India. Population one billion. The second largest concentration of Indians
outside of Birmingham
(that would be Birmingham, England and not Birmingham, Alabama, obviously!). And it seemed like
every single one of them turned up at the airport to personally ask us if we would like a ride in
their taxi. Fortunately we had pre-booked a taxi and hotel, so we weren't fair game for any of the
scams that are going around at the moment. A popular one is to give your hotel the same (or very
similar) name as one that has been given a good write-up in the travel books, and only when you
get there and you have paid your taxi driver (who is long gone) do you realise you're nowhere near
where you want to be. Checked into our hotel, picked the room that appeared to have the smallest
cockroaches, and settled in.
The flight over (or rather checking in for it) was amusing, when Sergeant
Sharon was told by the
Air India representative that women are not allowed to sit in the emergency exit row seats. Steam
started to come out of her ears while I tried to keep my chauvanistic sniggering to myself. My
attempt to defuse the situation by saying that perhaps the ban was in place because women would be
too busy wondering if their lipstick clashed with their orange lifejacket to open the door after
an emergency landing was met with a punch that certainly had some feeling behind it. I was only
trying to be helpful!
Latest currency to worry about is the rupee, of which there are approximately
45 to the dollar. So
not close enough to 40 to be the same as the Thai Baht calculations for the past few weeks, and
not close enough to 50 to make it an easy division each time you want to buy something. I can see
myself getting into heated haggling over less than a penny the first time I attempt to buy a
wooden elephant off a street urchin!
Ooooh, almost forgot - I'm travelling with an international arms smuggler!
Whether by accident or
on purpose as payback for the emergency exit seat ban, Sharon discovered her penknife in her hand
luggage after we had checked our backpacks. Now this penknife isn't particularly dangerous with
it's blade being all of one inch long, and it's certainly not the most useful. You know how the
standard penknife has a bottle opener, screwdriver, and (for some unknown reason) that implement
that legend says is for removing stones from horses hooves? Well, this penknife has none of those,
although in their place it has a pair of scissors, a toothpick, and a pair of tweezers. Very nice,
but while I was sitting in the hotel watching the football I wanted to open my bottles of beer
instead of cleaning my teeth and plucking my eyebrows! Anyway, this weapon of mass uselessness was
shiftily stuffed into the bottom of the carry-on luggage and it got through the half-hearted
security checks without any problem.
First overall impression Delhi is that it's busy (as expected), noisy (comes
with being busy), but
more than anything the place is filthy. Litter, errrr, 'litters' the streets, everywhere smells of
human waste, and as you're walking along you're constantly avoiding stepping in something nasty.
The misery is compounded by having to avoid people lying in the streets (either asleep or very
possibly expired), people trying to sell you stuff, people trying to steal your bag or wallet
(hasn't happened so far but we have been warned - a lot!), people begging, cyclos, tuk-tuks
(called auto-rickshaws over here), and the cows and oxen (and whatever they leave behind them)
that roam the streets freely. Blimey, it's a nightmare out there!
India's number one pastime is cricket, but running a close second is bureaucracy.
The simple act
of checking into the hotel took almost 20 minutes. Name, age, address, passport number, visa
number, height, weight, inside leg measurement, blah blah blah. All written down in triplicate
into huge ledgers, and all done a single letter at a time because the chappie didn't write any
English and was copying the characters stroke for stroke (much as you or I would do if we had to
write anything in the strange Indian squiggly writing). Quite a performance!
First night in India, so it's only right to go out for a curry. Managed to
find a curry house that
doesn't serve beer, although I subsequently found out that this is the rule rather than the
exception (some religious thing, apparently?), so the next eighteen days may be a little tense!
Still, the chicken curry (at least they SAID it was chicken!) was nice enough, and educated me as
to what curry tastes like without shoving a gallon of lager down your neck first.
Inbetween moaning about not having my poncey Thai Hotel room any more (which
as you can probably
tell took up most of the day!) we also got in some sightseeing. Visited the biggest mosque in
India, quite an impressive place, and climbed it's tallest tower which had great views over the
city. You have to take your shoes off though, and walking around the cement courtyard that had
been baking in hundred degree sunshine required more of a 'hopping' motion than walking! Also
visited the Red Fort, which was red and, errrr, a fort! Also booked a train to get out of Delhi at
6am tomorrow to go to Agra. Although one day seeing the sights in the capital city of India might
not be much, it was all we were willing to risk, and escaping without any serious disease tomorrow
morning will be heralded as a triumph!
Day One Hundred and Thirty Four - Agra
After cricket and bureaucracy, groping and staring appear to be the next
most popular pastimes in
India. I can understand the occasional small child staring at me and saying "Mummy, mummy, why is
that man's head all bumpy like a lizard?", but everybody here seems to do it. Young and old, male
and female, well-off and peasants, everybody. You're sitting on a bus and you know that everyone
is staring at you, constantly. And this isn't paranoia, because when the three people sitting in
the seat in front of you all turn around 180 degrees to stare for the entire duration of the
journey it becomes pretty obvious! Groping is also extremely popular, especially in crowded
marketplaces, tourist attractions, etc. And if you're climbing up a narrow staircase to the top of
a tall tower, the grope-o-meter goes right off the scale. In one five-minute climb, Sergeant
Sharon was groped at least a dozen times, which as you can imagine tends to detract from the
enjoyment of the sightseeing. And do you know how many times I was groped? None. Nothing at all.
Not even a quick accidental feel. It all makes me feel very unwanted!
Took a train from Delhi to Agra, which was on time, air-conditioned, had
plenty of room for
luggage (Vietnamese Railways please take note!), served breakfast, and announced the stations in
English. Excellent! All very civilized - must be the British influence!
Found a guest house, avoided the rickshaw driver commission scam, and took
a trip out to a place
called Fatehpur Sikri. It's a city that comprises mainly a huge fort, and was built around 500
years ago during the reign of the grandfather of the bloke that ordered the Taj Mahal to be built.
The place took 12 years to build and is really impressive - very ornate, lovely architecture, blah
blah blah. And do you know how long it was occupied for after it was completed? A whole 4 years!
Turns out that despite all the time and effort spent designing and building the city, they
neglected to find out if there was actually a water source nearby. Oops! So the Maharajah had this
cool city, a palace for each of his three wives, palaces for his 300+ concubines, but no water.
And as you can imagine, dealing with three wives and 300+ concubines can be thirsty work, so he
packed everything up and left. There is also a mystery left behind in the city. For over a decade
the Maharaja was unable to impregnate any of his three wives (or any of the concubines either),
and was a bit unhappy that he couldn't produce an heir to the throne. So he went to visit a holy
man, told him of his problem, and by some miracle almost immediately one of his wives became
pregnant. Hmmmm, right!!! When the tour said that "by some miracle one of his wives became
pregnant", I think what they really mean is "by some randy old holy man putting a crown on his
head, sneaking into the wives palace, and pretending to be Maharajah for the night, one of his
wives became pregnant"!
After lunch, visited Agra Fort. As you can probably tell, forts have replaced
temples as the
things to see on the trip - you have to go to them all in case there's something different in each
one. And in 2 weeks when I'm back in England, pubs are going to be replacing forts! Agra fort is
another very impressive structure, in size, detail and how well preserved it is. In fact it is so
well preserved that most of it is used as an active military base by the Indian army and is closed
to the general public.
Experienced some more of the sights, sounds and smells of India throughout
the day, all of equal
unpleasantness. The prevailing aroma is one of human sewerage. If you're in a street where there
is only a mild whiff of urine then breathe deeply and make the most of it, because it's only
likely to get worse once you turn the corner. Also saw some more of the local wildlife today. As
well as cows, horses and oxen pulling carts along the road, they also use donkeys and camels. I
always pictured camels wandering around pyramids - who knew that they are the Indian equivalent of
the tractor? One donkey had been excused from working for the day, but only on account of the fact
that is was lying dead by the side of the road. Fortunately we were in a urine-rich part of town
at the time, so we didn't get a noseful of decaying donkey. Also saw a load more monkeys, and also
some performing bears. They line up by the side of the road with their owners trying to stop you
and get you to pay for them to make the bear stand on it's back legs and 'dance' All very cruel
and sad, especially as they probably dance far better than I ever will!
And now onto the sounds. Not, as the guide book would have you believe, the
sound of sittars,
snake charmers pipes or prayers at dawn. All you ever hear, constantly, is the sound of touts
trying to get you to go to their hotel, rickshaw drivers trying to get you to go on their tour,
hawkers trying to sell you things, beggars tugging at you clanging metal cups with coins in. All
things that have been commonplace during the trip, but never on this scale or level of
persistence. In Nepal, one "no thank you" was enough, in Vietnam it might take 2 or 3 before you
were left alone in peace (or more likely left to deal with the next tout). But here they simply
will not listen when you tell them you don't want something. If you've got a 5 minute wait for a
bus then you get 5 minutes of constant hassle. If you're waiting an hour for a train then you get
a full hour's worth of grief. Even walking along the street for 10 minutes you get your ear bent
for the entire duration. Aaaaarrrggghhhh!!!!
Main event of the day was a trip to see the Taj Mahal. Or "The Taj"
as Sharon the namedropper
calls it, seeing as she's been there before. So, off to 'The Taj' we go. The Taj. The Tajster. The
Old Taj-a-roonee!!! From where our cyclo driver (more about him later) dropped us off it's about a
hundred yards to the entrance gate. Walking that distance took around 10 minutes of constantly
ignoring, avoiding, pushing, stepping on, and ultimately walking right over the touts, beggars and
hawkers that lined the path. Horrific experience. Then you get to the ticket wondow. A few years
ago the place increased the entrance fee from 2 rupees (around a penny) to 960 rupees ($20) for
foreigners. After an outcry they dropped the entrance fee to 750 rupees (still $15 though). Then
they were ordered to drop the entrance fee again by some governing heritage organization, so they
obligingly dropped it to 250 rupees and, as if by magic, started charging a 500 rupee 'toll
surcharge' fee at exactly the same time. So by hook or by crook they end up getting your 750
rupees. Once you've got your ticket you are pestered constantly by touts wanting to act as a
guide, telling you that a guide is included in the ticket price. Of course it isn't (we
specifically asked the ticket window, who denied all knowledge), and at the end you're pressured
into giving up cash, or at the very least being forced into their 'brothers shop' to buy an
unauthentic marble souvenir copy of the Taj Mahal. Next obstacle is the security check - far more
stringent than any of the airport security checks I've been through (see Day 123 for details of me
travelling with an international arms smuggler!). They went through all our stuff and decided they
wouldn't let us in because we each had a small flashlight in our bags. When we asked why we
couldn't take it in, their reply was 'security'. Humph! So we trudge off towards a 'free' cloak
room, through the touts, through the fake tour guides, dump our flashlights, back through the fake
tour guides, back through the touts, and back through the security check. At least this time I
didn't feel so left out as we both received a good groping when they frisked us! In the cloak room
(more of a hut really) there were other weapons of mass destruction such as cell phones, lighters,
calculators and camera tripods. Who decides what items are not allowed inside these places?
Whoever it is, it looks like his dealer is providing him with some dodgy gear!
So finally we're in. Hot, bothered, and totally fed up with the hour it has
taken to get inside.
But the building itself is truly amazing. Huge, built entirely of white marble, and in a great
setting. I always thought that the Taj Mahal was a palace (especially as 'Mahal' means 'palace' in
Indian squiggly writing), but it turns out that it's a tomb. The Maharaja's wife died, and he
built this entire place just to bury her in. He planned to have one built for himself (out of
black marble), but his plan was scuppered when he was overthrown by his own son and locked up in
Agra fort until he died. Each day from his prison window he could only gaze out of the window
across the river at his beloved wife's tomb. Ahhhh, shame! The detail on the building is also
incredible, and the stonemasons who worked on the carvings had their hands or thumbs amputated
once it was finished, in order that such perfection should not be reproduced anywhere else.
Probably not the Christmas bonus they were expecting for their hard work! Watched the sun set over
the tomb (also very cool) then plunged back into the chaos outside the gates. Retrieved our
flashlights from the 'free' cloak hut, where of course the bloke asked for a tip. He didn't get
any money, but for his trouble I did give him 'the finger'. I can only hope he understood what it
meant! Hundreds more peasants begging, hawking, touting, etc. later we finally made it back to the
hotel. Two days into India and already the hassle is getting to be too much. It's so sad writing
about it all now, because I have just spent a day visiting one of the most remarkable places on
the planet and I hated it!
And another thing - when you're not being pestered by touts, hawkers and
beggars, you're the
centre of attraction for Indian tourists. They're standing in front of the Taj Mahal, and what
would really make their day would be a photo of them standing next to the pair of us! Forget the
breathtaking centuries-old marble architecture, quickly get the camera trained on the sunburned
bald bloke in the England shirt and the American bird! At first we thought it was some kind of
scam/setup/robbery/touting/hawking scheme - (after all, everything else here is!), but after the
tenth family approached us it doesn't appear to be - they seem genuinely interested in getting a
photo taken with whitey. Maybe it's a competition run through a website called something like
Getting between the attractions in India is easy. As well as the constant
stream of persistent
auto-rickshaw drivers, there are also cyclo-rickshaws available. Solid, heavy old bicycles pulling
wooden carts behind them that you sit on. And the physical discomfort you experience is minimal
compared to the mental anguish you have to endure. The cyclo-rickshaw drivers are generally
elderly, underfed, very scrawny, and are in very poor health. In fact their cycle-rickshaw is the
only thing separating them from the people in the street begging for money. And as for the
equipment they use, let's just say that Lance Armstrong won't be winning the Tour de France on
one. In fact he probably wouldn't be able to turn the pedals, especially with a couple of lardies
like us in the back, so it's amazing how there 80 pound weaklings can move at all. On a flat road
they're straining, grunting and sweating just to get to about half the speed of walking, and on
even the slightest uphill gradient they have to get off and push, again not an easy task. And all
the time you're sitting in the back cringeing, wanting to get out to lighten the load, and some
times even wanting to help push when they look as if their next step might be their last. So, each
time a cycle-rickshaw driver is offering to take us somewhere, we pay him the money to not take us
and then take the auto-rickshaw - and everyone goes home happy!
Day One Hundred and Thirty Five - Agra to Jaipur
Question: When is a 7 hour journey not a 7 hour journey?
Answer: When it takes 12 hours.
Arrived at the train station at 7am - a good half hour before the train was due to depart, and
eventually went to the proper platform (platform numbers being something that only other railway
stations use, apparently!). And of course the train was an hour late (now THAT is definitely the
British influence!), which gave us 90 minutes of constant begging, hawking, "Your train is
cancelled", "Your train is late", "Your train was early and has already left but come to my
brother's shop", etc... Finally get onto the train and find our reserved seats. Check we're in the
right carriage - yup. Check we've got the correct seat numbers - yup. So then, why is there a
collection of disease-ridden peasants sprawled over where we should be sitting? The problem was
easily solved though, and with some deft use of the toe of my boot I managed to remove enough of
them to allow us to stash our luggage and sit down. One of the bunk seats was taken up by some
scary-looking wizened old holy man, so I left him well alone. Not because I didn't want to disturb
him, but because I didn't fancy losing any fingers to loprosy when I tapped him on the shoulder to
wake him up.
The train journey itself was very long, very hot, and very boring. No chance
of sleeping at all
with people wandering up and down selling stuff all the time, and the train also mysteriously
stopped for long periods at every station. At one place we didn't move for almost 90 minutes for
no apparent reason. Maybe they realised they were going to be only 3 hours late and decided to
slack off a bit? The place for throwing away any garbage you gather while you're on the train is
... anywhere outside the train! Just pick it up and chuck it out of the window. Food, newspapers,
plastic bottles, plastic wrappers - just bung it out there for the countryside to deal with. Good
job that India is such a huge place, because if it was only the size of England then there
wouldn't be a single square inch of ground not covered with debris. The only other mildly
interesting event during the journey was when I felt something tickling my ankle. I looked down
and there was this youngster (gender unidentified) with a grubby cloth wiping bits of floor around
the seat and asking for money. He/she/it looked like they had been turned down for the part of
'small child sent up a chimney' in a TV adaptation of a Charles Dickens novel on account of the
fact that they were too filthy!
Twelve hours after setting out, we finally arrive at a hotel in Jaipur, but
not before discovering
yet another scam. We went to the official government tourist booth at the railway station who were
helpful, told us where our preferred hotel was, then asked us to put our names in their visitors
book. If you turn up at a hotel with a rickshaw driver then he will get a commission, which is
paid for by the hotel inflating your room rate. We were wise to this so we got dropped off
slightly away from the hotel and walked there, therefore beating the system, right? Errrrrr,
wrong! The hotel offered us the room at an inflated rate, because the railway station had phoned
to tell them we were coming and were claiming THEIR commission. Even the official government
tourism staff are on the make! So, that's why they insisted on us putting both names into their
'comments' book - because it's really a 'put your name here so we can track you to your hotel and
rip you off' book! My last ounce of honesty has now gone, so from now on the plan is to lie
blatantly to everyone who asks us anything.
No cockroaches here - this is grasshopper country. And you know what that
means - grasshopper
herding! Spent a pleasant couple of hours chasing them around the bathroom and into a plughole (a
bit like playing tiddlywinks) before going out to get some food. Not many restaurants around, all
of them vegetarian, and all of them don't serve any alcohol. The tension in the air around me
increased noticeably! Damn those sacred cows! Did have a very nice 'cashew nut curry' though, but
I occasionally lamented that perfectly good donkey going to waste in Agra, and also contemplated
that 'grasshopper herding' may mutate into 'grasshopper catching and eating' before the end of the
Day One Hundred and Thirty Six - Jaipur
Jaipur is known as the 'Pink City', because a lot of it's buildings are painted
pink for some
strange reason. Today was a sightseeing frenzy, which means lots of forts and palaces! Started off
at a strange observatory, where one of the Maharajas a few hundred years ago built a bunch of
weird and wonderful structures so he could study the stars. The centrepiece is a hundred foot tall
sundial, which is a bit excessive by anyone's standards! After the observatory (if you walked into
it, you would swear it was a skateboard park) we saw the 'Palace of the Winds' (enter prehistoric
joke about eating too much curry here!), some royal cenotaphs (pretty cool), another huge fort
(complete with elephants), a monkey temple (without monkeys) and finally the City Palace. We had
hired an auto-rickshaw driver for the day and he drove us around everywhere, and then amazed us by
returning our tip at the end of the day. Very civilized of him!
Being a Maharajah looks like it was a pretty easy life. All you had to do
was pay the British
government lots of taxes and you're all set. Everybody living in Britain today does that but they
don't get to live in a palace with hundreds of concubines. One of the Maharajas weighed around 500
pounds, and an exhibition of some of his clothes looked like the kind of gear you can get from any
decent camping store. Maybe somebody should have told him that he wasn't supposed to eat his
Found a Pizza Hut (excellent - meat!) and drank gallons of their 'bottomless
pepsi' promotion to
counter the effects of the heat and exertions of the day. But it proved to not be enough! The
Lonely Planet guidebook describes Jaipur as "among the most tumoltuous and polluted places in
Rajasthan" (can't disagree with that), says that "most of the city's inhabitants are on the
lookout for tourists" (yup!), but then goes on to say "it's energy and vibrancy, coupled with
imposing historical and cultural wealth, are seductive". This last part sounds like it's
encouraging people to come here. Well, Mr. Lonely Planet writer, here are a few more things you
might wish to consider including in your next edition: heatstroke, food poisoning, chronic
bacterial diarrhea, 104 degree body temperature, muscle spasms, dehydration, polluted water
supply, antibiotics, nausea and fainting spells. And if you need more information about any of
them just let me know and I'll give you my first-hand experience!
Day One Hundred and Thirty Seven - Pushkar
Cometh the hour, cometh the (wo)man. Hurrah for Sharon and her first aid
kit packed with drugs and
nurses uniform. Hours of endless force-feeding me water, mopping my fevered brow with a cold
towel, and thrusting my head under a cold shower finally got my body temperature close to normal.
Looks like I lived through the night. Or maybe hell was full and they've decided that I should
stay in Jaipur for all eternity!
Nope, not here for all eternity - got a bus out of Jaipur to Ajmer, which
was air-conditioned and
only an hour late (the bus, not Ajmer!), so not too bad. Spent 10 minutes in Ajmer bus station
listening to a tout repeatedly saying "you take taxi" while Sharon bought our local bus tickets to
Pushkar, which is only 11km away. In fact this bloke kept on saying "you take taxi" even after
Sharon had come back with the tickets and we were getting on the bus! The local bus trip was a bit
more entertaining - packed in like sardines, unable to move, then having to push everybody out of
the way when we needed to get off. Not too bad for half an hour though, and the way the driver was
performing it was probably best to not be able to see where we were going! Struck up a
conversation with one of the three locals sitting in front of us who had turned around to stare,
and he was practicing his English telling us how he is training to be an electrician, blah blah
blah. And as soon as we get off the bus, guess what - by some miraculous quirk of fate his parents
just happened to own a guest house. Well, who would have thought that??? After his performance,
even if his parents owned the best hotel in the world and we could stay there for one rupee, then
we still wouldn't, purely out of principle.
Decided to blow our budget and checked into a poncey hotel room with a balcony
holy lake. Pushkar is some kind of holy pilgrimage town, which means that alcohol, meat, and even
eggs are banned within the city limits. Exactly how do they expect a man to survive under these
conditions? A couple of restaurants advertised the 'egg-free omelette', which I'm guessing is just
an empty plate! So, my plans to open a branch of Abra-Kebabra and retire here will have to be put
on hold for now. And the days when a few dollars could buy me enough Beer Lao to bathe in seem a
very long time ago!
Watched the sun set over the holy lake and found a restaurant that served
up a decent veggie
spaghetti bolognase, then went to bed before I realised just how badly I needed beer and proper
Day One Hundred and Thirty Eight - Pushkar
They're back. The voices in my head are back. And they're calling to me.
"Bangkok to London.
Bangkok to London." What I think they're trying to say is "Why on earth did you go to India
instead of flying straight from Bangkok to London, you idiot?". Actually woke up today feeling a
million times better than yesterday. Only stomach cramps and chronic diarrhea this morning, but I
suppose that if that counts as a 'good' day then overall things could be much better! Despite not
catering to my dietary requirements (I know - self, self, self), Pushkar is a nice place. Much
smaller than everywhere else so far and it's possible to walk ten yards along the street without
being hassled (unthinkable anywhere else we've been in India). The people we have spoken to that
haven't been connected with the tourist industry have been really friendly, honest and helpful,
the problem being that for every one of them there are a hundred that are connected with the
tourist industry that are the exact opposite.
Days spent in India so far: 6. Amount spent on tourist tat: zero. There can
be no better
illustration of the problems experienced by tourists here than by the fact that my new number one
passion - buying tourist tat - has been completely prevented by the amount of hassle dished out on
the streets. There are gift and craft shops, stalls and markets everywhere, but as soon as you set
foot in the street you have to put your head down and ignore everyone and everything around you in
order to get to your destination without your brain exploding. What I need is for the tat shops to
open for a couple of hours just for me (like they do for the queen and film stars occasionally) so
I can get some serious shopping done. The touts, beggars and hawkers aren't shy about bodily
contact either, so if you do stop anywhere then you need to keep one hand in your pocket making
sure your wallet stays there and the other hand in the other pocket protecting your bits from
being groped (still hasn't happened to me yet, which is most disappointing!). So you don't have
any hands free to pick something up and take a look at it, never mind a free hand to swat away the
grubbiest looking locals.
Found a restaurant overlooking the main street where they served apple pie
with ice cream and we
could watch the people, cows and camels wandering past. Saw 2 camels together earlier today, which
constitutes something of a traffic jam out here! Around the edge of the holy lake are a number of
ghats, which are some kind of holy bathing pool. Nudie holy bathing pools for the kids, and
thankfully the men wear swimming trunks, but the women are fascinating. Hundreds of them parade
along the bank of the lake in beautiful sarees, all bright reds, oranges and yellows, then get
into the ghats fully clothed (exposing flesh is bad form here). Quite a colourful spectacle,
especially when they emerge soaking wet in their newly semi-transparent clothes. Seeing as alcohol
and meat are banned here, I'm guessing that a 'Miss Wet Sari' competition isn't going to happen!
Still, a very pleasant evening with no beggars, dead donkeys or near-death experiences!
It's definitely a man's world in India. Here are some quotes from a brochure
national internet chain. Reckon they would get away with this in the west? The article is called
'From housewife to superwoman'. "The iWay is an excellent place for housewives to enter an
exciting new world that could change their personality and enhance their intelligence. Whatever
you need to keep your family happy - latest exotic recipes, greetings to send to relatives far
away, amazing household tips, horoscope reading and astrology - is available at the click of a
mouse. Enough to make you the talk of the neighbourhood".
Day One Hundred and Thirty Nine - Pushkar to Jodhpur
Just taken part in the smoothest possible journey, and I'm still stunned
by the events of the
morning. Yesterday we asked around in Pushkar about getting a bus direct to Jodhpur rather than
getting a local bus back to Ajmer and then a second bus from there. All the tour operators had
buses going direct, but none of them were air-conditioned. Not taking an air-conditioned bus would
likely be suicidal for the pair of us in this heat over a 5-hour journey. So we asked them about
taking the local bus to Ajmer and then getting an A/C bus from there. "No A/C bus from Ajmer to
Jodhpur", was always the reply. We tried 3 or 4 differnt places and was each time told exactly the
same thing, so we thought that they couldn't all be lying through their teeth just to get us to
book with their commission-laden direct non-A/C bus. Could they? Resigned to being baked to death
tomorrow we trudged back to the hotel, and happened to spot an official government tourist
information hut. Wary of the Jaipur railway station fiasco we thought we might as well ask them,
if only to confirm the other tour operator's stories that there are no A/C buses going to Jodhpur.
"Plenty of A/C buses going to Jodhpur", came the reply. Well, well, well, who would have thought
it? All we had to do was get the local bus to Ajmer, then buy a ticket and get on the bus to
Jodhpur - as simple as that. The first couple of buses left Ajmer at 6:30am and 11:00am. Cool!
So we get up, stroll to the local bus stand, and ask about the local bus
to Ajmer. "One leaving
immediately", so on we get. We arrive at the train station (for some strange reason the buses
leave Ajmer bus station but arrive at Ajmer train station!), but at least we knew about it so it
was only a 5 minute auto-rickshaw ride. Arrive at Ajmer bus station, and as if by magic a bus
company official appears. We say "A/C Jodhpur", and he points to a bus about to set off. We chuck
in the luggage and jump on at 9:30 (not sure if it was the late 6:30 bus, the early 11:00 bus, or
another bus altogether!), and arrive 4 hours later in Jodhpur not quite believing our luck.
Jodhpur is also known as the 'blue city'. In the same way that Jaipur overstocked
on pink paint
one year, here they ended up with too much pastel blue. Very pretty, and they also claim that the
color acts as a mosquito repellant. Righty ho, although I hope they're not offended if I don't
stop taking my malaria medicine. It's also named after the ridiculous style of trousers favoured
by horsey types and nazis. I had a look on the map for towns nearby called 'Pantaloon' and
'Knickerbocker', but didn't manage to find them.
Like a pride of lions selecting their own personal lunch as the wildebeeste
are crossing the
plains of the Serengeti, the hotel touts were waiting for us as the bus pulled into the bus
station (instead of the train station this time!). The scene was made comical due to the bus
driver not being entirely sure where he should park the bus. He did an entire circle of the bus
station with around 30 touts running alongside, pulled forwards into a space and the human wave
went with us, reversed and the tide went out again, and finally pulled forward again as they
settled outside the door. We ended up without ten of them, each one shouting out prices and names
of hotels, etc., and as I was in a jolly mood because of our good fortune on the buses, I decided
to play along for once. We knew where we were going and how much it cost, so I gathered the ten
contestants who hadn't gone off in search of easier prey around me, and like a kindergarten
teacher addressing the class I explained the rules. "Whoever keeps quiet the longest gets our
business". Which was a bit of the shame for the three people who were shouting out as I was saying
that. The finger of fate singled out each one menacingly. Yes, 'menacingly' - I like that! "Out".
"Out". "Out", as the finger pointed three times. Not really learning from other people's mistakes,
three others were blabbering on while I was eliminating the first three, so three more times the
finger fell. "Out". "Out". "Out". With hindsight I do feel a bit sorry for the next chap to go as
he was eliminated on a technicality. Although he didn't say anything, for some reason he felt
compelled to grab my arm. "Out" was quickly followed by the finger of fate and "...and get off
me!". The next to go was also a bit unlucky, as he shouted "Ouch!" when the arm-grabber (obviously
a bit unhappy at his elimination) kicked him in the shins. But rules are rules so "Out" he went.
Down to the last two, and the tension in the crowd was unbearable. I would switch my gaze from one
to the other looking for signs of weakness as the sweat poured off them and they gritted their
teeth. Just as it began to look like we were going to be here for quite a long time, one fellow
couldn't hold himself back any longer and blurted out "Ten rupees, oh noooooo". "Out". We had a
winner! The crowds cheered, flags waved, flowers were tossed onto the roadway, and the world was a
happier place. Unfortunately the winner had been rendered unconscious by the strain of keeping his
gob shut for almost ten seconds, so we had to go outside the bus station and get a ride from
Had a brief wander around the town and upgraded our tickets for tomorrow's
overnight train to posh
ones, not wishing for a repeat of the Agra to Jaipur cattle car fiasco. Also did a bit of shopping
preparation - always essential to find out the real price of stuff in this, the land of the
invisible price tag. We knew there was a government emporium here, which is supposed to have
proper prices for things, and will therefore be much cheaper than anywhere else. This being the
case, we decided to leave that until last, reckoning that we would probably buy anything we wanted
there anyway, so we went to a private poncey shop first. They sat us down and went through all
their stuff, gave us prices, blah blah blah, for about half an hour, then we headed towards the
government shop to compare. The poncey place had quoted us 2,000 rupees for a tablecloth, around
four times the proper price, so if the government shop started off at half that then it shouldn't
be too difficult to bargain them down to 500. On the way to the government shop we were latched
onto by a couple of urchins, who told us they had seen us in the poncey shop and it was very
expensive ("Yes, we know"), we should go to the government shop ("Yes, we know"), and it's just
along the street ("Yes, we know!"). As we got to the shop, one of the urchins tipped a 'I brought
them here, put me down for some commission' wink to the people working in the shop - not
noticeable to the naked eye but impossible to miss by trained professionals like ourselves. So
we're in there and we start looking at stuff and get to the same item the poncey shop was selling
for 2,000 rupees. and the price here? 2,000 rupees! So much for that idea! When we mentioned we
had just come from the poncey shop and they were charging exactly the same, he gave a shifty look
and admitted they were basically the same shop. So, either the 'government shop' is in on the
price-fixing racket, or it's nothing to do with the government at all. Total amount spent in India
on tourist tat so far: still zero!
Day One Hundred and Forty - Jodhpur
The main attraction in Jodhpur is ... a fort! And of course it's got a palace
inside it, so we did
our tourist duty and strolled along for a look. And out of the several (I've lost count!)
forts/palaces in India so far, this has been by far the best. When you go in they give you a set
of headphones for an audio tour and you spend the next few hours wandering around the place at
your leisure looking at and hearing about the place. It was so refreshing not to spend the entire
time being hounded by wannabe guides, and they even have a 'tourists lounge' where you can go and
sit in front of fans to cool yourself down. Probably what you would expect as tourists pay more
than ten times as much as locals, but nowhere else has provided anything like it.
Also visited some average-looking royal tombs, but there was a movie being
filmed there so there
were us two tourists and 200 film people wandering around. They filmed a scene where a muscular
black man wearing only a loincloth picked up a couple of fish and put them down again. This took
them around an hour to get right, and just goes to show how glamorous the movie business can be at
times! Then when we got back to the hotel the film's casting director wanted me to be a body
double for somebody in the film. I'm just guessing here, but it probaly wasn't being a body double
for the muscular black man! But he needed me tomorrow and we're leaving tonight, so my chance at
international stardom came and went!
Despite India's booming population, they seem to have family planning sorted
out for animals at
least. A lot of male goats here are walking around wearing posing pouches to prevent them 'getting
jiggy' with the female goats. They do look a bit like Village People circa 1980 though - what are
these goats going to be wearing next, studded collars and leather caps?
Day One Hundred and Forty One - Jaisalmer
Took the overnight train from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer - eventually! Arrived
at the railway station in
plenty of time and found our train waiting for us, so we strolled towards the front of it looking
for our poncey air-conditioned carriage. Found the regular sleeper and peasant-class cattle cars
but no sign of ours, so maybe it was at the rear of the train instead. So we lugged our backpacks
all the way down the length of the train but still couldn't find our carriage, and after
confirming that we were looking at the right train we started wondering if we had been sold
tickets for non-existent seats. We found some helpful people to ask (in the conspicuous absence of
any railway officials) and between them they worked out that the air-conditioned carriage should
be here but wasn't. Nice deduction work, Sherlock! They then discovered some information that was
actually useful and told us that the problem would be fixed, so everyone hung around for about an
hour until the air-conditioned carriage arrived and we all piled on. I was asleep as soon as I got
onto my bunk, clutching my backpack so nobody would walk off with it, and woke up 7 hours later in
We stumbled our way bleary-eyed through the early morning touts and found
a place to stay.
Jaisalmer is known as the 'golden city', but unlike Jaipur and Jodhpur it isn't because of paint -
it's because it is in the middle of the desert and there is sand everywhere. The fort (wouldn't be
an Indian city without a fort now, would it?) looks like a giant sandcastle! Because of the
unbearable temperatures the best time to visit here is between October and March. It's not the
middle of July! Even the locals are complaining because it's too hot at the moment, while poor old
whitey here melts before their eyes!
Decided that merely being at the edge of the desert is for cissies, so we
booked ourselves onto a
2-day camel safari where you get to be in the REAL desert, with no shade, while bouncing up and
down on top of a glorified donkey. It ranks up alongside 'going to Cambodia' and 'hiking to
Everest Base Camp' as one of my most brilliant decisions!
Day One Hundred and Forty Two - Jaisalmer
Spent the night in a sweat-box hotel room. Over here there are three types
of cooling systems:
fans, air coolers and air conditioning. Fans and air conditioners are the same as in the west, but
air coolers are basically high-powered fans that draw in warm air, pass it over water, then blow
out cold air. In theory they're supposed to do that, anyway! In practice they seem to draw in warm
air and blow out warm humid air at an alarming rate, reducing the room to a sauna within seconds.
From now on, it's going to be air-conditioned rooms all the way!
Got up early to set out on our day-and-a-half camel safari, which I was looking
forward to with
some trepidation, not having had much luck with other large, stupid animals (cows, horses) in the
past. We met our camel driver, Khan, and our pair of trusty steeds that were called Sandy (a bit
corny but appropriate) and Julian. What??? What kind of a name for a camel is 'Julian'? Perfectly
fine for humans, but it doesn't sound right for an animal. If you're going to go through the
(quite frankly, ridiculous) process of naming your animals, then at least make their names
suitable (although I suppose calling every camel 'Sandy' would defeat the object a bit) or use
some alliteration ('Cedric the Camel', 'Clarence the Camel', etc.). But not 'Julian the Camel'! I
don't think that Jungle Book would have been quite the same if Baloo the Bear had been named
differently. Imagine him walking up and saying "Hi Mowgli, my name is Julian the Bear and I eat
ants". Mowgli would have wet himself laughing before shooting the bear between the eyes and
mounting his head above the fireplace!
So our (somewhat short) camel train sets off, with Khan the camel man (see
- that sounds much
better than 'Julian the camel man'!) walking in front, Sharon and Julian behind him, then me and
Sandy at the back. Before today the first thing that sprang into my mind when anybody mentioned
camels was 'humps'. That has been changed now, to be replaced with 'flatulence'. Khan the camel
man was quite happy walking in front, Sharon got the occasional whiff of Julian's rear end, but I
got the full force of that one plus some of Sandy's. Lovely! A difference between riding a horse
and a camel is that the camel's saddles don't have stirrups, so once you've been splayed across
the back of this thing your inside legs are susceptible to no small amount of chafing!
We wandered along in the heat (apparently today was 43 degrees centigrade
in the shade and 55 in
the open) looking at the wildlife, scenery, and even a couple of local villages. Why anyone would
choose to live out here is way beyond me. As well as a lot of the standard goats, sheep and cows,
we also saw lizards, peacocks and vultures. The vultures were particularly cool as they were
eyeing up a dead cow. I had seen some scrawny specimens in the zoo before, but the elements out
her keep them well fed (as illustrated by this cow that had simply given up in the heat and
dropped dead) and they were huge. If they were birds of prey rather than scavengers then they
would have no problem at all swooping down and carrying off a baby goat or lamb.
You can buy a camel for around 10,000 rupees ($200), and once you've got
one it takes up to 5
months to train it to do whatever you want. Sounds like a much better alternative to getting
After lunch and snoozing in the shade we lolloped on through the desert,
drinking as much hot
water (not much choice out here!) as possible to avoid dehydration, then had some food around a
camp fire as the sun went down. We were due to camp there but the wind was whipping sand
everywhere, so Khan the camel man decided we would ride on for an hour or so to a different place.
It was almost pitch black, no electricity for 30 miles, clear starry skies, and you could just
about make out the silhouette of cacti against the horizon. As we loaded up the camels and set off
I felt like one of the three wise men - although obviously not wise enough to avoid being in the
middle of the desert perched on a camel in the first place! Grasping my gold, frankincense and
myrhh we plodded on, and some times Khan the camel man would thrash the camel's backside with a
length of rope and it would start running. Well, you would run as well if you were being whipped
with a rope! These things bounce up and down a hell of a lot, and if a man isn't positioned just
right on the saddle then the 'chafing' can give way to 'crushing'. The whole thing was an
incredible experience, and I don't remember ever having so much fun yet being so sore at the same
time (I'm beginning to admit to myself that the weekend I spent away with the entire San Francisco
49ers cheerleading squad was just a dream after all!). As I got off the camel, rather gingerley,
Khan the camel man simply looked me in the eye and said "Squashed tomatoes"!
Although we didn't actually see one, I am adding snakes to our wildlife collection.
in the darkness, all of a sudden my camel jumps a couple of feet in the air - Khan the camel man
had warned us that this might happen if something startled it and told us to hold on tight. I'm
glad that I listened to him! The camel's jump was followed by a hissing sound that I am guessing
was the snake (cobras - very nasty!), although of course it may have been more gas escaping from a
rear end - either the camel, myself, or both! We all hastily made our escape and as I had already
incurred the wrath of Khan for turning on my flashlight to look at wildlife, we never did see what
caused the commotion. Typical - something comes along that actually DOES have big, sharp, pointy
teeth and it's too dark to see it!
Day One Hundred and Forty Three - Jaisalmer to Udaipur
Sleeping under the stars in the desert, camel bells tinkling in the background,
the gentle rustle
of a light breeze through the few trees. Well, that would have been nice! Instead we had a night
of no sleep, freezing cold in a windstorm, animals of assorted descriptions scurrying around the
place, and only the sound of camels farting to break the monotony. Despite all that, the camel
safari experience was fantastic - definitely the highlight of India so far.
Completely knackered after the camel safari, what better way to spend the
next 24 hours than on
buses careering through the Indian countryside? The first hurdle to navigate was a bus back to
Jodhpur, from where we would get another bus to Udaipur. So we get our tickets and turn up at the
bus station (cleverly disguised as a field!), find the right bus, and chuck our backpacks in the
luggage compartment. Then a bloke stands there with his hand out saying "10 rupees each bag".
Although it's a (ridiculous) custom here to tip baggage handlers, number one it's always been 2
rupees per bag and not 10, and number two he just stood there while I heaved the bags onto the bus
myself. So the three of us just stood there looking at each other for a few minutes answering each
"10 rupees" with "No!" until he gives in and locks the luggage compartment. So we sit outside
where we can see the back of the bus (if you lose sight of where your bags are before the bus
starts to pull away, don't expect them to still be there when you reach your destination!), and a
few locals chuck their luggage in as well - for free, of course! Then this bloke starts up with
his "10 rupees" all over again, this time indicating that if we don't pay we will have to put them
on the roof. And of course he was expecting us to do that ourselves. Yeah, right, fat chance!
Eventually he realises that he isn't going to get either 10 rupees per bag or get us to put them
onto the roof, and as he couldn't be bothered moving them himself he gave up and we set off. He
travelled along with the bus, so each time we stopped and he jumped off to deal with someone
else's luggage we would crane our necks out of the window to make sure he wasn't leaving our
luggage behind in the street. This went on for 5 hours until we got to Jodhpur, with bags and 20
Well, we ALMOST got to Jodhpur, as the bus driver decided to dump everybody
in a field about 5
miles outside the city. Maybe he lives around the corner? Got an auto-rickshaw to a poncey
restaurant (all the drivers who descended on us at the bus stop were most disappointed when they
discovered we weren't staying in Jodhpur and they couldn't attempt the guest house commission scam
routine), and this place proved to be my own personal oasis in the desert. They served not only
beer but also food with meat in it, both items almost impossible to lay your hands on around here,
and it was good stuff as well. Unable to decide between a couple of dishes, I'm shovelling lamb
madras into my cake-hole with one hand and chicken kebab in with the other, pausing occasionally
for a gulp of Golden Peacock beer (no Trades Descriptions Act problems here - it was golden and
was almost certainly produced by a peacock, but the important fact was that it's BEER!). And the
icing on the cake was that the waiters were all dressed up as Saddam Hussein, with berets, khaki
fatigues, and droopy moustaches - excellent entertainment!
After food we jumped on the overnight bus to Udaipur, and apart from some
winding mountain roads
(best to close your eyes on these buses, even when you're not asleep!) and being stopped for a
while as thousands of sheep crossed the road in front of us at 3am, the trip was fairly
uneventful. Unfortunately the bus was on time - unfortunate because the planned arrival time was
5am and there was nothing open in the town. Spent an hour as our rickshaw driver took us around
the places he 'recommended', then we dumped him and went commission-free to the hotel of our
choice (after waking up the people working there who were sprawled asleep in the reception area!)
While cruising around the River Kwai in Thailand we shared an elephant (as
you do!) with a bloke
who had just come from here and had taken a taxi around Rajasthan with three other travellers. The
Delhi hotel we stayed in quoted us $180 each for 14 days, excluding food, hotels, entrance fees
and tip, and the trip would end here in Udaipur. The tip that the driver asked this chap for (but
didn't get) was an extortionate 200 rupees per person per day, adding $124 to our $360 and giving
a final cost of $484. And our total travelling expenses up to this point from Delhi for both of us
are ... $76! Admittedly you don't have a driver at your beck and call all the time, but for a lot
of the days we wouldn't have used him at all, and we also wouldn't have been able to get 'extra'
days by travelling overnight. Not surprisingly, I will be spending the cash I saved on tourist tat
over the next few days!
India has good (and improving) roads, a decent (ish) train system, and decent
internal flights due
to it's size. The food is good, the people are nice, and they are becoming a major player in the
Information Technology and Internet marketplace - everything you would expect from a growing and
improving country. So I can't work out why India doesn't do something about the litter and human
waste that is literally everywhere. Surely fining people for littering, although it would require
some cultural alteration, can't be too difficult to enforce? And how about providing some public
conveniences. Maybe introduce a sewerage system that goes under the ground instead of alongside it
(even the Romans had that, over 2,000 years ago). Again it may involve some cultural change, but
if the government could even try to stop people just dropping their trousers wherever they stand
in the street and letting loose, conditions would improve dramatically. No matter how fast a
connection an internet cafe might have, picky spoiled westerner pig-dogs like myself won't be
hurdling over any cess-pits to use it!
Day One Hundred and Forty Four - Udaipur
Since the last four nights have been spent not sleeping on a train, in a
sweat-box, on a concrete
platform in the desert, and on a bus, it was nice to have a bed again. In fact it was so nice that
I spent most of the day lying in it taking it easy.
Day One Hundred and Forty Five - Udaipur
Rumour has it (in fact the guide book has it) that there is another government
emporium in the town. These are the places where everything has a fair and fixed price on it and
you can shop without all the haggling and the fear of being ripped off at every turn.
Unfortunately, the government emporium in Jodhpur turned out to be nothing at all like that, but
with nothing else planned for the next four days, it seemed worth a try. And what do you know -
this place is the real deal. So over the next 4 days it's going to be a case of 'goodbye bank
balance, hello increasingly heavy tat-laden backpack'!
Spent the rest of the day sitting around taking it easy and calculating how
many wooden elephants
I can afford with my remaining cash. Also did some 'wasp herding', but no sooner did I shepherd
them out of the hotel room than they flew back in again, so half an hour of 'wasp squashing' took
place instead. There was also an exciting turn of events when fat face-filling time came along in
the evening, as we stumbled across a place that served both meat AND beer. And with no impending
overnight bus trip this time, I indulged heartily in their fare!
Day One Hundred and Forty Six - Udaipur
Big day today, actually venturing more than a hundred yards from the hotel.
The City Palace must
be all of, ooooh, 120 yards away - I could almost feel the homesickness setting in as we
approached the ticket counter! A lot of places over here have an admission charge and a separate
fee for each camera, and typically the camera fee will be 10 or 20 rupees extra. We normally pay
for one camera (despite being weighed down with three!), but at this place the entrance fee was 50
rupees and the camera fee was 200 rupees. Extortionate! So our standard "One camera please" was
changed quickly to be "No cameras today", and I limped inside. Well, just you try hiding a tripod
down your trousers and walking without a limp !!! The palace was mildly interesting, worth 50
rupees anyway, but unlike almost everywhere else we have visited there was nothing there
interesting enough to take a picture of. Even the view of the palace from it's courtyard isn't as
good as the view from our hotel room. We might have to start charging people to go up there and
Decided to try a different place for lunch to the one we usually go to, and
after passing a few
places that were closed (for lunch?) we tried a rooftop restaurant on top of a hotel. Got the
menus, beckoned over Gunga Din, and ordered our food. "Sorry, no chicken". Well, that eliminated
everything off the non-vegetarian menu, so we thought we would try tomato curry. "Sorry, no
tomatoes". Potato curry then. "Sorry, no potatoes, no vegetables". Total cheese shop! If we waited
half an hour he could get some noodles and chinese gravy (whatever that is), and get us whatever
we wanted. Whatever we wanted as long as it was noodles with chinese gravy, by the sound of it!
Then they seemed surprised and offended when we left. And of course we ended up having lunch at
the place we usually go to.
Did some minor tat shopping in the afternoon, and bought loads of Indian
There are shops full of them everywhere, and the quality of these paintings is excellent. They're
incredibly cheap as well, which doesn't mean I spend less money on them, it just means I end up
with more paintings! Of course I have no idea what I'm going to do with a few dozen paintings of
elephants, camels, horses, etc., so if anybody gets one as a present you'll know it comes from
India. Although now you'll also know that it didn't cost much, so maybe I should have kept that
Day One Hundred and Forty Seven - Udaipur
Woke up just in time for lunch, and decided to give the chappie from our
hotel who has been trying
for days to get us to eat in his restaurant a go. And of course we ended up having lunch somewhere
completely different. The excuse this time, possibly the best yet, is that the chef had gone out
for lunch! Our chap was very apologetic, but I could see in his eyes that he didn't quite
understand why we were laughing so much.
Spent a couple of hours in the afternoon walking across the lake to have
a look at a couple of
palaces. No, that isn't a typo - during the winter (the time of year when the weather is cooler
and the sane tourists visit here), these palaces are only accessible by boat. Right now, with the
monsoon yet to kick in, the lake is a parched, cracked expanse of earth with cows, local children,
and a pair of crazy foreigners wandering around on it. Hotels with names such as 'Lakeside Guest
House', 'Lake View Hotel', etc. look a bit strange without a lake in sight. One of the palaces in
the middle of the 'lake' has been turned into a poncey hotel, where you can pay $1,000 to stay
there for a night. Our place has a sun room, balcony, and exactly the same view of the dried up
lake, and costs $9 per night. I must find some people who are staying there so I can point at them
A 'claim to fame' of Udaipur is that some parts of the James Bond film 'Octopussy'
here. It's not a very well publicised 'claim to fame' because nobody is sure which parts of the
film were shot here, or indeed exactly where they were filmed. So instead of big tour groups
rushing to see the 'Man with the Golden Gun' rock, or the 'Bridge on the River Kwai' errrr,
'bridge', you have a couple of restaurants here that show a dodgy pirated video of 'Octopussy'
every night and tell you that "some parts of the film were made somewhere around here".
Footy update: Interest in Euro 2004 dried up completely as soon as England
were knocked out, and
it was only this afternoon (more than 2 weeks after it happened) that I found out Greece won the
tournament. So I re-read the article a couple of times to make sure I wasn't missing anything, and
it turns out to be true. So what I want to know is, when does the REAL Euro 2004 start? Obviously
this one was some kind of joke warm-up where the results don't matter and the proper meaningful
games will be coming up soon. Anybody know when?
Day One Hundred and Forty Eight - Udaipur
Last day in serenity before flying out tomorrow morning to Bombay for a couple
of days. Went back
to the local fixed-price government emporium and frittered away wads more rupees on their goodies.
This was the culmination of five days of checking prices around town so we knew exactly what we
wanted. The sales chappie seemed quite taken aback as we went speedily from shelf to shelf,
picking things out and casually tossing them over our shoulders for him to catch, as if we were on
some kind of one-minute 'all you can grab' supermarket shopping spree. Two minutes shopping was
followed naturally, with this being a government-run place, with half an hour of bureaucracy. The
salesman/catcher was only the first part of the production line. Once he had laid out all our tat
he got one of his chums (there were a total of six people working in this place) to write out a
bill. All in very laborious longhand and with each item specifically detailed and a final total
calculated and checked. The bill was then given to us to take to another different bloke who
copied details of everything we had bought into a huge ledger, and also checked that the
arithmetic and final total were correct. We paid, and the money we passed them was checked (they
didn't like the look of one of the banknotes - that we had just got from the bank - so they sent
another different person out to the bank to make sure they would accept it!), and our change
calculated. The bill was 1,047 rupees and I gave them 1,050. Tempting as it was to tell them just
to keep the change (a few pennies), I thought it might send the entire economy into a tailspin if
their accounts didn't balance at the end of the day, so I kept quiet. And of course then they
didn't have 3 rupees, so I had to rummage around for 2 as they only had a five, blah blah blah...
After somebody else had checked that what had been entered into the ledger matched what was
written on the bill, the bill and tat were passed over to the parcel wrapper, who dutifully made
sure that the number of items he had been given matched the bill, then checked that the
description of each item was correct, and so on. And on. And on! The person that introduces bar
codes to shops in India will make a fortune, but also put 90% of the population out of work!
Possibly the best purchase of the trip so far, in my opinion anyway, is a
pair of 'Maharajah
shoes'. Nicely made, covered in gold trim, and with toes that curl up backwards, walking around
the hotel room in them gives me a certain sense of style and dignity. Opinion does appear to be
divided on the subject though, and I don't believe that my regal footwear is getting the respect
it deserves from Sergeant Sharon. In fact the phrase "When are you going to stop poncing around in
those poofy bowling shoes?" has been heard more than once. These peasants just don't appreciate
real class when it's paraded in front of them!
Day One Hundred and Forty Nine - Bombay
Grabbed my 'poofy bowling shoes' and flew down to Bombay. Which these days
is called 'Mumbai' as a
lot of the Indian cities changed their names a few years ago, but nobody seems to have any idea
why. It's fair enough renaming places after you've won your independence from the tyrannical
imperialist British oppressive westerner pig-dogs, but why wait 50 years before doing it? Maybe
it's taken that long for a sufficient number of bureaucrats to check everything enough times!
Anyway, the flight was straightforward enough, and certainly better than
the 12-hour bus trip that
was the alternative. The 'non-vegetarian' meal option during the flight turned out to be an
omelette with no meat in it, so unless there is a 'kebab option' on the next flight, proper food
will have to wait until I get back to England. The relative tranquility of the past five days was
put into perspective when we arrived in Bombay to be met by a seething mass of beggars, taxi
drivers and hotel touts. We paid for a bus to our hotel, then were forced to pay more cash just
because we had luggage. And then the bloke who moved our bags around 3 feet to put them onto the
bus started pestering us for a tip on top of everything. And THEN the bus driver at the other end
asked for a tip as well - all this after we had shown him where to go because he was lost and we
had a map!
Checked into the cheapest hotel we could find, which was still twice as expensive
as the place in
Udaipur and a tenth of the quality, then came up against the traditional hotel 'towel and bog roll
swindle'. The hotels provide these but they don't leave them in your room, so you have to go to
reception and ask for them. And why do they do this? Well, when you get to reception they won't
just hand them over, despite them being within reach. They will "send them to your room, sir". So
you go to your room, and five seconds later one of the hotel helpers knocks on your door with your
stuff. And of course he stands there with his hand out waiting for a tip. All that palava just so
he can try to squeeze a few extra rupees out of you. But after the last time they tried this, I
was ready for them and had a simple but effective solution. I asked for the towels, then sprinted
to the room, stripped off in a flash, and answered the knock on the door stark naked. Got the
towels and bog roll and away you go. Anyone standing there with his hand held out expecting
something is either very brave or very stupid!
Spent the rest of the day wandering along the road being pestered by market
stallholders trying to
get you to buy their tat. Discovered there were 6 square inches of space in the backpack, so
invested in a few more wooden elephants.
Day One Hundred and Fifty - Bombay
The final day! And despite still having touristy things to do, more attention
was directed towards
counting down the hours until getting onto the plane back home. Still, duty calls so we took a
trip to the (allegedly) top tourist attraction in Bombay, a place called Elephanta Island. There
aren't any elephants there, and there never have been, but at one time there was apparently a
statue of an elephant there until the Portuguese destroyed it. The ferry across to the island
takes an hour, but 10 minutes into the trip we turn around and go straight back to the dock. About
a minute after setting off, one of the locals had run to the back of the boat and had been
depositing his breakfast, and it appears that he kicked up enough fuss to persuade the captain to
take him straight back. No consideration for the other hundred people on board - just because Sick
Boy is a lily-livered landlubber we head back to shore. Pathetic! Anyway, we eventually arrive at
the island and make our way past half a mile of tat stalls, all selling exactly the same stuff, up
to the temple. Saw a few caves, carvings, monkeys, blah blah blah, then back through tat central
and onto the return boat. There were a couple of nice thunderstorms as we headed out that soaked
most of our 'deluxe' boat (I wouldn't like to be set to sea in a non-deluxe boat!), and the trip
was over. Extremely average, and Bombay might look into making something else it's number one
No point walking around in the rain, so we thought we would take in a movie.
After checking that
it was in English and paying our couple of dollars, we got to see Brad Pitt and the pixie out of
'Lord of the Rings' posing and posturing for a couple of hours in 'Troy'. Unfortunately, India
will not be getting any extra points for 'Brad Pitt in short skirt and leather boots'! Just as
entertaining as the movie was all the other stuff going on. There were notices everywhere warning
of scams, telling people to beware of pickpockets, and detailed instructions as to exactly what to
do 'in the event of an explosion'. The commercials were a mixture of standard restaurant ads
interspersed with things like 'Make sure your pet is vaccinated against rabies'. I want to know if
I should do that before I 'Eat at Tendulkars' or afterwards! And before the movie started they
played the national anthem, where everybody stood up and listened to a crackly tune that was
recorded so long ago that Gandhi himself may well have been playing one of the instruments on it.
There was even an intermission halfway through the film, allowing time to stock up on popcorn, and
the whole experience was very entertaining.
Got back to the hotel to find that our bags were where we left them. Not
that this place was any
more or less risky than anywhere else, but this was the last chance for there to be a major
catastrophe (such as having everything stolen), and it was quite a relief to find out we had made
it through the entire trip unscathed. There was still time for a scary ride from the hotel to the
airport, where the driver had to skid to a halt several times, on each occasion narrowly avoiding
rear-ending the car in front, but we made it in one piece.
Most of the long-haul flights to and from Bombay are scheduled to arrive/depart
at inhumane times.
We got to the airport at around 10:30pm, then had lots of time to kill. We were on different
flights as Sharon, believe it or not, used to have a job and so had a billion air miles to use up,
while I had to pay for mine with hard-earned cash. Her flight left at 2:30am and mine at 6:30am!
They do this so they arrive in England during the morning, at a 'reasonable hour'. So I find
myself with eight hours to waste in the airport, when what I really want to do is sleep during the
night, leave here in the afternoon, and arrive in England at night in time for a few pints and
with the kebab van nicely warmed up. Still , I'm on the plane, and "I'm going home, I'm going
home, I'm going ... I am going home"!
Marks out of 100 for India...
Beer: 2/10. Only two of the 30+ restaurants we visited sold beer. It doesn't
matter how good your
local brew is if you can't actually buy it anywhere.
Food: 6/10. Tastes great, but most places are vegetarian and there's not much variety. How many
potato or tomato curries can you eat before you want something a bit different?
Getting around: 6/10. No problems, although it can be a bit grotty at times.
Cool stuff to see and do: 8/10. Tons of history and interesting buildings.
Sport: 2/10. Not cricket season, and none of the hotel rooms or bars have TVs to watch any on.
Hygeine: 0/10. Filth and squalour are the norm.
Irritation factor: 1/10. Constant pestering on a huge scale as you walk down the street does your
head in completely. One point because I can outrun them all!
Camels: 8/10. Perched on top of a camel that is running through the desert in the middle of the
night - priceless. Wish they didn't fart as much though!
Tourist tat: 6/10. Udaipur is great as you can shop in relative peace, but the hassle factor
everywhere else makes it impossible to buy anything.
Girls in boots and short skirts: 1/10. Not in a place where the women even cover their entire
faces to avoid the gaze of men. One point though for my camel being mildly attractive!
If India cleans the streets, starts using toilets, and sells beer and meat
then it will have
leaped out of the 19th centure into the 21st.