We’ve been in India for 6 days now, and it’s hard to know where to start with this stunning country. It feels like we’ve experienced every extreme in that short time, but we know we’ve only just scratched the surface. India is a crazy beauty that stimulates all your senses, and gives rise to a full gamut of emotions. Its people are beautiful and intense, with a vibrancy that is reflected in the rainbow of colours they fashion. The landscape and buildings provide a feast for your eyes, it’s impossible to pick up a book on a train journey, however long, you just want to drink in the sights as you pass though cities and countryside. On top of this we have arrived in the middle of a commercial revolution; the boldest demonetarisation undertaken in any country in the world, which has brought commerce grinding to a halt.
I had insisted on India being included in our itinerary. Many years ago, I read ‘A Suitable Boy’ by Vikram Seth. It captured my heart and imagination. The film ‘Lagaan’ added to my wanderlust. Dean was less keen due to an unhappy transit through Delhi airport a few years ago. He landed back in England swearing never to set foot in India again. George, who owns and runs our favourite restaurant in Newark ‘Koinonia’, is from Kerala and over the last few years has whetted our appetite for the south. We’ve committed, and failed numerous years to make it to Kerala for Christmas, and I think George had given up on us. This trip gave us the opportunity to put that right. One of the first things we agreed on, when planning the trip, was Christmas in Christian Kerala. But for me the palaces and forts of ancient Rajasthan still called. So, we settled on 3 weeks in the North of India and a flight to Bangalore for a 3-week trip through Kerala to finish our six months. Ever since we’ve been nervous as hell. However, the benefit of having India at the end of our trip is we’ve not only become more experienced travellers, but also met other travellers who have shared their wonderful Indian adventures and prepared us for our time here. Mark, who we spent 3 weeks with on Koh Lanta Island, and Richard our friend in Canberra, have both spent many months in India over the years. Other travellers we met had years of India experience between them. By the time we stepped off the plane at Delhi, we had become excited and were ready to be thrilled. We took Richard and Mark’s advice, and agreed we would not dismiss and shoo away the locals, but instead embrace them with warm smiles and open ourselves to engagement and conversation. What great advice they gave us, and how easy it has been to follow it.
Our arrival in Delhi was eventful from the start. Happily, Dean was let into the country despite his appearance being radically different to his passport photo. He matched his India visa, which seems to be the hardest document in the world to obtain. So only a smile and a joke from the Immigration Officer held us up. Our bags came off quickly and we entered the hall to find huge ATM queues. We ignored them assuming we could pick up our Rupees easily in Delhi where we would spend 2 nights before moving on. Big mistake, but I shall come to that in due course……. Our hostel driver was not there to meet us, but eventually turned up. We had to wait for another couple who had still not appeared from the hall, due to ATM queues, for another hour. More accurately after an hour we gave up and Dean called the hostel, miraculously another driver appeared in 10 minutes and took us on our way. We never got to the bottom of that one. We left the quiet boulevards of the airport approach roads and soon hit the horn honking gridlock that is Delhi. As we did so, tiny children appeared at our windows doing cartwheels in the inches between the cars, and mothers with babies offered up cheap plastic toys for sale. Our driver turned out of the traffic and we were soon in a rat run teaming with monkeys and lumbering cows.
We were staying in the heart of the old bazaar. It was an utterly insane place. Tiny streets lined with the old buildings of Delhi, were a slow-moving mass of Tuk Tuks, Rickshaws, cars, motorbikes and lorries. People somehow squeezing and weaving between the vehicles, the odd cow trundling along, roaming free. All this accompanied by the ever-present cacophony of horns. There appeared to be no traffic rules at all, and 6 days on we still have no idea about the protocols for horn usage. We pulled up, rather ominously, in the heart of the bazaar. There was no sign of accommodation and I was loathed to get out and be dropped amid this insanity. A man suddenly appeared from our hostel and we set off with our backpacks. After a few steps, we turned off into a narrow lane to be hit by the stench of the open latrine that served as the public toilets. My confidence in Dean’s booking waned dramatically as we picked our way to the stares of the back-lane shopkeepers. But after a few meters we arrived at our hostel and to our relief it was an oasis in the middle of the madness. Dean had come up trumps again.
After an explore of the roof terrace and a shower we set off to find some food somewhere that would take cards, as we had now established that we would not be able to get cash from an ATM. They were either empty or the queues were 5 hours long. Dean changed $20 of our emergency dollars with the hostel owner to see us through the next day. The bazaar was hair raising to walk through, Fred clutched tightly as we tried to fathom a route between the traffic, people and cows. None of the restaurants the hostel had said would take cards did. We eventually landed on Madan’s Café a narrow haunt with tables packed in. They didn’t take cards either, but the owner, Pau, insisted we eat there, we could pay anytime, whenever we could get cash he said. He meant it. We ordered Lassi’s to drink and Thali to eat, and Fred overwhelmed and emotional after a long and testing day dropped his head on the table ready to cry. Just at that moment I spotted a boy nearly his age. The boy’s mother got up and invited Fred to come and say hello. Within a few minutes Fred had made best of friends with Eli, an Australian 10-year-old who had been travelling for 6 months with his parents. Hope, his mother, came and joined us. Like us, Hope had no cash, and having been in Delhi for a day already confirmed that it was unlikely that we would get any without hours of queuing at an ATM. Also like us she was eating on tick at the invitation of the owner. As the boys chatted animatedly, Fred fully recovered and bolstered by finding a delightful English speaking traveller his own age, we discussed the money situation and swapped travelling stories with Hope. Her husband Rob was in Australia to attend his brother’s wedding, returning in a day, so she was having to manage alone but would have Australian dollars to exchange in just over 24 hours as Rob flew in. Raul from Holland joined us on our bench. Every year this well-worn impoverished looking traveller spends months in India. He had managed to get money that day and we picked his brains on where to go to try.
All through this meal and travellers’ tale telling a microcosm of the bazaar played out in front of us. A man sat outside the Café on the floor sorting rubbish. Raul had brought him some old jumpers from his hostel room, its winter in India and the nights are cold. Gloria, a 70-year-old American lady who spends 6 months of every year in India, brought him a black bin liner of water bottles she collected from her hotel for him. He gets paid by the KG for these bottles which are then recycled. Someone else bought him a meal. Tiny, dark, silent, and birdlike he crouched on his haunches watching us. Pau had left the restaurant and returned with an elderly western woman wearing a sari that still revealed her jet black dyed hair. She scowled and spat out words in fluent Hindi, bloated crimson hands bringing her cigarette to her lips. Pau accidentally spilt a small amount of Lassi on her and she slapped him and violently let forth a volley of Hindi expletives before scurrying into the back of the café to mutter to herself. We found out the next day that she arrived in India in the 60s and strong opiates were responsible for her distended feet and hands. We marvelled with Hope that she was still alive. Beggars stopped but we offered only food. None was taken. Mafia rings run the begging and begging spots are ‘owned’ by the rings. The rings want cash not well fed beggars, emaciated yields better profits. After wonderful food and hospitality, and an eye opening 2 hours we retreated from the madness to our hostel, with arrangements made for Hope and Eli to join our trip around Delhi the next day. An elderly lady lay sleeping on the floor, no bedding and no blanket, wedged up against a parked motorbike. She wasn’t part of a ring. It is singularly the most heart wrenching thing I’ve seen.
We had hired a private car through the hostel, which we could use a card to pay for, to take us to the sights. At breakfast, we put the bananas and packaged muffins in our bags to give to the old lady we had seen asleep on the floor the night before. After collecting Hope and Eli from their hotel we set off, cramped in the car, giving instructions to our driver that we could only visit sights that were free and needed to find an ATM during our day out. Our first stop was the beautiful main Krishna temple. Shoes and cameras were locked away before we entered. The architecture was decadently decorative, pinks and golds adorning every inch. We explained to a shocked Fred the appropriation of the swastika by Hitler, 6 days in and I still struggle when I see it everywhere, wondering why on earth Hitler would choose a symbol from a peaceful Indian sub-continent religion. I need to find some time to research that. We were given a wonderful talk by one of the monks receiving offerings for Shiva at a shrine in the temple. We earnt a grey Bindi for our foreheads, leaving with some good old fashioned advice for the boys on working hard, and a better understanding of the Krishna faith. Next stop was an ATM. The first machine we came to had some people outside so we pulled over. However, it was empty as many are now, but those outsides were filming for India TV News, the main 24/7 news channel. Our driver was asked if we would be happy to be interviewed for the lunchtime news. We said yes and trooped out for our moment of Indian fame. Arranged in a tight semi-circle, Hope, Dean and I were each asked a question on the situation, the boys excitedly beaming at the interviewer. It was all quite thrilling but unfortunately we would not get the opportunity to see our piece to camera on the midday news.
Finally, we found an ATM with cash on Connaught Square. With hope in our hearts and Hope by our side we stood in the queue of 30 or more people, and the boys made friends with some Indian men who were hanging out. The queue moved at a snail’s pace, a slow machine, and people using ATMs and cards for the first time. It was here that we learnt the detail of what was going on. Modi is the working class Prime Minister from an impoverished background who has a successful reforming track record as Chief Minister for the Gujarat region. His party won an overwhelming majority in the last election, ousting the corrupt ruling class Congress Party that has been led by Indira Gandhi’s descendants since her assassination. Only 1% of people pay tax in India, and like Argentina it is a black / grey market cash economy. To address rampant corruption and the lack of funds for public services; education, development and sanitation improvement, Modi has committed to overhaul the commercial system. He needs to flush out the black-market cash hoarded at home by rich Indians and get tax paid on it. To make this money visible, collecting tax on it retrospectively, he has abolished the old 2000 (£25) and 500 (£6) rupee note, replacing it with new notes. All the old notes must be turned into the banks by 15 December or they become invalid. Indians with money therefore must bring their money to the banks to change for new money, in this process they should provide evidence of where this money has come from and tax paid on it. If there is no evidence of tax paid they must pay the current rate of tax on it. The practical impact is the banks have long queues of people waiting to change the old notes, and when new notes are issued it is largely the new 2000 rupees. However, the new notes are a vast sum in India and change for these notes is now running out. The central bank underestimated the requirement for more 100 rupee notes to keep the system liquid, providing change for the new large notes. To spread the cash distribution everyone is limited to a maximum 2,000-rupee withdrawal a day (tourists 2,500). However, as a tourist, even if you get your hands on 2000 rupees you struggle to use it because the everyday traders don’t have change for that kind of note on a 20-rupee transaction. Despite the chaos being caused, people not buying and having to queue for 5 hours a day to get cash out, the vast majority of Indians support this, only the rich or corrupt object. Queues are patient and there is a real acceptance that they are prepared to suffer real hardship for a few weeks to build a better India.
We successfully got 2,500 each out at the ATM, and feeling flush with cash we set off for our next stop the Lotus Temple. A long queue nearly put us off, but it was moving fast and we were inside the elegant grounds in 15 minutes. Like Sydney Opera House, the Lotus Temple is made of cream tiles that shine like a white plastic in the sun. You follow the long beautiful path up to the holy waters that surround the Lotus Temple before circling up into it. It was here that we got our first taste of Indians wanting a selfie with us. Fred with his blonde hair and radical haircut is a hit. My blonde hair and pale skin, comparatively as I’m sporting quite a golden tan, is a favourite with the sari clad ladies. Dean doesn’t do too badly looking like a white Sikh, he’s been asked several times if he’s from the Punjab. As a holy place, where you can take a camera, lots of Indian tourists visit. Consequently, many visitors from rural areas have not been around, or met, westerners. Requests for photos doubled the time it would have taken to do this visit otherwise. We felt quite sorry for Hope and Eli having to linger for us. Hope is half Philippine and half white British, consequently after 6 months travelling her and Eli look almost Indian, and since her blonde husband Rob left for the wedding they’ve not had to stop often for photos. We did our best to keep moving but it was slow progress, we didn’t want to offend parents throwing their children at us for a photo op. In the temple, we got some respite and sat quietly in the pews enjoying the silence. The temple is home to a new religion ‘Baha’i’ with a wonderful central aim to unite all religions to bring harmony. All faiths visit this temple and all are considered equal. By now starving we made our way back through the crowds, being stopped for more photos, and let our driver take us to a restaurant that took cards where he would get a free meal and commission. Five of us ate for £15, a wonderful but expensive meal for India, however we got the use of western toilets and left restored.
Our final stop was The Red Fort, the place you’ve got to visit if you come to Delhi. As a tourist, you pay 10 times that of an Indian for all attractions, still a paltry amount compared to the UK. It was £6 each for adults and children were free. In Jaipur, we met some people from the North West of England grumbling about the ‘thieving Indians’ and the inflated entrance fee for foreigners. We felt embarrassed at their ignorance and wondered if they had any appreciation of the tiny amount of money locals earn and just how rich we are compared to them. The Fort was stunning and wonderfully unkempt. Colonial barracks had been constructed during the days of the Empire, sitting alongside the open rooms of the Maharajas palace. It was a Sunday and family day for Indians. Immediately we were besieged for photos, often starting with shy requests that you are only too glad to oblige. Fred was warming to the theme, smiling on cue and deciding that he rather liked fame. I suggested he see how he felt about it at the end of 6 weeks. We spent a gorgeous 2 hours exploring and only touched the surface of the site, you could spend a day here. On the walk, back out at closing time we passed the vacant colonnaded Commanding Officers residence, long grasses and rusting iron garden furniture left in situ. It was all so romantically evocative of bygone times. Just what I wanted to experience. Exhausted, grimy, but fulfilled we drove back to our hostels to repair ourselves before dinner at Madan Café again with Eli and Hope.
The next day was a 5:45 start to walk the deserted streets of the Bazaar to Old Delhi Train station. The sun had not risen and cold of Indian winter nights still lingered on the narrow dirt main road. Our only company was a handful porters pulling empty wooden carts, and Tuk Tuk drivers who woke bleary eyed from sleep in their open cabs to call us for business. As soon as we hit the station the bustle returned, but we found our platform easily and sat on our backpacks to wait for the Express Train that would take us to Jaipur. Around us people waited and station porters slept on their carts with just a blanket for warmth. Perfectly on time our long train emerged, 30 plus carriages, and we climbed onto our luxury seating in 1st Class Air Con. Staff brought us trays with newspaper, cups and bottles of water and we settled down to enjoy the 5-hour ride. It was as we pulled out of the station that we got our first real sight of mass poverty. People sleeping under railway arches among dirt and rubbish, those who were awake picked through the residue of the lives of others, searching for food or something to sell. Lining the route out of Delhi shanty settlements of plastic sheeting and other materials made for more luxurious dwellings. Beyond the makeshift housing decorative rendered houses painted in multi colours were waking up. The sun rose as we emerged into verdant green countryside. In neat fields the women were out tending goats and crops clad in vibrant sari’s, heads covered by orange shawls to shield them from the sun. Breakfast arrived, breaded deep fried vegetables with peas and rice. It was delicious. We caught up on the news reading The India Times, dominated by news of the cash crisis and the government’s response. It is the season for farmers to buy seeds and fertiliser and Modi has directed cash to the villages for the next 2 days to enable them to trade. He has also given permission for agrarian merchants to accept the old notes and can swap them in at later dates. This huge experimental overhaul is requiring the government to adapt implementation daily to the challenges being thrown up. I just can’t imagine any government in the developed world being this bold and brave for the benefit of the poor and long term health of a country, challenging the establishment and corporate norms.
On arrival, our driver, organised by our Airbnb, found us after a 15-minute delay. We’re at the wrong exit. As we’ve waited men come up to us looking for business. We stick to our plan and engage in conversation. They are respectful and curious. Fred and his hair is the main conversation point. We have fun with them, leaning in to their intimacy and lack of boundaries. Sabir Ali is our driver, extremely tall, beanpole thin, and very dark skinned. As he takes us to the Explorers Nest he offers his services for sightseeing, producing a beautifully bound notebook full of handwritten endorsements by tourists of all nationalities. We agree a price for the rest of the day and the next of £25, and he promises to help us find cash. He sees us to the home of Lt Col Arvind and his wife. It’s a leafy cul de sac in the heart of Jaipur, walking distance to the Pink City, set over 3 floors with a roof terrace that has view of the Amber Fort in the hills above the city. We relax for a couple of hours on the cool first floor balcony before Sabir picks us up, chatting with Arvind as his Nepalese houseman serves us toasted cheese sandwiches. We learn more about the support for Modi and his reforms, and the endemic corruption that has hindered the lives of ordinary Indians. Things are hard even for this household, they don’t have the cash to replenish their stocks of vegetables and drinks for guests, his wife make daily visits to the bank to wait in line for ATMs to dispense the money that is like gold dust.
Sabir picks us up in his white car and takes us around the city sights. Far less polluted than Delhi, it is nevertheless packed and progress is slow. We start by driving through the Pink City, more orange than pink, it is nevertheless a confectionary of juicy concentrated food colouring and moulded fondant icing. Noisy and packed, men sit in groups at the front of each shop reading papers, playing dominos, and chewing the cud to the backdrop of honking horns. Our skin has dried out, dust is everywhere, the dry heat of India is a contrast to the humidity of Thailand. We decide we need to find baby oil to smooth our scaly skin. We decamp from the car at the oldest palace in Puskar and make our way down a narrow lane. A fee of £25 buys us all a 2-day pass for all the sights in and around Jaipur. We take the marble steps up into the main quad of the Maharajas palace which has an elaborate fountain in the centre. Carved pillars support the balconies above from which hand worked edging cascades. There are 365 small windows in this palace that is built over 5 floors, each one smaller than the one below. We make our way up through the floors until we stand, like the bride and groom, at the top of this wedding cake admiring the view of the city and the hills surrounding it. At every turn groups of young men and women, families, and school groups stop and ask for photos. The trick is to keep moving, when you stop someone plucks up the courage to ask and before long a hoard of people have gathered, moving in for ‘Just one photo please Ma’am’. It never is just one photo; members of groups and families are rotated until a whole album has been created with every member of the family appearing in combination with us.
Next up, the Prince Albert Museum, a multi-national collection of antiquities housed in a palace built for a visit to Jaipur by Prince Albert. We admire the ancient coins, art, weaponry, industrial art, painted panels telling the story of Hindu Gods and prophets, amongst other displays. It’s an impressive collection that we can linger over in the cool of the interior, at least we linger if we dare but not long enough to appear in more family albums and Instagram pages. But of course, we don’t escape, and we smile broadly for each photo.
Sabir takes next to a Maharaja’s mausoleum on the outskirts. Its stunningly beautiful with not a soul in sight. The monument, more open pillared buildings set in beautifully tendered rose gardens, covers 5 acres. It’s in the hillside and the fortified walls of Jaipur, which extend out and up the steep hills from the thick outer walls guarding the remains of a past ruler, remind you of the Great Wall of China. Stray dogs have made their beds in the courtyards and wild peacocks take flight when we appear. Fred has acquired Henna on both his forearms from a friend of Sabir, a 10-minute job to decorate has cost us a ridiculous amount (£12), but for Sabir we don’t negotiate as he’ll get 50% commission and we’re being too polite. Fred walks around with his arms extended allowing the thick goo to dry for at least an hour.
Our final stop is the Monkey Temple. We refuse the pressing offer from hawkers to buy monkey nuts but take up one of the young guides to show us around. We can pay what we like, a neat trick that always makes you pay more than you could. We forget his name but he’s a delight. We climb up the narrow winding cobble stones covered in monkeys, there are hundreds here in large troops. Mothers carry babies in their arms, some nursing them. Youngsters bound along, sticking close to their family groups. Some ride the pigs that are everywhere. Litters of piglets snuffle the walled edges of the steep path, moving out of the way of roaming cows. We see our first genetic mutation, revered in India, a cow that looks like its half way through calving. It isn’t, instead it has an extra 2 stunted legs protruding from near its tail. A man in robes offers us a photo for money, we decline. Our 17-year-old guide indulges Fred in some parkour, they run up the smooth rock face that lies between the hairpin bends of the cobbled path. We finally make it to the top where an open flat roofed building sits and admire the most stunning views of the city. Fred has disappeared with our guide; we are called out of the cool to see them atop of the building waving for photos. I gulp at the sight but remain calm, the temple children in tattered clothing have danced along the walls we’ve climbed with kites held aloft and survived. We sit down, the four of us, and wait for sunset. Jubilant clashing music drowns out the horns of the city, it’s a wedding party taking place in an arena the size of a premiership football club. We can see it from our vantage point. This is wedding season, a disastrous time for this de-monetarisation, but despite stories of weddings being cancelled we will see many wedding horses trotting through city streets. This one is a grand wedding and we are told it will last 5 days and cost over £100,000. As the sun starts to go down the arena below is lit up, neon pink and bright white lights illuminate the festivities. There must be over 1,000 people at the wedding party. The sun starts to set and we make sure we put down our cameras to enjoy it. It’s wonderful. In the dusk, we descend, two robed temple monks are sat on a roof top chatting. They smile and wave and let us take a picture of them surrounded by monkeys. They don’t ask for cash and our guide tells us that they are real holy men, not one of the pretend hawkers that hang out around the city. We pay our guide 200 rupees on the way down because he doesn’t want his boss to know how much he got. The £2.50 we paid him puts a smile on his face and we say goodbye, avoiding calls to buy food and drink from stall holders.
Back at our retreat a Thali was cooked for us and we wolfed it down. Arvind and his wife joined us for dinner. We discussed Indian politics, relations with Pakistan, and the monetary crisis. We move on to their experiences over the last 9 years of running Explorers Nest. They have us in fits of laughter at the story of a 45-year-old Englishman who arrived 3 years ago to buy a camel and ride it across the Indian desert. He had been on a camel safari when he was in his 20s and decided to fulfil his dream of making a solo crossing of a desert by camel. His family had clubbed together to provide the £800 for a camel and provisions. Arvind and his wife decided to join him in making his purchase, and allowed him to park his camel outside for a night. A night turned into 3 until the camel ran away. It was tracked down but it was too young for the task. Another camel was bought and Arvind sent the Englishman on his way. He eventually heard that his dream of being Lawrence of Arabia ended after 6 hours when he fell off his camel and had to finish the journey on the wagon provided by a guide he had eventually hired when he realised the task of making the trip solo was beyond him. To top it all Arvind tells us that India has no desert to speak of, it’s a narrow strip of arid land that runs from Jaipur to Jaisalmer, villages and dwellings every half kilometre. An ill-conceived midlife crisis that entertains us all.
Arvind’s Nepalese chap makes us scrambled eggs and toast for breakfast which we take on the cool terrace with the company of chipmunks and a pair of colourful doves that have built a nest in a hanging basket. Sabir picks us up and takes us to the tallest tower in Jaipur, it’s a narrow construction without steps that we struggle to mount in our slippery footwear. We are thankful that there are no other visitors to this hidden gem as there is only room for one person in the passage. A dead gecko protrudes from a light fitting having overestimated the space available. We climb the 100 meters mostly in the dark finally emerging into the bright light. Thankfully a high mesh has been erected around the space at the top, Dean still manages to mistake a man-sized gap which runs through the middle for a step, narrowly missing a fatal fall at the last minute. We enjoy the peace, high above the busy city, before making our way down the polished floor that turns it into a helter skelter. The only way we can do this and stay standing is to use the walls on either side as a prop. It’s amazing how much fun you can have without Health and Safety regulations.
Jaipur has one of the oldest astronomy centres in India. Giant instruments for navigation, star gazing, and time telling constructed in the 16-1700’s by subsequent Maharaja’s and still standing today in the palace grounds. It’s nearly midday and we watch the sundial, measuring 50 x 20 meters, until it is noon. The heat is blistering and we retreat to the shade. We can’t do the site justice and after half an hour we head out to find Sabir and his car. His uncle is there telling Sabir where to go for cash. Sabir buys us some pineapple from a stand to keep us going, we’re running a tab with him and he’s already lent us 2,000 rupees. Our running joke is that he is both driver and banker for us in the current circumstances. We park up outside a bank, more than 200 people are pressed up against the gates, women on one side and men on the other. The police are letting batches in and the scrum is robust. We muscle our way near enough to catch the eye of the police and they come out to give us safe passage inside. I fear crushing in crowds, avoiding them at all costs, but we brace ourselves and Sabir takes care of Fred as we make for the gate. We’re ushered into the bank manager’s office and are brought water. A negotiation with a British national, of Indian origin, is taking place. He holds a wodge of £50 notes in a silver clip, but leaves empty handed. With a roomful of people standing, us seated in luxurious leather chairs, we explain our need for cash. A long exchange between Sabir and the Bank Manager takes place, at the end of which we learn that the ATM is around the corner being refilled as we speak. When we get there, there is a queue of about 20 waiting but they smile, welcome us and usher us to the front, delaying themselves by 15 minutes. We get our maximum of £80 of cash out and feel like we’ve won the lottery, and when we emerge triumphant from the small booth they cheer. The cheer is because, as the first customers of the replenished ATM, we confirm it is working, and they also cheer for us. All through this testing time Fred is experiencing things that make him understand just how lucky we have been in Britain since rationing ended.
Lunch is in the carpark at The Amber Fort, young boys find Sabir a space and we go over to a stall run by a friend of Sabir’s. Few children go to school after the age of 10. We get Chai, sweet milky masala tea that is divine and our regular drink in India. Samosa’s and vegetable Pakora’s, freshly made and cooked by the owner, are served. A stop in the public latrines is a test, but Fred and I pass it. The fort itself is astounding. We climb 50 meters up the walled cobbled winding path to this stunning hilltop construction. I cry as I walk through the mirrored halls, this is what I came to Rajasthan to see and it doesn’t disappoint. We clock up more selfies, I’m sure we’ve been photographed more than Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in the last few days. We stay only an hour at the fort but again you could easily spend a day. For me it should be on anyone’s bucket list and I’d even come back to admire the formal lake gardens and wonderfully preserved interior again. The views of the region from towering windows are simply stunning.
We let Sabir take us to a fabric factory, we know we’re likely to get conned, but we feel we owe him. True to form we are subject to a piece of theatre; walked through a fabric dyeing space, past tailors, and carpet weavers, and up into a sales area. We know all but the sales area is theatre. Drinks are produced and fabrics laid out. The salesmanship is amazing and we buckle, 10Kg of bedspreads, tablecloths and scarves later we slot our credit card into a machine and let go of £200, plus £50 for shipping to home. I wish Dean a ‘Happy Christmas’ and Sabir beams, he enjoys the joke and I suspect can’t believe his luck (he’ll get 50% of this sale). Exhausted we arrive back at Explorers Nest with another day agreed with Sabir, this time into the countryside. We stroll out for dinner 5 minutes away in a local roadside eatery. A tiny ragged child begging catches my eye and my emotions. We ask the owner to get him some food and a dish is placed on the table behind us. I ask the owner to bring it to ours so we can eat with him but the child is terrified of us and refuses, and so he sits behind us and eats. Another table pass a Lassi that they’ve ordered over to him. I’ve no idea if he is a genuine beggar but my guilt is satisfied and I know he has a full belly that night.
I wake early and get up to catch up on blogging. We’ve been doing too much to find time to write, and I have so much to write about. I get about 20 minutes in, herbal tea made from plants in the garden is served before fellow guest Mona (not her real name) sits down. She is a beautiful woman in her 50s from New Zealand, but speaks with the accent of her German homeland. I adored meeting her from the start, but this is the first time we have had quiet time together. She leaves India in 2 days after 3 months here travelling and studying Ayurveda Medicine. She spent yesterday helping a young Indian woman get money, giving up 100 rupees of her last 800 when they failed. Mona must leave today, she met an Indian man on a train in Bikaner, romance blossomed as he took her sightseeing, and he is coming from his home town to consummate the passion that has developed. No hotel will take a booking from a westerner and an Indian unless they are married. She spent a day trying and our Airbnb host must comply with the rules. They have found somewhere, through a friend of a friend. She knows it will be one night only together, but she lives her life as though every day is her last. We’re going to New Zealand in the future and I will visit her, she’s a special one.
Having achieved no blogging, but had a great time with Mona, we set off with Sabir. We’ve chosen the location, the Sambhar Salt Lake. Sabir is not very happy, it’s in the middle of nowhere and he has never been there, we suspect it’s because there is no chance to earn commission. Dean insists and there is a tense moment when Dean leans into the car, where we and Fred are buckled in, and says he’s calling the day off as Sabir tries to negotiate on price again. Sabir caves in and quickly works hard to make sure we are all friends. We get over this hiccup by the time we are out of Jaipur, it takes an hour. We pass a big road smash and policemen scratching their heads. Sabir pulls over to check everyone is ok, they are. Then the countryside opens, no traffic, just ladies in the brightest of saris on foot often herding goats between grazing. On the small homesteads trees are grown in straight lines, crops are green, and there are hayricks that Turner could have painted next to the mud walled homes. All this set against the ever-present bright blue sky. We pass a small bazaar taking place away from any dwellings, it’s like a car boot in an English village but without the cars. An hour into the countryside we see a wedding taking place. The thick red and gold stripes of the marquee walls hang down from the community open building and a white wedding horse, resplendent in jewelled saddlery, stands in the shade. Sabir asks if we want to visit it, we say we’d love to if it’s not rude, he assures us they would be honoured and we reverse up.
At first the vast wedding party is cautious wondering, like us, about the protocols. They’ve never met westerners we learn. I put my hands together and greet them with ‘Namaste’s’ which they return. The smiles suddenly grow and I am pulled over to the women and a tiny baby, its eyes Kohl rimmed to protect against flies, in the arms of its mother. It unites us all and I’m given the baby to hold. For a tense moment it looks like it’s going to dissolve into howls but rhythmic rocking calms it, smiles and clapping come from the women. The wedding photographer appears, looking like he’s won the lottery. I’ve lost Fred and Dean by now in the melee, but when I turn still holding the baby, I see Fred atop the Wedding Horse. An intended 10-minute stop turns into an hour; we are shown the stash of wedding gifts, taken through to a small dark room inside a house that has been cleared to view the brides (there are 2) and grooms, and posed for photos. We gift 200 (£2.50) rupees to each bride which brings howls of delight from their families. The brides themselves look only 13 or 14. Their faces are covered by elaborate veils, but for our benefit they are drawn back so we can gaze at their beauty. Like exotic creatures only just captured from the wild they are shown off, surrounded by a noisy insistent crush of people. They look terrified and are anything but the Bridezilla’s of the West. This is most definitely not ‘their big day’. We retreat from the dark cool room, feeling rather claustrophobic, and are posed for more pictures. I’m surrounded by small children now calling out ‘HI’. I have to say ‘Hi’ and shake hands with each of them. It feels like being the member of the royal family without the bodyguards. I’m acutely aware of this as I feel sharp pains in my head and realise that I’m having hairs pulled out as mementoes by the children behind me. One of the older villages clips them around the ear. We finally say goodbye and walk to the car. The whole wedding party follows us. The car is surrounded and Fred and I struggle to get in, I peel fingers off the door frame terrified of shutting the door on them. We leave to the sound of the car being slapped, and as we look out of the rear-view window we see the colourful clothes chasing us despite the dust of the road. We can’t believe the wonderful experience we have just had. Sabir is beaming.
After a few wrong turns, Chai tea at a cross roads, and directions from motorcyclists that we stop, we arrive at a deserted religious retreat ‘Dhani’ next to the lake. Ancient Rajasthani white buildings surround a man-made lake, a mini Pushkar. No one comes here now and the water is green and stagnant, nevertheless it is stunning for its silence. A man appears and ushers us into his home, its divine, bright bedding covers mats on the floor and a small child plays with a metal bowl and spoon. He takes us through his home to his terrace that overlooks the lake pulling up chairs for us, his wife brings us water in metal cups. His mother is sitting cross legged on a mat in the shade reading a book in large print. They ask us for nothing, just want to share the beauty and tranquillity of their home. Sabir finds us and is worried that we are drinking water that is not mineral, Dean and I had given it a go out of politeness but stopped Fred as we were unsure. We leave with grateful thanks and pictures for posterity. A gentle and heart-warming time. The salt flats are a weird experience. We’ve come in the wrong way and we’ve arrived at the salt production side rather than the wild wetlands. It’s a pre-industrial revolution way of working that takes 3 men who are currently sitting in the shade. We wander through the square sections of salt water, a broken down wooden cart is rusting on the ancient railway tracks that are no longer used. Fred and Sabir wander off between the square mirrors of water chatting. We explore quietly for half an hour and take pictures of the eerie perfect mirrors and strange colours. By the time we are back in the car we are more than ready for home. That night Dean has succumbed to a virus and stays in bed as Fred and I go out to meet Hope, Eli and Rob for dinner. We catch up on adventures and places visited.
We have our final adventure on the platform of Jaipur station. As we get our seats in Second Class non-AC (padded bench seats that Indians use but not usually westerners), there is a fuss over seating. A man in his 50’s wearing a suit is indicating that he should be in the seats we think we should be in. Dean gets his ticket out of the wallet which he carries his passports in. Suddenly Dean notices that the man making a fuss is no longer there and he pats his pocket. The wallet with passports is gone. We’ve fallen for the classic distraction con, one that we had read about but forgotten. With the train standing in the station, Dean charges off down the carriage and jumps onto the platform. A fellow traveller points Dean in the direction that the man has run and Dean follows in hot pursuit. This takes him across the platform, into a train and out the other side where he jumps down onto the tracks. He runs across 2 lots of tracks, climbs back onto another platform and up the concourse to the station building. He spots the man, carrying a bag that he recalled, and shouts at him. With 2 police officers at the exit the man drops his bag. Dean picks it up and remonstrates with him. He returns to the train holding the wallet aloft and limping with a bloody knee. The train applauds him and pass him anti-septic cream. We feel for our passengers who are all Indian, we can tell they are terribly embarrassed. Amazingly, given the time that the whole incident took, the three of us pull out of the station with all our bags. Dean’s virus is long forgotten and he seems to have a whole new lease of life.
In our first 6 days India gave us everything and more, as did its people. A huge, complex, multi layered society that we’ve only seen through a crack in the door. Its left us hungry for more and as I write, its continuing to deliver, but I know even now that I’ll be back many, many times. If you’ve not been yet, book your flight, it will be the best experience you ever have.
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