2007 # 10: The Austin Powers Peacock Bed

Well, we ended up staying another night in Shimla. Sheer exhaustion dictated that this should be so, not to mention acclimatisation to altitude. The room we had (on the 4th floor, naturally, according to Murphy’s law, which is continuously having a good laugh at our expense) was like something out of an Austin Powers movie. The backrest of the bed was shaped like a velvet peacock and it had little lights all around it. However, when we turned the lights on, one of them did go, one went on then changed it’s mind and went off again after a few minutes and one didn’t go at all. This wasn’t the only power problem we had. As it turned out, we could watch t.v. and recharge our camera batteries, or we could watch t.v. and have hot water for the shower. We couldn’t have it all – just who did we think we were?!

Oh, and watching t.v. was hilarious. We found the Discovery Channel and watched David Attenborough talk about butterflies and things, but it was dubbed in Hindi. This was great entertainment, until the t.v. turned itself off. We phoned the staff downstairs and after a good amount of time, one of them came upstairs, turned the switch off then on again and away it went. And of course, this little power upset totally threw the hot water system out and we ended up having a luke warm shower. And it’s not all that warm in Shimla.

Another funny thing was our packet of potato chips puffing up like a balloon, until it was as tight as a drum. This was due to the altitude. I wanted to eat them but Paul thought it would be a great joke to leave them and see if the packet actually blew up when we took it up to the Sangla valley, which is approx 3500 metres. I myself had reservations about this. What if it blew up whilst on the bus and we all got evacuated because they thought it was a bomb? That would be kind of embarrassing. So we decided that he would carry them in his backpack and just explain and show them the mess if it happened.

Shimla is a town left over from the British Raj. The British used it as a summer heat-escape place. There are many British buildings there, and one in particular looks just like a building from Hogwarts in Harry Potter. (I got a photo of it for you Ayla.) There’s also a statue of a guy that looks like he’s throttling a kid, whith a sigh under it saying “Duty With Love”. Talk about Dickensien! There are many monkeys in Shimla also. One of them caught me glancing at it out the window when it was wandering around on our balcony and tried to attack me through the window. I’m grateful to the person who invented glass. Talk about a temper!

The next morning we actually got out of bed in time to get to the bus station at 7.40am. What an unnatural time of the day…

We had to walk down many steps to get to the bus station, of course. Walking down steps whilst laden down with backpacks, etc, is not quite as easy as one would presume. My knees were a bit unhappy about it. However, we got there in time to have a chai and watch some rather large mice playing about in the rafters. Just as good as Discovery Channel really. I wonder if Indian mice squeek in Hindi…

2007 # 9: The Hindi-Einstein Train Station Discourse

We did a bit of thinking and decided to go back and change our train tickets. Taking into account India time plus factoring the monsoon into it, we decided that the likelihood of our first train being on time and being able to catch our next train within a three quarter hour window was about as likely as seeing the Pope in a nightclub. So back we went to make a nuisance of ourselves at the
Railway ticket office again. By the time we’d finished enquiring about trains, times and other sundry details, the poor man at the helpdesk actually laid his head on his desk and groaned. I strongly suspect he was glad to see the back of us.

It turned out to be a fortuitous decision. After playing on the metro again and climbing 9 flights of steps with our backpacks and bags, it turned out that our first train was going to be 3 hours late. We congratulated ourselves most smugly on our intuitive foresight and settled down to wait. We were very lucky in finding a good seat under a fan with a definately lower count of sociable rats than last time and amused ourselves with a novel, a crossword book and watching an old man across the way discover the delights of the MP3 player. It ended up being a good laugh, as the owner of said machine was a very happy guy who sung out loud to his music while we mimed typical modern Indian dancing. A good time was had by all and before we knew it our train was arriving.

On this particular leg of the journey, we discovered something that will be of great value in future train-travelling; request a bunk as far away from the toilets as possible. We had the cubicle nearest the toilet and, well let’s just say that the air was rife with odours that are not to be compared with that of a rosebush nor indeed a field of lavender flowers. We live and learn.

We arrived, and gladly so, at Kalka station. The advantage of our train being 3 hours late was that we had 3 hours less to wait for our 12 o’clock train to Shimla. Kalka station is quite delightful compared to others we have been acquanted with – they are having ‘Clean Year’ there and there was no rubbish, spit, rats nor any of the other delights offered at other locations. They do, however, have a great variety of characters hanging about. One (female I think, hard to tell sometimes) considered herself to be a master of discourse. She raved on at the top of her voice in Hindi (I think), blissfully unaware, nor caring, that nobody was actually taking any notice of the many and voluble wisdoms she had to impart. We couldn’t help hearing her, of course, due to the high sound volume, and we did actually ponder what it was she was saying. Wouldn’t it be funny if she was actually another Einstein and was actually speaking about matters of inertialess drive, measuring the circumference of far away, yet to be discovered planets, and how to make a good cup of tea whilst floating in space.

After half an hour or so, she wandered of, wildly gesticulating, and we were just getting used to the comparative silence, when another one of these characters turned up. Well, no need for T.V. screens at Kalka railway station – there’s enough action going on already.

Our Toy Train was only one hour late in taking off and what a wonderful ride it was. It climbed the hills at a leisurely pace and the views out the windows were excellent. We shared the ride with an expatriot Indian couple who now live in Dubai and they were great to talk with. The train went through many tunnels, some so long it seemed we were in there for at least a minute. Each time we went through one everybody would scream with delight and when we came out the other side of the longest one, heaps of bats were flying around the entrance.

The train stopped at many little stations and so we didn’t get to Shimla until dusk (about 7pmish). By this time we had had enough of train riding and reckoned that since leaving our room in Delhi we had been travelling and perching for 22 hours. We were stuffed! As I stepped off the train, I was accosted by a hotel tout who spoke as if I were deaf, and I had to make it very clear to him that we needed a few minutes to sit in silence, thank you! We decided to go to this hotel in the end and thank goodness he and his cohort carried our bags, because there were no rickshaws and it turns out that Shimla is not called the Queen of the Hills for no reason. Up we walked, and then some, and then some more. I was dumped in the village square (or equivalent of) while Paul went to look at our prospective room. I was there for almost an hour before he returned and just about falling over with exhaustion. (Insert ‘Why do I let myself in for these journies??!!’ here.)

Our hotel, of course, was more up. Trudge trudge trudge….. (Chanting a mantra to myself, “This too shall pass,This too shall pass, This too…”.

Finally we were able to shut a door behind us and lay out flat. We ordered room service because no way was I being convinced to go somewhere for dinner – I knew it would include uphills sooner or later) and we ate that, had a nightcap of Southern Comfort in sympathy with our sore bones, decided we would decide at 6am in the morning whether we carry on with a 10 hour busride to Sarahan and promptly began to sleep like the dead.

NOTE: It is now well after 6am and we are still in Shimla.

2007 #8: What’s in a Beggar’s Pockets?

The train ride back to Delhi was marvelous. And much to my very facetious satisfaction, my partner woke me up far too early for the train stop and we had to look out the window for ages until we got to our arrival point. Trivial, I know, but it did feel good not to be the only one overladen with cautiousness first thing in the morning on a train journey. And I got some really good shots with my camera, so I was pleased with that too.

We had a fairly laid-back day. We got back to our room, showered, then laid down again to get over the exhaustion of laying down all night. You only get about six or seven hours sleep while moving over hundreds of miles on a train and your subconscious is always semi-worried about your luggage, shoes and money staying put, so it isn’t the soundest of sleeps no matter which way you look at it.

Then, foolishly, we made our way back to the Railway Station and booked yet another bunch of train tickets. We simply never learn! This time, in three nights time, we will be on a train to Kalka, which will land at about 4.45 am. Far be it from us to travel during decent hours. But it does save money on accommodation and you get to where you’re going without having to stare out the window, sitting up, for seven to ten hours at a time. The novelty can wear off that no matter how wonderful a place is.

Then, with the favour of every god known to mankind, three-quarters of an hour later we will get on the ‘Toy Train’ (a very famous one) and go to Shimla. I say this because India is well-known for ‘India Time’, which does indeed stretch to the India Railway Company. So we’re really crossing our fingers that our first train will arrive in time to catch the second train. If not, we’ll play it by ear – what else to do? But it really is awesome to be able to go for hundreds of miles for a very small amount of money here. The India Railway System is the largest in the world and, if you ignore one or two idiosyncracies, is quite well organised.

From Shimla we will get on a bus (oh joy…) and go on to Sarahan. This is now in the Himalayas. Then, no doubt, we’ll flop around in a state of advanced exhaustion for a night or so then do it some more until we get to Chitkul. This is the village that is the last one in the Sangla/Baspa Valley that you can travel to without getting a permit. After that valley, with permit, you go more uphill then over into Tibet. We will not be doing that. We’re talking serious mountain-climbing here and I’m just not that into UP. It always hurts, you can’t breathe for panting, there’s always more UP in front of you, and then knowing my luck, there’ll be five days of cloudy weather and you can’t see a thing anyway! (Tis Monsoon season, after all.)

I wouldn’t be surprised if there was no internet there (in fact, I’d be pretty disgusted if there was – these are supposed to be remote, unspoiled villages) so I may not be in contact for close to two weeks. So there you go, you may just get a holiday from my ramblings, if you’re lucky.

Last night was cool. We sat around on the rooftop, yakking with a Kiwi, some Dutch, German, Indian and various other people. All well-travelled and all very nice with a great sense of humour. Then it RAINED. When it rains here in Monsoon, it really really means it. Cools the air nicely though. This morning, pretty much like last night. I’m enjoying just keeping still while I can. And eating meat. Rishikesh is a vegetarian area, and while I love vegetarian food, every now and again I need to eat something that once was moving.

Also, we saw a beggar here yesterday that we see regularly every year. We actually heard him coming and knew it was him. My partner calls him the God Botherer. He crawls along the ground with one leg stretched out in front, calling upon the mercy of all the gods he knows of and holding a stainless steel cup. We happened to be sitting with one of the shopkeepers at the time, and he told us that this guy is actually very rich. He makes about 1000 rupee a day, which is a fortune over here, and has pockets sewn all over the inside of his rags to hide his money in. Why he prefers to keep grovelling in the dirt and mud and doesn’t invest in a fleet of rickshaws instead, I don’t know, but he does put on a good act and really does earn his money. And it’s terribly entertaining to watch. Especially since last year I spied him standing up, shaking out his clothes and yakking with one of the locals, then getting back down on the ground again to continue his theatrics. I wonder if he owns a mansion in the hills somewhere and retires there in the off-season to swan about on his verandah and watch his peons work in the fields? I wouldn’t be surprised.

2007 #7: Blue Moon Blues and Dog Chorus

The next day I spent languishing in bed, under attack from a misdirected case of Delhi Belly. It somehow lost it’s way and found me in Rishikesh. And this, combined with a day hotter than mid-summer in hell, resulted in a day of great discomfort for me. At least the monkeys had buggered off so I could scuttle back and forward between room and toilet without having to arm myself with anything long and whackworthy. Who’d read about it though – me in an absolutely beautiful and terribly auspicious place and all I can do is look at the ceiling wall fan and the barely-hanging-together toilet door from the inside – not exactly the view I had in mind when I came here. What’s more, to really make it sickening, it was full moon. And not just any full moon – a Blue Moon. Sigh. Oh well, at least we enjoyed the moon last night, rising over the Himalayas, whilst listening to Pink Floyd. Of course, there was the obligatory indian dog barking it’s head off just outside our gateway for ages on end, to add a grounding touch to the scene. It was funny though, ‘cos about every 10 minutes when we’d all lost our auspicious patience with the mangy cur’s chorus, I’d mutter under my breath that someone should throw a rock at that dog. And sure enough, about 3 seconds after I said this each time, a rock would land on a piece of corrugated iron beside it and it would shut up for a short while. Me and somebody out there were obviously in sync.

NOTE: Even in the Western world Rishikesh is auspicious, as the Beatles wrote about 38 of their songs there, including “Obladi, Oblada” (what on earth were they thinking with THAT one??!!).

Needless to say, the day of the toilet was very uneventful, and the things that did eventuate I doubt you want to hear about.

Moving right along. Yesterday morning, we awoke to the blessed sound of thunder and rain. This lowered the temperature so much that I actually left our room and skipped a little rain dance, so happy was I not to be broiling alive any more. The green was greener than ever, the air was fresh and as yet untainted by the landrovers revving their engines by the gate below, the dog had lost it’s voice and I could actually move more than 3 feet without heading for the great white telephone. Ahh, the little joys in life.

We had a nice morning yakking and “taking chai” (in other words, lingering as long as decently possible over tea in a cafe while forking out as little money as possible) with a German couple also staying at our gueshouse. Our train wasn’t leaving until 11pm last night, so we had plenty of time on our hands. We also had a dip in the Ganga (Ganges River). You just can’t come all the way up here and not pay homage to the river – Ganga Ji. Surprisingly cold actually. Well, maybe not so surprisingly, considering it comes straight out of a glacier or something in the highest mountain range in the world. Funny how I should be so surprised. (Rolls eyes at self.)

Finally, we prepared for takeoff, having procrastinated at top speed, reluctance enhanced by the fact we now had to walk up very steep steps in the sun wearing backpacks. Remember those steps we meandered down when arriving here? Yes, there they squatted, patiently waiting, knowing full well that we would have to return and do the ‘up’ thing. And it hurt about as much as I expected.

We comforted ourselves, once recovery of breathe was retained, with a ride in a rickshaw all the way back to Haridwar, where the railway station is. The sort of rickshaw that one would normally think six people would squeeze into comfortably, and Indians can get at least 16 people into. We forked out enough rupees to have the darned thing to ourselves. Such opulence! Such indulgence! It felt great. Several people tried to flag the driver down along the way, but we had paid full fare ourselves and they looked on with disbelief as the driver went on by with only TWO PEOPLE IN IT!! It wasn’t nice of us to be smug about this, but we were anyway. The sides are open in these rickshaws, so you get a nice breeze. And also, if you can time them between the judder bars and potholes, you can take some good photos from out the sides. And to top off this fabulous experience, you have an almost front row seat of the driver playing chicken with buses, trucks, cars, other rickshaw drivers. etcetera. Quite exhilerating really – makes you feel alive. And lucky to be so from one second to the next.

So we obviously made it in one piece, and found ourselves with several hours to kill in Haridwar. Turns out it was an auspicious day of some sort (there are many of these throughout the year – if you miss one, another one will happen along shortly) and there were crowds of people thronging the banks of the Ganga. We wandered through the bazaar, which really looks like it’s name – full of shiny pretty things, stall after stall, lane after lane. We ate, we watched, we took photos, we ate some more, we took chai, we resisted touts and we saw only 3 other white faces that we could count. At dusk, the crowds gathered at the ghats (steps down to the river) and various and sundry things were going on – don’t ask me what because I really don’t get Hindi over a fuzzy microphone at the best of times – but it all looked like fun.

We did manage, however, to stay on the edge of the crowd and get a seat in a dhaba for dinner before the madding crowd turned up there. So we sat at a table (open air) and watched people, and they watched us. We figured some of them probably thought we were djins (ghosts) with such pale skin. Paul reckons most Westerners pass by this town and go straight on to Rishikesh, which is the Yoga capital of the world. We certainly were the object of the curiosity of many. After a while you learn to stare somewhere over their shoulders and look slightly bored, then once they’ve had their visual fill, they move on.

We only bought one thing each at the bazaar – I bought a shawl (rather proud of my powers of resistance to shopping here) and Paul bought a DVD which is really, really corny Indian music but features much of the local landscape. While he was buying it the powerpole a few feet away blew up with a spectacular shower of sparks. India is never a boring place.

Finally, back to the dreaded railway station, where of course the train you are assured many times over will leave at 10.55pm isn’t even at the station yet at 11.15pm. At one stage we wandered outside to sit on the steps and were suddenly surrounded by a reasonably-sized crowd of Indians who wanted to take a photo of us. We sort of shrugged and said O.K. (fair’s fair, we take photos of them) and before we knew it, a gorgeous woman was snuggled up next to Paul and posing, then a man tried to snuggle up with me for the same thing. I stopped in in his tracks with a stare and a “Noooo” that could have frozen lead, and hauled out the old “Tum bahut sherati ho!” (You are VERY naughty) routine. Well, that did it. Now they were even more fascinated. So that was another quarter hour of entertainment – more wonderful for them than it was for us. How do you explain to a babbling crowd that you speak no Hindi, even though you just spoke some to them? And one woman wanted my $2 shop japanese fan, although she couldn’t have bought it off me for $50 at that moment, in that heat. Various expletives did come to mind near the end of all this, but we managed to stay polite until they drifted away, then we ducked back inside the station to the comparative privacy of just being stared at by the hoards, as opposed to being babbled at also.

The train finally turned up and we climbed into the blessed relief of Air Conditioned cells. This was more upper class than we’re used to, and made even more attractive by the fact that noone was interested in us. The Railways actually provides sheets, blankets AND pillows in this section, so we were almost beside ourselves with ecstacy at this unaccustomed luxury. I told Paul my cunning plan of letting him do the worrying about what station to wake up for and promptly fell asleep. Aahhhhhhh. If only we could afford to travel like this more often. Still, you don’t know what luxury is if you have it all the time, huh? There’s nothing like roughing it to hone your sense of the fine things in life.

Speaking of which, I might go and wallow under the fan again and save up some energy for the next foray into the depths of Paharganj, Delhi.

2007 #6: Rishikesh – Shaving in the dark on the Little Frog Highway

After doing a stint in Janpath, to go to the Tibetan Row (shops), we organised storing our luggage in the luggage room down the road, had dinner on the roof and made our way to the Metro. This time the guards were even more interested in us as we had backpacks on. The “women’s things” trick didn’t work this time, so we had a bit of a performance unlocking padlocks so they could play spot the bomb. Naturally they didn’t find one, so on we went. We had to leave from Old Delhi Railway Station – a charmless place with rats as long as your forearms that will walk right up to you. I amused myself stomping at them while Paul went to buy water and check the platform-leaving situation. We were lucky enough to be near a pile of goodness-knows-what thingys done up in sacking bales, so I crouched down on one of them, feeling pretty pleased with myself for finding a seat. I decided to stand up again though once Paul told me that a rat had just run under my knees. I’m all for being sociable, but that’s just a little bit much for me. After all, we hadn’t even been introduced!

We actually found that we were in a cubicle on the train with foreigners. This was a first for me. Usually it’s with Indian families, etc. It felt almost strange. I actually slept unusually well on my slab, and things had been going along swimmingly, until I woke up to my alarm going off at 4.45am. Theoretically, we were supposed to get to Haridwar at about 5.15am. Well, 5.15 came and went and nobody seemed interested in waking up. We stopped at a station for ages and I had no idea where it was, as I couldn’t find any locals that spoke english. Paul just downright wouldn’t wake up, and sometime during the night a woman, a man and a baby had sprawled on the floor between the bunks, so I couldn’t even sit up and take photos of the scenery out the window, for fear of standing on the baby. So, here I was, cramped in my little lower bunk, not able to even sit up, not knowing where on earth we were, wondering if we should be leaping off about now, and I seemed to be the only one that gave a damn!

Around 6.15, we pull up at another station and everybody magically awakens and starts getting ready to get off. Paul was particularly chirpy, the rotten so-and-so, and was obviously puzzled about why I was so grumpy. That’s it – from now on, I’m going to just sleep and let him worry about what station.

So we got off and walked along the station, with me willing to bite the head off anyone that approached me. I had my sunglasses on so my glare wouldn’t scare anyone innocent. Then we walked past a guy who was sprawled on the footpath with insects swarming all over him and a puddle of urine nearby. We were pretty sure he was dead. That was a bit of a shock to the system. As Paul puts it, this is my first visit to an Indian holy place and the first thing I see is a dead man. However, apparently by Indian standards, this (Haridwar) is a good place to die. Bless the guy, at least his suffering is over.

Once out of the station, we made our way to a cafe, through honking buses and idiot touts who couldn’t take no for an answer. Once I’d had a bit to eat and a couple of chai’s, I started to come right a little. We jumped on a bus to Rishikesh and I quite enjoyed the ride up, as we had a good seat in the front and the scenery was quite interesting. This is where I got my first view of the Ganges River. They have a Shiva statue here that’s absolutely enormous! Boy, these guys are good at statues.

The signs here are great – “This is a highway, not a runway” (on the side of the road), the ‘Fair Look’ beauty clinic, the ‘Jolly Clinic’, the “Happy Faces’ school, etc.

From Rishikesh, we took a rickshaw to Luxman Jula and then walked down winding, narrow steps for ages until we came to the huge swing bridge across the Ganges that Luxman Jula is named for. We booked into a nice old building that runs a guesthouse and they gave us a room 3 times the size of the cell they give us in Delhi. The only drawback was the fan was too far away from the beds, so didn’t really have any effect. A rearrangement of furniture soon sorted that out though.

We had lunch overlooking the Ganga. We could see the bridge from there and the monkeys hassling the people from the cables above. Laxman Jula is quite a beautiful place with huge, impressive temples in nicely painted colours. Our guesthouse is next to one, which is several stories high. People walk up each story and ring the big bells there as they get to each level. So we have bells ringing all day. It’s a darn sight nicer than the honking, etc in Delhi though, so we not complain.

In the evening, we had dinner at another cafe overlooking the river from the other side, and this place had monkeys doing their get-silly-at-dusk thing and jumping on the roof then off the side of the buildings into the trees below. Cheap food and entertainment with it – wonderful!

After dinner we wandered up the hill to town and Paul decided to get a shave and trim in a little shack on the side of the road. They gave him a trim and just as they were about to shave him, the power went off. So they lit candles and carried on. Paul is a very brave man. Like heck would I let someone at my throat with a cutthroat razor in the candlelight! Ten points for intestinal fortitude, I say.

Meanwhile, I sat outside watching several little frogs hopping here and there. They are just so cute. It’s not often you get to see frogs these days and it seemed like I had happened across a frog highway. Even a little firefly got stuck in my hair. What a magic place.

I got up this morning and went to the toilet on the corner of the building. When I came back out, opening the flimsy wooden door that only just locks, there was a monkey on the roof about three feet away from me. That woke me up! Turned out, the place was surrounded by monkeys – Rhesus vs Langhurs, fighting over the mango tree out the front. What a racket! The rhesus ones are happy to land as heavily as possible on the roofs and threaten and scream and carry on. Again, I watched with camera, although I kept under the roofs and had my umbrella with me as an anti-monkey device.

2007 #5: May I Help You? Go Away!

Tuesday evening we went to Sadar Bazaar on a cycle rickshaw. An excellent way to travel as you can see everything around you well and watch this curious place as you go by. Sadar Bazaar has even smaller alleyways than Paharganj, which stretches the mind somewhat. It’s a lot trickier trying to follow Paul in the crowd there, as it’s even more intense, also. I dunno how he finds his way to these places – I just watch where my feet are going, watch out for rickshaws coming up behind and watch him racing along in front of me until we finally get there. It’s not exactly a leisurely pace for looking around the place, but the last thing I want is to be lost in that crowd! You just don’t see white faces around there, and asking for directions can be a very hit and miss affair.

We must have spent about three hours in this shop. We sat on bar stools at the counter and Paul ordered what he needed while I looked around, up, down, through glass counters, and then some. There is stuff everywhere, like Aladdin’s cave and it’s hard to look at everything because your eyes don’t know where to land first! By 9pm, after the power had gone out a couple of times and the alleyways were clearing and dark corners were everywhere with who-knows-what lurking in them, I was starting to feel a little anxious about walking back through this place. Paul just shrugged his shoulders and strolled back down the lanes again. It turned out fine, as we actually only had to go straight ahead for a few metres and we were back out on the street. Thing is, he takes the route down the lanes, left, right, left, right, etc, because that’s the route he was on when he first found the shop. Completely logical to him, but all too confusing for a blonde with no sense of North.

On the ride back out (rickshaw again) I was able to take a better squizz at our surroundings. It’s a fantastically atmospheric place with rubbish up to ankle height and multi-level squalor – many-layered brick or concrete boxes on top of each other that serve as dwellings, with sacking for doorways and women in sarees peeping out from them, silhouetted against light from bare lightbulbs. New Zealand seems so incredibly sane and tidy in comparison to this.

We also drove past families living on the sides of the roads. I saw one mother sitting on the footpath with three progressively small children lying on a piece of plastic. This was their home. It’s so hard to get your head around somebody living like this, when you know that in your home country no one has ever starved to death and we all at least have a roof over our heads.

Back to the rooftop where we lounged about in what now seems like incredible luxury, despite the fact the roof of the building next door has been crumbling away for years now and you often see bodies sleeping on the roof. I think that’s more to catch a breeze than a case of homelessness. After seeing places like Sadar Bazaar, our rooftop perch is a high-quality oasis.

We also went to the train station yesterday to get tickets for our first journey out of Delhi. I had to laugh at a sign saying “May I help you?” with an arrow pointing to the door. Polite way of saying ‘go away’? Turns out we couldn’t get our usual second-class non-aircon places on the train for the return trip, so we will be returning with an aircon bed each. Well, bed being a slight exaggeration. More like a slightly padded slab, six to a cubicle, reminiscent of sardines in a tin. Anyway, aircon should be interesting to see. Apparently it actually gets very cold sometimes, so I’ll be taking a shawl for this.

Last night, we had dinner at a dabha (cafe) on the side of the street. Well, raised off the street by a concrete slab, but not enough to take away the exotic experience of swallowing dust from the traffic along with your dinner. I also get a giggle out of how anyone can just come along and slump down at your table, or help themselves to your water jug or pinch your sugar. Talk about class.

While sitting there, a wedding procession went past. First came the musicians, with drumming and trumpeting – not necessarily playing the same tune. Which some one pointed out isn’t actually that easy to do. Then the living candelabra – men with many-layered lights on their heads. Then the horse carrying the groom and a little boy, dressed up in royal colours and dripping with gold. A few more lights and then the generator that actually runs the lights. Not to mention the traffic trying to fit all around them at the same time. Very entertaining, and we felt fortunate to see such a spectacle whilst dining on our thali. Later on, back on the rooftop (I think we may be starting to resemble bats with all the time we spend up there), they treated us to some lovely fireworks in the distance. Nice ending.

Okay, I’d better go. We’re off to dinner then into the madding crowd at the trains stations. Oh boy, my favourite thing (eyes rolling). We’re off to Rishikesh tonight. We’ll arrive at 5am tomorrow (another favourite thing of mine……same look).

2007 #4: The Pink Floyd Lightning Concert

Monday night was awesome. Finally we had some rain, and along with that, a spectacular electrical storm. So we went up to the rooftop, which is a great place to be a spectator at such a time. Walking on the roof to the sheltered bit was a little freaky, as we were ankle-deep in water on slippery marble and lightening was all around. You can’t really rush when walking on wet marble, as it’s bound to lead to a trip to the hospital and an intimate relationship with a plaster cast or two. However, once seated and with a gin each and Pink Floyd playing on my little iPod stereo, it was a fantastic show. We watched airplanes in the distance landing and taking off and wondered how that felt for the passengers in them. I hope I don’t get to experience it!

The whole scene was just brilliant and if it wasn’t for the waiters passionately yelling at each other , TV blaring at top volume on the next level down, dogs fighting on the street below and the honkings of millions of horns, it probably would have been quite romantic.

At least it cooled the air off for a while. Once it stops raining though, you quickly feel the temperature rising again within moments you’re living in a sauna. Paul calls this ‘raining up’.

India is a place of noise. Even back in your own room you still have to listen to the fan spinning around and the next door room’s air conditioning going. There is no such thing as quiet here. It’s funny how you get used to it though and filter most of it out. And it really is an odd thing to put a staunch padlock on your door every time you leave your bedroom, and to watch out for little lizards running between your toes. I’d hate to stand on one of them – a little squishy for me, and without a doubt a real discomfort for the lizard.

The guesthouses have a lot of character in this neighbourhood and ours is no exception. On the rooftop, at the ‘restaurant’, they have made an attempt to get it looking nice. They have cane chairs, a woven bamboo roof, pot plants, etc. This is then offset by black plastic water tanks, lime green tarpaulins around the edges, air coolers that have to be one of the ugliest things ever invented and cats that squat inches away from you watching your dinner with mercenary eyes. An eclectic mix.

And the waiters are characters also. Yesterday we used the room service for lunch. When I asked the waiter, Akash, how much we owed him he said “Too much.” “Oh dear”, said Paul, “we only have one much.” Akash cracked up and laughed all the way back upstairs.

2007 #3: The Terrorist Sinus Spray Issue

Our new tailor is a wonderful Muslim guy of great style and an excellent sense of fashion. His name is Saleem. He took us to his thinking room’, which has about as much room as the average kiwi toilet. It’s loaded up to the gunnels with samples of clothing he has either made or collected, which appear to have been thrown against the walls until they have piled up near to the ceiling. There’s about 3 square feet of floorspace and once all three of us are in there there’s not enough room to swing a teabag, leave alone a cat. But he really knows what he’s doing, charges very reasonably and has a hilarious giggle. I reckon he’d fit right into the Hollywood scene, no problem. Always he wears his own designs and has far too much panache to sweat. How he manages that I don’t know – once I’ve been wearing clothing for about one minute I’m dripping already. This is not an exaggeration!

Sunday night we dined on the rooftop of our guesthouse again and we actually counted at least six stars. We were amazed – the last two times here we would say ‘all the stars are out tonight’ if there were three! On Monday I had a horrible head cold. A really bizarre thing to have in the middle of summer in Delhi. I sort of flopped around feeling sorry for myself in the morning and alternated between having cold showers and lying under the fan while still wet, blowing my nose and coughing. I blame the air conditioning on the airplanes. This always gets to my sinuses! Last year I brought sinus spray with me and it worked a treat, but this year because of the security measures with liquids and whatnot, I had to toss it away at the airport. So really, it’s the terrorists’ faults, darn them.

In the afternoon, we went to the R-Expo shop, where the esteemed Mr Om holds court. His name is apparently Mr Sharma, but he calls himself Mr Om to make it easier for the tourists. What’s hard about the word ‘Sharma’ to pronounce I don’t know, but there we have it. As usual, he was incredibly charming whilst charging me like a wounded bull for the things he kept (most unchivalrously) showing me that he knew I couldn’t resist, and as usual I found myself buying two of some things that I didn’t really even need one of. A man of great talent.

On the way back to the room an older man on the street said to me “You are a teacher”. “How did you know this?” I enquired. “You have the face of a teacher” said he, with a look that bespoke both humbleness and wisdom. I didn’t have the heart to say to him that I had already told a few people here what I do and it’s not that big a neighbourhood. (Gossip is a national pastime here and moves faster than water downhill.) It was much more fun to listen to him try to have me on with his apparent insight and they do spin a good tale around here.

(Teacher is easier to say to these guys than trying to explain you are a literacy tutor and listen to them trying to get their tongue around it. I tried that once and it made me wince a lot.)

Anyway, this man, who hails from Bhutan, failed in his attempt to get me sitting down for a chai. I used my old backup emergency exit plan of “My husband is waiting for me and tapping his foot” and disappeared. When I got back to the room, Paul said “Ah, yes, the man from Bhutan.” Turns out Bhutan man has a few things to sell and strolls about the bazaar looking for fresh, untried tourists whose grip on their rupees is not quite as strong as it should be, or will become after a few days of dwelling in this circus. It’s nice to know that my wits are getting sharpened in this area of things.

Speaking of our room, I had a bit of a giggle when I realised that the curtains were both floral and completely mismatched. The ones on the other window are completely different again. There should be a sign on the wall – “This room and probably all others in this establishment were proudly decorated by Rough as Guts Interior Designing Co.”.

2007 #2: Mad Dogs and Kiwi Twits

We went for a ride on the Metro to Connaught Place. The metro is a lot busier this year – you actually have to queue for a token. Although the queues are still fairly civilised there – unlike a lot of other ones in Indian situations, where it’s every man for himself and the more elbows you have the better. Again, we went through an electronic gateway and were scrutinised by security guys. Mind you, the first guy looked at Paul’s bag and then I lifted mine towards him and said “woman’s things” and he waved me away. This mortal fear of women’s’ handbags appears to be a worldwide phenomenon.

Connaught Place is a large (really) circular area with a round garden in the middle and shops around the outside of that. Of course we got out of the metro through the gate on the opposite side of where we needed to go so we had to walk through the center garden in the roasting hot sun. A truly horrible feeling. (At 40-odd degrees, this is not such a good joke.) By the time we got to our destiny I was almost reeling from being broiled alive. Only mad dogs and Kiwi twits will put themselves through this. To add insult to injury, we went to a restaurant to cool off and have lunch and I ordered vegetable pakora. I was so busy reeling that I hadn’t realised that the restaurant was a southern Indian style one. They really like their spices down there. And I do believe that half of Southern India’s spices were loaded into my pakoras. This is just what I needed – broiling on the outside and blistered on the inside. Spice is all very wonderful, but I don’t understand this concept of cauterizing your taste buds so you can’t even taste the food anyway and even drinking water now hurts. I was really kicking myself by now because I was really hungry. Oh well, lesson learnt and in the future I shall make careful enquiries as to the origins of the restaurant chefs.

Finally we got back to lovely, smelly, noisy, crazy Paharganj. Now this place I feel at home with. Across the road from our guesthouse I amused myself haggling for a second-hand book – a great pastime, this haggling with the locals – went up to our rooftop for a plate of nice, mild chinese chow mein and commenced to get over my jet lag, hunger and internal blisters in the laziest manner possible. In fact, I went to sleep at approximately 4.30pm and found myself wide awake at 4.30am. At this time of day, only prowling cats and lizards are awake. However, they all kept me company out in the hallway while I continued reading my book and waited for the rest of the world to catch up with my totally sane sleeping and waking habits.

Sunday found me back out on the street trying to find my tailor from last year. I led Paul down the alleyway he was in – creeping past Paul’s previous tailor’s doorway, a man we love to hate – but couldn’t find my tailor anywhere. So, back out onto the street to find the Ravindra Bros. material shop. Couldn’t find that either. So, down another alleyway to Sunny’s place. Sunny, as it turned out, was the guy that recommended the Ravindra Bros to me in the first place, so he gave us directions. When we got to the shop (essentially a large hole in the wall at the side of an alleyway, or ‘lane’ and Paul so nicely puts it), I gave the main brother (a smiley man in a fabulous turban) a photo I had taken of them last year. He was grinning from ear to ear about this. It was well worth the trouble it took to see that look on his face.

Once again I helped pay off the Ravindra Bros mortgage by buying far too much material. They’re just so pleasant and the material is just so gorgeous – rotten tactics, I say. We than went around the corner into another ‘lane’ and sat down for a chai. We’d just decided we might as well eat there when a little mouse ran across the courtyard and into the kitchen. Mulling it over, we decided that we would risk eating there, as the mouse was actually very skinny, which we took for a good sign. If the mouse had been fat, we would have presumed it ate there regularly and removed ourselves to another establishment. Also the fact I’d seen a weasel in plain sight an alleyway or two over told me that the pest control services were alive and well and chances were it was a fairly good risk.

Turns out the food was fine. I had Aloo Bhiaj Paneer (a very exotic name for mashed potatoes with onion and cheese) which I didn’t think had a lot of risk attached to it and it was rather nice. There were various westerners sitting around and wandering through. The types that look like they got left behind in the 70’s and 80’s and have quite forgotten how to get home and don’t care anyway.They’ve probably been lurking in these alleyways and sleeping in cheap rooms for years – their familiarity with the area and the locals gives credence to this concept. All in all, very entertaining. And a touch you will never see on a New Zealand cafe wall – a sign saying “I Love U – F #@* Off”. You have to wonder at such times if the owners actually know what the sign says. Or did they put it there because it was shiny and the words show up in the light nicely?

2007 #1 Back in India – 2007 leg.

Well, we made it. I’m now sitting in an internet cafe in Paharganj, Delhi.

The beginning of the trip was kicked off by a severe tasting session at the Duty Free shop in Auckland Airport. As far as drinks go, I can recommend the following:
Nah, never mind. The list is too long. However, may I say it was condusive to looking at a 12 hour plane trip with a slightly enhanced enthusiasm and by no means a dry whistle.

I had forgotten to take the scissors out of my spongebag, so I got had up by a customs guy. They didn’t open as wide as 6cm though, so he let me through. Neither he nor I could figure out how that lessened the killability of said possible weapon, but hey – who’s complaining? And combined with my lack of mean, killer look…

The new Bangkok airport is pretty Jetsons style. You stand on moving footpaths to get throught the miles-long corridors. We had a bit of fun with that. After checking into the hotel, we wandered across the road – nay, veritably risked our lives in a suicidal dash, to be nearer the truth – to have a taste of wonderful, genuine Thai cuisine. YUM!!! As fantastic as ever.

Yesterday we went shopping in Bangkok. (As is a girl’s wont.) Most fortuitously, the market is right outside our hotel room door. A few new clothes later, we find ourselves restudying the age old travellers art of stuffing more into your backpack than it can actually hold. This includes one bottle of alchohol each, because apparently going from Bangkok thru to Delhi, you aren’t allowed to carry the usual 2 bottles through. Go figure. Crossing fingers that they didn’t break and we didn’t land in Delhi to pick up alchohol-sodden backpacks. When we got to the BK airport, we were told we also couldn’t carry the one bottle each we had left in our duty-free bags! So we had to go find the Post Office (which of course, bowing to Murphy’s law, was at the other end of the monstrous terminal) and repack them into a box with mega bubblewrap, etc. Then they had to be checked in. What a performance, just to have a drink at the other end! It will be enjoyed with relish, of course.

Just before we went through Customs, Paul realised he’d forgotten about the free hipflask he’d gotten with his duty-free purchase in Auckland. Customs said he couldn’t take it through because it added up to more than 100ml. So they gave him a choice of throwing it away or going to some seats at the side and drinking it. What do you think he did? (With a little tiny bit of help from me. I’m his friend – what to do?)

So again, we had lots of fun with the Jetsons moving footpaths and hopped onto the plane to Delhi. After landing, we – now experts at the art of being amongst the first off the plane and cueing at India customs lines – raced through and were amongst the first to be at the baggage claim. Well, serves us right for being so smart. Two bits of our luggage turned up fairly quickly, but the third was one of the last bits to come out. So that set us back about three quarters of an hour. How on earth does that work when you checked your luggage in together in the first place?! That was when we knew we were in India. The law of Randomness and the Bizarre is still alive and well here.

Taxi and richshaw later (and wonderful, noisy, honking traffic that makes Bangkok look totally sane), we’re finally at the Guesthouse. We would have celebrated if we hadn’t been so exhausted. All we could do was dump our luggage, crawl up to the rooftop restaurant and flop about in cane chairs drinking Limca, saying ‘Yay’ in pathetic weak voices.

I’m glad to report that the bottles we packed into our backpacks arrived intact. We would have celebrated that too, if we hadn’t been to weak to take the lids off.

This morning, after a hot sticky sleep on concrete-hard beds, we were back on the rooftop eating ‘butter toast’ with VEGEMITE and NZ Coffee, which I brought with me in tubes. Yum. We were very glad to see the usual waiters here. They’re lovely guys and were very welcoming. It was so nice to see them again.

I watched some cows being milked over the side of our building. Hard case sight in the middle of the city – crows and eagles flying overhead. Where else do you get such a mixture of city and nature so close together? No sign of monkeys raiding the water tanks yet though.

Well, it’s hot and sticky, and we’ve managed to accomplish 2 chores and now we’re exhausted again. Takes a bit of acclimatising, this. I’m about to dive back out on the street and take my chances with the traffic, cows, potholes and heat again. It’s gone fairly smoothly though – I’ve only turned down 15 offers of rickhsaw rides and 22 touts asking if I want everything under the sun at ‘special price madam’. I’m now off to find a chai wallah for a cup of Indian tea.