade, it can only get worse before it gets better: 20 years ago, there were 15 million cars, today it’s 65 million – and in 20 years it will be 450 million. Yikes!

Of course, just after leaving for Udhaipur we saw the aftermath of an accident: Two lorries crashed head on, with one overturned. Lots of glass everywhere, and enough onlookers that we just hurried past.

In many ways, India has evolved hugely, but it’s also very backwards in many ways. For example, we again saw lots of women carrying water on their heads, often many kilometres, just like we saw groups of women washing clothes in ponds far from their houses. At the same time, we saw bike dealerships and other signs of modern life; it really is a country of huge contrast.

The road is now very bad in places, and has narrowed to a single uneven lane with a bit of uneven gravel on each side, and we have slowed down accordingly, although we’re still not driving in “Western” style like a couple we met yesterday: They are German/Swiss, and their driver is under strict instructions to drive according to the rules, with no “undertaking”, risky overtaking, using of horn, etc – I’m frankly not sure how they ever get anywhere that way, but it’s their choice.

I didn’t know that wearing a Sari in India is a married woman’s prerogative: Once married, custom even makes it mandatory. This explains why some women wear jeans and ride “normally” on motorbikes, whereas some wear a Sari and ride “side saddle”. It does not look comfortable and I can’t begin to imagine how an accident unfolds if it involves a family of mum, dad and kids, none of them wearing a helmet, and mum sitting sideways in her Sari. Yikes!

The “Mecca” of the Jain religion is a huge temple complex in Ranakpur, about halfway to Udaipur, and it is very beautiful. It is in 3 stories, built entirely out of intricately engraved marble, and is even larger than the Taj Mahal! Jain have to visit the temple once in their life, but it looks more busy with tourists than with Jain 🙂

The temple is 600 years old, and the level of detail and effort gone into it is just staggering. Of its 4 domes, 3 are shaped like a mosque rather than as a Hindu temple to confuse and deter an invading Muslim force as they have a tendency to destroy anything non-muslim. Thankfully the ploy seems to have worked, and we spend a couple of hours here before moving on, thoroughly impressed.

We had lunch at a small outdoor buffet place called Harmony Restaurant, shortly after the temple. I hope we don’t come to regret that.

The city of Udaipur is very busy; the buildings are lower but otherwise it reminds me more of Delhi than of Jodhpur. Traffic is all snarled up, and in order to get to the pier leading to our hotel, we have to go through several checkpoints manned by royal staff – it’s owned by the Raj.

The hotel is called the Taj Lake Palace, and it is situated in the middle of a sizeable lake inside Udaipur itself, which is why we have to go to the pier first – there is an 8-minute boat ride to get to the hotel itself.

The hotel is simply pure magic, both in appearance and in the level of service and attention they give us; I have never experienced anything like it. The people at the pier all know our names as we get out of the car, and have welcome drinks ready. They accompany us to the pier, give us fresh wet towels, then stay with us in the boat as we (and our luggage on a separate boat) are ushered to the hotel. Once there, we are met by a rain of rose petals, more individual welcome cocktails, – I think you get the picture. Astonishing.

Even better, they have a no-tipping system, where we really just tip at the end. And they have the first heated pool (with Jacuzzi!) we’ve come across, and Iain too is in heaven as we take the opportunity to splash about for a while 🙂

The Palace is owned by the local Raj, or Maharan, and used to be the Summer palace for his family. From our Palace Room, we have a direct view of his current palace (which used to be the Winter Palace) and from the other wise we can see the mountain resort that is his Monsoon Palace. The life as Raj sure sounds hard; so much moving involved!

Mamta and I want to go to their high-end Indian restaurant, so we get in-room dining or Iain, and he says it’s the best food he’s ever had. I think he’s impressed – and the Thali that Mamta and I have is very good too, just too large for our appetite!

What a day. We tip into our large, luxurious beds and sleep soundly, pretending to be royalty for a day…

India Holiday – Day 11: Rohet Ghar

Is Boxing Day a good day for starting an Opium habit?

The hotel serves a nice breakfast set in lovely surroundings, and we enjoy a slow start. The only downside is that the coffee is instant – not as bad as Nescafe, but still nowhere near a good espresso or drip filter coffee. Gives us something to look forward to at home in the cold I guess 🙂

Just outside our room is a big tree and to our amazement we saw two peacocks sitting in it! How such large birds get up there, I don’t know – it almost looked like someone put them there.  Picture evidence to follow!

This hotel has a no-tips policy, which should be a great relief. Everywhere else in India, everyone expects a tip: porters, waiters, drivers, guides – basically everyone that does something for you. Knowing how much to tip and when to do it is hard, and is something we have to always be aware of, so the message from the hotel that we should pool all tips and put them in a box at checkout – for distribution to all staff – is great. However, it’s not entirely clear if the no-tips includes people who run tours, and the magician, and the people at the spa. Hmm, I’ll ask when we check out.

The only item on today’s agenda: A trip in a jeep to visit two native villages, to get a glimpse of how they live. As we are about to leave, Mr Prakash comes to see us off, so we got to see him out of uniform and in civvies – I hope he has a nice day off, although according to some of the other guests, the “drivers’ quarters” close to this hotel are pretty scummy and smelly, yuck.

Driving in a jeep across land in a desert is… dusty! The vegetation is sparse and the fields look very dry – they yield crop only during the wet monsoon months. We do see quite a bit of wildlife though. Since most of the population are vegetarians and hunting is forbidden, the wildlife does not fear humans very much, allowing us to get quite close even in a noisy jeep before they move off a bit. We found that the Indian Gazelle has a particularly funny bouncy way to run.

The first village is a Bishnu (sp?) one, which is very small and primitive. The compound consists of enough huts to house one family, all descended from the 75-year-old patron of the village, and their philosophy is strict adherence to 29 rules derived and extended from Hinduism to form some sort of ultra-eco-tribe. No meat or eggs allowed, everything must be reused, no electricity, no water pipeline, etc. In spite of this, the encampment was well kept and clean, and everyone look happy as they go about their routine – sorting wheat, making bricks, showering, mending a fence, playing, looking at nosy tourists…

It feels a bit weird to invade someone else’s privacy in that way, wading through their homes, taking photos of how they live and looking at what they do. Perhaps they are used to it; hopefully the tourism helps them with funds to buy what they need from the market on days where that is allowed.

The second village was very different; a sizeable Brahmin village that houses around 100 families. The houses here are not mud huts but are stone buildings, including temples, a few shops, etc. The highlight of the tour is surprising: The men of the village routinely take opium, and we are invited to hear about and watch the ritual.

Opium of course comes from poppies, and while most of the growing is done in Afghanistan, there are farms in India that have got special permission to grow small amounts as well, to enable the communities where opium use is part of the tradition.

The Brahma men do not smoke the opium, but instead dilute it with sugar and water, then after repeated filtration drink the resulting brew and enjoy the anaesthetising effects. One of the men we see is an addict, who needs the brew twice per day, but everyone else is a casual user – and women are allowed to partake only during festivals so are not likely to become addicted.

We are asked if we want to try a small amount too and are told it’s a very mild tourist-friendly version, so we agree to do so, as does the Swiss couple we are traveling with on this tour. The drink tastes a bit like thin, slightly bitter tea and it’s hard to know if the drink is the source of the slight drowsiness we feel later in the day or not. I don’t think it’s a habit we’ll try to get into 🙂

The rest of the day was spent relaxing and enjoying the grounds, and having a massage. I tried an Indian Champi, a form of scalp massage that involves lots of oils and drumming on the head – a very pleasant experience indeed that I hope to repeat before the trip is over.

Refreshed and relaxed, we’re off to Udhaipur tomorrow, where we’ll be staying at a very special hotel situated in a lake; that should be interesting! 🙂


India Holiday – Day 10: Jodhpur

The Christmas Gala ended late, so the normal staff was not there for the morning shift – and that did not help improve our impression of the place.  Poor breakfast service and bad (instant!) coffee set the stage for our drive to Jodhpur. Iain is also really tired and we all need a day’s rest at this point.

There is a truly unbelievable amount of building work going on in India, and the infrastructure is clearly being expanded and improved on very quickly.  At the same time, it is chasing a rapidly moving target as the population continues to expand very fast.  I looked up the figures, and between now and when Mamta was in India, the population has increased by around 50% – by 400 million people!  That’s the equivalent of dropping 50 entire Londons into India; a staggering figure.  And while population growth is slowing, it still means that 25 years from now the population is likely to have another 400 million people, to reach a truly staggering 1.6 billion in 2040.

No wonder it feels more crowded now than it did 23 years ago.

It is interesting to look at the billboards next to the road; there are many, and there are just 3 main themes they advertise: Cement, Cellphones and Luxury.  The cement ads are the most common and all talk about strength and engineering, whereas the cellphone ones (all Vodafone and Airtel) just show the brand name – clearly everyone knows them already.  The Luxury ads are for a variety of expensive, aspirational products out of reach for 99% of the population – such as luxury homes, luxury cars, spa treatments and dream holiday resorts.  It makes me wonder who the target demographics are.

That everyone knows the names of the cellphone providers is hardly surprising; there really has been a revolution here and it looks like it’s complete.  Everyone, literally everyone, has at least one phone, from the women tilling the fields, to the nomads in the desert, to people in the slums, to people talking or texting while riding a clapped-out motorbike. Coverage is good too – even in the most remote areas, there is coverage, often even with 2G or 3G data access, and the 3G speeds are at least as good as what I get in London.

The road to Jodhpur is pretty bad in most places; patches on patches try to cover some of the potholes, but largely fail.  It is a truly terrible road, interrupted by long stretches where budget was allocated to make it better.  Mr Prakash tells us that this road is much better than some of the ones we’ll be using later, so I’ll perhaps get back to this when I see what he means 🙂

One thing that strikes me is how well-groomed almost everyone is; from young to old, rich to poor, the hair is neatly trimmed and combed; all of those street barbers are clearly doing brisk business. Some of the guides and driver have expressed surprise that Iain is “allowed to” have long hair; it clearly is just not something that boys do here.  Not that his hair is particularly long, but it might explain why he’s been mistaken for a girl a few times 🙂

Jodhpur has a very different feel to it from Jaisalmer, perhaps because it is less dependent on tourism and actually produces something – both sandstone from the numerous quarries and high quality furniture.  The roads here are also wider and there is less garbage lying everywhere; the air is even a lighter shade of brown. I think a big contributor to the smog that is here are the auto rickshaws, which clearly run on something stinky like diesel – many of them are very old and emit huge plumes of foul-smelling black smoke when chugging along.

We meet our guide at a lovely restaurant in Jodhpur where we have some great food and exchange experiences with another UK family that are on a similar trip to ours – except that all their travel is by train, that they have arranged it themselves and are going the “other way” so we could share tips about what to see and do next.  I really look forward to the more nature-focused parts of our trip that are coming up!

The fort in Jodhpur is huge, imposing, impressive, and is much nicer than the one in Jaisalmer.  It is quiet enough that we can take in the sights and enjoy the carvings and museum, and there are no street vendors to harass us. Instead, there is a beautiful, no-pressure gift shop where we pick up a few bits.  Lovely.

As we are tired at this point, we thank and drop off the guide – a very nice man with some of the least accented English we have come across yet, which is also a relief.

Speaking of accents, the Indians obviously speak English very well and do so with a very characteristic accent that can sometimes be hard to understand, but mostly is not a problem. After 10 days in India, my ears get tired of it though, and I sometimes feel like telling people to “just speak properly, please!”.  Grossly unfair I know, but hey 🙂

A short drive to our  hotel called Rohet Garh is quickly done as it’s just 40km south of Jodhpur, and it is a relief to find that it’s absolutely lovely. We are met by friendly staff and are shown our large, luxurious suite, containing a big, raised 4-poster bed.  The bed is so high a little foot stool is necessary for Mamta and Iain to get up on the bed – but it’s soft and cosy.  Dinner consists of an excellent buffet and it is with great relief that we retire early and find that even the muslim calls to prayer are far away and do not unduly bother the peace of the place.

We’ll stay here for 2 nights and have a relaxing day tomorrow, refuelling for the next leg of the journey.   I have finished my books (Daemon and then Freedom; great reads) and we’re all playing Candy Crush together – lots of fun 🙂

Merry Christmas!

India Holiday – Day 9: Christmas Eve

Our hotel in Jaisalmer is definitely in a different class from where we have stayed until now and feels distinctly ordinary. Our small room with single narrow beds complemented by an average breakfast and mediocre coffee is nothing like the royal treatment we’ve had in earlier hotels – I guess it’s good to be reminded of just how good we have had it 🙂

Jaisalmer is in a desert and as such a reliable water supply is a constant concern. To help resolve this, an enterprising ruler many years ago made a huge artificial lake to capture monsoon water – and made it large enough that it could help the city through a poor monsoon season or two. The city is now connected to the Mahatma Gandhi canal via a 60km pipeline (which gets its water via runoff from the Himalayas) and no longer needs the lake for drinking water, but the lake is where we started the day.

The lake is surrounded by beautifully carved sandstone steps and fronted by an impressive gate. Inside the gate, the lovely structures are offset by the scummy looking water, which surprisingly is full of fish: catfish, in fact. Hindus consider all life to be sacred and will go out of their way to not kill any animal, small or large, but in addition to that, they believe it gives good luck to feed certain animals. This of course includes cows, but I did not know that it also includes dogs, monkeys, birds and fish!

I don’t know what catfish normally eat, but the ones in the lake don’t need to go far to get fed: Come to the lakeshore, where someone is constantly throwing in bread, bits of biscuit, whatever, searching for that little bit of extra luck. We do the same and the result is amazing: within seconds, the surface is broken by fish bodies and long beard-like tentacles as the fish compete for the food. I don’t know if you have ever seen a catfish, but they are ugly mothers – and tens of them competing for food is a sight to behold.

Our Jodhpur guide, Madhusuran or just Madhu, is very funny: he tells funny stories, jokes (real groaners, or what Mamta and Iain call Daddy Jokes) and riddles, and is great at keeping Iain entertained. An example – Q: “If you have seventeen boys and one leaves, how many are left?” A: “Six. You had seven teen boys, now you have six”. Har, har, argh 🙂 Iain quickly picked up on it and made up several riddles of the same kind himself, to the amusement of all.

The main attraction of Jaisalmer is the fort; a huge sandstone structure built 850 years ago. It once housed the whole population of the city, but now houses just 3,000 people – people that the city now is trying to convince to move out. This is because the fort was built at a time where water was scarce, and now that running water is installed everywhere, the walls are being undermined by water leaked into the ground. Some parts have already collapsed, and we saw others that bulge out alarmingly.

Just outside the fort gates, Mamta does a double take: There is a shop called “Govt Authorized Bhang Shop” – in other words, a shop that legally sells hash/marijuana. We take a peek inside where they have a huge tray full of the stuff and show how they sell it in various forms, either for smoking, in a drink, or baked in cookies. The cookie they show us has “just 3-4 grams of hash in it”, and the clerk assures us it’s not a strong one, just medium strength. We end up not buying anything 🙂

The fort itself is unbelievably busy, and it’s not a good feeling here. Narrow, windings streets with throngs of people compete for space with both street vendors aggressively hawking their wares and with motorbikes and tuktuks, most of which use their horns liberally and emit a thick, foul-smelling smoke at the same time. I can imagine the place being beautiful and tranquil, but that is definitely not what we experienced.

Mamta was here 23 years ago with her dad as well, and remembers the place very differently. Back then, Jaisalmer was a small town with none of the big-city bustle and noise that now plagues it – it’s clear that the current Jaisalmer can only be sustained by brisk tourism. “This used to be my one of my favourite places in India, but it is now my least favourite one” summarises how we all felt.

At the centre of the fort are two Jain temples that we visit, after duly taking off our shoes of course. Mamta calls them “Hobbit Temples” because the doors and passageways are so small, but the inside contains a breathtaking array of sculptures carved into the walls and ceilings, filling every square inch completely. They have really made something of the sandstone here.

After visiting the fort, we go to the local market where Madhu introduces us to several shops that sell locally produced stuff – and we buy more of it than we probably should have, both for ourselves and for presents. We ended up buying a couple of figurines, two beautiful bedspreads, an ornate paper knife, a few T-shirts and some colourful pens.

The Indians are masters at the “Bait and Switch” tactic of selling, where they lure you in by showing a relatively attractive piece that doesn’t cost very much. After you show an interest in this, they show you a nicer piece that costs more, pointing out the flaws in the previous one, significant enough to amply justify the higher price of the new one. After doing this a few times, the goods on display really are very nice, but are no longer at all cheap, leaving you with a choice of nice-and-expensive or cheaper-but-with-now-obvious-flaws.

Whether you buy something from this display or not, when you make it clear that you don’t want to buy more and want to leave/pay, they keep pushing: what about this, or that, or this beautiful thing, etc. It’s exhausting having to say “No!” so forcefully so many times and for me it definitely takes much of the joy out of shopping.

On our way out of the city, a couple of cute local kids come up and do the usual “Take picture” routine – not for money, they just want to be in someone’s picture and I have several such pictures. Mamta gives each of them one of the pens she just bought, and they squeal in delight.

Such a good deed does not go unpunished though, and within seconds it is as if the whole city has heard of it as kids call out “Hello lady, pen?” to Mamta as they flock around her and follow us through the streets. As she only bought five in the first place, she just smiles and holds on to the remaining three until we reach the car 🙂

It’s hard to believe it’s Christmas Eve today! It’s 25-28C in the shade, and the weather reports from Denmark with lots of snow are hard to mentally reconcile with where we are. We’ve already had a busy day, but it’s far from over, oh no. Holidaying is hard work!

Next on today’s agenda is a short camel ride on the sand dunes about an hour west of the city, only 100km or so from Pakistan. We rode camels for much longer when we visited Jordan 3 years ago, but it’s still very fun and Iain thinks seriously about staying in India when the guide offers him a camel if he stays behind. In the end, the lack of super-fast internet narrowly convinces him to stay with us though, so we did not have to invoke the Parental Veto 🙂

Once in the desert, we dismounted the camels and sat down on the sand to watch the sunset; absolutely stunning and very peaceful, at least for a few minutes, when we were interrupted by a beautiful bedouin women and two musicians that indicated they wanted to perform for us. We said ok, fine, and as she started dancing to the music, the rest of the troupe came over – another musician and a few scrawny kids.

The performance lasted maybe two minutes, after which the woman stuck out her hand, clearly saying “Pay me!” Mamta gave her 50 Rupees (about £0.60), which she looked at with disdain, showed to the others, then clearly indicated that this was wholly inadequate and with a stern expression conveyed something like “How can I possibly feed this many people with 50Rs?”

Rather than argue the point, we gave her another 100Rs, which transformed her unhappy-bitch face into a smiling one again; a remarkably quick transformation. And then the kids ran over to Mamta and said “Chocolate! Give us chocolate!” Mamta gave them a KitKat, and they all ran off in search of more customers.

The brazenness on display here is one I am definitely not used to, but perhaps it’s necessary to survive out here. It’s a tough life; the two boys driving our camels were just 12 and 15, living in a small village about 5km way. They do go to school and want to learn, but “most days the teacher doesn’t show up”. Sad 🙁

Since we stayed in the dunes until after sunset, the drive back to Jaisalmer is in the dark. And driving in the dark in India is just like driving in the day, but amplified many times – in other words, terrifyingly dangerous as the obstacles remain the same, except that they are now largely invisible! Many vehicles have no tail lights at all, including slow-moving tractors and fuel trucks, and the bicyclists and pedestrians are also dark as midnight. Many cars drive with their front headlight full beams on all the time, blinding you, and the cows, miscellaneous rocks and of course cliff-faced speed bumps remain as numerous and hazardous as ever.

It was with a sigh of relief that we pulled up to the hotel, brightly lit and decorated for Christmas. We now had an hour to get ready for the specially prepared “Christmas Gala Dinner” that was mandatory for hotel guests staying on December 24th.

I think it’s fair to say that this is the most unusual Christmas Evening I have ever spent. We sat by tables arranged outside with large fires in between to keep the evening cold at bay (it gets down to 10C so it’s actually a bit chilly). The band played Indian music (very loudly!) and an assortment of belly dancers accompanied the entertainment. I’m not sure the dancers were all originally female either; several of them could easily be trans-gender. In particular, the one Mamta referred to as Samwise Gamgee was not very ladylike in her dancing, but who knows? 🙂

The food was a “multi-cultural mix of Western and Indian food”, as it said in the nicely printed programme. As it turns out, this meant that all of the usual Indian dishes were presents, plus a roast turkey, which the chef in charge valiantly tried to cut with a very small knife. I ended up eating mainly Indian, which was of course very good 🙂

Surrealism on stage went to new heights when Santa Claus – in the form of Indian man with a large black beard covered by a Santa costume including a big fake white beard – entered and started dancing with the kids, handing out sweets, with an Indian version of Jingle Bells booming out over the overtaxed sound system.

What a day; we could use a bit of a rest now, to absorb the experiences, sort out the photos, update the blog, and just hang out by the pool. Unfortunately, we are set to be busy the next few days, so we’ll try to deal with that as best we can…

And to those of our friends and family that have made it this far: Merry Christmas! We miss you and hope you are having a good time too 🙂