19.12.2010 - 23.12.2010
19th Dec: Taj Mahal, Old Town, train
Mick and I got up at 05:30, well before sunrise, to see the Taj Mahal at daybreak, and avoid the swarms of less hardcore visitors. Agra is quite cold at dawn.
We wandered through the dark streets, passing an old man with a stick taller than him (and a beard longer than most), and a lone cow, through the thick fog (or smog?) that seems to constantly smother this city. Sounds of hundreds of men singing an eerie hymn over and over echoed through the black silence. It felt very foreign, yet familiar; it was spooky yet undeniably beautiful.
If there was a sign pointing to the Taj, we missed it (I suspect there wasn't) and ended up taking a pretty epic detour. We finally found the queue at the break of dawn. Men stood in one line, women in the other- I was surprised to see that there were half as many women there as men. I suppose no female would go there at dawn alone, but plenty of men would. I don't know.
After a good old bit of frisking, we were in, just to see the first glows of sunrise peeping over the trees. I waited a moment, before looking through the arch. I wanted to prolong the anticipation. I ran away from some boys trying to take a picture of me. And there it was. That iconic image, as elusive as a rough sketch, yet one of the biggest monuments on the planet, it stood there, wrapped in mist. Peachy sunlight set it apart from the blank grey air behind it. A hundred people were all trying to take photos from the same spot, dead centre front, but it wasn't a fight. Everyone seemed totally captivated by the serene presence of the Taj; we all moved slowly, smiling, as if we'd just opened the Christmas present we'd always dreamed of. I guess we kind of had.
See the Wikipedia entry: Taj Mahal
Bloody Agra. Despite being home to the national monument of the country, it must be one of the most awful cities around. The majority of the population depend on tourists in one way or another, so there is no escaping the constant harassment. You can't walk down the street without being hounded by autorickshaws, you wouldn't dare look in the general direction of a street stall because you will pay for it, and, as sad as it is, talking to any local will always end badly. Agra is an example of how a developing country is not really equipped to cope with such an influx of wealthy tourists. They want the money, but lack the cultural sensitivity (i.e. Western manners) to gain that money with any sort of dignity. Which in turn leaves the tourists with no option but to snap and fight like their lives depend on the money, too.
We got lost on the way home, got harrassed by autorickshaw drivers who didn't know where our hostel was, so we escaped, and then in order to get to the Old City, had to fight with about 15 drivers who all wanted to overcharge us. For some reason, one autorickshaw ride is always at least ten men's business. The amount of money you agree on is never a private matter between two people.
The old city was actually quite gorgeous, but again, tainted by the sadness that comes with the realisation that everybody there is after your money. Even the guy who claims to be giving you a religious tour of a mosque ends up making you sit at his stall as he lists the prices of all the little carved elephants his family has supposedly made. And the sadness in his eyes as you say 'no' is nearly enough to make travel in India not worth the guilt and pain.
I don't want to have to feel responsible for a nation's need and suffering.
We caught a train to Jaipur that night. The only person bothering me then was a little 2 year old Indian girl with the cutest face and jet black curls you've ever seen. She didn't like it when I tried to sleep. So I gawked at her cuteness instead. Mission accomplished for her.
20th Dec: lost, lunch, palace, park, autorickshaw, dinner, a small world
Lesson of the day: bugger trying to be independent and walk everywhere with a map; just use the bloody autorickshaws. We wasted the whole morning trying to navigate our way around Jaipur, which is pretty hard when there are an awful lot of streets and all the street signs are in Hindi. After being lost, thinking we knew where we were, then realising we actually had no idea (repeat 5 times over), we gave up and caught an autorickshaw.
Jaipur's distinguishing feature is it's pink colour- I don't know whether it's a limewash or the colour of the actual stone itself, but the whole place is the same, a peachy pink pastel colour. It's quite gorgeous, and about the only thing around with any sort of consistency. Everything else is good old mayhem. Cows eating onions from market stalls, some crazy woman driving her car down a one-way market street with about 80 men on motorbikes beeping behind her, a man sewing seams along a very very very long piece of gorgeous red saree fabric next to a shop that sold old car tyres, or something.
I'm getting used to the fact that it is perfectly acceptable for a truck, car, autorickshaw or bike to lurch out into oncoming traffic, and for them to expect everyone to stop and wait for them: unlike home, here, everyone expects things to go wrong. Nothing's ever a surprise. [Father’s note – the only road rule in India is that larger things have right of way over smaller things]
The Jaipur City Palace is a funny collision of East and West, with the layout of the palace being very reminiscent of European equivalents, yet everything here is just a little bit more over the top. The paintings of peacocks are extraordinary, and the ornate carvings in the walls are a tad more impressive than that of your average bluestone castle.
After that, we walked down to some gardens, which I had high hopes for. They mainly specialised in homeless families and rat warrens. I wanted to take a photo of a bloke and his gorgeous black stallion, but he was going to charge me for it. Nothing's free here. I told him to get nicked.
We caught an autorickshaw to a restaurant that actually doesn't exist, with a driver who couldn't read. He had to do a detour to get his mates to tell him where to go. I thought he had stared at the map I showed him for a very long time. We didn't know whether to pay him extra for effort.
See Wikipedia entry: Jaipur
While Malley was crying because his dish was 90% chilli, his med friends Hayley, Kate and Sei-Jin wandered up to the table of our second choice restaurant, jaws dropped. Neither party knew the other were going to be in Jaipur, obviously. They ate at the table next to us and told stories of their travels. They didn't know much about Pushka, though, because the only things they had see there was their bedroom and the toilet. Mango lassi with ice is the suspected culprit. We then discovered that we were staying in hotels next to each other. It's a small world... or something.
21st Dec: astro place, Hayley and co, fort, dinner, byes, bus
The next day, we visited the observatory Jantar Mantar, home to the tallest gnomon in the world, twenty-something metres tall, among various other crazy humongous pieces of astrological equipment. It was pretty amazing. A police officer had to blow a whistle every time someone tried to climb on one of the models, which was most minutes.
After freakishly meeting up with Kate and co again, we all headed up to the nearby palace of Amber, a honey-coloured fort hanging on the knife-edge mountain horizon above. A herd of goats trotted along the valley as we dodged beggars, schoolchildren and a million pigeons to get through the gates. Halfway up the hill, women in saris stopping to catch their breath, we chatted to a lady goat traversing the hillside. One of the happier animals around, that's for sure.
The fort was stripped of any valuables that it once held, but its former glory was hard to miss when you looked up at the incredible paintings, carvings and arches that decorated the hundreds of rooms within its walls. Some overlooked the steep valleys and lake below; others looked down into the plazas dedicated to the king, or to women, or soldiers. The palace cascaded down the ridge; there were more than a couple of stairs involved.
As is always the way when you agree to a 'tour' with one autorickshaw driver, we finished the day with a visit to a textile company. We were shown the big pots where a man was dyeing clothes orange; maroon cotton dresses hanging up behind us. He showed us how they make multicolour woodblock prints on fabrics, and how they weave things on the big wooden machine, before taking us upstairs to a shop covered wall to wall in incredibly beautiful fabrics, from table cloths to bed spreads, saris, pillowcases and raw fabrics. He opened up some beautiful table cloths for us, but I was restrained. For once.
That night, we had dinner with the med gals again, before catching a night bus to Jaisalmer, a desert city that seems to have risen up from the desert sand itself.
22nd Dec: Jaisalmer, semi ancient ruins, camels, lunch, newborn kids, sore bums, sand dunes
Feeling less than gorgeous, we stepped off the bus to be chased by a man trying to get us on his camel safari. We had already signed up with a more reputable group. He took us to his hotel where his would start, where I cracked it at him for being dishonest. He then gave in. After getting to our company and quickly making a bag of the bare essentials (sleeping bag, toothbrush, jumper) we jumped into a jeep and were off through the sandstone streets and out into the desert.
See Wikipedia entry: Jaisalmer
There's not a lot out there. The people here live in what some have referred to as 'pretty poverty'; rather than the ramshackle slums of Mumbai, these people live in the straw houses that tourists like to take photos of. We saw some herds of goats, a fair bit of cacti, and then arrived at some reconstructed ancient fort. From the top, we looked down on a whole village from the same time - its stone skeletons still standing against the desert breeze.
My camel wasn't adorable. The first time we met, he bared his teeth and made that gorgeous noise that camels like to make... all the time. He likes to drag me through bushes like a naughty pony, but he did do a good job of walking on the sand. Also on our safari was a fairly odd couple, a Mexican woman (Margherita) and a German man (Leo). Also a guy who was originally from India but seemed to be a fairly successful businessman in London these days. Why he had an American accent, I do not know.
The camels have to have a big rest at lunchtime, so they were unsaddled and left to roam, with hobbles on (which made them do a pretty hilarious canter when they tried to run away from each other). Lunch was prepared in front of us, as well as fresh chapati (with added sand, om nom). After exploring a nearby sand dune, and watching two newborn goat kiddies find their feet, we were off again. Hello sore bum.
The majority of the safari wasn't through the iconic endless sea of sand dunes, but instead over semiagricultural land, where people had tried their luck at a wheat crop, or mainly just sheep and goats. We did see a donkey herd, too; I don't know what you do with a herd of donkeys.
After about 3 hours, we reached our campsite for the night. I couldn't walk. We were perched right on the edge of a big sand dune, where Malley and I sat for an hour or so, watching the sun set. Out of nowhere, a local man in white wandered up to us, and shouted 'Cold beer?' I wasn't quite sure how anyone in the desert could manage to bring forth cold beer, but this guy did. He shall forever be known as the Beer Genie.
After dinner, I sort of passed out near the fire while the guides sang campfire songs, which were quite beautiful. A full moon rose at about 9pm, and Leo shouted 'Who's gonna turn the light off?' It was pretty freezing that night. How the camels survive without their sleeping bags, I do not know.
23rd Dec: cold, more sore bums, desert, nap, Desert Man, water for camels, women, sticks, chatting
The next morning, I discovered sidesaddle, because my butt isn't hard enough to hack 3 days on a camel. Leo and Margherita left at lunchtime, leaving just Michael, our guide, and myself. The real survivors. We took the camels to a big trough, where they nearly collapsed with excitement like dairy calves at feeding time, and gulped and sneered and were off again in a surprisingly short time. They hadn't had a drink in days!
We passed a family clan where there were two boys playing beside the hut, two men, and two women wearing bright orange and red fabric, covered from head to toe, even their faces. Our guide said that all the women here cover their faces. It scared me, the lack of identity; they really did seem like nothing more than colourful ghosts who worked tirelessly without being able to do as much as communicate a smile. But I don't understand the culture here; maybe it's not as oppressive as it seems.
That night, we collected firewood, and watched our guide make chai, (tea, milk, ginger, sugar, water: heaven), and then our dinner. He told us how he had a wife and two year old son at home, and how he is often out on 21-day camel safaris. His ability to fulfil a role as father, therefore, is obviously quite limited. It's a different world. He earns 1,500 rupees a month, which is about a dollar a day to support all three of them. And he by no means has the worst job around.