Sunday, 27 November 2011

Ever feel....

....groggy, a bit disorientated and tired?

Since Thursday evening, winding down from the last couple of weeks, that's how it's been for me.

Crazy - we've only been back 3 weeks, and I'm already fuzzy headed and worn out.

Really fancied a ride today - the sun was bright, skies clear, temperature at lunchtime 13'C and it felt lovely. For various reasons I wasn't ready & able to ride until 3pm at which point the temp had dropped to 8'C and the day was no longer enticing. Blueh.

While I've been typing this with the updater and blogger windows each sharing half the screen the updater switched from downloading to updating & installing. It's interesting how the 2 CPUs (AMD 3800) get loaded up, sometimes 1, sometimes both. It seems much more efficient than when I was processing a bunch of files through doubletwist on the Macbook to adapt them for the phone, where 1 processor was constantly running at 100% and the other idling.

Dinner tonight is a large piece of pig. I'm probably going to insert a couple of sticks of Kabanos lengthwise through it, along with smoked paprika and herbs on the outside before slowly roasting it.

'Nuff of that - time to do something other than play on computers.

The time has come

To talk of many things. Of sausages and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings.

A 'wipe & re-install' session for Sabayon. From memory, I think the last rebuild happened about 16 months ago (shortly before Marc & Dixie's visit) so it's done as well as OSX and many Windows installs. The software was starting to get a bit cranky and temperamental, with DigiKam occasionally failing to show newly saved files in the folders to which they'd been saved, VLC playing the background music MUCH louder than the voices on DVD playback and the update application ceasing to work.

Probably entirely fixable, but it seemed easier to just save the Home directory to an external HDD, then re-load it and carry on.

I'd also wanted to see what the new (Sabayon 7) theming was like, because although Sabayon updates the complete OS (I started off with v5.5, finished on 7) the changes made are mostly under the hood, with usually only small changes to the desktop. Last but not least, Sabayon 7 uses the Btrfs file management system (like FAT32 or NTFS)which is meant to be substantially quicker in operation than EXT3 and 4. That might well be true - install time was around 20min instead of the usual 35-40 min it usually seemed to take. We'll have to see though, because I've also heard accusations of instability, so I'll need to be careful with the backups.

One other change I've noted, is that Sabayon have changed from Firefox to Chromium as the default browser. Not my favourite appearance-wise (and regrettably Opera are following this style increasingly) but it's bloomin' fast after FF. I shall have to do some re-evaluation alongside Opera, but with this level of performance it will be hard to continue using FF.

So what's the downside to the re-build?

Sabayon work very much at the bleeding edge, meaning that software updates get adapted, tested and then bunged in the repository ASAP. That means that for a 5-6 week old 'new' operating system there was one initial 20Mb download and then 861 further updated files for around a 3.5Gb download total. It's been going since around 2.15pm and has reached 44% at 4.09pm. And that's WITH removing most of the bundled games and WITHOUT installing any of my own software preferences (like Thunderbird, FF, Inkscape, Audacity, DigiKam etc).

So here we go. In another few hours I'll have a spanky new copy of S7 up and running (hopefully) solidly) that should see me through for another 15-18 months.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Does anybody need a new PC?

Because if you do, buy it now, rather than 2 month's time.

The floods in Thailand have wiped out a lot of hard drive manufacturing - a 1Tb Samsung drive that was £40 in August is now selling for £120 on Ebuyer. This hasn't filtered through to the PC manufacturers yet, but the glut that was left after the recession bit is almost all gone, and unit prices will climb as demand exceeds supply. The cheapest external drive I could find was a Toshiba at £92: exactly like the 1Tb Tosh drive I bought 3 years ago for my Macbook costing £72.

This kind of price reversal just doesn't happen, except it has.

OTOH if you want SSD or RAM then they're both dirt cheap right now, and processors and MoBos will likely get cheaper as there is an excess compared to available HDDs for building into finished machines. I'm just hoping that my hard drives remain good for another 12 months+, and that I don't have to do a lot of system building/rebuilding for a while.

Says he, while backing up the home directory to the 'free' 1Tb Seagate drive. Now, if only house prices would halve... but that's another story.

Monday, 21 November 2011

They're up!

The photos, that is. Links below, images relate to the days in listed in the blog and *should* all appear in order:

Delhi first day

Agra and the Taj Mahal

Fatehpur Sikri and Bharatpur junction

Ranthambore and the train journey

Jaipur - Bissau palace hotel, Mantar Jantar and Maharajah's palace

Jaipur walk

Jaipur day 2 - Amber fort

Nawalgarh and the Havelis

Surajgarh village

Additional pictures

Hopefully you'll enjoy, rather than being bored. I think it's taken about 20 hours to sort and present the images, and I'm ready for a break now!

Oh yes, to give you an incentive to have a look....

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Our internet is down here

BT replaced a relay box in the road on Friday, now although our phone works, we have no data connection.


The upside is that I've had time to process most of the remaining images from India, to be posted shortly when I go to the office this afternoon.

Friday, 18 November 2011

I'm splitting the images from Jaipur

Jaipur was where we stepped out of the bubble and into the street. However we also saw a lot of stuff while we were there, and in addition the hotel was quite spectacular.

These images start with the hotel, move to the Mantar Jantar and then finish with the Maharajah's palace. There's about 50 in all, in several groupings. If you get bored with the sameness of one type then move on to the next.

A quick word on image credits. While I took a lot more photos than Chris, there were times she got shots that I didn't or sometimes took a better pic than me of a subject. All her images were identified with a 'C' in the image name before uploading, but photobucket seems to have stripped that out. They are scattered through all the India albums. There will be quite a bit of similarity in appearance because I've done all the post-processing on her pix (including cropping, perspective correction and rotation). Some of her pics are really very good - an example would be the 3 'servants' in white uniforms and red turbans (below) and I've been glad to be able to include them.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Is a third enough?

One of the things that has become increasingly apparent to me is that I mercilessly abuse the rule of thirds in composing my images. There was a time when I'd think (yes, actually pause and consider) the composition of a picture, deliberately looking at it for the point of interest, lead lines etc. Now *most of the time* it just comes together in my head, and, with the exception of symmetrical objects, I automatically compose on thirds.

While we were away, one of the guys was deliberately taking pictures at a 30 degree(ish) angle in order to break out of the classic composition boredom he'd developed. I did try that at one time, and might be tempted to try it again, if I could find a decent way of presenting images so created. I've wondered about how that might be done, practically speaking: maybe rotate the image in software on a transparent background, so that when published to the web, it appeared rotated on the page without a larger rectangular border irregularly displaced around it. Obviously it's a complete non-issue if you print images, although they do usually look a little odd in the hand or album.

So does it get any better than 'rule of thirds'?

I'd love to find something that was different and worked at least as well. Occasionally I'll just see a shot come together on the screen of my camera, but those are freaks of composition, rather than a development from solid technique. I guess for now, one or two thirds will have to be enough.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Fatehpur Sikri and Bharatpur Junction - gallery 3

I've given up the idea of getting down to a smaller number of 'definitive' images, mostly because such a small number cannot carry the impact adequately that India had.

India was, for us both I think, a real shock to the senses after a soft, muted England. It's not that we haven't travelled - far from it - but the colours are so intense, the people so numerous that it pushes the senses into overload. My inclination with photographs is to present and display reality, so I want images to be sharp, detailed, natural, deep, even when they're simple. I want them to make me feel like I'm standing in the world that the image was taken, and all I'd have to do would be to turn my head a little and see the rest of the scene.

I found that with these pictures I really had to push the colours and contrast up to try to express the reality we'd found. Muted sophistication in colour and texture is for Scandinavians, for whom a third of the year is night and the rest is softly lit. India teems with bright colours, sparkly gold and mirror fragments. Subtly tasteful it ain't, but in context it all works, and much better than a poke in the eye with a technicolour sharp stick.

So here is gallery 3 - Fatehpur Sikri and Bharatpur junction. I hope you enjoy it.

Here's one of my favourites from this set.

As for me, despite still feeling a bit iffy, I'm wondering if and when we can next go over. 2nd visits are so often disappointing, but I think India is big enough that we don't have to worry too much about that. Fallen in love? Nope. But fascinated, and feeling like we barely scratched the surface, certainly.

Monday, 14 November 2011

More images - Agra and the Taj Mahal

This time 39 images - I may not get time to do another batch for a couple of days, so see how you do with these.

Of all the images, this is one of my favourites - without the small boy, it would be nothing.

First batch of India images are now up

Not too many yet, I'm sorry to say - 28 from the first 24 hours in Delhi.

The earliest pix show us out in Old Delhi centre on a rickshaw ride, then the India arch and finally on the road to Agra in a coach. You can see how smoggy the air was in some of the pix.

I'll try to get the rest re-sized and ready over the next week or so.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Just finished the first rough picture sort.

That drops it to a shortlist of 300 images. Now to find out how to use the lightbox software.

Objective is to try for about 150-180 images that still covers the 9 days we were actually doing things. That's less than 20 pix a day, which will be quite a challenge.

It's been interesting working through this number of images from 2 different cameras: Chris's new Panasonic TZ10 and my old Samsung S850. While I love the super-wide zoom, fast focus lock and big screen of the Panasonic, at a pixel level the images don't come even close to the samsung, and are only tolerable because of the higher (12MP) pixel density. The Samsung optics aren't the best, but the 8MP 1/1.7" sensor and relatively minimal level of signal processing look very much crisper.

When it comes to post-capture processing, the samsung images could be enhanced much more than those from the panasonic - there was just simply so much more information to work with. The one place where it didn't matter was where there were large swathes of gently graduated colour: for example the water picture taken in Ranthambore national park. Here the Panasonic worked well, and the 'impressionist' style of detail didn't matter.

Images also deteriorated badly in low light with the Panasonic, even when limited to 400ASA.

Unfortunately the Samsung has started to become a little unreliable. It was failing to focus and a couple of times even refused to respond, requiring the batteries to be removed before it would work. If I do replace it with another compact then it will have to have at least a similar size sensor. A D-SLR would be nice, if bulky. I'm not sure budgets will stretch to some of the new micro four thirds cameras unless something amazing happens to the business.

Camera GAS - not something I need!

Day 10 – flying home.

There’s not much to write. Delhi’s airport was spacious, clean, reasonably comfortable. One has to complete a visitor departure form very much like the entry form, including the hotel of residence, passport number etc. There’s also a game that’s played where at every opportunity some kind of official examines either the boarding card or passport, sometimes within a few feet of the last person that examined it.

Nothing exciting happened on the plane, other than it being somewhat late, which is all for the best and just how it should be.

And so home. The house feels cold and smells a little odd, but it’s incredibly quiet and peaceful to be back in the green and damp of rural Oxfordshire. But there are all the memories.

So to Noel and Julie, Matt, Ian, Jo, Nicki, Margaret, Anne, Liz, Susan, Helen, Chrissie, Sarah, Bharti, Judith and of course Junaid, thank you for being such good company. If you have read this then I hope it has brought back some good memories.

Footnote. As of 1 week after getting home, we both still have dodgy tums and don’t feel too good.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Day 9 – long drive to Delhi

We left the hotel at Surijgarh at 6.30am!

One thing amazed us – someone in the village had deliberately cleared the gutters of rubbish, and it sat damply in small piles looking like it was waiting to be collected. This kind of thing must happen from time to time in all Indian cities, but the streets also looked swept and tidy, and that really made a difference to how I felt about the village. It seems curious how such a small thing can make such a difference.

And so to the coach.

Speeds are always low, and we saw a speed limit sign for a major road showing 68kph, but in most of our driving I doubt we got much about 60kph at any time, simply because the roads are absolutely terrible, and traffic density generally won’t permit anything more. There was a village that we drove through which appeared to be having a sewage system fitted, resulting in a rutted dirt road through the middle and long sections of deep mud. In various places there were enormous holes, just inviting passing cars, bikes and children to fall in.

Driving in India, especially with something as large as a 20+ seat coach is a slow motion ballet, with vehicles (pronounced why-ickals by Junaid) weaving in and out as gaps open and close. Lane discipline does not exist in any meaningful form, and all kinds of traffic use any available roadspace. White lines are usually used to centre the vehicle and people in side roads pull out into incoming traffic without hesitation. Overtaking usually seems to happen on the inside more than the outside, and smaller vehicles like cars and motorcycles literally weave across the road to take advantage of gaps as they became available.

This ballet also provides it’s own accompaniment. It is a requirement to sound the horn when overtaking, and so there is an almost constant cacophony in any built up area, particularly with motorcycles weaving through, passing other vehicles all the time. I have wondered semi-seriously whether Indian bikes should be wired with the horn permanently on, and with a switch that can be pressed briefly to silence it.

As we approached Delhi the sun gradually became duller, presumably from pollution, and the sky began to take on an overcast appearance from the pollution haze.

Around 40km out we pass Bharat. Apparently 12 years before this area was ‘forest’, but the are now is filled with shopping centres with places like Marks & Spencer and Debenhams for the people of Delhi to visit.

Shortly after Bharat the 3 lane road we were on just stopped – solid. Cars, motorcycles and tuk-tuks drove up the inside on the dirt between tarmac and bushes to create a 4th lane.

Most of the cars outside Delhi seem to be made by Tata – they absolutely dominate the market here. They tend toward a functional appearance, if one were being charitable, and were far from attractive. In the city it was a very different story, with more Suzuki than anything else, although Hyundi obviously have quite a big share too.

We finally arrived sometime around 1pm and got out for some lunch by about 2. The original plan was that we’d sight-see in the afternoon, but that had gone out of the window thanks to the slow journey.

After all the traditional curries we’d wanted a change, so Junaid took us to Evergreen Sweet House ( which comprises a 'bakery' with cakes and upstairs, an Indian take on Macdonalds. Some of the party chickened out and went to the Costa down the road. I had a moong dal pakora – deep fried balls of lentil flour and a strong green spinach curry sauce - and Chris had a samosa covered in lentil curry and yoghurt. Probably not the height of culinary excellence, but certainly pleasant and fun.

That evening was our last, and for further dietary variety we were taken to a south Indian style restaurant, but before eating Junaid took us to the remains of a fort in a village that had been absorbed by the Delhi green park extension near the deer park. We arrived after dark, and he was able to negotiate with the gatekeeper to let us in for a quick look, despite the light failing. As a boy he used to go there because he originally came from Kashmir, and it was the quietest place he could find in the city that reminded him of home.

The south Indian restaurant had a very different feel to it from all the previous places we’d eaten, possibly because they were trying to create an atmosphere for local trade as well as tourists. Lighting was soft, there was lots of dark wood and natural materials in evidence and the waiters all wore quite different clothes from local costume. The food was all vegetarian and the restaurant was also alcohol free (causing some consternation among one or two in the group).

We had what was recommended. The meal started with a hot and sour soup (very like Thai soups) followed by the main course which came on a large metal tray about 18” across. The tray was lined with a palm leaf, and around the outside were small bowls of different dips, sauces, vegetables and rice. In the middle was a large dosa (Indian version of a gallette) shaped into a cone, and underneath were stacked some kind of bhaji, a deep-fried savoury dal flour doughnut and a very soft while spongy bread roll.

It didn’t look much but boy, was it filling.

Finally at the back of the tray was some kind of orange-ginger flavoured semolina type pudding.

We returned to the hotel, saying our goodbyes to some who were off very early, everyone feeling a little sad that we were finished with the holiday as a group. Email addresses were exchanged and there were promises to share photos etc.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Day 8 - Havelis and villages

The highlight of the morning was a walk from the hotel into the village of Nawalgarh to visit a haveli.

The Shekawati region was on the old silk route, and provided water and stopping points for caravans taking goods from east to west & back until ports like Calcutta opened up. While it was still active, around the turn of the 19th/20th centuries a number of wealthy merchants built ‘havelis’ which were houses with central courtyards, multiple meeting chambers and characteristic paintings over the walls and ceilings. They have largely been left by their owners as they moved to live in other cities now that goods no longer flow along that route.

We visited the Podar haveli ( which is apparently the best preserved of them in the area, despite having previously been used as a school. The owner had obviously been Hindu, and most of the art was of a religious nature. The local guide who showed us through the building was a Brahmin by birth, and very keen to present Hinduism in a way that might be more acceptable to those coming from a Christian/western background, gently avoiding some of the more ‘exotic’ aspects.

Within the building were a number of other sub-museums, focusing on areas as diverse as the caste structure, wedding costumes and regional turban variations.

The building itself had 3 floors inside, plus 2 levels of rooftop, and we were able to go right to the top to look out over the village. There were several other havelis visible, as well as temples and a double minaret/tower arrangement that signified the position of a well for use by travellers.

Most of the others travelled back to the hotel by tuk-tuk, but Liz, Judith and I walked back through the village, wanting the exercise since we’d done so little real walking on the trip. People stared, but politely, sometimes nodding. Children often waved, and we were allowed to observe as we walked through, uninterrupted except for motorcycles incessantly pottering up and down while sounding their horns. We were just beaten back to the hotel, where a couple of the more ‘adventurous’ were trying to see just how many people could actually be crammed onto a tuk-tuk (we got to 12 if I recall correctly).

Chris whizzed off to the pool, and I followed suit.

Just like the rooms, it was beautifully presented, clear blue water and with just a hint of chlorine to reassure us that it was safe. And breath-takingly cold.

Curry for lunch. :p

Couple of hours drive by coach to our next hotel – the Surajgarh Fort ( – which was another converted palace. The coach couldn’t get up the road to the hotel because it was simply too big to enter the village, so we wandered up through the outskirts while our luggage was taken by tuk-tuk.

This really was the ‘back of beyond’ and, even more so than Nawalgarh, it felt like a very rural and shut off village. As we walked up the village street, children in school uniforms streamed out a small side road, mingling with the other kids that had apparently not been to school. Animals were wandering freely, and we saw a large black cow attempt to enter several homes, being driven off with squirted water on one occasion. Camels and donkeys pulled carts (we saw horses elsewhere, but they tended toward the thin and unhealthy side) and there were the inevitable tuk-tuks, small motorcycles, bicycles and hand carts.

While the people were undeniably poor here, they also seemed not to lack for some modern equipment. Many motorcycles looked to be only a few years old at most, being driven with gusto by young males. We often heard mobile phones, and it was not unusual to see a woman reach under her sari for a phone, or a man in shabby clothes hunt for the source of the noise.

This was yet another spectacular hotel, although in places it looked as though it had been finished off in a hurry by an amateur DIYer. Again, previously a palace, the entrance hall and rooms were very grand. Our room was practically a suite, again with separate sitting area, pillars and arches, and in this case a good and fully functional bathroom. We were greeted with the usual red-spotting and garlands, and in this case the manager (a much taller and broader than usual Indian man with cowboy hat, pointy snakeskin shoes and a cowboy-style moustache) welcomed us with a “god bless you”.

Before dinner we went for a walk properly around the village. Beside the usual food, pharmacy and bike repair shops it was genuinely amazing to see how many stores sold bangles. I can only imagine that the hotel must bring in a lot of visitors who buy them: there must have been 7 or 8 shops, all selling what appeared to be the same stuff. The female portion our party entered and got lost in the nearest.

Chris and I wandered up the road further into the village as the night was really drawing in and it became very hard to see beyond the street lighting. Turning left at the T junction at the end of the main street took us to the village square, complete with tethered camel and statue of Gandhi (the glasses must have been so much a part of him, Chris said, that they have to be added to statues) and we circulated once before heading the other way.

Down the right fork we came across more havelis like the last village, some crumbling and mouldering, others in better condition, and with amazing carved stonework and some painting. I was told in no uncertain terms not to get ideas about moving out there!

On the way back past the shops we stopped briefly, and I tried to photograph in my mind one particular shop, for description here. There were 2 men sitting in the shop, one in a shirt and trousers, bald head, thick black moustache, the other with grey hair and traditional clothes of white collarless shirt, trousers created with a piece of cloth and sandals. The shop was painted a rich sky blue inside, and there were shelves on the left running the full height of the wall and a creamy marble counter at the front. Half the height of the shelves from the mid-point down were full of small square tins, coloured in bright reds, greens and yellows, each one seemingly slightly different. Above them from about 1m to the ceiling were curious square containers, each a deep royal blue, and with a ribbed or corrugated surface. The black on yellow sign above was in Hindi, and I have not the least idea what they sold, whether it was lubricants, aircraft parts or sweets.

Some of the shops had a kind of stove set up on the edge of the pavement, and were cooking food in large wok-shaped pans, about 24” to 30” across. Some were deep frying what I’d guess to be batter balls and battered vegetables, others had milky looking liquids bubbling away.

Children were still waving and smiling at us, and occasionally a stranger would speak a few words, asking where we were from. I’d thought that we’d escaped ‘financial’ attention, but just as we were entering the drive to the hotel a couple of teenage lads came up and told us that they needed 5000 rupees in a way that didn’t have the usual friendly overtones. We just walked on, and came to no harm.

That evening we sat in the rooftop courtyard of the palace, kept warm by the heat still radiating from the building despite the open sky above us. A family of local musicians played, while the 2 youngest boys danced and occasionally tried to get people to take part too. Unlike some of the previous performances we’d seen, I think a lot of this was improvised, although there was an occasional song. Patterns kept being repeated, not just within songs, but between songs, and either it was a very fixed local style or the lad drumming had a limited repertoire.

Dinner inside was yet another buffet, but at least a little more varied than so many we’d had before, and tasted fine. I’d not had beer with that meal, but when people asked for beer they were given Kingfisher Strong, which is a dark 8% lager! Almost everyone found 1 bottle quite enough.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Day 7 - Jaipur to Nawalgarh

Off again in the morning, we check out of our amazing hotel, but on the way we stop to photograph the palace of the winds and visit the amber fort of Jaipur and the various palaces contained within it.

As mentioned earlier, for me, the Rajput architecture seemed so much more in keeping than the later Moghul styles. We have plenty of pictures, and will try to get them up soon because they offer a better explanation than words can. There were certain parts we didn’t get to see, including a fort and extensive walls around 1000years old, the amber fort being much more recent.

In retrospect, Jaipur was the first place we visited that made me think I’d like to return to India, and where it felt possible to be more than just an expensively cushioned spectator. There’s also quite a lot that we didn’t see.

So back on the coach to Nawalgarh in the Shekawati region.

Our next hotel – Roop Niwas Kothi ( - for this night was a converted colonial palace, complete with riding stables, swimming pool and bicycles for hire. Our room was beautifully furnished, and much simpler and more classically styled than the Jaipur palace. We also encounter our first fully functional bathroom of the trip so far.

On arrival at a number of hotels we’ve been greeted by a welcoming deputation, complete with red paint (of different materials in each case) rice and garlands of orange marigolds. The routine is that each person is given a spot, some rice is embedded in the ‘paint’ material and then a garland hung round the neck. We were more than a little un-nerved by this, because it has obvious religious significance (the red spot symbolises an ‘inward-looking eye’) and the marigolds are for ‘luck’). We went with it, because to object would not help anyone and would cause some fairly serious offence, but weren’t happy. I wonder if that showed?

That night we have home-cooked food, or at least some of us do, many of the others having gone down with D&V and fevers since Chris and I. We were pretty much recovered, for which I was enormously grateful.

A word on food.

By this time almost all food tasted pretty similar, just with subtle variations of ingredients, spicing and heat levels. At times we’d gone vegetarian because meat options were either dubious chicken or lumps of gristly, fatty mutton. Restaurants doing a la carte would sometimes offer Tandoori and Kashmiri styles, but most of the time it was dopiaza or kofta style main curry with chicken or paneer and vegetables, a dal curry of lentils or chick peas and accompaniment of rice, naan/roti/paratha. It dawned on us that we were eating the regional style of curry, and that’s why each time we went somewhere new it tasted so similar

Drinks were usually Kingfisher (Indian) lager, water, coke, lassi or a fresh sweetened (sometimes salted) lime juice and soda.

It more than kept body and soul together, and we could feel ourselves getting fat, thanks to the calorific nature of the food and a lack of exercise. Just one time everyone managed to get a non-curry based meal, but that was a relative disappointment.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Day 6 - Jaipur

I was writing this sat on the plane, 5 hours into our journey and trying hard to remember events, feeling a little woozy from the flight. The last couple of days we were travelling and saw so many things. Ah, got it with Chris’s help!

Our guide in Jaipur for the next 1 ½ days was a local man we picked up on the way that first morning, called Amar. Obviously knowledgeable, but with a strong accent and he also found it hard to understand English sometimes (quite reasonably). Incredibly friendly and helpful, we really warmed to him and he to us as time went on – nothing seemed too much trouble, and he always looked out for us.

After a leisurely start we visited the Mantar Jantar whose name means something like scientific instruments. Basically it was a park that held huge sun-dials and various devices to permit tracking the movement of sun, moon and stars to enable the casting of horoscopes. I suppose it makes sense considering the way culture and mysticism spreads, but it’s fascinating in a slightly morbid way that astrology is so universal across the planet.

The stonework and structures were generally lovely to look at, and the largest of the sundials deserve admiration, simply for the sheer scale and accuracy of construction. It was built to give a time resolution of 2 seconds, but of course because the sun emits light as a disc and not a point, sharp shadows are impossible when the object casting the shadow is more than a few inches away. Maybe they followed the area of transition between shadow and full light as it moved across the scale?

After the Mantar Jantar we were shown round the royal palace. The present Maharajah of Jaipur is 14, and studying at school, so he wasn’t there. The buildings were a mix of highly attractive and a little tired here and there, although inside were some magnificent rooms and a huge hall in which hung paintings and photographs of the maharajahs down the years. Many of these had short descriptions of their reigns, each of which tried to be terribly diplomatic about shortcomings and that some of these guys had made a mess. The palace was good, but we were getting a little ‘monument fatigue’ by then, and it was beginning to blur a little.

It is worth mentioning that the air had now cleared, after the smog of Delhi and Agra. The air was always very dry, to the point that nostrils got itchy and lips became gummy within a few minutes, and carrying a water bottle was pretty essential, even if one did not drink much on each occasion. The sun was quite fierce, and places of shadow welcome when sight seeing around stone buildings. However a nice aspect was that one very seldom felt sweaty and people didn’t usually smell of stale perspiration.

More curry for lunch, this time in a café at the palace, back to the hotel for a rest, then a walk in Jaipur (just the 2 of us exploring).

Finally, beyond all the palaces, hotels, fancy curries and sight-seeing, it felt like this was what we’d come for. That’s not to say that it was like walking into a sunlit meadow with birds and flowers and a huge sense of peace and joy – quite the opposite. Walking through a busy street in a busy city meant (for me at least) sensory overload, and really pushing out past our comfort zones, especially as we were alone. The first 200 yards were the hardest, since despite being down a quiet-ish street, we were much more visible to all the locals, and we also had to make a diversion to avoid raw sewage running across the street.

Once again, the smells were a spectrum in the nostrils, running from human waste through cumin and chilli (made my nose itch) to floral and herbal scents, frying food, joss sticks and even a sweet green smell from the vendors selling sugar-cane juice, extracted by crushing cane in a steel mangle and served with ice.

The shop fronts were much better than we’d seen in old Delhi, and overall the buildings seemed less bad despite some almost falling down. We walked about 40min in one direction absorbing the environment, before we came upon a roundabout. The significance of this is that we saw men dismantling large bamboo arches that had been built across the roads entering and leaving for Diwali decorations. There were also small tent-like structures which appear to have been lit internally for the same purpose.

Crossing Indian roads is not without it’s challenges, but the main requirement is to either wait until there is a gap large enough to ensure safety, or to wait until the traffic is so dense it cannot move and to squeeze between the cars. No driver will wish to hit a pedestrian, but even if he sees you, he may not have space or time to miss. Zebra crossings are basically a suggestion.

Walking back, we were able to use the pavement (on the opposite side that wasn’t possible, so most people walked in the road) and go close to the shops.

We stopped off in one selling pashminas.

That sounds so straight forward, but for us it was quite scary. Outside of our guides and hotel staff, the only experience we’d had of Indians in India was that they were after your money, and would be hard-nosed and desperate to get it. In turn, it had made us wary and mis-trusting of those we met in any kind of commercial environment where we were not being advised.

So in fear and trepidation we entered a shop!

The people were completely fine, just normal guys with a job to do, happy to show what they had for sale. Yes, there was negotiation. Yes, we happily paid a little over the odds for the things we wanted. But it was done with a smile and friendliness, rather than hostility and pushing.

So we progressed back to the hotel, happy to have actually managed to get out on our own, pleased with the outcome and to have interacted with ‘real people’ in spite of our fears and the language barrier.

That night we play tourist at a large open-air restaurant, complete with local music and women dancing, presumably telling a story, including a particular dance involving balancing 7 or 8 jars on the dancer’s head before she stood on swords. Not our thang, but done with considerable skill.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Day 5

Did nothing all morning, weak as a kitten, and with grumpy tummy too. We are due to move on this afternoon by train to Jaipur – hope I have enough strength to cope with the bags.

I wrote that while feeling really desperate. I was mostly coping doing nothing at all, but very uncertain that I would manage the train journey. In the morning most of the party had gone to a local school for deaf & dumb that the travel company sponsors and to give small gifts, but we were both trying to recover and stayed around the hotel complex. After a lunch that consisted of a couple of spoonfuls of fried rice and a naan bread for me, we were ready to really get in among the natives, traveling true cattle-class in a wagon with bars on the windows and bench-style seating designed for shorter legs.

The platforms were very heavily crowded this time, and we struggled to find a space to group together. A big concern was getting the luggage actually onto the train and stowed when so many others were likely to be occupying the spaces we had booked. Junaid told us that because of the holiday (Diwali) time, many people were traveling, and although one is required to book seats, the penalty for traveling without a ticket is truly minimal – around 20-30 rupees.

One thing worth mentioning about this stage was the smell. Pissing in public is normal practice for males, and on our wanders it was not unusual to see faeces in the road that did not look like it came from an animal. Now there were no obvious open sewers around the station, but the main smell from the crowds in the station was a mix of sweat in the 30 degree heat. and unwiped bottoms. Everywhere in India smells have been strong: strong to the point that I can never smell my own deodorant except at the instant of spraying, and conventional perfume seems almost unnoticeable.

The unwiped bottoms were to follow us into the carriage.

After the train arrived, Junaid forced his way on with a certain amount of difficulty. The carriages were absolutely packed solid, with all seats filled and people standing crushed together. All windows have metal bars welded on in this (2nd?) class carriage, and I almost wonder if they are there to stop passengers being forced out of the windows.

He arrived in the carriage and after a few seconds rapid-fire Hindi that section began to empty. The flow of bodies was quite astonishing, and far too vigorous for us to push through – there must have been at least 100 people in the space that we were due to occupy, and quite possibly more, and they all decided to get off there and then. As the human tide ebbed a little I was able to climb up, and saw Junaid and one of the porters from the station wiping the seats down before we were due to sit. The seats were just a basic padded plastic bench with a matching vertical padded upright section, and at least the lack of shaping made them easier to wipe.

Luggage was passed up to me by a porter, and I had to lift it up and over the seats to Junaid for it to be stowed as best as possible, given the very limited space. Once or twice I looked at the bags I was being passed, wondering how I would ever lift them given my present state, but somehow the strength was there, and eventually we managed to get everything stowed and the whole party on board.

As soon as we were sat down (some with their feet on bags – oh how we wished we’d brought less kit in smaller bags – knees round their ears) the tide turned and the carriage rapidly refilled. Some baggage hooks we’d missed by the window were used to hang bags, briefcases and a sack of rice to save the owner’s arms. Women carrying small children, younger men in shirts (we seldom saw Indian males in tee shirts) and the occasional man in his 40s all crushed together, standing up for the 3 ½ hour journey to Jaipur. A couple of young guys spent the whole trip hanging on in the carriage doorway and there were people on the roof too. Baptism of something, but I’m not sure it was fire!

A number of us had been suffering from griping in the guts, and had to endure. being crushed up in the stink and heat. I was lucky enough to be beside an open window, with a good flow of fresh air coming through, but poor Sarah (a fellow sick-note) was right in the middle, crushed in by standing passengers and occasionally having luggage encroach into her space around head-height.

The great thing about being by an open window was that it was possible to see the countryside as we traveled. The flipside of that was that the train was traveling quite quickly, and that made photography almost impossible. The terrain we crossed started off quite flat and parched, obviously farmland that had produced it’s crops, been ploughed & harrowed and was now waiting planting. Occasionally we saw crops of some sort, but it was mostly barren and sometimes with a woman in bright sari at work. Gradually changes took place, with a river, then an strange eroded landscape with sparse wild plants and odd rock formations, then mountains at the edges of the plains. Sometimes there would be some kind of fort on top of a hill overlooking the town we passed through.

After an hour of so we could hear animated conversation from our traveling companions on the other side of the human barrier in the middle of the carriage. It seemed that, being a little more out-going AND rather healthier than us, they had struck up a kind of conversation with one of the ‘hangers-on’ outside the carriage and were having a bit of banter among themselves. This was being visibly appreciated by the guys standing between us, and they often laughed along with our friends, even if they didn’t really know what was being said. We understand that at least ne of them asked Junaid some questions about us, and made some comments he was not entirely comfortable to repeat back.

On this part of the journey our guide went well above & beyond the call of duty, placing a couple of our bags on his own seat so that we had more leg room, and standing the entire journey.

At the station about 10 min before Jaipur the train stopped and the carriage almost emptied, quite possibly in order to avoid the officials that were likely present at a major station. The extra space was gratefully received and we discussed arrangements for getting everything off the train when it finally arrived. Porters had been organised, and once we’d carefully transferred all luggage to the platform they took over and did a great job of getting our luggage out of the station and to our coach.

A pleasant surprise awaited us – the coach we’d had from Delhi to Agra was there, complete with seikh driver and his assistant. They were a welcome sight – comforting and familiar faces after a time of disruption and transition. They had driven the 10 hours from Agra to Jaipur to meet us while we’d been in the reserves.

Transfer to the hotel in Jaipur took about 35 min, mostly due to the metro system being created. By the time we arrived it was growing dark and the city was difficult to see, but it seemed less brutally poor than Delhi.

Our hotel was the Bissau Palace ( previously a maharajah’s palace, and still owned by the family. As explained to us, all the kings or maharajahs no longer have any power, but instead have become businessmen. The hotel itself was a mix of the stunning full-on Rajput style, with a dash of British Raj and modern Indian ‘absolute minimum, just too late’ maintenance. Every room, we were told, was different, and that certainly proved to be true.

The hotel entrance lay down a side street just off a busy road, and was gated and guarded. When we arrived tired and having driven through the bustle and poverty of Jaipur, it was a little oasis of peace, calm and beauty that was like a cool shower for the eyes. The walls and ceilings were carefully hand-painted with flowers birds and patterns, there were white marble elephants, bowls with flowers floating in water and old photographs, antique weapons and ephemera hung on the walls. Older men, dressed in richly coloured Indian robes of deep red, green and gold stood around like aging retainers observing the masters unruly friends turning up as we walked in.

We were assigned a room outside the main building on an upper floor. The door was painted grey with metal shapes of elephants and camels, and looked like it was designed to keep invading hordes at bay. The porter who had brought our bags undid a large padlock, swung the door open and showed us in.

Just wow.

Our room was truly amazing. To the right was a large divan, of the sort on which one might receive guests if you were ‘sitting in state’. To the left, a few steps down to a bathroom with roll-top bath in a slightly mock-vintage style, and straight ahead between the pillars we could see a beautifully presented bed. The walls were painted with flowers and patterns and the furniture was nicely in keeping with the style. There were crumbly edges in the form of an ugly US-style aircon unit mounted through the wall and a separate step down transformer that buzzed loudly even when the aircon wasn’t used. The plumbing was less than entirely great too, but it was adequate to keep us clean. Also, rather oddly, the water left our hands feeling really dry and scratchy – that happened nowhere else, so I assumed it was a peculiarity of the water system in this hotel or city.

After the last day or so, this was such a lift, it made me want to stay after all.

When we went out for dinner that night I just had a yoghurt based drink with banana (called lassi) and half a litre of water. The smell of curry was almost unbearable.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Day 4 and (especially) night 4

We were up at the crack of dawn for tea and ‘cookies’ (Ritz crackers!) to catch the truck taking us to the wildlife reserve at 6.30am. We’d been warned that early mornings were cooler, and that the game park itself was 3 or 4 degrees below the area outside, but we were (mostly) not prepared for driving 30+ min in an open topped bus at 10’C. We got thoroughly cold right through, especially being sat on a bus for 5 hours.

Ranthambore reserve was once a Maharajah’s hunting ground, now cared for by a special commission. The biggest, most publicised attraction are the tigers that live wild there, although there are lots of other species too. This was the first time I’d seen a side of India that was attractive instead of just dirty and poverty-stricken or outrageously wealthy. In brief summary (because a blow-by-blow account would make drying paint seem exciting) we saw a glimpse of one tiger right at the start of the morning trip, and that was it. However there were lots of other wildlife about, including several varieties of deer, monkeys, birds and crocodiles. In addition the countryside is quite spectacular, with mountains, lakes, streams and even an ancient fortress (that we could not visit) on the brow of a mountain. Our afternoon trip was rather delayed, but we still got to see a good range of wildlife, although by the time we got back we were caked in dust.

Night 4

When we got back from the wildlife trip Chris was chilled right through again, had a severe headache and was feeling queasy and with a tummy ache, so showered to thaw out & went to bed. There was obviously more to it than just a chill, and when I got back after dinner she was feeling sick & cycling hot & cold with a fever.

I went off for dinner, then came back and stopped up until about 11.30 to write up the Fatehpur Sikri visit and train journey, then went to bed.

When I laid down I just pulled the covers back as normal, but found myself shivering, so over went the thin sheet. Still not enough, so the duvet came up to my waist, again insufficient, and so it went until I was completely buried in bed clothes, yet with a nose that felt cold to the touch. Then came the muscle and joint pains, the jabs in the stomach, the queasiness, the feeling that one’s bottom my commit some serious betrayal. Finally, the fevered temperature brought distorted thoughts, and it felt as though my personality and understanding were being shattered into tiny pieces, demonic faces pulling things this way and that, all while unreadable scripts would flash past my minds eye.

Every few minutes things would become too painful in legs, back, side or arms, or I’d get too hot or too cold and have to cover up or uncover. At one point my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, and I developed sore patches in my mouth and throat where the membranes had dried too much and become damaged a little. 3 times in that seemingly endless night I got up for a drink, and it seemed like it had stones crushing my head as I staggered to the bathroom. Trying to spit to clear my throat was impossible and every burp brought a highly resented reminder of the curry we’d eaten every day for lunch, dinner and sometimes even breakfast.

Heaven only knows how the original explorers coped with this kind of thing, with the floor for a bed, filthy water, and no meaningful medication. It later transpired that all but 3 of the group went down with this to some degree – we’d both had a cholera vaccine before leaving, and seemed to escape more lightly than most of the others - £72 very well spent!

Morning eventually came at 7.30am. Chris seemed to fall asleep properly at some stage, judging by the light snoring, and seemed almost back to normal, though weak and with a migraine brewing (Maxalt melts are wonderful things, and it went away without returning). I was very weak, although my temperature had at least stabilised more or less, but was still very wobbly and heady. Eventually managed a shower, then breakfast (1 slice of dry toast & a banana + sweet tea).

Before breakfast I was quite ready to call it a day: I’d seen enough of India, eaten way too much good but extremely similar tasting curry – just pop me on a plane and I’ll go home now! We were about half way through, and I hoped that was it for the sickness. Several others had all gone down with the same thing at the same time, so my guess is that we’ve been fed something iffy, probably lunchtime at the buffet in the hotel at Ranthambore when the food was only luke-warm.


Friday, 4 November 2011

Thursday (day 3) was primarily a day of travel, broken by a visit to Fatehpur Sikri.

Fatehpur Sikri was briefly capital of India under a Moghul emperor, effectively built from scratch after a Sufi (Moslem ‘holy man’) foretold the emperor would have an heir by his favourite wife, having been unproductive until that point. In gratitude the emperor relocated his capital in order to live with the Sufi, however there was never sufficient water, and after 16 years the city was abandoned. The buildings are a deliberate mix of Hindu, Moslem and an ‘Indian’ take on Christian styles of architecture, with varying degrees of success. Our guide described this particular emperor as being ‘ecumenical’, but syncretistic (worshiping several gods simultaneously) is probably more accurate. He apparently also tried to start his own religion ‘worshipping god’, which failed to take root.

It is very hard to put my finger on the reason Islamic architectural styles seem out of place here, even though India has had many centuries of Islamic rulers and cultural influence. For me, the style seems to cut across the natural style of the country. I guess someone coming to the UK from India and looking at many of the gothic buildings here might feel similarly. Or maybe it clashes with the internal pictures I’ve carried, of how India should be.

The structures were truly fascinating in places, and held a number of different architectural styles, if not in harmony, then at least in variety. There were pillared buildings, buildings with Arab-style doorways, carvings and domes, buildings with Hindu carvings and doorways. A real melange with no single outstanding feature, but interesting to see as someone’s attempt to blend 3 fairly immiscible cultures.

One of the themes that several of the guides have repeated over and over is how in India everyone gets along together, whether Moslem, Hindu, Jane, Seikh or Christian. While there has been some hard evidence to the contrary, overall most people appear much more concerned about how they will eat next than differences of faith.

In order to reach Ranthambore we had to catch a train. Indian railways seem to be ‘interesting’, in that time is frequently flexible, but when you have to get lots of people onboard there are only two or three minutes to embark – not necessarily convenient with luggage for 18. We were ‘lucky’ to have tickets purchased for us, because in order to track potential terrorists/security threats, it is necessary to use a computerised booking system with details verified with a passport. In fact this kind of verification has become the norm for a variety of activities, and not just transport. It makes me wonder about the future of freedom in India.

Outside the station we were able to stand back and watch ‘real’ India at work for the first time since arriving, mostly due to a lack of time and the hawkers that tirelessly assailed us where ever we went. Tuk-tuk drivers were deep In conversation or trying to obtain business, crowds of people were disgorged from newly arrived trains and poured from the entrance, people with apparently nothing pressing to do just stood around and watched. All this was set against a background of brightly coloured shop fronts, dust, concrete, bicycles being repaired and Indian adverts in eye-popping colours with culturally desirable, smiling people holding or wearing or washing or simply being associated with whatever the product was, supported by Hindi text presumably extolling said product’s virtues.

And so, we gathered our luggage from the coach, pointed it out to the porter marked out by a faded red shirt and brass plate tied to his arm, and trudged up the entry ramp.

In the station we were assailed by a couple of men asking us if we wanted a shoe shine. They were obviously highly imaginative, since almost everyone was in sandals or trainers, but why should that get in the way of business? We dutifully played the game as explained to us, not catching their eyes and continuing to walk forwards. This, we had been told, was the only way to cope with hawkers – any kind of recognition that an actual human being was there beside us would ensure we might never gain our freedom. Once a mark acknowledged a vendors presence, be it trinkets, a rickshaw driver or a glowing LED thing that was shot in the air and descended to earth like a helicopter, the vendor would follow you until physically prevented from doing so.

We had experienced this in a small way when Chris and I wanted a walk in Agra before lunch. We left the hotel grounds (guarded) walked along one side of the block and had just started on the second when we were approached by a rickshaw driver. I said and made NO very clear, but he followed us for the remaining 2 ¾ blocks until we walked through the gate of our hotel, at which point his face fell so completely I felt really sorry for him. I don’t know how or if it is possible for anyone outside of India to make a significant impact on a culture so poor that people must lose their humanity and self-worth in order to scrape together a few rupees to buy food. It scares me that I am having to treat people with such inhumanity and without respect in order to just mind my own business in their country.

As we entered the station there were 2 small girls begging, both very skinny with short hair and large heads. We gave them 2 rupees each and they followed us a long way through the station before giving up and turning back.

We eventually reached our section of the platform where the carriage was supposed to stop, still pursued by the shoe-shine men. After a few minutes we were approached by an old man in ragged traditional clothing, shouting in Hindi. Junaid translated for us – it was actually funny – that he was asking for a light, and what was India coming to when no-one had a match any more? He laid down on the platform and pretended to be tired out and going to sleep, but a shoe-shine man tried to take his stick away and then lifted him to his feet and man-handled him (not too roughly) down the platform.

Chris has also reminded me of the 2 beggars with leg deformities that were on the station. One was 'wearing' a shoe on his knee to protect it while he dragged himself along, while the other had no protection at all. They made a far larger impact on her than anything else in that part of the trip, possibly because she gave them money (by agreement between us) whereas I didn't. Overall she was generally braver than me when it came to dealing with 'strange' people.

There was a little concern about the fate of our luggage, last seen outside the station loaded on an old wooden barrow, edges and wheels pained a faded and dusty red to match the porter’s shirt. The porters had managed to get the whole kit and caboodle across the lines and several hundred yards down the platforms to where we stood. From the main platform to the one on which we stood there was a gentle but distinct slope heading down toward us. The poor porter in front was really struggling to control the load and stop it running away, and I was getting ready to rush across. Fortunately the other porter was at the back, holding on and stopping the load from escaping.

Our train came on time, but nothing is perfect and the carriages stopped about 100 yards further down the platform. Cue lots of running passengers and sweaty, panicked porters pushing an over-loaded cart.

Carriage C2 was pleasantly air conditioned, for which we were grateful considering the 3 hour journey length. We were allocated seats 67 and 68, and found these quickly and without difficulty. The interior was nothing ‘special’, being a mix of 1970s British Rail and economy airline, all with a modest helping of dust. Yellow Perspex windows prevented one enjoying the view of the countryside, so conversation or reading were the most reasonable forms of entertainment. Seats were arranged with the rear half of the carriage facing forward and the front half facing backward. There might be method in the madness, but it eluded me.

I don’t know if there were people on the roof, but ‘cattle class’ appeared to live up to it’s name, with barred windows through which the ‘victims’ could be seen. During the journey men walked up and down the corridor continuously, offering crisps, bottled drinks, tea and coffee. We had been pre-warned about not risking the Tea and coffee, and since we all had water, no-one had a need to partake.

On arrival we were collected in dark green open-top passenger vehicles that we were to come to know much better the following day. They had a crew-cab area with a roll bar (front only – worrying) and seats in pairs on both sides. Behind the crew cab was a bench seat and an open area, where the baggage was stacked. The cool breeze in the warm night air was lovely after being cooped up.

We were greeted at our hotel for the next 2 nights by a small deputation of staff. They were applying a red spot & rice to each forehead (causing minor consternation) hanging a marigold garland on each neck and presenting us with blue and red drinks that tasted almost, but not exactly, like a mix of sugar water and turpentine, or just plain sugar water.

After room assignment and a quick shower we were back together for dinner. First though, we had to survive the entertainment, otherwise known as demonstrating dancing and then embarrassing guests by expecting them to dance too. Some have it, and this particular some don’t, but I will say that Indians appear particularly quick and flexible to a tired 50 year-old. Finally dinner, then bed, with the treat of another early morning ahead, leaving at 6.30am.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Day 2 - Agra and the Taj Mahal.

We were up at 5am local (i.e. 12.30am UK!) for a 6am departure to Agra & the Taj Mahal, with a 4 hour coach journey. Usually this section is done on the train, but this week is Diwali, and a time of chaos on the railways! Junaid was concerned that the train might be several hours late, so we were given a coach instead.

Driving out of Delhi, it is impossible not to be overwhelmed at the incredible poverty by western standards. It seems like none but the very grandest of houses is not partially ruined, filthy and falling apart. Many sections of waste ground have families camping, with shelters made from sticks and plastic bags or tarpaulins. Everything is covered in beige dust, and we saw many cows and in some places, Monkeys, roaming. Men stand with their backs to the road, urinating in public.

Further out from Delhi there are better buildings, and although the squalor is still intense, it feels slightly less crushing. All villages seem built on dust/dirt, and people also appear to throw their rubbish beside the road, where it was often seen smouldering in heaps. There were lakes and rivers and frequently pools of stagnant water, dark and foetid looking.

We have been given packed breakfasts by the hotel including salad sandwiches. We do not eat these! My pack was egg-free by request. In a stroke of irony, the apparently ‘lemon’ flavoured’ crisps in my pack taste intensely of eggs, thanks to the sulphur dioxide preservative used.

Many people are on the road, and at this point it’s worth mentioning the traffic. There are apparently rules for road use, and I suspect the first of them is “don’t get caught”.

Traffic is worse than chaotic, although Junaid assured us that they have few bad accidents because generally people travel slowly, even though or perhaps because the roads are so full. It is astonishing how pedal rickshaws & scooters, motorcycles, cars coaches and trucks all seem to want the same space, yet seldom collide hard. Almost all vehicles have some damage, and it’s just that driving under these conditions, some collisions are inevitable.

One is also required to use the horn before overtaking to ensure the other driver knows you’re coming. In a city as crowded as Delhi the result makes Rome or Paris seem peaceful. Our Seikh driver has a 2 tone horn, for which the word ‘blast’ is a good description.

If we though that whole families using scooters was scary in Thailand, here is worse. The Thais normally rode in line, front to back. Here, women are in saris, and almost always sit side-saddle with an arm around their husband to keep them on. If they have a baby then it is sat on the woman’s lap with her other arm around the child. An older child would stand in the footwell, holding on to the middle of the handlebars. The most we ever saw was 6 young adults on a single scooter.

We felt sorry for the rickshaw drivers, usually slender men and mostly short too. Many of them are clearly very poor indeed, and in the early afternoon we frequently saw them asleep on their rickshaws, stretched out in their stained and worn clothes. You know people are poor here when they can no longer afford to pretend they are well off.

Everyone seems on the move, for Diwali. Every tuk-tuk is full to bursting, there are people sitting on top of busses, filling the back of trucks, pedalling, walking and in some cases, standing beside the road with pink and yellow floral pattern suitcases in shiny plastic, clearly waiting for a lift. On the way to Agra we pass a place described as BS Elementary School.

We arrive in Agra at a more ‘international’ hotel – Yamuna View.

The hotel is ‘in the middle of nowhere’ in the centre of Agra. India seems like America, in that there are few pavements or parts of the road set aside for walking and everything is completely orderless. Pedal rickshaws were everywhere, the drivers desperate to earn money, and as we discovered when trying to actually go for a walk, you cannot prevent them pestering and demanding that you ride with them. We really wanted to get out and stretch our legs in the time before lunch, but after about 100 yards had acquired a rickshaw driver that followed us around in a circle for the entire block, not letting us go until we re-entered the hotel grounds. It makes me wonder how people manage if they just come for themselves, and not with a tour company.

So we were collected in our coach, and taken to the fort at Agra. Basically just a big castle, it’s constructed from a dark red sandstone, with gates that would look in keeping with Warwick castle, double moats once apparently containing crocodiles and lions and an entrance that turns 90 degrees between one gate and the next, providing a courtyard in which enemy soldiers could be trapped.

Our guide here was a young man called Ibrahim, who looks as John Lennon might have done if he’d been born in Agra instead of Liverpool. He, like Junaid, is a moslem, and he carried one of their fine lace skull caps in his back pocket.

Agra fort isn’t really old – 1600 something – but I got the impression that nothing lasts long in India. large sections inside the fort are still in use by the military but the palace buildings are still open for tourists. The fort and the Taj Mahal were built by Moghuls: Moslems from Uzbekistan arriving via Afghanistan, rather than Indians, and the architecture is more Persian & Arab influenced than Indian, with Koranic verses inscribed. A lot of the decoration wouldn’t have looked to out of place in English buildings of the period, and for all the spectacular size and strength of the fortress, it is a little disappointing. The one exception was a section of the palace built for a Indian princess who married one of the Moghul emperors, and this part was richly decorated and much more in the style one would expect for an Indian palace.

On to the Taj Mahal. The plan was that by visiting a bit later we’d see the Taj at sunset, glowing pink in the changing light.

This building has been presented to us by everyone we know who’s seen it as being incredibly beautiful, and the guide described it as the most beautiful building in the world (as well as bigging up the technology used in the design). It is approached by electric or LPG powered vehicles – no petrol or diesel powered vehicles are permitted close to it. Then one has to go through checks that first segregate men and higher class persons from women – lower class persons and Indian women – lowest class persons: there were metal railings that took each class through to separate metal detectors, screened off from each other.

After the screening we were admitted through a large ornate stone gate. There are a total of 3 such gates, each leading to a long footpath between gardens, and the footpaths meet at a crossroads, with the 4th path from the cross taking the walker through another and much larger gate constructed of red sandstone and white marble. Through this gate lay the way to the Taj Mahal.

Earlier in these descriptions I mentioned the smoky, misty air. The atmosphere on the day of our visit was very misty indeed, and as a consequence, the Taj appeared as grey upon grey – very far from the sparkling white structure normally shown against a blue sky. From the entry gate there were gardens and footpaths right and left, with a long, slender section of water running all the way up to the building, broken by a square raised marble platform about half way along. In front of the Taj there is a raised courtyard with steps taking visitors up from the garden level, and from the courtyard a second set of hidden steps taking people to a smaller balcony courtyard and entrance to the mausoleum itself.

The structure itself is impressive and pleasing to the eye. Maybe my view has been slightly prejudiced by everything we’d heard, by the poor weather and because we were also tired at the end of a long and jet-lagged day. It was very large, true, and certainly impressive. Yet somehow it was not the place of amazing beauty that I was quite fully expecting, not quite having the clean smooth lines of elegant simplicity, nor the incredible depth of fine detail that a major Thai temple usually has. Once again there were echos of classic English architecture, but given a Persian spin on an American scale.

In order to enter the upper courtyard and mausoleum it is necessary to remove shoes or wear overshoes, and we chose the latter. We ascended and then made our way inside where we were quickly whipped through a few dark rooms made of marble before being ushered outside again. Good, but not amazing. Chris and I both wonder if we’ve become spoiled by all the wonderful things we’ve seen: the Duomo in Florence is more striking as a structure, the coliseum in Rome more amazing for it’s construction. However compared to all the other buildings we’ve been exposed to thus far in India, the Taj is certainly the most appealing visually.

After our whistle-stop tour of the interior we returned to the gardens. Walking up the opposite side of the long ornamental pond, with the breeze blowing gently across from our right we caught the sweet scent of frangipan trees that were blooming in the gardens. India is full of constantly changing smells, and so often it seems that there have been attempts to adjust the aroma to please rulers, whether by planting strongly fragrant flowers or using rose water in various places.

We returned to the gate through which we entered and regrouped while the sun continued to set. As promised, the Taj did become a gentle shade of pinkish grey against an orange-pink misty grey sky, but without substantial tweaking, our photographs are unlikely to reflect this. As darkness fell the guards blew whistles to signal that visiting time was over: people streamed back from the Taj in a great throng and we fought our way back through the hawkers to our coach.

On our way back to the hotel we stopped by a workshop reputedly operated by some of the same families that were involved in construction & inlay on the Taj. Everything is quite hand-crafted, and the inlays are to a very high quality (if Gibson guitars could employ these guys then their days of shoddy inlay work would be over). They sell everything from place-mats at about £20 to tabletops at thousands of pounds, based on how many days labour to relieve the marble, shape the inlays and the value of the stones used. Chris bought a small ‘coaster’ type white marble platter for about £29 while others spent more. Their stuff was very good, but we don’t do nic-nacs.

Wednesday night was Diwali night.

We ate dinner at an open air restaurant, obviously designed to cater to tourists but with some Indians too. I seem to have been out-matched by Chris on menu choices, where she has consistently picked the ‘best’ dinners, but tonight was good, regardless. After my lunch-time experience of Rogan E Gosht (mutton was almost entirely fat, with a small amount of bone) I had chicken Bodami, which was like a korma but more spicy.

After the meal was over, our waiters brought plates of Indian style sweets (mostly based on semolina and sugar syrup, sometimes with pistachios) and then spontaneously set off a firework display less than 20 meters from where we sat.


Back in the hotel, and at times it was not possible to hear a break in the sound of explosions, so many and frequently did they come. Even after 11pm there was a continuous racket with the celebrations going on. The Indians do like their bangs and bright flashes, and really go to town. Hopefully sleep will happen fairly soon.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Delhi district - hazy sunshine, high of 32'C.

This is the first time I've connected to the internet since Monday 24th October, mostly because we've been more than adequately busy, and a little because because I've been happy to have a break. For those interested, I brought the Macbook, and have blogged the journey off-line.

There's quite a lot to tell, and I can honestly say that this has been a major experience. Those who read regularly or have read the 'warning' on this side will know that I tend to say what I think, except where it needs to be moderated for the sake of others. In this situation I have recorded my feelings and thoughts about things, pretty much as I felt them, and make no apology for it. Some, indeed quite a bit was written while travelling in a coach over bumpy roads, and that may have coloured the descriptions. If you'd walked in my shoes & eaten my food, slept in those beds and seen those sights then you would very likely have felt differently: we're all entitled to our views, and these were mine.

I'll try to post each part of the the trip as if it were 'live', and where possible, add some images. There is still a bit of catching up to do, and as the journey has gone on I've tried to become more descriptive and thorough, and there hasn't been sufficient time to write stuff up.

Without further ado, here's day 1 although day 2 may be a couple of days in posting because we're flying back tomorrow.

Delhi airport is new, apparently specially built for the commonwealth games in 2010, and is like an Indian take of a modern airport: large, clean, reasonably shiny and with the occasional statue or artefact that suggests an asian influence. There is little to give the new arrival any hint of what lies beyond it’s doors.

We were quite groggy after our flight. Leaving Heathrow eventually at about 9.10pm, we watched a film, had dinner and then (in my case) watched a second film because sleepiness wasn’t happening. Finally rolled over for an hour or so before being woken by Chris and then breakfast. We landed about 9.45 local time (4.5 hours ahead of the UK = 5.15am).

When ever I fly some where new the first thing I do on disembarking the plane is to sniff, to smell the air in the new place, although often airports don’t smell the same as outside. In the terminal I catch a strong hint of what seems to be cigar smoke mingled with a little incense. It’s not strong, but it is everywhere, and that provides the first hint that it’s not from just a single cigar.

After the visa antics I am not surprised that there is an entry form to fill in, and not surprised either that no-one has warned us in advance. Approaching the immigration desks is a slow business involving lots of queuing, and our nerves become increasingly frayed as we saw many people being delayed, questioned, having to produce additional documents etc. Indian beaurocracy requires careful and accurate paperwork. It seems that there is a benefit to having been trained to survive US customs, because when it came to it, our forms were examined, passports returned & we sailed through.

We are met outside immigration by Junaid, our guide for the trip, and then lead out of doors. As we approach the exit I could see what appeared to be crowds of people standing looking in, all apparently waiting for new arrivals, and for a moment it looks like a mob waiting for the losers of a siege to emerge from their stronghold. The crowd WAS large, but mostly made up of people holding signs for friends and family, and rather than fight our way through, we are led across the face of it and to the coach park.

And breathe in.

The smell outside is just like inside the building, but enormously stronger and more complex. The cigar scent became more clearly a mix of clay (presumably from the dust that’s all-pervading) and woodsmoke, plus a strong background of incense and joss sticks. But there’s no consistent or single smell, so much as a constantly changing and swirling mix of odours, from intense clay smells of freshly moistened soil, through cloying-sweet perfumes and incense to sweaty bodies, drain and sewage smells. It is also misty everywhere, with what looks like smoke: apparently this descended about 5 days before we arrived.

In the coach on the way to our hotel there were some large mosquitos. One landed on my leg, and I killed it, only to smear a large amount of blood across my trousers.

Delhi itself IS a bit of a blur, not least because we were seriously tired. The hotel is in a ‘nice’ bit in Green park extension, and made with lots of marble. The beds were comfy, the bathroom semi-functional (forget about showering easily). This is probably at the ‘nice’ end of Indian-style hotels, and we could have done much worse by all accounts.

My lasting impression of central Delhi is poverty and squalor. Everything was covered in dust, all buildings seem to be crumbling, rotting or peeling and there were men in rags and stained clothes everywhere. Chris and I were discussing just now how people live & make a living, and the simple answer is that, by western standards, many don’t. One of the first things the guide said to us was that every other problem in India stems from there being too many people.

We had a pedal-rickshaw ride around the narrow streets of old Delhi, then visited a large red-sandstone mosque where we were watched by men with hot, angry eyes dressed in robes and skull-caps, while women laughed and children played. In the mosque we seemed to be interesting enough for a small crowd to gather and photograph us! The mosque structure itself seemed in much better condition than the terrible, mouldering houses around it, although it too showed signs of deterioration despite being heavily used (we were assured by Junaid that it was full every Friday with 25,000 moslems). The main floor area was rough on our bare feet, and also covered in bird droppings. A permit to take pictures was 200 rupees, and frankly it wasn’t interesting enough to make me want to pay.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped off at the India Arch. Modelled on the Arc de Triomphe and Marble Arch, it is a prominent landmark in Delhi and commemorates the 90,000 soldiers of the Indian Army who lost their lives while fighting for the Indian Empire, or more correctly the British Raj in World War I and the Third Anglo-Afghan War. The arch was impressive, however one of our party got lost, catching a cab to the hotel, and we spent over half an hour trying to find her!

Dinner in the hotel was (inevitably) curry, and probably because it was a hotel for westerners, even though it was Indian style, it tasted very much like something one might find in a UK restaurant, or even a Pataks jar.

And so to bed.