India Holiday – Day 8: Jaisalmer

The hotel in Ranvas Fort in Nagaur really is spectacular; the surroundings and staff all give the impression of royalty; it is nice to be treated as such. Alas, we have to leave and do so after a delicious breakfast – where Mamta thankfully is well enough to have Paranthas.

Paranthas or Parathas, or even Parauthas? Spelling in India using the Latin alphabet is less of an exact science than you might think; the Devaganari alphabet used for Hindi has a lot of sounds that cannot be faithfully represented, so approximations abound.

A similar somewhat slapdash approach to spelling of English words is something Iain cannot help but point out whenever he sees an example. Just today, we saw a “Gest House” next to an “Air Streep”, a billboard for a “Uniersity”, a menu containing both “Chiken” and “Has Browns” and a street vendor with a “Water Trolly” 🙂

Jaisalmer is only 150km from the border with Pakistan, and along with other cities close to the India/Pakistan border is host to several large military bases. On today’s trip, we saw lots of evidence of this as apparently several regiments are in the process of relocating from one base to another – on the road going the opposite direction from us we saw hundreds of army trucks along with associated artillery, anti aircraft and support vehicles, as well as a large number of APCs.

We also passed through the area used for the Indian nuclear tests done many years ago now, although thankfully it did not look like they tested any such weapons today.

I never tire of driving in India; every day, they throw up a new spectacle for us. For example, it is becoming obvious that in rural areas at least, it is the women that do all the manually demanding work: till the fields, collect and carry the firewood, do the washing, etc. The men are left to do all of the planning, discussing and driving that needs to be done for the family – a reasonable distribution of work, it seems to me 🙂

As we pass further into the eastern desert, the number of animals on the road increases too. Cows meander slowly around the landscape on and off the roads both alone, in small groups, and in large herds, and as the Hindus consider them holy, they naturally take no notice of cars or other traffic. “As indifferent as an Indian cow” is very indifferent indeed.

Fortunately, the lower population density also means that the road is straighter, and in most places actually of higher quality than it was yesterday. Long straights with little traffic is great, although most of the time the road surface itself actually undulates quite a bit, inducing a distinct sense reminiscent of turbulence when driving along, juddering and shaking.

The roads of India also have some of the most impressive speed bumps I have ever experienced: most of them are effectively unmarked cliff faces spanning the width of the road, just waiting to catch the unwary. Many of them are actually marked: With piles of rubble arranged in a line on both sides of the road, as a symbolic extension of the speed bump itself. The issue of course is that the roadside already is strewn with rubble, and it can be hard to spot when it’s meant to indicate that it’s wise to slow down to no more than 5 km/h…

The biggest bumps are before railway crossings, of which have seen quite a few. The authorities clearly do not want anyone to race across the crossing just before a train arrives, so the bumps here are truly enormous. Just to be on the safe side, the operators (who sit in a little hut next to the crossing when no trains are due) also lower the booms as much as 5 minutes before a train arrives, giving everyone ample time to get off the crossing even if a breakdown should occur there.

Speaking of breakdowns, have I talked about the lorries at all? They come in many varieties, but there is a special very common model that I have come to think of as the workhorse of Indian road-based shipping. Most of them look terribly old and worn, and all sport prominently painted words like “HORN OK PLEASE” to encourage more India-like honking. They also have a sign saying “40 kmh”, which I assume means that they are not allowed to go any faster than that – and many go quite a bit slower.

At the same time, they are both almost indestructible and extremely versatile, carrying enormous loads well beyond their nominal carrying capacity. Many lorries have stacks of stuff on top, in boxes or bags, often as much as 3 meters, making them look extremely top-heavy. Others again have huge bags strapped to the tops and sides, filled with grain or hay or something, nearly doubling the width of them at the base.

With just a single lane road full of these, it is no wonder that the average speed is lower than might be expected – and the tractors are much slower than the lorries, also often carrying huge loads. Today, we found ourselves overtaking a lorry, which itself was overtaking a tractor with a big trailer – and coming the other way was a car overtaking a military lorry. Just another day on the road in India!

And speaking of carrying capacity, a jeep can carry 8 people if they aren’t too big and squeeze in. At least that is what I thought, but we saw several today (taking people to work?) with so many people sitting and standing both in and on them that it’s hard to count. Our driver says that it’s common to have as many as 25 or 30 people in a jeep!!

As we finally approached Jaisalmer, we saw a new phenomenon: bike touts. This is a pair of people on motorbikes driving quickly and very close to tourist mini buses like ours, handing over pamphlets and shouting price information, all to try to entice tourists to go to a particular hotel. The ingenuity of Indians when it comes to finding ways of selling stuff never ceases to amaze me 🙂

Jaisalmer is called the “Golden City” as its buildings are made almost entirely of yellow sandstone. I hope to see more of that tomorrow – tonight, it was covered in a huge, smelly layer of smog that reduced visibility almost to Delhi-levels and made breathing unpleasant. Hopefully tomorrow will be a clear day as we visit the famous Jaisalmer Fort.

Tonight, we saw a puppet show, something that Rajastan is famous for and that Mr Prakash recommended. It was a very well-attended event with some beautifully designed dolls, but accompanied by very lengthy descriptions of the show and background in Hindi that I could have done without. Some of the explanations were in English too, but those were also too long for my taste 🙂

At dinner in a local restaurant and in the hotel afterwards (as I write this), power went out several times for several minutes. It feels like we in some ways really are at the edge of civilisation here!

 

India Holiday – Day 7: Nagaur

The first call to prayer is at 4:45am, and the sound carries extremely well into our suite. That ritual amplified sound of severely tortured dog is definitely one I can do without – might I suggest that muslims who wish to pray get an alarm clock and let the rest of us sleep?

Sadly, Mamta did not get better overnight and is coughing and sneezing miserably, poor girl. I can tell it’s serious as she for the first time since we started opts for plain toast for breakfast, rather than Paratha!

As we leave Jaipur, the scenery reminds me powerfully of a book I read recently, called Behind the Beautiful Forevers – it is set in Mumbais’s slums, written by a Pulitzer-winning journalist who lived there, and is both interesting and eye opening. In particular it sparks memories as we drive past large numbers of day labourers waiting and hoping for work, be it as a farm worker or a builder for the day.

The weather forecast for Jaipur this morning somewhat surprisingly said “Smoke”, and that is what we get: a thick, smelly haze reminiscent of the Delhi Stink. I don’t know what they are burning, but it doesn’t smell good.

Every city we have seen has autorickshaws – 3-wheeled narrow taxis that zip around and allow traffic to move. In the biggest cities they now run on compressed natural gas and are thus no longer a big source of pollution and interestingly it looks like each city has a different brand of rickshaw. In Jaipur, they are Piaggio like my own scooter is, and a little larger than the ones in Delhi. (In Nagaur they are different again, with lots of silver and decorations on them)

It occurs to me that traffic in India is similar to a fluid; going with the flow is literally what you have to do and while it looks chaotic I am sure it is much more efficient than the more rigid systems we use in the West. Riskier and more dangerous too I am sure, but if Indians suddenly adopted a Western attitude to staying in lane, overtaking on the inside, stopping at red lights and using the horn only in anger or emergency, I think the result would be a huge gridlocked traffic jam that barely moved… Not that that is a likely scenario 🙂

In Jaipur, we see several bicyclists with what looks like huge rifles over their shoulders. Apparently, they are security guards on their way to work – I am not sure what they will be guarding where a big rifle will be useful, but they probably know best. I’m sure they make a frightening Bang and they sure look imposing though!

The road out of Jaipur is frankly very good. 3 lanes in each direction with a big middle divider and relatively light traffic is the result of privatization – this is a toll road, and it’s a good experience. Of course, much of the way only 2 of the lanes are usable because the left one is used by traffic going the other way, or for broken down lorries and cars. Then again, in India 2 marked lanes serve as much more than that.

There is a big sign urging “heavy traffic” to keep left. Har, har. Lorries and buses drive wherever they please, clearly, typically halfway between two “fast” lanes. Our Transindus driver Mr Prakash finds it funny too; I think he has a well developed sense of humour 🙂

After a few hours, we turn off the toll road, towards a small town where we pit stop for lunch. From this point, the road is no longer excellent – in the good places it is a strip of asphalt just wide enough for two vehicles to pass, and in the bad places it’s either just a dirt track or a potholed asphalt road aspiring to become a dirt track. Mamta is feeling worse, and this road is definitely not helping.

Rajastan is famous for its marble, and we see huge numbers of places where marble is processed and sold. In one such city we pass through traffic suddenly grinds to a complete stop. This is unusual as it normally flows at least a bit, and it turns that the reason is congestion: on the narrow one-way road we are on, there are several tractors loaded with marble that are going the wrong way, completely blocking progress in both directions. They apparently do this to save themselves a large detour, but it frankly does not look like it is very efficient for anyone involved 🙂

As we finally approach Nagaur around 3pm, the landscape has turned distinctly desert-like. Big expanses of sparsely populated and very dry soil are interrupted by the odd solitary house and small groups of people working the land. Suddenly the term “to eke out a living” makes sense; eking is what these people do. It looks tough.

Nagaur is a small-ish city of 200,000 people, situated so it completely surrounds the central fort, called Ranvas Fort. It is an old fortification consisting of an impressive 1.8km of outer wall enclosing 36 hectares of land, with elaborate Havelis inside. It used to be the home of the local Maharajah and his 16 wives (!!!), with luxurious palaces, sophisticated water and wind capture systems, swimming pools, air conditioning, and much else. After independence and during the wars with Pakistan, the fort was used by the Indian army, and was sold in 1993 to private investors.

After being extensively restored with funds from both UNESCO and private charities, it started serving as a luxury hotel in October 2010, with each of the havelis (palaces) used by the Maharaja’s queens being used as a suite of rooms. This is where we stay, and it’s amazing! To first enter the bustling and busy city of Nagaur and then from there to enter the gates of the Fort where it is quiet and where there are no people is a relief. The structures are very different from our last hotel, but just stunning.

We opt for an early dinner and then spend a few hours on a guided tour of the place, ending with a walk on top of the outer wall just as the sun sets over the city. Truly stunning, and several groups of people on top of the roofs notice us and wave enthusiastically. It is impossible to resist waving back 🙂

Finally back in the tranquility of our room, we kick back and relax. And after a few minutes, we realize that there is a sizeable muslim population in Nagaur too, and that they also use a very public, loud wailing alarm system for remembering praying time, even worse than in Jaipur. Sigh…

Tomorrow, we leave Nagaur for Jaiselmer. I really hope Mamta feels better after a good night’s rest, so she can really enjoy the trip!

 

India Holiday – Day 6

Our last day in Jaipur: rest day. We get up at 9 and have breakfast, after which I have a much-needed whole body massage and Mamta and Iain relax.

Our driver (did I mention that he’s super friendly and helpful?) picks me up before lunch so I can go and try out the suit and shirts I bought yesterday – and wow, they are great. At less than £25 for a good quality tailored shirt, it’s a steal, and I let myself be convinced to buy 4 more shirts, for a total of 10. The suit is also nice and fits well – amazing that they could put it all together overnight.

I do resist the temptation to buy a carpet, although my steadfast refusal to buy clearly is the right way to bargain. Where the lovely fine 270x180cm camel hair carpet started out at £1,600 yesterday, today it’s all the way down to a “today only” price of £1,000. I’m fairly sure this is a good deal, but nevertheless say No Thanks to both carpet and more suits. The Indians really as businessmen at heart, but my suitcase is already full and my wallet empty!

While waiting for the suit to be fitted, I had a cup of Indian tea – and the special thing about Indian Tea is that it’s very, very sweet. It’s sweet for the simple reason that they heap huge amounts of sugar into even a small cup, with the effect that it’s a fairly syrupy drink that results. I like it 🙂

After a light lunch (Mamta is still feasting on Parathas), we went for a sightseeing/shopping trip in downtown Jaipur. Or at least in a part of town where there were both a lot of shops and a lot of people; once again, the effort of navigating this maze plus taking in all of the impressions and sights meant that we didn’t even last 2 hours before deciding to head back. We did get a few pieces for Mamta and for Anna though, and took a bunch of colourful photographs.

Iain has really taken to photography: he snaps away without much restraint, has an eye for interesting compositions and is willing to experiment. I look forward to seeing how long it takes before he beomes a much better photographer than myself – if he keeps practicing, I suspect it won’t be long.

A quiet evening at a local restaurant turns out to be quite a loud affair, as a local troupe performs song and dance inside the restaurant. The music is definitely an acquired taste, but the curry – mmm, the curry is delicious. My belly seems to be holding up well, so I am hopeful that I can continue to enjoy the local food and not have to order from the “continental” part of the menu…

Mamta feels a bit unwell so we call it a night early as tomorrow, we leave Jaipur for Nagaur; our driver says it’s a 6-hour drive with a stop about halfway. I am sure it will be interesting!

India Holiday – Day 5

After a late night, we had a relatively early start, setting off to the Amber Fort at 8:30, to be there in time to get our planned elephant ride to the fort, up a steep cliff side.

The queue was fast moving and our guide for Jaipur was both friendly and competent, which was nice. The tens of very persistent hawkers were slightly less so, but we just treated them as part of the ambience. After the same hat, guide book, elephant figurine and “excellent gift idea” consisting of cheap pens has been pushed in your face for the umpteenth time, it does get a bit tedious though 🙂

The 30-minute elephant ride itself was great! Elephants have a pleasant slow rythm, that was only interrupted when our elephant – 35-year old Chumpa – stopped to have a 30-second piss that sounded like a sizeable waterfall happening underneath us. There are 123 elephants working here going up to the fort in a constant stream, all female, and they go on doing this until they retire at the age of 50!

The 17th century fort itself is imposing, with ornate carvings, sophisticated plumbing for both heated baths and “air conditioned” rooms, not to mention bedrooms and entertainment spaces for the Raj and his 12 (!!) wives. Imagine the strife, rivalry and competition that would cause; in general, Hindus do not allow multiple wives (only for the Raj), and I think that’s a good idea.

After the fort, we went to the Wind Palace in downtown Jaipur. It is an impressive-looking structure but it is only a facade that is 1 meter deep – designed for the ladies of the palace behind it to sit in privacy to observe city life, processions and such.

Jaipur itself is a mad, Indian style city, but at 3.5M people is much smaller than Delhi and also feels both cleaner and nicer, relatively speaking of course. The air is certainly cleaner, allowing for both nice sunshine and views uninterrupted by thick smog. In the evening, huge numbers of stars are visible, something I have been looking forward to.

On the trip, our guide took us to a jewel maker; Jaipur is known for employing something like 80,000 people in the cutting and polishing business alone. “Just know that it is my duty to take you here, but not for you to buy anything”. Good advice: My kind of guide!

The jewel crafting we saw was interesting but we did not really want jewelry and instead toured the huge selection of other craft items also for sale and ended up buying a lovely bronze Natraj sculpture that will look great at home. It is one of Mamta’s old wishes to get one of those, so mission accomplished 🙂 The sculpture that I really liked was more than a meter tall and cost several thousand dollars, not to mention it being a bit awkward to find a spot for in the house, so we passed on that one…

The Jantar Mantar is an old observatory, Indian Style: it is full of instruments to measure solar positions, time and celestial positions with great accuracy – all mainly in order to develop accurate astrological predictions. Talk about confusing accuracy and precision 🙂 Anyway, the structures are impressive – the huge sun dial that can show the time with 2 second precision is rightfully in the Guinness Book of Records.

At the City Palace we had lunch in the local cafe (and even though there were Western dishes, it was impossible to resist the temptation of the delicious native dishes) and then toured several separate areas of the palace. The Indians make a big deal out of the fact that Prince Albert visited it in 1947 for the Independence, but the highlight for me was definitely the armoury: a couple of rooms full of interesting weapons from the 19th century and earlier, ranging from the ornate to the truly lethal.

Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside the Palace, so I have no pictures – only of the outside, which is beautiful in all its pink/terracotta glory.

Here, we also went to a small arts/crafts place where artists exhibit their goods, and ended up buying a couple of drawings. The artist spun long stories about just how fine the drawings are and how long they take to make (8 days, 6 months, …) but I think that is exaggerated by a few orders of magnitude. Or maybe it’s elapsed time, with lots of other stuff also being done at the same time. Either way, beautiful stuff, and an educational half an hour.

Finally, we went to a place that does “block printing”. It is a technique that is used to print layers of patterns on natural cloth, and we were shown examples of this. They also produce carpets here, and we got a thorough look at just how much work it takes to first hand knot each individual knot, then cut, scrape, clean, wash and burn the product until it’s both smooth and somewhat dirt/spill resistant.

We also looked at several carpets made from wool, silk and even camel hair. Because camel hair is quite thick, it undergoes a lot of different treatments before it can be used in a carpet – and the results are stunning.  My favourites are the silk ones though, but the colours are very delicate, and I’m not sure the several-thousand-pounds-price is worth it over the more boring £50 carpet from IKEA we have. It’s certainly a big investment to make.

For me, the real treat was upstairs, where they sell fabrics as well as custom made garments. I decided to get a custom-made suit and 6 tailored shirts – I hope they will be nice when I pick them up tomorrow!

The tour of the day was long but excellent! And we went back to the hotel to collapse for a few hours, to get energy for the evening. Here, we went to a restaurant with live music and dancers and enjoyed a Rajastani Thali – delicious in its variety, although not very spicy! Iain was completely rapt with the dancing and music and even joined in for a bit; it was lovely to see the gleam in his eyes…

Perhaps the dancers mistook him for a girl, with his smooth face and long hair? Our guide today did the same earlier, repeatedly referring to Iain as “she” and “her”, until Mamta gently pointed out the mistake 🙂

Here in the capital of Rajastan, I can truly say that India is not a relaxing place to be. It’s manic in its intensity of sound, colours, people, noise, tastes and smell – from sewers to fresh mangoes with everything in between. The assault on the senses is intense and interesting, but very tiring.

Tomorrow is a free day: time for a massage, a bit of shopping, and some time in the pool…

 

India Holiday – Day 4: Jaipur

Today, we checked out of the Metropolitan to make our way south, into the province of Kings: Rajestan. Jaipur is the capital and our destination, just 230km from Delhi, and we started at 8:30am. Our driver, the affable Mr Prakash, assures us it will take 5-6 hours, which means we will average perhaps just 35km/h, or 20mph!

We set off on one of the big modern highways leading past the airport and out of Delhi, and quickly find ourselves in a vast sea of cars weaving in and out and slowly making progress. The road is a toll road that goes all the way to Mumbai (eventually), and Mr Prakash assures us it is a good road all the way. Ha! 🙂

After leaving Delhi, a long stretch of modern India awaits us: rows of gleaming, modern office towers in various designs that would not look out of place in Manhattan or San Francisco stretch for kilometers, competing with construction materials and low huts of more typical Indian provenance. None of this was here 25 years ago on Mamta’s first visit – the highway was a dirt track in places, and there were no offices for IBM and other multi nationals.

Traffic moves constantly, but in fits and starts, and never very fast. Slow moving lorries drive in the “fast” lane next to tractors pulling ridiculously huge loads, leaving other lorries, uses, vans, cars and motorbikes to overtake wherever there is room – on the inside, or often between other vehicles. Many don’t have side mirrors, and custom is to honk the horn before passing someone, meaning that a constant barrage of horns can be heard all the way. It’s never quiet in India!

The roads have lane markings, but using them for target practice seems common; nobody sticks to a single lane. Instead, many drivers constantly weave left and right to slip through temporary gaps in traffic, sometimes to heart-stopping effect as lorries, buses and other cars pass within centimeters of what feels like fairly unauthorised manoeuvres.

It also is common to see someone drive the wrong way – motorbikes do it a lot as a shortcut, but when loaded lorries do it, it’s a bit scary. As with everything else that happens on the road, the drivers take it stoically and just drive around whatever the obstacle is, be it ghost driver, meandering cow, crashed lorry, or whatever. It quickly becomes obvious why the drive will take many hours!

Further along, the highway is abruptly diverted to what looks like an older parallel road, to allow construction on the highway to happen: they are building flyovers to allow roads to pass underneath. This happens not just once, but every few kilometers – I think I saw at least 20 such projects being actively worked on along the way!

Construction abounds next to the road as well; it is several hours before we get our first glimpse of agricultural land as until then it is built up, or being huilt up with houses, offices, shacks, shops, and general enterprises.

When we finally turn off the main highway around 30km short of Jaipur to get to our lunch stop at the Samode Palace, we breathe a sigh of relief. Here, there is actual countryside next to the road, and our eyes feast on the calmer vista of plots of land being tilled, the odd house, a small group of women walking next to the road, and the odd house, sometimes derelict and sometimes in decent repair.

The road gets increasingly narrow, bumpy and windy and we finally arrive at the Palace around 1:30pm. It turns out to be a gorgeous former Raj residence, now converted to a hotel, and we get a lovely relaxed lunch – surprisingly of non-Indian food! The proprietor/chef turns out to be Mrs Flora, a Danish lady who now lives in Mumbai, who has designed the menu to be a mix of cuisines. We liked it a lot!

The rest of the trip to Jaipur was quick, and we arrived at perhaps 4:30pm, but it is surprising how tiring it is to be a passenger on a long drive! 🙂

Our residence in the Pink City of Jaipur is the Samode Haveli, owned by the same people as the Palace, and it’s nothing short of gorgeous. A lovely old, restored building, it has all of the facilities we would want, and they upgraded us to a huge suite that is just fantastic. I am sure our 3 nights here will be super memorable.

Last night, I sent an email to Transindus with feedback on our annoying Delhi guide, and was anxious to see what they would do about it. The answer was quick: they reprimanded him, he apologized, and they not only sent a nice reply back to me but also called us directly as soon as we arrived here. Perhaps the upgrade here is also part of this?

The welcoming lady said we got upgraded because Iain is so sweet, which is of course true so perhaps we’ll just leave it there 🙂

A delicious Rajestani Thali for dinner and then bed. Tomorrow will be a very busy day seeing the sights of Jaipur and going for a elephant ride… Can’t wait to see more India!

India Holiday – Day 3

Today, the alarm went off at 7am, to let us start out sightseeing at 9am – necessary to avoid the crowds. Life in Delhi starts late, and ends late – many shops do not open until 10, 11, or even 12. Except the vegetable markets, which are open from 4-10am. Vegetarians need to start early 🙂

Our annoying, patronizing guide met us at the hotel, and we set off. He has a habit of telling “stories” peppered with fairly useless facts, and then repeating in a slightly different way; the effect is eye-wateringly annoying. For example, telling us the name of some long-forgotten dude and then the names of all his kids is not very relevant, nor interesting, nor memorable.

Anyway, we went to a nice Hindu temple , the Laxminarayan, and apparently the only one that Gandhi himself opened. Of course we had to take our shoes off, and inside saw each of the main gods as well as their wives, which are always to the left. Mamta made an offering to Hanuman, whom her father always prayed to as well.

The swastika, so hatefully used by the Nazis, is everywhere, as Hindus have used the symbol for thousands of years, and of course continue to do so in spire of the brief, intense abuse it was subjected to. The profusion of colours used by Hindus is always interesting, and the heavy use of gold, turquoise and garish pink reminded me of the scene from Outsourced where the main character is asked to describe “tacky” 🙂

Outside the temple, our guide did his best to convince us not to go into the mosque on the itinerary, the Jama Masjid. Here also you have to take shoes off, but “they never clean it, it’s very dirty”. Seems hard to believe, and when we looked inside from the steps it looked ok. On the way to the mosque, we went through parts of Old Delhi that are clearly very poor – drug dealers and addicts throng the streets. Of course, these are all muslims. I don’t think our guide like muslims much.

More understandably, he also is not a big fan of the Delhi municipality, which apparently is super corrupt. One thing I did not know is that most government officials – be they MPs, judges, bureaucrats or railway officials – all get government sponsored housing. If you lose your job, you lose your home too, so it’s worth holding on to it at almost any cost!

After not visiting the (frankly very impressive looking) mosque, we went to the Red Fort, a huge edifice that used to be the King’s residence but which got turned into barracks by the Brits after 1857. After a terrorist attack in 2006, visitors can no longer enter the 2km long fort – bummer, as it looked interesting. Apparently the moat outside the huge walls had crocodiles that were fed with the remains of hanged criminals. Hmm.

From the Red fort, we hired bicycle rickshaws to take us on a roundtrip through the (wholesale) shopping district of Chandni Chowk, featuring incredibly narrow streets  And talk about crowds! Huge numbers of people shopping, squatting, eating, talking, bargaining, walking, jostling, trading, cooking in a vast cacophony of humanity – and the shops may be wholesalers but they still look very small, with perhaps 1-3m of frontage each.

It is like ordered chaos: no square foot is unused, there is activity everywhere. And overhead, along the walls and crisscrossing the skies, is the lifeline for modern life: power, phone and data cables. Imagine all the wires in your house, including the ones behind the TV, in a huge, disorderly jumble: that is what it looks like. And in spite of what it looks like, it works most of the time, even during weather – storm, monsoon rains, etc.  Unbelievable.

Sightseeing for the day ended at noon, with a visit to the Raj Ghat where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated, and where leaders since then have been too. Beautiful grasslands sculpted tastefully, it was interesting.

For lunch, we decided to try our luck at a chain Mamta knew about, called Haldiram. Plenty of variety (all vegetarian of course) and cheap, I had a nice Masala Dosa and Mamta had her usual Papdi Chat and Pani Puri, although she still maintains that Moti Mahal in Southall does it best 🙂

When we spotted a Vodafone shop, we decided to get. SIM for the iPad, to get internet on the road. The waiting in mobile phone shops is bad everywhere, but this one took the prize. We got ticket number 102 in the queue and settled down for a long wait as number 87 was being served. Then 88, 99, 100 – then 107 and 105. Huh?? Mamta’s quick reactions and insistent outburst in Hindi got us to the front of the queue at this point, only to discover that getting a 1-month prepaid sim card requires not just money and patience, but also a passport, proof of address (however temporary) and a spare passport photo. All of which we by a stroke of luck had to hand, so after a further patience-stretching period we got the needed sim card. Maybe it will even start working at some point… Fingers crossed.

Lazy afternoon at the hotel, with Mamta getting a massage and Iain going in the pool. I chickened out and did not go in the pool after discovering that not everything in Delhi is warm – I suspect that the only reason the pool was not frozen solid is ample supplies of anti-freeze 🙂

Today I also sent a thought to my mormor Anna, whose 97th birthday it would have been today.  I miss her.

Off to dinner, then on the road to Jaipur tomorrow morning.

India is still awesome 🙂

India Holiday – Day 2

Today, Mamta had curry for breakfast (Parathas) and thoroughly enjoyed it; I tried more traditional fare as I’m not sure I can do 3 curries a day! The Haze is better than Day 1, but I can still taste the burning tires. Visibility is much better too, we can see perhaps 1000m! Nice temperature of 20C in the morning and 25C in the afternoon, it’s hard to believe it’s nearly Christmas. Nevertheless, the locals are wearing sweaters and jackets and are muttering about winter being very cold.  I guess that when it gets up to 45-48C in summer, 15C in the night is cold-ish 🙂

Off to see the sights with our Delhi guide from TransIndus.

Motorbikes are literally everywhere. Helmets are mandatory, but only for men – there was outcry when it became mandatory for women too a few years ago, so now it’s optional for women who prefer neat hair over life. Which seems to be all of them! Or perhaps it’s the men who prefer their wives looking beautiful?

Parliament is a big round building, and the presidential palace was the viceroy’s until independence in 1947 – and he stayed there for 5 years after independence. There is no right of access to this area for the general public, which is a bit weird, but explains the absence of the usual crowds. Old Ambassador cars are still used by VIPs, and the design has been unchanged forever (just motor upgrades every now and then), and it shows. I think they look rubbish.

Went to the oldest part of New Delhi, which is 2-3,000 years old and saw the Qutub Minar  – a huge brick minaret built over a long period of time, started by Hindus and completed by Muslims. Muslims hacked off the faces of all the ornaments when they took over the rule, sadly, marring the beauty of the surrounding structures.

At Humayun’s Tomb, 160 family members from the same generation are interred, very impressive. It’s a big symmetrical structure with gates, fountains, a big lawn cut into 16 “gardens”.  Here we saw at least a million school kids in colourful uniforms. Very cute and happy 🙂  Interestingly, our guide did not want to enter the monument as Hindus apparently do not want to enter a burial site.

Lunch in nice restaurant near India Gate, and the food was ok. Apparently, the Delhi Golf Club is the most expensive in the world. Sounds unbelievable, but then there is a lot of money as well as a lot of poverty here so perhaps it’s true.

Saw the India Gate war memorial, commemorating the 80,000 soldiers India sent to help during WW1 – they all died, not a single one returned. The monument itself did not look terribly interesting and we only stayed for 2 minutes – we were not allowed to linger.

Frankly, our guide is weird; he is annoyingly patronizing and clearly wanted to get rid of us. He seemed unsure of where to take us, and suggested we have two half-days of sightseeing when our programme clearly calls for two whole days.  In the end, we got half a day: from 10am to 2:30pm, including lunch. When Mamta asked if we could spare 2 minutes for Iain to see a snake charmer, he said “no, they are everywhere”. We haven’t seen another one since, but hopefully will…

Returned to the hotel for a nap, then went to Connaught Place for shopping and dinner. It’s a huge, mad place, with designer shops next to… not-designer-holes-in-the-wall.  It seems odd that there is no effort to patch the pavement, wash the walls, and generally clear out the sewage and garbage, even right outside high-prestige shops. It definitely makes for a high-contrast experience.

Had dinner and cocktail at a restaurant until we remembered not to eat ice! It is normally made from unfiltered, potentially dangerous tap water – hopefully there will be no Delhi Belly tomorrow! I had the most awesome Mutton Dosa though, and we then took an autorickshaw back to the hotel. Iain thought that ride was the best part of the day 🙂

When relaxing, Iain is reading Hunger Games, I am reading the gripping Daemon, and Mamta is playing Candy Crush. I like holidays 🙂

 

India Holiday – Day 1: Delhi

What a day! We checked in early to enjoy the full experience of the Virgin Clubhouse in Heathrow – and had a haircut and pork belly for dinner, all included in the Upper Class experience. What a difference to “normal” air travel, and a great start to our holiday 🙂  I am sure Iain will look with disdain at flying any other way now – the experience with free food, huge comfortable lounges and a seat that turns into an actual bed with duvet and pillow is indeed hard to beat!

One in New Delhi, the first thing we noticed is the fog . Haze. Smog. According to the forecast, it is meant to be sunny, but it is just hazy to perhaps 200m visibility. Brown, smelly soup that tastes of burnt tires is how Iain describes it, and it’s spot on.

On the streets, it is much like the India I know: busy, busy, busy, and loads of garbage everywhere you look. But everyone being so nice and friendly too, it’s definitely not a “hostile” kind of busy.

The Metropolitan is a very nice hotel, but not quite as well organized as hoped. They didn’t know that we needed to sleep 3 people and I hope that is not a sign of things to come – but they quickly sorted that out, thankfully.

After a short nap, dinner in the local Indian restaurant was great; our first curry. I had Tikka Masala, and enjoyed it hugely 🙂

Then off to see the relatives in Old Delhi, where Mamta’s dad Mahavir was born and grew up. Subzi Mandi is a part of town that looks and feels quite different from what we saw in New Delhi: narrow streets, throngs of people, market stalls with fresh produce everywhere, and shops specializing in everything from shoelaces to… Well, you name it. A huge, busy mass of humanity describes it well, I think!

The relatives were lovely; we met about 20 of them I think and there were super friendly, really enjoyed meeting them. We risked having some chawel (rice), and hope it will be ok – it certainly was well tasty! Got to speak to Ricky, who spent 8 months in London until May and really wants to go back – works as a programmer for Tata Consulting on the Lloyds TSB web site. Super nice guy 🙂

A long discussion later and then a trip to the streets – for everyone! – to find a data SIM for the iPhone so we can have Internet. It is possible to get this, even at 9pm on a Sunday, but the cards apparently take 5-6 days to get activated! That is a while and I will try to find a Vodafone shop tomorrow and see if I have more luck. Until then, we cut one of Ricky’s SIM cards to fit the iPhone, so now have a local phone number, yay 🙂

We also got presents – a really nice shirt, tie, cufflinks and handkerchief for me, and lots of stuff for Mamta and Aruna. Iain got a big basket of sweets that I’m sure he’ll enjoy. Oh, and money too! Definitely too much! And finally, we all got a red dot on the forehead, Indian style.

I learned a few Hindi words, which I have now forgotten 🙁 and learned about greetings for elders, kids, etc. Bottom line is that a) it is complicated, b) the family helps out with directions, c) it involves touching of legs, feet and hair in particular ways, and d) everyone ends up having a laugh. Clearly the rituals are important, but everyone is understanding of n00bs too 🙂

Now back at the hotel, relaxing. We decided to get a couple of half bottles of whiskey to both try some new ones and to give a little help to the digestive system, and tonight tried the Balvennie whiskey. Yum, I’m sure it will help.

Oh, and there were at least 5 power cuts just today! That is a bit scary, particularly when you are in the lift, but I suppose we’ll get used to it.  The locals don’t seem to notice 🙂

Big day tomorrow, can’t wait to see more of the city t I have to think of as the Big Stink 🙂