India, Travel

Day 24 exploring Delhi with a sore tummy

I am lying in bed in The Park Hotel, with a case of Delhi Belly. None the less Jennifer and I did some very interesting activities between visiting the toilet.

We met Ray at the Delhi Agrasen ki Baoli. This is a step well that was used to collect monsoon rainfall in a secure area, and the collection of water merely involved walking down to the water. It is very different to the ancient one at Abhaneri . That one is far more open and steps along each wall. The one in Delhi is very interesting, with one staircase to the water, and walls on the remaining sides. Bats roost above the lower most reservoir of the step well, their chattering in the dark recesses above us and their droppings below.

We walked to Oxford Bookstore for Chai. Ray has two Mango smoothies and a yummy cucumber sandwich, while we had chais. The glasses were supported in steel monkeys, and piping hot. The bookshop had little in the way of history books so we did not linger long. We dropped Ray off at the Rajiv Chowk Metro, said our goodbyes, then caught a tuk tuk to the museum.

This museum is great!!! It has the best display in the world of Harappan artefacts, including ancient toys, the famous bronze called the dancing girl, lots of patterned pots, some fabulous gold jewellery, and lots of reading. This early River civilisation based on the now lost Sarasvati River was vast in area, sophisticated in town planning, and the ancient origin of Vedic Hinduism. There were other wonderful exhibits of Guptan sculpture, this was the golden age of Indian figurative sculpture, then Hindu sculpture, and then Indian jewellery from Indus times to the present. The emeralds and diamonds and rubies are enormous! We admired the Mughal art, delicate miniatures of brilliant colour and precise execution. The early emperors were all fine artists and poets in their own right and strongly supported painting and architecture of a very high standard. By now, I was getting a big sore, so we left, taking a tuk tuk back to the hotel. We have cancelled tomorrow’s booked tour and I will rest up.IMG_2950IMG_2952IMG_2953IMG_2959

India, Travel

Day 23 return to Delhi

It is now 9:41 pm and we are in room 623 of the Park, 11 Parliament street, New Delhi. We opted to leave the Hotel Perfect, forgoing the cold showers, the dog chorus, and the truly average meals for something a little more upmarket.

We all took the overnight train from Varanasi to New Delhi last night. The train only stops at four stations between Varanasi and New Delhi. It also travels a lot faster. I had a top bunk ( of three) and Jennifer was in the top of two bunks opposite me. The train was much cleaner and more comfortable then the local train to Varanasi. Most of the night, I could see nothing out of the windows. In the morning, I shared muffins with Jennifer and Jennifer finished off her noodles from the previous evening. Chai walaws move down the narrow corridor carrying a steel urn and piles of paper cups, bringing along Marsala tea, and a cup is ten rupees. Jennifer had four cups in the morning. I joined her on her bunk reading my iPad, my boots dangling into the corridor. We shared the compartment with two families, that were very friendly if a little too noisy, but that’s how it works, as Api says.

On arrival at New Delhi, we were carried in taxis to Hotel Perfect. From there we went to the Park Hotel. We said good bye to Peter and Anna. This charming Canadian couple have been an absolute delight to be with, friendly, discerning and highly intelligent, and it was a true pleasure to see his paintings of the trip.

At the Park, after some misgiving we took up the offer of a buffet lunch. However, those misgivings were misplaced, the meal consisted of tiny servings of fresh or beautifully cooked meats and vegetables, and some super deserts. Yummy.
After lunch I slept for four hours, then we walked to the Lord of the drinks restaurant. It is only six minutes away and to our delight there is a underpass to avoid the traffic, hurrah! We arrived earlier, and went in to have drinks. We ordered wine and they plopped ice in the glass. No. No. Stop. Don’t do that. We chorused. Fratelli wine is excellent and particularly so without ice. We shared a wonderful meal and conversations with the remaining tour members; Anna, Joanna, Alejandro, Ray and of course Api. Lots of laughs including one about a banana. After dinner, a meal and drinks costing 10,000 rupees for seven of us ( $200), we said our farewells.

India, Travel

Day 20 Varanasi by train

We are sitting together in carriage B2, seats 29 and 30. Above me is the top bunk where I slept last night, and behind me, now folded against the wall, is the bunk below me, and I am sitting on the bottom bunk. Yes, a three tier system, on either side of our small compartment. Six of the tour group are here, George, Grace, Peter, Anna, and Jennifer and I.
We left Agra station about an hour late, the platform crowded with people even though it was 9:30 at night. When the ancient diesel train pulled in, we trundled along the platform and bustled our way in, negotiating the narrow corridors and people dealing with bags and boxes. We found our berth which is about midway along the carriage and shoved our bags under the bottom bunk. We have learnt to pack our bags flatter and it easy to slide them out of the way. We pulled out the bag chains and secured them to metal rings under the bunk.

I clambered up to the top bunk, nearly clobbering a very forgiving lady in the opposite side bunks with my boots. I needed a final shove and I was up. It was comfortable as far as bunks go, but the head end was a bit trapped and I woke up with a neck headache. Luckily getting down is a lot easier than getting up. Now to face the train lavatory, any “stuff” goes straight down and onto the tracks – this is a problem when at a station. It all adds to the aromas of India. Enough said!
Outside the window, I can see mostly farms, green fields extending to the next line of trees, and I see a farmer and his family hunkered down on the ground, cutting the wheat with small curved knives, then tying the stalks together into small bundles, which they lie on the ground. The houses are of brick, plastered with mud and a roof composed of thatch. Smoke drifts and slowly twirls up from their small campfires near their front doors. At railway crossings, motorbikes mounted by dhoti wearing farmers, and agricultural trucks, all wait patiently. The boom gates are large branches, not the processed painted, timber ones we see in Australia.
On the edge of the road are sellers, there is one selling nuts and dried fruit under a canopy suspended over his cart.
We pass small villages, some of the houses are bare brick, some were painted blue at one time but now the paint has faded, washed away by the blisteringly hot summer sun and the humid monsoon rain, leaving a mottled blue and white mosaic of colour. The rooftops are used, it’s now 10am and the men have left for the fields or shops, and only washing can be seen suspended from lines above the irregular brickwork. There is no sign of any building code, precious little sanitation, and electricity if it is available, is cobbled from the nearest node without any actual electrician or metering involved.

I think all of us are getting tired. The bubbly enthusiasm of the younger crowd is not as apparent. Alejandro had a brief bout of Gastroenteritis, Johanna badly sprained her ankle, Anna ( Banana) has had troublesome urticaria. Us older ones are just getting tired. Sleep is a resource that can be in short supply, with noise an all too common part of the Indian evening. The dog chorus in Delhi, the dog fight and howling in the villages, the Hindu weddings that go on for days without getting any quieter and the noise of traffic that thankfully drifts away by midnight.

The bustle, crowds, hawking, scamming, fields of rubbish, the sorry toilets, negotiating prices, and tipping, all test this traveller. However all these things are India or at least they are for the foreign traveller. On the other hand, I have the company of our fellow group members and leader who are truly delightful to be with, I have met many friendly Indian people especially being photographed with them in group hugs, the exotic history, the stunning food, the locales including the forts, the palaces, the bazaars, the mosques, the temples and mausoleums especially the Taj Mahal are fascinating and occasionally awe inspiring. The pluses definitely outweigh the negatives but just don’t ask me about India after a bumpy night on the Agra to Varanasi train.

India, Travel

Day 19 Agra fort

I am sitting in the lobby of Karan Villas. Jennifer is beside me reading the Age on her iPad mini. We have had a great morning. We had a surprisingly good night sleep, surprising because there was a wedding at the hotel last night. Weddings are loud and energetic affairs but with our earplugs pushed well in, the vibration of the floor and bed from the music lulled us both to sleep. After breakfast of omelette, chapatti and toast, we packed our bags for this evenings train trip. We had already planned an excursion to Agra Fort so in the morning we met the participants: Peter and his wife Anna, Ray the American Aussie, Nan and her mother Jiang. We rented tuk Tuks to go to Agra fort.
For much of the time under the early Mughals including Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan, Agra was the capital of their empire; the move to Delhi was much later. The fort is a vast complex, and most of his it is exclusively used by the military. What is not used by them is still substantial both artistically and historically. We saw palaces, audience areas, harems, beautiful gardens, mosques of marble, pavilions of delicate carvings and inlaid precious stones, and in the haze and across the Yamuna River, the silhouette of the Taj Mahal. We spent over two hours walking around, reading the information of stone blocks, climbing narrow short stairs, seeing the prison of Shah Jahan, the throne of Jahangir, the towers of the the fort and so much more. It is an impressive fort and in the mornings is not too busy. On the ramparts and higher verandas, the cool breeze was refreshing. The fort is a very relaxing place with none of the bustle and pushing of the Taj Mahal.

Afterwards we had lunch at the Pushpvilla Hotel. Nan and Jiang decided to do more walking despite the dust and heat of the city. We took tuk Tuks to the hotel and restaurant. The venue is seven floors up, and is a revolving restaurant. However, we all felt nausea when it started moving around, so they kindly turned it off. It was an excellent lunch, and we took some of the leftover bread for breakfast on the train.
The train leaves at 8:30 pm tonight and arrives mid morning tomorrow in Varanassi. The train trip is 13 hours or more, and can be longer as it is notorious for a late arrival.

We will rest up this afternoon, reading and doing photo editing. I have found a new program which can shrink photos so I am hopeful that may mean I can include some images in the emails.IMG_2756IMG_2759IMG_2762IMG_2763IMG_2764IMG_2765

India, Travel

Day 18 India Trip Agra and Taj Mahal

Jennifer and I have just had a light lunch at Karan Villas, a well appointed multilevel hotel near to the road that leads to the East Gate of the Taj Mahal.

Last night we had the pleasure of seeing and hearing a traditional dance and drum group, it consists of local villagers, all men, and began with a huge drum beating the time then a standing single male singer. He had a lovely voice, his right hand upraised as he sang. The others sat on a large orange mat, soon they were all singing, and some tapped on smaller drums as well. Behind them, the sky was dark, the only illumination a fire in a steel container burning sandalwood. Then the sky lit up with lightning, repeatedly dancing from cloud to cloud. Eventually, after the concert, it rained but at the time, there were only a few drops. In the second half, two dancers stepped onto the concrete square in front of us, and danced and danced. They were having so much fun, we all joined in, even me. Afterwards we enjoyed a terrific dinner in the palatial dining area of Ahbenari Niwas.

The drive to Agra is about three hours, and after a short section from the village to the main highway, the rest of the journey proceeds swiftly despite frequent tolls, to the outskirts of Agra where, as always in Indian cities, the pace slows considerably. The edge of the city, is crowded, noisy, with constantly beeping horns, motorbikes and cars and buses all whirring around each other in a crazy maelstrom. The shops are in groups of five, they each have a steel roller door, and some doors are closed. Maybe there is no shop there or maybe it opens later. There are shops for mobile phones, produce, and all sorts of goods. Tuk Tuks are parked haphazardly near the dirt beside the road, and a green petrol ” bowser” on wheels is used to fill them. Many of the shops have shade cloths, some of these rectangular sails are supported by twin wooden poles, leaning forward and askew, some are tied to electric cables that happen to hang low in front of the shops. Some older men wear dhotis and dark vests, other younger men and teenagers wear more western style dress, they all stand around, talk and barter oblivious to our minibus travelling near them.

We got to the hotel at 11.45 am.

After a mediocre lunch at the hotel, we all boarded a minibus for the East Gate of the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal was built as a tomb for his dearest wife by Shah Jahan. Mumtaz died after giving birth to their fourteenth child. They are both buried here, not in the middle of the main mausoleum where two tombs are found but together deep in the building.

After you arrive at the drop off point, an electric minibus takes you the security gate. There you enter a queue either male or female. You can take only a camera with you. Anything else can be, and is, often confiscated. The powers that be are very nervous of a terrorist attacking here. There are machine gun wielding soldiers, at gates, and on watch at vantage points on the reserve. Many of them look nervous in their green uniforms. The Indian women dress in their best, most colourful saris and look terrific, people from many countries are in the same queue as me speaking Korean, French and German to their friends or guides. After being frisked, any camera bags are scanned, and now you have entered. The East gate proper is a tall, red building with a great arch and giant bronze doors. When I walked through the gate, the arch towering above me, I suddenly saw the startlingly white silhouette of the Taj Mahal.

It’s big, it’s white and it’s perfect. The domes are works of art, curving gracefully up wards to the cupolas above. The white marble is being cleaned and rejuvenated and the majority of the surface has been completed. The minarets are strikingly white in the afternoon light, the individual marble pieces ascending to the high towers. The doors at each level are all clearly visible. The main building has great arched recesses, with a repeating relief carved from the marble of flowers, grouped as if in a vase each stem and flower splayed gently leaving a solitary central vertical stalk and flower. There is Arabic writing from the Koran on the pillars aside the great doors and across the immense lintel. As the sun set, these dark writings suddenly became silvery and shone out the prophets message. The main mausoleum is relatively small, but exquisite, inlaid precious stones are used to form another repeating pattern of coloured flowers and leaves. There is a marble mesh between the pseudo tombs and the visitors. This mesh is white and translucent an artifice of sublime skill. Ample but dappled, soft, light enters through the marble carved mesh that forms giant windows at two levels,

You exit the building, then walk upon a vast square of marble flooring, raised up above the water features and gardens of the Taj Mahal. The Yamuna River drifts past, the fort to the north, where Shah Jahan’s prison windows allowed him to look at his splendid legacy for the many years of his captivity by his son, Aurangzeb.

We walked along the walls, through and amongst the trees and gardens. Every few moments, I stopped and saw the Taj Mahal from a new perspective. It is really the most perfect building ever made. We visited the mosque adjacent to the Taj Mahal. It is an impressive building and would be even more so but for being next door to the Taj Mahal. The gardens are peaceful, providing a relaxing retreat in busy Agra, and are not crowded as is the main approach to the building where jostling and shameless photobombing are the rule!

We visited the small museum, admired some tiny Mughal paintings, and some much larger technical drawings of the Taj Mahal. Farmans of Shah Jahan or at least photocopies, are on display including one authorising the gathering of precious stone and marble for the building of the Taj Mahal. Jennifer and I wandered around the site then sat on one walkway edge just gazing at the structure and watching the Brahmany kites circle the cupola and domes.

We left at 6:3o pm and went for dinner in Agra. We shared three meals, and particularly enjoyed the Chicken Malai Tikka and the palak paneer. We ate our meals on the verandah of the restaurant, a flight of stairs above the road. However the sound of street noise, the cars and traffic sounds of busy India never stopped. So Jennifer and I drank our Indian white wine (a Sula Sauvignon Blanc), listened to the Sitar and tabla players that were almost drowned out by the street noise and talked and laughed with our fellow travellers.IMG_2733IMG_2738IMG_2743

India, Travel

Day 16 India Trip full day in Jaipur

I am sitting with Jennifer on the rooftop lounge of our hotel in Jaipur. It’s delightful. It is a boutique hotel with internal staircase, whitewashed walls, neat rooms. We are far enough off the main drag to be quiet at night which is terrific. Its called Utsav Niwas.

On arriving in Jaipur yesterday, all the oldies had naps while the younger ones went out to paint the town red. Actually it is already pink. The pink city is the name of the old part of Jaipur. It was all painted pink ( more of a washed out orange now) in 1868 for the visit of Prince Edward. Everyone liked it so much or at least the Maharajah did, that it has been kept that way ever since. After our naps, we went into this area for a walk around. Each shop has a small footprint, small shopfront but often spills out onto the street so pedestrians have to negotiate their produce; from steel bed frames, chairs, toys, agricultural supplies, bamboo and food. Everything an Indian householder would need us catered for. A man sat on the footpath, with all his tools lined up, until a motor scooter was driven in next to him, for him to repair. There were no electronic devices, just spanners, hammers and twisty things mechanics use. The area is all being restored and there are bamboo frames afront houses on which workers run about in bare feet. The architecture and the overall lay out of the pink city was laid out in the 1700s as the main population area about 14 km away called Amber, suffered a lack of water. The then new settlement of Jaipur had lots of water. The Maharajah built not only the city, but a city palace, a lake palace and an astronomy park.

We had a delightful meal of dosa and crepe, the dosa was full of potato, and the crepe was mixed vegetables, yummy , we then returned by tuk tuk and an early night at least for some of us. Some of the young ones played cards and drank too much!

Today we took a minibus which Api organised for us, to the Amber fort. Built in the 16th century it was the military and political centre for a Hindu officer of Akbar. Even though Akbar was Muslim, he still recognised that this man was a brilliant and loyal officer. His descendants ruled this area until partition. The palace and fort are magnificent. The yellow, amber sandstone contrasts with the lake and Persian gardens below, and with the rugged mountains that surround it. Below the castle sits the ancient city of Amber. It is a mostly a living town still. However, there are some ruins with some old buildings broken and worn away. The walkway is crowded by elephants carrying tourists up to the first and main courtyard of the castle. The elephants are painted with designs on bum and head, and have a large triangular patterned cloth on their foreheads and draping down toward their trunks. A howdah carries two or three tourists and the driver sits astride the elephant’s neck.

We hired a guide who spoke with a thick accent, and I missed a lot of what he said but he did show us through the labyrinth of the castle interiors and exteriors. The highlights were the hall of silver mirrors – this area was used in winter as its design promoted heat retention, while on the other side were rooms with multiple cement screens along which water splashed down, cooling the rooms in summer. We saw wonderful views of the surrounding countryside and hills, as well as the imposing Fort Jaigarh, this older, less salubrious building sits above the more luxurious Amber fort and which was a place of refuge if the lower fort should fail. We visited the temple of the Maharajah. You are not permitted to take photos so a description will have to suffice. The room is white, the interior light diminished, every white surface, the fluted, tapering pillars and the walls are embossed with a white flower, a repeating design. On one wall is a painting of Shiva and the other Lakshmi. The alter is behind another wall. Either side of it’s entrance, on the wall, are massive sculpted green leaves, and a bunch of bananas on both right and left side, on the low table in front of the idol, are large silver pieces, one of a large rearing horse. The idol has a tiny head, with a red cloth from neck to floor obscuring any body or limbs, and around the neck a front are garland after garland of flowers, yellow, white and orange. A spectacle of veneration and vivacity.
The bus collected us at the bottom of the castle walkway, we put up with aggressive touts on the way, even I got aggressive when they would not stop hassling. The bus driver had waited the two hours we spent at the castle, waiting near the fort. We stopped to view the lake palace on the way back. We went to LMB for lunch, this is a famous hotel and restaurant in Jaipur. We had a truly super lunch. I had vegetarian sheesh kebab and Jennifer had lababdar paneer, both of which are beautiful meals. We had banana lassis.
Afterwards the driver dropped us off near the City Palace. All the oldies had already decided to visit the Observatory built in the early 17 th century. It is principally a solar observatory for getting accurate time. There is a device for establishing sidereal time and several devices for solar time. The large solar device is accurate to within two seconds. The observatory complex is called Jantar Mantar. A guide showed us around and indicated how they all worked. He showed us the observatories for night sky used to study and record the movement and position of stars and constellations. Wonderful.

But after all this we, we were all too tired to go to the city palace museum and spend another two hours looking and learning. We hired a tuk tuk, the driver was a bit lost, so we did a very circuitous journey around the city as he repeatedly asked people where our hotel was. I had given him a card with the address on it, but it took a while to find another driver who was confident about where it was.
Since arriving back, I have enjoyed a Tuborg beer, and a lime soda. The young ones are going out to see a Bollywood film with no subtitles. I think a nice meal at the hotel, preferably with meat, and an early night would go down very well.IMG_2550IMG_2554IMG_2538IMG_2556IMG_2544IMG_2555IMG_2573

India, Travel

Day 15 bus to Jaipur

Last night several of us took up the invitation to have another home cooked meal. It was wonderful, the sky our roof, a low wooden table with a simple white cotton table cloth and some small glasses. There were bottles of water for each of us and a large bottle of chilled coke. We got up to meet our hostess, and check out her kitchen. Her daughter and she were dressed in brightly coloured saris and were busy making chapattis; forming a small piece of the dough into a small ball, then flattening it with a wooden rolling pin, a quick brush with vegetable oil on both sides then into the chapatti pan. It is sitting on a burning gas jet, once it’s sufficiently cooked, it’s tipped out then tossed the not the actual flames when it inflates like a balloon. Then into a shiny steel bowl with the other already prepared chapattis.

We resumed our seats and soon the pokhoras arrived; they are much smaller than in Australian settings, these were filled with green ( spring) onions. There was a mint dipping sauce as well. The mains arrived, the man of the house carried the cooking pot and spooned the dish inside. These dishes included; cabbage, potato and peas, sweet tomato, cauliflower, a spicy tomato chutney, a tiny succulent eggplant and a small bowl of dhal. There were also chapattis and puris. Each serve was small, but altogether it was a good size meal. For dessert, a bowl of kheer, a warm rice pudding flavoured with spices and cardamoms, and a more liquid presentation than what we would have at home.
Right now we are sitting in the bus to Jaipur after being ported from Pushkar by car this morning. I did not have a good impression of our last transit at Ajmer, but today as we descended from the pass in the Snake Mountains, the view was inspiring. The mountain range beyond the lake at Ajmer, was lit through with the dazzling sunlight of the Indian morning. Beneath them, the lake was all a silver sheen, mist hovering over the water obscuring the gap between sky and water. Pelicans rested on wooden poles lashed together to form rickety structures near the lake shore. A few powerboats rested in the water, motionless, near the island not far from the lake edge. It’s natural green colours contrasting with the broken gravel and motorbikes on the lake shore.
At the bus depot, Api gave us the option of paying an extra 100 rupees for the more luxurious bus to Jaipur. It is still a two hours trip but the expected heat of the later day makes air conditioning an excessively seductive option. 100 rupees appeared as if conjured from the air!

All the land is dry here, the temples, buildings and walls are sun bleached, washed out colours. Any wall painting even of a god, which bears substantial direct daylight is damaged with parts lost as irregular portions of cement shed in the heat. The trees here are desert trees, but here at least they have foliage. In the Thar and to the north, the trees had stunted lifeless branches fixed in unnatural poses. There are settlements along this highway, with large gates, splendid ostentatious constructions often more impressive then the hotels fifty meters behind them. The ground is a light dusky brown, with no vegetation at all, then we reach a farm, and it is bursting with growing millet from wall to wall of the enclosed area.

I am tempted to give a few impressions of India. Any ideas I express are not backed up with years of living and working in India. If you have the opportunity to talk with such a person, please give their opinions more weight than mine.
Friendliness, Jennifer and I have had the privilege to meet and talk with some wonderful people; the young bride in her blue sari at temple Shivatri, the Hindu teacher in the gondola, the beautiful mother in the alleys of Jaisalmer, the wheeler, dealer philosopher of cloth and life also in Jaisalmer, the young vendor in Pushkar, the helpful taxi drivers and others I am already forgetting in this whirlwind through India. Colour; this is the nation of vivid colour, from the red and orange daub on the foreheads, the glitteringly bright saris worn by even the poorest of women, the rich hues of the great forts, the gaudy, mirror light on tourist tat in the markets, the smoothly textured cream of the Jodhpur lassi, and the reds and blues and vermillion of the gods portrayed in their uncomfortable poses almost anywhere. Litter; Rajasthan varies from some litter to appalling levels of litter. It is mostly plastic, wrappings of boxes, food bags, bottles as well as scattered papers. We saw camels, grazing in an empty allotment not far from our hotel in Pushkar; these are used for camel safaris. Did I say empty, yes it was empty of any permanent building but it was far from empty, the thin animals wadded through ankle deep litter. Pushkar is definitely the worst for litter, even worse than Ajmer. The cleanest place was Jaisalmer by far. Scamming: Indians need to make a living and cannot always afford to be choosy about how to do it. Our scammers wear business suits, sit in large buildings and don’t pay tax. I think they do more damage to the average person in Australia than these petty scoundrels do to a tourist in India. It’s sensible to take security seriously, if for no other reason, than if you lose something it won’t come walking back to you.
Animals: camels are individualistic, tough creatures who pace out the desert sands and rocky grounds with a studied elegance; birds with black heads but re- orange band around their eyes scamper and sing along wall tops; cows, actually street cows, litter the streets, as feared for their inflicting of random injuries as they are venerated as the sacred animal of India. Architecture: the ancient stone works of forts, the delicate mesh work of windows, the crenelated Islamic inspired arches, and the utterly dilapidated top stories above the bustling markets and all of them hypnotically fascinating. Construction: everywhere you go, people are building things, hotels, roads, but then they stop, leaving it half built/ half demolished, it’s not clear which. Maybe the money or credit runs out or something better came along for the tradesmen, I don’t know.
That is enough impressions for now.

I am going to enjoy the bus ride and my banana.