After the excitement of the stolen and recovered passports we enjoyed the company of fellow passengers over Masala Chai Tea, with mixed nuts to nibble on, served by the ubiquitous train vendors that passed through the carriages. The three hours passed quickly and we decamped at Ajmer Junction to find a public bus to Pushkar. Like all major cities the station was a mass of people and outside was no different. We crossed the road, backs sweating under our packs in the midday heat, and found a small café with a helpful owner. The buses pull up outside his place and he would let us know when ours arrived, he thought 15 minutes before the next one, which gave us time for another cup of sweet Masala Chai. Much to our amusement the battered buses do not stop, but rather a man leans out of the bus shouting the destination and you have to run and jump on it. No mean feat with a heavy backpack and hand luggage. Fortunately we were the first customers the bus had, and the only ones at our stop so we got to choose our seats. As the bus passed through Ajmer we were joined by locals, mainly women with children. One mother struggled with her older boy, he had a serious developmental disorder and ran from the bus, only to be collected by the conductor and pulled weeping and wailing onto the bus. He sat, cowering and crying for the rest of the journey, but not before he had thrown his flip flops out of the back window which his mother had to then retrieve. We passed his mother some Oreo’s from our bag which she shared gratefully amongst her two children. As the bus filled to bursting I moved to the front with our backpacks giving me a wonderful vantage point to admire the stunningly beautiful women of Rajasthan. Tall, slender, ebony dark, bedecked in extravagant silver that was set off by the rich colours of their saris, they could have been part of a Vogue photo shoot. It was not such a good seat for the 30 minute
stomach churning ride up the steep hill on hairpin bends, but I had plenty of gorgeous scenery to divert my attention all for 30p for the 3 of us.
We had come to Pushkar on the recommendation of Mark who we spent time with at Bee Bees on Koh Lanta Island. We’ve learnt that following the advice of fellow travellers is the best guarantee of getting the experiences you’re looking for, and Pushkar didn’t disappoint. After the hustle and bustle of Delhi and Jaipur, Pushkar is a chilled out beauty. At its heart is a square man made holy stepped lake surrounded by temples and ancient Havali’s (traditional square decorative buildings). Our hotel, The Radhika Palace Hotel, was at the waters edge. From it’s cool covered terrace we could lounge on floor mattresses with round bolsters watching the elaborate rituals taking place at the water’s edge. Hindu’s from all over India, and the world, come to bathe in the lake and worship at it’s temples. Holy men sit on the steps leading to the water, small fires burning, the smell of incense and firewood permeates the air. Of course cows are everywhere; at the waters edge, on the narrow footbridge over the water culvert that feeds monsoon rains into the lake, in the streets and shop doorways of the bazaar, ATM queues, and entrances to the many temples. Pushkar Bazaar is a mecca for clothes shopping, thousands of tailors work their magic on the beautiful fabrics produced in the villages, as do silversmiths setting precious stones into intricate settings. Having already couriered home one lot of linens purchased in Jaipur, we found ourselves needing to ship another 10Kg of ridiculously cheap products. The Indians are great salesmen and we’re pretty good customers.
We had not come to Pushkar to shop, indeed we had only come to Pushkar for two nights, but our hotel, its staff, fellow travellers, and the fabulous atmosphere of this small town sucked us in. Two nights turned into four, and four turned into six, I could easily have stayed forever. Many people in our hotel were there for months, or on return trips. It was a traveller, rather than tourist, hotel. There were no longer TVs in the rooms, every toilet seemed to leak, the swimming pool was made watertight with cloths stuffed in holes, paintwork was rough and peeling. But it was a haven of great service and an ambiance that was hard to beat. In the lobby more than 10 tortoises, including the tiniest of babies, pottered about. It’s illegal (an imprisonable offence) to have tortoises in captivity in India, but these had been rescued by the pharmacist owner who had set up an informal refuge for them. We spent hours lying on the floor watching them mill around, beguiled by their prehistoric aura and determined actions. Fred fell in love. He fell in love too with the rescued dogs who lounged on the blanket covered old settees in the lobby. The evening, before dinner, is IPad time. He would take up his seat, next to Skinny, a black whippet cross stray who had found a home here. Out on the veranda Skinny’s pregnant daughter slept on a blanket, for company was another blonde dog with a duff leg, courtesy of a break that had never been reset before she too washed up here.
Putting aside the leaky toilet, which we found rather charming, our room was lovely with coloured glass doors that opened to a shared veranda with views of the forested hills that surround Pushkar. At the top of each peak a small bright pink temple was perched. In the mornings mist lay below the green hills like spun silk and the whole view was a muted pastel palette. At night we went to sleep to the sounds of drumming and chanted prayers from the temples, later in the night this was drowned out by the jubilant Bhangra music of the nightly wedding parties that went on to 4am (so Dean reported one morning after a poor night’s sleep). I’ve become accustomed to using earplugs in the last 3 months and find the more muted musical experience of India at night time quite comforting.
A collection of young bucks in the hotel and garden restaurant looked after us. Decidedly westernised, they nevertheless retained the essence of their culture. For the first time on our trip we got a daily dose of head wobbling “Anything is possible” in response to our questions or requests. Our orders for food and drinks elicited a smiling “Why not”. The only female member of staff was an older tall slender lady, clad in a purple gossamer sari, who seemed to do all the hard work around the place. With an extravagant silver wedding belt around her tiny waist, and beautiful thick silver bangles on her ankles and wrists she was the most dashing house maid I’d ever seen. Dressed like this she would shimmy up to the top of tall trees squatting down precariously on a high branch to cut off dead twigs, using nothing but a long stick with a hooked saw tied to the end. The most glamourous tree surgeon I’d ever seen, and not a harness in sight.
We’d checked into this hotel because we could settle by Paypal, a boon in the challenge to source cash, but it couldn’t have been a better choice. It made it easy to set up camp on this beautiful terrace, watching an exotic world, grazing on vegetarian food and non alcoholic drinks. We relished the lemon and mint coolers, Masala Chai, hot lemon honey and ginger teas taken on the terrace. Over the 6 days we ran through the eclectic menu and found it all delicious. In India everything is fresh and beautifully cooked, they run the French into second place easily. For company we had a wealth of interesting people. Pieter a South African was filming a documentary about Chandra a Gypsy woman living in a tented village 2Km away, we talked to him about Africa and his work all over the world. Sally and Toan were cousins from Melbourne that had met up in Pushkar. Of Vietnamese origin, they were experienced travellers, Toan was rarely in Australia thanks to his successful career as a photographer and was shortly off to do a wedding in Calcutta. Sally had finished a long yoga course in the Himalayas, as well as an 11 day silent meditation retreat, and she treated Fred and I to a yoga lesson on the terrace, we were poor pupils but loved it. Fred cried when we left them, Toan came especially to wave us off. Freya was working on a new clothing collection for her online Jack Fruit label, and commissioning the production of garments in Pushkar ready for the English festival season. Clarisse and Beulah were friends from Cornwall learning to make silver jewellery for a week, producing Christmas gifts that only their mothers would love (their words not mine). Clarisse had been travelling for 2 years and had no intention of stopping, Beulah was taking a break for a month pondering on what to do next. I spent a wonderful few hours chatting to Arienn, originally from Hungary she had spent years in advertising in London before finding a more peaceful meaningful life after travelling. She was in Pushkar designing jewellery for her online business ‘Bountiful Treasures’ and buying stones for her high end products. My old world of NHS Procurement met me in Pushkar when we got to know Julia and Dennis from Bath. They were on a trip to retrace the steps of her mother who had been brought up in India, but it wasn’t long before we were talking the challenges of orthopaedic joint procurement. There were even more people than this that we encountered, everyone of them added to our enjoyment. One of the real pleasures of travelling is having the time to relax into slow conversations with strangers who quickly become friends that you may, or may not, see again. I read a sign in a restaurant on Koh Lanta “We’re not strangers, we’re just friends who haven’t yet met”, it couldn’t be more true.
Of course the shop keepers in the busy Baazar quickly became our best friends, this was the only country in 6 months we were doing any shopping. The most special was Vipin who sat cross legged on his roll mat in his tiny shop and who, with a theatrically expressive treacle voice, declared “Oh……….My……….God” every time I emerged from behind his curtain in something else. He sent his contented second son out for Masala Chai, offered us a smoke (which we declined) and settled us in. When we asked the cost of any item he reassured us with a smiling assurance “Not very much”. If I asked if they had any other colours I was told “Of course….in India we have every colour”. Of course, because this is the land where ‘anything is possible’. We bought a lot from Vipin, in many colours….. One evening we popped in with my favourite outfit from his shop, he sped me off on his motorbike through the packed bazaar to a silver shop shouting to Dean, who was left standing at his shop door, “Don’t worry if I don’t bring her back - there are plenty more in India”.
Daily trips to the Bazaar brought us into contact with small children roaming the streets without adults. A group of three between 2 and 5 years old would grab hold of us as we passed over the bridge from the hotel to the bazaar, asking for biscuits. A little girl, filthy and ragged with matted hair, had perfected a “Photo? 10 rupees”. She held onto our clothing and slipped her fingers into mine. The hotel staff told us they were put there every day by their families, so with a heavy heart I gave them only a friendly smile. We will sponsor another child in India when we get home, as well as a granny.
We finally decided that we had to leave Pushkar or we would get forever stuck there. So we bade our goodbyes (which involved lots of selfies with the staff), which I’m sure is more of an ‘Au Dieu’, and a dozen or more new Facebook friends. A taxi took us to Bundi which doesn’t sit on a train line. The driver obliged us with a Chai stop, and the café filled up with the curious. A group of young men crowded into one another on the steps, intertwined and continuously added to, until finally a group of 20 had collected to sit and stare at us. We’ve learnt “Ram Ram” as our way of expressing thanks, this most Hindi of sayings is met with broad beams and a bit of a giggle. Of course the drive was as interesting as ever, the daily business of rural India is a look into the past before the Industrial Revolution, and you feel like you’re on the set of a Bollywood movie. Turns out they’re not that ridiculous after all, the only thing missing in reality is everyone bursting into a flashmob song and dance.
Carol our friend from Newark had recommended Bundi, her favourite stop on a 6 week tour of India. As we approached the town we got sight of the decadent sprawling sandstone palace set into the hillside. Like most old towns it was nestled in a narrow valley, imposing intact fortified walls running the length of surrounding hills. As we dropped down the holy lake, a mini Pushkar, came into view. We had learnt that ‘The Jungle Book’ was based on this town and its ancient buildings, and Rudyard Kipling had spent time living here finding inspiration for his works. Our hotel, more of a homestay, was basic but close to the lake. Its roof terrace gave wonderful views of the palace and lake, and like all the buildings here was fitted with grills to make it monkey proof. Once we settled in we set off in search of Kukki.
Our real reason for coming to Bundi was to take a guided tour with Kukki, an elderly self taught archaeologist who has discovered prehistoric rock paintings and artefacts in the countryside surrounding Bundi. Dean had come across him in Lonely Planet and we had made a booking by email. At a nearby lakeside restaurant we were met by Kukkis son, Kukki Jnr. Well fed, beaming, and bouncing with energy he ordered us Masala Chai and we took a seat under the shade of a tree beside the water. Kukki was busy the next day, but Kukki Jnr would take us out. He had planned a full day; rock paintings, waterfall swim, bird spotting, and a visit to a village family to play cricket (this one was just for Fred). Unlike his father he had trained as an archaeologist, the first of his family to get an education. Over our Chai he told the emotional story that charted the family history from their uprooting during the Partition and loss of everything, to the present day, his father’s amateur passion resulting in a profitable business that bought him and his sister an education. Our itinerary and start time agreed for the next day, Kukki Jnr left us to order a late lunch.
The simple family restaurant served us wonderful curries and stuffed breads, cooked by the wife in the tiny kitchen in the courtyard. Each item was individually prepared and freshly made, it took an hour for lunch to come. Meanwhile Fred had grown nervous about his lack of preparation for a game that is a religion in India, he’s new to cricket but had confidently blustered that he loved to play it. It had been gnawing at him since Kukki Jnr had announced he was organising a game of cricket with the villagers “Our very own Laagan” (the film where the Indian villagers take on and beat the British garrison team, secretly taught the rules and coached by the English rose fiancée of the commanding officer). Having ordered lunch Fred asked if we could find somewhere for him to practice / learn cricket. Thankfully a plastic bat and ball was to hand and I launched into a crash course in the rules of cricket in the courtyard. A scarlet bottomed monkey sat 6 feet from our rusted oil drum wicket looking on with puzzlement. Fred cracked it quickly thanks to keen hand to eye co-ordination, and commitment to learn out of fear of humiliation the next day.
An evening stroll through the narrow dirt streets of Bundi was a delight. The Palace glowed a deep orange beautifully up lit, the cupola’s cast magnificent gothic shadows on the intricate façade. Cows, stray dogs, and pigs vied with the motorbikes (no room for cars), squeezing through the open vast teak wood city gates studded with iron Elephant spikes. It’s supposed to be high season for tourists, but the demonetarisation crisis has hit hard. Indian tourists are lacking, they have no cash to dispose of, and many international tourists have cancelled their bookings, diverting to Nepal and other parts of Asia. With warmth and gentleness we were welcomed as we walked the streets, we stopped occasionally for a chat. At a small shop front we paused, wondering what the metal tins were. It was a ‘General Store’ we were told, spices and other food produce stored in the decorated boxes. As we chatted with the owner a young boy approached and with a wide smile and maturity beyond his years invited us to his restaurant. We climbed the narrow steep stairs to the roof terrace, brought to a halt by the appearance of a green parrot on the first floor landing. He was quickly placed on Fred’s finger and started chatting away to us all with the most delightful cooing. Mum appeared, starting a conversation with the parrot who replied to each sentence. We eventually made it to the terrace which had stunning views of the illuminated palace. Despite a late lunch we treated ourselves to some Pakore (deep fried frittered veg) and herbal teas. As we got out our cards we were joined by a huge male monkey that had navigated the rope netting designed to keep them out. Like a shot it charged to the doorway and made its way down the stairs. I ran after shouting that a monkey was ‘in the house’. It was soon making a return dash hotly pursued by the father of the family. The monkey left as sneakily as it arrived, but it went out with a bang as Dad let off a fire cracker that deafened us. For good measure he lit another which promptly exploded as it left his hand. Our ears were ringing for some time and Fred was left slack jawed but highly amused that everything he had learnt about firework handling was being ignored with wild abandon. Dad then sat down to join us followed by Mum. They were great company and fun for the rest of the evening – we’re not strangers, just friends who haven’t yet met.
In the morning we found Kukki Jnr stood beside a tiny minivan that would be our carriage for the day out. We set off with water supplied and the promise of a day we wouldn’t forget. How true that was. It took us nearly an hour of terrible roads, busy villages, quiet country lanes to get to the first stop in a National Forest. All the way Kukki Jnr taught us about Bundi, Indian village life, and what we were seeing around us. It turned out that the men on motorbikes, with huge shiny curvaceous brass urns were taking the milk from their cows to the city to sell. Lorries, like obese old ladies bulging out of their tent dresses, were transporting hay for cattle under the canvas that was twice the size of the lorries themselves. The old men sat round the Chai stands, in white cloth kicche (traditional loin cloths) and fuscia pink woven twisted turbans, were the village elders who had earnt the right to wear their crowns. The small kids, carrying large bundles of firewood between distant homesteads, were not at school because their parents couldn’t afford the £100 a year to send them to the state schools. Fred couldn’t believe that the teenagers, washing in the post monsoon natural pool in the middle of nowhere at the roadside, were having their morning bath. They would put on their uniforms after drying hopping, three at a time on to a bike if they were lucky, or walk if not. Homemade fabric tents appeared in the forest, families have brought their cattle, buffalo, and goats to graze for a few months, before they return home many miles from here. We’ve become so used to the chaotic and unfathomable road rules that we barely noticed the cars driving the wrong way down the road, or the times we over (or undertook) with no line of sight. Despite this we arrived, bumped and battered, at the lake that feeds one of India’s most impressive waterfalls.
A large river feeds the giant waterfall that descends into a vast gorge with a 300 meter drop. Buffalo bathed in the icy water, submerged to their nostrils, their tiny ebony coloured guardians sat cross legged on the bank. We navigated the feeder river by bridge and were met by troops of monkeys. Two Italians had joined us for the rock painting visit and we set off through the brush, Kukki Jnr stopping to point out wildlife along the way. A 20 minute walk brought us to a vertical drop which we would have to climb down to find the prehistoric rock painting. Kukki’s father had discovered his first rock painting in the 1990’s, exploring the area alone after years of collecting evidence of early human population in the form of primitive tools, he has now discovered over 100 rock paintings. Kukki Jnr moved large branches that he and his father had placed over the start of the climb to mask the entrance and we started to navigate the rock face. Fred went first with Kukki Jnr and we knew we were in for a treat when we heard him excitedly exclaim “Oh my God its amazing”. Sure enough a cavernous overhang provided perfect protection for early man. East facing, sheltered from rain and sun, a blackened roof was the result of fires lit to maintain warmth. In the deepest sections, perfectly lit but protected from the sun, were the paintings. These are the third oldest in the world, after the aboriginal and French cave paintings, only in France you can’t actually see the originals any more. It was stunning to see them close up perfectly preserved in this dry climate. He explained them to us, and how his father had a dream where the Shaman came to him revealing their purpose, a novel theory which he had presented to international experts at a conference a few years earlier. The Shaman had told him in his dream that they were a diagram of how to defend against wild animals, and catch them for food. An early blackboard for braves. The first painting had unclothed people, gender easily identifiable if not quite anatomically accurate. The women carried the spears and arrows, making themselves large standing on tiptoes with arms outstretched. A later painting showed people clothed in skins, and the final painting was an intricate depiction of the wildlife. The remnants of a fire still sat next to us beneath the charcoaled ceiling, todays shaman still use the cave to call the spirits of their ancestors, and we drifted back to a time 15,000 years ago. A magical moment. As we sat there Kukki arrived with two Japanese guests. In his 60s his enthusiasm bubbled out of him. He told us more of his story and that of the caves, it is no wonder he is an Indian national treasure and Lonely Planet star pick for India. Before we parted he treated us to a rendition of a Bollywood classic that had us grinning from ear to ear.
Next stop was the waterfall, our Italian companions left us and we began the walk down the steep steps to the turquoise pool at the bottom. Monkeys lined the path giving us the evil eye, we were very much in their territory. The fall is stunning. The black strata rock, layers that resemble a giant brick wall, protrude unevenly making for hundreds of small glistening fountains. The sun turned it into a white diamante cascade that threw out dozens of rainbows. We were hot and sweaty after our walk and ready for a swim. Sliding gingerly down a flat boulder we slipped between the rocks into the freezing water. Not deterred by the shock I defiantly swam out of the shade into the sun lying on my back to look up at the fall and surrounding jungle. Primitive man had it right; Location, Location, Location.
We walked back up the steps, past a shaman who spends his day at a temple half way down, and sat on the steps of a deserted building to have lunch that Kukki Jnr’s wife and mother had prepared. Into scraps of newspaper he placed a Puri bread that would hold a samosa which was then topped with garlic and tomato sauce and a coriander sauce. It was divine simplicity which we wolfed down. We caught the shadow of a monkey on the roof, directly overhead, others appeared and we knew we were surrounded. It was time to leave. We suffered only one monkey attack which was fast and furious, I sacrified my last Puri bread to save my fingers.
Enthralled by what we had seen and experienced we smiled all the way to our next stop, a tiny village down a narrow track. Kukki Jnr knew a family here and we were to be their guests for Masala Chai and a game of cricket with the boys in the family. Grandma (Daddi in Hindi) was a beaming bejewelled delight swathed in a bright orange sari. She’s a shamen with the gift of foresight. Daddi would have performed her ceremony and revealed our future for us, only it wasn’t Monday and the spirits only come to her on a Monday. Instead, with 5 of her 6 grandchildren, we hung out in her garden on daybeds, drank tea and played cricket. A calf was tied to a tree behind the bowling position with its mother a few paces away basking in the sun. The family parrot came to all of us, free to leave at any time, perfectly settled in its human family. We’d brought a dozen packets of Jim Jam biscuits for the kids which they shyly took and shared out. The children were a delight, a world away from the spoilt rich kids of the west. Their cricket bat was a small piece of wood fashioned from a redundant plank, the ball was bald. It’s a place where kids go to school if their parents can afford the £100 a year for a state school. Few go to school.
A delightful soul warming hour later Daddi left her grandchildren at home to visit her 6th near Bundi, catching a ride with us in our cramped mini van. She was taking milk in a small urn which we padded with loo roll when the bumpy ride started to spill its contents on her orange robes. She held my hand tightly and kissed me, as she had Fred, as we sat side by side. She admired our Chaing Mai Elephant Nature Park water bottles so we happily gifted her one. She looked like she had won the lottery and was going to give it to her granddaughter. As she left us 20 minutes later the tears started, mine not hers. These people are beautiful. We were dropped back at the hotel, hugs all round from Kukki Jnr, and a promise from him to come and see us off at the night bus the next day. Tired but invigorated we found another delightful rooftop ‘Tom and Jerry’s café’ to eat and play cards. We slept well that night.
We set off for breakfast out and a visit to the ruined palace and fort after a lazy start. We climbed the steep stairs of ‘The Rainbow Café’, passing grandma at the mid point on her day bed peeling boiled tomatoes for the restaurant. Fresh fruit, pancakes, and a toasted egg sandwichs set us up for our sightseeing. Poorly equipped in flip flops we made heavy work of the smooth vertical cobbles on the wide sweep up to the decaying palace. Fully intact, but abandoned long ago, monkeys, bats and other wildlife have staked their claim. Wild roses climb the walls and weeds have taken root between the slabs of marble. Two young men took us into locked rooms to show us the delicate painted decorated panels, perfectly preserved from the 1600s. Black speckled Belgian glass still adorned the mirrored rooms. We peeked into a room to see hundreds of giant bats suspended, slumbering. Narrow staircases took us to chambers that overlooked Bundi and its hills, windows made of carved marble screens. Once colourful paintwork was now faded, but lying down on the floor to look at the ceilings which had seen no sun, we got an insight into the lush colours that would have adorned every wall. We took the cobbled path up to the Queen’s Palace, the rose garden still maintained with bright bushes bursting in pinks and purples against the lush grass. At the centre was a square marble pool, a carved seating area on each side. I reclined for a picture only missing the wine and opium which the Maharaja’s wives whiled away their days with. An elderly guide took us into the main painted room which told the story palace life. The drunk wife was held up by a servant as another topped up her glass. The Maharaja looked down on his wives from a turret, their nakedness lit by the moonlight. A desolate wife stood alone in the garden, abandoned for a younger beauty in his collection of 60 wives. Eunuchs gossiped at the poolside refilling the hookah’s with opium. Dean was taken to one side for a lengthy whispering session before we entered an inner room, he could explain to Dean the purpose of the room was but not in front of Fred and I. The detailed Karma Sutra panels in the dark room needed little explanation, even Fred cottoned on. I guess with 60 wives the Maharaja would have needed inspiration to maintain the momentum.
Our final stop required a walk to the top of the hillside to get into the fort. The man on the last gate house had given us a stick to carry and instructions to not look the monkeys in the eye, keep the stick down and only raise it if we were attacked. By now Dean was cursing my insistence of style over practicality; I’d stopped him wearing his walking shoes and his slip on timberlands were not up to the task, nor were my flip flops. Fred picked up thorns through his Crocs but battled bravely on. Monkeys lined the narrow dirt path screeching at us and my nerve wobbled; Planet of the Apes. We felt the dark oppressive atmosphere of the latest remake of The Jungle Book as we moved in a tight single file, smallest member of our pack sandwiched between us. We stepped into the past through the first of several 30 meter high gates in the solid fortress wall, vast wooden doors and fearsome iron spikes intact. Inside the fort nature had run rampant. A vast stone stepped pool 20x20 meters had been engineered into the rock, it was as perfect as a concrete structure. We climbed some open vine covered steps to the top of the wall and took in the vista. Eerie and empty it was a spine tingling experience and we gladly started our descent ready to return to the present. We stopped at a café in the palace grounds sitting on a roof top overlooking the blue and white painted houses of Bundi. A child flew a kite from the flat roof of his house, we watched it getting entangled in the overhead power cables. We decided to have a late lunch and early dinner back at ‘The Rainbow Café’ enjoying the tomatoes we’d seen being prepared by grandma. Our return business earnt us a warm welcome and a stunning meal.
Our hosts at the hostel had looked after us wonderfully, organising cash and bus tickets, but we didn’t get to say goodbye because a family member had been rushed to hospital. The 13 year old younger brother was left in charge. By the time we left grandad had taken over and had bizarrely been joined by our elderly guide from the Ladies Palace who was now only dressed in a loin cloth, neighbours were gathering to catch up on the family drama. A Tuk Tuk took us on a bone crunching ride to the night bus stop and sure enough Kukki Jnr turned up to see us off. He had brought Fred and Dean a coin each from his store of antiquities that they will treasure. We gave him pencils and pens for the village children, and he stood and sketched a picture on the spot, soon surrounded by curious onlookers. In the cold of the night a family with 5 children waited, they were there when we arrived and there when we left. We gave them some of our left over biscuit packets and blankets to keep the small children wrapped up. Having established there would be no blankets on the night bus I had no choice but to take them back as we boarded, and rued the day that I had couriered the others home from Pushkar. With a 12 hour ride through the night and no toilet Kukki Jnr took us to the Sikh temple next to the bus stand. Beautifully clean and ordered, beds were laid out and food was available for those who have no home or shelter. They welcomed us in. I wished we’d found the time to visit the Punjab, we will in the future and I’d like to see if we could volunteer at one of the Sikh refuges open to all comers.
The night bus was not quite as described and a long way from the luxury of Argentinian night buses. Our reserved full length beds were full of opportunists who had not booked beds, and they were turfed out by a friend of Kukki’s who was determined to see us safely ensconced. Fred and I got into our double compartment and slotted all our rucksacks at our feet. Dean was across the passage in a narrow single of coffin sized proportion cubicle. Fred was full of excitement, I thought we were going to die. We got out our water and biscuits, turning on head torches to read kindles. Fred drifted off almost immediately and I avoided gazing at the faeces on the ceiling, but struggled to ignore the stench of inhuman odors and filth of the bed. Thankfully we had hoodies and I pulled them up over both of our heads providing a barrier to the grime we would lie in until Delhi. I also reminded myself that I wasn’t one of the 20 people piled on top of cargo in the rear of the bus. We all woke a few times in the night but largely slept well, my dreams punctuated by thoughts of death and my wakeful moments offering prayers of thanks that I’d had a few more hours on this earth. I slept through a near death experience that Dean relayed, and in the morning found God again. Still it only cost us £20 and we arrived in Delhi with our lives and luggage intact.
We had booked into Harry Pokko’s back in the main baazar and it felt like returning home. This part of Delhi is crazy busy, impoverished, but the real Delhi and we love it here. We went straight back to Madan’s for food and tea’s sitting at the roadside table. A succession of the underclass stopped to ask for food. An elderly lady that can’t speak, only makes noises, joined us for a cup of black Chai. With sign language she told us her story and expressed her joy at meeting us. She refused food and the owners refused our offer to pay for her drink; they supply her with one every day. A barefoot girl about 6, in filthy rags and bushy hair took up our offer of food. I ordered her a thali, and whilst she waited for it the owner brought her a half eaten plate left by a customer. Fred passed her his half drunk Lassi with a fresh straw. I sat and smiled at her, the smiles half returned, self- consciousness and shame have already visited her. Behind the dark glasses my eyes filled, and I caught the involuntary heave of emotion before it slipped out. She finished her food and slipped silently away. The painfully skinny teenager (think Belsen) we’d come across last time we’d been here appeared. We asked him to sit down but he skitted off, only to return with 3 of his mates. They lingered outside the seating area asking for food, the young waiter took my order of 4 rice and breads. The owner came along and I thought we would be in trouble for turning his restaurant front into a soup kitchen, instead he got the boys to sit down at the table and told me it was better for me to buy them an egg sandwich each, quicker and more nutritious. As they waited, the skinniest looking vacant and faint, one of them who was without an arm started to speak to me in English. He was clever, smiling, sweet, warm, curious, and dreadfully embarrassed about his stump. They were street kids living under the arches of the flyover, they tried to eek a living collecting rubbish or picking up an errand. There was something very special about him, I wanted to bring him home with me. You can’t spend time with the street people and leave without making commitments to yourself to use your money to make a difference, we won’t have to think about our New Year’s resolution this year.
We hope to load more pictures later
For me this trip is all about having a great adventure with my family. Its taken years for us to finally stop talking about it and do it - simply because it both excites and frightens the life out me! So I'm stepping out of corporate life, where I singularly failed to achieve a work/life balance....to experience different cultures and spend time with those I love xx