I am aware that the final paragraph of my last post could be mistaken for the final scene of a series finale of <insert popular imported US sitcom>. I must apologise reader, for I did not mean to upset you. I know how much us Britishers are adverse to sentimentality and endings being very conveniently wrapped up in a tidy bow. So for those of you feeling cheated by my ending, here is the director’s cut, uncensored:
Finishing our meal in complete and utter silence, we continued to ignore one another and in multiple faked smiles aimed at telling one another without actually speaking to one another, we all fibbed: “what a wonderful meal it was, and what fine company! We cannot wait to do it all again tomorrow”. Good night!
You know, I think I’m coming round to the Americanised ending. That way I don’t have to lie. A great night- or so I’m led to believe- was had by all. All who had rum at least.
The next day began at 9am, Yash time. We scoffed another buffet and boarded our vessel, setting sail for Jaipur: The Pink City (the colon makes it sound like a blockbuster movie, doesn’t it?). We made a stop at a small village which must have attracted a huge amount of tourists due to the Abhaneri stepwells being situated there. Imagine a very steep amphitheatre rectangular in shape. Or better still imagine Machu Pichu but less ruinous. The stepwell (or Chand Boari) is essentially a huge water storage monument built to cope with India’s fluctuating water availability.
After a brisk walk round (but not up and down the steps, thank Jehova) we were invited (I hope) to walk around the small village which must have been home to a couple of hundred inhabitants. 15 white folk (well, 14 and Max) walking through an Indian village were bound to attract some attention and when we weren’t attracting the attention of beggars, we found the time to stop and just observe some of the locals at work. We watched one man on the side of the road making an assortment of pottery: cups, bowls, plates, Darth Vader figurines (disclaimer: last item may or may not be true depending on your appreciation of popular science-fiction).
We were all quite amazed by the man’s work which was made in the typical fashion (I think) only without a pedal to power the thing that made the thing turn, he was forced to spin his work surface every 10-20 seconds. Some of us even got the chance to have a go at churning butter which was merely a large sticking protruding from the pot of liquid which you turned (in the same way a boy scout would tamely attempt to start a camp fire with his hands) with two sticks attached by string.
These were all very humbling scenes, but I don’t think anyone expected to be led into a school. A school which was essentially two floors, 4 rooms, 4 teachers and about 200 students. I know what you’re thinking and no, there was barely enough room for 15 tourists to tip-toe their way through. The students, who appeared to be somewhere between 11-16 years old, were clearly delighted that their lesson had been interrupted for no apparent reason. No, really, they genuinely seemed delighted. I’m not being sarcastic. Weren’t you made-up when something happened in your class to stop teacher teaching? In the modified words of Kevin McCallister, We all were!
Some of the students waved and many were smiling. Some were even brave enough to stop us and begin conversation, asking our names and where we were from. When Jo returned the compliment and asked what subject they were being taught, they all turned to us simultaneously in their black satin robes chanting “Enchanted Spells and Witchcraft”. That was our cue to leave, and leave swiftly.
Jokes aside, no one was expecting to see that and whilst I cannot speak for the others, I was certainly in a contemplative state as we climbed back onto our coach. I wished at that moment that I could travel back in time to my years at school and promise never to complain about anything I was asked to do.
After a few hours travelling we arrived at the Pink City. Yash explained that it had been painted pink for the arrival of the Prince of Wales back in the 19th century- pink being a colour used to welcome one another- and the theme had stuck ever since. I think it lookths fabulousss!
We found our rooms in our hotel and de-bagged. We had an hour or so before we began the evening schedule. First, Yash took us on a bit of a walk through the city, specifically within the walls. We walked a long street full of shops and stalls selling everything from fruit and veg to scarves and saris. We eventually hailed some cycle rikshaws that took us through the city on a quite exhilarating ride between busy traffic. We stopped on a busy road and those of us who survived the journey went to a stall that sold lassi which is a cold milky drink that is particularly sour. Whether it was the sourness or the fact that they served it in a clay ice-cream cone that made me pull a face, I’m not sure but I could only manage a few sips before throwing away a perfectly good 40 rupees. Pshh!
With the milky stuff downed or “accidentally” spilled, we walked a short way across the street, passing a McDonald’s (which if I’d known was there I could have kindly passed up the offer of a lassi in preference for a vanilla milkshake) until we arrived at the cinema. From the outside it looked like a grand old theatre from some golden age of 1950’s movie-goers. From the inside, it looked like an old theatre from the 1950’s, minus the grandness and the golden age.
We settled down to watch one of the latest Bollywood features. I could tell you the title of the film but I’d only have to translate and disrupt my word count. In English I think it means Love will Overcome. Whilst the film was entirely in Hindi, due to the familiarity of both plot and style, the film read exactly like a Hollywood chick-flik, only it was 3 hours long and had an interval. When I wasn’t fighting off sleep, I really enjoyed the film and there was an atmosphere of whooping and cheering in the theatre that just wouldn’t be tolerated back in England. Not that I’m suggesting we should start breaking our silences, pray no! Only that it was a refreshing, one-time change.
Feeling pretty exhausted from the travelling, the school disrupting, the walking, the pretend drinking of sour milk and the 3 hour film, we took motor rikshaws back to the hotel to grab a bite to eat and find our beds. Not before desperately checking the scores that is. It was Saturday night which meant Everton and QPR were just settling for a draw back in England. Not a bad point I suppose. The unbeaten run continues and I could say the same for our tour and the beginning of our 6 month adventure. Jo and I were both shattered by the end of the day but like everyone else we were keen to stay up as long as possible and enjoy what we had. We knew it only had one more full day before it ran its course so we stayed until we couldn’t stay no more.
What should have been our penultimate day as an entire group ended up being our ultimate day, minus the super hero connotations that come with that phrase. The plan according to our itinerary was to spend the day in Jaipur, stop one more night in the modest but quite appealing Jaipur Inn and begin the 5-6 hour journey back to Delhi the following day. Only half of the group saw that plan through to its end.
At what officially became known as Yash Time we all assembled in the lobby in a fairly decent state around about 9am. With a big breakfast burrowing away in our bellies (sorry Jess, tummies) we were assigned the task of visiting a further two palaces; just when we thought India couldn’t possibly hide any more. Before visiting our first palace, we stopped en-route to take a few snaps at the Hawal Mahal, or Palace of the Winds (potentially a very smelly palace. And whilst, as I’m sure you will agree, it was a very nice palace façade, I found myself somewhat enchanted by the street-fellow sat behind us charming a cobra. Entranced by the subtle tones of his musical instrument. Enchanted and entranced yes but not en-danced; the rhythm wasn’t that good that I was about to start embarrassing myself in public. Snake charmers are one of those mythical and stereotypical sightings you don’t actually expect to see in India, along with Shere Khan and Bagheera. So I wanted to capture the moment on camera, which I did. As several other members of the group discovered, apparently photos cost 10 rupees or else he wanted to be satisfied they had been deleted. As such, I feel a globule of guilt that I have one of these unauthorised images.
Leaving this charmer to his snake (nope, not a euphemism) we boarded the coach and set off for the Amber Fort. We began our descent up a series of windy roads which probably bent and curved just for effect. Nonetheless we were impressed once we finally caught sight of the fort and despite my growing indifference for snapping every single moment, you couldn’t help but reach for your camera. We stopped about 200 metres short of our actual stop where we could capture the fort from a different perspective. The name given to it is obvious once it’s in full view, as the yellowish gold dominates the hillside landscape. It looks admiringly at its own image which sparkles and winks back at itself in the surrounding lake. And on a bright cloudless day such as this, the fort appears aglow, basking in its own past, current and future glories.
We enter the grounds which is bustling with the usual traders and sellers trying to annoy you into purchasing something you don’t want for an amount that’s only worth baulking at. We begin the ascent up to the forts entrance and turning one particular corner, you are suddenly met with one of the only sights actually worth visiting India for: elephants. Lots of elephants. Dazzlingly dressed and as majestic as the fort and its endless palaces. Unfortunately this moment of awe was dashed by the thumping beat of the handler’s barbaric bludgeon, that came crashing down as if to some kind of beat on each elephant’s skull. We were warned prior to our visit that elephant rides were available to take tourists from bottom to top, but that G-Adventures would in no way condone this attraction. Having seen the appalling treatment of these stunning animals up close, it was obvious why.
We made it -on two Orwellian legs not four- to the top and were kindly taken around by another tour guide who talked us through the palaces. There is no doubting that the fort is impressive, and its palaces stunningly extravagant, but I very quickly got the urge to just, well…put my camera away. Or at least just try and limit myself to one photo per item/palace as opposed to the multiple shots of varying angles and lighting of previous monuments. Sometimes you forget what you’re seeing then and there, at that very moment, and looking at it through the eye of a camera lens can spoil that experience.
Feeling a little overwhelmed by the sheer volume of palaces and forts we’d been thrown at, we made our way down from the fort and boarded our coach for the next sight-seeing attraction. We made another brief stop, this time to take a closer look at the Floating Palace which is quite literally what it says on the tin. They had a palace for every occasion and flavour these emperors: main palace, summer palace, winter palace, monsoon palace, weekend palace, Tuesday palace, strawberry palace, slightly-bigger-and-a-different-colour-but-otherwise-pretty-much-the-same palace. It was never-ending.
This stop was on-route to, you guessed it, another palace. This time City Palace and we all marvelled as the coach pulled up, at how two English football teams could unite to form such a stunning Indian monument. I’ll apologise for what I’m about to do now. I’m not going to talk anymore about this palace. The only mention of it I will make is how sorry we all felt for the poor guide who took a group of 15 tourists around a gorgeous palace steeped with history. 15 tourists who took no interest in what he was saying at all. We didn’t mean to be rude, we just couldn’t bear another palace. Those who feel cheated out of a palace review, please see any of my previous posts.
With the Torture Palace tour finally over, we were offered a free afternoon, in what I can only assume was a peace offering from our tour guide Yash who clearly felt terrible for taking us to so many palaces. Did I mention we saw a palace? I -like many- decided to take this opportunity to catch up on some valuable sleep. I also found time to update the blog before most of us decided to take a trip to the local off-licence. When I say off-licence I mean two guys selling alcohol from the front of their house and when I say trip I mean terrifying ordeal.
Five of us left the hotel and following Yash’s instructions found the booze-bazaar easily enough. However there were several debates, deliberations and discussions regarding the quantity of alcohol and its value so the trip took longer than expected. When the girls started to attract unwanted attention, we took that as our cue to leave. Shuffling back through the dark, busy streets, we missed our turn back onto the road of our hotel and ended up about 300 metres further down the road than we would have liked. We also attracted the attention of a flying rock. And when I say we I mean Chris, and when I say flying rock I mean to say it was thrown by the hand of a small boy.
The only war wound was a red mark to Chris’ back, but thankfully the alcohol made it back to the hotel unscathed. In celebration of our survival and in true apologetic form to our booze, we thought it only right to drink and enjoy our final night together. The proposition was made that we did not have to go back to Delhi, as technically the tour had finished. Jo and I didn’t have any plans past our return to Delhi so we, along with several others who cancelled flights and postponed plans decided to stay in Jaipur for another night. The reason? I think I can safely say that it had something to do with the connections we had all made with each other, and that we were keen to stay in one another’s company. Then again, it might have been the prospect of a second tour around City Palace.
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.
The Amber Fort, Jaipur