I Have Been Published!! Dining with Assassins…

I have just had an article published on the My Destination travel website. Anyone who wants my autograph, rush quickly and form an orderly queue here…

The My Destination article

A palace at night - Madhya Pradesh, India.

A palace at night – Madhya Pradesh, India.

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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.