For Clive and Donna – Thanks so much for all you did to give us a great send off…what can we say, you couldn’t want for nicer, more talented, generous and creative friends. Viva La Ramblas!
We’ve been away from Brighton & The Shire for just coming up to 4 weeks now and the initial period of panic, bewilderment and complete incomprehension is slowly coming to an end! Knowing that you’re probably missing the sound of my voice already (ahem), I thought I’d write you a letter (and its a long one…sorry!) describing our first week in India. Here’s how it unfolded…
Week 1 – 22nd to the 28th September
Having set off from Blighty on Monday night we landed early on Tuesday morning still wondering whether we should have gone straight for a beach rather than into the heart of an Indian mega-city. We had strict instructions to meet a man outside a coffee shop with a pink card with ‘Bed & Chai’ written on it…
We were told that many would try to hustle or even kidnap us and hold us to ransom…We were let to believe child criminals would hound us like artful dodgers with knives…Instead the only tension was provided by the fleet of tow trucks with giant loudspeakers on their cabs threatening to tow away anyone who stopped for more than 2 minutes. They reminded me of Nilhan’s recollection of a man with a megaphone shouting ‘get out of your k-hole’ at casualties in the stone-circle at Glastonbury!
The journey to the B&B was one of wide-eyed excitement (and a little nausea), as we saw up close how incredibly frenetic, polluted and congested the city was. Fortunately it was also evident that Delhi was vibrant, energetic, colourful and overflowing with utter madness.
We arrived at Bed and Chai, a great recommendation from Helen O’Gorman, and had a look around. We noticed that, on a blackboard in the communal area, someone had written ‘Dengue Fever hits Delhi’. We didn’t go in that room again…
Judging by Bed & Chai, £30 a night in Delhi gets you a basic but clean and safe room. In addition, every hostel/ hotel will help you sort out anything from taxis to trains and always has a recommendation for your next hotel too. In fact, I think its true to say that pretty much any person in India will offer to solve any issue for you for the requisite amount of Rupees, whether they actually can or not. Very few people ever say ‘no’, which is nice, if a little inefficient at times!
Anyway, the lovely guy who manned the desk offered up a couple of recommendations for food. We liked the sound of Hauz-Khas Village, without having a clue why. I think the word village just sounded god to us country folk.
We approached our first haggle with great energy (hiring a tuk-tuk for 70p) and 30 death defying minutes later we arrived in a large area of woodland that is entirely surrounded by Delhi. We were gestured onwards and walked into a settlement about the size of a small village but made up entirely of multi story bars, restaurants etc. and not in a shiny or mall kind of way…oh no…this was all quite Shangri-la / Block 9 but turned down to about 6 out of 10.
In fact, The whole of South Delhi seems to have leant a lot of its character to the east-end of Glastonbury; with sectors (GK1 for example) divided into blocks and numbers (such as our hotel @ GK1 R55), each block has it’s own market (we passed and visited M Block Market a lot) complete with taxi firm, Rickshaws, Cows (always cows) and restaurants.
Back to Hauz-Khas and we walked up and down a bit, trying to get our eye in, but mostly being jumpy as scooters, merchants and youths promenaded through the narrow streets. We spotted a rooftop bar that looked good and tried to find a way to get to it.
What we didn’t realise was that each building might house 4 or 5 bars, each on different floors. At the nondescript building entrance, doormen for each bar would try to court you. In accordance with the ‘always say yes’ convention I mentioned earlier, the following conversation happend twice:
‘Can we get to the bar on the top floor?’
‘Yes, of course, please come with me…’.
We were then led to a different part of the building and shown in through a door. At this point we again clarified:
‘The roof bar is just through there, yeah?’
‘Most definately, please…’ came the answer.
5 Minutes later Catherine and I would conclude that there was no roof bar in this sub bar of this floor in this building…’right lets go back to the start and try again’…
Anyway, eventually we found the elusive bar and sat down to some cocktails and indian nibbles. It was a great place for night 1; clearly not Kansas anymore, but still with an element of Brighton-esque familiarity. Happy with our location, we made merry for a couple of hours and toasted our own brilliance in coping with Delhi so easily. This wasn’t so bad, so much for the scare stories…we were smashing it…what could go wrong or stress us out in this amazing place…
On Wednesday morning, its safe to say, the confidence and bravado of the night before waned somewhat, slowly at first and dramatically thereafter! We now refer to it as the ‘day that never happened’. The plan was simple, figure out the Metro, take a train to Chandni Chowk (Old Delhi), walk around the ‘medieval’ old town and the Red Fort, make our way back to Connaught place (the British administrative centre), past India Gate and back to South Delhi.
We were doing well right up to the Metro. In fact, now I remember that on the way to the Metro station we passed a totally naked man (save for a pair of jeans which were round his ankles) walking up the middle of the busy road. No-one batted an eyelid.
Anyway, we realise now that the sequence of events during that day were highly influenced by 2 factors.
- Everyone trustworthy kept telling us we were going to get hassled, hustled and potentially harmed or robbed.
- Everyone un-trustworthy plays on the scare stories to manipulate you, especially with newly terrified tourists.
The metro was cheap, clean, democratic and ridiculously busy. There was a ladies carriage on every train, which was essential for Catherine to avoid the stares and potential intrusions into her personal space. Whilst I levitated in the middle of a hugely overcrowded compartment, a couple of middle class ladies chatted with Catherine and, upon hearing we were heading for Old Delhi, advised against it. ‘They will pull your sunglasses straight of your head’…’you will get touched and maybe even groped’, they said. This led to a catastrophic loss of confidence on the part of Catherine and I.
The net result was that we sacked off Old Delhi and decided to introduce ourselves to the potentially hostile city at Connaught Place and Janpath market. After all, that was the centre of the British Raj, surely order and safety would prevail? Er…no. By the time we pulled in we were a bit paranoid and, when my rail card was nowhere to be found, the irresistible smell of confused tourist must have set off the spidey senses of the elite local hawkers.
We narrowly avoided the first scam after a man came to my aid when my ticket didn’t work. He seemed very nice. Well dressed and ready to argue my case with the ticket guard. He was insistent that he wanted no renumeration whatsoever. Once out of the station he played on the fears that others had set in our minds and batted off a couple of determined hawkers outside the station. He then started to lead us towards a tourist information office. My mind recalled the warning our B&B manager gave us that morning…
‘The scammers are really professional, they will look very safe and may take you to a false tourist info centre, which will just convince you to go to their overpriced shops’.
At this point we ceased engagement and he gave as a ‘suit yourself, I was only being polite’ look and backed off immediately. We felt bad…it seemed he was genuine after all. To make things worse, we were now being hassled from every angle by the direct hawkers he saved us from…
Then, a second nice man entered the fray. He again got the low-level hawkers off our backs and asked us where we were going. He told us that Janpath market made this look like Butlins (I’m paraphrasing) and we should go to another market instead. He wrote down the name of it, helped us negotiate a cheap tuk-tuk and wished us well. Great, we thought, we got a second chance to accept the kind offer of help from a nice man.
The tuk-tuk driver duly drove us to said market and, so happy were we to be away from the hawkers amongst a nice, well mannered series of stalls within a large market building, we bought some clothes (that we didn’t need). In Catherine’s case a nice Tunic top scarf and trousers, in mine a tunic top (tailored on the spot) and some leather sandals. Total cost…£50. At this point we knew we had probably paid double what we could have got the clothes for elsewhere but we were happy with our purchases and the experience.
Then, having paid, we headed for the door, and who should walk in?
The first nice man from the train station with another two tourists…The penny dropped…we must have stood out a mile and we had been played the whole way through!!
Ill give them this though, whilst many would call it a scam, I think of it slightly differently. In reality, they were merely offering a service, and one in high demand at that. They were providing a safe, courteous but expensive introduction to the aspect of indian culture that is ever-present…business, shopping and money! Although we were played, we learnt a bit about the game and how professional it can be, without ever being threatened or at risk. We even got some clothes as a souvenir of being scammed; although they were worth £20 at most!
After this we got the same tuk-tuk driver to take us to the Red Fort (making it clear that we didn’t want to do any more shopping). The fort was mostly built by Shah Jahan. History reflects kindly on SJ, an invading Mughal ruler who, despite being a muslim invader, was tolerant to all faiths and religions. The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum to his favourite wife, who was a Hindu.
The Fort was hugely impressive and offered sanctuary from the frenetic pace of the city outside. We walked around the gardens that were intended to appear like Nirvana (as described in the Koran), sat and watched 3 striped squirrels and had our photos taken with random strangers many times! Feeling relaxed again we left the fort, sure that we would now be comfortable with the intensity outside and intending to go back to the original plan.
Having side stepped a few persistent hawkers we hired a Tuk-Tuk back to Connaught Place and, at this point we started to notice that there were fine looking Goats everywhere (including in Tuk-Tuk’s and on motorbikes!). Our driver explained that it was Eid-al-Adha and that the lovely looking beasts were all about to be sold and sacrificed. This was our first experience of the almost daily festivals that add so much volume and colour to India.
On this drive we passed more amazing sights. One of my favourites was recycling, Indian style. This involved a building being taken down, brick by brick, by hundreds of people and the materials piled up on the street and sold on directly at the point of demolition. It wasn’t possible to get a picture but its an image that will stay in my memory for a long time.
Once dropped off on Janpath (People’s Road) we had a couple of fruit smoothies at an old colonial style hotel and then ventured back out through the market and on to have dinner in another of HO’G’s recommendations ‘Saravana Bhavan‘, a kind of fast food restaurant that serves South Indian dishes. In short this means Thali, Bhajis (dry vegetable mixes rather than the type we get in the UK), Dosas, pickles rice and bread. The food was great and we practiced eating with our right hands. As a chronic leftie, I came out looking like I had upset Catherine and suffered food based retaliation!
Once finished we got the Metro home and experienced our first bit of overblown Indian bureaucracy (which I absolutely love – but only because we have time on our hands!). Basically my Metro card failed again. For this to become apparent we had to go through security, which involves putting bags through an x-ray that no-one is watching, walking through a metal detector that inevitably goes off then being searched by a hand-held metal detector.
Typically the man or, in Catherine’s case, woman, who searches you has no intention of investigating the items that are setting off the metal detectors. It’s as though someone taught them a process but not what to do in the event of something actually happening. Despite the activity being rendered pointless, it is indeed mandatory!
In order to fix my Metro-Card situation I was directed to a desk…He wanted to check that I wasn’t just using the card wrongly, so he made me go back to the barrier (through security x2). Having established that the card was faulty he asked me to go back round to the ticket counter (through security x3). Here I waited for 10 minutes whilst the person in charge of checking faulty cards went to a different office. He returned, saying the card was fine. Back to the barrier (security x4) and it still didn’t work. Getting shirty gets you nowhere in India, so I politely suggested he give me a new card (he had thousands on the desk). This meant breaking process. Calls needed to be made, discussions needed to be had…and finally…a shiny new card. So back through security (x5) and guess what….not working….at this point I tried the one barrier I had not tried….and it worked…I cried a little bit!
On our return to the guesthouse it was clear that we had suffered from a complete overloading of the senses. Having established (via logic) that we had, in-fact, not made a horrible mistake and needed to stick with it for more than 24 hours, we decided to book a cab to the Taj Mahal the following day.
At 4am we rose to meet our driver (hire cars come with a driver for very good reasons!) and headed off to Agra. The sunrise was beautiful and Agra was completely different to Delhi. It was just as polluted and frenetic but also looked more Arid and somehow, more Indian. We arrived at the Taj Mahal at 7am and had a fantastic morning walking around the Mahal and its gardens (which included many monkeys, much to the delight of one Catherine Scott). The Mausoleum itself is a thing of wonder. Walking bare foot on the marble floor, wondering at the incredible workmanship whilst watching eagles circle over the river Yamuna is an incredible privilege. I’d post some pictures but I managed to take a camera with a flat battery!
The only sad thing about the Taj was the extent to which Princess Diana has corrupted the place. Getting there early meant that we avoided the hoards of English and Russian tourists queueing up to replicate the iconic photo. Having now been there you realise that, in order to get that photo, the traffic would have been stopped to get her there, a team of hundreds would have been in attendance and so the ‘poor old lonely me’ look just doesn’t ring true. From an objective viewpoint it seems a real shame that a monument to a very real and highly intense love, delivering the finest Muslim architecture and craftmanship of the Moghul empire, is now most associated with an English princess looking sad…
On our return to Delhi in the early afternoon we decided to stay in South Delhi (which was much easier than central Delhi) and also that we would leave on Friday night for Rajasthan. Delhi was only ever intended as a point of entry and, whilst I would go back now that I have more experience of Indian culture, we knew we needed somewhere less populated! With that decision made I asked the hotel to book us a train to Jaipur (the pink city).
In the first happy accident of the trip, the landlady misheard and booked us on the overnight train to Jodhpur, Rajasthan’s second city (Delhi has a population of 20m, Jaipur 6m and Jodhpur 1.5m). Asked if I wanted to correct the mistake I declined. In our experience, its these kind of accidents that usually lead to mini adventures.
We then found a cheap guest house online and booked that for 3 nights. That night we ate a great Punjab curry in M Block Market and went for a couple of drinks at Hauz-Khas again.
After this we jumped in a cab and headed for Old Delhi station. Taking an overnight train and navigating one of India’s big stations was high on my agenda, so I was excited.
Having got through security (oh yeah, back to the metal detectors) and found our platform we stood close to a sombre looking policeman (a tactic that seemed sensible considering our considerable and immaculate luggage standing out like a beacon of inexperience). He seemed to quickly realise that unless he got rid of us, he would be spending the next 30 minutes protecting us, so he showed us to our train and carriage. When we got there I was properly chuffed to see our names on the printed paper on the outside of the carriage…just as Michael Palin had told us it would be! We slowly trundled out of Delhi on our 12h train trip and the city had a parting gift for us. The sight of the individuals, families and communities living near, on and in the railway lines was incredible to see. Families sat on Chintz sofas in the middle of the tracks. shepherds grazed goats and cows.
The train was great. The bunks on our side were cramped but we shared our 2nd class A/C section with an electronics engineer, a tank commander and a student doctor. Chai Wallas (tea sellers) and porters of all kinds buzzed and thrummed their way through the carriage. Every so often you pulled into a station and all hell broke loose for 15 minutes as a hoard of seemingly uncoordinated agents serviced the giant steel animal on wheels. It was wonderful.
At 5am on Saturday morning we pulled into Jodhpur station. Instantly we knew we were going to like it here. The station was festooned with bright bunting and a steam train sat on a plinth at the main entrance. The people too seemed much more cheerful and welcoming. Don’t get me wrong, everyone was still selling something, but it was nowhere near as intense. We made our way outside and caught a Tuk-Tuk to the guest house. The Tuk-Tuks themselves were much more ornate and/or pimped up. They were clearly much older and featured steel and copper work with barley twists and all other manner of decorative embellishments.
We pulled up next to an alleyway, which at 5.30am didn’t look to inviting but we need not have worried. 10 meters up was our guest house. The Blue House Oldest Guest House, Jodhpur. Owned and Run by a Jain family in the heart of the old city (that is mostly painted blue, hence Jodhpur’s tag as the ‘Blue City’). Jainism is one of the oldest religions in India. It has many similarities with Hinduism but has its own temples, customs and deities. The principal gist of the religion is, do not harm any other living thing either by deed or thought. Who can argue with that?! In addition true Jains take no intoxicants and do not need possessions or ownership. This being India though, I think that last principle is open to interpretation! In India as a whole Jains make up 1% of the population. In Rajasthan and Gujarat, that figure rises as high as 10%.
In the case of the Blue House, the building, location, food (strictly vegetarian obviously) and most of all the family were just amazing. Ive never stayed in a place like it. Every time you entered the building you would hear ‘come sit’ and, in a testament to the family that owned the place, you really wanted to! Within 10 minutes of arriving, Grandad sat with Catherine and talked us through the best things to do in Jodhpur. These seemed to be the Fort (this much was obvious just by looking up!) complete with a zip line tour of the grounds, camel safaris and a visit to a Bishnoi village (complete with opium smoking demonstration). He also mentioned that today was the penultimate day of a festival for Ganesh, the elephant headed son of Shiva (Deity of intelligence and remover of obstacles).
He invited us to the local street party for a programme of music and fun. We decided to take him up on this, once we had got some street food and taken a stroll in the Mandore Gardens.
The Mandore Gardens were great, full of temples that you could just stroll into (barefoot obviously). There were also lots of Monkeys and Cows (always cows!) and once again Mrs Scott was very, very happy!
The evening festival was an absolute highlight of our trip to that point. For the first time commerce was off limits. It really was a local festival with no compromises for tourists, of which there were only 2…us.
The local piazza style square was closed to traffic (kind of), and a wildly poor but vastly overpowered PA system was installed. The high priest then conducted a ceremony full of mantras and water throwing before we settled down with around 200/300 locals for 5 hours of folk songs and dancing Indian Style.
Everyone seemed really chuffed that we were there and we were made to feel really welcome. Then it happened…we were made (and in Catherine’s case I do mean MADE) to get up and dance. Drawing on all of my Bollywood film memories, I broke out my best versions of ‘change the lightbulb’ and ‘open the jar’. Catherine did really well, although entirely in a crouched position, which still left her a clear 6 inches taller than anyone else!
We were presented with ‘honoured guest’ garlands of lotus flowers and for the rest of our time in Jodhpur we were treated as locals throughout the streets surrounding our Hotel.
It was bloody lovely. Even better than that, the young girls (and some older blokes) would often re-enact Catherine’s ‘crouch dance’, which is now a modern classic in folk terms!
At the end of the night we got back to the room at 1am and started to realise that Jodhpur is amazing, however, just like much of India, don’t expect it to be quiet. The many Ganesh festival parties happening all over the city slowed down at about 4am, just in time for the Muslims to get revenge by beginning their call to prayer at 5am. All through equally overpowered PA systems.
On Sunday we had a reasonably chilled day. That said we still visited the incredible Mehrangarh Fort, high above the city on a rocky escarpment. Whilst there we frequented the ‘Flying Fox’ zip line tour. This consisted of 6 giant zip lines that navigated you above the lakes and gardens of the Fort. It was a great experience.
Thanks to the advice of our Host family, we did this at Sunset and, full of the joys of adrenaline and wonderful views we got a Tuk-Tuk to the Jhankar restaurant that we had spotted the day before. This too had a great rooftop restaurant and a menu surprisingly familiar to our own hotel. That is, until, we realised it was owned by the same Jain family!
Whilst I was off the booze, Catherine had 2 strong (8%) Kingfishers and spent the next 2 hours in a wonderfully half cut state. Such was her jolliness and mild confusion she even ordered Buscetti by accident (must be read in a ‘what we do in the shadows’ tone by Clive or Donna!).
After the meal we followed a few crowds on the last day of the Ganesh festival as they took their Idols and submersed them in water throughout the city. This also involved lots of throwing of paint and wild revelry. Did I mention that Jodhopur is loud?!
Finally we rolled into the hotel with Catherine needing the toilet after her 2 large beers. Then ‘Travelitis’ overcame her when Grandma Jain offered to give her a Henna Tattoo during the usual ‘come sit’ session. Catherine replied ‘by you…id be honoured’. ‘Great’ Grandma replied….500 rupees (later reduced to 250) and set about destroying what was left of Catherine’s bladder by holding her still for 45 minutes. Like a good husband I only laughed internally!
To close out our first week we decided to go on a trip to a Bishnoi village, but not before Cath took a tumble on some slippery tiles, smacked her head and scuffed the back of her hands quite badly (full sick rep to follow in a later post!). The Bishnoi are shepherds and farmers who lead a very simple existence and who credit themselves with being the origin of the expression ‘tree huggers’. They follow a belief system that extends to the protection of Flora as well as Fauna. For example, trees are only ever cut above the root and they bury rather than cremate themselves so that wood is not required.
Therefore, when officers of the local Maharaja turned up on Bishnoi land in 1730 and started cutting down trees to help in the creation of quicklime, a local woman hugged the tree and said, ‘if you want the tree, you’ll have to kill me’, which they promptly did. On seeing this 362 other villagers followed suit and all were killed. On hearing of the event, the Maharaja declared that all Bishnoi land would be off limits and their beliefs would be honoured…lovely!
On the way to the Bishnoi village we stopped at a Jain temple. This was really nice and not touristy at all. Best of all a priest kept poking out from behind columns and pointing a picture of a cobra at us! We later found out that the Cobra is a big deal in Jainism and we were being blessed. It was bloody weird and wonderful all at the same time. We also went off-road in our Jeep and saw some Antelope, Impala and Peacocks. Back on the main itinerary we stopped at a Muslim pottery, where we were given a fantastic demonstration.
On to the Bishnoi village and the people themselves were very welcoming. Fortunately it wasn’t a plastic experience at all. We drank tea (opium in their case, not in ours, no matter how much I batted my eyelashes!) and learnt a little bit about their family and Turban tying!
Following this we went to meet a weaving and patchwork cooperative. We had checked this out and knew it was legit, so any fears we had following Delhi evaporated. In fact we promised ourselves that, no matter what happened, we wouldn’t buy anything. We also knew by now that excuses such as ‘our bag is not big enough’ don’t work because you will get the following 2 answers:
1. ‘May I sell you a bigger bag’
2. ‘Shipping no extra cost’
So we were prepared….no buying….thats it….
Here’s the Rug we bought:
Heres the Patchwork we bought:
We are wankers!!!
Once back in Jodhpur we spent the evening laughing at ourselves, booking a trip to Udaipur (more on this in the next post!) and arranging flights to Goa. We also went for a meal back at the Fort. This was expensive at £25, but we were one of only 4 tables looking out over the city with the fort, surrounded by bats, illuminated behind us. It was very Indiana Jones. Finally we walked back through the town and spent the night trying to sleep as the next, as yet unnamed, festival kicked off around us….
I hope you enjoyed the post and I will try (and probably fail) to keep it shorter next time. I blame the enthusiasm of a new means of communication!
Robin and Catherine xx