2006 #13: Movies, Magnets and Unwell Snakes

We woke up to a day tinged with sadness, as this was our last day in Orchha. I went out to the balcony to do a nostalgic nosy-parker act over the edge and watched a boy going round the sweet-sellers selling recycled packaging. These are packets made out of newspaper, etc, and rather professionally put together if you ask me. I don’t know if people have machines somewhere or do this by hand, but I reckon it’s a great idea. I’ve collected a few of them now, at drapery shops, hardware stores, etc – I decided to abandon the ones served with oily food, for obvious reasons. Some of them are rather interesting to read. In one case I received a schedule for a tour of Egypt. Three nights in Cairo and a tour of Luxor anyone?

Another thing I love to see is the plates made out of leaves. These get pressed into a bowl shape and are held together at the bottom with a toothpick. When you’ve finished your food, you toss your plate on the street and the cows come along and do your dishes for you. Wonderful system. The Western world should be taking example from this. Photo of one here

After a little while of indulging in the art of couch potato, along came Paul’s friend Indu. He’s a tour guide in Orchha and nearby areas. He’d heard Paul was back in town and had got up at 4.30am to drive to Orchha from Kajuraho (about 150km) and get together with us. It was wonderful to see him as all sorts of people had been trying to get hold of him to let him know we were around, but he’d changed his phone number. We thought we were going to miss him – bummer! Eventually, by some miracle, he found out about out arrival and hot-footed into town just in time.

He put himself in charge of our morning and took us to a friend’s place for breakfast. A lady from Finland who has been around for a while and has established a school of yoga, reflexology, etc in Orchha. They call each other brother and sister and she growls at him and kisses him on the cheek at the same time. He takes it all with a pleased grin.

We all ended up in Maya’s kitchen putting together a breakfast fit for a king, with the help of a lovely young boy from somewhere nearby, and sat down on the floor to indulge. Quite an extensive menu for such short notice – spicy omelette, toast, an Indian sunday noodle dish, curd, a Finnish sweet dish which nobody could identify in English, etc. Shortly, along came two more guests – a couple of delightful young women from Holland, both teachers. A little while later, an Indian woman, also from nearby, joined us also. She does some sort of massage and has a shop nearby as well. Then another Indian guy popped in and threw himself into the fray. It turned into a lovely, spontaneous gathering and every person there was interesting and added greatly to the conversation. What rotten luck that we only discovered this fascinating lot on our last day in town. It was one of those times that could have easily gone all day long and into the night. Which I gathered from the conversation just before we left was precisely what was going to happen.

Of particular interest was the Indian guy’s life story. He was raised in a small jungle village and lived in a home that was less than pleasant, largely due to his father by the sound of things. Trains often stopped at his village and he’d watch them come and go and vow to himself that one day he would get on one of those trains and travel to somewhere else.

When he turned eleven, that’s exactly what he did. He jumped on a train and left town. He didn’t know where he was going because he’d never been out of his village before, but he didn’t let that get in the way. He ended up falling asleep on the train and at the last stop the train conductor woke him up to kick him off. He told the conductor his story and the conductor took pity on him and sent him off to his brother’s chai shop to work until he got on his feet.

After working there for a while, he met up with a doctor who came regularly for chai and they would often chat and practice English together. Months went by, then the doctor offered him a job as assistant in his general practice. He spent about seven years working for the doctor and putting himself through college. Then, with a pocket full of rupees, he went back to his village. He sat in a chai shop across the road from his house for a while, watching his family come and go. Then he went and approached his mother. She didn’t know who he was until he spoke, then she knew this was her son and promptly fainted. As it turned out, his father had died and his mother and sisters were probably struggling a fair bit. He built them a house to live in, then carried on with his travels. He’s since been all over the world, including New Zealand (he knew enough to call us ‘bluddy kiwis”) and worked in all sorts of situations and is now a yoga teacher. He’s a very cruisy type of guy who speaks beautiful English and has a marvellous sense of humour. And an amazing life story!

After reluctantly pulling ourselves away from Maya’s magic hospitality, we wandered back to check out of our guesthouse (well after checkout time, which cost us another day’s rent, but it was worth it). On the way we saw a dead snake on the road outside the tailor’s shop. I was rather fascinated – it was the first time I’d ever seen a real snake close up. It looked a bit like a kid’s rubber snake toy, except it’s head had been crushed by something or someone less than sympathetic to its kind. Later on I walked past it again and had another look at it, and an old guy across the road went “burrggghh” at me to make me jump. We both cracked up laughing – old he might be, but he still had plenty of kid left in him yet.

We spent most the afternoon and early evening packing and saying goodbyes to everyone. I made a little movie with the kids saying “Namaste” to my daughter Ayla, as Ayla and I had made one to say “Namaste” to Nilu from New Zealand. I watched the next-door neighbour chasing his calf around with assorted children, as the calf was not only a Houdini but also a very fast runner, and then I had to take assorted photos of him, calf, kids, kids and calf, kids, calf and him, etc. Rani gave me a beautiful necklace, Mokesh gave Paul some “Rattlesnake” magnets (the latest in groovy toys) to play with, Nilu cried, people gathered round the front of the restaurant and a flutist played beautiful music while cows meandered by peacefully, and the whole time was lovely while tinged with the sadness of knowing we wouldn’t see each other for at least another year.

Finally we pulled ourselves away and boarded Niru’s rickshaw, then set off down the road to Jhansi. We stopped along the way to have chai at Niru’s house and meet his beautiful new wife, then carried on to play out the usual masochistic performance at the railway station (sigh).

Once again, we had the correct platform sorted out, even to the extent our names were on the lists pinned on the board, then of course the “hang on a minute, you’re looking too comfortable” goblin turned up and the intercom started in on us. “Tadaaaaa!! Your attention please! Important announcement. Werhslhgdsla soigr hudfoim;g lkkjgosdsufewoinbh. Would all passengers on this train please board immediately on platform ioesghjroi ;jg, as your train is about to leave”. Naturally, the number they are quoting sounds exactly like your train number and you don’t know whether to run up and down stairs and platforms and check it out, risking missing the train if you are in the right place, or stay put and hope you’re just hearing it wrong. Of course, added to all this, is the train coming from the other direction containing a driver who really likes to sound his horn profusely during the most crucial wording of this really important announcement and you feel your teeth starting to clench and your hands curling into talons and you try to resist thoughts of throttling said driver. You then embark upon the generally unhelpful practice of asking twelve to twenty people around you which city they’re headed for, taking from this a mathematical average of how many indicate the same destination versus those who say otherwise and really look like they know what they’re talking about, and try not to let your brain turn into knotty soup. There should be a homeopathic remedy for this whole thing, perhaps named “Platform De-Stress” or “Train Be Calm”.

I don’t know why I haven’t learnt yet to just lapse into “it’ll turn out fine, it always does” mode, because we were on the right platform and our train was only twenty minutes late and before we knew it we were rolling our way back to Delhi.

2006 #12: In Which Centipedes Have Highways

I was regularly watching a woman who sells vegetables over the balcony of our guesthouse, and came to admire the way she could wield her long stick at the cows who came to check out her wares. I thought they were rather polite actually, sniffing each pile with great delicacy first, before attempting to help themselves. But they didn’t reckon on her clubbing abilities. She’d let out a great yell then baton them on the rump with a wonderful flourish and off they’d run, looking as surprised and embarrassed as a cow possibly can.

A day or two later, a young girl was sitting nearby with some flowers to sell to the temple-goers. She also had a bovine audience, but she just couldn’t deal to them in the same direct and effective way that the vegetable woman could and some of the flowers did indeed end up in some of the cow stomachs. Never mind, in a few years I expect she’ll have developed more talent in this direction.

There was also a young man of about seventeen who sold flowers and I watched his display skills with great admiration. He did a wonderful job of it and I’m sure in a different situation he would make an excellent interior decorator. Perhaps I should have suggested it to him – I’m sure he could really make it in New York.

Here’s a photo of some women on a pilgrimage to the Temple. They stared up at me with great curiosity. According to one of the guys at the guesthouse, these women would never have seen a foreigner before.

While Paul was still abed, I went for breakfast at the Ram Raja. Little Laxman (spelling?) who is about two or three years old, was crying about something or other, and he had men around him blowing up balloons, talking to him, trying to distract him in various ways and even one guy playing beautiful flute music to try and cheer him up. It was rather a lovely scene. Meanwhile his mother, who he was leaning all over trying to tell his very sad story to, was being terribly pragmatic and unsympathetic and I guess he just didn’t have enough blood or broken limbs on him to get through to her soft mother-heart. I had to chuckle to myself, as I myself have been the same way with my kids when I was busy and they were telling dramatic stories about how someone had just stepped on their pet flea or whatever.

A man came along with a women in tow, veil over her head and a rag tied around her finger. I’m not sure what the story was, but before long a crowd had gathered around and one of the old characters always hanging around the restaurant took the rag off and gave her some instructions. It was one of those times I wished I knew Hindi, because whatever he was saying was apparently quite humorous.

Another humorous part was the children trying to teach me how to count to ten in Hindi. I got as far as five and was quite proud of myself. Admittedly I could already count to three. Give me a break here – I’m getting old.

We walked up to the Chauta Bhuj (must get the spelling for all these words) and watched the langurs for a while, taking a few photos along the way. There were a lot of centipedes and they all looked very busy going round and round in circles. I don’t know where they thought they were going or what they were doing but they all seemed to think it was very important to get there. We had to be careful where we sat and one or two even walked over my hand when I was trying to take photos over the side of the stairway. It seemed we had bumped into rush hour on Centipede highway.

Later on we thought we’d take a stroll through some of the streets I’d never seen before. Paul reckoned some of them here and there looked a lot like Spanish streets. We got “hello hello hello” from kids, so many we actually started looking for an exit, when we got invited into the home of a man he vaguely knew to take chai. In the one room we entered I counted six kids and lost count of the adults milling and sitting about. I ended up in the courtyard out the other door with some women and was requested to meet and take photos of the mother, sister, sister-in-law, niece, nephew, etc and one rather spoiled puppy. My duty done as journalist/personal photographer, I stepped back inside to the mens world and had my chai. Yummy as usual. I must learn how to make that stuff as well as so many of the men here do. There were pictures plastered all over the walls – magazine pictures of gorgeous women mostly – and they didn’t have sarees on either! Men!

Again, slim Hindi versus slim English. Everyone runs out of conversation fairly quickly in this situation and you sit there smiling at the kids and the dog and drink your chai until you’ve finished. It is pretty cool though that you get to see their world and they get to see and stare at you for a while (generally fairly politely) and one way or another, I think we all give some form of inspiration to each other.

Evening time came and we went to the Ram Raja and popped out the other side to their back yard. Never before have I seen a back yard with a river and a palace in it. Rather a nice way to see the sun set, I must say. Paul’s friend Biru had a small bottle of 8PM whiskey, about the size of a hip flask or so, which he kindly shared with us and we whiled away a pleasant hour or two sipping on that and eating pakora.

Biru slipped off after a while, leaving us with the rest of the whiskey. It wasn’t that bottle that did the damage. It was the second bottle we managed to conjure up that did it. I’ll always have fond memories of that night – meandering our way home, saying goodnight to all our favourite cows and street dogs, all of whom did a fabulous job of hiding their snickers at these two foolish people walking slightly sideways under the streetlights, stepping with great and unneeded exaggeration over the cow pats.

2006 #11: Moghuls and Moos

Have you ever had a cow wander up to you at a restaurant? This is only one of the delightful features of dining in Orchha, aside from the wonderful food. Another one is being guarded by street dogs, as you share their territory and dine whilst watching the traffic veer around you, nobody blinking an eye at the fact this might be a little unusual.

We arrived in Orchha at the reasonably civilised hour of 6.45am. As opposed to about 3am last time. Paul thought I should have a tempo experience from the train station, so we got into a tempo (sort of like a large auto rickshaw) and apparently we were lucky that there were only thirteen people in it rather than twenty or more. This is in a space about the size of your average hatchback car. Luckily we were in the front (three of us and driver) and I had the window seat – in other words, squashed into the outer seat with bits of me spilling over the edge – so I was able to see the drive into Orchha and take a bit of movie footage as well.

The first thing we did when we got there was walk up to Ram Raja restaurant, where our friends are, and there were the kids setting up for the day. When Mokesh, the eldest at 13, saw Paul, his eyes nearly popped out of his head. “Paul” he screamed, then more or less jumped into Paul’s arms. It was really sweet.

We appeared to have bought the monsoon to Orchha with us, so after we booked into our guesthouse, I went and stood on the balcony, smugly using my new umbrella as shelter, and watched the langur monkeys for a while. Three of them were perched on the rooftop and archway just across from us, spying on the people below and sheltering from the rain. There were also a bunch hanging out on the Chautabhuj, one of the big temples here which is a mixture of Moghul and Hindi architecture. Lizards abounded on the walls of our guesthouse also, which was nice. I didn’t see any monkeys or lizards up at Bharmour and I was starting to miss them.

We went for a bit of a wander across the river and took a few photos from an angle I’d not seen before, then had a late lunch at the corner restaurant, trying to spread our money around a bit amongst the business. While we were waiting for food, a little street puppy trotted happily past us with a mouse in its mouth. He had his lunch sorted!

Back to the Ram Raja for dinner. Yummy. Then we went through to the back to give the kids the presents we had brought with us. At first they were all asleep in a bundle on a woven cot in the corner, but within seconds one of them woke up and saw us, then next thing they all sprung out of bed in one lump and were all over us and wide awake. Mayhem proceeded to erupt. The knucklebones were cool, so were the diary, coloured pencils and train whistle, they had no idea what a yoyo was, so that took a bit of explaining, and they all knew how to use the bubble blowers. But the best present of all was a simple rubber toy, like half of a tennis ball. You turn it inside out, put it on the ground, then when the tension has loosened enough it goes “POP” and jumps way up in the air. They thought this was a great joke.So did the adults. And as it turned out, so did half the village. Might take two back next time. I can see this one’s going to get worn out in a hurry.

Next day we went up to the Laxmi Temple. Parbat borrowed a mate’s rickshaw to drive us up there, which was a bit of a giggle. Brand new rickshaw too – it felt very posh. The Laxmi Temple was built around about the 15th century or so (see the sign here) and has murals painted on the walls inside, really ancient wooden doors held together by some impressive-looking staples, and a 5 story high temple part in the center which has some really nice Ganesh carvings, etc on the outer surface. And a really nice view of the village too, as it’s set up on a hill. We perched up on the 3rd and 4th floors for a while enjoying the breeze and taking a few photos.

On the way back we saw a mama pig with her kids and a dog resting (rather wisely, we thought) in a puddle. We took a few random shots of this and that also, such as some men doing some building with bricks.

Back at the restaurant later, Mokesh was still trying to figure the yoyo out and Nilu (10) wrote her name and all the kids names in my notebook in Hindi, with her new green and gold pens. Ram (5) was blowing some great bubbles, and of course the rubber toy without a name was going off marvellously. It had now graduated to being set off on people’s heads.

Later on, we went out the back and were ambushed into a birthday party. A young man, now 17, ordered us to come and have some of his birthday cake, then stuffed it down our throats while the photographer took our photos. I felt like a baby pelican being fed by its mother at a zoo. We exited out of their as fast as was politely possible. I reckon the photos will be funny though, because Paul had been in on this particular custom before and so was prepared for it. He pretended to swallow the guy’s hand, so it was the birthday boy who had a shocked look on his face for that photo!

2006 #10: Monsoon Reigns

A funny thing about railways stations here is that they have messages coming over the intercom regularly, often beginning with “Your attention please. Important message”. Then someone turns the volume down and you are unable to here anything but the odd word here and there. This can be a little alarming when you’re not sure if you’re on the correct platform. So you look around you to see if anyone else is panicking and sort of go by the general feel of things.

Things actually went straightforwardly and we got back to Delhi at about 6.30am. I was, however, totally caught out by the monsoon. This is the first time I have actually experienced monsoon here, as last year it was late in arriving. It’s an apt description though – it’s really, really wet. Pahar Ganj (our neighbourhood) was up to about ankle height or so and all sorts of interesting things were floating in the water. I was trying to avoid these and keep at least my camera dry whilst refusing rickshaw wallahs who kept getting in my way, whilst Paul was up ahead somehow managing to look smug beneath his umbrella. And so, it’s Good Morning from Delhi.

I was totally soaked by the time we got to our room, but it sure was great to put the luggage down again, and it actually seemed cooler also, thank goodness. Over to next door for breakfast, I kept myself amused watching the water pouring down the inside of the walls right beside the light and fan switch panel. Thunder was crashing around us, etc, and when I pointed this out to Paul he just told me “you should see it at blah blah blah. This is nothing…”. Well, I’m always into going with the flow, so if he wasn’t going to worry about it, neither was I.

Then I went down to the street, admitted defeat and bought myself an umbrella. A bit of a dangerous item actually – you push the button on the handle a little bit and “whooomph”, one unfurled umbrella. “Heh – let’s see the monkeys attack me when armed with this”, I thought to myself.

All in all a pretty cruisy day. Big breakfast, big lunch, taking care of little details like swapping clothing around because tonight’s trip is to the south, which should be a darn sight hotter than the mountains.

Everything was going swimmingly until Paul’s tailor screwed things up yet again. Horrible little man. This time it was Paul’s turn to want to kill him. There’s just something about this guy that really gets ya. His work is good, but he is a purveyor of inexactitudes, and has you running round day after day working things in around him because he has lied or let you down once again. Grrr Grrr Grrrrr.

My tailor, however, is a very nice chap, with whom I had a very nice chai and he goes about wanting to satisfy his customers in the most wonderful way. I’ll keep him on!

And so, in spite of being totally organised, Paul’s tailor-made us late to the luggage room, late to the train station and generally killed an otherwise cruisy day. Fortunately our train was twenty minutes late, so much to our relief it all worked in the long run.

We hadn’t actually found out about the Mumbai bombings until the afternoon, so it was particularly interesting to find we were sharing our cubicle on the train with a bunch of Moslem men. One of them was trying to hang a small carry bag on a hook by the window, and each one of them frequently got up and down and went in and out. Paul and I both surreptitiously eyed the bag and I think we both had our fingers crossed that these were just innocent travellers like ourselves.

It was all good though, and we arrived in Jhansi safe and sound.

(By the way, the headline to this chapter is one that was in the Hindustan Times I think. We just love the way they play with English.)

2006 #9: Ladymen and Helipads

On the second night we went and watched the puja at the village square. A great cacophony of bells all over the place and even a drum machine outside one of the temples. There are eighty-four temples in this square (some very small but still counted as temples). One of them was built in the 7th century! It has amazing wooden carving around it and inside, and many interlocking pieces. An absolute masterpiece of work.

Next morning we went for a walk up the slope to the helipad they have just built in Bharmour. On the way up a brightly dressed woman went past us, bells tinkling, etc. Then she tapped me on the shoulder and said in a deep man’s voice that the zip on my bag pocket was open. You see these men every now and again, but I have never spoken to one. I must say it was a bit of a surprise to hear that voice come out of a sari-clad woman. The helipad is huge. I’m not sure how many helicopters they are expecting, but they shouldn’t have a problem finding a park.

The view was great – many more slopes visible as well as tiny villages dotted all over them. We started to walk up even further via a backtrack found if you duck round behind the houses. We stopped and chatted with a few locals and took photos of them, them and us, their cows, the marijuana growing wild all over the place, etc, but it started to rain so we had to make our way back down again, stopping for chai and conversation by the helipad. Then a lazy afternoon on the veranda watching the monsoon do it’s thing. It was actually almost cold. So cool we had two layers on.

Later on we went for dinner at a Nepalese restaurant where we had chow mein and momo. Momo are really yummy. Pastry with meat or vegetable inside, steamed or fried and then you dip them in chili sauce. Mmmmm.Then music on the veranda with the Israelis. Wonderful to have a guitar in the hands yet again. I am getting spoilt with that on this trip.

The next day the Israelis left on their motorbikes. We went down to the road to see them off – an unbelievable amount of luggage fitted on, around and all over the bikes. I felt a lot better about the 2 bags I lug round with me once I saw the performance they had to go through.

We then went for a walk in a different direction – actually DOWN a gentle slope for a change. I wanted to get hot enough to brave a cold shower – the hot tap being only a useless decoration in the bathroom. In Delhi, cold water is never cold enough, up here, cold water is actually pretty teeth chattering stuff. Not a particularly exciting walk, but pleasant all the same. Paul tried to hitch a lift with a guy on a steamroller thing, which was going all of 2 mph at top speed. Our casual ambling was much faster. The guy thought it was a great joke and it no doubt added interest to his day that was otherwise incredibly slow. Them’s very long roads at such a slow speed.

We saw a couple of schoolboys on our amble, stealing apples from an orchard. We watched them or a while being as surreptitious as they could, then walked past them and told them they were very naughty (in Hindi). They looked so guilty and a bit abashed that they had been sprung. Some things are the same the world over, huh.

That night we had a nice chat with Mrs Sharma then headed for the English Wine Shop (bottlestore). Paul found a hipflask of whiskey with “King Paul” on the label, so naturally he had to buy that, regardless of the quality, which was a little dubious upon tasting. I was making signs behind him about how his head would be so swollen now that he found a whiskey named after him and the guys in the shop were cracking up laughing. It’s nice that sign language works well globally.

Next morning we had to be on the bus at 7am. Mrs Sharma kindly woke us up with a knock on the door and two cups of chai. What a sweet thing to do. We were a bit sad to say goodbye.

We got seats behind the driver on the bus and the ride was reasonably sane. A bit of a shame that the driver’s windscreen wipers made horrible grinding noises and refused to go, but he just peered through the raindrops and carried on. I had the window seat this time, so I was able to take a movie or two when it wasn’t raining. They have amazing statues up there, like Hanuman the Monkey God and Shiva. They’re really big and either right in the river or on huge rocks in the river. Further down we saw some kind of monkeys that sat on the roadside barriers staring in amazement at the beings in the big vehicles going by. This was a funny turnaround from me watching the monkeys with great curiosity.

There were several landslides on the road, but all of them go-roundable. And on some of the houses they had waterspouts that spat rain right out onto the road. Quite spectacular to watch. My hand actually got sore from holding on when we went round the multitudes of corners on the road, and I won’t even mention the state of my backside.

We stopped in Chamba for a two hour lunch break, and I bought a woven shawl from a shop where you could watch a guy making them on a loom. Then finally, back to the train station, via the flatlands where the driver suddenly turned into a loon, playing chicken with large army trucks and weaving in and out of horses and carts. The mountain part actually seemed a lot safer in comparison! We had boiled eggs and bananas for dinner, then back on the train to Delhi.

2006 #8: Bharmour – Up Near Heaven

Okay, the bus-up-the-mountain experience. What can I say? It’s steep, rugged and beautiful. After hearing so many scary bus ride stories, I had a great deal of trepidation about this journey. But I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of scariness once I got used to it. The roads are mostly tarsealed – apart from where the landslides have been – and there are many passing bays. And because we weren’t on the tourist route, the drivers in all vehicles were very careful and not prone to play chicken with one another due to fits of ego. For this I was most grateful.

We stopped many times for chai and snacks at roadside villages. We were only allowed about ten to fifteen minutes at a time, the driver keeping the element of surprise with this – as we found out when we nearly missed getting back on at Chumba. We kept a really good eye on the driver after that!

The villages are quite different looking from the ones further down – they use a mixture of stone and wood to build their houses, which is quite an attractive look. They also have a remarkable talent for building literally on the sides of cliffs. This must take an incredible amount of strongmindedness and tenacity. Just walking up small bits of paths in this place nearly killed me, leave along carrying a house up there bit by bit!

They have rather a good system with these buses. In each one is a driver, a conductor and of course, the mandatory crowds of locals hopping on and off. The bus stops are just wherever you want them to be. The conductor has a whistle and uses this when people indicate they want to get on or off. Also, if the driver has to back the bus up (the bit that DID give me the heebies near the landslides and narrow parts of the road), the conductor directs him with a series of whistles. It’s all quite cleverly done.

And I couldn’t believe that we could drive into a place that was this remote and there are people everywhere! Some would get off the bus and you would look around at desolate cliffs and wonder where on earth they were going? Even a goat would have a hard time in some of these places. And talking about goats, frequently we squeezed past tribal women driving goats or sheep to goodness knows where. The mind boggles at what is actually hidden from view in these mountains. Some of the houses we saw were perched so far up impossible cliffs that I doubt Hollywood could replicate such a place and make it look believable.

So sometimes you are squished, sometimes you are not, you are hot, your backside hurts and it all adds up to a very, very long ride. About six hours from Pathankot (where we disembarked from the 12 hour train journey) to Chumba, then another four hours up to Bharmour. By the time we got to Bharmour, I was beyond exhaustion and starting to feel dizzy. And no, that wasn’t from altitude. The things you do for a bit of relaxation.

We stayed in a very nice guesthouse called Chamunda, run by Mr and Mrs Sharma who are a pleasant, welcoming couple. When we got to our room, we put down our stuff and lay on the bed. Oh darn. The bed was actually harder than the bus seat. By quite a bit. So hard it would make an effective chopping block for very gnarly firewood. I guess they don’t go too much for luxury mattresses round these parts – mind you, if I had to carry one up those mountainsides, I wouldn’t bother either. However, it was somewhere to stretch out and that was the main thing.

We finally staggered over to a dhaba for some dinner, where we ate mutton, roti (flatbread) rice and vegetables. A wonderful and welcome meal, with the added bonus that we did not have to get up straight afterwards and run whilst carrying several kilos of assorted luggage. Comparisons in life bring one appreciation, do they not?

Finally, off to bed for an experience in the art of sleeping on no-softness. Okay, I slept like a log out of exhaustion, but I woke up at dawn when the birds were making a cheerful racket (horrible little creatures), and then woke up again an hour or 2 later hearing kids downstairs somewhere playing some game which involved the little girl giving bloodcurdling screams at regular intervals of about one minute each. The longer this went on, the more I contemplated giving her really good reason to scream, until I had to get up and distract my mind from such cold-blooded and murderous intentions that I could actually feel my fingers curling around her neck. Now playing is one thing, but screaming so loudly for so long was just way over the top. I couldn’t believe that the parents would allow this to go on so close to paying guests. I don’t know who the parents were, but they were damned lucky they didn’t meet up with me that morning. I doubt they would have got a very good impression of New Zealanders if they had.

About three hours later I finally recovered enough humour to be able to talk to humans again and we went for breakfast UP the hill. What is it with India and putting everything upstairs or up a hill?

Admittedly it was worth it for the view. Wow. The Himalayas are big alright. And steep. And all around you are even bigger mountains. You gaze open-mouthed up at the slopes and wonder why on earth someone would want to climb the highest mountain in the world. This concept is completely beyond me. All due respect to Sir Edmund Hillary and cohorts, but are you completely nuts??!! It looks like such idiotically hard work that insanity must be a prerequisite to such a pastime.

Anyway, we mooched around the beautiful village square for a few lazy hours taking photos and drinking chai, then wandered back down some steps towards our level of the woods. On the way down we were welcomed into a house of a man Paul had met here a couple of weeks ago and took more chai on their veranda with Kalyan and his father, and took photos at their request of the father on the big hand-loom they had. Turns out that Kalyan had studied political science. Wow – the people you find in the mountains huh?

Later, back at the guesthouse, due to the smell coming out of the shared bathroom (not unusual in India but too much for me as I was still feeling weak), not to mention the large centipede Paul reckons was residing therein, we swapped rooms and got a bigger one with private bathroom. (This meant our own centipedes and a cold shower plus a hole in the floor all to ourselves. Luxury!) Here’s one of our own private bugs.

We took chai with Mrs Sharma, and then some motorbikers turned up and took over other rooms on our floor. So much for our private veranda. Three of them were Israelis and one from Yugoslavia. As it turned out they were a very cruisy lot so they ended up being good company. To my recollection, these were the only other white people we saw in the village, and much as I love interacting with the locals, this can be tiring (with my slim Hindi and their slim or no English), so it is nice to be able to speak English with people that totally understand what you say.

2006 #7: Mouses and Mountain Buses

Well, we got our tickets for the train, after much tsk tsking from the guy at the station that tells you the train numbers (you know, that performance of fill in a form, go to a desk, get a number, go to a desk, wait, etc). We wanted the train that went to Pathankot, with upper berths and it was leaving in four hours! He was quite a humorous guy and we enjoyed our chat with him, which is why we don’t do all this stuff online. You don’t get to laugh so much with a computer, and we do want to keep these people employed.

We thought we’d have a good lunch before going, as you can spend hours on trains and buses going without food – that is if you’re paranoid like me and imagine hopping off to get a stack then turning around to find your ride has left without you. A regular nightmare of mine.

So we popped into what we though was a tidy – even posh looking – cafe and sat down at a table making comments about how flash it looked. Then a little mouse ran along the floor. Of course there was an ensuing discussion with a guy across the way about how they would taste as pakora, what they would charge us for this and how it probably wasn’t worth it as there was such little meat on them. As it turned out, looks are deceiving. The food we did receive was luke warm, looked totally unlike what it was supposed to look like and tasted indifferent. Perhaps they should go into the Mouse Pakora business instead…

I dropped in to say goodbye to Mr Om and he gave me a couple of gifts and some emotional hugs and kisses on the cheek goodbye. Gosh, this was most unexpected. Bless him.

Our train was leaving from the Old Delhi railway station, so we did a Metro hop. So much easier than battling traffic in an auto rickshaw at this time of the night. Then into the railway station. Ah yes, familiar mayhem. Paul lined up at the office window to find out what platform we were supposed to be on and the window slammed shut just as he got there. Of course. What did we expect, a straight forward situation? Let us not be silly here. Surprisingly, however, we only went to two wrong platforms this time. I think that’s beating all records so far. We met up with an Austrian woman working over here and she gave us a lesson on how to eat a mango. Well, more to the point, how to eat a mango without getting it all over your body. All rather clever actually. Although I have to try this out for myself yet, to ensure the genuineness of her claim.

We actually got onto the train in record time and got a window seat! Cool stuff. Then a family of eight came along and we played squish. There is only sleeping for six in this type of carriage, so the logistics of sleeping 10 people in such a space is quite fascinating.

They were a very nice family. Three of them had been living in America, including a young boy who was very shy and a younger girl who wasn’t. She gave me the lowdown on Cinderella and what happened to her, with big intense eyes and great seriousness. We both decided that we were glad there was a happy ending to this otherwise very serious tale. Another young lady sat beside me for a while, aged about ten I think. She was very sweet and spoke beautiful English in a lovely gentle voice. She asked me why I had golden hair and she had black hair. We had a bit of a discussion about environmental factors, etc, and I was just delighted that there was still such lovely innocence left in the world.

We got to sleep about midnight sometime, having been informed by the T.C. that we would arrive at Pathankot at approximately 3am. So I set my alarm for this, woke up at the appropriate hour and it turned out that we didn’t arrive until 6.45am! I could’ve wrung the guy’s neck! That’s 3 hours and 45 minutes of waking up every time we stopped somewhere. Grrrrrr.

At Pathankot it turned out that the monsoon had arrived. I guess I should’ve bought that umbrella in Delhi after all. Oh well. Then a guy on a cycle rickshaw won the price war for taking us to the train station, so we jumped on there as it had safely stopped raining. So Paul said. Well, none of us is right all the time and subsequently we got soaking wet, or at least I did on my right hand side, as the law of umbrella’s says it will only protect 1.5 persons at any one time. The rickshaw driver then stops in town, nowhere near the bus station and wants his money now. Ensuing lively discussion between him and Paul about the fact that saying he will take us to the bus station means he will take us to the bus station, and the driver protests that it is 21 km’s further. ‘Well, let’s get going then’ says Paul. One very slow trip with one very disgruntled rickshaw driver later…..

The bus station was largely submerged in water, or a ‘disgusting quagmire’ as Paul put it. But we did have some nice food and chai before getting on with playing “How Many People Can We Squeeze Into a Vehicle”. I thought our seat was quite comfortable until Paul pointed out that it was in fact a three person seat, not a two person one. I am guessing that the designers of these seats used very small persons to take their measurements from.

We stopped and started, stopped and started, people squeezed in and out and it was generally hot, sweaty and squashed all the way up the mountains – ten hours worth! Paul pointed out later that it wasn’t really that squashed, in fact it was quite reasonable compared to normal, and I couldn’t help reflecting that he neglects to fill me in on such little details on rather a regular basis. Is it that he is just used to all this stuff after so much travelling here and no longer sees it, or is it that he doesn’t want to scare me off and thus we never indeed go on any trips anywhere? It’s just a bit peculiar that he tosses off these facts in such a casual manner in hindsight. Or am I merely being overly suspicious? Hmmmm…Oh well, at least it took my mind off the enormous drops down into huge gorges that we saw out the windows most the time.

More on that later. Have to go and find out timings for tonight’s train. Yep – off to Madya Pradesh this time. We just got into Delhi this morning after travelling back from Bharmour. Approximately a 22 hour journey in 24 hours. Whew! We are obviously stark raving bonkers!

2006 #6: Weddings and Puppeteers

Yesterday, whilst wandering down the street with no particular mission, I bumped into a Rajasthani Puppeteer. He happened to also be talking to a Kiwi at the time and commented that the world suddenly seemed to be full of New Zealanders. We got chatting, the chai came out – wonderful habit, that one – and it turns out that he is well-travelled himself. He’s been to Germany several times, Norway, Sweden, Spain and one or two other places I can’t remember. He carves all the puppet faces himself and makes the costumes. Very clever guy. He was organising with the other Kiwi to do a show that afternoon for some kids at a leper colony/orphanage. I’d love to see these kids faces during the show – everyone loves a story and I’m sure these kids could do with all the cheering up they can get.

Back to R-Expo again, to deal with Mr Om some more. While Paul was dealing with him, I got chatting with one of the other staff and he ended up showing me three other floors they had that I didn’t know was there. Oh my, what a terribly dangerous shop! Rajasthani painted furniture, chunky wooden furniture, jewellery boxes of every description, brass ware to die for, musical instruments, cushion covers, etc etc etc. It was like being in Aladdin’s cave. I’m going to have to work on becoming a millionaire just so I can have a home like this. I must have been drooling for a good hour – had to wipe my chin several times….

Also, for a little while, I sat outside the shop and watched the street, camera in hand. I got one or two shots of the metal cages on wheels that the children go to and from school in. They’re only small, with bars on the windows, but I guess it’s a good idea for keeping them safe from the various dangers on the street – cow horns, rickshaw handlebars, etc.

Yesterday was also remarkable in that it was the most disgustingly hot and humid day yet. Imagine combining that with many power cuts, the heat and smell of half a million generators, several million other sweating bodies, the smell of urine and dung of course and you start to get an idea of this less than romantic situation. Especially when, stupidly, I popped into a clothing shop – I never learn do I? I’m still looking for something ever-cooler to wear – and their dressing room was a small enclosed oven at the back of the shop. You don’t take the clothing back off, you peel it off and wring it out. Oh dear. When will I learn?

I did, however, have some wonderful chats with several different wallahs, got to try out my tiny Hindi abilities and drink much chai, and all in all it was a peaceful and sociable day.

Last night we were just leaving our guesthouse to go for some aloo fry (potato chunks with spices and lemon on) and a wedding procession was coming up the road. It’s hard not to notice these, as they are proceeded by a band banging drums and playing assorted loud instruments. Then the Bride and Groom (or is it just the groom? Not sure…) come along on dressed up horses, followed by a rickshaw with a generator on it which is powering the guys behind them carrying elaborate electric lights above their heads. These lights are connected to each other with power cords – pretty innovative really. Although apparently a little awkward if the generator breaks down – each guys gets jerked to a stop by the next one, connections come undone, etc. And of course, meanwhile, the normal city traffic is still trying to flow around this whole situation, which is bad enough at the best of times. So inevitably, Pahar Ganj was complete and utter chaos for the duration of the parade, power cuts and madding crowds and the whole thing was wildly humorous and entertaining. Well, for those of us on holiday anyway. I imagine for a businessman or someone in a hurry the amusement level would have been a tad lower on the scale.

Finally, back to the rooftop. There’s a bunch of French circus types up there at the moment, so they kept us entertained by juggling with glowing juggling balls. One of the balls changed colour constantly and the effect was quite mesmerizing. So naturally we hauled our cameras out and had a bit of fun taking groovy psychedelic photos.

They were up there this morning also with balancing plates and all sorts of things. One of the waiters was having a go at juggling and lost one of the balls over the side of the building. I’m not sure what was more entertaining – the juggling, etc, or the locals trying to put together all sorts of pipes and bits and pieces to try and get this ball back. It must have been stuck in a pretty awkward place by the looks of these goings on.

Well, today we go to the railways station to buy tickets to Pathenkot (spelling?) as we’re finally going up to the hills. That means tonight we tackle the train station again. Cringe. I am practising calmness and breathing as I speak of this, keeping in mind the last lot of experiences in this wonderful, crazy world of Indian Railway travelling. But on the cheerful side, that might be eclipsed by the mountain bus ride experience. Time will tell.

2006 #5: Fifty One Rupees of Wonderful Entertainment

Well, I have dealt with a Delhi tailor by myself and lived to tell the tale. Rather than go back to Karol Bagh to find some velvet for a jacket I am getting made, I shopped here in Pahar Ganj. I found a wonderful shop, which is in conjunction with the wonderful shop Paul has used previously, to buy curtain material, and they took me down an alleyway (of course) to their dress material shop. After many tales of ‘My wonderful country I am coming from’, photos of children, and all else that dealing with a wallah involves, I came out with three times more material than I intended to buy. Nice stuff though. They even wanted me to take their photo. Of course, at first I was only dealing with two men, but as soon as the camera came out, magically they had turned into about eight men. I guess their cousin, their uncle, their brother’s brother, the chai boy, the measuring boy, the fetching more material boy, etc made up the numbers. It was good fun though, and they were very pleasant guys. Only gently pushy as opposed to intensely so as one will get from most of the shops here.

I asked them to recommend to me a women’s tailor, as I can’t stand dealing with Paul’s one without the strong desire to strangle him coming over me, and they took me – yes folks, down an alleyway – to a Sikh one. Actually, he was really fabulous. He really knows his stuff, was able to get three outfits made in three days as opposed to twelve like another guy down the road I had checked out, and is also cheaper than the other two put together. We took a wander over the road to see a guy that sells piping, buttons and various and assorted shiny lovely things – a woman’s nirvana – and I came out with a couple of really awesome peacocks that will be sewn onto the jacket. This is going to be one unique piece of work! The fact remains, however, that I am now a much poorer woman than I was when I first walked into the material shop. Albeit it, soon to be a well-dressed one. I just hope that when the time comes to collect my garments, that I can find my way back through this myriad of alleyways to claim them.

By the way Jude, in answer to your questions, chai is a milky spicy tea that they drink here a lot. I had some from a restaurant the other night, but it was nowhere near as nice as the stuff you get when you go shopping. This is the stuff that the locals drink and it is far nicer.

Also, I have been able to do long raving emails because there are many cyber cafe’s here and they have air-conditioning. So I do this to cool down as well as communicate with y’all back home. It costs about 40 rupee per hour – around about 1 dollar. Well worth it for the chilled air. It’s often as crowded in these places as the local buses though. They squish as many people, computers and chairs as they can into (sometimes) a space the size of a large wardrobe. And I am now in the habit of regularly copying my writing on the clipboard, as one must expect at least one to two power cuts per hourly session.

I went to a cafe – actually called a German Bakery, although there hasn’t been a German in sight as far as I know – with the intention of having coffee and some of their delicious apple and honey cake, and wound up chatting with a Baba. A very nattily dressed one actually. We spoke of the world, people’s attachment to materialism, India, Ayurvedic medicine (did you know that some people here actually drink cow’s urine? Not sure what it does, but each to his own). Eventually he gets around to telling me that he reads palms. Naturally he offered to do mine, and since I had very little else to do I let him. Apparently my lucky number is 8, my lucky colour is turquoise (at least it wasn’t muddy brown or baby poo yellow), and I am going to be around to annoy my children for 84 – 86 years. Sorry kids – heh heh. Afterwards, having tied the obligatory good luck and prosperity piece of red string around my wrist, he asked me for one hundred rupees. Not for him, of course, because he is not attached to materialism, even if he is the best-dressed Baba in the neighbourhood, but for his Ashram which is supported many kids, cows and assorted other beings. So I met him half way and gave him 50 rupees, as he had only read one of my hands. Fair’s fair, I thought. Then he asked for one more rupee, because 51 is much more auspicious than fifty. So I handed this over and walked away feeling like I had definitely had my money’s worth of entertainment. So today has been rather a success I think. And at least my money belt won’t be so heavy to carry now. One has to look at the bright side of these things…..

2006 #4: Give Me Pahar Ganj Any Day!

Yesterday afternoon, after several showers to reduce our skins to simmering point, we went for a ride on the Metro to Karol Bagh. The Metro has only just opened here, so it is all still brand new and shiny looking. There aren’t even any rats hanging around the track yet!

So you go in and buy a token – a little round plastic one – to your chosen destination. And then you walk through a metal detector and past a couple of guards. They had to laugh at the clowns from New Zealand both trying to get through the metal detector at the same time. We were like a couple of kids because it is all so new and exciting – we were all grinning like idiots over this. They waved us through without searching our bags. Maybe they think such fools cannot possibly plot a bombing or whatever when they can’t even coordinate walking through a simple gateway.

The trains come every few minutes, and they’re so nice and clean and air-conditioned, so we were tempted to just stay there and keep on riding….

Karol Bagh is a fair bit cleaner that Pahar Ganj, the streets are wider, etc, but the touts are just so pushy. It makes you wish you had a machine gun! There is some nice stuff here and there, but when you even swing a glance in the direction of something from four hundred paces, the touts jump on you and try to almost stuff their gear down your throat. I guess they just don’t grasp the concept that it totally puts you off and makes you want to walk away – it was actually tempting to stop and buy an umbrella as a tout-beating device.

Going into the department stores was almost the opposite problem. I wanted to find a Salwar Kameez (traditional long top and trousers worn here) and of course Murphy’s Law came into play and put the Ladies department on the top floor. They did have a lift, but I’m reluctant to jump in one of those, knowing how frequently power cuts happen in Delhi. Imagine being stuck in one of those for a while and becoming a tender, succulent roast. No thanks.

So, three flights of stairs later, I came across the less than enthusiastic shop floor staff. Young ladies that were distantly polite, and helpful when you really pushed it, but kept glancing elsewhere and otherwise doing a rotten job in looking interested in what they were doing. I guess when you know you will get paid at the end of the day regardless, it changes your whole view on giving service. Maybe they should spend a day touting out on the street, and then see how they feel about the whole idea.

I ended up with a Kurta (long top) and some Salwar Kameez material and dupatta (wide scarf) which I will take to a tailor to get made up. Even though it’s more expensive to buy in a department store, rather than out on the street, I wanted somewhere with a fitting room so I could try stuff on. This is not happening out on the street! In Pahar Ganj, if you are lucky, someone will stand in front of you holding out a piece of material and you get changed behind that. That’s if the shop is big enough to actually turn around in. And then, of course, there is the audience. For some reason, watching white people dealing with the shop keeper is a common pastime around these parts. Well that’s just fine if you’re the audience, but being the star of the show can stretch one’s comfort zone a little.

Back outside on the street, Paul bought a Kurta and trousers, with a scarf. The guy that served him moved at the speed of lightning. Because we had merely glanced in his general direction, he had 10 different outfits out on the table before we could blink and the corrrrrect one was packaged and ready to go before you could say ‘um…’!

“Yes sir, this is the one for you. Oh you do not like the colour. Then you are having this colour or this colour or this colour…You are not liking the buttons? Okay, then this is the one for you sir. And you will be having these trousers (whips them out, holds them against Paul’s body). Yes sir, these are the trousers for you. And how many of these will you be having sir? Only one??!! If you will be buying several sir, then I am having evening price for you…..Okay, I do special prrrrice for you. ” Etc.

Quite remarkable. These Kurta’s do look good on a guy though. Much stylier than a t-shirt and jeans. And I must say, this guy was good at what he did. It was quite impressive to watch. And at least he didn’t try to actually stuff the Kurta up Paul’s nose, unlike some of his cohorts on the street….

Well, that’s it for now. We’re going back out into the heat to deal with tailors (Lord preserve us and give us patience) and other business people.