My friend Hardeep invited Rebecca and I to India to attend his wedding in Kota. Hardeep is a good friend that I met while working in London. I was looking forward to seeing many friends from the UK, but unfortunately, only Eddie could attend.
India was not high on our go to list. We did want to visit. It was definitely on the bucket list. Having heard so many wonderful things, I was very interested to see the place for myself. You see so much of India on television. You see a lot of the wild beautiful countryside and the rich beautiful history, they tend to skip over the abject poverty.
Some people come away from India with a spiritual awakening; an urge to return. Others will never want to go back. I fall somewhere in-between. Next time I think we will head to the south.
There are many Indians around the world. They have left to make a lives in England, South Africa, Canada, Australia, Italy and many other places on earth. They leave for a reason and I can see why. There is a lot of poverty and the place is run on a dime. Anything goes, which can be quite exciting. For a foreigner it can be frustrating, especially when your wife walks at snail pace. Being male, I am the target of harassment. The holder of the cash. I learnt very quickly not to make eye contact, and if they persist, to wave my hand dismissively.
That said, it was the first time I have not been on a guided tour through a third world country. In Egypt, we were on a tour. The guide would shoo people away, or they knew who he was and stayed away. In Sri Lanka, our personal guide did the same.
This time we were flying solo, and one of us was disabled! By the end of the day you become a little frustrated. Walking out the hotel door the negotiations begin and only end when you walk back in. We were nearly hijacked at one point but I will come back to that later.
The wedding was so much fun. As soon as we met Hardeep and the crew, I made the transfer of power. I was able to sit back, relax and let Hardeep do the organising. Cheers Hardeep. Sorry we did not get to spend more time with you guys.
We flew into Delhi at midday where a driver, arranged by our accommodation, was waiting. My welcome to Delhi was less than inviting. At the very first set of traffic lights, I received the piercing sound of metal hitting glass, directly into my left ear. A lady, standing with her baby, is bashing her wedding ring against the window repetitively. I looked over at my driver who did nothing. Thankfully, that never happened again, but it was not the nicest introduction to a country.
Please allow me to sidebar here. We have just returned from a trip to Japan. Upon arrival to Melbourne airport, I encountered a person trying to push into the line to go through customs. We call this person here in Australia an Aussie yob. I gave him the evil eye so he did not push in front of me. He did push in behind us and rammed his baggage trolley into the back of my legs. Rude, racist, asshole. That is what you get here. No country is perfect and without its pests.
After a long journey, we were glad to arrive at Bnineteen, our accommodation in Delhi. We sat down immediately for some very good chicken curry and dhal. We had a rest and around sunset, we visited Humayun’s Tomb.
Bnineteen is situated in a residential area of Delhi right next to Humayun’s Tomb. It’s quiet, and there is a lovely little park just across the road where old people would do laps, either walking or jogging. We ate dinner there every night which never disappointed.
I had a great relaxing time here at the Tomb. It was not crowded and there were no hagglers outside. The Tomb itself is very beautiful, especially at sunset. The camera loved it. Rebecca and I stayed until the sun was almost set. Out of all the sites we visited, it was by far the most tranquil.
We arranged a driver the next day. We had to purchase a salwar kameez for Rebecca to wear at the wedding. The driver was instructed to take us to the Central Market, a shopping district where we could find a tailor and material. We arrived at 9:30am to find most stores were closed until 10am. We found a store that was just opening and went in. The material was not cheap. I suppose they are not taking us to the cheapest area being westerners. Only a little price haggling was to be done. We eventually found a material, the tailor measured Rebecca. We then paid and left our hotel address with strict instructions that we needed it done before we left for Jaipur. The dress did arrive in time and fitted Rebecca perfectly. Thank you to Bombay Selections New Delhi.
We asked the driver to recommend somewhere to have lunch which was not too pricey but authentic. We got neither. By the time we discovered this our driver had already departed (no parking out front!). The restaurant was upmarket. So I had a cocktail and something to eat and learned another lesson. Upon returning to the car, I let our driver know that we were not impressed with his selection.
After lunch, it was off to the Red Fort. Do not be fooled by the old ruins, the new Fort is right next door, and is quite a magnificent structure. I have not seen anything quite like it. It is hard to believe that anything could penetrate the larger than life walls, which were hiding many rather humble internal pavilions and residences. You proceed down the main corridor, lined with shops, to the open park area where the various smaller structures lie. We had a little wander, and after tipping the toilet guy to let us use the not cleaned toilet, we departed. Trying to find our driver and a place to stand among the throng of taxis, bikes and auto rickshaws was amusing, but I found a spot, our man found us and we were off.
An observation: It’s funny how a country that seems to have no laws on it’s roads seems altogether ridiculous and highly amusing at the same time. Driving in India gave us an insight to why the taxi services in Melbourne can be a little left of centre. I am thanking god they actually adjust to the laws of the road in comparison to the chaos that is Indian roads.
The following morning Rebecca wanted to shop. We drove to the Dilli Haat Market. You pay to enter and it is very touristy. Not genuine India, but with Beck walking slowly we could at least take our time in a uncongested relaxed atmosphere. Also located inside the market are outdoor restaurants, which were cheap and more authentic than lunch the previous day. We ate before heading off to the see the Qutur Minar (note the many ways to spell this) in the Qutur complex.
The minaret is made of red sandstone and marble and is the equivalent of an eight story building. You can walk up it, but after exploring the complex and trying to stay cool in a place with hardly any shade, I would not have bothered. In addition to the fact, Rebecca would have had to wait for me. We wandered around enjoying the complex, taking photos, people watching and generally relaxing. I felt peaceful there. It is the type of place one would bring a picnic basket to.
Out the front of the complex Rebecca and I were sitting waiting for our driver. Behind us were school children waiting patiently to enter. Rebecca and I sat along a fence the children were behind. They were eager to say hello and some of the boys were fascinated with my hair, which is long. Some even tried to touch it while I was not looking. I assume it was a dare of some sort as the others teased the culprit. When we waved goodbye there was quite a ruckus.
Sidebar: I can be mistaken for a light skinned Indian. I am of Italian decent. I have Indian friends that look like my Italian relatives. There must have been some interbreeding at one stage in history. Rebecca was asked by several people at the wedding if I was Indian.
The next day was a busy one, and a day in which I shall never forget.
It began with a ride in the back of a mid-sized Toto hurtling down the road from Delhi to Agra. We knew what to expect on Indian roads pre-warned by Hardeep, but nothing can prepare you. Rebecca could not watch, and I could not take my eyes off the road. Our driver was a young man in his twenties. He drove like he just got his licence. With no fear.
When booking the ride we were given the option of a guide. We declined. On our way to the Taj, we were again given the option by our driver, we declined. Then a phone was handed to me and we were again pushed to have the guide. After I was told we would not be paying any extra, we accepted, if a little begrudgingly.
In the end, he came in handy. We arrived at the Taj Mahal early. It was quite a walk from the drop off point to the entrance, so our guide arranged a lift for a pittance. He arranged our rapid entry and besides hijacking Rebeccas camera for a while, he was not overbearing or annoying.
If you want to see the Taj Mahal get there early. When we were leaving it was getting rather full, and standing room was becoming scarce. It is a majestic building, although I would beg to differ on the wonder status. Maybe I had too high expectations. After a cheap average lunch, our guide attempted to make us shop, which we declined. I gave him a little extra in tip to avoid the forced shopping experience, which he graciously accepted.
After dropping off our guide, we proceeded to Fatehpur Sikri. Now I come to our almost high jacked experience.
I decided to close my eyes and have a little nap on the way to the old city. I had just awoken to see our driver being pulled over by a random man standing on the road. A different man comes over and talks to our driver. Our driver again asks if we want a guide. We decline. An argument breaks out between the two men during which our driver exits the car and both men walk away. At this point I lock my door. A moment later another man enters via the front door, sticks his head between the two front seats and proceeds to inform us that we must get out here to get to our destination. He informs us he is an official guide (he flashes some laminated paper at us) and will take us by rickshaw and guide us. I tell him no. He then becomes very insistent.
On advice from my internet research, I proceed to tell him this was not arranged by our hotel and that I will call them to complain. According to the internet source, these people are more afraid of the tourist police than the actual police, who they usually pay off. He exited for a moment and the driver returned to his seat. Once again, the man enters the car, insisting that we need to come with them or we will not be able to enter. The driver at this point has his head on the steering wheel and I can see he is frustrated but powerless. I finally have enough. I awake from my half slumber and look the gentleman in the eye, and ask him to leave. It is then he starts to plead with me that he needs this money to feed his wife and children. This may be true but this is not the way you go about earning money. I apologise but insist that he leave us alone, politely, very assertively, and repeatedly. He eventually leaves the car, and we drive off. I ask our driver (who has limited English) ‘bad men?’, he says yes and thanks me for getting rid of them. So be warned. I had read about these happenings. They are criminals. They may only take money as payment for a service they are not qualified or officially supposed to do, or they may rob and dump you.
So after the scare we make it to the car park, from which we did not know how to get to the entrance. It was very badly signposted. We walk briefly past some shops and find a bus with what looks to be tourists inside. We wander over but there is no-one to help. Eventually a man walks over, and asks if he can help. He tells us to board the bus which will take us to the entrance. Nothing for nothing in India he insists I visit his shop on the way back.
We make it to the gates and enter the red-stone walls. We sat for a while in the shade of a tree to enjoy the peace and quiet and to reflect on what just happened. Compared to the Taj, this place was uncrowded and after our road trip, was serenely peaceful. We took our time wandering around the ancient city, not wanting to leave.
Upon exiting, the hassling begins. Thankfully, we were able to watch others being harassed this time. Upon arrival at the car park, our friend was waiting to lead me to his shop. I offered a small donation instead of a visit to the shop, but he was insistent. It was not his store but I look regardless as I was sure he received something just for bringing me in. I found a jewellery box I liked, they said $50au, I offered $5. After an insistent no no on the price, I thanked them and left. Once again I get the ‘I need to feed my kids story’ as I walked away. I apologised but kept walking. He then accepted my offer. I went back and purchased the box, but not after being asked again if I would pay more. I indicated I would leave and he fell silent.
Finally, back in the car and back onto the crazy roads, our very competent driver gets us back to Delhi in one piece and in time for dinner. We thanked him for allowing our innards to remain internally with a substantial tip. There is no way I could have made that drive myself. Many times I saw my head outlined on the front of a truck, only for it to be flashed away with some brilliant driving.
We had a train booked to Jaipur the next morning. With some time to kill we packed our bags into a little car, (which was supposed to be a medium car) and drove to the Jama Masjid located in close proximity to the train station.
At the entrance, Rebecca could not take her shoes off, so they were not going to permit us entry. Thankfully, they allow her in after getting her some shoe covers. We paid and entered, only to be kicked out not long after. It was nice to have a break from the car and to see a Mosque of such grandeur. It is guarded with gusto. The boys shooing people out could have done so a little more politely. With such a large population, crowd control is a must in India I suppose.
We were dropped off into the hustle and bustle of the old Delhi train station. What I thought was going to be a nightmare was relatively smooth. We had security scanners to go through, which always creates the sense of peace and relaxation (not). I sent Rebecca through first, and dealt with the bags myself. People were pushing in everywhere, but nobody tried to push in front of me. Maybe I had a look in my eye?
We boarded with ease into the first class cabin and took our seats. We were joined by an Indian businessman, and an elderly Indian woman. They were very quiet and polite, and we all kept to ourselves. I was taking photos, the ladies were reading, some polite talking on the phone, snacking and napping all the way to Jaipur. It was a pleasant ride.
One thing that you can be sure to see when catching the train is abject poverty. The slums line the tracks. It looks like the shacks would not withstand a stiff breeze. The people I saw looked happy enough. I suppose there is an acceptance of your location in life. There is a caste system that is inherent in Indian society which is starting to break down but with so many people, this will take time. I can see why people try hard to leave India, start anew and climb out of whatever caste they were born into.
Let me sidebar again. We went to purchase alcohol last night in Melbourne. At the register ahead of us were Indian gents making their purchase, rather sheepishly. I guess they are from a province where it is forbidden to sell or drink alcohol. So for them, they are breaking what they have always been taught is the law. Probably in addition to disobeying their parents. It is hard to break with what you have been taught your whole life. I was proud of them for stepping out of their comfort zone. Although I hope someone teaches them about moderation.
We pull into Jaipur station, and as we depart the train the tallest Indian man I have ever seen, offers to help with our bags. I agree after a small negotiation. We tell him taxi, but he leads us to the car park, to a man who has a fan club of giggling morons and the tall man walks us to this gents car. We negotiate with giggling fan club man as we follow tall guy who has our bags hostage on his head. I pay the large man and he leaves us to be extorted. I have enough and start to walk off with our bags. The driver drops his price to a reasonable amount and we accept. He was pleasant enough. He gives us his card and makes a good offer to taxi us around the next day, but with a large crack in the windscreen I was not feeling too safe in that car.
Samode was high class. A lot of strong ‘I was born into money’ English accents and the like were to be heard when dining. The Haveli was immaculately kept and very beautiful. The room was comfortable the shower one of the best I had in India.
We booked a car the next morning, which was not cheap but of a very good quality. Our driver drove right up to the front door of the Amer Fort, which is not usual practice, but our driver used Rebecca’s disability to get us up there. And glad we were. It would have been hard for Rebecca to climb, especially in the heat.
I enjoyed the fort. It was not over crowded, although there were people everywhere, and there was so much to explore. You could easily get lost within its many tunnelled walls and myriad of stair cases. I did so while Rebecca sat and rested, at which time I was approached by a young man who was sweeping. He offered to show me a good place for photos. I accepted and followed. After many steps and a stop or two on the way to take more photos, we arrive at a high location where you could look down into the valley below and a different fort above. I tipped him and made my way back to Rebecca.
We wandered around slowly, and managed to get around rather easily. There were many ways of getting up and down with gently sloping ramps. We had a coffee at the cafe after which Rebecca spotted a shop she had read about that was fair trade. So, after the purchase of a few scarves, we left, but not without the purchase of some non fair trade puppets on the way to the car.
We asked the driver to take us to lunch somewhere traditional, and not expensive. I was a little more assertive in this request, and it was granted. On the way to lunch we stopped by Man Sagar Lake for a few photo’s of the Jal Mahal.
After a lovely lunch, we made our way to Jaipur City Palace. One of the things the camera loves about India is the colour. As dirty and dusty as Rajasthan is, the use of colour is extraordinary. The City Palaces pink, orange, browns and sometimes greens, exemplifies this.
Before retiring for the night, we had just enough time to visit the Jantar Mantar, just next door to the Palace. The Jantar Mantar is a collection of architectural astronomical instrument. We only had an hour or so, but it was well worth the entry fee.
The following day we were to change hotels, which was a little bit of a disaster. The previous day the driver and car were exceptional. Now that we were leaving, for the same price we received a crap car and average driver. Not even in a fancy hotel are they to be trusted. In addition to this it was a public holiday. On Republic day, most things are closed. The sights we wanted to see were closed, or we were not permitted entry. Eventually we were taken to a garden on the outskirts of town, the location and name escape me, as by this time Rebecca and I were rather frustrated. It was a nice small garden. We had wasted enough time and went to the Alsisar Haveli.
Upon arrival, we were given a sub standard room. I suspect they were just trying to be nice to Rebecca as the room was on the ground floor. But with no running hot water, a damp smell, and considering we already paid for a superior room, I requested we get what we paid for. They tell me it’s a few stair flights up and I tell them this is no bother. After a length of time, our wish was granted, and although several flights of steps had to be negotiated, the room was far superior.
We had lunch and hung around the hotel relaxing before dinner. At one point Rebecca returns to our room in a bad mood. She tells me a man had approached and was asking about her disability. She had lectured him abruptly about asking such things and retreated. I came across the same fellow, and after a chat, found that he was the resident masseur. He apologises regarding his question. After telling Rebecca, we end up inviting him to give us both a deep tissue massage. It was painful but very relaxing. He was very observant about Rebecca’s condition and her posture or lack thereof. Just by doing your feet, he could tell your ailments. We had a great chat about cricket during which h tells me he had massaged the Australian cricket team. He liked Glen McGrath and Jason Gillespie though he was not a fan of Sachin Tendulkar. He said he was rude, and did not do enough with his wealth for the Indian people.
We had dinner and rested as the next day we were meeting up with Hardeep.
Next morning we had a little trouble but eventually found Hardeep and boarded a bus Hardeep had hired for our journey to Kota. Then we were treated to several laps of Jaipur, trying to find Hardeep’s sister’s hotel. Evidently, like the Japanese, Indians do not like to say no, so they will send you in any old direction even if they have no idea. We found the hotel, had breakfast there and boarded the bus headed for Kota. It was a bumpy trip, but we sat down the back of the bus like we were back at high school and caught up with Hardeep and Eddie over a few whiskies.
We made it to Kota in time for dinner, where all the men gathered and went out for a drink. In a dry town, it was not easy. We found a place that would permit drink for a price. There was not much to eat, but we managed a drink. The Indian boys got fed up with management and we left. The ladies got a good feed in the hotel, which made my stomach jealous.
Next morning we had breakfast in the hotel, and the pampering of Hardeep began, much to his disappointment. I enjoyed watching. Shortly after we suited up, crossed the busy road, went under the smelly bridge to the temple. The temple was on the second floor of a standard city building which again was to my surprise. We sat on the floor and waited. The bride arrives and the ceremony began. It went much quicker than I anticipated and next thing we know we are back over the road to have reception number one. There was a lot of banging of drums on the way to and back from the temple, and before entering the reception, there was more music.
Inside we sit for introductions and entertainment headed by a Kamahl lookalike. Intelligently all the Indian people sat as far away as possible from the stage, where the westerners had no choice but to locate themselves. We joined in the fun and frolics with the band and dancers. Why the hell not. No one really knew whom we were and it was unlikely they would ever see us again. Eddie was having the most fun. He knows why.
We ate a vegetarian meal, drank soft drink and chatted. The couple cut the cake, danced, and called it a afternoon, for that night, meat and alcohol was to be had at reception number two. We had a little sleep and a shower, and boarded the bus to the second reception.
Sidebar. I have damaged my hearing over the years. My ears pop with pain when the music is too loud. At a large concert it might happen once or twice, which is tolerable. But unfortunately, for me, the music was so loud, even when sat as far away as we could from the speakers I had to plug my ears to stop the pop, and the pain. These Indians like to party! I was told not be a party pooper. The music was eventually turned down to a level that did not give me too much trouble thanks to Hardeeps request.
We had a great night drinking Indian whiskey. This has to be mixed with cola. We chatted, laughed, and got very drunk. Rebecca asked for beer, which was a mistake she later regretted, and so did I. The night ended and we boarded the bus home. Hardeep’s new wife found out what a drunk husband is like and we heard she had to nurse him till morning. I also found that it was only the second time they had met in person. I was astounded as this was not an arranged marriage. I later found out they had been Skyping for over two years before meeting, which is where they fell in love. Romance over the internet. They are still together, both very entrepreneurial, and maintain a relationship over the distance from India to the UK. Quite astounding.
The bus ride home was fun. We got lost again, but found our way back. During this time, the beer had set in and Beck was no fun to be around. It was a few hours before we also got to have any sleep. The next morning we were both hung over and Beck was rather sheepish.
The holiday must go on! A car was arranged for Eddie, Beck and I and a smooth ride was had to Udaipur. We found our hotels, and met Eddie for dinner. Dinner was had at our hotel. We stayed at the Jagat Niwas Palace which is right on the lake. We dined on the roof taking in the view over the lake. The meal was of a high quality and we had a cocktail or two over some great conversation.
I awoke early the next day and wandered the narrow streets. It was a beautiful morning. The weather pleasant and the sun just starting to poke up over the horizon. We found a little place to have a cup of tea and breakfast after which we made our way very slowly to the City Palace Udaipur.
Once inside the palace grounds the gardens are very peaceful, so we sat and let Rebecca rest for a while before entering. Once inside you follow a proscribed path. It was one of the better sights we visited. Many internal views were on display and the palace has a style I had not seen before. I read it was a fusion of the Rajasthani and Mughal architectural styles. A must see if you are in town. It was not crowded and Rebecca made her way round rather easily. We did stop off and take a break now and again. That evening Rebecca returned to the room to rest and I went out to photograph Udaipur at sunset.
That night we had dinner with Hardeep’s family over the lake at Ambrai restaurant which was of a high standard. Once back at the hotel the ladies and gents split. We had a few whiskeys in one of our hotel rooms and the ladies had some tea in the reception hall. Ed and I had a good chat with Hardeep’s brother in law and his father. I had a good time and the boys were great company.
Next day was a slow one as Rebecca’s leg was playing up. We had to make our way through the palace to catch a boat ride round the lake and over to the Taj Lake Palace. I enjoyed the boat ride. I could have forgone the Lake Palace. It was nothing special. I gather it is very nice if you can afford to stay and see the internals of the building.
We dined in the hotel again that night, as we were leaving the next day.
Rebecca awoke to sickness. We were to leave our bags at reception and explore until it was time to catch the overnight train back to Delhi. We ended up hiring a room for Rebecca to rest in while I went to explore with my camera, getting myself lost and found in the process.
The train ride to Delhi was OK. We had some good company, and ate the on-train meal for dinner. We should have noticed that our fellow passengers passed on this offer. The meal was lukewarm and Rebecca did not eat much, which was good as I was the next to fall to illness. I had thought myself invincible. If I was thinking straight, I would have not eaten the train meal as it was obviously not cooked properly. I awoke in the night feeling rather ill, and to a bad smell. (more on the smell later) Upon arrival in Delhi we took a taxi back to Bnineteen for our last night in India. I was in need of a lie down, but our room was not ready, and we had to wait downstairs where the smell of fresh paint was evident.
Needless to say, our last day in India was a sad one. I was very ill and I received a message that my grandfather had passed. So sick or not I was determined to return home. We requested some medication from the hotel staff and they obliged. The first pills temporarily rid me of nausea. The second lot (which after looking up on the internet are given to cancer patients for nausea after chemotherapy) did the trick and we left for home. I had a pill before we left the hotel, and another shortly after the plane departed. I had a good nap all the way to Kuala Lumpur airport, after feeling a little trippy.
Once in the lounge at KL airport I was feeling better, and was in need of a shower. I could have a shower. But with no hot water? Why did I need a shower? I smelt. A change of shirt helped. I thought it was just me but when we arrived back in Melbourne and opened the bags, we found where the smell was coming from. Everything in the bags smelt like diesel. I suspect in the overnight train back to Delhi our cabin filled with diesel smell. Rebecca was already sick and I was getting sick so we did not notice. It must have permeated into the bags. Most of the smells came out in the wash, but some things were bound with the rubbish bin, and others needed a bake in the hot Melbourne sun. India followed us home, like a bad smell.
We chose the train as our form of transport believing that we would experience a more authentic India. We did.
A word of advice, get a driver. Or take your Indian friends recommendation and fly.