So far since last time

Trip Start Nov 15, 2006
1
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Trip End Ongoing


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Where I stayed
Taj Oberoi Hotel

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Friday, January 5, 2007

You stay away from the internet for a few days and thousands of miles have been missed and places passed.  Since Pushkar we've been to Jaipur, Agra and are about to leave Varanasi for Kolkatta, and shortly to finish the tour.  I have been anxious about forgetting so much, but we've hit a patch of long trips, shortish stops, the need for resting somewhat in rest periods, and a lack of convenient, functioning computers.
So, at least some highlights...
Pushkar is one of the two cities we are visiting that are particularly spiritually important.  We did discover some magic there, outside of the dogdy discomforts of our hotel.  Life centres around the lake and its ghats - steps down into the water - on which we watched people being blessed by Brahmins, real or fake, and washing and dunking themselves.
The next long bus trip was to Jaipur, the biggest city in Rajasthan, the state we have been in all this time.  It was the first city that felt cared about as we drove in.  There was curbing along the main roads, and murals along the road barriers, and less dirt and rubbish and mess than in other places.  As usual we were dropped at a bus station and caught auto rickshaws to our hotel.  As also often happens, our rickshaw driver said yes, yes, he knew where to go, and had no idea.  So, after stopping a number of times for him to ask directions, all of which steered us off in the opposite direction to the last instruction, and after I had called Shammy on my mobile and he had issued new directions to the driver, we arrived in a new oasis.  The Diggi Palace was gorgeous!  This central grass courtyard was an absolute joy of space, lawn and trees and we settled in to start harassing the waiters as we always do, the 12 of us ordering separately and asking for new things every time they appeared.  And as usual, they delivered patiently and without pained expressions - mostly - including our separate bills which Intrepid insists on on our behalves in every place we go.  None of us, from any of our countries, can imagine our own county's waiters patiently coping with 12 different bills and 12 sets of change.
I didn't see as much of Jaipur as I might have liked because some time really needed to be spent just sitting in that garden.  It is a holiday after all.  However, on the first afternoon I went to, and loved, the old city which is a massive market bazaar.  It is many city blocks of wide streets and tiny lanes and little, well-kept stalls selling everything you can imagine.  In the sari section, down 4' wide lanes there were endless little sari shops, most with a family ensconsed on the floor matting and piles of dazzling sari fabric mounting in front of them.  It is not possible to go into a fabric or scarf shop without the attendant opening at least 20 packages of material and spreading it out as far as possible.  This makes it almost impossible to leave without buying something because it feels like they have done so much for you!  So - two shawls later...
I realised after Mumbai that the standard of presentation there, ie my comment earlier that even in the heat and dust everyone is immaculately presented, was only relevant to Mumbai.  Everywhere else, the clothes of many people are as dirty and stained as you'd imagine they'd have to be.  That said, in every single place we go, and every part of every village and town, the women are dressed in the brightest colours and embroidery and sequins and sparkles.  I have bought 4 scarves so far to brighten up my basic Melbourne black which seems so dark and gloomy here by comparison.
 
Anyway, in Jaipur's market, I bought socks for about 80cents,  a new watch band for $2, and two beautiful scarves for $10 and $30.
On the second afternoon, we went to Ladli, an amazing project that is housing, feeding and training children rescued off the streets.  We sat with the girls as they made the jewellery they were being trained to make by an Irish designer, danced and drank chai with them, took their photos and bought their jewellery, the money from which will go into bank accounts for their futures.  It was inspiring.
And then we went to a polo match. It was the final of an interstate competition and yet an extraordinarily low-key affair.  The teams and their horses were gathered on the side of the enormous oval, and it looked like, although who really knows, that the fans placed themselves in caste order.  There were those few on the very far side of the oval, miles from the rest, those who stood or sat on the side lines, those who sat in the smallish concrete bleachers, those who sat downstairs in the small grandstand, and those who sat upstairs with the best view.  Being white, and with two in our party with endless gall, we had beers inside the small, very Raj lounge of the clubhouse, and then took ourselves upstairs, not only to sit there without the appropriate invitation, but to take seats in the second row in a group that it was obvious was the President's section.  And then we were served tea!  No one asked us who we were or why we were there, although a couple of the women looked daggers at us.  Were they simply too polite though to say who the hell do you think you are??
The fun part of New Year's Eve that night was not the drinks we bought and drank in one of the rooms, or the buffet or dancing presentation, but the party we went to next door to the hotel for a while at around midnight.  Next to the hotel is a compound around which many of the rickshaw drivers and their families live.  In the centre was a volleyball court.  By 11.30am all of the women had retired to the houses and the men were ensconced around a campfire or on the volleyball court, and 5 of us joined them, led by Al who can make friends with such bravado and genuine warmth that he is not to be resisted.
I asked if it was alright for me to be there and one of them, whose English was excellent, assured me that it was custom for Indian women to keep themselves separate, but that they know western women think differently and I was very welcome.  So, 2007 was welcomed with a crowd scene in a huge dirt courtyard with dancing, photographing, hand slapping games with the children who came out to play, much shouting, some quiet namastes to the shy women on the sidelines, more hugging than was strictly necessary and a huge sense of community and joy and fun.  Going back to the group sitting quietly in a hotel room was a sharp contrast and it was another reminder that we westerners have paid a price for our higher standard of living.
Racing along, from Jaipur we took another long-haul bus to Agra.  Arriving at 7ish, the hotel was dull, the food average and we were quiet and dull for a while after arrival.  We had all read enough to know not to expect anything of Agra other than the Taj Mahal, and how could that live up to expectations.  After dinner, a few of us took a walk to find an ATM nearby.  It was near one of the Taj gates, but it was way to foggy to see the Taj.  It was interesting however to pass by 3 checkpoints with men with guns along the dark street - protecting the Taj from terrorists.  Sadly the ATM ate Tony's card so we abandoned that plan.   Walking back, however, we took up the invitation of the guards at the gates of the Taj Oberoi Hotel to go and have a drink.  Well they greeted us anyway, and said yes there was a bar and yes we could use it.  We then walked along the drive and into the most beautiful hotel I have ever seen.  The door keepers also welcomed us in, so we got to see the fairytale courtyard of gorgeously-inlaid marble, fountains, and fairy lights, and the lobby with a huge cupola that seemed to be lined with lapis, and staff in exotic Indian costume, before we were advised that sadly the bar/restaurant was full and we could go no further.  Oh well.  It really felt like a moment in a paradise.
We therefore felt our dusty clothes and backpacker status keenly as we returned to the road, but found another restaurant that would have had a fantastic Taj view if there had been no fog, and the boys found beer and it was altogether alright.
Another day, another fort.  I had not expected to be impressed by Agra's fort, but I really was.  Those Rajahs, well particularly this one, ie the one who built the Taj Mahal and much else, understood beauty and could afford to create it.  He also wanted to be inclusive of all religions, so the carved and inlaid stone and marble feature imagery of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism.  It also used the skills and ideas of the best architects in the world and was gracious, clever, inclusive for public audiences, peaceful and really beautiful.
And then, finally we got to the Taj Mahal.  I'm not going to say much because I could not do justice to it and would just write a load of cliches that would diminish the experience.  I only need to say that no hype or hyperbole can express it or match it.  Really.  It did not feel like visiting a great building; it felt like being in the presence of something, astonishing and special and important.  I hope I can recall in future some sense of the feeling of it.
 
I feel I should stop this section there, but I need to mention Varanasi before I head to the train station for our last collective journey.  During the wait at the Agra train station, we played games with banana skins and the rats on the track, ie whose bit of banana skin would be discovered and taken off first, and we tried to avoid standing under pigeons and therefore getting dumped on. Eventually the overnight train to Varanasi took us off and this time I was able to sleep until we woke at 5.30 to leap off at 6ish.
I will talk about Varanasi more next time, but it is an extraordinary place.  It is perhaps the oldest living city in the world, and one of the holiest cities in India.  Although poisonously full of e coli, the Ganges is very wide, very tranquil and very beautiful, and we haven't seen dead bodies or even rubbish floating down it as we expected.  I felt overwhelmed by the particular sights and smells of Varanasi for most of the first day we were here, particularly the burning ghats where piles of wood are cremating bodies 24 hours a day, but a river trip which included a sunset over the river, the setting off dozens of leaf plates full of marigolds and candles onto the still water, and watching a loud and colourful prayer cycle from our boat, restored a sense of peacefulness that is still with me.
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