In the Jaipur hostel I meet a German girl, Eva, who had been flashed the night before by a member of staff. I also found a Karma Sutra book placed in my bed. Otherwise, nice place.
I decided to take a punt on getting a last minute train ticket to Agra the next morning with Eva. All advice generally stipulates train journeys should be booked when seats are released 90 days before travel, otherwise the chance of success is minimal. There’s also lots of blurb on registering for an Indian Rail account online, passport scans and blah blah blah. Apparently not necessary. After some comedy miming to find the ticket office, I get a ticket and join Eva in AC Chair Class where we are given water, food, newspapers and great views of people pooping by the railway tracks.
An Indian style squat toilet…on a train…which is moving…is an experience to avoid.
We visited the Taj Mahal and hired an audio guide which was cringingly gushy about its majesty and beauty with a lack of any real facts and figures. I did gather the corner towers lean slightly outward so as not to damage the main building should they fall. Also, a black equivalent across the Yamuna River was never an intended plan. Some European made it up.
Afterwards we meandered around the local streets seeing children ‘ride’ goats, piles of rubbish and intimidating glares. Retreating to a rooftop restaurant we meet 3 young chaps from New Zealand. Not really young, but young, Calvin Harris has no love for them.
I latch on as they are heading on the same trajectory as me, and Eva is heading home. On the train back to Jaipur they tell me how cyclists in NZ put cable ties on their helmets, creating spikes to prevent bird attacks. And! Someone at their university (Otago) set up a puppy petting place for de-stressing during exams!! Throw in some kittens, and I would like to enroll.
Shakir is my auto-rickshaw driver back home from Jaipur station. His English is good, he runs tours round the city and assures us his parents/uncles/cousins businesses will not feature on said tour. We commit and set off the following morning. Fast forward 5 hours and we are definitely in his uncles textile shop watching an elaborate presentation of bed covers. Ultimately, this is cut short by an overly pious man who turns up and is rude about the boys wearing shorts and me having a ‘closed chakra’. I ask him what kind of chakra he thinks he has. He doesn’t like this. The mood has nosedived. We leave.
The daytime hours made the evenings endurance worthwhile as we headed out to the Iswari Minar Swarga Sal (tall minaret, good views over the ‘pink city’) Amber Fort (huge, steep, sweaty), Jantar Mantar Observatory (confusing, confusing and confusing), and Monkey Temple (monkeys, monkeys and pigs). I also see a baby monkey riding backwards on a pig. Just like in this exceptional YouTube video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_sfnQDr1-o&sns=em
We hire a driver for 4 days, and head to Pushkar, a Hindu pilgrimage town. The Lonely Planet warns against any ‘holy men’ blessing you and then pressuring you into making disproportionate donations. When we arrive we head down to the lake, are blessed by ‘holy men’ and are pressured into making disproportionate donations…but at least we are left with paint on our foreheads, which whilst marking our stupidity, let’s other hustlers know not to bother.
We visit Brahma Temple, trek up to Sataswati Temple, eat above average vegan food and I use a toilet apparently made by Rolls-Royce. We press on to Jodhpur. On the way we pass the very recent aftermath a horrific motorbike accident. A deeply unpleasant and indelible memory.
Jodhpur, the ‘blue city’, is sensory overload, with relentless tousling between man and machine within a disorientating tangle of narrow lanes. However, our first experience was more tranquil. Stretching our legs after a long drive we took to the streets at night when there were more cows than people. In the only open shop, we find a very old man who looks like a raisin. He prepares for each of us a leaf with about 4 different pastes smeared onto it, a number of herbs/fruits/spices added and then wrapped into a cone. I munch on its flavour, which is all types of wrong, and swallow. I reflect on how much healthier and creative Indian sweets are. Some research the next day identifies our morsels as ‘Paan’, a psychoactive mix of ingredients which should be extensively chewed and then spat out. It is also a major cause of tooth decay. Yummy!
For the following days breakfast we partially enjoy omelettes from The Omelette Man who has been slaving away on his camping stove for 40 years, apparently cooking up to 4,000 eggs a day.
Drained from the commotions of the city, and having visited the Mehrangarh fort (big, clean, city views) we plan an early escape to Udaipur. We try to re-negotiate our driver costs given the reduction in driving days. We fail miserably and get threatened to be taken to the police at one point.
Udaipur has a large lake, less traffic and locations used for the Octopussy James Bond film. The place is refreshingly different.
We head out for our obligatory night stroll and meet an Australian man who looked like he had been in India too long. He refused to smile in his girlfriends photos and smugly reeled of a selection of drugs historically or currently ravaging his mind and body. I hope he goes home soon.
During the following day we explored the outrageously ornate City Palace (mirrored tiles, stained glass windows, strict security guards) which had quite a collection of paintings depicting tiger hunting and elephant fighting. Feeling suitably cultured we found an expensive hotel and lolloped around their swimming pool till sundown.
After a series of emotional goodbyes I headed off on the 6 hour journey to Mt Abu taking 2 local buses. The first was 70p and the second 21p. Sometimes I just LOVE India!
Mt Abu is India’s Brighton. Swapping ocean for lake, it is a charmingly tacky family resort up in the mountains of Rajasthan. As it is close to the border of ‘dry’ Gujarat, groups of young Indians also visit to enjoy alcohol. The streets are lined with ice cream shops, generic tat and you can hire plastic swan pedalos. It is an absolute dream to have personal space again…and not to worry about the next motorbike/cow/auto-rickshaw about to hit you.
Hiring a guide I have an early start to trek in the nearby conservation park. Climbing on the back of his motorbike, I realise he is wearing a helmet and I am not. I kick up a stink till he digs one out for me too. Mother would be proud. Once arrived we walk to incredible views, perve on a crocodile for an extended period of time and find puma paw prints. But sadly no actual puma.
Having read the Lonely Planet guide: India for Women, I feel well equipped for certain scenarios, a classic being asked ‘are you married?’, to which you are to respond yes (fake wedding ring optional). On occasions I end up elaborating on the details of Brads ‘proposal’, our wedding day and timelines for reproduction. No more so than on this extended hike.
Leaving the park with renewed assurance that Kingfishers are my favourite bird, a man who had been sweeping and burning leaves at the entrance fishes out some bread he had baked within. It were tasty.
Soon after I discover you can buy shampoo in sachets for 3p, and singular Cadbury’s Chocolate Eclairs for 1p. Top 5 day.
I turn up at the railway station down the mountain and beg for a ticket on the ‘full’ sleeper train to Mumbai. At a guess I think they want to avoid putting tourists into the carriages your average Indian uses, as eventually they are able to issue me a standard Sleeper Class ticket. Admittedly, it is like a jail on a train. But after chaining up your bag, there’s lots of fun to be had being stared at by children and shivering through the night on a metal fold down bed. Fifteen hours and £3 of travel (£3!!) later I’m in Mumbai.
It’s early enough in the morning to still be dark and I start the day very pissed off after my taxi driver tries to scam me (quickly switching a 500 rupee note to a 100 and insisting I owe him more. I jestingly laugh (raging inside) that we both know it was a 500 until he relents. Then he puts his 3 ‘uncles’ in the back seats. Also not cool. I refuse to get in until they are out, and spend the journey evidently filing my nails using part of my pen knife. *I will not be a victim!*. Horrible morning.
Mumbai is a sweltering and bustling city with seemingly more considerate forethought than the disorientation of Jaipur. Cricket greens appear between main roads and quieter side streets have walkable pavements. I potter around looking at the key building (Gateway of India, St Thomas’ Cathedral and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (or Prince of Wales Museum!) amongst others). I also see a naked toddler begging on a busy roundabout, sometimes venturing towards the moving cars. There are also some mangled humans (legs look like they are on backwards) begging near key attractions, yet 5 minutes later you can be stood outside (or indeed go through security to inside) the High Court surrounded by immaculate and proud professionals.
At one point I’m party to what I can only describe as an ‘illegal jumble sale’ as an edgy looking man descends with saris and shirts on a plastic sheet for 10p. A frantic crowd quickly forms (I’m in front!) and within only a few minutes he scoops up what’s left and jumps in a taxi. I walk past a restaurant offering ‘brains’ and gawp at Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat, the worlds largest human powered laundry.
Despite having already paid for a night at the Salvation Army (?) I decide to scarper on an overnight bus to Goa. After 14 hours of Bollywood films and monumental discomfort (mostly related to the former) we arrive in Panjim, the capital of Goa. The Portuguese influence remains in the architecture and there is a strong Catholic contingency with some impressive houses of worship in the area.
Old Goa (historical capital) in nearby and the Basilica of Bom Jesus houses the body of St Francis Xavier (patron saint of Goa), which is carried through the streets once a decade. One of his fingernails (?) is displayed in a town nearby. This is an expedition my friend Laura doesn’t yet know she’s going on (she flies in tomorrow morning!).
Another 5* swimming pool later and I make my way across to Anjum on the North Goan Coast. I stay in Prison Hostel, which is styled as…a prison. Tin cups and barred doors. I’ve often thought a realistic prison experience ‘hotel’ would go down a storm in the UK. It’s also a great trump card if guests complain of bad food, old bed linen and generally any level of poor service.
Anjum is an old hippy enclave I am distinctly out of place for not having an undercut and/or dreadlocks and a passion for techno music and tie dye. Though the strongest look so far was a man wearing red Speedos and a black wooly hat.
On an evening out I mishear someone talking about an African charity he supports, ‘Electronic Music for Elephants’. This was actually ‘Electronic Music for Development’. Both odd but I know which one I would rather work for. I talk to a wealthy guy from Dehli who said he would never travel Sleeper Class, has no interest in visiting the slum areas and wants himself and others to only see the best of India. An Australian girl later said that her auto-rickshaw driver had stated ‘the problem with India is there is no problem’. I could not have put it better.
And now to 4 weeks of yoga camp with only Sundays off and compulsory vegan food! Even the people on the website look miserable…