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The Big Pack

Our bags are almost packed and the excitement building. We are both having the usual dilemmas of what to take and whether we should pack that last t-shirt .....just in case.

The itinerary looks great and I know from past experience it can also be very tiring so I am comforted by the fact that we have built in a few days half way around our trip to just 'flop'.

We are both looking forward to the sights, smells, food (with the exception of any Delhi belly type bugs) and to experience a different culture and climate. A change of climate at this time of year is very welcome although I see there is a little rain even in Delhi!

Jean and Tony X

p.s. Big panic last night when I thought I would check to see if I could close my suitcase! Phew it closed .....but ......I couldn't open it again as I had forgotten the numbers of the combination lock. After much searching on the net and thinking we needed to buy bolt cutters I began the time-consuming business of systematically going through different number combinations. Then I suddenly remembered there was a button that needed to be pushed along to release the lock!! I had the correct combination all the time!!!

Posted by Jean-and-Tony 17:00 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

New Delhi

Adjectives. We dispense with the rest of grammar and instead have one word conversations. But even so this is too much talk. New Delhi, a middle class city of 18 million is experienced through our senses. As we leave the air cooled comfort of the airport, where we confess we took comfort from a Costa refuel, our noses fill with the bizarrely sweet and acrid smell of sweat, spice, sewage and exhaust fumes. <br style="font-family: UICTFontTextStyleBody; font-size: 17px; line-height: normal; -webkit-text-size-adjust: auto;"><br style="font-family: UICTFontTextStyleBody; font-size: 17px; line-height: normal; -webkit-text-size-adjust: auto;">And then our ears are overwhelmed by the noise of countless vehicles of many types jostling for position and marking their territory with honks, hoots and bells. There are tuk-tuks and rickshaws and motor bikes and cycles, lorries, buses, cars and cows. And camels and dogs. And kamikaze pedestrians. It would be too easy to say it is chaotic. It is much more. Exuberantly orchestrated, a total commitment to the journey in hand with no quarter given nor asked for. Yet somehow despite a complete disregard for road protocol everyone seems to get to whatever position they need to. The traffic only provisionally travels on the left and any variation is tolerated. <br style="font-family: UICTFontTextStyleBody; font-size: 17px; line-height: normal; -webkit-text-size-adjust: auto;"><br style="font-family: UICTFontTextStyleBody; font-size: 17px; line-height: normal; -webkit-text-size-adjust: auto;">Finally our eyes widen or avert at the compelling and the awful. Second by second might contain the electric colors of a group of sari clad women or the shuffle of a dirty leg less beggar. Mile after mile of small shops seem entirely without customers and listless owners sit trance like with no apparent expectation of a sale. In front of some shops street traders are selling baubles or food. Every traffic light stop is accompanied by plaintive window banging as the lowest members of the merchandise food chain try to sell their postcards, or their wooden models of Hindu gods. Or worse the children making feed me gestures oblivious that our coach windows do not open and glass and a whole world divides us. <br style="font-family: UICTFontTextStyleBody; font-size: 17px; line-height: normal; -webkit-text-size-adjust: auto;"><br style="font-family: UICTFontTextStyleBody; font-size: 17px; line-height: normal; -webkit-text-size-adjust: auto;">Our hotel lies seconds from the road and we are quickly through guarded gates and back in first world comforts. Despite an uneventful flight we have not slept and the remedial coffee has brought but brief respite from the travel fatigue. We take a tour around the be-marbled hotel with its Indian, Chinese and Italian restaurants and slope off for a nap to try to put ourselves in the time zone we now inhabit. We are due to meet our fellow travelers for dinner and wonder how the group will be and whether we will enjoy the company in the days to come. <br style="font-family: UICTFontTextStyleBody; font-size: 17px; line-height: normal; -webkit-text-size-adjust: auto;"><br style="font-family: UICTFontTextStyleBody; font-size: 17px; line-height: normal; -webkit-text-size-adjust: auto;">

The Busy Streets of Delhi

The Busy Streets of Delhi

Posted by Jean-and-Tony 17:00 Archived in India Comments (0)

India posh and poor

India is no place for completer / finishers. And snagging seems no part of the builders' lexicon. In the cities we have visited Delhi, Agra and Jaipur most construction is stopped at the point where rudimentary shelter or function is achieved. Painting or even glazing is rare. Or a building may be partially painted in electric hues of green or pink, the colour stopping we supposed when the paint supply was exhausted. Most of the streets are low built, each building connected to its neighbour in a random sprawl of only sometimes rendered block work or perhaps occasionally crudely hewn stone blocks in the marble or sandstone areas. Nothing is new nothing is old. All of it is held in a kind of permanent collapsing decay. Only the better hotels with their gates and guards and some of the more upmarket apartment blocks show any sign of being finished.

Of course there are plenty of high rise towers but often even these have alarming gaping holes in their glazing or present a finished glossy facade but with ugly flanks half covered in deserted bamboo scaffolding. Only the inner city of Jaipur, the pink city, would claim to have any scheme or style. Pink because it is painted so, from top to bottom. Clint, they got there before you.

But we are not here to admire the gaudy crowded streets; though in truth they are compelling. Our tour is called 'Land of Kings' and at each city we have visited astonishing forts, palaces and tomb, meticulously and wondrously carved from red sandstone with delicate marble inserts or from marble alone. There is no paint in these intricate patterns and the endlessly creative decorations can have been achieved only with countless days and months. We learn of and begin to recognise the influence of Hindu and Muslim architecture. The organic and fluid Hindu style contrasts with the geometric Muslim iconography of moons and stars in hexagonal variations.

At Agra we arrange to see the Taj Mahal at sunset. But no extra drama is required as we stand before the perfect geometry of the white and elegantly domed wonder. There is often a disconnect in seeing the reality of a thing seen so many times in film or photograph. And so it is here as we stand and stare and marvel at a shrine to love and grief. There is no western example we think of a building to celebrate a mere human life. We have heard much from our guide, Amar, of the history of the Kings, the foreign invaders, the dynastic battles, the Hindus and the Muslims. All have left their bloated, boastful and utterly beautiful buildings to sit, for us at least, as a testament to the skills of the artisans rather than the glory of their occupants or their beliefs.

Marble carved screens

Marble carved screens


The henna hair seen on quite a few men

The henna hair seen on quite a few men


Sandstone gateway

Sandstone gateway


The white majestic Taj Mahal

The white majestic Taj Mahal


Stone columns

Stone columns


Leopard donkey!!

Leopard donkey!!


The sari ladies

The sari ladies


Hindu Arches

Hindu Arches


Crowded taxi to save on toll costs

Crowded taxi to save on toll costs

Posted by Jean-and-Tony 17:00 Archived in India Comments (0)

The people and the group...

The group dynamics are nearly as much fun as a camel ride but much more bumpy. There is no guarantee that someone won't get hurt. A tongue lashing is a clear possibility or whatever is the dromedary equivalent of a horse whipping. We meet our fellow travellers in the foyer of the Piccadilly Hotel in Delhi. We size each other up and do the polite small talk ritual while we wait for the ice to melt. We are six old gits and an exotic younger couple. They are from Cyprus and, after a wrong but excusable assumption, are revealed as brother and sister. They are both tiny. Maria has studied at the LSE and has excellent English and needs frequently to translate for her brother Leandros. She is collecting the 7 'wonders of the world' and when she has ticked off the Taj she will have seen six of them. They are friendly and smiley but ultimately reserved and maybe not much interested in their older companions.

Our guide is Amar a gentle smiling Hindu originally from Bihar in the east. He has a ridiculous and infectious laugh and his prematurely thinning hair is tinged with maroon highlights from henna. He seems a little worn from his life as a people-herd but corrals us gently and patiently constantly checking his flock is complete. He is very knowledgeable and a little earnest not always spotting when we are 'facted' out. But we quiz him on every facet of Indian life and culture and from him learn some of the wonderful diversity of this huge and complex country. He has married for love and outside his social group. Him a Brahmin and she a Sikh. They have struggled with the social consequences but appear to have no regrets. He is spectacularly sexist and despite a spirited attack from the group he is comfortable with his culture within its context.

Of the Brits we are not yet certain. None of them appeal immediately but we have learned that only time will tell and we hold our judgments. We test each other with little bits of chat and eventually someone bravely offers a piece of themselves expressed as an opinion and the real business of social show and tell begins . Slowly we assume our real selves, or as real as it gets and over the coming days and evenings we do indeed come to our conclusions.

Colin and Rachel and we together form the naughty squad. We alone find each other funny and interesting. After a few days we sneak off from the group and Colin who is direct and disarming voices what we all feel: that Patrick and Julie are deeply boring. Patrick tells interminable and dull stories with no payoff, whilst Julie speaks slowly as she explains everything to us, her class of five year olds. Maria and Leandros somewhat plough their own farrow and so we don't feel too bad we have become a clique of four. Feeling guilty sometimes, we occasionally spend time with the under caste astonished by their inability to have a conversation and to recognize their own social ineptitude.

Rachel has a marketing background but is retraining to be a restorer. She Is quietly eccentric and she and Jean discover they are princess sisters. Colin easily chats with anyone and if they pass his particular acid test he is warm and generous. He has his hair cut in a tiny barber shop in the small village where our recycled palace hotel sits. He pays his dues and buys all the waiting customers a hair cut.

Colin has IBS and if that is not enough 'Delhi belly' also and needs to make emergency stops during our often lengthy road trips. But he is always upbeat and cheerful, making dreadful jokes and witty ripostes. After one such stop in the middle of nowhere he re-entered the bus and said 'Sorry I took so long, there was a bit of a queue'.

Inexplicably Rachel finds Tony amusing and in a display of sisterhood group hysteria she and Jean spend long minutes each day collapsed in giggles whilst the men do a double act of tomfoolery.

Gradually over the days we have got to know each other or determinedly avoided doing so. It's not very worthy but we spend too much time on our high horses of assumed social superiority. We think of our friends back home who have made friends of their own travel group colleagues and now travel together from choice. We too may have made that connection with Rachel and Colin but if not they have helped make this part of the trip fun and memorable. As too, of course, have all the others in one way or another.

Our tribe

Our tribe


Camel herder

Camel herder


Village children

Village children


Camel guy and friend

Camel guy and friend


Blind beggar

Blind beggar


Fabric stall

Fabric stall


Street trader

Street trader


Child sleeping in farm house courtyard

Child sleeping in farm house courtyard


Turbaned hotel porter

Turbaned hotel porter


Old man in village

Old man in village


Stall selling the clay pots

Stall selling the clay pots


Market ladies

Market ladies

Posted by Jean-and-Tony 17:00 Archived in India Comments (0)

End of the group tour

Holidays are always the same in the sense that the normal flow of time is disturbed. Have we been in India two months or just two days? Certainly the early part of the tour with its emphasis on history, palaces, tombs and forts seems both a long time ago and somewhat merged. We have to check our itinerary to remind ourselves where such and such a place was and we are grateful that our phones know where we were when we snapped this or that monument. Spending too much time with our least favourite fellow travellers turn minutes into eternities. And being too long in a group with an imposed central itinerary and not quite enough 'us' time has a wearing effect and we needed to escape sometimes.

The grand and red rock palaces were mostly denuded and it was hard to imagine court life in the cavernous often mostly open-air chambers. At Fatehpur Sikri in the dessert between Agra and Jaipur the beautiful red fort was abandoned only 14 years after it was completed presumably because of a lack of water so it was no wonder it didn't look much lived in. The white marble tomb within its walls has stunningly intricately carved panels, columns and roof supports, and was for us a star attraction.

At Jodpur we visited Jantar Mantar an 18th century observatory. But so thrillingly and unusually constructed are the various stone instruments that they look like 21st century sculptures. Jodpur is known as the blue city as it's old part has many blue painted buildings, so decorated to deter mosquitos.

Occasionally in some sites there might be a few rooms with colour faded low beds and even lower sofas with impossibly deep cushions, or ornate silver thrones. When we visited Jaisalmer Fort, constructed in the 12th century with rich golden sandstone, and still a living fort with thousands of inhabitants, (though of course with no invaders to repel) it all made much more sense. That a thriving community lived within the protection of the King upstairs in the palace penthouse suite with the best views seemed perfectly reasonable.

Heading south we visited Ranakpur, as we head towards Udaipur (Incidentally the 'pur' part of city names simply means 'city') Here a very special Jain temple had 1,444 columns each a unique carving. The outside domes had an almost Art Deco look and could easily have been the inspiration for the Chrysler Building in New York. The Jains are a very small but powerful group, often the owners of big business. They have a strictly no harm policy towards living things. They won't for example celebrate Diwali using the explosive crackers for fear of killing micro-organisms, and wear face cloths when out to avoid accidentally swallowing insects.

Our own accommodations have been royal at times too and we have stayed in palaces and forts of magical splendor. In Agra Jean had upgraded us to the royal suite much to the amusement of our co-travellers and we were addressed as your royal highnesses for days. Our room with marble screens to rival Fatehpur Sikri had its own roof top terrace and views over the city. The rooms have been, by and large, extremely good. Even so we grumble that there are no hair dryers, sink plugs or more than three hangers in the wardrobe and a chest of drawers is an impossible dream. All the places we stay have immense charm either by virtue of their heritage, modern design, facilities or location. Many hotels are owned by the royal families, some still have residual family living in a private wing.

We stayed for a night deep in the desert and took a camel ride. We had a beautiful tent hung with hand-blocked linings and a huge bathroom with running if cool water. With about 25 other guests we ate our starters in a semicircle in front a low stage while musicians and dancers entertained us. Later following a gentle path up a dune lit with dozens of kerosene lamps we dined under canvas.

One night we left the group to have dinner at a step well. (Another of Jean's welcome upgrades) These deep, geometric rectangular wells have stone steps and terraces and look like a kind of inverted ziggurat or an Aztec pyramid. We were carried by two bullocks pulling a cart over the lumpy track followed all the way by a charming lady cow clearly hoping for a little 2 on 1 action. The well was completely lined with clay pot lamps and with six other diners we sat on sofas to eat a delicious thali. Below our eye line a lone singer with a strong melodious voice and a simple string instrument sang, we assumed, Hindi folk songs. Like the desert night it was deeply moving and a very different aspect of India.

Jean has turned native and is eating Indian food three times a day. Tony too has had a fruit epiphany and following a purchase of tiny but scrumptious bananas is eating two or three a day, a fruit that normally does not feature. With perhaps one or two exceptions the food has been very, very good. At the hotel ITC Mughal in Agra we had a delicious meal one night but the following, after the hotel had called our guide to steer us towards a buffet it was a disaster. We followed a group of French diners and had what was essentially their leftovers. The following morning Colin (he of the smart arse group) led the charge on the hotel management and we paid a mere fraction. Though later we realized we were arguing over a few pounds, the number of rupees making it seem a big deal, though the principle was sound. And of course it's a veggie heaven with vegetable dishes outnumbering the meat ones three to one.

We spent Diwali just outside Jaiselmer, staying in an a desert hotel with uncannily verdant grounds. All evening very modest fireworks were seen in the distance. A slightly grander display was hosted by the hotel but we had expected the festival to be much more exuberantly celebrated, but for us it was very much business as usual. Bar the odd meagre string of lights I don't think we'd have realised there was a festival. Later we learned that the big cities would have been very different.

We have seen a fair chunk of Rajastan from large cities to villages and from deserts to the cooler hills. Some cities were much better built and obviously wealthier especially those where the Jain population live.

The mildly aggressive and persistent sellers and hustlers of the large cities was gone once we stayed in the desert or hill towns. A simply no or three sufficed and no one followed us for a hundred yards with increasing pleas and decreasing prices.

Our eyes are constantly filled with many both extraordinary or beautifully ordinary things. In New Delhi in one area a huge group of men waited around to be hired for the day, or not. Sometimes the scrubby drab farmlands were brightened by sudden groups of sari clad women working together. A mess of power cables hanging chaotically from disparate poles and supports might have been an art installation.

We were surprised to see so many India tourists and our guide told us that this is a relatively new thing and bringing much benefit as the indigenous population spent rather than saved its money. India is clearly changing and doing so very fast. It was very evident that the Indian tourists, nearly always in western style clothes were showing signs of western style expanding waistlines.

Amar told us an Indian joke that embraces much, we imagine of the nations hopes and aspirations:

Hell is an American wife, Indian money and Chinese food Heaven is an Indian wife, American money and Italian food

We have had our final group meal and said our sad or glad farewells. Tomorrow we leave for Mumbai and soon after Cochin as we make our way south towards Kerala.

Jaipur The 'Pink City'

Jaipur The 'Pink City'


The Mirrored Palace at Jaipur

The Mirrored Palace at Jaipur


Wall writing

Wall writing


Jaiselmer Fort

Jaiselmer Fort


A tangle of power cables

A tangle of power cables


Our desert tent

Our desert tent


Our camel and his friend

Our camel and his friend


Sunrise in our desert retreat

Sunrise in our desert retreat


Hotel in Narlai

Hotel in Narlai


Astounding step well

Astounding step well


Village colour

Village colour


Incredible Jain temple at Ranakpur

Incredible Jain temple at Ranakpur


Unique columns in Jain temple

Unique columns in Jain temple


Road safety Indian style

Road safety Indian style


Vegetable market

Vegetable market


Beautiful colours everywhere

Beautiful colours everywhere


Flower sellers

Flower sellers


Hill top hotel in Udaipur

Hill top hotel in Udaipur


Shrine to Royal Enfield

Shrine to Royal Enfield


Elephant rides up to the Amber Fort

Elephant rides up to the Amber Fort

Posted by Jean-and-Tony 17:00 Archived in India Comments (0)

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