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

Udaipur



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

Jaipur



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.



Vegetarianism

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.



Trains

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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