India Has A Burning Passion

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India. Insanity. If we were playing a word association game currently, that’s how it would go. India blows my mind – what an incredible place!

I arrived in New Delhi in the afternoon of August 27th, wondering if I was completely insane and naive for attempting to travel alone in this country. As I contemplated this at the baggage claim and then at the currency exchange, I spotted another lone traveler, and decided that I had to talk to him- it would definitely up my confidence if I could make a friend before even leaving the airport. So, I accosted Steve (for ’twas his name) by a rubbish bin and introduced myself, and it makes sense to introduce him to you now because he’ll play a major role in the tales that follow! Steve is from the UK (Wales- woo hoo!) and is also doing a round-the-world trip.

He’s a structural engineer and has been living in Dubai for the past three years. I think that’s sufficient! Oh, he’s also an awesome dude and now a great friend! Delhi was his first stop where he was visiting a friend, but had aspirations to do some travelling around the state of Rajasthan, as did I. We chatted for a bit and exchanged contact info with a plan to get in touch once we were settled.

After our chat I was collected by a driver from my hotel in Delhi who drove me into the city. Delhi is completely crazy- millions of people and cows and cars and bikes and rickshaws and God knows what else all over the streets, tons of construction going on for the upcoming Commonwealth Games and HOT. So hot. And wet. I arrived in the area of Paharganj and walked over mud and bricks and plywood to get to the door of my hotel. I was nervous about what I would find inside, but it was actually a nice, clean comfortable place. I decided to lie down for a nap as I was exhausted from my travels…and promptly fell asleep for three hours. When I woke up around 8, I couldn’t drag myself out to eat so I ordered from a local restaurant and ate in the room before passing out again.

The next morning I was feeling much refreshed, and took myself out for breakfast where I met two lovely Israeli girls who gave me the lay of the land- including a tip on where to get custom-made jeans for $8! I spent some time wandering around with them, before taking myself to Connaught Place on the subway with a plan to visit the National Museum. Connaught Place is also a mess thanks to construction, so as I was standing on the side of the road trying to figure out, ultimately, where the hell I was, a young Indian gentleman standing near me made a comment about the traffic in perfect English. I asked him where I could find the museum, and a conversation ensued about where I’m from, why I’m in India, etc.

The guy’s name was Sani and he was a 27-year-old student studying at the University of New Delhi. He then asked if he could take me to tea. Now, usually my sensible girl instincts would caution me NOT to follow a strange gentleman to tea, but my gut told me this would be fine, plus it was the middle of the day and there were loads of people about, not to mention that this guy was a goldmine of info about Rajasthan, so I said yes. He took me round the corner to an absolutely packed fast-food joint crammed with people having lunch and bought me some tea.

We then had a great chat about where to go and what to do in Rajasthan, and he offered to take me to a government tourist office to book a tour. I hadn’t yet heard from Steve, so I went with Sani to the tourist office where he helped me negotiate a decent price for a nine-day tour of Rajasthan with a driver. It was a bit out of my budget, but I decided that as I was new to India and a woman traveling alone, it was probably worth to spend a bit more. I was pleased with the plan and was to leave on Monday (it was Saturday) after a day of sightseeing in Delhi on Sunday.

After booking the tour I wondered around a bit more with Sani, but was again feeling quite weary so took leave of him to go back and chill at the hotel. Of course as soon as I got back I got a message from Steve wanting to chat about possible travel plans! I told him about the tour though, and he sounded interested, so we decided to chat about it further the next day. That evening I took myself out for supper, where I met another nice English guy, Hamish, with whom I chatted for a while over Kingfisher beers. Travelling alone was going well so far!

The next morning I was picked up at 8am by the driver, Sunil, who would not only show me around Delhi but also be with me for the next nine days in Rajasthan. It was another boiling hot day and we began with a visit to the Red Fort. It was quite nice to wander around in the early morning with not too many tourists about. After that I visited the largest mosque in the world and was given some polyester things to cover my head and legs with which made me sweat so much that I had to leave after five minutes- phew!

Following that was a visit to the Gandhi memorial constructed on the site where he was shot, then a trip to the Lotus temple. It’s very modern and looks a bit like the Sydney Opera House. It was lovely and quiet inside- very peaceful after the chaos of Delhi outside, so I sat for about 25 minutes and just watched the world go by. It was also air-conditioned. Bonus.

After a spot of lunch we stopped by the Utab tower, but I wasn’t inclined to pay the entrance fee to climb it so I just snapped some pictures from the ground and then we went to the house Gandhi was living in when he died. There is also the course of Gandhi’s life displayed by miniature waxwork figures in little glass cases, which I adored because I LOVE mini stuff, as you know, and also because I learned a lot!

Next stop was the house of former prime minister Indira Gandhi who was India’s first and only lady prime minister in the 60s and 70s. This was also fabulous and extremely educational. I loved learning about her family life (her son Rajiv became prime minister later on) and her influence on India. She was assassinated in 1984 as she walked in her garden, and there’s a glass walkway on the lawn where she took her last steps, with a frosted glass panel where she actually fell. It was quite moving and I spent ages wandering around and reading every little bit of information.

We finished with a visit to the India Gate, a massive arch a bit like l’Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and when the sightseeing was over, Sunil took me to the tourist office so I could finalize the details for my tour, and also chat to them about getting Steve involved. I gave him a ring and he and his friend Emily (who has been living and working in Delhi for about two years) met me there.

We put on an act about how we’d known each other for years, and after some fairly intense bargaining, Steve decided he did want to join me, so he paid up while we both secretly hoped we wouldn’t hate each other! I then joined Steve and Emily for tea at the incredibly posh Imperial Hotel, after which we parted ways with a plan for me and Sunil to pick Steve up at 8am the next morning from Emily’s place.

Sunil was right on time the next day, though he had absolutely no idea how to find Emily’s flat. After stopping to ask approximately every single person in Delhi for directions, we found Steve and set off for the fairly long drive to Jaipur. Steve and I spent the drive chatting and getting to know each other, finding we had quite a lot in common – you know, drinking, dancing, sleeping late, eating bread. This is going to be fine, I thought. I made an interesting cultural observation quite early on, that now Steve was with me, Sunil deferred every thing to him. “Mr. Steve, are you hungry?”, “Mr. Steve, you are tired? You sleep well?” etc. No mind was ever paid to Miss Susie now there was a man on the scene!

We arrived in Jaipur in the mid-afternoon and checked into our hotel, spent a bit of time getting oriented on the computer and then set out into the city with a plan to go and see a Bollywood film. A tuk-tuk dropped us by the movie theatre, and we bought tickets to a late showing of a film called ‘Lafangey Parindey’. Anticipating a film full of crazy Bollywood singing and dancing, we decided there was only one thing to do to prepare- get drunk. Using our trusty Lonely Planet (aka, The Bible) and a not-so trusty puppet-seller boy who followed us around for about 20 minutes, we found a bar with a decent view of the city and promptly put away a (disgusting) bottle of Indian red wine.

e then set off for dinner nearby, where we thought it would be a good idea to drink another one, so by the time we got into the movie theatre we were  hammered. The movie began (all in Hindi), and was luckily a basic enough storyline that we could follow what was going on despite being trollied and not understanding the language: a boxing champ, One-Shot Nandu, runs over a beautiful local roller-skater girl, Pinky, and blinds her. But, Pinky doesn’t know it was Nandu that hit her. He feels SO guilty, that he lets her teach him how to rollerskate, and they end up on “India’s Got Talent” and do fantastically well. They’re falling in love, and eventually he feels he MUST tell her the truth. And he does and it’s all fine, she forgives him. Aaah, bless. Downside to this film? NO crazy Bollywood singing and dancing! It was actually somewhat depressing at some points. Still, it was an experience, and we had a lovely chat with two Australian girls sitting behind us. Perhaps they weren’t Australian. I can’t say I remember.

The next morning we were up early to meet a guide to visit the Amber Fort, the first of many, many forts we would see in Rajasthan! Our guide’s name was Pradeep, and as he told us the history of the fort, he began every sentence with “In olden times..”, in case we thought it was recently that the maharaja’s army had invaded a neighboring city, or something. He did give us some good tidbits though, like how the queen’s clothes and jewelry weighed so much that she had to be rolled around the castle in a wheelbarrow. Sounds like the life if you ask me.

After the fort we visited the lake and a gem-cutting shop, and then went to see the astrological observatory where we looked at sundials and signs of the Zodiac and whatnot. Then we had a wander around the city palace (again, one of many we would see), and visited an art center where a local artist drew us a gorgeous picture of an elephant and wrote a sentiment wishing all our days to be happy days! Brilliant. Not for him though, we didn’t buy anything!

With that, sightseeing was over, so we grabbed some lunch and decided a nap was in order. In the evening, we went back to the Amber Fort for the sound and light show, which was rather bizarre and we didn’t really catch what was going on, but the fort did look incredible all lit up at night. Sunil then dropped us back in the middle of the city and we found a restaurant recommended by the bible for dinner. It was a great spot full of other backpackers and things, and we enjoyed a few beers up on the roof where we had an excellent view of the city.

As always, it was a mission to get back to the hotel- it can be a nightmare trying to explain to a tuk-tuk driver where one is trying to go, and they can’t read maps because they never look at maps of their own city. Eventually we got in with a man and his son, and it was seriously the bumpiest tuk-tuk ride in the world. The little boy squealed with delight every time I squealed when we went over potholes that I think the driver was purposely going into. It felt like we’d gone several rounds at the gym when we got out!

The next morning we left early to drive to Udaipur, and on the way stopped off at another fort, Chittorgarh. We began by climbing a huge nine-storey tower with great views of the surrounding area. Thing is, there was a big religious festival going on- Krishna’s birthday- so about 900 other people were also climbing the seriously windy and narrow stairs to the top!

It was rather precarious, but it was worth the trip, and afterwards we did some wandering around of the temples and things. An Indian guy started talking to us, demanding to know if we were married (we began to just say yes after a while, saved us some hassle) and then told us another gentleman nearby was the king of the area. Really? Ok. We then proceeded to be in about ten photos with these folks- God knows what they tell their friends about who we are!

We arrived in Udaipur in the evening and were staying at a nice hotel right by the beautiful lake. We got changed to go out for dinner and set out in our backpacker finery, only for Steve to immediately step in a massive pile of cow shit (HOLY shit, mind you, given how the cow is revered in India) in his flip-flops. I drew more attention to this spectacle by laughing so hard I was crying, so we had to go back to the hotel for a holy foot-washing before trying again. We took another of the bible’s recommendations and found a nice little restaurant where we could also smoke some hookah. We had a nice time practicing our smoke rings (both are terrible at it) and went back to the hotel around midnight, only to find it all locked up. Apparently the doors close at 11 (thanks for telling us), so we had to hammer on the door and shout until a sleepy shirtless guy came and let us in. Oops!

The next day was a brilliant day. Probably the best of our whole jaunt. Not having to meet a guide or anything, we were able to sleep in and after breakfast set out for the city palace. Udaipur is a very easy little city to walk around it, and much quieter than many other Indian cities. It feels vaguely European- lots of little windy streets and things. On the way we passed a big temple where the celebration of Krishna’s birthday continued, so we went in. It was fantastic! Packed with people singing and dancing and clapping and just generally reveling.

We were immediately pulled into the fray, and were even encouraged to dance in the middle of the floor in front of about 400 Indians, but we managed not to! We payed our respects to Krishna, and just had an excellent time taking it all in and feeling so lucky to be part of something like it. Eventually we tore ourselves away for a walk around the city palace museum, and then went for lunch and to get organized before meeting Sunil for some more sightseeing. He took us to a really pretty park where we wandered around and looked at exotic flowers and things part..dressed up like a maharaja (Steve) and a maharani (me) for a photo op! We were charged extortionately for this, but the result was hilarious. They need to be scanned in somewhere (Steve, you are on this I trust!), and hopefully I’ll be able to share them soon.

Then Sunil took us to the other end of the city palace where we could catch a boat to Jagmandir Island. The island is basically a hotel in the middle of the lake (there are two- James Bond’s Octopussy was filmed at the other. More on that later) with lovely views back to Udaipur. We had a bottle of wine there and just enjoyed the atmosphere, before taking a boat back to meet Sunil.

The plan was to go to see the sunset at the Monsoon Palace, but we had taken too long with our wine, so instead Sunil took us to the other side of the lake where we could find a nice restaurant. Before that though, we stopped at one of the many bars that plays Octopussy every night. It was good fun to watch it and recognize some of the places in the city. The proprietor of the bar told us he’s been playing the film every night for eleven years! I don’t know he could stand it- those films are terribly cheesy! Afterwards we had some dinner, and called it a night.

The next day we set off around 10am for Jodhpur. On the way we stopped at another fort, Kumbalgarh, and walked around for an hour or so to get a break from the long drive and have some lunch. Many Indian tourists were interested in us and wanted to take photos, as usual, and this time we took some photos of them. I was in a picture with about 14 cheerful Indian men, who were VERY pleased to get so close to Steve’s “wife”! We made another stop before we reached Jodhpur, at Ranakpur, where there are a couple of famous temples.

There were some beautiful carvings and things to look at, so we moseyed around there for about an hour or so, watching baboons raid someone’s motorcycle for food at one point and trying to have a conversation with an old man in Hindi, before finishing the trip to Jodhpur. We arrived quite late, and managed to get ourselves out for dinner before calling it a night after our busy day.

Oh man, it was HOT in Jodhpur. Hotter than it had been anywhere else, and after breakfast we walked, dodging cows, motorbikes and tuk-tuks as per usual (I can’t over exaggerate the number of cows roaming the streets in India) UPhill to the fort. Phew. We were drenched by the time we reached the top. We did the audio tour (which was very good, almost as good as Alcatraz), took more photos with Indian families and investigated a ziplining course around the fort (more on that to come). We then walked back down to the market square for a refreshing lassi (one of the greatest things about India, after the chai!) and back to the hotel for lunch and to meet Sunil to visit the palace of the current maharaja of Jodhpur. Eh, I’d seen better palaces by now!

In the evening we did a quick Internet catch up and went for dinner at a great restaurant on top of the walls of the fort. It started to monsoon on us a bit, but we still managed to finish our meal outside and look at the great views of the city at night, while listening to a sitar player play Christmas carols, we think. The real fun in the rain would happen the next day, however…

We were to drive to Pushkar the next day, but first decided that we would go ziplining around the fort, so we set off there for the third time and suited up to do a six-line course. It started to rain just as we got going, but we thought, ah well, a little rain never killed anyone. No, a little rain never killed anyone, but a monsoon almost killed us and ruined a perfectly good camera (Steve’s). It was pretty incredible and very exhilarating to go ziplining around an ancient Indian fort in the pouring.

What wasn’t so fun was getting back in the car in our totally soaked clothes afterwards! Oh and it was to get worse. We set off for Pushkar in this terrible weather, driving through puddles (more like ponds) in the middle of the street. At one point Sunil went too fast through a massive puddle and the car broke down. Yikes. Much honking and shouting ensued, and Sunil had to pay a few (adorable) street kids to help him push the car to the side of the road.

After all that, we got to Pushkar in the very late afternoon, and didn’t do much except hit up an “Italian” restaurant for dinner. It wasn’t too bad actually- sometimes one needs a break from Indian food, so a pizza was just the ticket!

The next day we were headed straight to Agra, so we were up early to go and see Pushkar’s famous Brahma temple. On the way we stopped to look at the holy lake, and were immediately accosted by two men claiming to be priests. Before we knew what was happening, we were separated and were each standing by the lake with a priest, coconut in hand, repeating the words to some prayer about good health and life to our families. I really liked the sentiment- of course I wish those things for my family- but all I could think was how much this guy was going to want me to pay him. Downside of India- EVERYONE’S after your money, and it can take away from an experience like that that should have been quite meaningful.

Sure enough, after sending out blessings to my family and whatnot, the priest said I could pay what I want, but preferably one or two hundred rupees. Now this is two or four dollars, not outside my budget, but it’s the principal of the thing! And they won’t let you escape either! I threw 100 rupees at the “priest” and high-tailed it back to the road, just put off in general. We got to the temple and learned that we couldn’t go in together because I had a bag with me and wasn’t allowed to take it in, so we’d have to split up so one of us could stay with the bag. Eh, we thought, there were around a million billion people around and if we lost each other we’d never be able to meet up again, so we scrapped the Brahma temple and cow-dodged our back to Sunil and the relative safety of his little car!

We set off for Agra, and on the way stopped off at, guess what, another fort! It’s an abandoned castle called Fakhpur Sikri which is also right next door to a huge mosque where the end of Ramadan was being celebrated. We had a wander around (barefoot- ugh. Have I mentioned you have to do a lot barefoot in India? Have I mentioned India, though incredible and beautiful, is not the cleanest place in the world?) and then went to look at the fort where we were accosted by a guide who INSISTED on showing us around. Sigh, ok. He actually had some good info though, and gave us a clue about what we were looking at.

In the early evening we arrived in Agra, and after freshening up decided to treat ourselves to a drink at the bar of the Oberoi Amarvilas hotel, supposedly the best hotel in India. It was baked in gold and shiny marble. A night there costs hundreds and hundreds (of dollars, not rupees!).

We met our guide at about 5:30 in the morning, and he bought us our tickets and took us to the entrance gate. At 6am we were able to go in…and it was incredible. You can’t over-hype the Taj Mahal. It’s just beautiful, and the story of why it was built- for the king’s wife after she died giving birth because he loved her so much- is just heartbreaking. I was still a bit sleepy and felt like I was in a bit of a dream world. I was, actually. It was a dream come true just to be seeing it.

We headed to Rishikesh in the morning for some yoga. We parted ways at about 6am the next day, sad to say goodbye! We took a massive gamble travelling together for so long having known each other for, well, we didn’t know each other, but I now have a great new friend and travel buddy. Mr. Steve, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again- thanks for making our little journey such fun and for being my friend. It was a real treat to get to know you, and I really hope we’ll meet again somewhere in the world, some day! Namaste.

When we arrived, we went to sit at a chill cafe by the Ganges river, where we lounged on floor pillows, ate lunch, read “the bible” and took naps. Nearby to our guest house there was another one called Mama’s Mountain Cottage, or something, run by the sweetest, most lovely old Indian lady, known only as Mama! If you let her know early in the day, she’ll cook up a thali for dinner for only 50 rupees (about a buck), so after yoga we went to see her for dinner. It was starting to rain (the monsoon was very much on in Rishikesh), so she invited us into her living room and five of us (me and the girls, an Austrian guy and a Danish girl) sat with her family and had an incredible dinner. Mama was very keen to make sure we’d eaten enough (we had, I almost exploded), and it was, I must say, brilliant to have a warm home-cooked dinner in a cozy house while the rain came town outside!

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