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12. Oct, 2010

The Delhi Diaries

The Delhi Diaries

India! The Lahore Gate at the Red Fort

Our trip to India started in Kathmandu, with a flight to Varanasi for one day and night, and then on to Delhi. At least that’s what we planned. But then again, the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray, and in India, be prepared to stray more than you have planned. Our Air India flight was cancelled due to “operational reasons”. This reason, by the way, is not acceptable to our travel insurance company, and we believe was Air India official-speak for “not enough passengers”. Afer a few heated words with the airport grandmaster K.K. Kak from Air India, we decided to drop Varanasi and head straight to Delhi the next day. We were both disappointed to lose Varanasi, but given than Kathmandu had provided so much of what we expected to see in Varanasi, it made sense to get back to the plan, rather than go far, far astray so early in our trip. Our spirits picked up on the flight to Delhi though as we perused the pages of a Delhi daily newspaper which was choc-full of classified ads of parents seeking matches for their children. All the adverts were organised by caste, and if you believe what you read, Indian men and women are blessed with bounteous qualities. Arranged marriages – welcome to India.

Old Ambassador cars await us at the airport

Workers taking a break, but it'll be ready for the games!

Connaught Place - let the games / works begin!

From the minute we arrived in Delhi, it was like taking a step back in time. The taxis that queue outside the airport are all old Ambassador cars that seem to belong to a bygone era. As we drove in towards our hotel on Connaught Circus, we could see that everywhere the whole city was busy building a newer New Delhi, although the scale of the amount of work was not quite clear until we arrived at our destination. The hotel manager walked with me into the centre of Conaught Place, the centre of New Delhi, which was literally a building site. Excavators, unsurfaced streets, pavements with huge holes – the place looked like a bomb had hit it, maybe only a few minutes before we arrived. “It will all be ready before the Games”, and “Indians work better under pressure” were how the manager reassured us as we struggled to reconcile the time left and the amount of work to be done. “Come hell or high water” was how another described their determination, which as it turns out, is exactly what they had to contend with in the shape of intense heat, and flooding monsoons. While it was disappointing not to see Connaught Place, one of the landmarks of New Delhi, in all its glory, it was still exciting to see India at work on a large scale in a typically Indian fashion that no nation can rival for pure chaos – pedestrians walking right through the building sites, workers sleeping on the ground in the shade of the colonnades, youngsters showering under a hose in the middle of the street. It was crazy and exhilirating, if it weren’t for the intense heat which was to accompany us on every day we spent in Delhi at the peak of the dry season.

Weather outlook for Delhi - hot, hot and hotter!

Not happy with your hotel? Free showers in Connaught Circus

The manager showed me to a popular Delhi hangout before we parted company, and so began our introduction to Indian food. Keventers has been popular since almost the day New Delhi was inaugurated back in the 1930s, and therefore adds to the feeling that you’ve taken a step back in time when you arrive in India. All it sells are milkshakes and ice-cream shakes, and there are always crowds there – of people usually, and of huge metal pails of milk, always. I made this a daily stop on my Delhi itinerary. Coming from Ireland, where social occasions often revolve around a drink (of alcohol), I marvel at the fact that a simple milkshake stand (whose milkshakes are nothing extraordinary) can maintain this hold on young people – it’s great! Just around the corner was another landmark Delhi institution – Wenger’s Pastry Shop. Possessing a sweet tooth and being an Arsenal fan, Wenger’s was an instant favourite, and I was not alone. From savoury samosas to mango pastries and cream buns, I could have spent my entire time in Delhi operating within this 10 metre radius of Keventers and Wengers. Extend that by 50m to include the air-conditioned refuge of the hotel, and so could Ninfa!

Rickshaws and lots of colour in Old Delhi

We were in Delhi on three occasions during our trip, but the longest consecutive stay we had was our first stop there. India was the last country we would visit before heading to the World Cup in South Africa, and Ninfa needed to get a visa. This turned out to be a complicated affair thanks to the combined bureaucratic efforts of the Indian staff, and the South-African counsel. We had to go to the High Commission on three separate occasions before they accepted the application, and while frustrating, it at least gave us an opportunity to see more of the city along with our soon-to-become regular chauffeur. Tingko. Tingko’s prices got consistently lower on every journey as we became more savvy with the going rates, but it was still fun driving around in the back seat of a slow, old taxi which doubled as Tingko’s bed during his off-duty hours. When we finally ended up getting a new taxi driver to go to the train station, it ended up being Tingko’s cousin, Ragu! Delhi’s such a small place after all.

Get lost in Old Delhi, and find the best sights

On one such day, Tingko dropped us off in Old Delhi. We were coming to see the famous Red Fort, but when we got there, we were told it was closed every Monday, so our luck was out. So instead, we went off to visit the nearby Jama Masjid which is the largest mosque in Delhi. Ninfa hates the heat as it can trigger her migraines, and constant attention from touts and hawkers and street merchants gives her a headache anyway. On the other hand, I quite enjoy most of these things, although admittedly Delhi stretched my appreciation to the absolute limit. When we got to the Jama Masjid, we were hassled about using a particular entrance and paying lots of different people for tickets, robes, guarding shoes and anything else that came into their heads. Ninfa had had enough so she went to cool off in a cafe. On the way back, I decided to avoid the simplest route, and get lost a little in the web of streets in Old Delhi. And lost is exactly what I was; no matter how many turns I made differently on each occasion, I always ended up at exactly the same point at the end. All roads lead to Rome, but in old Delhi, they all lead via the Jama Masjid, which fortunately is where I was headed anyway. However, the walk did give me an opportunity to see some fantastic street scenes of trading, eating, tea-drinking, in narrow, colourful and crowded streets with monkeys playing on the electricity wires overhead, and goats parked alongside motorbikes.

Monkeys watching the action in Old Delhi

Jama Masjid

When I got back to the Jama Masjid, I managed to avoid one or two of the supposed costs of entry, and was given a huge robe to cover my shorts, and left my shoes with the doorman. The worst thing about having no shoes was the burning heat of the sandstone floor which was torture. They had some rope carpets leading across the floor, so I hotstepped it over to one of those and strolled around at my ease within the confines of the carpet lines. As I walked around, I ducked out of the way to avoid appearing in a photo that a young Indian man was taking with his camera-phone. But I was a little puzzled when he tried to take the photo again – focussing on me, not the mosque. As I continued, I noticed I was being tailed by about 10 young Indians, and this in a shaded part of the mosque where one was not confined to the rope carpet. One of the boys finally plucked up the courage to approach me and ask me my name, where I was from, and if he could have his photo with me. Once one of them had broken the ice, it melted in a flash, just as it probably would on a sunny Delhi afternoon, and the others flooded over to smile for the camera. And it wasn’t just the young guys, but one middle-aged man asked me to have a photo taken with his father. Of all my stalkers, there were no more than 10 words in English in total, but it was a very photographic experience, and both parties seemed to enjoy it and left with much satisfaction at having their photo taken with perfect strangers from halfway around the globe. One of the boys did guide me over to a side tower in the mosque where a “guide” took me up one of the minarets for some fantastic views over the Jama Masjid, the streets of Old Delhi, and the nearby Red Fort with the Indian flag flying over the famous Lahore Gate. I tipped him the sum he proposed and headed back to meet Ninfa.

Sikhs distribute water to the faithful

Sikh priest is all smiles during the upbeat, musical ceremony

Minarets seen from the minaret at Jama Masjid

It was now approaching sunset, and was probably a bearable 40C as we walked down the crowded Chandni Chowk. We took a quick stop at the Famous Jalebiwallah, who is famous for making Jalebis, deep-fried, sweet, dough whirls served with honey – a messy and tasty treat! In India, you just add wallah to a word and you have a profession. For example, I could be a computer-wallah or a business-wallah, and Ninfa would be a diplomacy-wallah or a law-wallah. We continued on past the hordes of shirt-wallahs and chai-wallahs until we got to a Sikh temple, full of Sikhs (not Sikh-wallahs – a rare exception to the rule). Sikhs are easy to recognise as they invariably have long beards and a big turban, as it’s considered a sin for them to cut their hair. We walked around the temple with our guide, who inquired if we were interested in converting, perhaps to bolster their numbers from the small but important 2% that they make up of the Indian population. We declined, but much enjoyed the music and welcoming atmosphere. Even the chief priest would look over at us and smile for the camera when we were taking photos, right in the middle of his ceremony. One of the cornerstones of Sikh religion is charity, and as such each ceremony is ended by giving water to the celebrants as well as a sweet dessert-type paste in a huge bowl, which is dished out by hand by one of the faithful, and which it is considered offensive to refuse. Although the manner of serving did not appeal to me much, I ate both Ninfa’s portion and mine.

Ninfa goes shopping for an Indian dress - nice look!

In the end we did not see everything we would have liked to in Delhi, and in fact one day, we gave up and went to one of India’s most modern malls – all in pursuit of some respite from the formidable heat. One thing the mall did provide was a look at modern India – the fastest growing economies in the world. From one perspective you could be anywhere in the world with the same omnipresent brands everywhere – McDonalds, Starbucks, Zara etc. A mall’s a mall, but there was a lot of confidence and a lot of money on show from the people here, and you get the feeling that they’re happy to live life their own way, away from the restrictions that their culture may previously placed on them. I still wondered, however, if these were the same people I had read about in the newspaper on the plane. Take a taxi away from the mall though, and its not long before you realise that these are the elite few (if few is a word that can be used when talking about India). Anywhere in Delhi, you’re never far from homeless families sleeping under motorways with not enough money to even clothe their children. The shackles of convention are easily thrown off with wealth, but the shackles of poverty seem harder for the booming economy to shake.

Side attractions at Humayun's Tomb

Humayun's Tomb

Although we sometimes travelled by taxi, as our main means of transport in Delhi, we took tuk-tuk. Coming from Donegal in Ireland, I had a personal fondness for Delhi tuk-tuks, as they are all painted in the Delhi (and Donegal) colours of green and yellow, and they all bear the Delhi (and Donegal) registration DL. This was all becoming a bit confusing as I began to think I was spending an Indian summer in Donegal, rather than an Irish summer in Delhi.

In the minaret at Jama Masjid - nice look?!

Of the sights of interest that we visited in Delhi, Humayun’s Tomb was probably the most impressive. It’s a huge tomb built for a former Mughal ruler of India which was built by his wife. It is similar in many respects to the Taj Mahal, but a less ornate version, and built in red sandstone, as are most of the monuments in Delhi – Delhi has a red feel. Upon passing through a grand entrance monument, there is a long promenade which is dissected by a long fountain and lined by gardens full of little squirrels. In the surrounding gardens are some smaller tombs which are less maintained that the Humayun’s Tomb, and their partial state of ruin adds to their charm. Other monuments we visited were India Gate which is right in the centre of the wide and long Rajpath avenue. It’s a great place to go at night as there are thousands of locals who come to walk in the pedestrianised area around the monument and fly kites, play badminton and racquetball, and buy snacks from the mobile traders. India Gate and Rajpath during the day offer some beautiful views of the Indian Parliament and showcase the immaculate planning of the city of New Delhi – it’s great to arrive on the Rajpath all of a sudden and take in the magnitude of the view, and the numerous official Ambassador limousines with their government charges.

The lotus flower inspired Baha'i Temple

Jama Masjid

There were a few monuments we didn’t see in Delhi which are probably well worth visiting, but the truth is the heat defeated us. Having visited Rajasthan after Delhi, I think there is a lot more to see outside Delhi than in it. Delhi is really an opportunity to see the organised (?) chaos of an Indian metropolis, the contrasts between rich and poor, and the grandeur of a former Mughal empire, British colony and developing economic powerhouse. It was tough going on many occasions – the first experience of India is a rapid education for anyone with many a tough test along the way, but breathing deeply (just as our yogi advised in Udaipur) and with lots of air conditioning we saw it through. We loved the chaos, the curiosity of the people (like in Jama Masjid), their accents, the way they can nod their head side to side so quickly and effortlessly (which means yes, no, I don’t know, and loads of other things), and the carpet salesman who could have talked for weeks! We disliked the chaos, the heat, the constant attentions of the touts and hawkers, and the dust from all the building works around Connaught Place. But it’ll all be ready for the games …

10. Oct, 2010

Agra – Save the Best for Last

Agra – Save the Best for Last

Tony wanted to take my picture, it was impossible to get only me.

We stayed overnight in Agra to visit the Taj Mahal on our next to last day in India. We had not booked in advance a train so getting there and back proved to be a bit challenging. The previous day we had done the Jaipur – Delhi leg of our trip by bus, and although we did it in the best category of bus in India it was something we were not willing to do again. The comfort was ok, but the time in a bus from one place to another is too long, as the traffic jams in the highways are pretty bad, just getting into the center of Delhi takes up to two hours. Train is definitely a better option provided you have booked a decent class and there are no delays.

No Words

Embedded precious stones in the marble

Tony spent hours online trying to buy the train tickets, but the Indian Rail site is not so strightforward; so he went directly to the station, which was also quite a task in itself. He had to talk to six persons and none of them could explain to him why they could not sell us tickets for an air conditioned compartment even though they were available. We knew that most of the time you can get an “upgrade” from the conductor, so he purchased the regular class ticket. As expected once in the train we got the upgrade and we were once again in the best cabin in the train, the private spacious compartment for 2. Why you can’t buy a ticket at the window when there are seats available is beyond our comprehension. I have stopped trying to comprehend the Indian way because it is too consuming, you can’t change it, so it’s better to accept it from the start.

Maharaja

In 3 hours we were in Agra. The logical thing would have been to go see the sunset over the Taj Mahal, but the World Cup was being inaugurated at the same time. No brainer, we bought beer and pizza to watch it from our room, the World Cup that is. As a friend pointed out to Tony, “The Taj ain’t moving anywhere”.

Next day day we headed to the Taj amongst the crowds. I can’t imagine high season, because this is low season and the crowds are huge. We entered through the South Gate and took a guide. He recited the same facts we all know, plus the usual myths (the black Taj) and other stuff we will never know are true or not, but it was worth paying him as he showed us with his flashlight the colorful encrypted stones in the Taj that compose all the decoration, which are not obvious to the plain eye. Many colorful flowers adorn the Taj, and they are not painted as one would think, they are precious stones sculpted in the marble. Inside the Taj it is very dark, so without the guide pointing that to us we wouldn’t have appreciated them.

The resident goat at the Taj gate

The moment you enter through the gate and have the Taj in front of you is an unforgettable experience. Breathless. It is exactly as the pictures, but you have now been there, not everyone can say that. We have seen the most beautiful construction on earth, hard to top that. The areas inside which are accessible to the public are limited, dark and crowded, the highlight is definitely the view of its exterior from the front. We will never forget that precious moment when we first saw the Taj Mahal.

Friendly Indian hanging off train

It was time to go back to Delhi and conclude our India trip before moving on to South Africa for the World Cup. Of course we had no train ticket and had to buy a general class, the lowest class on Indian trains. Well this train was not only delayed for many hours but was packed beyond comprehension. No upgrades available, there was hardly any standing space on general class even. We had run out of luck this time. The only option we had was to squat outside the AC compartment next to the toilet. Two older German women on the same situation joined us. The conductor was a very unfriendly man and wanted us to move out of there and go to general class. We refused so he brought a heavily armed soldier to move us. We refused alleging the “Women Only” compartment was full of men, which was true; but Tony had to comply and move out. Fortunately this was only a four hour journey and boy for once was I glad to be back in Delhi, as it meant we were leaving India and World Cup bound!

Agra train station


Indian train

08. Oct, 2010

Jaipur – Pink City or is it?

Jaipur – Pink City or is it?

24 hours in Pushkar and we were ready to move on to the last city of our Rajasthani tour: Jaipur, better known as the the pink city. We hired another taxi and in less than three hours we were there. Definitely not as much as Delhi, but Jaipur was also very chaotic, it felt more like a city than the rest of the places we visited in Rajasthan.

Hawa Mahal

On our first night in Jaipur we met an overly friendly tuk-tuk driver (who called himself Mr. Hot Stuff) with comprehensible English who offered to take us to the best of Jaipur the next day. After hardly negotiating for a fair price and clearly telling him that there would be no shopping stops in the itinerary or other unplanned services we finally agreed to hire him for the day and told him to meet us at our hotel at 10 am next morning. He told us not to worry about any of that and even invited us to his sister’s traditional Indian Wedding next day.

Pink or Peach?

There are far too many taxis, tuk-tuks and rickshaws in India, which makes it hard for them to make a living in this occupation. We learned in Jaipur (and saw it with our own eyes after a late night out) that a lot of these drivers do not even have a house or possessions. They come from deep in the countryside to big towns or cities to work and only go back to their hometowns to their family a few times a year. They sleep (and live) in their taxis, which is not bad, compared to the tuk-tuk drivers who have to sleep in their tuk-tuks; and even worse to the poorest of all, the rickshaw driver (just a bike with no motor attached to a seat for a passenger) who sleeps in it. Their only possession is a bag with a few pieces of clothes. It touched me even more to see that some of them have dogs, who wait for them in the street during the day and at night sleep next to them. I was extremely moved by this scene when we saw it late at night all through Jaipur. There we were: a taxi had just dropped us at our fancy hotel guarded by high security, and just outside the hotel gates were many drivers of taxis, tuk-tuks and rickshaws sleeping and dreaming that tomorrow would be a better day, that tomorrow they would get some custom from the tourists in the hotel, from us.

Rajasthani Man

Next day came and Mr. Hot Stuff did not show up. He probably found other tourists more shopping material than us. So much for the Indian wedding… So we took an offer from one of the many tuk-tuk drivers that hang around the hotel. After having seen the previous night the conditions they live in, we agreed to pay him more than a fair price, we did not have the heart to haggle. I wanted to take rickshaws only (as they are the poorest), but it really wasn’t an option for long rides, especially in the heat and occasional rain. Our tuk-tuk driver was exactly the type we aim to avoid. Every 5 minutes he asked us if we wanted to go shopping, if we wanted to go to the government bazaar, if we wanted to go to the industrial zone, etc. etc. We kept saying no, then he started offering us other stuff: mushrooms to start, progressed to bhang, by the end of the day he had offered us heroine and opium. He tried to persuade us to other activities as massage, fortune teller, restaurants he knew, etc. He persevered at the end, as Tony agreed to visit a cloth/tailor shop in the industrial zone. As expected, it did not turn out well. Tony got two shirts made at a not so bargain price (10 Euro each). The cloth looked really nice, but the shirts did not fit him well, two sizes smaller, even though they took his measurements. He does sweat a lot in Indian heat, but not that much to lose 2 sizes in a day.

Jantar Mantar Observatory

At least the tuk-tuk driver got his commission. Even with that he started getting nastier, rushing us in and out of places, and increasing the fare price a couple of hours before the agreed hours of service, alleging the negotiated fare was for one person, not two, so we should pay him double. By then Tony’s long patience had been exhausted so he told him to get lost and we would only pay him proportional to the hours passed. Of course he didn’t, in fact we paid him so well that he would be waiting for us at the hotel every time we went out.

Indian style trucks

Back on the subject of Jaipur…we visited the main attractions in the city. I thought that the pink part of the city was not really pink, but tending more towards orange color, a peach shade; judge for yourself in our picture album. We visited the famous Hawa Mahal (Palace of Wind), which is a really beautiful building, and from its top you get a bird’s eye view of Jaipur. As most buildings in India, the Hawa Mahal, has a beautiful story behind it. It was built in 1799 by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh as a continuation of the City Palace and dedicated to the Hindu god Krishna. The beautiful facade with countless small windows faces the street market. The legend says that it was constructed with so many windows so that the royal ladies or all the Maharaja’s wives could see the action in the street and in festivities which normally took place in that street, as they were subjects of purdah, the practice in which men are not allowed to see their faces.

At the origal Lassiwalla

One of the Jaipur palaces

I paid a visit to Dr. Vinod Shastri, a very well known Indian astrologer, to give me some insight of what to expect in the future. More than anything it entertains me, but to Indian culture, astrology is a very important part of their lives, and they live their lives according to it from the moment of birth. There was a big queue of people waiting to see him, locals and foreigners. You choose to learn about the next year in your life, the next 5 years, or your whole life; according to how much you are willing to pay. I chose the second option. He told me about my present and future life according to my exact birth moment, complemented with a reading of my palm. He was right about many things in my past and present and I hope he is right about the future. He said I would live a very long life, over 80 years old and I would be very rich. I laughed and told him that he probably told everyone that. He said I was the only person that day whose astrological cards showed richness. The reading also specifies lucky days, lucky numbers, gemstone, metals, liquids, colors, etc, and Indian people live by them.

Jaipur traffic

While I was there, Tony opted for looking at the stars himself, by visiting the Jantar Mantar (literally meaning calculation instrument) Observatory next door. It encompasses a collection of 14 astronomical instruments, and built by Maharaja Jai Singh II between 1727 and 1734. The instruments are used to tell time, predict eclipses, movement of stars, planets, celestial bodies, etc. It is the largest stone observatory in the world and it is inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

While Tony shopped

While in Jaipur we saw many elephants in the streets, always a highlight. No makkania lassies in Jaipur, but we couldn’t leave without paying a visit to the original “Lassiwalla” who has been making delicious fresh lassies served in disposable clay pots for decades. Besides food, we also enjoy tasting the different kinds of massage each culture offers. In India we tried Ayurvedic massage and we both which we hadn’t as it left us not only unsatisfied but with a big dent in our wallets. So far, it’s the only massage we have not enjoyed, Ayurvedic massage is too soft for us. It consisted of a sesame based oil which was poured on our foreheads for the whole duration of the massage and then rubbing softly your whole body with it. As you can imagine after 90 minutes we had sesame smelling shiny bodies. The taxi driver had to put plastic over the back seat before taking us back to the hotel.

Inside Hawa Mahal

The highlight while visiting Jaipur was probably going to the famous Raj Mandir Cinema. The last time we were at the cinema was more than 2 years ago as we are no fans of it; but Anne, Tony’s sister, had recommended us so much to go to this cinema that we did. And what a great tip that was! There are three classes of tickets, and not knowing what to expect we bought the best “Diamond Class” to see the much awaited and controversial (too similar to real people and situations in India) political thriller “Raajneeti”. The Raj Mandir Cinema, was more of a theater, it is a beautiful building built in 1976. We took our seats in the upper tier. 15 minutes after the movie started floods of people started coming in the lower tier. Maybe they sell at half price the tickets after 15 minutes? The big surprise for me was that the movie was in Hindu! I never thought about that, I thought it would be in English. It did have subtitles, in Hindu as well…Regardless, the movie was easy to follow. It was about violence and corruption in government, we don’t need to understand the language, as the political situations portrayed are universal. I thought it was quite interesting, but Tony differed, he was hoping to see some Bollywood dancing. What an experience the cinema is in India! The people in the low tier enjoy the film as it were a football match. They start yelling at the characters what to do, or what they think of them, they whistle and make funny noises in romantic scenes, and in violent scenes they cheer for their favorite character. There is an interval halfway as in theater, and Tony took advantage of it to ask the locals about the film, to see if we were on the right track.

Hawa Mahal

Hawa Mahal

This time we decided to take the bus back to Delhi, in “Diamond Class”. If that was diamond, I can’t imagine what simple stone class would have been. They told us 4 hours, but it took 7. After seven sweaty hours of congestion in India’s highways we were once again in Delhi. We had to go back to Delhi to pick up my South Africa visa, then we would had to Agra, and back to Delhi for our South Africa bound flight.

Check out all our Jaipur photos here.

03. Oct, 2010

Pushkar Passports

Pushkar Passports

On the morning of our final day in Jodhpur, we were greeted not with clouds of dust, but clouds heavy with rain, and shortly after I set off to the train station to cut a deal with a driver for the next leg of our journey, the heavens opened. Absolutely drenched, I eventually got a driver with a decent car, a good price, and even seatbelts!

Monkey business at the hotel

Ninfa and some of the local ladies in Pushkar

We were hooked on blue, and we were heading back east to one of the few Brahmin cities in the Hindu world, Pushkar. Pushkar is the second of our lake cities in our tour of Rajasthan, and to our surprise, this time there was still some water in the lake, albeit not that much. We found a hotel near the centre of the small town, and I headed off with our driver to find an ATM to pay him. On second thoughts, it would have been much better to do that in Jodhpur as the only ATM accepting international cards in Pushkar was on the blink. It took me 10 minutes to perform a routine withdrawal as either the machine or the connection was painfully slow, but with some patience and a lot of hard button-pressing, I succeeded where the three in front of me in the queue had failed. Back at the car, some locals tried to persuade me into paying a parking charge, but convinced I was being scammed (no ID, scraps of paper etc), I left it to the driver, who got a little excited with his countrymen but ended up having to pay it.

Holy Cow!

It's a dog's life in Pushkar

Pushkar occupies a special place in the Hindu religion. According to Hinduism, a demon killed the god Brahma’s children. Brahma exacted his revenge, killing the demon with his weapon, the lotus flower, the petals of which fell at three places, one of them Pushkar, where a lake sprang up in the desert. Bathing at the ghats in Pushkar is thought to be more important than at any other place, and it is said that the people who bathe here are relieved from all the sins and go to heaven after their death by the grace of Lord Brahma. It is said that it is the only place in the world to have a temple dedicated to Lord Brahma, and is therefore an important sight of pilgrimage. As such, alcohol, meat and all animal products are forbidden in Pushkar.

The First Irish Brahmin

Sadhus, as Lord Brahma intended

Hinduism is well-known for the sacred cow, said to be a reincarnation of the goddess Lakshmi, but many more animals are sacred also. It is perhaps for that fact that parts of Pushkar, including the balcony of our hotel, were overrun with monkeys! After hanging out with these locals for a while, we set out to discover Pushkar. After only a few minutes, we encountered what we realised afterwards to be an impressive scam. The Puja is a blessing that is given at the ghats around the lake in Pushkar as part of the pilgrimage. During the ritual, a red band is tied around your wrist, and you see these on many people throughout India. The puja is also known in traveller circles as the Pushkar passport, and until you have this wrist band, expect to be targetted by scams or potentially even genuine brahmin priests. Barewristed, we were walking around a temple when a nice chap started talking to us about Pushkar and being very friendly without being pushy. He offered Ninfa a flower, and insisted he expected nothing in return. In our opinion, this flower is a marker for the next link in the chain.

Passport Requirements

Just around a corner, a man approached us and offered to arrange a puja for us. We couldn’t really shake him, and sooner than we realised, we were introduced to a priest (very young, we thought), and before we realised, we were walking down the ghat to get our passport. Scams generally happen like this – they’re over before you have time to think. We had left our hotel with the intention of getting our passport, so we weren’t altogether disturbed by falling for it. Ninfa bowed out at the last minute though, as she refused to take her shoes off to walk down the muddy floor leading to the ghat, but I was touched by Brahma and I followed our young sadhu down to the water. He proceeded to chant, which I had to repeat, and we went through a long list of Hindu deities. In the end, we offered flowers, coloured powder and rice to the lake as an offering, and I received my bracelet and a nice thick lump of red rice on my forehead. At the end, an offering of your choosing is suggested – I gave him 100 rupees which was probably more than required, but it won’t be the turning point in our budget at the end of the trip.

Hanoman, the Monkey God

The power kept cutting in Pushkar, so it was handy that I brought my little Swiss Army knife torch. We met some other travellers and took it easy eating some nice vegetarian food in the dark. Indian cuisine has its regional specialities everywhere, and the speciality ingredient in Pushkar is bhang. Bhang is supposedly only permitted for Hindus to use in religious rites and is only available from state stores, but this law is very loosely applied. In fact, our hotel manager discreetly offered me both alcohol and bhang when we arrived. It’s even marked on menus in most cafes as bhang or special lassi, which could potentially dupe an innocent lassi connoisseur. Bhang, if you haven’t guessed already, is marijuana.

We spent the rest of our next day strolling around the town, past the bhanged-up sadhus with their empty tins begging alms, and the merchants busily tumbling their prices from the ridiculous to the fair. There’s lots of blue again in Pushkar which makes for a pleasant walk, and on a bright sunny day, the place is alive with colour. We found a perch on a rooftop cafe and admired the market scenes from above – multicoloured turbans, twirly moustaches, sequinned saris of bright yellow, and all the animals and scooters and bikes.

That afternoon, we arranged a car and driver to Jaipur, our last stop before returning to Delhi.

02. Oct, 2010

Blue City of Jodhpur

Blue City of Jodhpur

Some Rajasthani traffic

When we were in Udaipur, we took a tour around the city with a tuk tuk driver who, in typical Inda fashion, seemed to be able to organise anything and everything for us – clothes, transport, souvenirs, you name it. We took him up on the offer of transport and we ended up hiring a car and driver for 2 days for the journey to Ranakpur (overnighting there) and then on to Jodhpur – all this for €50. Everyone in our hotel in Ranakpur was jolly, with big moustaches and full of chat (as in conversation, and probably also the bean curry that is eaten in copious amounts throughout India).

Elephant traffic - waoh!

Indian tuk tuks - decorative transport second only to Indian lorries

So after our visit to the Jain temple in Ranakpur, we headed north with our driver for the next 150km to Jodhpur. Jodhpur is known as the Blue City and we were there to see the famous blue with our own eyes, as well as visit the huge Mehrangarh Fort, and continue our gastronomic and stomach-burning tour of Indian cuisine. Rajasthan is covered by a lot of desert, and the further west you head, the more desert there is. It was a windy day in Jodhpur when we arrived, and there was a thick blanket of dust in the air, so much so in fact that by the time the tuk tuk from our hotel arrived in the central Clock Tower Square we could not even see the Mehrangarh Fort (which is ususally unmissable from any part of the city).

Welcome to Jodhpur

Construction Worker a la Indienne

Two Stars of the Omelette World

The central square with its wide web of alleys and side streets is the centre of commerce in Jodhpur. On the other hand, there’s not a sniff of blue. So with no fort, and no blue, we decided to get busy eating. Tiptoeing around the stalls, carts and the cow-dung we ended up at a small stall surrounded by crates of eggs reaching right up to the overhead sign claiming to be the often-imitated, original Omelette Man of Jodhpur. With his henna-dyed hair, a big smile, and a load of eggs, the Omelette Man whipped us up a delicious snack of masala omelettes on toast.

Now I have a sweet tooth, I love mangoes, and yoghurt, so one of the things I was most looking forward to in India was the abundance of mango lassi (like a yoghurt shake). But Jodhpur’s claim to fame in the highly-competitive lassi landscape is the Makhania Lassi. And in Clock Tower Square, the only thing more competitive than the claim to be the original Omelette Man, is the claim to have the best Makhania Lassi. Our research had led us to determine that the best lassi would be found in the Shri Mishrilal Hotel right by the square entrance, and it didn’t let us down.

Sweet, delicious Makhania Lassi

Lassi time for the locals

Makhania Lassi is a saffron and cardamom based lassi, and in the Shri Mishrilal Hotel, a steady stream of men and women, young and old, sit under the approving gaze of Gandhi and Nehru scraping their glasses clean of this delicious, creamy, cool yoghurt, topped off with a generous spoonful of unflavoured curd. In the less than 48 hours we were in Jodhpur, I visited the Shri Mishrilal 4 times. There’s so much to India, but so much of it could be found in this small space, it was wonderful – the setting, the workers on their breaks, the colourful sari-clad women, the cricket on the TV, the fried chilli snacks, while outside a procession of Muslims was setting off on a pilgrimage by foot to another city to much banging of drums and blowing of trumpets. By the time we left, I knew the staff quite well, and we all had a good laugh when I reminded them of how Ireland had beaten Pakistan at the last Cricket World Cup.

Music at Mehrangarh

Raj Princess in Mehrangarh

The next day we took a tuk tuk up to Mehrangarh Fort, the Citadel of the Sun, which was previously the primary fort in the region of Marwar (land of Death). The fort was built in the 13th century by Rao Jodha (who gave his name to the city), and it is just as much fort as work of art. You can easily imagine how formidable Mehrangarh was in its heyday, with its steep walls stretching high above the sheer cliff-faces on which it is built. These once impenetrable walls can now be breached for a small fee, and as you pass through the huge battle-scarred gates, musicians in rainbow-coloured turbans play traditional India flutes and drums for a slightly lesser fee. On one of the gates are a set of numerous small handprints which belonged to the wives of one of the Rajput leaders who was killed in battle. His wives, obeying the Hindu tradition of sati, threw themselves onto his funeral pyre to die with him, which gives a fascinating insight into the status and sense of duty of these leaders and the society they had inherited. Further on through the fort are the battlements with the cannons pointing out over the city, and the many courtyards overlooked by the intricately carved balconies which once hid the Raj’s wives from public view. We both hired audioguides which were well worth the money for what they added to the experience. The whole fort is a maze of beautiful courtyards housing museum exhibits and state rooms of pearl and stained glass.

The Blue City at last

Local boy in the Blue City

And there at last, from the balconies of the fort, was the Blue City. It’s an amazing sight to see this festival of colour standing out against the red, sandy, desert landscape. The Blue City essentially demarcates what was traditionally the Brahmin area of the city. In Hinduism, the Brahmin are the highest of the castes, the priests. Their holy colour is blue, and their houses are painted in beautiful shades of pastel blue, and mixed with doors painted in pink, or shutters in green. It’s like walking through a painting. We strolled around the area getting lost in the labyrinth of climbing alleyways and twisting sidestreets, catching a wonderful glimpse of everyday life, before climbing into a tuk tuk to direct us out of the maze.

Walking around in a dream in the Blue City

Mixing in, in the Blue City

We spent our last night in Jodhpur in a bar-restaurant called On the Rocks which has loads of military-looking staff and decent food, but the highlight is in the bar area after dark when nimble young Rajasthanis warm up to the pumping banghra music, which provided us with much mirth. Overall, Jodhpur was hot, hectic, colourful, intense, infuriating and thoroughly enjoyable – in a nutshell, India.

28. Sep, 2010

Romance in Udaipur

Romance in Udaipur

The famous Lake Palace hotel

First things first, we are not currently in India. In fact, it’s been four months since we were there. However, our India posts fell a little behind schedule, a little like the Commonwealth Games. So now that we are travelling through Asia again, we’re going to publish our India posts now.

People say India is a love or hate affair, for Tony it was love at first sight, for me the opposite. The good thing about visiting Delhi first in India is that once you leave it there is only looking up. Delhi couldn’t be more chaotic, hotter, and dustier than it was when we were there. I knew everything was going to be better from there, in fact I had such a positive attitude about leaving it that I was even looking forward to our overnight train from Delhi to Udaipur in Rajasthan, the Northwest of India. And it was great, we got the best compartment in the train. There are about 10 classes in Indian trains and you have to book in advance to get what you want. For Asian standards this is the best train we have taken so far. We were warned about heat, cockroaches, thieves, perverts, etc. and we got none of that. We got a locked compartment just for the two of us with closet, sink, and wide beds. It was so good that we even overslept and we got late off the train. It was not expensive either.

ummmm spices!

Our private pool and room behind!

I think we had good karma. I used “The Secret” attitude, I had no doubt in my mind that all would be positive after Delhi; but also I believe the universe conspired to celebrate Tony’s birthday in grandeur. He sure deserves it because of his optimistic attitude about everything. I really admire how even in our lowest points in this trip he always manages to be optimist in everything. Me, I have to admit I’m more of a cynic in these situations. Tony was able to bear the heat of Delhi (47 degrees C) and walk around all day sightseeing with a smile on his face, and he is not even a native of the tropics like I am, he comes from the land of mist and drizzle; I had to rest in air conditioning. Tony is able to eat all the street food and beverages he sees and never gets sick; I on the other hand since Mongolia, have been watching everything I eat, to the point of almost becoming a vegan and washing my teeth with mineral water, and I have still managed to get stomach problems more than once. So yes karma is on his side and he was going to have a well deserved perfect day. Happy Birthday!

Happy Birthday to you!

We both see things through different eyes. I grew up in Honduras, a very poor country, so I am not as impressed by poverty elsewhere. I do know very well the struggle of the poor, making it hard for me to see these parts of the world as a tourist. In fact many people from my country cannot understand why most of our itinerary is through developing countries. When people from Honduras travel they choose the most developed countries as their destination, they wish to see something different: USA or Europe. I am extremely fortunate to have traveled extensively through Europe and North America already. For Tony all this is different and new and I understand his interest to see how the other part of the world lives, as Ireland became one of the richest countries in the world. He is Honduran now sometimes as he has learned that it is a better answer than being Irish when asked where he is from. When you say Ireland the Euro signs starts shining on the locals eyes and raise their price 10 times, when you say Honduras they completely lose interest in us.

Our humble birthday home

Our private pool!

For his birthday he deserved a reward so we decided to splurge – big time! We stayed for 2 days in Udaipur, the city of romance, at the fantastic Udaivilas from the Oberoi Group. The landmark hotel of Udaipur and probably Rajasthan is the Taj Lake Palace, but the Udaivilas is even a step above in luxury and style. It was recently qualified as the best hotel in Asia and the 4th in the world. For that brief period we forgot we still had 10 more months of travel and no income, we pretended it was a luxury weekend getaway and on Monday we would be back at our paying jobs. It was well worth it! We are both lucky to have traveled before to other luxurious destinations and flashy resorts, but this experience was out of this world, tops our list as best ever. We highly recommend it to everyone, at least once in a lifetime you have to be treated as royalty.

Our Indian outfits

We were greeted at the train station by a member of the hotel and a chauffeur driven luxury car, welcoming us with refreshing natural spring water, cold towels and the morning paper. Minutes later we arrived in the magnificent palace in a fortress setting, sheltered from the outside to provide peace and quiet to its guests. There was a welcome committee awaiting us: more cold towels, rose mango iced tea and we were marked with a sandalwood dot in our foreheads, a traditional Indian welcome, and everyone congratulated Mr Byrne for his birthday. We were then given a tour of the property and escorted to our room to do the check in. What a room it was, almost 700 square feet, with a terrace and private entrance to our own semi private infinity pool that overlooks the city and the Lake Palace, in a lush green setting of abundant plant life, animals and many colorful birds.

Don't kill him!! Men and women work alike

Can you spot the lake?

Cooking lessons

The water in our pool was perfect, the water in the lake not so much. The Lake Palace is supposed to be a palace island surrounded by a man made lake. It was so dry that you could walk to it from all sides, we were glad we opted for the Udaivilas. Apparently the monsoon has not been strong the last two years, hence the dryness. While in our pool we could see all the activity going on down there in the dry lake, kids playing and a migration of different animals, the water buffaloes being the most impressive. Before going to dinner to feast on traditional Indian food we celebrated in our pool with champagne and a rich chocolate cake offered by the hotel. We sure have missed champagne.

Not only the settings of the hotel are majestic: traditional Indian palace architecture and immense gardens including a wildlife refuge, but the service is out of this world. Numerous staff all very knowledgeable and attentive to your every need; but most importantly every single one of them, no exceptions, with a big smile on their faces. Beautiful settings definitely, but in my opinion service is what makes all the difference, and in India this was the only place where we got it.

Blue Horns!

Our flower necklaces

We could not be there and not take advantage of the spa, and we are glad we did. We had the best treatment of our lives: a couples massage followed by a milk and rose bath. Not any rose bath, but a bath with literally thousands of fresh red rose petals. We also took part in a private complimentary yoga lesson. Tony enjoyed it so much that he will probably take yoga now, as it loosened a tight muscle in his back that no physiotherapist had been able to before. Although all the stretches were strenuous, probably the hardest thing was trying not to laugh out loud when our yogi was chanting “breathe deeply” in a heavily-accented and quite funny voice – lucky he had his eyes closed.

A happy chaiwallah selling milky, spicy Chai Masala


Rajasthan Traffic Jam

After a late breakfast in bed and a dip in our pool, against our wishes but using our better judgment we left paradise and ventured back again into the real India. The chauffeur drove us to our next appointment: Indian cooking lessons. Indian cuisine is actually really easy to make, it all revolves around the seven simple spices. We were disappointed with the lessons, nothing like our previous experience in Yangshuo, China. The concept here revolved around watching a lady cook and us taking notes only, although we did get to eat all the food too. It was all vegetarian as they were a Jain family who don’t use any animal products for food, dress or anything.

Udaipur market

Rajasthan highways

We visited several cities in Rajasthan, and they are all very colorful and interesting, but Udaipur was my favorite as it is by far the most tranquil and where we got the least hassle of all India. We did a walking tour through the town, especially its colorful markets and everyone was extremely welcoming and saying hello and other greetings in their language. Later we found out that it was because we were both wearing flower necklaces, which means you have just been married, and this is wedding season in India. Tony had gone previously into a temple and put a flower necklace on the goddess and one on me, then the girl selling them laughingly convinced him to wear one himself. Only hours later we realized her mischievous intentions, meaning “just married”. We also visited a tailor who made an Indian outfit for Tony to celebrate his birthday.

Monkey Road

Cooking oil vendor

From Udaipur we traveled to Ranakpur, a major site for the Jain division of the Hindu religion. They have a beautiful temple carved all out of white marble, a real piece of work. There is nothing else in Ranakpur to do, but the drive from Udaipur was really scenic. We went through colourful villages where the people wear dazzling bright colors daily, the women beautiful saris and the men hot pink turbans. The turban’s colour and the way it is worn reflects where they come from and their caste. As expected the way of driving in India is completely crazy, even more than in Tibet. We made it one piece amazingly. Apart from the usual cows that rule over India, we were delighted to see camels in the highway, oxen turning wheels at water wells, as well as wild boars and other creatures we can’t name. But the best of all were the hundreds of crazy monkeys in different sections of the road as we got closer to Ranakpur. Tony stopped to take pictures and if they had a camera they would have been flashing away at us, as they are extremely curious creatures. Every time we stopped, dozens of them appeared from the bushes and got close to us to watch us.

Jain Temple in Ranakpur

Indian boys wanted their picture with me

Visiting Udaipur definitely uplifted my spirits after 4 days in crazy Delhi. There is so much to see in Rajasthan, and I am sure that in not so extreme heat it is even more magical. After Ranakpur, we continued on our tour of the …purs and moved on to Jodhpur.

All our India photos are uploaded in our photo album here.

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