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 # 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.