India 2008 # 8: Umbrella Bashings and Momo Heaven

Today Paul, Leisa and I went to Mandi to book tickets back down to Delhi for Leisa and Ernie. We went on the local bus, which is always a delight if squishing up with many people and hanging on for dear life is your thing. Mandi isn’t the most attractive of towns. Compared to Rewalsar it was like dropping in on New York. We didn’t spend a lot of time there and subjected ourselves yet again to the usual bus stand confusion (i.e. “this bus going to Rewalsar?” “Yes, no, yes, no, maybe, in 10 minutes, in half an hour, in 2 hours”, etc…) How we actually get anywhere that we actually want to go in this country is a small miracle. I must remember to thank the patron saint of westerners in Asia for this. On the way back (yes, we actually found the correct bus in the end), when the bus had almost emptied out, some drunk guy went past and bashed me in the head several times with his umbrella, which was tied to his wrist and swinging about dangerously. Oh thank you sir, just when I was slacking off and feeling slightly comfortable, you reminded me that life is not meant to be so at all times. What was I thinking? He staggered up the front and sat next to an Indian woman. The bus driver then turned around and absolutely tore strips off this guy. I didn’t understand the words, but the meaning was definitely “Get Away From The Women You Drunken Fool”. Bless his chivalrous heart. The drunk guy went back down the bus, giving me a few more umbrella bashings for good luck and if I hadn’t been sitting down I would have been knocked over by the gin on his breathe. Naturally, Murphy’s law applied and this lovely chap got off before we did, which meant I received my third bashing and I now have a slight bruise on the side of my head as a reminder of our charming introduction to each other.

Later, back in lovely Rewalsar, we dined in a cafe on the street below our room. Now here in this town, I am in Momo Heaven. For those of you who haven’t experienced the delight of eating momo, they are Tibetan dumplings, filled with vege or cheese or mutton (goat) or whatever. You can have them steamed or fried and they are the most wonderful thing I have ever had the privilege to eat. A Tibetan guy wandered in with a large lump under his shirt and we looked at him accusingly and laughed when he saw that we had sprung him bringing beer into the cafe. It’s not a problem actually, but it was funny to spring him not being very successful at secrecy. This guy came through from Tibet in about 1985 and he doesn’t speak English so well, but gestured that he would go and get one for us also. English he might not have, and Tibetan we do not have, but we all had a really good laugh together.

They have what they call “English Wine Shops” here. They don’t sell wine. At all. They sell whiskey (this is what the Indians call wine), rum, etc and sometimes also the local brew – some of which you could run an airplane engine on. Ironically, on one of our ramblings around the lake, we found an English Wine Shop that actually sold wine and nothing else! This we have never seen before. I took a photo of it, I was so amazed.

Anyhow, at the end of the night (we have to be in the monastery gate before it closes at 10 p.m.) we tried to go to sleep to incredibly loud live Hindi music wafting across the lake. Thank goodness it only lasted until 2 a.m. And to let you know it’s the next day now, the monastery very kindly starts bashing gongs, ringing bells and blowing horns for Puja (morning service sort of thingy) at 7a.m. They are so considerate around here with their musical entertainment. This, combined with the hardest rock slab masquerading as a mattress I’ve ever had the pleasure to torture myself on meant I had a least 3 to 4 hours of sleep. Have I mentioned the splendid variety of comfort levels available here?

India 2008 # 7: Once More Into The Mountains

Tuesday 15 July –

We got on a bus to go up to Mandi, which is the entrance way, so to speak, to the Kullu Valley – up in them thar hills. We were told to meet at the guesthouse next door to us at 4 p.m. for the bus. We waited (as you do here) then traipsed around corner after corner and across a busy road to wait some more. Three or four different buses arrived and there was great confusion as to which bus we should be on. Many people waiting, bus loading guys cruising around with i-pods in their ears with not a care in the world (of course not – it wasn’t there bus to miss!) and a guy collecting tickets who looked perpetually worried and didn’t ever give clear answers about whether we were on the correct bus or not. In the end we just got on what seemed like the right one and claimed seats then sat there melting for half an hour. An ice-cream seller, a boy selling cold water and some beggars were working this strip and doing a roaring trade. One of the beggars, a girl of about 10, had a badly burned face, another could do unbelievably bendy things with her body. Watching out the window, after we had all got on, they were seen counting large wads of money between them. They knew the secret to prosperity alright – location, location, location. They’d bought themselves an ice cream each, relishing them as only a kid can. Nice.

Sitting upright for 1twelve hours in a hot bus is not the most fun thing in the world to do, but finally at about 6.15 am we landed in Mandi. Some more confusion in the Mandi bus stand and we found a bus which apparently went to Rewalsar. Another hour of winding roads and finally we got to the end of our journey. The approach was just mindblowing. There’s a huge statue of Padmasambhava (sp?) or Guru Rimpoche looking over the town which surrounds a small lake. This statue is so big it’s just impossible not to be impressed. Apparently it’s taken five years so far to build and they haven’t finished the base yet. Guru Rimpoche is the guy that took Buddhism to Tibet and this town, Rewalsar, is where he started from.

We booked into a monastery here, which is beautifully painted and has a temple, small outside rooms with glass sides and ever-burning butter lamps, a really tall pole smothered with Tibetan prayer flags and, as a nice juxtaposition, lots of thug monkeys. The view from our room looks over the courtyard at the temple and flags and it’s the most watchable view I think I’ve ever had. Tibetan buildings etc are so beautifully coloured. They really have a lovely sense of style.

We wandered around the lake (clockwise, as is the tradition here) and bought some food for the tame fish in the lake. There are hundreds of these fish and they all flop around, half in and half out of the water. For a little more baksheesh (yes, money) the old ladies here will beat the monkeys off with their long sticks so you can feed the fish. Some cunning monkeys a few feet away have learnt to dive for these fish biscuits. I’ve never seen a swimming monkey before, so that was somewhat novel. A nearby cow has also caught onto this whole fish bicky business and took a real liking to Ernie (and his biscuits) – it was actually smooching up to him adoringly. Must have sensed that he’s a farmer I think.

India 2008 # 6: Maharaja Burgers and Mosque Minarets

Monday, we had another crack at going to Tibetan Row at Janpath. We ended up in a shop that was piled high with different brass objects. I think you could sit there for an entire day and still not see every item they have. Ernie saw a neat Galaxy system thingy made of brass, I found yet another animal-shaped padlock and some vertical prayer flags (damned hard to find in New Zealand) and we pulled ourselves out of there before taking out a mortgage was necessary. We risked life and limb and crossed the road to MacDonalds. None of us would go there normally, but they have air-con, toilets with actual doors on and safe-to-drink ice in their lemonades (I hope). Maharaja burgers are actually quite nice and I haven’t had anything with lettuce in it for quite a while so I was a happy camper.

Tuesday, we took the metro then rickshaws and went to the Jama Masjid (the largest Mosque in India). I obviously didn’t pack my brain before we left to go there, because I was wearing a scarf that had Om signs all over it. Not at all Islamic and not the sort of thing to be seen in at a mosque. Duh!

We had to leave our shoes with some guy who stuffed them into a tin trunk then enter the gate into the very large courtyard. Barefoot, stinking hot day, large open space with hot tiles – you get the picture. We were only there for ten minutes and they pushed us out the side gate because prayers were starting. Not being Muslim, we had to wait outside – bare feet, hot flagstones… About three quarters of an hour later they let us back in again. Still, in the meantime we got to watch an ear cleaning man in action (gross!) and a couple of mongooses (mongeese?) making little mongeeses. An unexpected surprise. India is so delightfully variable.

When they let us back in, we climbed up one of the minarets to look at the view. These minarets are incredibly high. There are no escalators, only spiraling steps up and up and up in a fairly dark passage. Still, the view was worth not being able to catch our breath for ten minutes. Pretty dodgy though. There’s only room for a few people at the top and the staircase kind of cuts a large hole in the floor, so you have to watch where you stand or else you’d find yourself descending the spiraling staircase in a way not conducive to having all of one’s bones intact at the bottom. More and more people kept appearing up there until we were all so jammed in the cage that we couldn’t turn around to get back down the stairs again. Something a little wrong with that system. When we did get back down though, it was funny to look back up and see all those people jammed up there. God forbid there be an earthquake while you’re in that situation. Yet another rapid descent system…

Okay, next bit or the story is about yet another bus ride, so I’ll do that later, as I don’t trust the internet system here.

India 2008 # 5: Warning – Sleeping on Indian Trains is Injurious to Your Sleep!

Well, it’s almost a relief to report that there was a bit of mayhem at the train station in Jhansi. We sat on Platform three, rat-watching as you do, when at the very last minute we found that things had changed and our train was coming in on Platform four. Much as I moan about this whole platform business, I have to admit things had been going boringly smoothly for a while there and I was beginning to wonder if I was still in India. So we did the mad dash along the platform and up the stairs, etc, and joined in with the mad squeeze of humanity boarding the train. Amusingly, at the metro stations they have t.v . screens demonstrating allowing people to get off the train before you get on. Who are they kidding? Orderly queing or boarding of any form of public transport is just not going to happen here. Indians, apparently, are genetically incapable of this.

Unfortunately, we had been given bunks by the door. You’d think this was good for expedience, right? Not so. A door is a very dangerous vicinity to hang out at on an Indian train. Kind of like the Running of the Bulls in Barcelona, but without the bulls. Even though the train was going to take overnight to get to Delhi, hoards of people were still crushing together to ensure they got out of the door first. Leisa and I had side bunks, which meant we were parallel to the aisle. We had a hard time explaining to one man that we had booked and paid for these seats and we were actually unreasonable enough to want to sit on them. Well, lie on them actually, as it was well after eleven at night. Some other guy was lying on Ernie’s bunk and he had a sudden lack of English on this subject also. But never mind – this particular guy perched on the end of my bunk throughout the night. My kicking and prodding him with my feet on a regular basis didn’t phase him at all, the rotten sod. I mean, I’m not known for my height – more so for the lack of it – but this was a very short bunk. However, he wasn’t half as annoying as the dude who decided to live in the aisle right beside my bunk complete with several suitcases. This caused everybody who kept coming to check that the doorway was still there, as after all, we only had eight or nine hours to go, to climb over his luggage, bumping and pushing against my bunk in the process.

We arrived in Delhi at 6.30 am and grabbed a taxi van to the guesthouse. It was Paul’s turn to feel a little unhealthy so he slept in the room while Ernie, Leisa and I went about the business of consulting with our tailor and assorted other chores. Funny thing – we’re supposed to be here on holiday, but we always seem to be going somewhere or returning from somewhere. Perhaps Tahiti, hammocks and palm trees is a good option next year? Nah, heck, we’d be bored in no time and have to start driving around beeping our horns, spitting on the streets and letting cows loose to keep ourselves feeling normal.

Delhi is a hot and sweaty place at the moment so I took Leisa to visit Mr Om at the R-Expo shop. They have air-con, heh heh. But believe me, we paid for it. I think I have about a years worth of vanilla bean soap and natural-based shampoo, etc – I know the package was heavy and my wallet was light when I left there. He’s a scary man, that Mr Om.

India 2008 # 4: Palaces, Erotic Art and Peacocks

Thursday morning found us in the golden-roofed dining room of the palace again for a ‘complimentary continental breakfast’. Complimentary? These places charge you like a wounded bull for what boils down to a bed each and a shared bathroom (even if it was super fancy) and then have a cheek to say they are ‘gifting to you’ some cornflakes and a few bits of toast. At the rate you pay to stay in these palaces, you should be at least eating the cornflakes off a gold-plated spoon!

We wandered up to the rooftop afterwards to look down at what the ordinary people in the world were up to and took many more photos while we were still (temporarily) almost royalty. Then, after checking out, we donned backpacks and walked back down to the village. There seemed to be something wrong with this picture. We had arrived in grand style, stayed in the lap of luxury, and now we were walking down the road looking like escapees from a YMCA. Oh well. Once again, variety is the spice of life, yes?

So finally we fronted up at the Shri Mahant guesthouse. We booked a couple of average rooms with a bathroom and a fan each, then the manager caught wind that we were there and came up to insist that we stay in the nicer rooms upstairs for the same price (air-conditioned and balcony to ourselves). He just couldn’t understand when we said we were fine. “What?! Nicer rooms for same price and you say no?!” We didn’t care – we had a bed, a bathroom, a room cooler AND a fan. No problem. He was back ten minutes later and whisked Paul upstairs to show him how much more fabulous the other rooms were. “You are my guests. You pay no more money. This is not about money. You are my guests.” Etc. So we hauled our stuff upstairs to make him happy and it did work out kind of well because it started raining heavily and we had the only balcony with cover from the monsoonal precipitation. The lightning show was great but there was a disappointing lack of monkeys. That’s the main reason I like the Shri Mahant – Monkey T.V. But the monkeys didn’t have umbrellas so they took off to the main temple to shelter. All we had left to watch was lizard t.v. I like lizards a lot but they’re nowhere near as active.

I took Ernie and Leisa down the street to buy Ernie a shirt, as his one was at least a week old and now falling off his back. (Buyer beware in Delhi…) We found him a kurta in a tiny shop and had a good laugh with the guys serving. I spoke to them in (brief and very basic) Hindi and told them in Hindi that I don’t speak Hindi. They looked surprised for a mo then laughed and laughed. After the sale I asked for my commission and they laughed even more. They had damned reasonable prices though and we all enjoyed the moment.

Dinner at the Ram Raja again and Ernie and Leisa gave the kids the metal puzzles they had brought with them, as well as a couple of balls with long elastic and wristbands. As it turns out, this is a hilarious thing to play cricket with. Quite tricky actually – like trying to hit a yo-yo coming at you but you don’t know where it will stop. The puzzles were a great hit. Parbhat (the kids’ Dad) saw them, dropped everything and was occupied with them for close to an hour. Mokesh, the oldest, had six out of seven of them figured out by the end of the night. He’s a very sharp lad, that one.

Friday, we all piled into a car and went on a journey to Kajuraho. We had our own driver – this is the flashest way I have ever travelled in India. Once again, we felt like royalty. A great opportunity for taking photos, not having to avoid many heads and hands getting into the picture. The drive took about 3.5 hours, including stopping at a palace on the way. This palace was definitely not in a league with the ones in Orchha – old or new – and after they insisted on taking us of a tour of it while waiting for our lunch to cook, they ended it with a visit to their ‘local handicrafts’ shop, which was full of things we knew damned well were not local. Cheeky buggers. If they’d been more honest, we might have spent something with them. To top it off, their food was really really average and their “India Chai’ was awful. The prices, however, were most definitely suited to royalty. Needless to say, we won’t be visiting them on the way home.

When we got to Kajuraho, we battled through hoards of touts and made it to the gates of the temple complex. This is a world-famous site with something like 25 temples. It’s particularly well known for its erotic art in stone. This, however, is not the only subject in the carvings, all though you would think so when you see the publicity for it. Each temple is devoted to a different Hindu god and the elaborate detail is just mind-boggling. Once again, my camera was running red hot. Afterwards, it was Tout City again until we made it to the car. We now have some idea of what it’s like for the rich and famous. The only difference being (apart from our wallet size) that the touts had wares for sale instead of flashing cameras. We were driven to more temples until our feet were almost weeping with exhaustion. So we went to a restaurant on a rooftop to eat and watch the ‘Sound and Light Show’ at the temples, which turned out to be a real non-event. However, the food was good. It’s amazing what the Indian cooks can do with a humble potato!

Back at our rooms, I lay down for a few minutes and woke up to find that it was morning. I had what I jokingly refer to as a shower (about twenty drops of water per minute) and everyone else was still asleep, so I went out to the garden restaurant and had coffee and onion pakora for breakfast. Afterwards, I asked the waiter what the time was. “7.15 a.m. madam.” Oh good grief! What’s happening to me? I’m supposed to be allergic to mornings! Some guy in the corner room arose and started his morning with a hearty round of hoicking and spitting for a while, with a background ambience of LOUD Hindi television. I was very glad I had already eaten by then, as it sounded disgusting. A priest type of guy turned up to blow a horn and do a puja (offering/prayer thingy, then I amused myself for a while watching the restaurant’s rogue peacock attacking the customers then went back to the room, where the others were only just arising.

A little later Paul and I ended up at a hotel down the road, as he was supposed to deliver a business card there on behalf of someone. The owner there also had a peacock which he treated as a great friend. This one could also bite rather hard. He had it up on the table eating out of his hand and cuddling with him. You just wouldn’t see this at the average NZ restaurant. OSH would have a fit!

Back to the car, and the journey back to Orchha. Indu took us to the ‘Maya Shop’, the proceeds of which go to the Maya School. We’re hanging out in Orchha now until late tonight when we take a train (oh goody…) back to Delhi.

Namaste

India 2008 # 3: Centipedes, an Indian John Cleese and Dancing in the Rain

Tuesday morning I was up early in the morning and went up to our rooftop to photograph the squirrels and other life in general going on. The squirrels here are really tiny and remind me of little cartoon creatures as they scurry about with their long furry tails waving like flags behind them. I was lucky – one got very close and I was able to get some nice shots of him. When I checked my photos afterwards I saw he had a very surprised look on his face. I guess he’d never met a one-eyed creature before. I discovered a lizard as well, who also ran about on the roof tiles. Then he’d stop suddenly and pump his front legs up and down like those american cars on hydraulics. Once again, I have seen many creatures here. An especially interesting experience was when I used Rani’s toilet and was able to count the centipedes that were holding a rally about two inches in front of my face. I got up to about seventy something by the time I had finished my business. Never a dull moment.

We had breakfast at the Ram Raja Restaurant as usual and the kids all spilled out to show us that the had been playing with their toys. I got some lovely photos of that also. Then, when I went across the road to photograph a guy who was sharpening Parbhat’s kitchen knives on his bicycle-sharpening setup (like the gypsies used to use in England) I turned around to find an Indian guy photographing me photographing the sharpener. He came over to show us the photo and have a chat. He was also a (Indian) tourist. It’s quite funny to find yourself being photographed for a change. I suppose a white person in a small village makes for an interesting shot.

Indu took us for a ‘nature walk’ later on in the day. He looked just like an Indian John Cleese with his upright stature and furled umbrella. “Come!” he would bark, and we all followed him obediently, meandering through fields and down pathways. Orchha has so many monuments it’s just ridiculous. All of our cameras were heating up by the time we were finished. We saw spotted owls, talked to water buffalo, avoided a seriously over-territorial dog and managed not to find any snakes (yay). Indu told us “Nature is nature. You are being careful in nature. Watch where you stand.” We listened well!

Once again we finished our evening on the “Palace View” rooftop. It is possible to buy alcohol here (black market) – in fact Parbhat sends his young son to go and fetch it. But we drink it in private. This is a village with a major temple in it, so you cannot eat meat or drink alcohol at any place directly lining up with the temple. Apparently just to the side and behind some kind of a wall is fine. Ernie and Leisa went off to their Palace suite (the old palace that we stayed at in 2005) and us peasants hied off to our ordinary rooms to sprawl under fans on the usual two beds pushed together.

I frequently have a giggle in India about the state of their bathrooms. They do nice tidy tile work on the walls and the floors are fitted with marble. They then put two bare wires leading from the water “geysers” (hot water heaters) straight into a plughole in the wall. They bash holes straight through the tiles to put the plumbing through and the basins usually drain through a pipe that leads straight to the floor and washes it. Very efficient really, when you think about it. But the one I couldn’t figure out (funny what you look at when you’re sitting idly) was a beautifully drilled hole in a tile about a quarter of the way up a wall with a rusty nail sticking out of it, being used for absolutely nothing. Rack my brains all I can, I still can’t understand the logic in that one.

Back at the Ram Raja for breakfast again, Wednesday morning (yesterday? Losing track here…) I perused the menu. One of my favourite pastimes, apart from vulture and monkey watching, in this town. I found Veg Bargares (vege burgers), finger cheeps (hot french fries), Auborjin rusted (roast aubergine) and for dessert I could order “Hello To The Queen”. Don’t ask – that one’s beyond me. They serve chai, coffee or whatever, in glasses here. No handles for wusses like us. A bit tricky, particularly pre-caffeine, but I’m getting the hang of it.

Once again, Indu turned up and commanded us to climb aboard his flash new rickshaw, in which he drove us out of the village a bit to do a tour of a paper factory. This is a fantastic setup that employs many local people, more women than men, and gives them decent working conditions and wages. They get material (scraps, etc) in from down south somewhere, separate the cotton from the synthetic, cut it into tiny pieces, pulp it and soak it (no chemicals involved) then form it into sheets, dry it and makes products out of it. They have a little shop to visit at the end of the tour and the products you buy contribute to good local causes. Naturally we did our part there. The products were very beautiful.

Indu then delivered us to the Amar Mahal. This is a brand new palace that has been built here over the last five years and is mindbogglingly beautiful. I’ll make you sick with the photos I took when I get home. We settled into our suite, swanned about in the pool and generally lay around gasping with amazement. Poor Ernie was as sick as a dog thought and the only swanning he did was between the four-poster bed and the luxury toilet. Considering this whole palace thing was all about Ernie and Leisa’s wedding anniversary, it just seemed so cruel that this happened to him. But on the other hand, if you’re going to be sick in India, better that than in a luxury situation than jammed into a train or some such horrible thing.

Later in the evening, we heard some music start up somewhere yonder. Upon investigation, we found that they put on a live show with local Bundhelkandi musicians. Usually there is a dancer also, but unfortunately she was unwell, so we had to take her place. There’s something rather lovely about dancing in the rain doing (or attempting) impressions of Indian dancing with live music backup. The musicians were grinning from ear to ear – either with appreciation of our joining in or because it was the funniest thing they’d seen in a long time – two very damp ferangi twirling and wiggling their hips about as gracefully as a couple of water buffalo. We gave them some baksheesh (contribution) for their lovely music, but they refused to pay us for our dancing. In fact they laughed their heads off when we suggested it. Oh well – lucky I have a job back in NZ huh?

We had to grin later when we took our clothes off to go to bed – Indian clothing is not known well for it’s fixed dye and we had rainbow bodies to go to sleep in.

Finally, we went and dined in the glorious palace restaurant with it’s gold-leafed ceiling and chandeliers dripping with glass. Don’t ask me what we ate – I can’t remember most the names. But it was all really yummy and felt ever so decadent. We even had a Hindi lesson from the waiters, who were ever so tolerant and didn’t even laugh at our accents. Very graceful of them, I say.

Okay, I’ve had enough of writing for now and I’m sure you’ve heard enough of me. It’s really really hot here and super humid so I’m off to sprawl out and concentrate on just breathing for a while.

India 2008 # 2: #50 India-Mikers, Kashmiri Carpets and Orchha Adventures

Saturday Night
Back in New Zealand, I had organised via internet meeting up with one or two folk from the IndiaMike website we visit every day. It’s a really friendly site, chock full of info on travelling in India and the forum is a great place to visit with really friendly and helpful people.
So we had one Kiwi who lives in Paharganj, two Indian men and a Canadian woman turn up at the rooftop restaurant at our guesthouse. Us four kiwis completed the group. The Canadian woman sang a couple of Hindi songs for us in a very beautiful and poignant-sounding voice. That was an awesome experience while sitting under the night sky watching the bats. They were all really nice people and we had a marvellous time and parted with some new friends.

On Sunday, it was decided that I would be tour leader and take our friends Ernie and Leisa (first time in India for them) to Janpath – a place where there are Tibetan shops in Delhi. We hopped on the Metro and got there to find that Janpath was closed on a Sunday. Different districts close on different days in Delhi, so it’s a pot luck situation sometimes. We then were shown by a helpful local to a “Government market” (where local-made, child labour-free goods are sold). This place was really posh, with a doorman to swish open the door for us, air conditioning and prices to have heart-attacks over, as well as reasonably pushy salesmen. One of the men there was from a Kashmiri carpet-making family and showed us how the carpets are made. They do double knots ones and single knot ones (takes much longer). Your average medium-sized rug takes four people one year to complete. First they knot it (from thirty to one hundred knots per square inch), following a specific colour recipe, then they put it on the floor for two or three days to be walked over and toughened up, then they wash it and hang it in the sun for a day. A heck of a lot of work. So the prices people pay for them are very well deserved!

We walked out of there with our wallets complete then the tout took us in a rickshaw to another such place. This one was full of very aggressive salesmen who acted like stalkers in an alleyway, so we walked out pretty quickly. After the third place, we got fed up with being followed by Kashmiris crawling up our backsides to get to our wallets so we walked out of there too. The tout didn’t get any commission from us, but the rickshaw ride was overpriced anyway so he would have got his share of that. Essentially we just did this for the experience and something to do. I then proceeded to get us lost in the Connaught Place area. I know this area is supposed to have been built in a very logical and easily navigated sort of a way, but I have a fabulously blond talent for having no sense of direction and I had us going around corner after corner until the novelty wore of for Ernie and he took charge with his fabulously male sense of North and got us back to the Metro station. Even there I went to go out the wrong exit. Ernie and Leisa were up ahead of me (going the right way!) and turned around to see me getting stopped by a policeman. Ernie was pretty alarmed about that until I explained later that the policeman was being very helpful and kindly sent me in the correct direction for Pahar Ganj.

Later, we had dinner on the rooftop then set off for our usual dose of torture at the train station. This time, to our awe and amazement, it all worked out remarkably smoothly. The train was actually early (this I have never seen!) and the display units with the CORRECT platform numbers for the CORRECT trains were actually working. A veritable symphony of miracles. The train journey was fine up until Leisa and I (sleeping on the bottom bunks) woke up to rain coming in the windows at us. In the dark and crouched over between two very close together bunks, we couldn’t figure out how to close the damned things. The man sleeping on the floor between us made it impossible to get up and sort it out properly, so we just scooted down our bunks and handled having an impromptu, horizontal shower each. Our men, comfortably ensconced on bunks above us, slept on, blissfully unaware. I knew things had been going to smoothly to be true. This is India, after all.

Yesterday (Monday), early morning, we arrived, damp and bedraggled (well, we women were) in Orchha. Not the most glamorous of entrances, but most the village was asleep anyway, and I doubt the cows or street dogs cared. At least, if they were snickering, I never caught them at it.

We made a beeline for the Ram Raja Restaurant (which our good friends Parbhat and Rani own) to greet them and have chai, then we met up with Indu, who is a tour operator here and a very good friend of Paul’s. He is wonderfully connected here and pretty much took over and organised our day. Actually, he’s pretty much organised our entire week here. All we have to do is walk when he tells us to, sit when he tells us to and drink anything he tells us too. Which has included so far about four hundred cups of chai each, several whiskeys, multitudes of gin, a few beers and a Drambuie or two on the side. He is the master of the art of banishing dehydration. We went to book into the Shri Mahant guesthouse, where we usually stay here, but we got diverted by the Bhola brothers who own the corner shop and they steered us towards their new guesthouse, the “Palace View”. It’s very nice, but we know we are going to be in trouble when the Shri Mahant guys find out that we’re in town.

Indu took us to his home to meet his beautiful wife Rajni and their brand new baby. Chai. We then went to the Maya School which Indu and a Finnish woman called Eva started. This school they raise funds for themselves. It is for very poor children who otherwise wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of an education or even a decent meal each day. They have clothes remodelled from second-hand clothing for each child and provide them with a schoolbag and books. They also give them a meal of dhaal and veges, otherwise these kids only really get chapati (flat bread) to eat and are too undernourished to learn. We watched the children being taught in their classrooms. They all sit on the floor in rows and each child has a turn getting up and reading aloud what is on the blackboard. The rest of the kids chant out loud after them. They have beautiful manners and their eyes are almost popping out of their heads with their keenness to learn. Eva told us about one boy (age about six or so) who’s father died from drunkenness. His father’s job was to clean the police station. This little boy had to rise at 4am, run to the police station and do his father’s job, then run the three kms back home and go to school and learn all day. Recently they organised to get him a bicycle so he can bike to work and back. They say he is now the happiest boy in the world.

After visiting the school, we walked through the market place to go back to our rooms when we were accosted by the Shri Mahant guys. Sure enough, we were in trouble with them. “Some problem with Shri Mahant Paul Ji?!” It took us a while to explain we had no problem with their guesthouse and we are just finding it difficulty to spread ourselves around everybody. They were a little upset, so we have promised that after our day or two in Kajuraho later in the week, we will book into the Shri Mahant upon our return. They left us alone. happy in the knowledge that we still love them too. Whew! Potentially sticky moment, that one!

Once again, Indu met up with us, chai, then off to the Amar Mahal to see about booking a room on Wed night for Ernie and Leisa’s wedding anniversary. Now this place has some serious luxury! The dining room has twenty four carat gold in the design on the ceiling, which is slightly angled to catch the light. All rooms have four-poster beds and hand-painted ceilings. There is a huge swimming pool, courtyards galore, designer gardens, etc. Indu has connections here, so Ernie and Leisa got a healthy discount and will have a “honeymoon suite” on Wednesday night. We will be staying with them also, as there is bedding for four. This is all at their expense. They insisted, as they’re so delighted to be well looked after on their first and probably only trip to India. So we will wallow in luxury with them on Wednesday night and celebrate their anniversary with them. We all find this pretty amusing, as it would be impossible for the likes of us to be able to afford this back in our country.

Later on, Indu marched us up onto our guesthouse rooftop where we quaffed all the above-mentioned drinks while watching the sun set over three palaces in the background. Ernie and Leisa were just beside themselves with ecstasy. We then intruded upon our friends Rani and Parbhat and played Santa Clause. As per last time, we caused a riot with toy airplanes, marbles, traction cars, pop-balls, etc. It was such a good laugh, and made all the better for us because they didn’t expect this. We all had heaps of fun playing with the kids, then Indu took us up to the old palace (more connections) and commandeered a rooftop for a “special beer”. There were glassed raised and cheers all around, to everybody’s health, wealth and families, then we went back down to the restaurant and took over their back yard. Rani and Parbhat served us a beautiful chicken dish that Indu and cooked especially and rained whiskey, coke and beer upon us. They wouldn’t hear of us paying our bills – they were so happy to do something for us in friendship. We felt incredibly spoilt and once again entertained the local cows with our meandering home in a slightly crooked line.

This morning, Indu has taken Ernie and Leisa to book into the Palace for the night then for a tour of the local monuments. We’ve already seen these, so we’re having a relaxing day drinking chai, eating Rani and Parbhat’s wonderful food and catching up on washing and internet. This afternoon, a fair bit of lazing around will occur, followed once again by drinks (Indu’s instructions – we’re just doing as we’re told) on the rooftop.

India – The 2008 Leg #1

Getting to Delhi was as interesting as usual. From Auckland I sat next to a Nepali girl. She was a real sweety. She had no problem leaning against me and at one stage rested on me to have a sleep for a while. I was reminded of the Indian translation of personal space (reasonably non-existant). Someone kept farting on the plane – I wasn’t sure if it was her or the guy next door or what the story was. Pungeant neighbour in very small space. Oh goody.

Great to eat Thai food again. I had pretty much double of everything they offered us. Once again I ended up eating pork while sitting next to a vegetarian. Life is cruel sometimes.

They put me on the Executive Floor at the hotel in Bangkok. The only difference I could see between that and the normal room I get was a hair dryer. I couldn’t sleep until midnight and woke up at about 6a.m. I raided the coffee tray and went down to the poolside to wallow in the luxury of sitting still for a few minutes and chatted with a man who is a Government Official. He is a Personal Analyzer. Whatever that means. He’s about to retire and he and his wife want to buy a house in NZ. I told him the average price there and he didn’t even blink. “That’s okay, I have plenty of money. They have no children. I did consider putting myself up for adoption for a minute there.

Naturally I went shopping here. Since it’s my third time here I know what places to make a beeline for so that saved me a lot of time. Which I needed to use to close my backpack up again. Two bottles of Drambuie take up a lot of room and also weigh a lot. But it meant I could buy some Malibu at the Bangkok airport, so it was worth the bother. All the way to Delhi I had fingers crossed that I could get through with that much alcohol. As a cunning backup plan I had a few $US in my pocket. Amazing what a well-oiled palm will do to cause sudden blindness in an official round these parts. The plane to Delhi made alarming squeaking noises, but when I looked around nobody else seemed to be panicking. I go by the theory that if the staff are looking concerned perhaps it’s time to be alarmed. Otherwise, just ask for another gin or brandy.

At the Delhi airport, once again I was once of the first off the plane and through Customs and last to get my luggage. I was getting a bit concerned, especially when the conveyor belt stopped and alarms went off and signs flashed something about luggage rules. “Oh no”, I thought, “they’ve found my Drambuie”. But then it started again and my luggage wasn’t on it. I whiled away the time chatting with a Christian lady who inadvertently found herself in a debate on Buddhism versus Christianity. Well, she started it!

Off she went eventually, still insisting that I invite Jesus into my heart or else I won’t get entered into God’s admission book, bless her, but I think she felt a little disillusioned about seeing me stand in that particular line one day. Won’t she get a shock if I turn up?

So, I was the last person standing at the conveyor belt. It turned out that my luggage was under somebody else’s huge flat parcel, and there was no chalked cross on it nor were any officials ganging up to converge on me, so the Drambuie and the Malibu got through. Yes!

Paul and Ernie and Leisa were outside to meet me and we all piled into the smallest taxi we’ve ever been in. A guy who looked about fifteen years old got into the driver’s seat, which promptly collapsed backwards onto Ernie, and off we drove into the Delhi traffic with Ernie holding our youthful driver’s seat together. We drove around for a full two hours because this young guy couldn’t speak a word of English, nor could he read Hindi and every time he stopped for directions (about six times, complete with u-turns in Indian traffic, which is a scary thing even when you’re going in the right direction), didn’t actually listen to them and drove off again before the guys he asked had actually finished talking to him! The car kept stalling and we were all wondering if we’d end up pushing our taxi along the highway, and when he did get it going he couldn’t get it into gear for ages. Meanwhile, we have cars, scooters, buses and trucks beeping and veering around us and we’re starting to resign ourselves to a possibly early and likely very messy sort of a death. However, off we’d go again eventually and drive along in 2nd gear until the next u-turn. He got stopped at one stage by Police who gave him a breath test – by that I mean the policeman told the driver to breathe onto his (the policeman’s) palm and the policeman smelled it.

Anyway, we finally got to Paharganj by way of a pure miracle and the help of a rickshaw driver who decided to follow us and make sure the guy didn’t take us to Haryana, which was apparently his first intention, and our free and unasked-for tour of Delhi was at last over. The tour was topped off nicely by the sight of an elephant walking down the Main Bazaar, and even though Ernie, Leisa and I had been squashed together in a sauna disguised as a taxi for two hours, they were rather pleased that they had seen parts of Delhi that they may not otherwise have seen. I was just relieved to have feeling back in my legs and my Drambuie to sup on shortly.

Welcome to India.

2007 #20: The Case of the Lost Himalayan Crab

Close to a year later, I figured I’d better finish this chapter of my journal off.

After our failed attempt to get a breakfast at the dhaba (and after watching the owner drink out of a cup on the ‘help yourself’ shelf then wipe it on his sleeve and put it back for the next unsuspecting drinker to use), we grabbed a bus back to Shimla. This took a mere 8 hours, after an unscheduled stop at a most inconvenient landslide, which did nothing for my ‘Gotta get there – I have a plane to catch!’ nerves. We got to the bus station at 8pm exactly and made enquiries about another bus to Kalka to catch the 11 p.m. train back to Delhi. Ahhh, the God of Irony strikes again. It would take 3 hours to get to Kalka, and if there were any more landslides, we were stuffed!

A quick confab and we decided to see what buses were available to Delhi.
“Ah yes sir, you can be catching a luxury bus to Delhi.”
“What time does it leave?”
“It is leaving at 8 p.m. sir.”
“What time is it now?”
“It is being 8.05 p.m. sir.”
“Aaaagghhh!!!!”

Somehow we made it onto the bus in question and flopped into our seats to wipe the nervous sweat from our brows. This was just cutting things too fine! However, even though I had to take turns sitting on each of my now very unhappy buttock cheeks, it was a major relief to have pulled this whole situation off and we started to relax and come to terms with our major hunger pains and the prospect of sleeping sitting up all night. Fortunately, with our bus fares came complimentary packets of snacks and a bottle of water each. I think the snacks lasted all of 30 seconds.

Happily, the bus driver stopped at a restaurant somewhere out of Shimla and we were able to have a quick wash in a lovely clean, posh-feeling western bathroom. We had a meal of something that I can’t even remember now, but it definately did the trick. What happened after we paid the bill and arose to get back on the bus was very much more memorable. I was standing around waiting for the other passengers to rise, when a reasonable sized crab started sidling along the floor, coming from the kitchen direction in a beeline towards me. I kind of rubbed my eyes and looked again, and sure enough, there was definately a crab coming towards me. What on earth is a live crab doing in a Himalayan restaurant, hundreds of miles from any sea, walking around at nine o’clock at night?! None of the other customers had seen it, but when I looked at the waiters and gestured towards the crab, they just looked at it then back at me with very straight faces. I had to cover my face to smother my grin as the crab made it from one end of the restaurant to the other and out a doorway with not one single customer noticing it. One of the funniest things I’ve ever seen, and it really made my day. Another one of God’s little jokes? The waiters and I just waved goodbye to each other quietly and I climbed on the bus feeling priveleged to have been in on such a nice little crustaceous joke.

Arriving in Delhi at the disgusting hour of 6 a.m., we caught a rickshaw back to Pahar Ganj and were finally able to lie on beds in our usual room and take the weight off our poor calloused buttocks. And feel heat and high humidity again and listen to the roar of the ceiling fan going at typhoon speed, backed by a veritable symphony of dozens of horns blasting outside in the traffic. Ahhh, home.

Two days later and I’m back in another vehicle on my way to the Airport. My driver was a keen sort of a chap and took some very exciting risks, squeezing our little mini van between large, uncaring trucks and doing 4-wheel drive numbers off the side of the road to get us no further than we would have been had we stayed on the road anyway. At one stage he got us hooked up on a large rock, where we sat marooned and rocking, while he revved the living daylights out of the engine in a most unhelpful way. But I wasn’t worried. In fact I was feeling fairly smug about my decision to leave for the airport 2 hours before I actually needed to. And I just knew that after all our hard, rushed travelling back out of the mountains, the God who sent the crab through the restaurant would be there for me and get me to the plane on time. Which he did. So I’m back in New Zealand and all is well, and it only took a few months for my buttocks to lose their callouses and flat shape, and we’re now going through the planning phase of our 2008 trip back to India.

I wonder what happened to that crab?

2007 #19: Sarahan – Seven Light Switches Equals One Bang

Sarahan, the “Gateway to Kinnaur”, is an exquisite place. It had been described to us by somebody as ‘something like being in fairyland’. Well, I’m not quite sure about fairyland, but it is as beautiful a place as anywhere I’ve ever been, and we enjoyed our brief stay there immensely.

With one or two exceptions:

  • The bus ride up to Sarahan. Not at any time of my life has it taken me an hour to go about 17km in a vehicle. This raised my stress levels by quite a bit, as we were supposed to be on a train to Delhi, leaving from Kalka, by the next evening. Considering we were many miles from Shimla, from which we were hoping to catch a bus to Kalka, to catch the train to Delhi so I could catch my plane to New Zealand……well you get the picture. And here we were meandering up a mountain road on a bus going slower than a duck’s waddle, with Indian music on a screaming, scratchy stereo speaker not so far from my head – featuring women that can sing higher than fingernails scratching a blackboard – and no idea really whether we can get a bus back down this road in the morning to get us to the right places on time… After being on a bus from 6.30 in the morning (and was by now not long before dusk), I was starting to come a little unravelled at the edges. God help me, I can be an unreasonable woman at times.
  • The dhaba next to the bus stand, where we sat for two hours waiting for our breakfast order before the owner admitted he wasn’t actually going to feed us. With no good reason forthcoming. At first we were fairly cruisy about this situation. After all, the bus wasn’t leaving till midday and the place was fairly entertaining with it’s foil-gift-wrap-covered wall, plaster parrot statues and various and sundry people dropping in on our table to chat with us. And this was India after all, and there’s just no rushing around in this country. But upon enquiring at quarter-to-bus-leaving time as to when our paranthas were going to arrive, we were met with a bewildered look and a shrug of the shoulders. I leave you to imagine the ensuing conversation between said miscreant and two very hungry travellers who still had a day and a night of travelling ahead of them…
  • The guesthouse room we stayed in, where naturally, two of the seven light switches in the room actually worked. This, not being a new concept to us by this stage in our travels, did not exactly come as a surprise. It was the loud bang when I switched on the bathroom light in the morning that kicked off alarm bells within me. I chose to ignore that and have a shower in the dark. HOWEVER – for some reason the hotness of the shower was on an equal functioning par with the lightbulb. In other words, not working. And I’m not even going to talk about there being only, mysteriously and suddenly, enough water coming out of the tap to brush our teeth. The language I used at that point is not appropriate to put in here, because my Dad will probably read this. The ironic thing was, when leaving in the morning Paul booked us out and forgot to pay. One of the workers came to the bus stand to fetch him back and extract money out of him, and it was all I could do not to ask him why he wasn’t paying us for putting up with such an expensively useless room. Fortunately for him I found I just couldn’t be bothered even discussing it. I was just glad that we had had a sleep and were back on the road to continue our journey. Little did I know…

Aside from these little hiccups, things went reasonably smoothly in Sarahan. They have a beautiful temple complex in the village that we could see very nicely from our room window. The mountains were strung out in a dramatic line with fluffy-looking snow-covered peaks. Mountain dogs wandered about or snuggled up in comfortable heaps together. Children frollicked happily in the little park across from our guesthouse. And they served real Tibetan momo a few doors down on the right.

We went on separate wanderings for an hour or two, and while Paul explored the impressively ornate temple, I, succumbing yet again to womanly tendancies, went and explored a few of the shops, which very considerately were still open in the evening hours.You gotta love a place that doesn’t slam it’s doors closed at 5pm. Particularly on a Sunday. I ended up having chai and a delightful conversation with a guy who’s actually an English teacher, but was minding his sister’s shop for the day. His charm was a splendid anaesthetic to the surgery on my wallet that did actually occur in the end, and I finally left his shop as the proud new owner of some Himachal-style woolen waistcoats and a Kinnauri-style hat, such as are seen in my photos. By the way – some of these photos can be seen Here:

I load them on there as I can be bothered, so check back occasionally for updates, if you’re interested.

So, apart from being miles from where we were supposed to be in our rapidly-becoming-a-very-tight schedule, having no breakfast because of the idiot in the dhaba round the corner, being horribly unwashed and running out of clothes that wouldn’t scare off the average hyena pack with their smell, we rather enjoyed our stay in Sarahan and I’d like to go back there again.