Monday, 13 November 2017

The Indian Verdict

I described India a couple of weeks ago as challenging. And suggested that such a description is polite. I don’t think many people who have been to India would consider such a description to be controversial. India is challenging, on so many levels. Your senses will be assaulted. Your ears through the constant, deafening noise. Your nose and lungs through the often overwhelming pollution. Your eyes through the blight of poverty. Your mouth through the spices that explode with every mouthful of food.

Your sensibilities will be battered too. Hygiene, or lack thereof, will almost certainly cause you a few worrisome moments. Your good nature will also be tested by the constant nonsense of touts looking to drum up trade. Every tuk tuk driver knows an ‘independent’ hotel or shop that would be worth your time visiting. It can become quite tiresome. Then there are the conversations with taxi drivers, who insist upon explaining the virtues of an arranged marriage with great enthusiasm.

Love marriages are divorce marriages, you see. Arranged marriages are life marriages. There is a temptation to suggest that arranged marriages are for life only for as long as the threat of a facefull of acid is present. But I think it’s unlikely that any argument I made against loveless marriages and the disfigurement of women would have had much impact on their way of thinking. I left my thoughts unspoken.

But my time in India left me with more pressing questions. At the top of the list – where does India go from here? The recent history of the country is entwined with that of the UK, and there remain issues which are a source of friction – particularly those which posit that India suffers the poverty it does today due to the policies implemented by the British Raj a century ago. Yet the biggest challenges that India faces are with problems that are very much of its own making. Runaway population growth, inequality of every type imaginable and a level of pollution that kills and maims too many people to count.

There’s an old report that circulates the internet from time to time. It is a real study, although one could question the methodology. Regardless, there’s a valid point in there. The report claims that, based on the resources consumed per capita, our planet could support just 1.5 billion Americans. Or 15 billion Indians. I promise you, we do not all want to be aiming to live like the average Indian.

The report is probably not accurate anymore anyway. India is one of the BRIC nations and growing. Fast. And pretty uncontrollably. They are generating more wealth, although it’s not being distributed particularly well. And I can also promise you that, as uncomfortable a statement as it is, we do not want Indians to be living like the average American. So we appear to have a problem.

There’s nothing accidental about India’s misfortunes. The contamination of the rivers, land and skies is all quite deliberate. By corporations, by small business and by individuals. Delhi is, as I write this, blanketed in the worst smog for some time. The true nature of humanity is a very short-sighted and self-destructive one.

Until the country embraces a government that has the authority to implement policies to preserve the future with the resources to enforce them, there is no hope. It’s all rather depressing, isn’t it? Alas, a similar future awaits most countries beyond India’s borders. It seems to me that our continued presense on this planet has two possible futures. A green future. Or no future. At some point we are going to have an awkward conversation where we will be forced to choose between survival and liberty.

But despite all this gloom, what did I really think of India?! It’s a country of contradictions, and I have a few more. Would I have had a much better holiday if I’d gone elsewhere? Definitely. If I could go back in time, where would I have gone? I’d still pick India. Would I recommend India to others? Probably not. Would I go again? Absolutely. India is a land of contradictions. Some people say that it's a place you either love or hate. I disagree. It's a place you will both love and hate.
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Sunday, 12 November 2017


A whirlwind two week tour sounds like a great idea when you plan it. Heck, it is a great idea. You’ve got to factor a few easy days into the planning, though. One needs a little rest and recuperation on one’s holiday. And that especially applies to the final stretch. By the time we got to Udaipur, we were beginning to flag. Frankly, the same applies to writing about our holiday. My typing fingers, both of them, are beginning to flag too.

Fortunately, we had quite the deluxe hotel booked. The Chunda Palace, with the most excessive, vibrant decor I have ever come across. I liked it. Click here to check it out. I liked even more that we were upgraded to a suite with more floor space than our flat at home. We did seem to be the only people staying in the hotel, so why not? The views of the surrounding lakes and hills were perfect. Just what we needed.

As nice as the hotel was, we had to leave it from time to time. Udaipur must be explored, and was just a ten minute tuk tuk trip away. Excluding Sawai Madhopur (the nearest town to Ranthambore National Park) this was the smallest city we visited during our trip. The total roll call of its inhabitants measures in the low hundreds of thousands. As opposed to Jaipur and Agra, which measured in the low millions. Or Delhi, measuring in untold tens of millions.

Udaipur was, as a result, an easier and slightly more relaxed place to be. You might, if you were a true movie buff, recognise some of the sights. A chunk of Octopussy was filmed here. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel featured a scene from Udaipur too. Indeed, we went into a fabric shop which proudly displayed photos of Dame Judi Dench and co during a visit to their most esteemed establishment.

One of our tuk tuk drivers also claimed to have carried Dame Judi on one of her excursions. True or not, I cannot say. I have a sneaky feeling that there may be more tuk tuk owners making this claim than tuk tuk rides taken by Judi Dench.

Udaipur was fun. There’s decent shopping to be had for the tourists. Mrs P also had a nice haircut in a trendy parlour. They didn’t have electricity or any form of lighting, but they did have a nice balcony, a pair of scissors and two assistants to hold things. Mrs P was pleased with her cut. The City Palace is truly a grand place to wander around.You could spend an entire day there. And, of course, there are more temples than you could shake a stick at.

We returned to the palace for the nightly Sound and Light show. The best I can say about it is that there were lights and also some sound. The gist of the story was that many invaders have tried to conquer Udaipur, and some of them succeeded. But the ruling dynasty always survived and remained in place, and still does so to this very day. I was also slightly intrigued that the stories involving jauhar were recounted in a rather glorified manner.

Our last night in Udaipur soon arrived. We went to see some traditional dancers in a beautiful little haveli near the lake. What better way to finish than watching a band of dishy young ladies dance the night away in brightly coloured dresses? I’ll tell you what better way there is. Watching a 70 year old lady dance with eleven pots balanced on her head, that’s what. She was the star of the show.

And so our trip to Udaipur was over. And thus, bar the shouting, was our Indian adventure. We flew back to Delhi and spent one last night in an airport hotel, before returning to the UK. All things must come to an end. Whether they are good things, bad things or a mix of the two. Until next time, India, farewell….
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Thursday, 9 November 2017


By the time we arrived in Jaipur, we’d learned how to do India. Make sure you’ve got a nice hotel as a sanctuary from the rougher edges of Indian life. And arrange the easiest, most comfortable transport to get to where you want to go. Attempt to block out everything in between. Alas, our ‘hotel’ in Jaipur was the worst of our trip. But it was bearable, and there was a nice roof top restaurant just round the corner that we made good use of for breakfast and dinner. 

Our transportation arrangements were more successful. We booked a taxi for a two day tour of the city and its surroundings. The city has a fascinating history and some fabulous architecture, the Royal Albert Museum and the Hawa Mahal being the stand out attractions. But, like Delhi and elsewhere on our travels, it is rather scarred by neglect, pollution and litter/debris.

We watched the two Exotic Marigold Hotel movies when we returned. There were lots of scenes with places we instantly recognised, but with something missing. Someone had clearly been round with a street sweeper and gotten everything smartened up before the clapperboard came down. I can picture the director shouting, “Lights, camera, refuse collection…action!” Now, if they could put in the right sort of effort for Nighy and Dench, then they could have done a little something for us.

India has a rich scientific history. I’m not sure why this is surprising to so many people, given that India (along with China) led the world economically for so many centuries until the rise of Europe and its insatiable quest for global dominance. Jaipur posseses one of the finest architectural monuments to science in the grand Jantar Mantar observatory. Nowadays, it’s a UNESCO world heritage site rather than a leading astronomical centre. But it still ‘works’, and features the world’s largest stone sundial.

If you can’t get to India, by the by, but could get yourself along to the Science Museum in London, then there’s a very good exhibition – Illumination India. We happened across it by pure chance a week after we returned from India. It has two sections – 5000 years of science and Innovation and Photography 1857-2017. It’s well worth your time.

Our tour really blossomed once we’d left the smoggy confines of the city. First stop, the famous Monkey Temple. Properly known as the Galta Ji temple, it is a series of abandoned temples leading down from a natural spring, which feeds into several tanks. Pilgrims still bathe in them, which is a mighty daring activity. Forget the colour of the water – it’s the dead pidgeons, face down and slowly rotting, that would put me off a little bit. Instead, I prayed to the tribe of monkeys which call Galta Ji their home. Or at least, I got down on my hands and knees to get a better shot of the them.

We headed to Jaipur’s star attraction, the Amber Fort. Our guide took us the scenic route, stopping off at some absolutely glorious temples and gardens along the way. The sort of stuff where you want to sit for an age and just gaze at your surroundings, marvelling at how it must have looked during its heyday. And marvelling at how glorious it is today, despite the passage of several centuries and the wear and tear that is the inevitable side effect of time.

The Amber Fort was a fitting finale to a wonderful day. I say finale, which suggests that it’s almost no more than a bolt-on to the tour. It’s an enormous complex that took up half of our day. And it’s been decently preserved. You don’t have to stretch your imagination to envisage the place at its peak.

We rejected the option to ride an elephant up the long road to the fort. Mrs P and I are not fans of wildlife being removed from their natural habitat to serve lazy humans. They are all too often poorly treated. Alas, there are plenty of tourists who are not so thoughtful, and the demand is sufficient to keep the trade going.

Our time in India’s famous Pink City was suddenly at an end. Although I must say, Indians must see colours differently to the rest of us. The buildings were not pink, but a very light, faded terracotta. If I were being kind, I could perhaps call it terracotta with a pinkish tinge. But, frankly, that’s just being kind, not accurate. But onwards we went to the last stop of our Indian tour, the Venice of India. The City of Lakes. Otherwise known as Udaipur.
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Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Top Tips For India

Travelling through India is an experience. You learn along the way, no matter how much research and preparation you do beforehand. Although a few up to date tips from recent travellers certainly helps. Having done my two weeks, I have a few. Let’s start at the beginning of the trip, shall we?

Google Maps
Did you know you can download map areas onto your mobile phone for offline use? Instructions for iOS and Android – click here. It comes in mightily useful. Besides being an invaluable aid when you get lost, you can also work out distances between places. So, given that taxis and tuk tuks have set rates per kilometre, you can work out how much you should be paying before you start the process of haggling. Because no, the meters never seem to work when a foreigner hops aboard…

The e-Visa Queue
When you land in Delhi, you’ll head off to Immigration in order to enter the country. The first section is for Indian nationals. The second section is for Foreign visa holders. You will likely queue here. But if you are one of the lucky ones who can now apply for an e-visa, your wait will be in vain. And you’ll be sent further along to the e-visa section. Which had by far the longest queues. Just because you’ve already given half your life story over the internet when applying for the visa, don’t think for a moment that it’ll be a quick process. Everyone is photographed, fingerprinted and examined with great care.

Indian SIM card

My biggest mistake in India was not buying an Indian SIM card. It’s pretty simple and as cheap as chips in curry sauce. Once you’ve cleared immigration and customs, you’ll find a mobile phone stand. Just have a passport sized photo or two at the ready, and a couple of photocopies of your passport. You’ll part with, I think, about 300 rupees (about £4) and will have a shiny new SIM card to pop in your phone.
Why would you want to do this? Two reasons. 

Firstly, when you’re out and about and want to log on to the free wifi offered in coffee shops and tourist sites, you’ll need to be able to receive their OTP code by text message. Secondly, you will be able to download and activate the OLA taxi app. I can’t even begin to tell you how much time, aggravation and cost you’ll save yourself. We did use Uber via Google Maps (choose to pay by cash for the ride) which was useful, but we could only do that from our hotels where we had a wifi connection.

Hand sanitiser

I confess – I’m not a clean freak. Far from it. I’m a great believer in building up one’s immunity by letting a few germs in. I have even been known to fail to wash my hands on the way out of a bathroom, providing it was just a number one. But there’s only so much bacteria that you’d want to be inviting in at any given moment. And India has germs and diseases on every touchable surface that are just itching for the chance to kill you in a manner than would make John Hurt’s exit from the Alien movie seem painless and peaceful.

Bank notes around the world are famous for being dirty, but in India they are a biologists dream. Who needs a petri dish when you have a few rupees to hand? And no need to run any tests. Most of them have enough life on them to be able to strike up a coherent conversation to discuss exactly what sort of plague it is. Mrs P bought me a little bottle of strawberry hand sanitiser. I used it after I touched anything. I am still alive as a result, and I also smell pleasantly fruity to boot.


Another top tip on how not to die in India is to become a vegetarian. If you think along similar lines to myself, this may at first sound like a recipe for disaster. Vegetarianism is, after all, a disease in the same bracket as cholera and dysentry. But it turns out that you can dine well in India without consuming meat products. What really swung it for me was walking past a couple of stalls that pass themselves off as butchers. I couldn’t possibly tell you from what animals the bits of hanging carcasses had originally belonged to. I just called it Jesus Meat. Stuff that has been killed, but has subsequently come back to life, and will walk off down the street if not securely tied down.

We ate well in India. We enjoyed home made meals in our Delhi homestay, dined at hotel restaurants and sometimes ventured out to popular restaurants nearby. We gave street food the elbow. Some will say that we missed out on the real Indian culinary experience. That may be so, but we also avoided a holiday wrecking bout of food poisoning. Suffering a tummy upset is one thing. A life and death battle with e-coli is another.


One could write an encyclopedia on the Indian Railway system. It is perhaps India’s true man made wonder of the world, ranking above even the Taj Mahal. But I will make just three points on this subject. Firstly, I’ve updated my rambling post about how to buy a train ticket online, since the procedure changed (much for the better) just a couple of weeks after I wrote it. Secondly, First Class and Coach Class are perfectly comfortable ways to travel. We didn’t try out the sleepers.

Thirdly, trains do not always tend to run on time. Indeed, some lines are so regularly late, that it could be said that they do run on time, just not in accordance with the published timetable. Help is at hand. Before you leave your hotel, check on how your chosen train is getting along using this website. You may well have enough time to be able to have another Kingfisher beer by the pool. Possibly even a whole crate of Kingfishers. You might even just decide to catch a taxi, which we did on two occasions. Reckon on spending roughly £10 per hour for your journey if you go down that route.
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Thursday, 2 November 2017

Hunting Tigers

I made three mistakes in Ranthambore. The first one was in booking just two nights there. I could have happily stayed there for the rest of the holiday, going on the morning and evening safaris and resting by the pool the rest of the time. I think I may even have come to that stage of my life where I prefer a rural setting to an urban setting when exploring the world. Maybe. But anyway. The other mistakes? I’ll come to those later.

Our first safari was in a jeep. Just Mrs P and I in the two seats at the back with three others in front of us and the driver and guide at the very front. The jeep set off into a zone that looked favourable as far as finding our prey was concerned – there had been recent sightings here. We spent three hours following recently laid paw prints, roaming over dirt tracks, through woods and up to the top of a hilltop. We saw plenty of wildlife. But not the owner of those big pawprints. I was not disappointed. It was a fabulous morning, tiger or no tiger.

In the evening we set out again, this time in a Canter. Which is an open top truck able to cram about twenty tiger hunters inside. It’s a slightly rougher ride, but nothing unbearable. This time we drove around a different part of the park, in search of our Shere Khan. The scenery was perhaps even grander than it had been in the morning. But three hours passed, and no luck. Tigers can be awkward customers sometimes.

We headed for the park’s exit, having thoroughly enjoyed the ride. But we didn’t make it there. Not yet, anyway. We passed a jeep who slowed down and gestured to our driver. We heard a shout. “Hang on tight everybody!”. We did, and just as well. The pedal hit the metal, we all disappeared in a huge cloud of dust as the truck was treated to a drive that a rally driver might consider daring in a 4x4 Subaru. The driver kept shouting out to hold on tight, but this seemed pointless. Anyone who hadn’t already taken his advice the first time round would have been ejected from the vehicle within seconds of lift off.

For a tortuous five minutes we clung on to anything solid in the truck for dear life. Finally, we slowed down. The cloud of dust started to dissipate. And then all of a sudden, there she was. Sunning herself by the lake, without a care in the world. Oblivious to the truck full of gawping tourists, she rolled over on to her back and had a stretch. Licked her chops. Gazed at the sun as it began to set across the lake and behind the hills.

This is where I made my second mistake. I raised my Fuji, with the big zoom lens attached. I had brought it with me especially for this moment. I focussed on the magnificent beast. My finger applied pressure to the shutter button. And the camera battery died. Schoolboy error. A fully charged battery would normally last at least two days, and I’d left it plugged in last night. But I’d obviously been very snap happy throughout the day and drained it. My face must have looked a picture of misery. Not that anyone noticed. Everyone else was far too busy taking pictures of the tiger’s face.

I suddenly had a bright idea. And made my third and final mistake. I turned to the lady on my left and asked her if it would be at all possible for me to borrow her camera, just for a moment. I explained the situation. And without hesitation, she whipped her memory card out of her camera and handed it over. I popped my card in, found a good spot in the truck to shoot from, and hey presto. You can see the result above. 

How was this a mistake? Why did I ask the lady to my left to borrow her mid range compact bridge camera, when on my right was a very affable gentleman, whom  I had been chatting to the whole way there, with a top of the range DSLR with a mighty zoom lens stuck on the front of it. Perhaps then my photo would have been correctly focussed on the tiger, rather than the grass in front of the tiger.
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Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Hotel Brexit in Kipling Land

Leaving Agra turned into our Great Indian Trauma. The fifteen minute taxi ride from our hotel to the airport took an hour. A political conference was taking place, and a small army of party devotees had descended on the city bringing the roads to gridlock. Not to worry, we’d left in ample time to allow for even a major delay. Athough that proved unnecessary, as upon arriving at Agra train station, we discovered that our train was running three hours late. Half an hour later, it was running fours hours later. A further thirty minutes elapsed, and our train was running five hours late.

It seemed to me, that the longer we waited, the further away the train became. We needed a Plan B if ever we were to get to Ranthambore National Park that day. On the platform was a desk manned by two uniformed people in charge of policing the station, and a third more casually dressed fellow chatting to them. He suggested we take a taxi. What’s more, he knew just the person. There was something just a little bit shifty about him though. We asked the uniformed later if it would really be a good idea taking a ride with his friend. She had already been talking to him a little sternly.

She was non-committal, rotating her head in that very Indian way that leaves you none the wiser as to whether she means yes or no. To cut a long story a little shorter – time passed, and we pressed her further. She suggested we were better off waiting for the train. That wasn’t a great option, but we weren’t keen on this particular taxi. Back to the hotel we went, where a fully legit taxi was found for us. It cost about £55 for the rather tiring six hour journey to Ranthambore, but we arrived in time for dinner and an early night.

Our hotel could be described as ‘budget luxury’. The Ranthambore Regency generally caters towards coach-loads of pensioners. It was a very nice hotel, but the colour scheme really did it for me. Dark green marble flooring with everyting else painted various shades of greens and browns reminiscent of a 1970s British home. Yes, even the obligatory avocado green. The only thing missing were ornamental ducks pinned to the wall, in groups of three. But it was spacious, in excellent condition, well staffed and with great facilities. It was all inclusive, so breakfast, lunch and dinner were sorted. It was full of greenery with  lots of seating around the lawn and a nice pool for a morning dip. And an afternoon dip. And an evening dip.

A little bit of info about safaris at Ranthambore. Until recently, you had to arrange your safaris in advance at an exorbitant cost through a safari agency or your hotel, unless you had an Indian credit card, because that was all the online booking system accepted. You’d also end up assigned to a zone in the park chosen at random on the day. That system changed for the better a few weeks ago, just in time for me to book our two safaris, selecting our zones myself, using a British credit card. On arrival at our hotel, we gave our safari print outs to the guys at reception and they arranged the rest. The next morning at 6.30 sharp, our jeep pulled up front to collect us.

We loved our safaris. Really, really loved them. Away from any significant urban settlement, the skies shone brilliant blue and the clean, warm air refreshed our lungs. The early morning haze actually was a haze, not last night’s car fumes still smothering the landscape. The scenery leapt out in front of us like Kipling’s Jungle Book come to life. Peaceful wooded areas, grassy plains, towering hills, wide valleys, glistening lakes and, most wonderful of all, an abundance of wildlife.

Herds of deer roam and graze, casting wary eyes about for danger. We saw owls perched discreetly on branches. A mongoose rummaged in the brush just feet from our jeep. Extravagantly coloured kingfishers flew from branch to branch by the lake. A crocodile sunbathed at the edge of the water. A multitude of other birds waddled, hopped and swooped for our entertainment.

But as lovely as these creatures are, they aren’t the main drawn. They are not the creatures that draw animal lovers from all over the world. Flocks of migratory humans descend on Ranthambore for a very particular type of beast. But that, as they say, is another story for another time…
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Monday, 30 October 2017

Less Agro, More Agra

We departed Delhi early in the morning, catching an Ola taxi to the train station. Or as close to the train station as our driver could get. The crush of people, tuk tuks, roaming animals and other vehicles became more dense the closer we got, and we gradually ground to a complete halt. The final couple of hundred metres were on foot, pushing squeezing and banging past the many obstructions on our way to the station entrance. Once there, we queued up to go through security.

Security is a funny thing in India. I have never been herded through so many metal detectors in my life. Not just at airports, but at train stations, metro stations, theme parks, hotels and most tourist sights of any notable size. At transport hubs and some of the hotels, the security personnel meant it. Bags were x-rayed, people were shuffled through detectors and a secondary line of guards used their magic wands to probe and poke customers just to make sure. But at most places, security just for show. A pretense. Crowds were pushed through metal detectors, each person making the machine bing loudly. And not once would the guy on duty open his eyes and look up.

Once in the train station, life was more bearable. The stairways and platforms were crowded, but without the life-threatening crush we experienced outside. It was easy to find our train. Although even without the signage, we’d have successfully guessed where we should be – there’s a veritable gaggle of western tourists waiting to board the Gatimaan Express to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. Follow any pair of confidently strutting white legs and you’d be fine.

The train is something of a flagship for Indian Railways, offering a speedy sub 2 hour service to Agra with, in one or two carriages at least, hot food served at table. It was a comfortable ride, the meal was reasonable, if a little bit ‘airline style’, fare. The scenery was drab. Mile after mile of seemingly half finished, single-storey concrete and tin blocks as we went through Delhi’s suburbs. A small break in the urban monotony when a few fields broke into view. Then back to the shanty towns following the line into Agra’s suburbs. But I watched the people living their lives along the route with fascination. Some walking along the tracks. Some sitting by the edge of the line. Others getting on with their day in their yards. All of them baking in the 30 degree plus morning sun.

I listed most of the sights in Delhi that we visited, with one glaring ommision. The Red Fort. My reasoning is simple enough. There are so many forts in India that you’ll quickly suffer ‘fort-fatigue’, unless you have some very deep seated interest in them. It’s best to pick a few of the best and utilise your limited time elsewhere when you can. Agra Fort is similar in many ways to Delhi’s Red Fort. But it is so much easier to get to,  much better maintained,  much more interesting to wander round. And it has fabulous views of the Taj Mahal across the river. Visit Agra’s fort. Give Delhi’s fort the elbow.

I’d decided one night would be enough for Agra. I got it bang on. Agra Fort in the evening, Taj Mahal the next morning, then move on. We also stayed at one of the more luxurious hotels that I’d booked on this trip, safely walled in from the monstrous city outside. We swam in the pristine pool, sunbathed next to the green, manicured lawns and feasted on a delicious, albeit pricey, all-you-can eat buffet.

We slept like a king and queen, in a bed that would have satisfied an emperor and a chunk of his harem. This was all fitting preparation for the next morning, when we woke and rose well before we’d have liked to. But we had a mission. The biggest ‘must see’ on any Indian visitors list. That most famous of monuments to the art of love, designed by a king for his most beloved queen, the Taj Mahal.

What can I say about the Taj Mahal? Or at least, what can I say that hasn’t been said countless times before? How do I summarise my thoughts as I approached one of the official New Wonders of the World? Let me try.

‘It’s quite busy here for six in the morning isn’t it?’ ‘Yes. honey. I think that must be the queue.’ ‘Watch you step there honey.’ ‘I really hope this is the right queue.’ ‘Jesus. In the world of cow pats, that is definitely their Hiroshima.’ ‘There she is! Through that arch!’ ‘My, it is quite busy.’ ‘No honey, I don’t think that’s an early morning mist.’ ‘Look, there’s Diana’s seat! And quite a lot of people pretending to be Diana.’ ‘Yes, honey. I’m pretty sure it’s pollution.’ ‘Still, it’s damned impressive isn’t it.’ ‘Let’s take a selfie here. Please try and not look like you’re still jet lagged and about to nod off at any moment.’ ‘Goddamit, I look like death.’

But in truth, it’s the many long, silent moments that are spent gazing at the Taj Mahal that tell the real story. Yes, it is busy. But it’s not so overrun with tourists to spoil the occasion. And enough of us were sharing those long silent moments of wonder to ensure a reasonably tranquil environment was maintained. It doesn’t matter how many pictures you’ve seen or how many videos you’ve watched. Seeing the Taj Mahal up close and personal, in the flesh, marble to retina – that’s why you come here. It’s these moments that make the suffering of travel all worthwhile.
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Saturday, 28 October 2017

Destiny Delhi

Imagine London 50 years from now, baking in a sweltering, climate-change-induced 40 degrees centigrade. With a population exceeding 40 million, social order has largely broken down. The people have been granted their wish and largely govern themselves. It hasn’t worked out terribly well and chaos reigns across this once great metropolis. Icons of it’s illustrious past – Westminster, St Pauls Cathedral, Tower Bridge – still stand. Faded, coated in soot, enveloped in an all consuming cloud of red, earthern dust churned up by hundreds of thousands of insanely decorated and customised vehicles of every type you could think of. It’s a scene reminiscent of a Mad Max movie. There’s a maelstrom of human activity around them, but few people take the time to look at these forlorn reminders of an age gone by. Time is too short and life too busy.

Alternatively, let your imagination rest and instead travel to Delhi today. A veritable feast of chaos, served with a side dish of calamity and liberally sprinkled with a heady and sometimes overpowering pinch of insanity. A thriving vista of apocolyptic urban mayhem awaits you.  Charge past the glorious monuments of the British Raj in your chauffeured tuk tuk, come tourist guide. The India Gate, Parliament and train station survive as testament to one of many foreign powers that have made India its home over the centuries.

Each one leaving its mark, but they were ultimately only temporary interruptions as the peoples of this giant country continue on, assimilating what is beneficial, discarding what is not. But there is order in this chaos. There is some divine force making things work in spite of it all. Everything we found in Delhi seemed to be on the brink of disaster, but the city’s inhabitants seem to have mastered the art of survival. It’s a miracle anything functions. That virtually everything, somehow, functions – well that tops even the Taj Mahal in the list of the wonders of the world.

There must be something masochistic within most of us that makes being consumed by all that chaos a fascinating and enthralling experience. But we could take only so much before we needed some respite. And we found several tranquil oases to rest our senses and recuperate. The first was Lodi Gardens, a large and green park in the south of the city, containing several tombs and a mosque. Delhi, despite the clouds of dust, is surprisingly green. And the parks, with their walls separating them from the hurly burly of life outside, are greener still. We enjoyed a long walk, climbing up, into and over the monuments and ruins. We were kept company by chipmunks, which ran amok everywhere we went. Liberated from the constant cacophany of combustion engines, we could even hear some birdsong. And we especially enjoyed an ice cream from a vendor on our way out.

The Lotus Temple provided another refuge from the hubbub of life. Like many things in India, it’s best viewed from a distance. Not, on this occasion, because of the litter. But because the mystical magificence of the temple is diminished somewhat when viewed up close. It ceases to be a beautiful lotus flower and turns into a shapeless assembley of concrete blocks. The scale of the structure remains impressive though. The interior is no Catholic festival of brightly coloured icons and gold leafed emblems, but has a more Protestant sparcity about it. Still, we sat for a short service, under the watchful eye of the Prayer Police who are ready to pounce on any infidel daring to try and leave before it has ended. 

We were well behaved. And appreciative of being able to sit and rest a while. I also enjoyed reading some of the religion’s favourite phrases. Most of them made reasonable sense. Two of them caught my eye. The first concerned harmony between religion and science, asserting that a belief that runs contradictory to science is nothing more than susperstition. Quite so. The second suggested that if one cannot educate all your children, educate the daughters. For they will become mothers and will educate the next generation. A noble sentiment, bursting with logic. Yet I’m not sure this works somewhere as misogynistic as India’s. Indeed, poorly educated men who utterly dominate society seems to me to be one of the key problems that the country faces. Indians ask/wonder why China has left them so far behind. I’m inclined to believe that a significant part of the answer lies in how each country views its womenfolk.

Onwards we marched, for there are more temples and tombs to be seen. Next stop, the resting place of Humayun. Pointless fact – Joanna Lumley’s father proposed to her mother at this tomb. It is a grand looking place, so why not? Humayun’s Tomb, along with Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal, stood out amongst the many sights we visited. For they are well maintained, rather than falling into ever more desperate states of disrepair. It’s a popular destination, but still retains an acceptable level of quiet. The views from atop the structure are worth the sweaty climb in the soaring midday heat. 

One must return to face the throng of the outside world eventually though. So we tuk-tuk’d over to Connaught Place. You can picture these grand white buildings in their heyday during the British Raj. If they’d been kept in tip top shape, they wouldn’t look out of place in a swanky part of London. But they haven’t and their heyday was clearly a century or more ago. Still, this is where the most extreme examples of India’s economy clash. The lame, the limbless, the hopeless gather outside stores selling the world’s leading fashion brands to Delhi’s nouveau riche. The hungry, with their rags barely hiding their exposed rib cages, beg for morsels outside some of the trendiest restaurants. And a Nandos. A Nandos in the heart of Delhi – who knew?

Unsettled by the shocking economic disparity, we settled for a thirst quenching frappe at Starbucks and moved on. Gurudwara Bangla Sahib is the number one Sikh temple to stop off at. Inside is a square pool of water, apparently fed by a well and popular with adherents of the faith because of its healing properties. I imagine that the most popular requests are for new lungs and sinuses. We enjoyed the scene greatly, walking barefoot around the marbled temple and pool. But onwards. Time is short. Green Park was our next destination. Whilst not quite as upper class as it’s London equivalent, it hosts a stretch of high street which just about resembles what you might find in the west. We ate delicious dosas in a nice restaurant there and relaxed a while in semi-familiar surroundings.

If you are travelling with a lady, as I was, then you will almost certainly nned to do some clothes shopping. We were guided to Sarojini Nagar market by the owner of our homestay. It was excellent advice, and Mrs P spent two hours examining dresses, fabrics, scarves and pants in numerous outlets and haggling acceptable prices. I spent two hours whining that I wanted to go back to our homestay. But I accept that it was a very grand market by any standard you wished to compare against.

Our time in Delhi was done. Truth be told, we were done. We’ve since watched Sue Perkins series ‘Ganges’ on the BBC. She spent two weeks in Varanassi, which quite frankly looks like Delhi x ten. She got to the stage where she just couldn’t take it anymore. She loved the people she met and valued the experience, but she really needed to move on. We understand her sentiments entirely. We’d had over two days in Delhi, but it was time to find a new Indian adventure.
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Wednesday, 25 October 2017

An Indian Odyssey

We’ve been back from our trip to India for more than a week. Seven days to gather my thoughts and put them into appropriately organised bits and bytes on my blog for you to read. But where does one even begin? India is a truly extraordinary place. Specifically, Delhi. Agra, Ranthambore, Jaipur and Udaipur – the destinations we visited. Words cannot do them justice. But I will try. Perhaps a little brainstorming would help, to try and come up with the right adjectives?

India is vibrant. Bright. Polluted. Colourful. Noisy. Tranquil. Misogynistic. Welcoming. Cruel. Alive. Depressing. Extravagant. Neglected. Bustling. Delicious. Dirty. Diverse. Historic. Relentless. Dusty. Hospitable. Dangerous. Poverty-stricken. Capitalist. Decaying. Functional. Edgy. Stinky. Spicy. Choking. Cheerful. Exhausted. Indomitable. Brutal. Brilliant. Ugly.

These are all great words to describe India. And whilst it is true that you could apply them to virtually any country, India is perhaps the only country to truly define them. But adjectives alone cannot tell the story. I will have to add some verbs and nouns to the mix. The problem I am having in putting my experience down on to this bit of virtual paper, is that the story comes in two parts. They are conflicting parts that occured simultaneously. In fact, they are not really parts, but two independent stories. Two stories – that’s a better way to look at it.

Let me start with the bad story. To describe India as challenging is to be polite. For me, the single worst aspect of the country was the pollution. It’s choking. Motorbikes, tuk tuks, cars and brightly decorated Tata trucks race insanely across barely paved streets, chucking out fumes and stirring up colossal clouds of dust and dirt. Visitors flock to the Taj Mahal at sunrise and sunset, promised that there’s no better time of day to see the, now official, wonder of the world. Only to discover it is a scam. The sun is barely visible behind the thick gravy brown skies, and tourists must make do with smogrise and smogset.

For the first week, we were revolted by the locals and their constant gagging, rasping coughs and spat out bits of lung that are an inevitable by-product of such badly polluted skies. It’s one of the prevailant sounds of Delhi, along with the never ending beeping of horns and the whiny engines of the countless scooters and tuk tuks. By week two, you have sympathy. Not least because you are, by then, a co-sufferer.

Mrs P and I roamed Delhi and Agra as extensively as we dared for the limited time we had available. Mostly by tuk tuk, but we made use of the occasional taxi too. We were pleasantly surprised by the modern metro system too, which ran very efficiently. It’s a busy and crowded city, as you would expect. Hordes of people charging about in a most industrious manner. But whether one is prepared for the crowds or not, the sheer number of people can still be a little overwhelming. They overwhelm their own terrain too. Wherever we went, we encountered vast quantities of litter, earth and general debris where you might hope instead to see paved sidewalks.

It saddened me, for this is a gaping, self inflicted wound that scarred every city, every town, every neighbourhood, every street that we passed through. It’s unnecessary. What passes as a posh area in Delhi would be labelled a dump elsewhere in the world. I came to the rather unscientific conclusion that posh areas in India can be identified by the sight of rubbish gathered into huge piles for the cows, stray dogs and wild pigs to feast from. For in these towns, there does at least exist some type of refuse disposal system.

There were other things that saddened me. The women we saw who have had their faces melted by acid. The disfigured, handicapped and tortured souls left by society to try and eek a miserable survival in the gutters. The general lack of maintenance of everything, that proves that the old sayings of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ and ‘mend and make do’ can indeed be taken too far. And so much more. There are plenty of Dorothy moments, where you wish you could tap your little red slippers together three times and be whisked home. But you get the picture. Let’s not dwell too long on the negative.

There’s another story to be told about India though. About a country so rich in history that all the bank vaults on the planet would not be enough to contain this cultural treasure trove. There are protected national parks that burst into view like a Rudyard Kipling novel that’s come to life. Beyond their obvious flaws are a people who are kind and generous. There are beautiful, albeit worn, temples that must be explored. There is life in India which is intoxicating. You might feel trapped there at times, but it’s almost impossible not to go down with a bout of Stockholm Syndrome. India isn’t a holiday. It’s an experience. It is an experience that one perhaps grows fonder of once it is over.

So, for all the negativity of this post, India has a certain something that wins over the heart. At the risk of overdoing the analogies – if life is a box of chocolates, then India is a can of Coca Cola. You know the ingredients are just a bunch of poisons that’ll rot you from the inside. But that secret ‘Ingredient X’ just keeps you coming back for more of it’s delicious, intoxicating and indulgent magic. I’ve more to write about India. I’ll try and tell that second story I referred to earlier – the good part. Perhaps at some stage I’ll be able to put my finger on that elusive magic. But I suspect it’ll remain, like the Taj Mahal, one of the wonders of the world.
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Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Buying an Indian Rail Ticket

Update: The Indian Railway website now accepts foreign phone numbers and will text you the OTP code. So all the information about emailing passport pages is redundant.

Once upon a time, my chosen profession involved explaining a variety of linguistic intricacies, complexities and nonsensities to adult Mexicans seeking to further their careers through the knowledge of the English language. And I confess, sometimes I winged it a bit. As in, I made it up as I went along. Rather than mutilating the feathered extremities of our avian friends. English is tough to learn. If it wasn’t the contradictory grammar rulesbefuddling them, it was the neverending list of words that mean different things in different contexts with different nuances in positivity or negativity. Should they say mean, tight fisted or thrifty? But I’ve become befuddled myself lately. Indian Railways are to blame. I needed to book some tickets, and it’s quite the process. But which of us, Indian Railways and myself, is ageing and which is maturing is not always entirely clear.

There are many signs that I am indeed ageing, and not in the sense of a fine wine or rack of beef. The last time I ventured on a big trip somewhere exotic, more than a decade ago, I simply bought a ticket for a flight, a Lonely Planet guide book to briefly browse on the plane and then worked everything out as I went along. Planning? Pft. That’s for old people. I didn’t do planning. Not back then. I didn’t even have a room booked for my first night upon landing. Life should be spontaneous. Roll forward ten years to today. I’ve booked my flight. I’ve still got my Lonely Planet guide book. I’ve also spent hours reading about our destination on the internet. I’ve also downloaded a number of apps, the most useful of which is proving to be Google Trips.
I’ve booked our hotel rooms for our journey through Rajasthan, and I’m monitoring the currency exchange rates. I have created a Flipboard magazine to save relevant blog posts/articles to. I’m conversing with a taxi company in Jaipur to arrange an adventurous trip via Ajmer and Ranakpur. My new rucksack, an obvious but feeble attempt in itself to recapture my youth, has been delivered, unpacked, inspected and placed ready for a trial run. And, of course, I’ve booked tickets for the train journeys we will be making. Whether all this exacting preparation suggests I am ageing or maturing is open to debate.

When you think of the Indian railway system, you likely think of a rickety network of unreliable relics from a bygone era slowly shuffling millions of people around the country, half of them sat on the roof. There’s some truth to that stereotyped view. But it’s not the whole story. Let’s start at the beginning. I’ve already written about the easy new system to obtain a tourist visa to visit India. The train ticket buying process has also greatly improved. Is it a streamlined, quick and easy to use system? Not on your nelly. But with a little patience, it works. 

Buying tickets is  actually a fairly straightforward process. Once you have a verified and activated account with Indian Railways. And therein lies the rub. Whether you choose to buy your tickets on Indian Railways, ClearTrip or MakeMyTrip, you first have to have an account with Indian Railways. A process that starts simply enough. Choose a username and password. Enter your name, date of birth, address etc. Type in the security code. Press the submit button. Voila! Then you need only verify your account by having a code sent to your phone. To your Indian mobile phone.

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You don’t have an Indian mobile phone? Well, me neither. In this case, one must email Indian Railways at the address provided, asking them to activate your account. You must provide your username and attach a scanned copy of your passport page. This must be the required size and must be attached to and not embedded in the email. I fell foul of this in my first attempt to activate my account. If you use Apple’s Mail app on your iMac, you will too. My second attempt, now using Gmail, didn’t succeed because this time I failed to add my username. My third effort was ignored entirely, presumably because I’d now misspelled my username. Two weeks, half a dozen emails and several Twitter messages later and activation seemed a distant prospect. I gave up and started again. New account, double checked everything, sent one Twitter message and my account was activated within 48 hours. India hasn’t yet progressed to the point where it can capably cater for idiots. Do it right first time, and you’ll probably breeze through the process.

It was time to book some train journeys. First up, a ride in the all new-ish Gatimaan Express from Delhi to Agra. It’s India’s fastest train, hitting 99mph as it whisks passengers to and from the Taj Mahal. It’s also the costliest train trip that we’ll take at about £38 for the pair of us. That’s because I treated us to seats in the Executive Chair carriage, with at seat dining of some sort. There’s no Roof Class on this service. The booking process is quite straightfoward, although the website does have the irritating habit of automatically logging you off if you are inactive for even the briefest period of time.

But at least Indian Railways do now accept international debit and credit cards. Until recently, this was not the case, forcing users to register first on Indian Railways and then switch to Cleartrip and MakeMyTrip to actually book tickets. This advance has, for all intent and purpose, rendered the latter two options redundant. Although having said that, it’s not immediately obvious how to pay with an international card. There’s a plethora of payment options. You just have to click through till you find the one that states ‘International Cards’ or something very similar.

Having booked our first two trains, I attempted to book the third. Which was rejected. Specifically ‘Risk Rejected’. A quick call to my card issuer confirmed that the problem was not with them. I abandoned ticket number three till another day. Another day came the next day. I received a call to my mobile from an Indian lady. My first assumption was that this was one of those scam calls, hoping that I would hand over control of my computer for a ‘virus’ check. But no, the heavily accented Indian lady asked instead if I had purchased a train ticket recently. Why yes, I had. She thanked me and ended the call.

So I thought I’d now try again to book that elusive third ticket. The payment went through easily enough – heavily accented Indian lady had clearly done her job! Well done her. As in, congratulations. Not cooked right through. I still actually have one more train ticket to book. Whilst reservations are open months in advance for trains from Delhi to Agra, Agra to Sawai Madhopur and Sawai to Jaipur, tickets for the Jaipur to Udaipur Express open one month before departure. I have the date recorded on my calendar app with an auto alert set to remind me at the appointed time.

This obviously is not a definitive article on using India Railways. For that, see Seat 61, the online bible for almost all international rail travel. I can but add a supplementary account of my own experience to the public record. I can confirm that the Indian system is moving, albeit a little slowly, into the 21st century. It has so far worked for me. Although I have only done the booking part – the actual travel experience is yet to come. Hopefully the Indian experience will leave me older and wiser. And not old and withered.
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