Sunday 8 May 2016

Desert Post


The sign said "The Indian Army Wishes You a Safe Journey". It was an interesting way to enter the desert city of Jaisalmer but we had been witnessing military presence all morning. The distance between Jaisalmer and the Pakistani border is a shade under 350 klms but it was clear that India was taking no chances.
Having spent a rock and roll night on the train (I did finally get to sleep but dreamed I was covered in bubble wrap!) we got into the train station at eight in the morning. Just as in New Delhi station, there were whole families camped out on the platforms. Sunny told me they were waiting for trains that may not arrive for two or three days. The scene reminded me of the one in Dr. Zhivago where Yuri and his family are waiting to travel to the mountains.
One thing which happened which I will report here was that Roberta had some difficulty keeping up with the rest of the group which – and not for the first time – had gone on ahead at a rapid pace with Sunny. I could see them over people’s heads but I found the experience really quite disconcerting and when I turned around I couldn't see Bobbie anywhere. I only had a few seconds to wait when she came limping into view, and gasping for breath she said:
“Where is the group? Where have they gone? There were so many people; I couldn’t get by!”  I commiserated (my own hip was complaining from the night on the train) but reassured her that I was certain Sunny wouldn’t leave us behind. “I´ll just go on ahead and ask him to wait. You follow me.”
The group had indeed stopped to wait but just outside the station.  “Roberta thought she had lost you,” I said. “She has been very ill recently: had whooping cough.” She had told me this the night before through a coughing fit no doubt not improved by her smoking habit.
Sunny was bypassed. Tina spoke up:  “Well she shouldn’t have come then. She’ll just have to keep up, that’s all.”
The younger ones looked a bit uncomfortable but nothing was said and just then Bobbie hove into view visibly showing signs of exhaustion.  Sunny reassured her as I had. “I’ve never lost anyone before,” he said.
Anyway, here we were approaching Jaisalmer in an odd bus in which the driver had a sort of box to himself, with a small bed and a dashboard which reminded me of a kitchen counter. The driver had a military moustache and a way of standing most upright and I nicknamed him “The Major”. Sunny translated and the man beamed at me.
Our hotel lay inside the old city walls, which was just a treat. I didn’t realise until later that this would mean a fair bit of up/down walking as the tuk-tuks deposited us just metres from the tiny street. My room had an extraordinary view of the desert landscape below, but unfortunately the winds were wafting in sand and the smell of human excrement. I closed the window, but that only made the room stuffy. Seeing me do so, Sunny offered his room: “I don’t need all this,” he said and escorted me to an inner room with no view but a gigantic bed covered in tapestries, dark paneled walls carved with little flourishes here and there and a window looking out to a pigeon-filled courtyard.
The other thing I particularly liked was that – although I had expected to share – we were an odd number and I was told that meant I would have a room to myself for the twenty one days of the trip.
The luggage had really been thrown around all day so I wasn’t surprised to see that the zip connecting the bigger backpack to the day pack had been broken. But between Sunny and I we managed to patch it up. I realized that although packing wisely in one way I had given into taking more clothes than I was likely to need and that those I had bought were almost all brought from home but labelled Made in India. I knew I would be paying for my sins later on.
To the gentle sound of pigeons cooing to one another, I lay down on the big bed and caught up with the night’s lost sleep. The hotel had a rooftop restaurant and given that it was on top of a hill inside the fort it was a long way up. My vertigo kicked in immediately, but after a while I found I could just about manage although standing was scary. Dinner was the first time any of us had really had to get to know each other. Four were travelling together: Frobisher, (“call me Freddy”), Susie, Tom and Melanie, all in their early twenties. There was also Paolo from Portugal who was lining in Belgium and spoke perfect English; it was hard to guess his age: early forties I thought and I was right. We didn’t really get much out of Paolo because most of the time he was buried in his book. Flora and Rudy were a married couple from Austria. He was soft spoken, only said something when there was something to say and anyway, Flora talked enough for both of them.  Olivia and Rachel were friends from grade school. Finally there was Molly and Nancy, Roberta, Diane, Tina, and me.  Despite the age differences it was a good mix and I thought the group would bond early. This was our third full day together. Plenty of time to see if my prediction was right…
Next: Rocket the Independent Camel.

Friday 29 April 2016

Night Train to Jaisalmer

We were due at the station at seven o'clock in the evening which left us just enough time to do some exploring. Megan, Lauren and I (with two sets of happy feet out of three) had met Tina the night before and she had already done her fair share of checking out New Delhi: "I rode in a tuk-tuk, took the subway, I even danced with the groom in a wedding procession!" she said, which left the rest of us in awe. Tina was an ex-model, a year older than me and looking very good for it ("No husband; no children," she said) she wasted no time in showing us her photos in some major fashion magazines in various stages of undress, including a topless shot. I thought it was an interesting way of introducing yourself to 19 year olds and I do prefer the business card sort of approach, but to each his own. Maybe I was a bit envious of that slim figure which she had retained so well.
Our guide's name was Sunil, but he insisted we call him Sunny ("like the movie"). His English was very good but his accent so thick I had to lean forward and close my eyes to understand him. He told us to ask questions but when I did, he seemed a bit annoyed and said I should listen more carefully.
Okay ...
The subway was very cheap: only 17 rupees which was about 25 cents. I expected something very crowded but it was perfectly normal except that we had to pass through security loading our bags into the ex-ray trays. This procedure made me nervous especially since people in front of me were being body searched just as I saw my bag exit the tunnel. Honestly, anyone could have taken it at any minute and I doubt I would have got it back. We rode in the "women's car" at the front of the train.
Our first stop was a temple in full celebration. I bought a marigold chain and left it at the door as I didn't want to lose the group by going in. Shortly after, we went to a Sikh temple and this one had a very different feel to it. First of all, bags were left at the office, as were our shoes. We had to walk 100 metres up the filthy (it really was) street in our bare feet and then "cleanse" them by stepping in a trough of already pretty dirty water. I had a couple of nicks on one foot from the pedicure and was a bit concerned about it, but ...
When in Rome.
At the top of the steps there were about 20 people shelling peas. Now the very act of pea shelling just happens to be one of my favourite activities ("Mine too," said Roberta from Scotland). I was very tempted just to sit down beside them and shell a few myself when Sunny said: "People come here every day to help prepare the meal. There may be hundreds coming to eat later. Anyone can come - even the richest man in Delhi". Inside, the prayers were being offered and shared on sizable video screens, in Hindi, Punjabi and English. I was to see this on a grand scale a month later in Amritsar.
Back through the dirty water - "You don't have to do it on the way out," said Sunny, stepping deftly around the trough.
The spice market was close by and Tina, who by now had elected herself Sunny's deputy, said she would show us where as she had already been there the day before.  I suppose I should have seen a pattern emerging, but I blew it away, only too happy to have someone with us with a sense of adventure.  The market, however, was just one long street with stall after stall, and after a while it made Diane, our only English member, sneeze. She seemed to me rather an ingenue, frail almost, perfectly worn blonde hair without a kink in it,  and I was amazed when she told me she was on a year-long round the world tour. Amazed and not a bit jealous may I add. One should not judge on first impressions!
Walking back to the subway station we passed a number of people who had set up camp beside the road. Not only was the garbage excessive here, but so were the smells, the origin of one I am sorry to say I could trace immediately. Children in shredded kurtas and torn trousers were playing "ball" with a plastic container, and in their bare feet they were oblivious to the squalor and rubbish piled up around them. Women bent double were cooking rice over tiny fires. They could have been any age as they held their sari out of harnms way by gripping it with their teeth. This was the India I expected, yet oddly I never saw anything to equal it again even though I did see some slum dwellings. This pile of humanity was chaotic, where a trace of organisation, even sharing of what little resources they had, might have made a difference. I thought of my own grandchildren and thanked whatever god was listening that their karma had presumably been better from their previous lives. Mine too.
Last chai at the Hotel Perfect, and the sixteen of us split up between four taxis. I ended up with Diane and Tina. We didn't get too far though: we found ourselves hopeless ensnarled in the traffic jam to end all snarl-ups. We were on our way to the train station and we were late. New Delhi has a unique way of moving from one direction to the other, banned in most countries: you do a U-turn, in mid-flow, only in this case our manoueuvre was effectively blocked by a large white cow pulling a cart and I found myself face to face with a huge pair of nostrils and a tongue to match. The situation was so droll that Diane, in the back with me and only slightly farther away from this unexpected sight, started to laugh hysterically when I said: "I wonder how you say 'what's your cow's name' in Hindi?" "Diane's having an opo," explained Tina in perfect strine to the bunch in the taxi stuck beside us.
I knew that this tour was Intrepid's Basic package, so I wasn't surprised when we located our berths and they were piled three high: 3AC. (I thought this had to be the lowest class until I went for a walk later. In Sleeper Class people were piled high some on bunks but most on top of their baggage or on the floor. There were heavy bars on the windows but no glass. I went back to my bunk feeling quite rich.)  There were sheets, blankets and a pillow on each of these, freshly laundered but I wasn't yet at a stage to trust them so I rolled out my sleeping bag instead. We were somewhat spread out over two carriages and just as we were about to leave, a family came on and blocked every bit of floor space with boxes and luggage. Sunny was summoned by one of us, and between him and one of the many guards, the boxes were picked up and removed as quickly as they came with much muttering by the older man with the group. This left us cramped but at least not prisoners of Indian Railways. Out came chocolate bars, bags of chips and something called Masala Munch which I became steadily addicted too. Gradually the excited conversation died down to a few muffled "Good night"s and we all fell happily asleep rocked by the gentle movement of the train.
Except me. I was too excited to even close my eyes...
Next: Desert Post

Saturday 23 April 2016

Hotel Perfect

The Hotel Perfect was adequate, although had I come to India only for colour I would have been a bit disappointed: my room was brown and cream, but a good size and pretty clean for the most part. Narrow like most commercial establishments and almost missable as we had just found out. Just before I dismissed my last "What am I doing now?" self-question and turned in for the night I took a quick peak through the curtains. The street remained in complete silence - something very rare for India at any time of the day. Directly across the street was an alleyway with a grating and inside was a huge pile of garbage being thoroughly investigated by three or four dogs. I decided to leave any speculation on this til the morning and having played with the "nozzle" in the bathroom, (I couldn't see the toilet paper) decided to leave that til the morning too.

The garbage in the alleyway didn't look any more pleasant come morning so I thought to postpone any advances into Delhi's streets and went to find breakfast. The Hotel Perfect has a delightful rooftop terrace, I sat happily in the sun (weather was just as perfect) and wolfed down an "Indian Breakfast" of roti and daal and chai: my tastebuds have never been so happy first thing in the morning. Shortly after that two young women joined me and we learned we were travelling with the same tour group.
"Let's go to the market!" said Megan after a while.
"Do you mind if I come along?"
Not at all, said Lauren her friend. Megan had a face full of fun, a pretty girl with a killer laugh; Lauren wore her hair with a topknot, a sort of "blip" on the top of her head secured by a scrunchy. Both were from Australia and because I have a special afinity for Aussies, and I learned that most of us were from Oz I knew this was going to be a fun group.

Now I have to admit that the idea of just staying on the terrace did occur to me. Not that I was afraid of going out in New Delhi's streets with nothing to protect except two engaging nineteen year olds you understand. But just as they mentioned it, I suddenly realised that that was exactly what I wanted to do.
So off we went.
It hadn't been my exhausted imagination the night before, the streets were simply strewn with garbage in some places up to a metre high. I learned there was a municipal workers strike; this was its tenth day. We had no choice but to skirt it or cross over it just like everybody else. I saw no cows; not yet anyway. The streets were crowded but I have seen worse at the Saturday market in Puerto Banus. The Karol Bagh market is one of New Delhi's busiest. I expected perhaps a separate area, maybe covered but in fact it was no different from the one in my local town: stalls along the length of the street, regular shops behind.
One of the things I had been most nervous about was being approached by beggars, being touched, even grabbed, or worse robbed: against that eventuality I wore a small cotton bag around my neck which made me look four months pregnant (as the same did to everyone else within the group, even the men!). But except for some very prolonged stares we were barely notice at all. In fact I didn't mind this at all because it allowed me to stare back. Shoes were cheap, clothes were cheap, scarves were dirt cheap. I saw many women in western dress (many more here in the capital than in other cities I was to visit). One store I passed was a wedding suit shop for men. Outside there was a model of a rather western-looking maharajah type flanked by two tiny childlike mannequins: one in a kurta, a hip-length collarless shirt, this one highly decorated, and the other in what the Spanish call a "smoking". Other shops we passed had whole families seated on the floor surrounded by shelves and shelves of bolts of material: the bride and all of the women who had already taken over the rest of her life.
A little girl with a beauty queen's smile highlighting her pretty and dirt-creased face and supporting very ragged clothes was picking over the garbage for pieces of cardboard. She flashed me a grin that was as much eyes as teeth. We did not speak. On the way back down the road (past the two "dusty trees") I saw her again, still stuffing paper into her bag. We were beside a shoe shop. I beckoned. She came. We went into the shop: "I would like some shoes for her please," I said as if this was the most natural thing in the world. The shopkeeper looked quite surprised and asked me to repeat. "Some shoes. What size are you sweetie?" We all looked down at the oversized, very much scuffed and worn pair of navy blue school shoes. The shopkeeper went off and brought back a pair very similar and at least two sizes smaller. But I had another idea:
"No. Not those. These." I held up a pair of glistening gold sandals with rhinestones and a small heel. Clearly the shopkeeper now confirmed his suspicion of my madness but off he went and back he came. Little Smile tried them on, all the time looking at me as though I could vanish at any time.
"How much are they?"  Two hundred and seventy rupees: just over three euros.
I handed the money over and somehow wished they had been more expensive.
With that, she fled and I did not see her again. Whether I should have bought something more sensible I don't know but what is the point of buying school shoes for someone who never goes to school? A yellow-haired goddess had emerged from some distant fantasy land and bought her the shoes of her dreams and that was that. Whether she got to keep them or her mother found some way to sell them, I don't know and I don't care. The thing is it made me just as happy as it made her. Few things in life are so equally balanced. To celebrate I bought myself a scarf: 60 rupees.
Meg and Lauren got their hands hennaed. It was a much more delicate process than I had envisioned so I declined. I had noticed a hair salon across the road from the Perfect so suggested a pedicure and Megan took me up on it immediately while Lauren went to rest.
I confess I have never before had my toes pedicured. They do a very reasonable job of stopping my legs from fraying at the end and for that I am thankful, but other than washing and occasionally oiling them, we sort of go about our own business.
So it was a bit of a shock when, having sat down next to Meg, a man appeared - two actually - to attend to our toesies. Wash and scrape, nip tuck and clip, and joy of joys a thorough leg massage and I was being offered a dizzying number of colours to choose from. I chose turmuric yellow. Hey...why not? (Incidentally, this colour lasted through my six weeks in India and then some.)
The sign next door to the Perfect said:
Let the adventure begin ... I'm ready for it!
Next: Night train to the desert.

Wednesday 13 April 2016

Snow-Capped Mountains from the Sky

I should have paid more attention to Murphy’s Law because I almost didn’t make it! Out of character, I arranged my vaccinations (yellow fever, typhoid) well ahead of time and Googled for the best insurance prices. All that was left was my visa. I had been told, and assumed (never assume!) that I could get an on-line visa, and it’s true; you can. But what I discovered and almost too late was that this tourist Visa is for 30 days only, and my trip, the one I had booked and paid for, was for 40 days. So I phoned the Embassy in Madrid. This was 11 days before my departure. The woman I spoke to suddenly took on a “hmmm” tone of voice: “It usually takes 10 or 11 days” she said. “That’s OK,” I said optimistically, “I’ll courier it to you.” “That is using a courier,” was the answer.
For the next few days I waited and fretted. Clearly I needed divine help!  While reading through one of my stack of books on India, I learned that Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, was called upon to use his little ax when there are obstacles along the path. “Dear Ganesha,” I implored, “when I get to India I will make a special pilgrimage to you, but please, first of all you have got to get me there.” I was due to leave on the 4th February.
On February 3rd, the courier arrived with my visa, passport and all, and I had to restrain myself from kissing him!
From Malaga to Paris and Paris to Delhi, I felt like I was in a dream. I dare say the French wine helped. At one point I looked out of the window when everyone was asleep and below me were snowy mountains: miles and miles of glistening white one peak after another. Somewhere over Pakistan, I fell asleep.
Exiting an airport is always disorienting. I learned from my guidebook that the best way to hire a taxi was to get a pre-paid ticket, which I dutifully did, but I still didn’t know quite how it all worked. “How do I know which one is mine?” I asked. “Just take any one that is black and yellow.”
Well, there were black and yellow ones, and yellow and black ones, and some mostly yellow and some mostly black, and immediately I exited I was surrounded by taxi drivers and touts. My first instinct was to take the first one in line, but before I knew it a young man was convincing me that that one was not the one I wanted and was wheeling my backpack case off towards the back of the line to a much newer taxi. The driver asked me for my ticket. Now, I had been told to hang on to the ticket until we reached my destination, but this driver was insisting that I give it to him straightaway, so just as fast as they were loading up my case, I was unloading it!
In the end, I took the oldest and most rickety open taxi (a sort-of bloated tuk-tuk) I could find.  The ceiling was lined with a cork sheet, sagging in most places so that it touched the top of my head. Most uncomfortable. The seats were upholstered in curtain fabric. There was a luminous, multi-coloured plastic god on the dashboard, not one that I recognized. The driver’s clothes looked like they had been deliberately wrinkled after washing and on his head he wore a lurid green baseball hat with the word “Happy” written on it. And little hearts. Happy …?  I was ecstatic!
I was actually in India, avoiding midnight cows at top speed, holding on for dear life and loving every second.
On the back of the taxi was written HORN PLEASE in big yellow letters. I soon found out why. There were so many cars on the road that it was hard to believe that it was past midnight. Almost every commercial vehicle had the same Horn Please written on the back and as my taxi dodged the traffic like an old lady with a shopping bag, my driver and every other one was using the horn constantly, not out of aggression, but as a way to let others know that we were passing. In fact, the way horns have always been meant to be used.
The air was so polluted that I had to wrap my scarf around my mouth, but I must have got used to it very quickly because this was the only occasion I felt it necessary to protect myself.
From the cacophony of New Delhi’s highways, we found ourselves in Karol Bagh where my hotel was. I assumed that all I had to do was give the hotel’s address to my driver; unfortunately I had not taken into account the very size of the city (14,000,000 population) and the number of hotels. Not only that but the Karol Bagh area appeared to have been deserted: there were piles of rubbish everywhere, and dogs, but no people to ask. So we just sat in silence, waiting. In the end the driver went off to another hotel to enquire there. Meanwhile I sat in the taxi, with case, feeling … well, a bit vulnerable to tell the truth! But not scared. Not one bit. I was preparing to have the time of my life …
Next: Hotel Perfect

Thursday 7 April 2016

Bucket List and Choices


They call it a Bucket List, after the film of the same name. Mine had for 32 years been topped by India, but every time I thought about travelling, India got pushed down in favour of  Canada – where my family and friends are – Cuba, Costa Rica, Belize,Tunisia, Greece, Italy, Ireland, the UK - even a 800 klm pilgrimage walking across the top of Spain ... all of which seemed so much safer and achievable.  
India, however, would rise back to the top immediately after I came home. I had studied Indian philosophy, religions and art at university, and I had read everything about it I could get my hands on ever since.
But I had to admit I was afraid of India. Why? Well for one thing I don’t deal well with poverty, and perhaps most of all I had been given to understand that Indians were just people that you couldn’t trust. They would tell you what they thought you wanted to hear and then ask you for money, or take you to their brother’s pashmina shop. I also wondered how I would manage the beggars, of whom I was told there were many. Could I really ignore their imploring faces and walk on? So India got side stepped time after time for reasons which remained vague fears. As it turned out I couldn’t have been more wrong!

Many people have decided to walk the Camino de Santiago because of Martin Sheen’s film The Way. Others have gone to Italy, India, Bali on the strength of Liz Gilbert’s  Eat, Pray, Love. I had already “done” the Camino, and honestly the idea of sitting  chanting “Om mane padme hum” with a bunch of middle aged bleached blonde American ladies my age in an ashram didn’t appeal (actually the very thought would send me screaming for the exit doors) and I had no money to go to Bali, even if it did mean meeting Javier Bardem  whose “It’s time” is the sexiest seduction line I have ever heard. I did enjoy Slumdog Millionaire though, and perhaps it was there that the idea of India, once more on top of the bucket list, began to make many pushy-pushy noises in my brain.
In the end it was the two Marigold Hotels films that made me say: “That’s it!  Today’s the day," not that I expected to find such a squeaky clean environment as portrayed in the films, nor streets virtually people free.  Neither was I looking for romance. I just wanted to experience Being There; I wanted a chance to find out if the hospitality this film advertises really existed. I certainly didn’t expect to find myself in charge at a havelli guest house although it almost did happen, (and still might).

So I went to India, despite all the setbacks, holdups and downright frustrating things which happened just before I was due to go and threatened to derail the whole thing. As you will learn...

I went to India. And I hope that you will join me on my journey through fear to delight.
Next: Snow-Capped Mountains from the Air.