India Holiday – Day 15: Ranthambore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

India Holiday – Day 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!

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 🙂