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Thursday, 20 December 2012

Farewell and goodnight

Thursday, 20/12/2012 - 190 A.D.

So…this is the…end! The end of the world as we know it? Nope, just the end of this blog. I could keep it going and publish details of my mundane English life – what I did at work each day, trips to Morrisons at the weekends, dusting down the surfaces when I have a spare moment. Sadly, that’s not going to happen (I don’t do dusting, as you well know). Instead I’ll sign off and leave the record of this trip eternally preserved online for all to see, providing Google doesn’t decide to pull the plug on it. I’d like to think that one day my great-great grandchildren will tune in to read about where I went and what I did all those years ago, but by then technology will be so far advanced that they won’t be bothered with having to physically read words and use their eyes to look at pictures, no matter how many megapixels they contain.

I have thoroughly enjoyed writing this blog, and I get the impression that some amongst you have gained some pleasure from reading it. Good. Although it was a lot of fun to write every single night, there were points when completing the entries became a little laboured, particularly in the latter stages. How many times can you write about what you had for breakfast, let alone still make it sound interesting? Probably this blog sounded quite self-indulgent at times, for which I apologise, but when it’s just you and one other person for such a long period of time you cannot help but zone into your own little universe. Anyway, I send a thousand thanks to every single person who has tuned in to read about my exploits.

This trip took a lot of planning, a lot of saving up, a lot of sacrificing (not of the human kind) and ultimately a lot of guts…more than I knew I had. If anyone out there is reading this and wanting to do the same thing, then all I can say is do it. Make the leap, take the chance. I won’t go as far as to say if you don’t do it now then you never will, because that’s not true....but just do it. 

And as for those we met along the way, well, it’s a big thank you to the following:

Chaz, Nina, Heidi, Junior, Giselle, Josh, Golden Boy, Roma, Ukranian Office Worker, Kyle and Betsy, Swedish Anna, Hannah and Mike, Joey Florida, Berghaus Girl, Canadian Ghandi, German Anneka, Jack Osborne Lookalike, Greek Girl, Chicago guy with the wife from Scarborough, Mexican Grandma, Grad school guy from Wyoming, the Nashville Kingpin, Little Johnny Vegas, Don, Jonathon the Barman, the Alabama Waitresses, Zoe the Shots Girl, Susan, Bluto and Smiler, The Vietnam Vet, Amazing Grace, Kwan, Grabriele, Bible Mary, Seattle Steve, Tyler, Rhonda, Johnathon the Gangbanger, Swedish Greyhound Girl, Slingshot Mosher, Arthur, Dwight, Rahul, Pankaj, Terry and Bob, Marhsall, Simon, Carsten, Lars, Coco, Dan, Mitch, The Uno Family, Annalise, Happy Camper Rob, Happy Camper Dorothy, Keith and Kay, Malcolm, Senior Techy Steve, Kate from Southport, Chunkz, The Utah Saints, Nice Guy Eddie, Danish Blue, Colorado Kyle, Anthony Darlo, Stoner Mackay, Anni, Elise, Benjamin, Southport Barber, Scouse Jess, Cass, Tim, Two Japanese Girls, Swiss Simon, The Canberra Quiz Master, Svitlana, Chloe, Laura, Sam, Zoe, Cat, Julian, Colinda, Beatrice, Justine, Boonsilly Germans, Thavy, Bohpa, Phi, Ngan, Kendo, Kim The Tailor, Flower Tour Girl, Yoshi, Nina, Chinese Riddler, Sunny, Haven, Neville, Sujan and the Peak Point Family, Bikesh, the Cozy Cafe Lads, every single one of the Greyhound drivers…and anyone else I have left out. 

[Now that was self-indulgent!]

And no thanks to the Shanghai tea scammers and the cow that stepped out in front of our train in Thailand. Well…that’s not strictly fair, as without them we wouldn’t have been able to tell the tales, so it’s a begrudging thanks.

I was going to do a big numeric countdown involving all the things we’ve been through, e.g. 5,202 kilometres travelled in New Zealand, $16 to cross Cambodia, 2 toilets repaired, etc….but I just couldn’t be bothered. So I’ll simply give you the abridged version:

3 pairs of jeans
2 pairs of shorts
1 absolutely amazing experience
0 regrets



Plane landed fine. Met mum and dad at the airport. Not telling you if there were tears or not. Driven back home across a frozen, but welcoming England. Am now back in the bedroom in which I spent my teenage years. Reflecting. Did it really happen? Yes. Was it really that amazing? Yes. Will I be a different person because of it? Too early to say. All I can say is thank you, but at this point I don’t know who exactly I’m directing those thanks towards. Possibly to everyone in this world, a world that I have spent the last six months circumnavigating. I just luvs you all! 

And for now…

…all is well. 

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Been around the world

Wednesday, 19/12/2012 - 189 A.D.

First off, sorry for naming this post after a Lisa Stansfield song, but the title is oh-so appropriate. It was yet another quiet day today, so I'll spend most of this post writing in summary of the trip, rather than focusing on what we did this Wednesday. The only real highlight (or lowlight) was when we went to the nearby Dadar railway station - AKA the most ker-azy place on Earth - to hire a taxi. A couple of likely lads approached and agreed to take us downtown for 200 rupees. But when we got in the taxi, both of them got in, which seemed odd. Plus they seemed a bit young to be taxi drivers. And we drove for about 15 metres before the car was stopped and they turned round and produced a 1,000 rupee note, which they asked us to take in exchange for two 500 rupee notes from our wallets. They didn't even give an explanation as to why they wanted it changed. Are you effin` serious, lads? Do you really think we believe for one second that the note is genuine? It was enough to make me get straight out of the car in a huff and I would have called them some choice names had they pursued us, but they didn't, probably fearing we might call the law if they pushed it. A new scam to add to the Wikitravel website and warn my fellow travellers? It was a new one on me.

It's a shame that's going to be my last recollection of India (pending something going horribly wrong tomorrow!) It's really not India's fault, coming so late in this trip as it has. We've had fun here, there's been plenty of laughs, and the curries have been loads better than you get in Britain. Would I like to come back? Yes, I think I probably would, but in a fresher state, and I'd steer clear of the bigger cities. And I'd steer clear of the hotter curries, just to be safe. I love my madras's, but I wasn't willing to risk it on these fiery shores!

So, The Real World now beckons, and how shall I cope? I suppose the easiest way is to make myself a new Sanity Sheet within this blog, which I can refer to any time I feel a little down in the near future. So here goes...

I will no longer need to be concerned with the following:

* Using a sink to wash my clothes in, including my underwear, then hanging the damp clothes close to where the extractor fan is located and waiting days for them to dry, sometimes using a hairdryer to help the process.
* Using a sink that my brother has washed his clothes in, including his underwear.
* Packing up a suitcase every few days and wondering whether it's going to fall off or out of a bus / train / plane.
* Having a wardrobe consisting of essentially three different outfits.
* Leaving town just as I am starting to make friends with people.
* A lack of decent bacon and mayonnaise sandwiches just like Jimmy makes back home.
* Going months at a time without a bath, and dealing with showers that flow hot and cold, soft and strong whenever they bloody-well feel like it.
* Trying to figure out whether amount A of new foreign currency is a fair price for item B, and whether it will fall apart in my hands as soon as I touch it.
* Watching TV channels with the news in a different language, no decent films, and at least 25 karaoke shows on at any one time.
* A fear of stroking dogs and cats, even if they have the cutest-wutest little "Stroke me!" eyes.
* Remembering to take a little green anti-malarial pill each morning (actually I'll have to keep doing that until the end of January).
* Taking a chance on brand names that I've never heard of and hoping, in the case of, say, deodorant, that it won't burn the skin and come with a Government health warning.
* Getting bitten by bedbugs every time I reckon the hotel bedding is clean enough not to warrant using my sleep sheet.
* Having to plan the next leg of a journey after only having just arrived in a new place.
* Generally only having a bathroom as a place in which I can be alone with my thoughts...and some of those bathrooms would have made Satan himself weep.

I'm such a moaner, aren't I? Well for now it's necessary, because I know that none of the above will be able to make up for the fantastic time I've had on the road. And Tim and I are still just about speaking to each other, which is also good.

So tomorrow it's a flight from Mumbai to Heathrow, then another from Heathrow to Manchester. We'll be travelling all day, but that's how it's often been. That's how we like it...especially when it's my turn for the window seat - bwahahahahar!

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Ain't misbehavin`

Monday, 17/12/2012 – 187 A.D.

A quiet day today. The again, our philosophy at the moment is that it's going to be so manic for the first few days when we get back to England that it's best to keep things quiet for now. This is the calm before the Christmas storm. The only reminder that it's Christmas that we get in Mumbai is the awful instrumental CD of festive songs they play in the hotel restaurant. 

The main thing I did today was to go and get myself fitted for a leather jacket. I always have trouble finding off-the-rack jackets to fit me, so I thought I'd take advantage of the decent local prices that I'd read about. However, to get the jacket I had to do a 45 minute brisk walk up to Dharavi, which was until recently the second largest slum in Asia. Have you seen the film Slumdog Millionaire? `Course you have, and Dharavi is where they filmed a lot of that movie, particularly the earlier parts in which the main characters are very young. 

I was quite pleased with myself that I managed to find my way there using the map I'd hastily sketched out in my jotter, especially as most of the road names were in Hindi. Or Urdu. Or Punjabi. Let's just say that they weren't in English. Unfortunately I found myself really needing to go to the Gents shortly after leaving the hotel, and there's nothing worse than entering price negotiations when you really need to relive yourself. As I entered the squalor of Dharavi I figured there must be public restrooms somewhere nearby, no matter how revolting. Then I spotted a small child defecating by the side of the road and realised that it wasn't going to happen. I'd just have to hold it.

I stuck to the main roads through the slum, which was a good thing. It's everything you expect - chaos, rubbish, small shacks that house huge families and look like they'll collapse if someone sneezes. Curiously I got less attention than I normally get when walking the streets - the occasional wave and the odd, "Hello, Sir!" - but nothing compared to what I thought I'd receive in such a densely-populated place. Dharavi Main Street is where there are said to be a couple hundred leather goods shops, but after walking down it for about 20 minutes I'd given up hope that I'd find any. But eventually they appeared before my eyes and I went inside to try my luck. I had to try three places before I found a good enough deal and left for the long walk back, still needing a squirt, but happy that my mission was successful...so far! Will be going back tomorrow to see what the master leather tailors have come up with. I doubt the sleeves will fit. 

There are official companies that do tours through the Dharavi slums, but I felt as if I'd unofficially done my own, even though I hadn't seen the world's largest outdoor laundry. And I didn't take pictures out of respect for the people who lived in this place, which is the rule on the official tour. Nah stuff that, I simply didn't take my camera with me for safety reasons. So, there are no photos, but I shall leave you with a selection from me and Tim's afternoon walk along the western coast of Mumbai...

UPDATE - having looked on Wikipedia, Dharavi apparently has one toilet for every 1,440 residents. Eeek! 

Tuesday, 18/12/2012 – 188 A.D.

Today I headed back into the slums of Dharavi to pick up my leather jacket. When I arrived at the "shop" (basically a tiny, illegal structure, just like 90% of the shops in Dharavi) the gits kept me waiting for an hour before it was ready. I had my iPod with me and had various podcasts I could listen to and pass the time, all I needed was a quiet spot (preferably in the shade) where I could sit and wait. But where do you find a quiet spot in what was until recently Asia's second largest slum? You don't. I lent beside a small stone wall for a while, but a load of little slum kids came up and started talking to me, so I moved on. Eventually I just aped the pose of several other people and pretended I was waiting for a bus. Cometh the hour, cometh the jacket. I had expected it to need plenty of alterations, like the suit I bought back in Vietnam. But no, everything seemed to fit just fine - even the arms were the right length. Result!

Later that afternoon we jumped into a cab and headed downtown, getting caught up in the traffic jams on the flyover. The cheeky cab driver wanted extra money for being caught in the hold-up, despite the fare we'd initially agreed. He got a compromise of a couple of notes. We got him to drop us outside of the Chatrapati Shiavji Terminus - trying saying that after...a rather strong popadom. CTS is the busiest railway station in India and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was originally called the Victoria Terminus and was built in 1887 to commemorate the golden jubilee of the queen that it's named after. It was also just around the corner from the Macdonalds that we needed to hit. 

We were only down in this part of town to check out a few more markets, use up those last few rupees and pick up any souvenirs. I think our days of sightseeing are well and truly over now! We're winding down big time, though that's not an easy thing to do in a city like Mumbai. People are everywhere in most parts of Asia, but they seem to be twice as everywhere here.

["Fashion Street" AKA the market along Mahatma Gandhi Road.]

For a while we stopped in a nearby park that was essentially one giant sports field full of youngsters playing cricket, which is the national sport over here. It's kind of sweet that England recently beat India in some sort of international test. We bring that up whenever we are approached by people and have a good laugh about it. No-one in these parts really seems to follow football - ask them about English soccer and the only player they seem to know is Rooney. At least there are a lot less M*n Un*ted shirts on display! Mind you, as an LFC fan I really shouldn't talk about football, given how this season's gone for us so far!

I am currently going through my luggage and making room for those extra souvenirs, taking out and binning items that are no longer necessary, such as little tub of washing powder, superglue and makeshift sickbag. Before I set out on this journey I wrote out a "sanity sheet", a document listing reasons for why I was embarking on the trip and which reminded me of the mundane things I would no longer have to worry about while on a break from my regular life. It was basically designed to pick me up if I ever got sufficiently down. I'm pleased to say that I maybe glanced at it twice the whole time I was away, and that was only because it fell out of my bag while I was reaching for something that was stuck down at the bottom. And what is included on this sanity sheet of mine? Ha! That will never be made public. But doing the dusting is on there, I'll give you that much. Thing is, I never actually did the dusting when I wasn't travelling...

[Christmas finally comes to Mumbai!]

Sunday, 16 December 2012

The last time

Saturday, 15/12/2012 – 185 A.D.

Time to leave yet another hotel room, but next time we pack up our stuff it'll be for good. I'm already getting to the point of thinking, "Last time to do...[insert thing we'll do for the last time]". We would be getting the night train from Jaipur to Mumbai, running from 14:20 until 07:30 the next morning. Therefore we needed grub, but we were loathe to trust virtually anything that didn't come in a sealed packet. Even homemade sandwiches wrapped in clingfilm and on display on the counters of the shops across the road from the hotel made us think twice. Therefore we asked the hotel kitchen to specially prepare some sandwiches for us to take as a packed lunch. They were fine with my request for cheese, but when it came to Tim's they had never heard of putting jam between two slices of bread before. We took the sealed package they provided and wondered just what lurked inside...

Because of the mix-up with the driver greeting us when we first arrived, the hotel got their driver to take us to the station free of charge. Indian railway stations are ker-azy places and waiting around on one for over an hour is an experience. We were booked into a second class sleeper carriage, grateful that it wasn't third class as it could so easily have been. Still, there were no curtains for privacy and we'd be sharing our "berth" with two other people. I say "berth" but the carriage was open with no real way to close yourself off from those who wandered along the corridor selling their wares, including the chain kids - "Wanna buy a chain for your luggage?" "No thanks, I already have one."     

The train was just about to get going when a young lad approached us and asked if we'd be willing to swap our seats for two at the end of the aisle. At first I thought it was some kind of scam, but it turned out he did genuinely want to exchange seats so that his two aunties and uncles could sit together in a foursome. And this meant that Tim and I would be able to sit in our own little private bunks with curtains to draw across and keep the rest of the world away. So we swapped. And behind our curtains the bunks were a bit dirty and uncomfortable, but come on, its the last ever train journey we'll have to make in Asia, so who the heck cares?

Fortunately the journey passed without incident - can't have any nasty surprises at this late stage, can we? I got a bit annoyed as people walked past my bunk and brushed whole body parts against my curtain, often catching my knee as I sat behind that curtain, munching on my cheese sandwiches. They were okay, but far too much bread and not enough cheese. And I need to ask this, as the question has occurred many times - why do people come on huge train journeys without any mental stimuli whatsoever? They just sit there for the whole darn journey! Why not bring a book or a magazine? I just can't fathom it.

Sunday, 16/12/2012 – 186 A.D.

The above photo is of the suburbs of Mumbai at dawn. Not great, is it? Well, neither was the state of the window - it hadn't been raining, that water was permanently caught between the two layers of glass. Mumbai is a metropolis of about 21 million people and we'd found it hard to find decent accommodation in a downtown location (for the right price, of course). Therefore we were booked into the Hotel Pritam in the midtown area, which meant a taxi ride in the standard Mumbai taxi that is a 1956 model Fiat (produced sometime after 1956, but goodness knows when exactly. Don't want to know either!) The guy had no idea where exactly our hotel was and he had to get out and ask people on no less than four occasions.

Our hotel is okay, but we've stayed in better, and for much less money. But as I said earlier, what does it matter at this stage? Though we're both phyiscally fit and still mentally strong, there's an intangible part of us deep down that is very tired. That part of us needs to go home shortly. However, if we were going to be on the road a few months longer, we'd be able to adjust and keep going. But once that finishing line rolls around it becomes time to relax all those faculties that you've kept tough because you had to and just let go. Still, that doesn't mean we won't try and enjoy our time here in Mumbai, but we knew that the last country before returning home was always going to be a lesser-experience than those that came before it. I'm just glad we didn't leave the USA until the end! Yep, if you're going to travel round the world in the latter half of the calendar year then anti-clockwise is definitely the way to do it.  

Most things touristy tend to be in the southern part of the city, so we had to get another taxi ride down to where the former British influence is strongest. This part of Mumbai is actually very pleasant to stroll around, particularly on a Sunday. Less crowds, less traffic, less hassle. And the 30 degree heat wasn't a problem, given that we'd switched back to shorts - sorry, sorry, sorry to all you Winter shiverers out there! 

[Note the 1956 Fiat taxi in the foreground.]

Down by the waterfront is the Gateway to India, arguably the biggest draw in the city. It was built by the British Raj between 1911 and 1924, primarily to honour a visit from King George V. Tellingly, it was also the place from where the last British troops left India when the country gained its independence. Today it was very crowded with people and populated with all kinds of hawkers flogging their wares. As our hotel did not provide us with a map, we bought one from a particularly persistent hawker. He continued to be persistent after the purchase had gone through by offering one of his "special maps" in addition to the one we'd just bought. And what was so special about them? They contained drugs between the folds.

After hanging out under the blazing sun for a while, we headed to a nearby market and I was able to replace the watch that stopped on me this morning - great timing, huh? Mind you, the replacement doesn't exactly come with a certificate of authentication and I can see it conking out before I even get on the plane back to England! As for us, we got in a taxi back to midtown and hit the chill out zone. It's never easy sleeping on an overnight train, but guess what? We won't have to do it again.

Oh dear, I'd better quit before I start getting too emotional...

Friday, 14 December 2012

Sick again

Thursday, 13/12/2012 – 182 A.D.

We have another faller, and this time it isn’t me. Our Kid was caught out with a touch of the old Ghandi’s Revenge at around 4 a.m. He made numerous visits back and forth to the bathroom, but that’s as much detail as I will go into. Somehow I managed to sleep through the whole thing – must be in Winter deep sleep mode already. Therefore I was initially surprised why he reacted so strongly to me drawing back the curtains at what I believed to be first thing in the morning. I was even more surprised to hear the news of his distress as he turned over and went back to sleep. Outside on the ledge of our window two pigeons were having scrap. I interpreted that as a bad omen.

So, just me downstairs for the vegetarian breakfast. I picked and prodded at the “Continental” cuisine, but was too hungry not to get stuck in. Tim had asked for some fruit if they had any, so I ordered the Fruit Salad from the menu, which turned out to be a banana and an apple chopped up on a plate. I took it upstairs for him, but it was still too soon for his tum-tum, so I ate the apple.

After a while it was mutually concluded that Tim wasn’t going anywhere for the morning, possibly for the rest of the day. I got my stuff together and headed out into the city of Jaipur, capital of all Rajasthan. First impressions? Sh*thole. Then again, I wasn’t anywhere near the tourist areas and was on the outskirts of the fabled “Pink City”. I was a bit wary about going anywhere too touristy without my partner in crime, but being stuck in the modern part of town was not pleasing to the eye. In an attempt to please the stomach I settled on a supposedly trustworthy source for lunch – Macdonalds. Didn’t fancy their chicken burgers again, so had fillet-o-fish for the first time ever. Not bad. 

[The local Bollywood cinema. Curried popcorn is optional.]

I returned to the hotel to check on Timbo, making an observation that tuk-tuk drivers are a real pain in the arse in this town. They pull up beside you, get politely told no once, get less politely told no a second time, yet they’re still there. One guy even got in a bit of a strop when I angrily waved him away and he protested that he was simply saying, “Welcome to India!” Come on, mate, I’ve done six months round the world, to the day, as it happens. In my experience there’s no such thing as a free lunch…errr, or a free friendly stranger. Fortunately Tim was doing okay, though still bed-bound and not in the mood for food or rising. He tried to go back to sleep while I discovered my bed sheets were sopping wet. No, it wasn’t due to a nocturnal accident or overly-pleasant dream, I’d simply put my day bag down on the bed which contained a bottle of water with the top not properly on. Was this another bad omen? Oh who cares!

I went back out into town after that, taking a different route and passing into the edge of the Pink City, which is essentially the old part of town where all of the buildings are painted a shade of pink (though it looked more like creamy-orange from where I was standing – does “creamy orange” have its own shade?) I entered at the Chand Pol Gate and proceeded down the road known as Chand Pol Bazaar. I was searching for some cabin luggage that we could take back to England with us, stuffed with souvenirs and cheap Indian goods – we’ve run out of backpack space. I could get rid of some clothes, but you know what I’m like for being sentimental with my garments – remember White Shirt’s funeral??? Chand Pol Bazaar consisted of endless tiny shops where you could buy pretty much everything, but not souvenirs. No, this was a place for locals to buy their cheap market goods, so the vast majority of it was of no use to me, but there were some luggage shops. I went into a couple, just to get a feel for the prices and realised I’d have to pay a bit more than I’d hoped. Maybe I was getting charged the extortionate rate, but the thing about haggling is that it’s much more fun if you don’t care either way if you walk out with the item. If you really want it, then you’re prone to making mistakes. In fact, I was lucky to get out of the second shop without buying anything, given how many suitcases I made them take out of their wrapping.

Eventually I came to a place where the guy showing me the goods stated that he collected foreign money. Seeing that I had a couple of Chinese coins in my wallet, I chucked one his way and he was made up. And eventually we found a suitcase that I was happy with, but I had to go through the hardcore haggling process with the manager, who I liked, but who knew his stuff. He knew I wanted the case more than he cared about letting it go. I used all the tricks in the book, e.g. claiming that the original discount he offered was for American shoppers, but I needed the Englishman’s discount; suggesting that Thursday was my lucky day, then claiming it was my unlucky day when he didn’t offer enough of a drop down in price. Finally, with things hanging on a knife-edge and neither of us prepared to move, I told him that I’d been fair and given his man a Chinese coin. “Where is mine?” he asked, trying to hide his smile. So I reached in my wallet and gave him a yuan, claiming that his was bigger than that which I gave his employee. “Because of my size?” he asked, pointing to his pot belly. “Because of your importance!” I countered. He gestured to the luggage with a smile, “Take it!” and shook my hand. I think that during our time in Asia Tim and I have both enjoyed haggling, but it’s so much easier when it’s over a tiny little trinket. There comes a time when you just want to see a fixed price for something! I can see me doing my Chirstmas shopping in just over a week’s time and trying to barter with the shop assistant in Curry’s Digital for a better price on some headphones!

[Here it’s a holy symbol.]

Back at the hotel, Tim was up and walking (gingerly) around the room, which was great. The tough guy is getting over his food poisoning ten times quicker than I did. But he obviously did not want an evening meal, so I checked the internet for somewhere good to eat in the area. Vegetarian, vegetarian, vegetarian…why so many vegetarian places in Jaipur? I asked the guy at the front desk and he confirmed that it was a caste-based religious thing. He suggested a place where I could go and eat meat – Jeez, I felt like a vampire!

The talk of the town was the place he recommended, but when I arrived it looked like a glorified burger bar. Come on, man, with one week to go of this trip I want to take advantage of being able to eat a comfortable meal out! And I ain’t risking anything that doesn’t come from a proper kitchen. I kept walking and tried a hotel bar, but – surprise, surprise – despite very generous beer prices, they only served vegetarian cuisine. Eventually I ended up at a place called Copper Chimney – a bit more swanky than where I’d usually hang my faded sneakers, but it served as a “comfortable meal out”. Plus it served meat.

On my way home I could not find anywhere selling the tube of sour cream and onion Pringles that Tim had requested, so I settled for a pack of sour cream Walkers crisps, known everywhere outside the UK as Lays. Unfortunately the rough `n` ready beer shop just across from the hotel which I’d hope to hit had closed and the darkened streets didn’t look like they contained many off-licences. I sidled up to a nearby “shop” (read cross between a newsagent stand and a cave) and the owner shrugged his shoulders and repeated that the beer shop was closed. His elderly friend mumbled something about going to some bar somewhere, but it sounded like a plug-your-mate’s-place thing so I ignored him and walked off.

Finding nothing but darkness down one road, I had to double back on myself and Newsagent Guy beckoned me over with a bony finger. He told me that he did have beer, but the elderly man in his shop would be going soon and he would sort me out then. I asked him why he couldn’t just come out and sell me the beers and he mumbled something about it not being allowed. I was past asking further questions by this point. And, sure enough, the old guy whizzed away on his moped and the newsagent paid a small boy a few rupees (???), then pulled out two ice cold Kingfishers and wrapped them in newspaper. He’d wanted 220 rupees for them, but I only had two one hundred rupee notes in my wallet, so I handed them over, and gave him my last Chinese coin which I said would bring good luck. And that I’d come and buy my bottled water from him tomorrow.

Half an hour after returning to the room, I was drinking that beer and Tim was eating those crisps. Result. I just love this semi-teetotal vegetarian town!

Friday, 14/12/2012 – 184 A.D.

Tim was feeling better today and was able to eat the fruit salad provided for breakfast. I, on the other hand, found the mango juice to taste extremely odd (it repeated on me all morning!) and had to leave the omelette that had been stuffed with onions and tomatoes, which hadn’t been the case yesterday. Ah, such trivial gripes!

We walked into town, taking the same route I had done solo the day before. We entered the Pink City and strolled along the bazaar-lined streets until we came to the Royal Palace of the Maharajas of Rajasthan (try saying that after several large bottles of Kingfisher!)

We hadn’t done too much background reading on the palace, and if truth be told, it wasn’t up to the standards of others that we’ve seen. And I suppose I should include the photo below because the guy demanded a tip for it – should have seen it coming, did see it coming from then onwards when each of his buddies also tried the same trick.

Unfortunately the exhibits on display were mostly to do with the traditional royal fashions from bygone days, which isn’t really my bag. But there was an interesting bit about polo – the game, not the sweet – and how it was huge over here. Possibly still is. Anyway, the Maharaja himself used to play it back in the 1930s, even competing at the World Championships and winning – take that, Princess Anne! Plus there was a “night ball” AKA a “fiery ball” which was a rounded metal grid with a lit candle in the centre. The force of gravity as this ball moved along meant that the candle always remained upright and lit. This meant that polo could still be played at night, though why they didn’t just paint a normal ball in bright orange is beyond me.

After a quick lunch at the Palace CafĂ© (best cheese sandwich I’ve had in India so far), we went looking for a tuk-tuk driver to take us up to Narhargarh Fort. Come on, there had to be at least one fort, didn’t there? Be grateful – it could have been three! It did not take long to find a willing driver, but the guy kept pulling over and querying the price with us, trying to get it back up to his original offer after we’d bartered him down. In a once-in-a-lifetime move, we did actually concede to his terms, but only once we saw how far up in the hills it was to the fort. Still, he didn’t tell us about the 10 rupee “parking charge” when we got there, the little so-and-so!

The fort wasn’t dear to get into, which was good, because the guidebook had claimed it was disappearing under a twin layer of graffiti and pigeon poo. In both cases, I agreed. Still, there were some excellent views over Jaipur to be had. While exploring the rooms we really started to get fed-up of groups of young Indians dashing up to have their picture taken with us, before shaking our hands and dashing off again. I hate to admit it, but I’ll be glad when I can get lost in the crowd again! I’ve got used to being stared at like I’m some kind of freak, and I’ve had to do the same thing while I’ve been away from England (boom-boom!) If you set your mind to it, you can quite easily ignore the constant stares and cries of, “Hello, Sir!” followed by laughter at having conversed with such a strange specimen of the human race. It’s best to just laugh it off yourself, but should you not happen to be in the right mood for it, for whatever reason, it can become extremely annoying. Fortunately I have a high tolerance level for life’s many little annoyances, given that I’m a middle manager at Smedley Hydro (second boom-boom!)

One the way back down from the fort, with the same tuk-tuk driver, he suddenly pulled over and asked if we minded sharing our vehicle with a couple of other young people who were seemingly stranded on the road. By this point Tim was starting to feel pretty knackered and just wanted to get back to the hotel, so to avoid a fuss we agreed. And so five girls got into the boot, and one lad sat up front with the driver – nine people in a tuk-tuk, ladies and gentlemen! It would never have happened had we been going up the hill. 

[The palace on the lake will have to wait for another visit, possibly another incarnation.]

Once we’d been dropped off we strolled back along the bazaar streets, but there wasn’t anything that caught our eye. So much for Jaipur’s souvenir stands! In fact, it’s not been the greatest of visits, though our time here wasn’t helped by Tim’s illness. Maybe if we had more time…but we don’t. Only one more place remains on this ker-azy round the world trip of ours.

It’s Mumbai or bust, baby! 

Thursday, 13 December 2012

More songs about buildings and food

Wednesday, 12/12/2012 – 181 A.D.

It’s a good job Tim is doing this round the world trip with me, because I didn’t hear the alarm go off this morning. Twice. Mind you, it went off at 05:45, so who can blame me? There wasn’t time for much upon getting up, simply pulling on clothes and scraping the hair straight.

The plan was to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise, which was officially at 07:00, but we wanted to make sure we were there nice and early. It was rather strange walking down blacked-out backstreets with all of the shutters down on the shops and cows asleep at the side of the road – hardly the kind of approach worthy of such a world-renowned monument.

The West Gate (one of three) is the one they open first and there were already a few tourists. There is clear separation between foreigners and Indians, in terms of price, queuing, and route through security. It was still dark when we arrived at the queue, but unfortunately they did not open the ticket office until 06:30, as the first shades of dark blue started to mix with the blackened sky. Next we had to queue outside the gate proper and the spoilsports didn’t open that until 07:00 which was officially sunrise.

Never mind, because nothing can spoil the effect of turning the corner and coming face-to-face (albeit from a distance) with the Taj Mahal. If you don’t already know, this was constructed from 1632 - 1653 by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Not sure how many he had, but she was definitely his favourite. And judging by the scale and beauty of her tomb, he must have really fancied her! 

We had our video camera temporarily confiscated soon after crossing the no-“videography” threshold, but we could still get some sneaky footage on the camera-camera. There were plenty of professional snappers around taking high quality pictures for the tourists, but we don’t need that when we’ve got Our Kid (I’m almost as good as him, if it weren’t for my shaky hands. And total lack of eye for detail). Even at this early hour, there was great demand to sit on the same bench that Diana famously draped herself across, and we were able to do an exchange shot with a couple of English lads. Or they might have been Australian – can’t really remember what English people sound like anymore.

After that historic moment we headed closer to the Taj, cursing our luck that we were an hour and a half too early to enter the museum. To enter the area of the Taj Mahal proper, you need to put shoe covers on, which are provided when you buy your ticket, along with a litre bottle of water – nice thought, but not really necessary at this time in this season. The shoe covers are easy to slip on and feel pretty funky on the floor as you take in this great building devoted to lurve. In the past we just removed our shoes before entering these sacred places, but I guess there’s such huge demand here that the staff are sick of shoes going missing, especially as there is always the odd monkey hanging around nearby.    

There was not a great deal inside the mausoleum (photos are banned), but it was at least warm – the sun not having totally risen yet, outside I’d been wishing I’d put my Genuine Fred Perry jumper on. In the centre of the room, beneath the nesting pigeons, was the coffin of the woman this whole place was designed and built for. Next to her was the coffin of the man who’d had it built. For his own resting place he’d allegedly wanted an exact copy of the TaJ Mahal constructed facing the original from the other side of the river, only built out of black marble. Unfortunately they only got as far as the foundation before his son gained power, couldn’t be bothered with all that and simply dumped his dad next to his wife.

Although we hadn’t seen the Taj Mahal go from darkness into light, nor caught the supposed orange glow that it displays when the sun is in the right position, I was glad we came out to see it so early. It really is a spectacular sight to behold and there’s a powerful aura about the place, particularly when you’re up close to the building itself.

We returned to the hotel for breakfast, which wasn’t complimentary and I chose cornflakes and French toast. The menu said two slices, but I received three. Have they heard it on the grapevine that I’m supposedly an excellent tipper? Anyway, I could barely manage two of them, given they were thick wholemeal bread. Still, it’s good to see that I have once again tackled eggs at breakfast time since my possible salmonella poisoning. Tim just had cornflakes.

So, what else is there to do in Agra if you’ve been to the Taj Mahal? There’s Fort Agra, which is another of those red forts from the Mughal period, just like the kind we saw in Delhi. This was a 15 minute stroll down the road north, though you can add on another couple of minutes for the breath you lose and subsequent slowdowns from telling passing tuk-tuk drivers that you do not need their services.

I liked Fort Agra more than Delhi’s Red Fort. It’s in a much more dramatic spot with wider moat and better defensive walls. Plus there’s a fraction of the number of people, while still being a popular tourist draw. But the main thing that has given this leg of the trip the best boost is the Indian weather in December – still absolutely bang-on. If you’re ever going to come to this country, come ye in December. It may not be very Christmassy, but you won’t get wet or burnt.

[As if you haven't seen enough shots of the Taj Mahal!]

Loads of chipmunks were hanging around the fort, plus the odd ferret. As ever, monkeys made their presence felt, and there was an amusing incident when Tim got a little too close to one of them and it darted forward and slapped him on the leg. We definitely kept our distance from then on. The best creature feature of the day though was when we peeped through an old doorway that was gated-off, but behind which was a whole colony of bats hanging from the walls. They were nowhere near the size of the fruitbats of Cairns, but hanging there silently, one or two of them twitching occasionally, they presented a creepy spectacle. I would have loved to be around at sunset when this lot flew out for the evening!

After walking back from the fort we decided to get lunch in the hotel’s restaurant, which would complete the set – dinner, breakfast, lunch – got to be a first. I had chicken chow mein, if ya care. A Chinese dish in an Indian place? Well I’m missing that MSG from the late November leg of the trip across the Orient. After that it was time to check out and tuk-tuk it all the way down to Agra Fort station to hang around for a short while before boarding our train to Jaipur. This was a far superior train to that of yesterday and today we were in “Chair Class”, which isn’t that far removed from any long distance train you’d get in the UK. Unfortunately there was a youngster sitting across from us, who fidgeted constantly, but was quiet. The only trouble he gave me was insisting on putting his feet on the table as soon as I got my netbook out. Behind us was another infant who screamed occasionally, but this wound Tim up more than me. We even got a free tray of snacks provided, though I reckon I tackled about 35% of them, not wanting to risk too much. I have eight days left before it’s roast beef and bacon sarnies all the way – I do not want another round of the Bangalore Belly!

[The obligatory shot of James and Tim having just got on the train.]

In stark contrast to yesterday, the train arrived bang on time. In email correspondence with our hotel, I’d made it very clear that we really did want twin beds this time, and not a double room. From the responses I received, it looked like the message had got through. However, today’s problem-with-hotel was the driver they sent to pick us up at the station…he wasn’t there. We walked up and down platforms 1 and 2 several times and hung around outside the Refresh Restaurant where we were inclined to believe him to be, but no one anywhere was holding a piece of paper with my name on it. After about 30 minutes we shuffled out of the station and were immediately met by a barrage of slick young guys asking us where we wanted to go. We told them someone was picking us up and that we did not require their services, although after another 10 minutes of waiting we realised that our ride wasn’t coming and we needed a tuk-tuk one way or the other.

One young lad looking far too well-dressed (and far too young) to be a tuk-tuk driver swore blind that he had said vehicle and could take us to our hotel for 50 rupees. We followed him to the dark, far end of the car park with caution as he told us how much he liked English people and that he would be honest with us from the very bottom of his heart, or some other such rubbish. He led us to a tuk-tuk that was already occupied by several young lads, laughing and joking. Their exact business in the tiny cab was obscured by the darkness, but I assumed they were either drinking or getting high off something else. “Did you not get picked up then?” one of them said from within the cab in a mocking tone. “That make me so sad for you,” said another in equally condescending fashion. “Which is your tuk-tuk?” I asked, ignoring his idiot friends, as some other tall guy looking like a warped version of Neil from The Inbetweeners appeared from out of nowehere and started speaking gibberish to us. Our so-called driver calmly said, “We wait a while,” but there was no way that was going to happen. On the way over there I’d already said to Tim that we should keep our wits about ourselves, but I’d said it in my finest Scouse accent – Tim and I always speak in Scouse when we don’t want the natives to know what we’re thinking. On this occasion we both telepathically said a great big, “Sod it!” and turned around to walk away, back to the part of the car park that was lit. Our driver came after us, imploring us to come back because of X, Y and Z, but we didn’t want X, Y or Z, just wanted to get from A to B. A minute or so later we’d found a more bonefide tuk-tuk where you book your ticket up front, much to the disappointment of our original driver. He may have lost a 50 rupee fare, but at least now he could go and get p*ssed with the rest of his mates.   

Upon arriving at the hotel the driver was hovering around the desk, claiming he had been there waiting, but hadn’t seen us. We were too tired and hungry to bother arguing and simply gave him the benefit of the doubt, though I get the feeling the manager was a little suspicious of the guy, especially when I later showed him a photo I’d taken of me and bro standing outside the rendez-vous point. But we were hungry, so we went to the hotel’s restaurant, only to find it was vegetarian! What’s the back up plan in this situation? Cheese, please!