Liz S (ixwin) wrote,
Liz S

India - Part 1

I'm not normally big on writing stuff about places I've been and things I've done - certainly not about what one might call the larger experiences of life. It seems, somehow, to be pinning the experience down a little too definitely - by reporting this is how things happened it becomes a fixed story, and the story is remembered in preference to the experience. Also, I tend to think that if something is worth remembering, then I'll remember it - I don't make crib notes of my life.

But since I've had several requests, and since - as I have no problem in talking to people about the holiday - I would otherwise be leaving people out simply because I only know them online which seems a little unfair, I'll make an exception in this case.

Saturday 9 October/Sunday 10 October

We leave Hitchin in early Saturday evening and stay at the Holiday Inn near Heathrow. We discover in the morning that our flight leaves from Terminal 4, and our hotel is nearest Terminals 1,2,3. We get the train to Terminal 4, which uses up most of our contingency time and arrive at check-in to be told that our flight has been overbooked, and they can't guarantee us a seat, and we should go and wait over at another counter. We wait, getting increasingly impatient, as various others around us are told that they do have a place on the flight. No-one says anything to us. Eventually, 15 mins before flight is due to leave, we ask what's going on and are told, with rolled eyes "You were supposed to hand in your boarding card." (if anyone did tell us to do this, neither Matt nor I had picked up on it). We are told we do, in fact, have seats. We rush through the security check (queue jumping and apologising/explaining as we go), and make it onto the plane, having failed to buy a guidebook, batteries, or any of the other things we thought we'd have time to do at the airport.

The flight is uneventful. I watch Spiderman 2, and begin reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell which is a huge great hardback the size and weight of at least two housebricks, but - I figure - is long enough to last me the whole holiday.

We arrive in Delhi at 11pm local time. It is hot, humid, and immediately smells of India. This is probably just the disinfectant they use on the airport floors, but it is nonetheless a uniquely warm, fragrant, Indian disinfectant. There is a long queue at immigration, which takes us about an hour to get through. Whilst waiting in line, we spot Matthew's sister Emma, who has come to meet us, and Matt and she exchange silly text messages to pass the time.

Emma's driver, Gyan, drives us back to her apartment in Delhi. Emma's apartment is wonderful - It has a large living/dining room space, with three ensuite bedrooms, and is beautifully furnished in a mixture of Emma's own stuff and the furniture of the previous resident - also a High Commission employee. There is also a small flat (which I never saw) onsite, where Emma's cook and cleaner live with their young son. We head off to bed.

Monday 11 October

We wake up around 10am. Emma has left for work, and Emma's cook, Rana, serves us breakfast. We spend the rest of the morning browsing through a few of Emma's India guidebooks, and drinking tea, before being driven to the High Commission to meet Emma for lunch. The compound is green and pleasant, and the canteen is clean and airy, although not particularly posh. We mention Indian drivers'...interesting...approach to roundabouts - namely, complete disregard for any sort of traffic priority, just driving on into whatever space can be found, and weaving one's way thereafter. Emma tells us that the most common accident for European drivers in Delhi is being rear-ended at roundabouts.

After lunch, Gyan takes us round a few of the sights in Delhi - Humayan's tomb, and the Qutab Minar. We spot a couple of feral/stray dogs (of which there are many, though oddly no equivalent cats that we could spot) bathing in the sun. As Emma says, the dogs of India's streets are so mongrel as to no longer be identifiable as related to any particular breed; they are simply pure Dog. They mostly look pretty happy and healthy (though I suppose any sick/disabled ones probably just curl up in a corner somewhere). There are different entrance fees at the sites for Indians (10 rupees) and Foreigners (250 rupees), which strikes me as fair enough.

A note on exchange rates. The current exchange rate is around 80 rupees to the pound. However, the purchasing power exchange rate (that is, what would be regarded as a reasonable price to pay for a particular item) is more like 10 rupees to the pound. So, for example, a few days later I paid 200 rupees for a tie-dye mirrored top. That's £2.50 in English money, but in Indian terms, it would be like paying around £20. In other words, things are about eight times cheaper over there (probably more than that if you bargain hard, but we didn't really try).

The sites are good - various people offer to act as guides. We mostly say no thank-you, but one guy tells us quite a lot about the history of Humayan's tomb (though I can't, I'm ashamed to say, remember much about it now except that it was built around 1560), so we tip him a few rupees.

We meet Emma again when she finishes work, and go to a South Indian restaurant which is part of a hotel. I have my first lime soda of the trip (freshly squeezed lime juice, with soda water, and sometimes sugar or salt - I go for the sugar option every time). They are very refreshing in the Indian heat. Emma then has to go off to a choir rehearsal, so Gyan drops us at the station, where we are catching an overnight train to Jodhpur. Alone at night at Old Delhi station, we are re-introduced to the darker, more chaotic and unsettling side of India; which isn't helped when, having accepted a porter's offer to carry our single suitcase to our carriage, he becomes quite insistent that we should give him 50 rupees, when Emma has told us that we shouldn't pay more than 20. We pay 30, and refuse to pay more, and eventually he gives up. After that, we don't use station porters any more.

Our cabin is described as 'First Class Air-conditioned' (1AC); and we are expecting something a spot plusher than what we actually get; which is a rather battered grimy-windowed small cabin, just big enough for seats that convert to bunk beds, a table that lifts up to reveal a small metal washbasin, and a 'Visit India 1992' poster on the wall.

We make up the beds using the sheets & heavy brown blankets supplied, and fall asleep.

Tuesday 12 October

We wake the next morning to the chai-wallah, selling chai in little handmade disposable pottery cups (sadly, some vendors are now replacing these with standard polystyrene cups, and India has an increasing problem with polystyrene and plastic litter). Chai, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is extremely sweet milky tea, flavoured with cardamom (and I think sometimes other spices). Matt dislikes it, and it is certainly nothing like British tea; but I find it a pretty good pick-me-up of a morning.

Matt picks up the rucksack to take out the guidebook to North India which we borrowed from Emma and a small mouse runs out. It doesn't seem to have nibbled on anything.

The train is two hours late arriving in Jodhpur (which is not surprising by Indian standards). We take an autorickshaw to our hotel, the Ajit Bhawan, which is a little way out of the centre of the city - something we will come to regret. Autorickshaws are three-wheeler vehicles, with two or sometimes four-stroke engines. The driver sits in the front, and there is space for two passengers in the back. They're fairly bumpy, and you breathe solid traffic fumes for the length of the journey, but they're easy to find (perhaps more accurately: hard to avoid finding), and - being small - excellent at weaving through Indian traffic. (I've found a picture of one here).

We get breakfast at the Ajit Bhawan; which is extremely posh, with prices to match (still reasonable by UK standards, but very expensive in Indian terms). Our 'room' is a standalone house in the gardens of the hotel, alongside several similar ones, with a television, sofa, and spanking new bathroom.

Having freshened up, we head outside the hotel where a couple of autorickshaws are waiting. We ask to go to the Fort (Mehrangarh Fort, which is the main site to see in Jodhpur. It's huge and dominates the Jodhpur skyline). The rickshaw driver tells us that it'll be 100 rupees. We are incredulous. He tells us that it's a long journey, and we eventually settle on 80. When we arrive, he offers to wait around while we look round the fort, for no charge; and then take us back to the hotel for another 80 rupees. Clearly we have seriously overpaid, but there's nothing to be done about it now. We pay the entrance fee for the fort, which includes a free audioguide, and dutifully listen to it. The fort, though imposing, doesn't make that much of an impression - there are various a pretty rooms with mirrors and stained glass including an impressive durbar (hall for holding court) and various displays of armour, and palanquins for riding on the backs of elephants. The audio guide does, though, give us a crash course in the Rajputs, the main clan that ruled Rajasthan and gave it its name. The overall impression I receive is that they were big on honour and military glory, fairly unenlightened in their attitude to women, and built forts all over the place.

We return to the hotel, and then decide to head out to the markets; stopping en-route to book a car to drive us to Jaisalmer the following afternoon. Emma recommended we do this via the Govin guesthouse - a cheap and basic, but clean and well-run travellers hotel near the station; and we do so - paying 4000 rupees, which is quite a bit cheaper than Emma's estimate of 6000.

By the time we get to the markets it is nearly dark; and this is a bad idea as we immediately feel more exposed and pressed-upon. I linger at a few of the fabric stalls, with vague plans for maybe buying some material to take back to the UK to make clothes with; but I seem to make a bad choice of stall - the printed cotton I'm offered is either so thin it's see-through or stiff & coarse and none of the patterns are terribly appealing anyway; and the guy asks 250 rupees for what's really quite a small piece of material. Whilst I'm having fabric samples dumped on my lap, a tout sidles up to Matt and starts engaging him in conversation about how Richard Gere is currently making a movie in Jodhpur (this appears to be true - certainly we spotted some filming going on at the fort, and this blog is from someone who spotted Richard Gere in Jodhpur the following week). Of course, this guy says that Richard Gere has been in a shop this guy knew, and bought loads of stuff and he offers to take us there too. He also says that they sell loads of shawls with prices starting at 150 rupees. I'm tempted, and so we are - fairly willingly - hooked on the bait, and follow this guy up the street to the shop in question.

We go upstairs to the main showroom, and are put in the hands of a boy of about 12, who asks us where we're from, and tells us that his elder brother is currently studying in Manchester. I say I'd like to have a look at some of their shawls; and he nods and say yes, of course they'll get to that, but first they'd like to just show us some of their embroidered bedspreads - just to look, as a sample of the quality of the workmanship of course, no obligation to buy. I have to admit that some of them are gorgeous - fine silken embroidery with mirrorwork, or little silver threads of wire woven into the design. As he shows us these, he tells us that, in addition to Richard Gere, they've sold stuff to Paul & Stella McCartney, Gordon Ramsay, and Richard Branson. After a while, he gets the message that when we say we're not interested in buying bedspreads, we really mean that we're not interested in buying bedspreads, and he shows us a selection of the shawls they have. They're large and soft, and one particularly appeals to me - an interwoven design across squares of many colours, chiefly red and magenta. It's 'ethnic' and chic at the same time, and after we've seen a few more, I ask the price. 800 rupees, I'm told. I pull a wavering face - tell them if it was 500 I'd buy straight away; it's lovely but 800 is a lot. I say I'll pay 800 if they throw in a plain scarf in a pale green, which I also liked the look of, for free. They say 850 and it's done, and I agree (I've probably still paid over the odds, but it's slightly over a tenner for two lovely large scarves, which I know I'll actually wear, so what the hell). I thought they had been asking 150 for the plain scarf. Matt thinks they were asking 250, so I've either knocked 100 or 200 rupees off the asking price. Our tout is still waiting outside and asks if we'd like to look at some silver or leather now, but we're kind of shopped out, so we just go back to the hotel, and eat & rest.

Wednesday 13 October

We're bored of being overcharged for autorickshaws (and/or frustrated at our inability to bargain hard enough with them); so we decide to walk on our excursion the next morning to the main park in Jodhpur. On the way, we bump into the boy from the shop the night before, as we're passing their main warehouse, but we decide not to go in. It's hot and smelly and we get rather lost, but after asking for directions, find the park okay, and sit down for a bit. There are a load of Indian squirrels - which are a bit like chipmunks and stripey (the link above has a picture and also the story of how the squirrel got its stripes, which Emma told us later in the holiday).

We wander into the government museum in the park - only 3 rupees entrance fee - which is rather sweet in its total dilapidation - there are various literally motheaten stuffed animals, including a pair of tigers labelled "lions fighting", a random selection of archeological exhibits and weapons, and live mice dashing across the floor. It's also shady and a little cooler than outside, which is a relief. We decide to get a rickshaw back to the hotel - the driver tells us that it's 'far' but we point out that we know that it isn't; and end up paying 30 rupees for the journey.

After lunch, we pick up the car to drive to Jaisalmer (pronounced JIE-sal-meer), which is about 4 hours away. The man driving us - Joshi - turns out to own hotels in both Jodhpur and Jaisalmer, so this driving us is actually quite a convenient job for him - he gets paid for making a journey which he'd probably have made sometime on his own account anyway. He plays Bob Marley on the car stereo, which seems to be optimised for Hindi pop music - treble turned way up.

We stop for a short break in a town halfway as it's Joshi's 'time for chai' - Matt and I buy Pepsis, and I have a look at the small shops. Being around Indians who are just getting on with their everyday lives, and not trying to get money out of us goes some way to soothing us both after the hecticness we found in Jodhpur.

As the journey continues the landscape becomes more desert-like, though never completely barren. The sand is reddish; and there are wild peacocks. Just as I am thinking how romantic and picturesque this is Wild Peacocks on the Edge of the Great Thar Desert one of them startles, and flies out across our car. There's a thud, and I turn round to spot it thud down on the opposite verge. Oh well. It probably made a good meal for a desert fox that evening or something.

Joshi drops us outside the main gate of Jaisalmer fort. Our hotel is inside, and cars aren't allowed within the fort. We ask for directions to our hotel - the Jaisal Castle, and various people lead us for stretches of the way - it turns out that it's hidden in the furthest corner of the fort from the main gate.

Jaisalmer Fort is beautiful. Lonely Planet describes it as 'like something out of the Arabian Nights' and I can't better that description. Camel trains would reach Jaisalmer after weeks of trekking the desert on the main trade route linking India to Egypt, Arabia, Persia, Africa and the West. It therefore became extremely rich, with merchants building houses known as havelis, with spacious rooms and airy courtyards; all carved out of the same gorgeous golden sandstone (our hotel used to be one of these havelis). It now pretty much lives on tourism - almost every other building (every building along some streets) offers internet access, and booking of desert safaris; but it's happened in a way that's added to the charm, rather than destroying it. People still often want to sell you stuff; but they're also genuinely friendly.

Planning to go on a foray into the desert the following afternoon, and lacking any protective headgear and - in my case - any long-sleeved but cool tops for sun protection, we head down to see whether any shops are still open. We find one that is; but being tired, end up paying well over the odds for two linen shirts, a white shawl, turban (I'm still not entirely sure why we bought that - we ended up leaving it behind in India as I can't imagine Matt ever wearing it again).

We find a nice restaurant for dinner and eat on their roof terrace. There's a cool evening breeze, and lovely views over the town.

This is coming out quite a bit longer than I expected. At the rate this is going it's going to be at least 3 parts. I'll follow up with a part two, probably tomorrow.

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