Saturday, 28 March 2009

Words of the Day

A little Project on the Side...

Paite kraab: Nasty tummy. Not sure it matters which end is under pressure. All I know is that I have it. I’ll spare you the details.

Subhji Wallah: The vege man. He parades the streets with his cart shouting “subhjis!” in much the same way as the Rag and Bones man used to in days gone by. Subhji can also mean curry. I was bitterly disappointed to find out that the Subhji wallah was not selling piping hot currys with rice and a side serving of naan.

Sidha: Go straight (usually said whilst motioning towards the left with your right hand). This is similar to “tout droite” in France or “Just there” in Shona. It usually implies that your destination is just over the rise. It transpires however your destination is still miles away. We discovered this one trying to find accommodation in Amritsar, home to the Golden Temple.

Baas: That’s enough. Used with over generous relatives piling your plate up with food that you will not be able to finish in a hundred years. They mean well, and really are humbling-ly generous, but we’re only little (and have paite kraab again).

Acha Khanna: Delicious Food. Compliments to the chef. This after a feast in Shimla with Nipun’s mums family.

Muchlee: Fish. We went fishing in Goa today. Did we catch? No. Unless a bit of sun burn counts.

And now for a brief commercial break...

More on the way... We are in Goa now but the laptop has just run out of power. In the interim I'll leave you with a couple of pictures of our new home before we go for a swim.

Jaipur: The Pink City

As luck would have it we ended by next to Ritesh on the train to Jaipur and compared further tales of our adventures before I passed out on a bunk and snored my way to the fabled Pink city. Luckily Nipun managed to stay awake otherwise I would have ended up in Timbuktu. Jaipur station consists of the usual legion of touts, tuk tuk drivers and hotel peddlers and after a bit of haggling we were on our way to the best hotel (not to mention most expensive - coincidence?) thus far; the Hotel Palms. By this stage it was after 11pm so on arrival (with our tuk tuk driver deliberately driving past our hotel claiming to be on his way to the other entrance) we went straight to bed and had a late rise. After a late and hearty breakfast buffet (ie load up as much food as you can so as to avoid having to eat lunch) we went into the Pink City, which I thought was more terracotta.

Our first port of call was Jantar Muntar Observatory, home among other things to the largest sundial in the world. It is massive. And accurate to two seconds in Jaipur. The Jantar Muntar was built as a research centre for astrology and astronomy and we employed the services of a guide to show us around. I must confess that about 90% of what he said left me in the dark and the remaining ten percent was in the region of dark grey. This is not because he was a bad guide, but rather due to the nature of the calculations and me having the mathematical aptitude of a pre-schooler. Suffice to say that the sundial works and is pretty impressive whilst the sun is up. And when the sun goes down it looks like the top would offer a nice balcony with stunning views on which to have sundowners. Though as an instrument for telling the time it would be as useful as a chocolate teapot.

We finished up at Jaipur by walking around the City Palace which was pretty expensive for what it was I felt. Maybe I am just a bit monumented / templed out after three weeks on the go. Again it is a beautiful complex and it’s heyday it must have been a city among cities. We spent a few hours there and then explored the city, stumbling upon snake charmers who tried to fleece us of our worldly possessions and a few ad hoc temples which were beautiful. The Indian use of bright colours in their temples is fantastic and as you wander through often dirty streets it is refreshing to suddenly stumble upon an oasis of colour.

The Taj Mahal

More pictures to follow... The laptop just died and I only have a handful of images on a memory stick. So in the meantime some monks having a stroll in the Taj Mahal.

Ok. So I am not the kind of person that gets overly excited by a building that everyone else loves and says you have to see. Generally interiors get me going more. After all, a roof keeps you dry, but it is the inside that makes you cozy. And then of course, there is the Taj Mahal. We got up at an eye rubbing 5.00am as your humble narrators had read that whilst most people dash straight to t he Taj at dawn, the place to be is across the Yamuna River yo catch the sun as it rises from the East. The first taxi driver I approached on this was dismissive. “I can take you. But you are wasting your time.” The second was only slightly less dismissive. But he was cheaper so hey, we went with it. Again he thought we were fools to go across the river at that time when we could go straight into the Taj with the other eighty early risers. We got to the taxi at 5.40 (“Your ten minutes late” quoth the taxi driver) and then undertook the twenty minute, ar*e shattering drive across the road and to the riverbank where we spent the next hour. The view was astounding with fantastic reflections in the water and an abundance of birdlife on the river banks. Better yet, we were the only people there bar a couple of local kids. As the sun rose the Taj began to fill up with people and then we were on our way again, off to the worst restaurant in India for breakfast (the somewhat ironically named A1 Quality Restaurant). Allegedly out taxi driver ate there every day. Then again maybe he did, he was as gaunt as a strip of biltong. Our waiter had the body odour of Methuselah the charm of a snake (“Sorry, I cannot find a menu so I have put down the prices that I think are right.” He did not know just how formidable my wife can be.

And so on to the Taj. It is beautiful. I’ll leave it there. No need for bombast and superfluous adjectives. It is impossible to look at it and not feel moved. In my humble opinion of course. Whilst the romance behind the construction and dedication of the building may be a little dubious, it is an astounding monument and the way that the white marble catches the light is erm, breathtaking at this risk of sounding like an eighties cheesy romance.
Onwards and upwards: Jaipur (And no, I am not referring to the restaurant at Sunrise Sports Club in Harare where you used to leave the tips beneath the table cloth so that the management didn’t nick it from the staff).

Enter Agra

(Short for aggravation?)

The train ride from Agra was fairly comfy. Actually I tell porkys, apart from the 6am start it was very comfy. We found ourselves in plush seats with attendant waiters whilst India rushed past outside. Across from us we met Ritesh, who Nipun spotted reading the White Tiger. “Any good?” She enquired in her best Hindi (Pretty damn good at this stage).
“Yeah not bad” he replied in his best Mancurian accent. Happy days. It turns out that Ritesh had pretty much been doing our trip in reverse in many ways and for the next few hours we swapped travel experiences, tales of blaggers and places to stay, eat and some to avoid. He veiled his contempt that we had never visited Manchester before pretty poorly though. It was, after all, the centre of the Industrial Revolution and home to some amazing bands and art galleries. Yes, it is! Sorry never got there! And then on to some pictures on his camera that made me pretty jealous (at this point I confess that he had the compact and I have the D300 with three lenses, a bunch of filters and two flashes).

Our arrival in Agra was greeted by the usual barrage of shirt tugging touts offering to take us to hotels that would exceed our wildest imagination and still offer change from a fiver. Fortunately we had already booked a room and as such got a pre-paid taxi to the Kant Hotel, an unassuming place from the outside but with a shower that rained hot pins and needles with clean sheets and a comfy bed. The little things in life are by far the sweetest at this stage.
Showered up, breakfasted and eager to explore we headed out in search of Fatephur Sikri. Nipun had the good sense to seek out the local bus stop and after an entertaining wait on board with many a local selling 1970 style bodybuilding manuals and nutritional guides (not so bad in itself if it was not on offer from a frail septuagenarian) to our fellow explorers we were on our way. Fatephur Sikri is pretty amazing, At the top of the (steep) hill you are greeted by an imposing 54 metre high gate that leads into a courtyard in red stone. I add the latter because you are required to go in without any shoes and the red stone flooring soaks up the heat like an electric blanket in a bath. We yelped. We howled. We danced like bears and poised ourselves on our tip toes with all the elegance of a falling a tree. After all, we are from England and are lucky to have a ray of sunshine slip off our shoulders. Heat on the soles of our feet is an outrageous and dangerous proposition.

But I digress. Again.

Fatephur Sikri is startlingly beautiful like so many places that we have visited. Whilst much is in red stone with the tombs of holy prophets interned there-in, there is also a mosque in white marble with ornate stone work that was built in later years. The complex combines Hindu, Muslim and Christian architecture and was built by the Moghul emperor Akbar, who was clearly an ambitious man. After all he married three wives, one Muslim, one Hindu and one Christian (from the shores of Goa where I write this). That’s just crazy right? Imagine coming home late to three wives… Your life just would not be worth the air in your lungs.

Delhi: The Real Hustle (rs)

The hustle and bustle of Delhi engulfs you the minute you step off of your train and onto the platform. After the calm and pampered train journey on an AC coach with hot cups of tea and an omelette with bread, the mayhem and smells of the platform hit you immediately. People lie in the dust and grime of the corridors, the crowd bumps and pushes it’s way along and touts latch onto you like ticks engorging themselves on blood. Being foreign almost feels like being a light bulb to moths. For my own part I clung to Nipun’s Mum and Dad, directly behind Nipun and let the three of them deal with the bulk of the touts and braggarts, after all they had the advantage of speaking the local language. That didn’t stop a few making it through the front lines and on to me, but took care of the vast majority.

We had been warned by many people that Delhi was the city of scams and it took about thirty seconds for this to become apparent. We asked a smartly dressed young gentleman to point us in the general direction of the tourist office in the train station. After all, he was well turned out and had an almost official air about him. It transpired that it would be his pleasure to assist us as it could be a little tricky to find. And Delhi, he said casually, was a city of opportunists and conmen. “Follow me.” We did.

He led us up the stairs, across the platforms and into the car park. The touts flocked on every side.

“Auto rickshaw!!!”
“Taxi this way!!!”
“Good Hotels, come here.”
All at the same time, and from each point of the compass. Our good man led us further away from the station, striding confidently, a modern day John Wayne. But we were getting a bit suspicious because the tourist office was in the station and not across the road. When we pointed this out to him he shook his head dismissively and told us that the tourist office in the station was closed and under refurbishment, and had been for a few months now. When we spotted the sign for the International Tourist Office pointing back towards the station, he advised us that it hadn’t yet been taken down. We were dubious by this stage, but he looked us right in the eye and without even blinking continued to maintain that the refurb was well underway and there was no tourist office operating in the station. He pointed us to a scruffy old building just outside the car park where he was taking us to: “Government Approved Tourist Office.” That was where we needed to go. I would not have thought about it twice. Fortunately everyone else said that we should go back to the station and investigate ourselves. And upon investigation we found that the tourist office was alive and well, air-conditioned and full of semi-helpful staff. Semi. Oh how I laughed that evening when I started to read up on Delhi in the Rough Guide:
“New Delhi Railway Station is the worst place of all for touts; assume that anyone who approaches you here - even in uniform - with offers of help, or to direct you to the foreigners booking hall, is trouble - most are trying to lure travellers to fake “official” tourist offices opposite the Paharganj entrance, where you will end up paying way over the correct price, often for unconfirmed tickets.. Similarly, steer clear of all offices along Janpath that falsely claim to be Government Authorised.” In the same section it all also mentions that the touts will nonchalantly tell you that your hotel has closed down or was razed to the ground in a massive conflagration before taking you to another hotel of their choice, and commission.
We had just encountered our first scam… but fortunately managed to jump out of the frying pan before the full heat had been turned on.
We spent the following few days doing some of the Delhi sites, namely Qutb Minar Complex with it‘s 72.5 metre tower and intricate arches and ornamentation, the Lotus Temple or as it is properly known, the Baha’I Temple which has 27 white marble petltles opening up like a Lotus and then skirted the perimeter of the Red Fort before going to see India Gate. There is so much rich history and culture that it is difficult not to feel completely dumb struck. And then as you leave the temples you are back into the frantic rush, smells and sometimes outright claustrophobia of modern day Delhi.

We finished the day off at Akshar Dhan which is astounding. It has only been open for three years and as such it is not in some of the older Rough Guides or some of the maps. If it was not for Nipun’s parents we would have missed it entirely. The temple itself is vast and immensely ornate. The fact that it is new and shiny does not detract in anyway from its beauty and impact. As we had timed the visit in the evening we also managed to a sound and light tour that covered the history of. The lighting is very clever indeed and used to narrate the life and impact of on India. The tour ends with a themed boat ride which is a little contrived, but well worth the money for the narrative, lighting and technology. It is again one of India’s little idiosyncrasies, the temple and shows are ornate, clean and has had no expense spared. The moment you step outside though you are back into the chaos and bedlam that is Delhi.
Our last day in Delhi was spent organising the final details of our Agra and Jaipur trip. We took the Delhi Metro a couple of times which again proved to be modern, scrupulously clean and efficient. The crowd forms a single line files on either side of the door to get on the train whilst the people coming off the train have a designated area in the middle of these files. It works. You still have the occasional cretin jumping the queue, but compared to London it is really a jolly civil affair. There is a no food or drink policy on the train, music is not allowed so you need not worry about the twit next to you playing distorted MP3 tracks and the seats on either side of the carriage are reserved for the elderly on one side, and erm, Ladies on the other. Dwelling on the trains the security is pretty heavy too, everyone is patted down and electronically scanned before they reach the platform and all bags must be put through an x-ray machine. I guess if someone is determined to blow up a train then they’ll find a way to do, but it seems that the threat is being taken very seriously and with good cause to.
We finished off the day at the Red Fort and explored in a bit more depth. It could do with a bit of TLC but worth the visit and relatively calm amid the chaos of Delhi. I have mixed feelings now that we have left Delhi. On one hand there is so much history and culture as mentioned previously that it is awe inspiring. On the other it can be fiendishly dirty, claustrophobic and has a seemingly well deserved reputation for conmen and petty criminals. Then again we met some fantastic people along the way who displayed enormous hospitality. Delhi is compelling, and in spite of having left I cannot help but feel that we could have spent a month there and still only have scratched the surface.
We write this from Agra having just arrived at our hotel after a 5.30 start. It has just gone ten o’clock in the morning and we will be heading out to . Tomorrow we will have another dawn rise to see the Taj Mahal. More then.

The Journey from Hell

The Journey From Hell.
We left Shimla yesterday for what should have been a fairly uncomplicated journey back to Ludhiana. Supposedly we would jump onto an AC bus that would take us to Chandigarh, change buses there and then get to Ludhiana on a second bus. All in all the route should have taken about six hours. Easy peasy.
All was going well for the first hour or so, we even managed a bit of a snooze along the way. And then at Solan we pulled into a bus garage. No explanation. About fifteen minutes go by before the conductor raises his head and barks that we will need to change buses. After a great deal of commotion, of which I understood nada, it became vaguely apparent that the Police had closed of the road to Kalka due to “civil unrest” on the route. The civil unrest it would appear had been caused by the Police in the first place going in the surrounding area and razing illegal markets that had been springing up. As a result we needed to change onto a smaller bus that would be able to traverse the alternative route. It soon became apparent why. The newly plotted journey consisted of dirt roads, heavily corrugated from rain and potholed. The tarmac that interspersed the dirt road was in a similar state of repair. And the serpentine roads overlooked some pretty scary sheer drops into the valleys below. After all we were in the Himalayas. Unperturbed by any of the above our driver was eager to make good time. Overtaking on blind corners seemed to be a pretty cool idea and downhill represented an opportunity to break the record for the fastest bus in India. It was as Nipun, remarked, almost as if he was trying to beat his own previous record. All of this would not have been soooo bad if the roads hadn’t been rougher than me after a night on the beer. We bounced, trampolined and jolted around in our seats. We shook. Our ears rung with the sound of vibrating steel and glass. Being at the back was not such a good idea when we hit the larger bumps and were catapulted towards the roof. For those Zimbabweans out there, it made Kukura Kurewa look like a Hummer limo ride. And our four hour trip to Chandigarh turned into a six and a half hour bone jarring ride from the pits of the inferno itself. That was Round One out of the way.
Round Two: Chandigarh.
Chandigarh is famous for the way in which it was designed and layed out by the Belgian architect Le Corbusier. It is in many ways distinctly Un-Indian, consisting of orderly grids, large landscaped roundabouts and fairly wide roads. Think Milton Keynes (with 35 degree cee heat). On the surface the bus stop too seems to be orderly and well managed. The buses leave from clearly designated points, a cleaner swirls around your feet with a mop and the toilets are (allegedly) cleaned regularly. Regarding the latter the smell of sulphur could kill a man from a hundred yards. All in all it appeared that getting a ticket and onwards travel would be a doddle. Sadly this was not entirely the case. There were two queues, one for Women and one for the Gents. Each queue consisted on a tight fist of people at the front all scrambling to get the front and vying for attention, followed by a single civil line of resigned people who were clearly going nowhere. This was a case of the meek inheriting more meekness. Nipun’s mum joined the ladies queue and began the infinite wait for service. The attendant was clearly overwhelmed by the throng but was distinctly unstressed by the situation. He was as cool as a cucumber, as unruffled as the Fonz. He was obviously very used to be cajoled, snapped at, bombarded with punters trying to get home. And nothing in this life or the next would stress him out. If you did not have the exact money ready then you went to the back of the queue as he had no change. Le Corbusier would have turned in his grave and wept a bitter tear of regret. As for Nipun’s Mum, she displayed the patience of a Saint and awe inspiring perseverance. Finally we managed to get tickets for the next bus to Ludhiana, and I could have kissed that bus. We finally arrived back in Ludhiana at about eight thirty, having left Shimla at nine thirty that morning. Oh happy day to see a shower and a clean bed.
We are back on the road, or more accurately rail tomorrow when we go to Delhi to begin working our way South towards Kerala and Goa. More then.
Coming up: Delhi, Agra, Taj Mahal, Jaipur

Happy Holi!!!

Holi is an annual festival held to celebrate the beginning of Spring. It is celebrated with water and coloured powders being rubbed / thrown into your clothes, face, hair. Like all festivals it is intended as good, clean fun. Well, hold on the clean bit for now. Our Holi started relatively calmly. At about ten o’clock a few friends of the family dropped by and showered us with a bit of powder, nothing too hectic. We then went to Nipun’s Aunts house near Ludhiana town centre and watched the kids playing holi from the relative safety of the driveway. A couple of water bombs hurtled by, and in an effort to antagonise the kids across the road I stood directly beneath their balcony whilst they poured a bucket of water from above (I moved at the last minute). It was, as I said to Nipun, a little anti-climatic. So after a half hour or so we decided to mosey on down the road, buy us some powder and join the locals. It started off quite tamely, the first group we encountered were three young guys who were very gentle. “Happy holi” a bit of powder rubbed onto the old cheeks and pate and big smiles all round. As we got closer to the main road it got a little more frenetic, and by the time we reached the main road it was open war on the streets. I had figured on being singled out being the only pale face in town. But this was ridiculous. Unbeknownst to me it transpired that my good wife’s Hindi had been in improving in leaps and bounds and she had been telling everyone that it was my first Holi experience and that I was, well finding it “anti-climatic.” That nobody wanted to play. And could they redouble their efforts. Please. Well words to that effect.
It was mostly fun (the unfun bits being powder in the eyes, mouth, nose) until we got caught in a large group and someone smashed an egg on Nipun’s head. We had been warned that this might happen but it was a pretty unpleasant surprise. My first reaction was to get medieval on the offender’s ass, but when in a group of 12 or so burly adolescents this is not necessarily wise. And hey, it is a festival so go with it. As it is I think they got wind of Nipun’s vociferous displeasure and the fact that I looked ready to thump someone. And so it was that the culprit was hauled before Nipun by his mates and she was handed a large egg with which to extract her revenge. From here we beat a hasty retreat back to the house, where we stood beneath the kids next door and let them cover us in water from above to their hearts content.
The Train to Shimla.
Well here we are in Shimla, the Himachal Pradesh capital and the headquarters of the colonials when it got too hot down in the South! We left Ludhiana at six o’clock this morning and went down to the bus terminal where we jumped on an air conditioned bus to Chandigarh. The journey was relatively uneventful, if you ignore the on-board entertainment spouting out from loud speakers above our heads of a woman singing a holy song unaccompanied. In itself, no bad thing. Not entirely to my delectation but then not everything is. However, take into account that the song was on a continual loop for about forty minutes (yes, that is right, the same song) and you can maybe begin to understand the nature of my pain. Luckily at about the forty minute mark Nipun remembered that she had an Ipod with her and I got to rediscover the genius that was Swervedriver. Nice.
After changing at Chandigarh we caught another bus to Kalka where the adventure really began. The train, or the Toy Train as it is affectionately known, traverses 96km of mountain terrain and runs through 103 tunnels and crosses 24 bridges. Hauled by a diesel engine, our train consisted of six carriages. Whilst the journey is only 96km (or about a nano second on the Eurostar) it takes about five hours of continual uphill journey through some absolutely majestic scenery. The route is amazing and it is incredible that the track was ever completed, let alone completed in 1903. The bridges are again magnificent, being constructed to replicate aqueducts, many of them stacked several arches high.
As the train progresses up into the mountains (up, always and continually up) the vegetation changes into fairly dense forest and the final approach into Shimla contains several rhododendrons which were in flower on our trip.
Upon arriving in Shimla we got a taxi to the elevator that takes you from the lower street level of Shimla and up onto the mall. The mall, is not as you would be correct in thinking, a shiny plastic pleasure dome of cinemas and Starbucks but rather a long pedestrianised street with traditional shops and a handful of hotels. We are staying two doors down Clarks, the oldest hotel in Shimla and a very swanky five star at that. Sadly the Rock Sea Hotel from where I write this (in two single beds pushed together and delightfully peach walls) is not quite as elegant or refined, but is seems clean and offers a good view of Shimla sprawling out beneath us from the balcony.

Le Grand singe (Monkey!)

Our trip to Shimla seems to have come and gone in a flash. Like most of the places we have been in India it is a city of contradictions. On one hand it is mostly clean, beautiful and has a leisurely pace of living. On the other the denizens seem happy to clear their throats with a hearty hacking noise and then spit on the streets and the urban sprawl can seem chaotic. Additionally many of the buildings seem dilapidated and in dire need of some tlc. Overall though it is beautiful city and a welcome retreat from the claustrophobia and hubbub of places like Amritsar.
Our first day in Shimla was spent getting familiar with the town. We took in the Mall, the Ridge and then sauntered at the most leisurely of paces to the Viceroy’s Lodge, the very grand home to the British Government for the summer months. The Lodge is now the Institute of Advanced Studies. After a (brief) tour of the lodge we made our way back to Scandal Point, the central part of the mall which is allegedly the place to go for a bit of rumour mongering in the best tradition of all small towns. We splashed out for supper (£3.00 per head) at Alfa in the evening, then early the following morning Alfa splashed out of us. The following evening was a better bet which was spent in Fascination with Nipun’s Mum, Aunt and Uncle (or Masi and Masarji for those who are a little more clued up on their Hindi).

One of the highlights of Shimla was the trek up the hill to the monkey temple, or Jakhu Temple as it is properly known. Jakhu Temple is at the top of a steep hill and takes about half an hour to get up to. The walk, to be frank, is knackering. The gradient is steep and patrolled by cheeky monkeys (no, not of the cute variety) who are more than willing to fake you by darting forward with bared teeth. Fortunately to be forewarned is to be forearmed, literally in this case. At the beginning of the walk we hired out a fresh and springy cane to which was wielded with much alacrity and brandished at any cheeky critter that came too close, of which there were a few. I am led to believe that my brother in law Paul fled down the hill hollering frantically at one point in his trip up to the temple, and whilst I smirked at the time I can understand his apprehension now. These are not cute little vervet monkeys on the scrounge. Hell no. These are descendants of the monkey army that helped Rama in his struggle against Ravana, and as you would expect of an army they can be pretty intimidating.
After several pauses along the way (or more appropriately stops to gasp for air) we arrived at the temple which was beautiful. Monkeys abound, after all it is their temple, and the temple itself has a lot of vibrancy and character. The colours are bright and the sculptures and paintings add to the seductive charm of the place. It was here that we met an elderly French couple on their fourth tour of India. They were lovely. We chewed the fat for a bit and talked about where we came from. “Zimbabwe?” An incredulous look. “Mugabe?” A look of contempt. And then a chortle. “Il est le grand monkee!” Now I abhor social Darwinism, or any variation thereof. But I have to say the man had a point. And in my ever humble opinion this is not Social Darwinism in any way, because George W could comfortably take up residence along side our man anytime. And Bliar as he is affectionately known in Zimbabwe. They are all semi-simian buffoons. Two of the three are admittedly pretty eloquent, sorry George, not you. Come to think of it, it is almost like a temple dedicated to politicians. Ahh, but now I drag the real monkeys into disrepute.
The walk back into town was uneventful. We were faked by some fairly aggressive vermin along the way and I cannot help but think that the 5 rupee cane was the best money we have spent in India thus far. A pity they were not politicians as that would have made for a bit more fun.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

A couple more images

For some reason the (me) my images are being positioned within the text as anticpated, but all at the top. Bear with me, I'm new to this and need a cup of coffee! Anyway, a handful of images... Right, gotta go.

Three days in one go...

Here goes... This will be a long one!

Well here we are in India. In spite of many rave reviews about Virgin Airways the flight was mediocre to bad, leaving 45 minutes late and then waiting a further hour and fifteen minutes for any trace of food or drink to arrive. Whilst the crew could not control the flight being delayed (presumably) due to issues on the ground, a little communication and an attempt at an explanation would have been most welcome. To rub salt into the disgruntled old fellas wounds I had two howling kids in front and an epic snorer behind. I guess the highlight was as we were coming in to land and watching the air crew’s tact and diplomacy in action.
Stewardess: “I really don’t care if you need to use the bathroom, Sir. You need to sit down. NOW.”
Punter (who it has to said had had a couple of whisky’s, but wasn‘t plastered by any means): “But I have been standing in a queue waiting for the toilet for over fifteen minutes now.”
“I don’t care. Sit down. Now.”
Sheepish punter mutters and slinks away, reclines into chair, crossing his legs.
But we got there and that is really all that matters. On arrival in Delhi the first thing that struck me was the air smelt different. That is not to say it smelt, just that there was a definite difference from London. It was more humid, hotter and pungent, slightly sulphuric? We made it through Delhi immigration, my best Hindi being wasted on the scowling official served us. “Nameste!!!” I cry. Grunt. Stares at Nipun and then stamps her passport with far more force than necessary (immigration officials the world over love doing this, not least of all in South Africa where they must need to change the immigration desking weekly) and then beckons to me dispassionately. Same wilting stare and hostile stamping of my passport. As a parting shot I offer a diffident “Shukria!” (thank you) and a smile, only to be met by a patronising smirk before he turns swiftly away. Ok then, nice day to you too buddy.
Having made our way out we were met by Nipun’s Dad. We were delighted to see him, as the alternative would been finding the train station and making our way to Ludhiana ourselves, which would have been no issue but a friendly face at the end of a journey is always welcome. What we did not realize was that it had taken him seven hours in a taxi to get to us. That began to impress on me just how vast India is. Delhi and Ludhiana on the map look pretty close to each other, they are however seven hours apart by road. We jumped into the taxi and began the journey through Delhi which was great. It is so refreshingly different from the UK but pretty hectic. The roads are crazy. Four people on a scooter weaving through traffic, two guys on a motorbike carrying large coils of copper piping, a young street kind selling copies of Vogue to the more affluent at the traffic lights. Ok maybe that last one was not so great but illustrated the great divide.
The journey to Ludhiana was long. About eight hours long which was longer than our flight from London. We stopped just outside Delhi for Narial Pani (an unripe coconut with the top hacked off and a straw stuck into the milk) which was not entirely to my delectation, though Nipun was more than happy with it. Further on we stopped at Haveli for dhal and rotti with chilis on cocktail sticks, happy days!
I guess the most memorable thing about the journey was the driving. I have jotted down my rough understanding of the rules of the road, no doubt imperfect but nonetheless:
1) On a dual carriageway the fast lane is the lane that you are in. Conversely, if you are chatting on your phone, changing CD’s, lost or just in the mood for driving slowly, the slow lane is again the lane that you are in. Either will do, no worries. Overtake in any lane you like and do not worry about doing 30 km/h in the outside lane. It’s all cool eksei.
2) In a similar way you should not be put off by having to drive on the right side of the road. It is ok to drive brazenly into oncoming traffic, especially if you have a motorcycle and wearing no helmet.
3) Talking on your mobile whilst driving down the road is no problem whatsoever. In fact it shows your popularity and you should not attempt to be discreet about this. This applies whether you are a truck driver, in a car or driving up the wrong side of the road on your motorbike with no helmet on.
4) When driving at night lights at the front of your car or truck are desirable but not essential. Tail lights are less essential and even pretentious at times. This is especially true of heavy vehicles and tractors hauling heavy trailers.
5) At a round about do not concede right of way to anyone. Give an inch and they will take a mile. Expect to fight your way on and fight your way off again. Courtesy is a sign of weakness and will be met with contempt.
6) Above all hoot incessantly. Your car horn is every bit as essential as your brakes and infinitely more important than indicators. It is not employed to hoot at those nasty people cutting you off or stalling at the traffic lights, but rather to let everyone else know exactly where you are on the road. This works quite well but can seem like mayhem!
Overall the system works well and far better than the M25 in London on any given Friday afternoon or whenever you are late for a meeting.
The other thing that struck me was that for us to get a taxi for the fourteen hour round trip it worked out to about £50.00, or to out that in perspective the same that it would cost for us to get a taxi home from Central London which would take about 490 minutes.
We are now back at Nipun’s folks palace, sorry I mean place. It is beautiful. Ram (Nipun’s dad) has advised me that there are a couple of rules regarding our diet and the drinking water, most importantly to finish each day off with a whisky in order to kill off any harmful bacteria that is lurking in your system. I am off to do that now. Goodnight.

A couple of days have gone by now and we have been settling rather comfortably in Ludhiana-ian life. We have spent the last couple of days meeting family and generally eating for too much. The aloo tikki is a hot favourite at the moment, coupled with some delicious home cooking by Nipun’s mum. Today was my Mum’s 70th so we went to find a man with a STD, and no that does mean Sexually Transmitted Disease but rather Standard Trunk Dialling. There is a man with a STD on nearly every street corner (you could be excused for misunderstanding that if you had not been forewarned) and we got through to her first time with no problems. It was easier than phoning from the UK funnily enough. In other news Morgan Tsvangerai’s wife has just died in Zimbabwe which is cause for sadness. Time will tell what the causes were.
Tomorrow we are driving to Julandhar to meet more family and then continue on to Ameristar where we spend the night. More to follow then.

The drive to Julandhar was good. We got a taxi to assist to drive and being a man about town he knew all the short cuts. This entailed going through a few rural villages which was really interesting. It appears that everything in India is recycled, even the cow dung which is moulded into briquettes which are then used to fuel fires. I cannot attest to the smell but assume that as they are completely dried out they are odourless. One would hope in any case. The villages are a refreshing change from the cities which tend to be very dusty and polluted in my admittedly limited experience. The villages we passed through on the other hand were quite green with a lot of cultivation taking place.
Julandher itself typified the type of city mentioned above. There appeared to be a couple of modern buildings but by and large it was dusty and hot and not entirely clean. We were met by Nipun’s Gran, cousins and uncles from her Dad’s side who were most welcoming. Nipun’s Hindi is coming along in leaps and bounds as she spends more time here and she provided some much needed translation for me. Her Gran is amazing, in her nineties and very alert and active. Like my Gran so we have longevity on that side of the family!
I am typing against the clock at this stage as we are off into town shortly to use an internet cafĂ© where we can upload all of this. Hopefully. As such a brief summary of our movements up until now. From Julandhar we travelled towards the border with Pakistan, very close to Lahore. The nearest town is Attari for anyone following our movements on the map. We went to the Wagha border post to watch the nightly spectacle whereby the Indian solders antagonise the Pakistani army by speed marching up to the border point and then stomping back. The Pakistani army then do the same, to much cheering an jeering from the massive crowds on either side. The armies display massive curled moustaches and there is an element of ridicule from each side which is pretty amusing. The Rough Guide describes it as “Pythonesque” and this is a pretty good description. Unfortunately we arrived a little late and only caught the tail end of the spectacle (just in time to see the lowering of the Indian flag for the day) , but the atmosphere was one of great conviviality and amusement. Nipun and I were hauled up on to stands by some very friendly Indian guys (“Come up here, we love the British!”) who proceeded to talk in Hindi whilst looking at yours truly and busting a gut laughing. Oh to understand the local lingo, though maybe it is better to be in the dark sometimes.

Wagha was great fun and after a massive traffic jam to get out we were on the way again, this time off to Amritsar, home to the Golden temple. Having finally managed to find accommodation (£15 per night) after getting lost a couple of times we went off for dinner at the Bharawan Da Dhabba, a vegetarian curry house. Around about now my belly is crying out “Meat, I must have meat!!!” but I am sure this is not doing me any harm. It has to be said though that every type of bean and lentil known to man must have passed through me by now.
9th March.
Up at dawn and off to the Golden temple to take some photos. Give in shoes at gate and then don a very stylish, bright orange bandana in line with the temple’s rule about covering up your head. Not entirely sure that orange is my most flattering colour but go with it. Dawn breaks and offers up as much colour and life as a high street goth. Flat and dull dawn, damn! Nevertheless as the sun gets higher and begins to hit the temple walls the colour begins to burst forth. I take a few long exposures using stacked ND filters (20 seconds) and then switch to a polariser which works much better. Meet back up with Nipun and then we go to join the queue to get into the temple itself which entails a forty five minute wait. Nipun’s mum and dad join us before we walk up to the Jallianwalla massacre site, where General Dyer ordered his soldiers to open fire on 20 000 unarmed Indian protestors in 1919. I was feeing quite grim about the whole affair up until the point that someone chucked a water bomb at me from a roof top (Westerners are double points?!) which made me laugh. It is a very sad place though, what the hell was he thinking? Onr of the walls is still pocked with bullet holes and you can see the well where many people threw themselves into whilst trying to avoid the hail of bullets. Then back to Bharawan Da Dhabba for lunch, duly bought back up in the evening. Nice.
Today we are off into town to book tickets to Shimla and then Delhi. We will be going off to Agra, Jaipur and then down into the South of India in the weeks that follow. Until then, laters!

A very brief update

Ok, here is the score thus far... We got here safely if not a little late and then jumped in a taxi from Delhi to Ludhiana in the North. All in all the cab ride was eight hours, costing all of fifty quid. Or in perspective, the same as a cab from London to Greater London after a night on the lash. I have written close on three pages of drivel now, but alas do not have internet at the house so will need to do one massive post. So far we have been up to the Wagha border where the Indian and Pakistani armies goad each other each evening with pompous marches and good natured antagonism, then off to a town called Amirtsar, home to the Golden Temple. I was up at dawn to shoot it, however dawn was much like a sullen teenager and failed to offer much of it's potential!

More to follow and hopefully some images. Packed two flashguns Paulo, and a small Lumiquest softbox. Phil, the tea here all comes with msala and sugar boiled into it. Tasty stuff if you have a sweet tooth I imagine. And after a week of every type of lentil and bean known to man the thought of a chicken sandwich from the kebeb shop sounds almost heavenly. I could murder a Simpson's chicken. Sad. But true.

More to follow, in an internet cafe at the moment and will copy stuff across from the USB key in a second if I can get access to a machine with a USB2 port.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Don't Panic

Currently I am kind of feeling like I am wearing the Emperor's clothing, and I am sure that others must have considered this metaphor... It is relevant though, standing astride the wall, peering at my virtual audience, and hoping that all they like what they (don't panic, it is a metaphor remember) read. Don't get me wrong, my literary aspirations fled very early on and I wouldn't want you to anticipate any Eliotian imagery or haunting prose. If that is what you are looking for then wrong blog fella, move along. Quickly.

Still, it is a bit daunting though. For the uninitiated this blog is aimed at those who are nearest and dearest to us as we travel through Asia. It is also aimed at the friends we make along the way and anyone else who cares to follow. So leave your comments, and let us know where you are and what you are up to. Be nice though, my mum will be reading this (Hi Mum, and happy Birthday for Saturday!) too.

But anyway, first posting and all so where were we? We fly out tomorrow evening at ten o'clock, so in terms of a travelogue we have not moved that far. Unless of course you consider Hertfordshire to be of any great distance from Middlesex. We are spending our last night with family there having now rented out our (little) home. Last night was spent doing the final skin shredding trips to the loft and tidying up like there was no tomorrow. And then as tomorrow dawned we were up again and packing the car, recycling and going to charity shops. Again. The lovely ladies at Fara and Age Concern are as happy as Larry that we have gone and they will no longer receive five bin bags of crap (sorry Mum, the word rubbish just doesn't have the same ring) from us each day.

Anyway, I am tired and this posting will be brief to avoid (a) boredom at the Emperor's nakedness (Emperor? Hmmm. got the belly I guess) and (b) pointless drivel from your humble narrator.

I hope that in some ways this blog may be able to help anyone else who is considering this trip though, so in no particular order a few tips from someone who has not done it yet (but is almost there - queue the accident on the way to the airport) but at time of writing been through some of the initial pain.

1) Don't fight with your wife. She'll win. Every time. Besides which this an opportunity that will only come along very seldomly. Seriously though, it can be stressful up front. And she will win. Every time.

2) Renting out a house can be a real pain in the proverbial behind. You'll get emails like this off of some of sites you use, no names mentioned but it is free to advertise so I think you'll see where I am going.

"hi saw your advert for i bed house i have just returned to uk, im staying with my sister at the moment i am unemployed at this time trying to get a job findin it hard never been out of work so i have signed on would you consider me as i am very intrested get back to me thx"

Firstly sorry to hear of your woes and hope I never find myself in a similar situation. Secondly though, I don't mean to be rude, but seriously dude we are renting out our home! No offence taken and none meant, but how do you think that is going to happen?

3) Market your house through a few agents and not just one. We had one and the enquiries that we got in were not that much better than the enquiry above. We got another two involved and the house was gone within a couple of days.

4) Get out and meet loads of people who have done similar trips or who are from the same parts of the world that you are visiting. It is enriching in itself and so much more fun and personable than a travel book.

5) On the subject of travel books though the Rough Guide First Time around the World and First Time Around Asia were both really helpful.

6) Travel Insurance will not cover your camera gear if you are taking anything of any value. And many companies that 'specialise' in camera insurance limit you to a three months abroad policy. Whilst I am not hear to advertise I found a site called Photoguard who will insure you for 364 days abroad. As many of my friends are photographers I thought I'd add this one in.

Ok, going brain dead from sleep deprivation so goodnight. Our next posting will be from India - Yeee ha!