Butter chicken, 100 pashminas and holy cows!!
12.09.2004 - 28.09.2004 32 °C
I have to admit that on leaving London for India, I took with me much trepidation. Glenn had left two days earlier for Switzerland to mountain bike which meant I'd had two days to fret about my decision to go to India by myself. Leaving London for Delhi was also the first leg of my trip home after almost two years in London. Mum drove me to the tube station in their 300 quid BMW and I cried all the way from Finchley Central station to Heathrow.
The flight to New Delhi was long enough for me to get myself together and focus on India. I was secretly petrified of meeting the other two (2!!) people on my tour. Worst case scenario was that they'd be grey nomads or honeymooners ( no offence to either, obviously). Nuala and Rob turned out to be an awesome young Irish couple (had been married for quite a few years at the time) and were brilliant travel companions, although it took me about three days to interpret their accents and work out what Nuala's name actually was!!
We did a day of sightseeing in Old Delhi which included the very impressive Red Fort, Jama Masjid (the largest mosque in India), and the Raj Ghat where a memorial to Mahatma Ghandi was erected after his assassination.
Mahatma Ghandi memorial, Delhi
We then moved on to the New Delhi where we walked along the Raj Path (site of the Republic Day Parade) to the India Gate which was built in memory of the soldiers who dies in the first world war. Dinner that night was the first in a succession of butter chicken and paneer pakora pig-outs. The key to avoiding Delhi belly is to have two alcoholic drinks a day. If alcohol on the skin kills surface bacteria, shouldn't alcohol in the stomach kill internal bacteria? Worked for me.
We travelled on to Jaipur, the Pink City, in Rajasthan where we admired the architecture of the Palace of the Winds before visiting Jantar Mantar, the biggest observatory of astronomy in the world where we immediatly ran to the big sun-dial to synchronise our watches.
The next day was one of my favourite days. We got up early and rode elephants to the very impressive Amber Fort. The Fort itself was beautiful and lavishly decorated with painted tiles and marble and the grounds were immaculately kept.
Elephant ride to Amber Fort
We headed then to Bharatpur to visit the Keoladeo National Park, one of the biggest bird sanctuaries in India. The rickshaw ride around the park was a welcome reprieve from the craziness or the Indian traffic as we tried to find rare birds in the trees. We made a donation to the 'gods of the park' which may or may not have been retrieved by our rickshaw driver when he thought we weren't looking. We stayed in an authentic haveli (villa-style mansion) and drank beer cleverly disguised in a tea pot out of tea cups.
Driving in India is rather fraught with danger. The roads are cluttered with cyclists, families piled on motorbikes, trucks and cows. Cows are sacred in India and are free to roam as they please. You cannot eat cow in India, and if someone elses cow wanders into your yard you are to feed that cow as if it were your own. Our Indian driver , Supah Singh, was brilliant and we only hit one dog, one goat and one small child (no harm done to any of them. The child fell off the back of a motorbike that had five kids on it).
We travelled on to Agra where we wandered and wondered around Agra Fort where we caught our first glimpse of the Taj Mahal. The following day we rode in rickshaws to the Taj Mahal. The Taj is actually part of a complex and before we could see it we had to pass through a number of markets and have our bags checked. My first glimpse of the Taj was literally breathtaking. It'd been a while since I'd seen something that had actually made my heart beat faster but the Taj Mahal was just stunning.
The Taj Mahal
Emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj in 1653 in memory of his second wife Mumtaz Mahal and is widely reputed to be the greatest monument to love ever. It was built with such precision that the four big columns at each corner were constructed at a 5 degree outward angle so that if an earthquake occurs the four columns would fall outwards, rather than falling inwards and destroying the Taj itself. We spent hours walking in and around the Taj Mahal. We actually became a bit of a novelty ourselves when a group of Indian girls wanted to be photographed with us and we spent half an hour posing with them.
Tacky at the Taj (at Jasmine's suggestion!!)
Back in the carpark as we waited for a rickshaw to take us back to our hotel we were confronted with possibly the most abject poverty I have ever seen. There were an inordinate numer of disfugured children begging in the car park. When I asked our rickshaw driver about it he said that it is possible to make more money out of begging from tourists than it is to do a days work and that the mothers of these begging children had purposely disfigured their children so that they could bring in more money for their impoverished families.
Back in Agra,we set out on a serious shopping mission. There was no shortage of locals wanting to take us to their carpet/jewellery/pashmina store and Rob wasted no time in securing a deal for 100 pashminas.
Cricket is huge in India. Often I was asked where I was from:
Indian: Hey lady!! Where you from?
Indian: Ahh, Reekee Ponteeng. You like cricket?
Me: Yes, and my dad works at Lord's Cricket ground in England
Indian: Ahh!! Your dad get me free ticket to Lord's!
At which point I beat a hasty retreat, unable to fathom how my dad would acquire free tickets for my new friend and about 57 of his closest relatives.
We travelled on to Orcha, an ancient and almost deserted (except for the vultures) village on an island on the Betwa River. The vultures gave the place a very spooky feel and the architecture of the place is very similar to that of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
Arriving next in Khajuraho we spent a day visiting the temples of Khajuraho. Into the outer walls of the temples are carved beautifully detailed scenes of Indian life, including scenes from the infamous Kamasutra. The following day was spent trawling through markets and jewellery stores where all three of us made some jewellery purchases.
From Khajuraho we flew to Varanasi, the holiest of Hindu pilgrimmage destinations in India. The Hindus believe that to die in Varanasi and to be committed to the waters of the Ganges is to be released from the cycle of rebirths and to go directly to heaven. The banks of the Ganges are lined with ghats where people wash away their sins and cleanse their souls. We got up before dawn one morning and took a boat ride up the Ganges to witness the activity of the morning. There were many people bathing, praying, washing their clothes, doing yoga, playing cricket, selling flowers on the ghats along the rivers edge and it was a really peaceful morning.
Dawn on the Ganges
There are also a number of funeral ghats where people are cremated. The body is placed upon the ghat which is stacked with firewood and then the fire is lit and burns until all that is left are ashed which are then blown into the Ganges.
We also spent a day in Varanasi in the markets buying silks. The streets of Varanasi are incredibly narrow and it's not uncommon to turn a corner and run into a cow and then have to turn around and go the other way because the cow is blocking the narrow alley. Nuala and Rob and I had a last dinner together as they were headed on to Nepal the following day and I was returning to Delhi. I thanked them profusely again for not being grey nomads or honeymooners.
Last night with Rob and Nuala
The next morning I took a train for 16 hours from Varanasi to Delhi where I spent the night in a hotel (having one last authentic butter chicken with paneer pakora on the side) before flying to Bangkok to meet Glenn.
India has since become my reference point for difficult travel. If I can survive (alone) the noise, the smell, the foods, the pace, the bribery, the sights, the constant ogling and lurid comments and the cows with an unharmed digestive tract and a sense of humour then I can survive anywhere.