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.

2007 #15: In Which God WILL Have His Little Joke

Another day went by, consisting of lolling, drinking chai and chatting. We had an afternoon rest from this exhausting business in our concrete cell, reading and doing crosswords. A local guy went past our open window (which wasn’t actually very public at all), happened to notice us (hmmm) and insisted he was coming around to the front for a chat. My partner cut him off before he got to the door (I was feeling too lazy for talking) and he turned out to be one of the local schoolteachers. So somehow my partner ended up at his place, tasting the local brew (Angori), which has the kick of a bee-stung donkey and smells like tequila. It transpired that this guy found out I was a teacher (all right, literacy tutor, but YOU try explaining that to them), and he wanted us to visit the school the next day. So we found ourselves entered into his appointment book.

Meanwhile, we waited like vultures for the people upstairs in the only room with a bathroom and hot water to hurry up and vacate. It was quite a humourous situation, as they knew we were waiting for it, but liked the village so much they kept staying for ‘just one more night’. If they were horrible people we would have resented them, but they were very nice and we got on well, so we just kept patiently doing our vulture act and they kept staying on and apologising.

We, being more and more onto it as we spend more time in the mountains, had ordered some mutton to be brought back to the village by our guesthouse owner, Raj, who to our great delight turned out to be a fabulous cook. If you want mutton (all else here is vegetarian – not a chicken in sight), you have to ask for it well ahead of time. We’d ordered ours two days earlier, so when he finally arrived back from a trip down to the next village to pay his tax, we rubbed our hands together with glee at the thought of having meat in our food again. And it was as wonderful as we expected. We ended up sharing the veranda outside our room with various other tourists staying here also, and that evening I think they came to the conclusion we were mad, as we kept getting up to take photos of the moths on the walls. They couldn’t seem to rustle up the same excitement as we had about the fact there were at least fifteen different kinds of moths right in front of our eyes. Sad how some people just overlook the beauty of nature if it’s not more that three feet tall. Poor God – all that effort…

The next day – oh joy of joys, the room-with-a-bathroom-of-it’s-own people had vacated. We wasted no time. I’ve never seen my partner pack and haul his belongings so quickly. In fact, almost before I could turn around, he’d hauled most of my stuff up there also. The entrance to this room is a bit of a hard case, as Raj had added the ‘suite’ fairly recently and hadn’t bothered to create any additional stairs for it. So we had to go up the stairs leading to the balcony next door to the room and then climb into ours. We made mental notes to take extra care with descent, particularly if we came into contact with the local brew again.

This suite was well worth the wait. Not only did it have a bathroom with hot water AND a western toilet and a sink (which did not work but decorated the bathroom well in all its porcelein grandness), but it had a private enclosed porch also, complete with two big stuffed easychairs. Oh heaven!

However. God will have his little joke and decided that on this day and the day following, all power will be off in the village until after dark, so that the locals could install a couple of new streetlights somewhere yonder. And what does a hot water cylinder run on? That’s right – electricity. “So what?'”you say. “Have your shower at night time.” And I put it to you to have a shower in what still amounts to a concrete shell, albeit with a layer of paint over it, with only gauze in the window to NOT keep the cold out, ankle-deep in cold water as always, at 3,500 metres at night time, not forgetting to wash your very long hair, and keeping in mind that you have no towel to dry with, leave alone a hairdryer. Don’t forget to peek fondly out the gauze at the snow-capped peaks while you’re at it. Then you come on back to me and tell me what fun it was.

Aside from that, we loved our little suite and wallowed in our private porch and revelled in finally being able to loll with our feet up whilst looking down at the world going by. In private.

Once having moved and sated ourselves with food and chai, lolled and gloried in our new-found grandiosity, we trotted off down to the village to visit the little school we had walked past many times. We were invited in and offered a seat with the utmost of politeness, and then the schoolteachers looked at us as if to ask why we were there exactly. Finally, the message got through that we were indeed ensconced in the wrong school. Bugger! I knew immediately what was going to happen. I had witnessed older school children coming up the hill from the river, when sitting at “The Great Hindustani Dhaba” sipping on chai. Indeed, I had glanced down the hill when going past one day. Right at the very bottom, way way way down there, was a building. And sure enough, it was confirmed that this was indeed the other school – the Chitkul High School (which in this case was a Definate contradiction in terms. God laughing again?…). And we all know when you go down, what happens when you want to go in the opposite direction? You go UP. Dammit! I HATE hills when I have to walk up them. My partner doesn’t seem to have the same aversion to inclines that I have, and laughed at me when I wondered aloud if there were any donkeys for hire. Grrr. It’s disgusting how he almost skips merrily uphill while I stop every minute or so to puff and gasp, almost strangled from lack of oxygen. Who would’ve thought my ancestors come from the Highlands of Scotland while his come from comparatively flat Ireland.

Anyway, the school visit was fun. When we first got there, there was a line of female students lined up alongside the stone wall in the yard, sitting cross-legged and reading out loud to themselves from books. Their teacher was just hanging around looking superior. He came up and talked to us, and much to my alarm, one of his jobs was English teacher. This alarm was due to the fact I had to ask himself to repeat what he said several times because his accent was so thick. Erm – bit of a worry really.

We were then invited into the Headmaster’s office, which contained the rest of the teachers (all male) who were sitting around yakking and playing what looked like a game of pool on a legless square table, without a pool cue. There was a ramshackle, home-made-looking woodstove in the centre of the room, upon which a girl student was instructed to make the lot of us a pot of chai.

Outside, a gong was struck and lots of students piled out of the other rooms and started a game of volleyball. I was so hot in the headmaster’s room that I asked if it was okay to go out and talk with the students. I pulled out a ball and introduced the girls to the game of Hackey, in which you kick this little ball up in the air and try to keep it up while not using your hands. This was somewhat of a challenge, seeing as the local game here was volleyball. I wondered aloud why they didn’t play cricket here, as is normal in India, but when my partner told me to try playing cricket on the side of a mountain I immediately saw the sense in it.

It was a great visit, and I shan’t spoil this tale with graphic details on how I nearly died getting back up the hill again. Suffice it to say, I did survive, and in fact by the time we got back to our room a cold shower was starting to look quite attractive.

There’s a silver lining in every cloud, is there not?