So our tour came to an end nearly a whole week ago, yet I am sat upon a roof-terrace with half the of the group of 15 who took the tour as well as the tour guide himself. And just as the group takes on a slightly different look, the scene of our lounging has changed; and changed dramatically.
We now find ourselves in Udaipur- dubbed the Venice of the East- and it’s beauty, according to my list of already-visited-countries (AVC’s) is unprecedented. But more of Udaipur later. I last left you, reader, in the bathroom of a hotel in New Delhi, slumped helplessly between toilet and sink, desperately clawing at the enamel bowl sniffing for you next fix, desperate for another dose from the toilet of oversea’s adventure. Yes, I left you wanting to hear more of our tales from the east and so here it is.
We met with our tour group that same day, Tuesday 28th February, and were given our itinerary for the next 8 days. Our tour leader, Yash, spoke fondly of his native country and answered all of our anxieties with assurance.
We were two of five Britisher’s on the tour; this being the name our guide Yash and most of the other Indian guides we came across referred to us as. Without quite knowing whether this was a subtle insult referring to the actions of our imperial fore-father’s, we decided it was an endearing term and proceeded to laugh at every referral.
The group was made up of one German (Stephanie), a Finn (Katya), a Swiss (Tanja), a Kiwi (Max), six Americans (Ann and Caroline, Becki and Tara and Elizabeth and Jenna) and five Britishers (your humble narrator, Jo, Jess and Chris from Kent, and John from Sheffield). Luckily the majority of the non- English speaking countries could speak some English, and because all of our Hindi was fairly rusty, we decided to converse in our mother-tongue.
Having met, we went back to our rooms to change before heading out for dinner. Yash, being an experienced tour guide as well as a native to this land, warned us of eating the street-food that yelled at us from every corner, and led us to a restaurant that we were happy to eat at as long as he was.
Myself and Jo both ordered what we thought were pretty hot dishes, and the conversation seemed to compliment the temperature of the food; warm and probing. You can reveal more than you thought you would during the first few hours of meeting someone, but we got the sense that in-doing so it had made us much more comfortable and we went to sleep that night feeling a lot more excited for the tour ahead.
The second day of tour was spent almost entirely in Delhi. We sped into the city centre via the metro, which myself and Jo already felt intimately acquainted with. It was, like the day before, rammed. We walked from the station, passing people of all appearances. Businessmen and women, casually clothed travellers, traditionally tailored families, scooter straddled teens and beggars of all shapes and sizes; ranging from fully clothed and fully limbed to naked and deformed.
Our first place of interest was the Jama Masjid mosque, the largest in India, but on the way we visited a Sikh temple where we were informed (briefly) of the religion’s history and some of the customs we were required to obey whilst walking through the temple. We could take cameras and take pictures (not the ones from the wall) and we had to cover our heads. The result was 15 white/western pirates with orange bandanas flashing cameras through holy grounds.
After surviving some backstreets, we arrived at the mosque and it was an impressive structure. High, narrow towers surrounded the mosque itself which consisted of 3 dome structures with the square holding approximately 25,000 worshippers (no worshippers were harmed in the making of this tour; no one praying on this particular day). We hoped to scale one of the towers for a panoramic view of the city but didn’t want to spend 20 minutes climbing it, only to see that our group was scuttling off into a dark corner of the city. With the fear of being left behind firmly lodged, we decided to just keep browsing barefoot at ground-level.
We left the mosque, put on our shoes and made for the metro station. We were taken to Connaught Place, which we had heard was a popular tourist spot with shops and restaurants. Yash informed us that before its current use, it was a mass of jungle and a royal spot for hunting partridge. Back of the net.
We were as peckish as a princely partridge hunt ourselves, and found a restaurant specialising in South Indian cuisine. We both had a form of dosa, mine being a masala dosa which was essentially mashed potatoes mixed with veg and wrapped in a pancake (savoury, not sweet like on Tuesdays). You were then given various small pots with different sauces and in the native style, we thought it best to do away with our western customs, throwing down our cutlery and tearing and dipping till we’d had our fill.
With bellies full (or tummies as our southern friends Jess and Chris corrected us) we continued to walk through the place and eventually made a stop where we waited for a coach, fully laden with our baggage, to take us to our next city: Agra
So what did we think of our brief spell in the country’s capital? Whilst we don’t like thrusting so much negativity on a place, especially the first of our 6 month adventure, we can’t hide the fact that Delhi is manic beyond description for the first-time traveller. We saw brief moments of beauty and there was certainly much to be impressed about, but you cannot ignore how much poverty exists and that there appears to be absolutely no motor/transport code. The saddest thing about our experience was that as white Europeans, we were very obvious targets for all the wrong things: petty theft, scams (not just on the streets but even in establishments such as cinemas) and harassment.
With that said, 24 hours does not constitute a fair judgment, and 24 hours in just one city does not give a true reflection of India. I hope you will find in my next installment, an India that is bountifully majestic, beautiful, generous, graceful and entertaining, because that is exactly what we found.
Pulling ourselves out of bed the next morning was not exactly easy; the excessive amount of rum and whiskey we consumed the night before ensured that. The quantity and the quality I should add. You know waking up is never going to be easy when you’ve swuggled down a bottle of McVernon’s Finest Scotch.
The hangover staved off long enough to allow us to say one more round of goodbyes to those that were leaving for Delhi. After the bus had pulled away and after breakfast was generously tucked away we began our scheduled day of…well, nothing. And it was nice to have nothing to do. Even nicer not to see anymore palaces (a sentiment that only lasted till Udaipur). The day therefore will not command much page-time. I will only mark it as the day I finally got ill. It was not so much a case of Delhi-Belly but more a need for a Jaipur-Diaper (Yes, that should rhyme).
That night I was to wake in fits and starts and bits and parts with gut wrenching stomach cramps. Very intermittent but very powerful whilst simultaneously keeping my fitness up by having me run to the bathroom every half an hour. I bet you wish I hadn’t devoted much page-time to this now eh?
The next day our tour guide Yash was back from Delhi, complete with train tickets from Jaipur to Udaipur: the man’s home city and current palace of residence. Sorry, that should be place. Or maybe palace. We’ll wait and see. This was not the best day to experience my maiden voyage on India’s famous railway network yet there was nothing to be done. Feeling no better, we boarded the train aoround 2.30, arriving in Udaipur at approximately 10.30 and with 8 hours of tremendously horrendous backwards and forward, side-to-side train movement in less than comfortable “recliner” seats.
However the journey was made all the while once we had ridden auto-rikshaws to our palace of residence, left our bags to our rooms and took to the roof-terrace to witness one of the most spectacular views in my eyes’ entire career of sight-seeing. This was at 11’oclock at night, yet half the city was visibly lit up with their identical twins twinkling back at them thanks to the surrounding lakes. Yet whilst it was the most breath-taking sight of our travels so far, I could not shake the bite and twinge of my aching stomach as well as toilet-bowl withdrawal symptoms. In my condition, it was not safe to be away from a bathroom for too long.
I’d like to say things improved when I awoke that morning, but it didn’t. Firstly, I felt worse and secondly you actually need to have slept in order to awake and I managed no such thing. The cramps intensified and the in the safest analogy conceivable by my imagination, the 1500 meter pace-setters reached their final 100 meter sprint, meaning my visits to the bathroom became much more frequent.
With the Ned Flanders euphemisms out of the way, I tried my best to stomach a breakfast but got as far as a piece of warm bread used to pass as toast and a glass of Diarolyte. After that, despite the fun and games that had been planned for the 8 of us that day, I went skulking back to bed. It was the safest place and after barely an hour’s sleep I needed to recuperate (I’ll by pass it here, but my next post will be a one-off investigative-critique into the bizarre dream I had while Jo and co. were out. It involved Denton Drive, Nick Meagan, Mike Craven and zombies).
Not wanting to miss out on the entire day, I pulled myself out of bed long enough to enjoy a boat ride through Udaipur which was more than worth getting up for. It was all I could manage though, and it took every inch of strength (okay, the one inch of strength) in my body to climb the stair to my room where I was out of breath to the same degree as if I’d completed 10 laps of a football pitch. I was completely shocked at how weak I was and any notion I had of getting better appeared dashed in that moment (dash, sprint, run all seem to be used in much the wrong context here).
The next day was Holi, a Hindu festival of colour and water that was one of the major reasons we decided to come to Udaipur in the first place. Luckily, I had a much better night sleep than the one before and whilst the cramps were still lingering, the sprints had finally finished the race and I was feeling a lot more refreshed and energetic.
And so began a wonderful if not brutal day of rubbing brightly coloured powder into each other’s clothes, faces, hair and anywhere else that happened to be on show. The festival is linked to another celebration which took place the day before: something about a woman who was burnt because of a demon…I think. Maybe the demon never called her back. With spring replacing winter, the colour is applied with the idea that when you come to wash it off, you will have to wash with the strength of a thousand elephants because the stuff just does not come out! Having to scrub that hard, the troubles or sins of winter are scrubbed off and a clean slate is offered for spring.
We were lucky enough to celebrate the festival with some of Yash’s friends and family and I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say how grateful we are for the experience. Except for Jo maybe, who looked ready to take her ball and go home after being (quite honestly) harshly hit with water several times. Having survived the festival, it is much easier to look back and go: “Ahhhh yes, Holi, what a lovely time we all had”. Which we did. For the most part.
The following day the group that had survived gradually started to drift off and leave in a bid to re-join their original paths. We happened to be staying in India the longest, and as we had not booked any hotels or trains in advance we decided that we liked this city, this Venice of the East so much that we stayed as long as we could. We had a fantastic week in what is a beautiful city. It did not have quite the same appearance or feel as the other major cities we had visited. The narrow, windy and often steep roads stirred up images of an Italian city suburb and the vast surrounding waters and screensaver mountain images gave it a unique feeling.
Amongst all these were your typical Indian palaces, temples and monuments, but after a good week’s separation from sight-seeing we felt ready to give them another chance at making “us” work (for the kids). The City Palace was grand yet was certainly not built with the 6ft plus tourist in mind; its narrow and low ceilinged passages were not the easiest to negotiate. Anyone over 6”4 probably shouldn’t bother. It looks nice from the outside too.
We visited a park and a zoo on our second to last day which does not command much page-time other than Jo being scarily followed and asked for photos on more than one occasion. They didn’t seem interested in this tall, dark haired, pale skinned creature, which when put like that, I don’t blame them for. We also later visited the Monsoon palace, located upon the highest mountain in the region. We went just before sunset so that we could see the yellow sun going down over this stunning city and despite the windy and perilous route to the top, it afforded some amazing views which I hope you’ll find in the photo album I’ll upload in about a year.
The next day, Tuesday 13th March, we said our farewells to Udaipur as we had booked a sleeper train to take us to Delhi for our flight to Bangkok the day after. The train experience I will save for another post my dear reader but I will sign off with a few final thoughts on our time in India. At least I will try and offer you some final thoughts, because whilst you are in India, you are constantly re-evaluating your thoughts on the country. Just when you feel over-awed by the country’s beautiful and masterfully engineered palaces and monuments, you are suddenly shaken into fury and annoyance by the major cities’ constant natter. The country suddenly becomes an inconvenience and you forget why you are there. But just an uncomfortable 8 hour train ride of stomach cramps away and you find yourself once again, prisoner to the incredible ambition and natural beauty of some place unexpected.
There is no doubt that we enjoyed our 2 week stint there but we came to the mutual conclusion that –maybe Udaipur aside- we would not willingly come back to India. The feeling of vulnerability at almost every turn, the staring, penetrative eyes of the crowded metro, the battle and the physical effort that accompanies each day ensures that a two week stay feels more like a 2 month slog. I will remember the very good of India, for there was much good in it and I feel if we had stayed any longer we may have relinquished these warm memories in place of a cold resentment. In that sense, we very much glad to have loved and left India.
An “Entry from the Jotter” is a post that’s been directly lifted, and then possibly edited after, from my handwritten scribblings. It allows me to document the “then and there” of certain experiences and re-tell them to you with as little hindsight as possible.
We have left our little room above a busy street in the centre of Udaipur, and have traded-in for something a bit more…mobile.
We have boarded the Chetak Express from Udaipur to Delhi with about 30 minutes to spare. Not knowing how long an auto rikshaw to the station would take (without accounting for a potential visit to A&E) we decided to leave our p(a)lace of residence in plenty of time. So at approximately 4.20pm, having paid our keep of 2100 rupees for a four night stay- a modest sum- we tried to flag down a rikshaw, which really isn’t difficult. In fact, it’s completely the opposite of difficult in India because rikshaws flag you down. Sometimes they hunt you down, in packs. The driver must have been psychic, as he successfully predicted the sought after destination of two very white foreigners each with a rucksack the size of themselves trying to pull them to the ground:
“Train station. Train station?”
However did you guess my friend!? Maybe it was our keenness to leave your country that gave us away. The driver offered 60 rupees initially, but quickly tried his luck with 80. Whether he was trying to out-smart us with his obvious psychic abilities or reverse psychology, or whether he was very simple, I’m not so sure. But having heard him offer 60 rupees there was no way I was paying a royal rupee more than that.
With 60 rupees agreed we somehow squished ourselves, two full rucksacks and two backpacks into the equivalent of the back seat of a Ford Ka. You do wonder, as you cling to your other half, speeding over potholes and swerving past and sometimes between live cattle, whether this driver has ever actually driven anything in his entire lifer. It’s funny what goes through your head when you think this might be The Final Trip you ever take, and I realised that my final thought at that moment would have been: I wonder how legal the process is for Indian’s attaining a certified driving licence?
This seemingly carefree attitude which is easier to pass off as harmless fun, is not limited to the crazy breed of rikshaw drivers. The countless scooter, moped and motorbike riders are similarly ‘carefree’. As are their passengers! Women aboard two-wheeled corpse-makers sit nonchalantly, side-on, hands in their laps as if they are in a moment of worship in a temple (my moment of worship during rikshaw rides are slightly more blasphemous), while the road speeds below at 40 mph. I have no shame in admitting that if it was me on the back of that bike, I would have both hands tightly pincer-ed around my sweetheart’s waist. In leathers. With a helmet. No,two helmets on. Telling him to stop, before disembarking outside my parents suburban house, hitting him with my helmet and storming off to cry into my pillow while yelling “Shove it Brett you ***hole. You nearly got us killed. I’m so not going to the prom with you. This high school romance is OVER!”
If you would like to crawl uneasily away from that particular fantasy, dodging flying safety helmets as you go, we arrived at the station in plenty of time and following a brief moment of worry when we could not find the name of our train on the departure board. By complete chance we stopped near one particular coach which, had Jo not more closely inspected to discover a piece of paper with our names and berth numbers printed on, we might never have found.
The berths are intimate, and as we’ve only just pulled away from the station, it’s hard to tell just how comfortable they are: comfort being our main worry for this 12 hour overnight journey. Jo and I have berth 21 & 22, one on top of the other. There is an identical bunk opposite ours, and on the other side of the aisle there is another bunk turned sideways. It has, from first touch, very comfy pillows. The ones that are firm yet give a little. Unlike the ones that are far too soft, and feel as though you’re sleeping on a half-filled balloon. There is also a curtain to block out light from the aisle.
As the evening wore on, so did my writing hand and we decided to shut out our lights. You may want to tune into the next post to find out just how highly (or lowly) we rate 2nd class sleeper trains on the Chetak Express from Udaipur to Delhi.
We made it to the airport. Well, at least to the airports visitors lounge, as apparently we’re not passengers yet. A glass screen is all that separates us from those that have the privilege of on earlier flight. They’ve sectioned us off from where we long to be and have torturously placed our ‘haven’, our ‘promised land’ in plain sight: “Tiw yoor floights on the board, yoo aint getting’ in.” They said something like that, except not in a cockney Phil Mitchel voice working an east end night club.
Anyway, I last left you on the Chetak Express as we boarded our overnight train to Delhi. As it turned out, the ride in general was comfortable enough. We sat reading in our berth for an hour or so before receiving our daily dose of House M.D. We were no more, or less, comfortable than if we had been travelling from Liverpool Slime St to Wigan North Western by Northern Rail, so we were fairly content with what our 1200 rupees had bought us so far. It appeared to get even better when I went to use the facilities, as one of the toilets was labelled Western. Once I had figured out how to open the door, it soon dawned on me that whilst a Western toilet was indeed delivered as promised, it did not take a Professor Brian Cox to work out where one’s contents went after use; the black abyss most likely reaching as far as the train tracks below. Saying that, the last Northern Rail train I boarded didn’t even have a toilet. Indian Railways 1, Northen Rail 0.
As night drew in and our neighbours began to draw curtains, we decided to put sleep-ability to the test. The back of our seat folded down to make the flat bed of the bottom berth, while Jo took up residence on the top bunk. With our bunk-buddies opposite also settling down for the night, I put my netbook to hibernate and hoped to follow suit, knowing if I drifted off now I might re-energise my bear batteries by six hours. Yet as soon as I hit out the light, plunging us into partial darkness, I knew it wasn’t going to be that straight forward.
For a start, the couple opposite were ‘k-noodling’ on the bottom bunk, just centimetres away. There was nothing, “yer know” going on, but their low Hindi whisperings gave me a decent (maybe indecent) idea. When they tired, he made for the top bunk, however I would much rather they had stayed up whispering sweet murmurs to each other if I’d had known the alternative. The low guttural snores began in earnest and made no sign of ceasing, or at the very least subsiding. There was a sleepy walrus on the train and I wasn’t sure if I was the only one who could hear it (as it turned out, Jo was just as, if not more annoyed by the sleepy walrus).
Inevitably, having suffered about 45 minutes of relentless snores, I reached for my ear phones and I prescribed myself some Pink Floyd in the hope that I may become Comfortably Numb. Add the rude people who walked the carriages in the middle of the night, disturbing the berths curtains and letting in streams of light, and multiply those by the occasional wailing child and you might understand that whilst I was as physically comfortable in my bed as I had hoped, I was completely and unmistakably wide awake. In situations like this, comfort without the sleep is no good at all, whereas sleep without the comfort is fine. Because you’re at least asleep.
I somehow found a few hours of sleep (they must have escaped the alcohol stained clutches of a downtown hobo and hitched a ride to Delhi in search of the big time) and was eternally grateful for them. We got up about half an hour before we were due to arrive and the train stopped for the last time at approximately 5.25am. We gingerly disembarked, hoping we were getting off at the correct station, even having asked at least two Indian passengers whether we were at “last-stop-Delhi?”
We arranged a taxi to take us straight to the airport and agreed to pay 500 rupees for the privilege ( I think we may have been taken for a ride- literally and metaphorically- but in the pitch black in a foreign Asian city, you don’t argue it too much). Relieved to have finally arrived at the airport, we were kindly told that because we were so early (18 hours early) we could not enter the ‘actual’ airport.
And so here we are (or were), still at 17.14. We’ve just about spent all our last rupees on junk food because it is the only food visitors are allowed access to. In her hunger, Jo has devoured A Game of Thrones, taking her little over a week to read. Finishing the book however had only made her even more bored.
And I have no wi-fi! Despite numerous, failed attempts to gain access. Meaning that the little bit of information in the whole world that I’ve been thinking about since about 4am this morning (morning of the 14th March), the two numbers that would tell me which half of Merseyside, Blue or Red would be waking up actually excited to go to work today; this one teeny-tiny bit of knowledge I am unable to access and am doomed to be without until we get to Bangkok. My torment continues reader. Till next time.
In case you were wondering, I did find out the score, a full 15 hours later and only a whole 26 hours after the final whistle had gone. Once I found out…well as I’m sure you can image it all felt worth waiting for…*cue sobbing*