India Holiday – Day 19: Back to Delhi

Thursday. I am beginning to get used to the days having names again rather than just numbers; on Friday we fly back to London and Monday it’s back to work. How surreal does that seem here from the Oberoi in Agra?

It’s also our last morning in Agra, and for a few minutes the view from the hotel offers more of what I had hoped for: We can see the Taj Mahal right in front of our room and through the fog see that it is bathed in subtle sunlight. It’s a great way to be reminded of what we saw yesterday, although it makes me sad that we can’t go back and relive the experience 🙂

The Oberoi is a luxurious and opulent hotel, but the service does not live up to its architectural grandeur. Breakfast is nearly over before we get our first cup of coffee, and staff in general seem much less engaged than at the Taj Lake Palace – our new benchmark for what fantastic, outstanding customer service is like.

After 3 weeks in India you might think we would have gotten used to the display next to the road, but it is just not so and we spend much of the 5-hour drive to Delhi being amazed at what we see: a heady mix of squalor and luxury that really has to be experienced.

We also see 3 real first-hand examples of how corrupt the system is – if you read my post from a few days ago, you’ll have an idea of how endemic and damaging it is.

First, Mr Prakash points out a traffic police officer climbing into an adjacent lorry, explaining that he’ll be wanting money for something – if not, a ticket will be issued. And sure enough, moments later we see the driver pull out his wallet, count out notes, and hand them over. The police officer leaves the vehicle and walks toward the next in line; I cannot believe my eyes. It is so blatant and open, it’s disgusting!

Next, I notice that the lorry in front of us seems rot be in particularly bad repair (which is saying something!) and that there is no number plate, and suggest to Mr Prakash that the corrupt police must really like that one as they don’t need to make up any charges to get a bribe here. However, he explains that the vehicle most likely is operating under a “pre-paid bribe plan” where the owner pays a monthly fee to the relevant people and in return is left alone, including running red lights, parking wherever he wants, etc. I find it hard to believe, but it’s probably true nevertheless.

Just 10 minutes later we arrive at a toll booth for the highway and just before it a policeman indicates to Mr Prakash that we should pull over. Mr Prakash is asked to come out of the car and the next 5 minutes are spent with the two in vigorous discussion, interspersed with Mr Prakash demonstrating that some feature or other is in order: The fire extinguisher, the first aid kit, the car paperwork, the insurance, the drivers licence, the lights, etc, etc. It is clear that the policeman is looking for something to pin on Mr Prakash, but everything seems in order.

Eventually Mr Prakash returns, and he is not happy: He was fined 600 Rs for two alleged offences: For not having a first aid kit, and for not cooperating with the police. Astonishing: There clearly is a first aid kit in the car (I looked at it myself) and I guess that the only way in which he did not cooperate with the police was that he did not agree to pay a bribe when first approached and instead said that all his papers etc were according to regulation, hence the detailed inspection.

It is of course possible to complain, but the next level of the bureaucracy is also corrupt, all the way up the chain, and even if you find someone who is not then it will take a huge investment of time to follow through on a complaint. It seems hopeless, and it makes me very sad and angry; how can the country ever get out of this vicious corrupt cycle where every official abuses his position of power for personal gain?

As it is Mr Prakash’s responsibility to look after the car for TransIndus, he is also liable to personally pay any fines that result in the car or paperwork not being in order. That seems fair, until you realise that the fine is completely arbitrary and grossly unfair; I think the company ought to be able to make an allowance for this kind of thing rather than penalise their drivers for the police being hopelessly corrupt.

If the TransIndus tipping guideline is any indication, I imagine that the driver is paid relatively little: they suggests a tip of 200 Rs per day for the driver, but 500-1,000 Rs for a local guide. In most locations, I think the driver has been much more valuable than the guides, and tipping them 5 times more seems completely disproportionate to me – I wonder if the suggested tip is proportionate to what they are paid. It reminds me how large the income inequality is in India, and here is a real example.

Suitably chastened, we continue towards The Grand in Delhi, looking forward to meeting the relatives tonight, before we depart for London tomorrow. Unfortunately, the hotel is very far from where they live – the 25km distance will take 1.5-2 hours to traverse and we realise it’s not feasible for us to do so and get back in reasonable time.

Fortunately, Babita and the other relatives are set on meeting us in spite of the distance and 7 of them agree to come meet us at the hotel, yay 🙂

They arrive at around 7pm and after meeting in our room we all go down to the hotel’s Italian restaurant for dinner. I am surprised to learn that they all think it’s terribly early to eat – normally they start dinner at 8:30 or even 9:30pm and as such are not terribly hungry yet. I show them a small selection of “just” 300 photos from our trip, and afterwards we go around the large hotel lobby to take more pictures of the group – it’s a lot of fun!

Well fed, we return to the room and have a hop-in on the big bed; there is a great atmosphere 🙂

Then around 10 it’s time to say goodbye. I knew that they had arrived at the hotel by car – there is no metro station nearby – but I was astonished to see what car it was; it has to be the smallest car ever! Somehow, they managed to fit both the driver and 7 passengers in there, sitting or lying in multiple layers, and I got to see first-hand just how so many people get into a car. And they were of course smiling and jolly about it – I hope it wasn’t too uncomfortable a ride home!

Sated with impressions and tired from the long day, we finish the packing and dive into bed for our last night in India. Boo hoo!

India Holiday – Day 17: Tigers, Trains and Agra

They say that doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.

It certainly feels insane to me that we – after 3 safaris with no tigers – choose to set the alarm clock for 05:30 on January 1st, in order to try it one last time. When it actually goes off after just 5 hours of sleep, it feels no less insane. Happy New Year.

We are as ready as it’s possible to be at 06:15 and trudge over to the outdoor waiting area to get a cup of coffee and a biscuit before leaving. It’s cold, very cold; perhaps 4C, and very, very hazy. Any tigers that come our way will have to be less than 20 meters away or they’ll be invisible. And our jeep persists in not turning up at 06:30, nor at 06:45, nor at 07:00. What does finally turn up at 7 is a canter – a big 20-seater that we have so far avoided, being favoured with the smaller, nimbler and more comfortable jeep.

We seriously consider going back to bed at this point. We’re tired and cold already, and if it wasn’t for the fact that we are well under way to pick up more passengers when the guide tells us that we’re going to Sector 5 – where nobody saw any tigers yesterday – we are not impressed. He explains that the selection of sector is done by computer, implying that since a computer is involved, the selection is flawless. I am sceptical.

The amount of leg room in the jeep was a problem; it was hard for me to sit comfortably and I ended up sitting behind with my a knee on either side of the driver’s seat. On the canter, the legroom available is if anything worse and the only seat I can use is in the middle seat of the back row. It does not seem to offer any advantages other than legroom, but at least I now fit in the vehicle 🙂

As the canter fills up, it soon becomes clear that I am the only “gora” (white person) onboard – everyone else is Indian. I don’t mind, but I’m fairly certain we are not going to see any tigers and seriously consider ways to get back to my warm, comfortable bed to sleep for a few more hours rather than endure more cold, bumpy roads.

Mamta is no less cold and reminds me it’s worth staying positive so I put on my happy face and hope for the best.

We drive for about 45 minutes into the park, along roads that are familiar from the day before, and see very little other than hazy landscape and more Samber deer. I just wish it would be over soon, frankly.

Then – in a flash – everything changes. A jeep in front of us is stopped and someone says “There!” – and there it is indeed, right next to the road: A Royal Bengal Tiger in all her glory. Everybody rushes to the side of the canter, standing up to take photos, pointing and smiling.

The guide immediately tries to ushers me to a favourable position in front – I guess he knows on which side his bread is buttered – but I am so tall that if I stand up it doesn’t really matter where I am and I don’t want to block everyone else’s view 🙂

The tiger moves along slowly, limping, and clearly has a severe injury on her front left leg or paw. Why she comes so close to the road and us I don’t know, but it offers us a minute or two of time where she is in view, and I snap several photos.

The tiger we see is a fairly recent mum with 3 cubs, and the theory is that she has been fighting a male tiger over one of the cubs – which is male. Male tigers will readily kill any other male tiger to eliminate competition for the females, even their own offspring. It’s a tough world out there.

We spend the rest of the time waiting for the tiger to reappear (she doesn’t) and then on driving slowly back towards the gate following some male tiger marks, but we don’t see any more tigers. One was enough though; our spirits are immeasurably higher now than before.

Apparently, seeing a tiger is good luck, and we choose to take the timing as a sign that 2013 will be a lucky year for the Mertner family 🙂

Having been on four safaris, I can also reveal the pattern they all seem to follow: First, the guide suggests that the safari focuses just on tigers, ignoring smaller game. Then he spots tiger prints or hears a noise or something, and a hectic, lengthy chase follows. And then, if no tiger is seen, the rest of the safari is spent looking at smaller game, without acknowledging that the “tiger focus” is off. Seems to work 🙂

Back at the hotel, we quickly grab breakfast and rush out the door as we need to make sure we don’t miss our train scheduled for a 12:30 departure: We are going to Bharatpur by train where we meet our driver and then drive from there to Agra.

The station is full of interesting people, from the old man chewing something to the “cleaning lady” that ineffectually sweeps the platform and the businessman crossing the tracks between platforms with his briefcase, and of course – this being India – many, many more. As the train turns out to be 25 minutes late, we have plenty of time to observe.

The train is the longest I have ever seen; the platform is 1km long, and the train fills all of it! It stops slowly and stays stationary for just a minute or two, so it’s important to be in the right area before the train arrives if you want to avoid boarding the train after it has started leaving again – something that looks very common. Fortunately, it takes a little while for such a long train to get up to speed!

We are in a 1st class sleeper carriage that is spacious and clean but has seen a lot of heavy use and is clearly not of recent manufacture. Sadly, the windows are filthy, making it impossible to take any photos while on the move – it makes me very happy with the choice of driving everywhere as it’s so interesting to see what is happening along the road.

After the attendant makes the bed for Mamta, she decides to nap, while Iain plays an iPad game and I write the post for yesterday, only just finishing as we arrive in Bharatpur. A pleasant 3-hour train ride – definitely not a bad way to travel, if only the windows were in good shape!

Bharatpur is a major railway junction and the station is incredibly busy, heaving with crowds that have made themselves at home on the platforms, between the tracks and even on the tracks in some cases. We are convinced to take a porter – a good thing as the walk along the platform to the car turns out to be 2km! The porter whizzes our heavy suitcase onto his head and motors away at high speed while talking on his cellphone and navigating the crowds. It’s a mad, mad, crazy country.

Mr Prakash then takes us to Fatehpur Sikri – a huge abandoned palace on the way to Agra. Our guide is frantic with worry as we get there just 2 minutes before they close the gates, but we make it inside and it’s well worth it.

The palace was built by the Mughal emperor Akbar in the late 1500s and was abandoned just 3 years after it was complete, because of a lack of drinking water in the vicinity. It’s very well preserved and has a lot of interesting features – for example, Akbar married 3 wives, one Christian, one Hindu and one Muslim (to keep the peace) and built each of them a palace inside the palace, each more lavish than the other.

It’s 6pm by the time we finish at the palace, the sun has gone down, it’s cold, it’s hazy/smoggy again, and we’re now both tired and hungry – breakfast was a long time ago! Agra is only 35km away though, and our hotel is the swanky Oberoi Amarvilas hotel so we decide to wait until we arrive and then have dinner in style there.

Night driving in India is not my favourite, but it was this evening that I discovered that night parking isn’t great either. One our way to Agra, a gridlock that would impress even Parisians on a bad day held us virtually stationary for more than 2 hours before we finally got through the choke point and could get going.

Agra is extremely foggy as expected but the Oberoi looks fantastic when we finally arrive at around 9:30, and we dive straight into the restaurant to get filled up and then crash into bed, exhausted but happy. What a day.

Tomorrow, it’s time to see the Taj Mahal, and we don’t start until 10am. Bliss.

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 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 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 🙂

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!