Saturday, September 30, 2006

A very smelly arrival

It was terrible. I mean the stink that was upon me would have made even the most polite company wince and take three or four steps toward fresh air. But what can be done? When one travels for two and a half days on public transport, showers are not really a top priority. Arriving with all your belongings, or simply arriving at the destination is "first most important".

To begin at the beginning of this somewhat adventurous tale...

I departed a once shared hotel room in the afternoon of the 27 September. A typical sunny Indian day was waiting for me outside. The well dressed porter had deposited my hulking backpack into the summoned rickshaw, the driver of which then proceeded to have an argument with the front desk man about the price I was to be charged to get to the train station. I found it quite amusing and was in no hurry, so let them carry on whilst I enjoyed the sunshine. A price was agreed upon (which of course I didn't have) and then the wee porter demanded a tip. Well the poor chap was out of luck. I had no small change and was buggered if I was going to part with 50 INR for a service I neither requested nor wanted. Yes I know, I'm a scrooge. He attempted to chase me in my departing vehicle but his boss chastised him and he let the matter drop. Whew!

The driver deciding I was obviously fluent in his native toungue, started a conversation. My translation:
Driver: "hindi hindi hindi 70 rupees, hindi hindi hindi"
Me: "Old Delhi Station"
Driver: "hindi hindi hindi 70 rupees, hindi hindi hindi. Ok? hindi hindi"
Me: "Old Delhi Station"
And thus it continued for most of the journey. Sigh.
But he got me there, well he got me opposite there. I had to cross the most congested road I had seen anywhere in the world, with perhaps the most kamikaze drivers of the universe, with my backpack, hoping like hell that no bugger decided they could squeeze past me and knock me flying. I chucked him 100 INR, way more than was necessary (mostly 'cos I was happy to be away from the incessant babbling) and ventured across the road.

I made it. Huzzah! However beads of perspiration were already trickling down my body and I was seriously looking forward to my AC berth. With plenty of time to spare I ambled round the station looking for my platform, ignoring the stares and the heat.
One thing I have discovered about Indian train stations is that if someone (a man) is wearing a uniform and looks officious, chances are he can't help you. Or, he can send you in the wrong direction. With my written Hindi skills being not up to scratch I enlisted the help of a family gent to point me in the right direction. He honestly couldn't help me but did give me the best useful advice I've received at a station; "Check the number on the train, its between the destinations". Man! Where was this guy a few train stations ago? Anyhoo to double check I asked the uniformed contingent. One chappy even got out his spectacles to scrutinise my ticket. After much discussion they decided the train opposite the one I was fixing to board, was the one I should be on. So off I trundled to find my carriage. Perspiration was so heavy now that my shins were leaking.

I breathed an incredibly audible sigh of relief when I found my berth and the AC cooled my heated flesh. A kindly Nepali chap befriended me and let me sit on his berth for meals and a chat (I was on the top berth where sitting is a luxury only the under 5's can enjoy). It was a most uneventful train trip, passed mainly horizontly in the fast asleep position.

Arriving in Gorakhpur (3 hours from Nepal border), the heat blasted us once more, resulting in yet more perspiration rivlets. The kindly Nepali chap showed me where to catch the bus to Sonauli (the border town) and hurried off to meet his business colleagues. When the bus arrived there was a mad dash to be first onboard. I soon realised why. There was nowhere to store your luggage. Accordingly it was piled whereever it could fit. I plonked my now quite pungent self next to a quiet couple and settled myself in for what I assumed would be the sweatiest ride of my life. I really should learn to stop with the assuming. Aside from looking at bollocks and arse for three hours, and getting more arse rubs than I ever would have wanted, it was an endurable event.

My kindly Nepali friend beat me there, and ushered me through immigration and put me on a bus bound for Kathmandu. At which point we parted company, he leaving me with an invite to partake in the local major festival with his family, and me agreeing to call him. Bag stowed beneath the rickety rusty bus, I collapsed into my front seat and prepared for a long dusty and uncomfortable journey. Long it was. Dusty it was not. Uncomfortable, only for a short time. And it was crowded. Three to some seats, masses on the roof, the leftovers sitting or standing in the aisle. It was great! But the Aussie couple behind me were getting PO'd. Not getting that everything on this continent runs on a "bums in seats" mentality for public transport or that time is relative. ie. You get there when you get there, don't believe people when they say it'll take X amount of hours. It won't. I was settled. I was poo. But I was happy. I had a seat and a hotel room waiting for me. It had been promised. It was in the bag.

It was a lie. We got to Kathmandu at five in the morning and arrived at our hotels (the Aussies 'n me) to find them locked. After gaining entry to the Potala Guesthouse, I was told that there were no budget rooms left. But after two and a half days of travelling in stinking hot weather, do you think I gave a toss? Not on your nelly! I took the room on offer and jumped into the shower. It was cold! Which would have been nice if it was the middle of the day, but it was early morning. I was dog-tired but I was clean, so I dragged my flagging body to the bed. Omigod! What a bed! Comfy, clean sheets, a huge blanket, after trains and buses it was pure endulgence.

After counting sheep for all of 2 seconds, I slipped into la-la land. Heavenly.

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Long Kiss Goodnight

And so it came to pass that the adventures of the delictable duo came to an end here in the bustling cosmopolitan that is Delhi.
Unlike any of our previous travels, there was no drama getting here from Jaipur. There was a pushy taxi driver who was bummed we didn't book into his hotel, but no seat-of-your-pants-almost-missing-the-plane type of adventure. Sigh.

Delhi itself is quite a spectacle. We were staying in an area called Pahar Ganj. And due to our lack of research, we had no idea which of the three Delhi train stations we had to get off at (turns out we got off one stop early). Nor that Pahar Ganj is quite a big area, divided by a road that clearly puts Indian Nationals on one side and Foreign Nationals on the other. We were in the Indian Nationals part of town. Quite a nice change it must be said. There were no beggars, the rickshaw drivers didn't hound you, and the food was reasonably cheap. Cross the divide though, and it was the total opposite. Although both sides of the road did share the obligatory cow herd, cow turd and manic horn-blaring that seems to accompany any stay in an Indian metropolis.

We didn't make it to any of Delhi's sights. Instead preferring to wander the bustling streets of Pahar Ganj. Shop owners yelling, music blaring, the occasional street performance, cows ambling, dogs scratching that insatiable itch, continuously jumping out of the way of the hurtling motorcyclist or the crabby rickshaw driver, sucking up the fumes that follow any vehicle here, kids and women begging, men lounging over one another. Ah, a typical day in the Ganj.

Ended with a long kiss goodbye.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

How's the Serenity?

Leaving Jaipur, we headed out into the veritable wilderness. Not a soul on our bus spoke enough English to communicate more than the standard greetings. It was a lovely change to have people just help, rather than try to get something from us. We had no idea where this wee village was and when the conductor motioned for us to get off, I was a little sceptical about his knowledge of our destination. But ushered of the bus we were, with the help of those wanting our seats, and we made our way towards the nearest collection of men. An older chap came to our aid and pointed us down the road. The only road it turned out. Our enquiry about a taxi received the standard head-wobbly-shaking response. We figured this meant "no joy chum". So off we toddled in the searing heat. I mistakenly believing that there were at least a couple of hotels to choose from. Turns out there's only one. The Samode Palace. Which as the name suggests, is not cheap.

Anyhoo, we trundled up the drive way thingy and through the gate. Ginormous ruddy thing with the obligatory spikey door. But the security guard who showed us through gave us a smile (almost hidden behind his superb handle bar moustache) and a bow. For a moment I was shot back to my time in Ol' Nippon when this was a regular occurence. Boy we got some stares though. Can you imagine? This opulent palace place, where all the staff are in spick 'n span uniforms, speaking in very polite tones, used to people turning up in cars or buses, and seeing us walking with backpacks not suitcases to reception. I think they thought we were lost. However they got over their initial shock and confusion with quite admirable speed, and offered us seats and a cool towel and refreshing drink.

Once they realised we were here to stay, they sorted us out, showed us to our room and explained all the amenities. As we are a couple of water rats and it was stinking hot, the only thing we were concerned with was the pool. Oh and what a pool. Just the right temperature, just the right length, just perfect. Our toilet window overlooked it if you peered out at just the right angle. A loo with a view- who woulda thunk it?

The only place to eat in the wee village, was the palace. The only place to drink, was the palace. So to dinner it was, in our best shorts and t-shirts with jandals (flipflops) to spiffy it up. Well we were in a palace, an effort had to be made!

The next morning saw us up the nearby hill to get a peek at the local fort. It was closed. It was hot. It was swim time. A day spent by the pool, in the sauna, in the pool, in the jacuzzi, looking at the gym equipment and back to the pool.

This holiday life is tough...

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Jolly Jaipur

Leaving the Taj behind us, we made for Jaipur in Rajasthan. A lovely desert state that perhaps is one of the richest in India. The train journey was much less adventurous than the Calcutta-Agra episode. Sitting side by side with families piled high, belongings fitting wherever possible, everyone making way for the sleepy child to rest (or sprawl) on the bench seats.

The rickshaw (tuk tuk) drivers abound as they hound you to use their services. Its kind of like at school when in PE "captains" had to pick teams. You can picture it can't you? People jumping up and down waving their hands frantically trying to get your attention and yelling "Pick me! Pick me!". As there is an abundance of these poor souls crying for attention, the tourist can weild some degree of power. Tourists with power? Yipee! So you bargain. Hard. Because there is always someone who will agree to your price. Our young chap, very well spoken and very polite managed to get us to agree to a city tour the following day. He was a very good tourguide. Moonlighting as an avangelistic philosopher. I know, strange huh? But this in a nutshell is India. A place of wonderful contradictions, packaged very nicely in good manners.

In previous posts I have mentioned Indian traffic. Jaipur gave us the modern world of technology, the eco friendly transport, and the historic method all in one. Camels mixed with cycle carts, mixed with mopeds or scooters, mixed with horse-drawn vheicles, mixed with pedistrians, mixed with belching-black-plumes-of-exhaust-multicoloured trucks, mixed with ox-drawn carts, mixed with new and late model cars. Throw in the camel snorts, the swaying ox heads, the horn-honking and the yelling, and this is a day in the traffic of the old city of Jaipur. Somewhat more noisy than the traffic of yesteryear me thinks.
The old city is wonderful. A long main street absolutely packed with stalls or shops selling everything that Rajasthan is famous for.

So we spent a week in Jaipur. Chillin' out. Doing not much. Venturing out to the local tourist haunts. Eating very well and suffering no consequences. Wo-hoo! We were most unpopular with auto-rickshaw drivers when they discovered we'd been in Jaipur for a week and did no longer fancy hearing "Can I just say one thing?", or "My friend has a good shop. You look one minute. No charge".

So we escaped to a little village, Samod. In the middle of nowhere. Wonderful!!

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Taj Mahal...

My impression of the Taj Mahal.
Its big. Its white. Its overrun with tourists (Indian). Its overpriced.
Oh no doubt if one is architectually or romantically inclined there are definite pluses to paying a visit. I am not really partial to either inclination. Admiring a well kept and peaceful escape from the masses? Now that I am partial to. The garden surrounding the Taj is a wonderfully luscious green space that has many trees under which one can escape the sun. Simply superb! We met some young girls in the garden and that visit was their sixth or seventh time. They informed us that there's not much to see inside and the only reason they came so often was because there's nothing else to do in Agra. I suspect also that as people (Indian Nationals) under 15 years of age (as they were) get in for free, played a bit part in their frequent visitations. So bearing in mind what the girls had said, we made for the big marble edifice. As it is a Mosque one has to "de-shoe" or use the shoe covers that come complimentary with the Foreign Nationals ticket. The marble was nice and cool, but getting to the marble involved quite a "hotstep" across the baked red sand stone. So amid the squealing of young girls and women, the stiffled grunts of men, a mad dash or nonchalant stroll (depending on your disposition) was made to the foot of the marble structure. The Taj itself took a sum total of ten minutes to explore. Wandering around admiring the hard work and feeling sorry for the chaps that possibly went blind due to all the intricate work; marble inlay, carving etc. But the whole mystism thing completely passed me by. I was not moved by the dedication of the Emperor to his missus. Nor the deeply devout aspect. Nor the time it took to build. I was however moved by the price (INR 750, USD15 approx) and the distinct lack of Western tourists. It was actually quite nice to be far outnumbered by the locals at this fabled site. It must also be said that it was wonderful to see the locals sweating buckets in the heat aswell. Makes one feel almost empowered by the knowledge that people who live here can still succumb to the heat. Hurrah!

The Agra Fort was pretty interesting. Its red colour was lovely. The history impressive. And the view... Well, magnifique!! You could see the Taj across the river. What a view to wake up to! In those days minus the smog it must have been quite sublime. And although there was no lush green area, the fort was still a cool place to just chill. Mixed red stones with an extrodinarily white marble mosque palace thing. With the sun shining on it, it damn near seared your retina. Again here we Westerners were far outnumbered by the local toursits.

We also managed to take in the "Baby Taj". Built before the Taj, you can see a similar set out here as with the bigger, later version. The tomb in the middle flanked by buildings on either side, and surrounded by a wall. The work is not quite as detailed as it much bigger cousin, but for me just as interesting, just as good a spot to chill, and minus the hordes of tourists. Although probably a quarter of the size of the Taj, more time was spent just wandering here. Lack of hype, lack of knowledge, lack of toursits, equals a morning well spent and enjoyed.

Inside the walls of the monuments hawkers are not allowed. But beware: upon entering and exiting said monuments you run a gauntlet of them. Making up for their absense within. One thing I did find adorable however, was the attempt to sell us "filim" for our cameras. It was just precious. Oh and the kids outside these monuments have learnt how to look pitiful, on the verge of tears, or any number of emotions that might make you part with your money or anything else they deem valuable, at the drop of a hat. Oscar winning performances, most of 'em.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

The Case of The Missing Ticket...

Ok, so you buy a ticket (Calcutta to Agra). Everything is going swimmingly. Then you eat one dodgey meal and montezuma's revenge errupts all over the place and you have to cancel your tickets. No problem. Lose the cost of one ticket but hey, least you have a bed and a sanitary toilet in your hotel to deal with all of the violent explosions coming from your body, not whatever the train has to offer. And lets face it, the facilities on any public train in any country are less than desirable for dealing with the volume of liquid we were talking about.

A doctor's visit, some drugs and a day later, tickets were purchased again. The lovely chaps at our hotel- Ashreen Guesthouse, kept our luggage for the day, and wished us well. Train station arrival no biggy. Our tickets had "confirmed" handwritten on them, so we didn't bother checking with the ticket office or any other officials. Instead opting for the help of a "friendly" local. He seemed very officious. Directing us about and even showing us our beds (we were in the sleeper car). He was a quaint older gent, very polite and very helpful.

Can you guess where this is heading?

We deposited our packs etc, under our berths and set ourselves up to endure the twenty some odd hour journey. We got lots of stares, but not a lot of conversation. That was until the conductor came round. He asked for our ticket and I confidently produced it. Confidence quickly shattered when it was handed back and our neighbour pointed out that it was a cancelled ticket. Where the bloody hell was our ticket? A frantic search ensued (frantic being relative of course, I mean when have I ever done anything frantically) whilst the conductor went about his duties further down the train. Well no ticket was forthcoming. We had lost it. How, neither of us knew, but we had a sneaking suspicion that the polite helpful older chap had palmed the real ticket and left us with the dud. So we had to pay the conductor the price of two new tickets plus the penalty, which strangely enough was about INR100 (USD2.00 approx) more than the price of two tickets alone from the travel agent. Well you pay for the convenience don't you?

So by the end of this little kafuffle, we could have been in the deluxe AC sleeper class for all the money that we shelled out. Blast it!

Just goes to show, you are green, no matter how long you've been on the road.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Goodness Gracious Me...

Arriving in Calcutta was wonderfully chaotic and nerve-racking. We joined forces with a couple of Japanese chaps to grab a taxi from the airport into town. Some dodgy older dude from unknown origins had given us advice which turned out to pretty good. He however failed to mention that taking a Calcutta taxi meant seeing your life flash before your eyes in many different montage speeds. By the third or fourth time he had just missed that wall, or that bus, or that other taxi, or that huge gutter, the montages start to take on an aspect of a housewife who'd forgotten something on the grocery list. Yes not fleeting glimpses of what might have been, but exclamations of "bugger", "oh yeah" and "shit". Quite an introduction to the sub-continent. All of this was accompanied by the almost deafening constant blaring of vehicular warning devices. Yes, horns. A lot of horns. Which came in three volumes: loud, super loud, and sonic-boom-you-have-no-eardrums-left loud. How the locals have anything near normal hearing levels is an absolute credit to selective hearing.

Yet in spite of the cacophony of claxons and road chaos, our driver deposited us at our desired destination and left us to the mercy of the hotel hawkers. We were knackered after spending the night in Bangkok Airport and arriving at 0630 so we crashed at the first hotel on offer. Our Japanese mates went on a proper search. Our abode was not too bad- 200 INR (Indian Rupees- approx USD4.50), but was lacking a toilet seat and the pillows looked to have been around since the Brits first arrived. However the bed was comfy, there was a fan and the door locked. We did meet a most persistent chap who demanded a tip for cleaning the floor, a right pain in the proverbial. When we checked out he demanded yet more for no work done and very successfully managing to piss us right off. Gotta admire the persistance tho'- he chased us down four flights of stairs to see if we'd give in. We did not.

I like Calcutta. Aside from the constant fumes in the air, the people thus far have been very friendly and pretty cool. It is however very noticeable all the men. Men are everywhere. There is nary a woman in sight. 'Cept for us Westerners that is. And we stick out. Obviously.

India so far... bloody hot, friendly, not for the naive or easily sucked in.

I'm loving it!