Thursday, December 28, 2006
India has been a shock to the system: no matter how much you brace yourself, the touts are still pretty intense for the first few days. We had the great fortune of being picked up by good ol' Taj at the airport and so were spared the trauma of dealing with the taxis there. Our first night in Pahar Ganj was okay - if a bit noisy - but waking up to see a dozen cows wandering around the market out the front of our hotel (some 300m from New Delhi railway station!) was a spin-out. Monkeys clambering on the powerlines, the occasional camel pulling a cart ... it's like an Indiana Jones movie.
We then spent a couple of nights in Hotel Ajanta - as dodgy a hotel as I've seen. Since the staff are constantly trying to sell you on tours at the expense of providing accommodation, it was more like a high-pressure travel agency with a few beds. So we booked a tour through another agency and arranged to meet our agent at the restaurant to pickup the tickets - the bitch at Ajanta lied to his face and said we'd checked out at 6am! Fortunately, he knew about this practice and spotted us having breakfast. Shame, Ajanta, shame. After that experience, we decided it was worth paying another couple of dollars for a room at Karol Barg.
We got the feel for Delhi, saw the monuments, caught up with Taj, visited his office, met his colleagues and had a few drinks and kebabs. While I haven't physically clapped eyes on Taj in five years, it was amazing how easily we just sort of slipped back into things. On the Friday we went to his place for dinner with his family and his American colleague Shariff. I'd met Taj's Mum and Dad and brother Giri in Australia about seven years ago but it was great to see them in their element. Taj had a new guitar and kindly let us all have a strum - including his Mum who could actually play. (We got a few verses and a chorus of "Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley" for our benefit.)
The next day Marie, Shariff and I did an all-day Agra trip to visit the Agra Fort, Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri. The latter is an large fort and complex that was built out in the desert and later abandoned due to lack of water. Whoops! (Even 16th century Moguls were cursed with management consultants.) The "other Taj" (as Taj calls it) is a truly draw-dropping building and well-deserves its reputation. Next time I'm in India, I'll be sure to re-visit at dawn or dusk.
After this, Marie and I embarked on a ten-day trip through the Indian desert state of Rajasthan. We hired a driver and car through the agency, who also arranged accommodation. We whisked though the north and west - Mandawa, Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Pushkar and Jaipur and back to Delhi. There's something magical about tooling around the desert in an Ambassador. We covered about 2500km on the trip and took in a lot of forts, palaces and historic buildings. Personal highlights for me were the camel research farm near Bikaner, the camel "safari" near Jaisalmer (ie riding around the dunes for a couple of hours at sunset and sunrise), the visit to the spiritual towns of Pushkar (Hindu blessing in the morning) and Ajmer (Muslim blessing in the afternoon), McAloo Tikki Burger and Bollywood movie and the world-famous Raj Mandir Cinema in Jaipur - and learning to drink Old Monk rum Indian-style with our driver, S.K.
A brief note about our driver, S.K. While we hired a driver (and declined the agency's offer of a tour guide), we ended up with a tour guide in S.K. His knowledge of the places was superb, he kept us out of trouble, gave us good advice and generally made the whole trip much less hectic and stressful. Whether it's sorting out our laundry or getting a new city tour guide if he feels the last one was too hungover, he's proven himself on many occasions. He also seems to know everyone - hotel managers, other drivers and tour operators - since he's been doing this for 12 years. While still only a young man, he seems mature beyond his years and is very reliable, a safe and careful driver, and a considerate host. I have had no qualms recommending his services to strangers and my own family alike and heartily suggest readers interested in hiring a driver in Delhi and the north and west of India check out his website to get in touch.
After returning to Delhi for more site-seeing, we shot up to the holy city of Haridwar in Uttaranchal. Here, the Ganges River flows out of the Himalayas and onto the plains. It's the second most holy city for Hindus (after Varanasi) and is a site of major domestic tourism. (Foreign tourists looking for that mystical experience are found up-river at Rishikesh - founded by the Beatles in 1968. If Pushkar is anything to go by, the detritus of Western civilisation can be found wandering around stoned and grubby.) We washed away our sins in the Ganges River and rode on the cable cars to visit the temples atop surrounding mountains. We found it very relaxing and the tout-intensity dropped off significantly owing to the lack of foreign tourists. Even the priests offering the puja were more chilled and less pushy about fees. The river itself was flowing very fast (considering it was the dry season) and was surprisingly blue and fresh-looking (considering what was happening in Rishikesh).
Back in Delhi, Taj's mum Bina took us shopping for a wedding saree for Marie. You see, we'd been invited to a Sikh wedding through Taj's family. The night before, we went to the bride's family's pre-wedding bash at a local officers' mess, where we got re-acquainted with Taj's grandparents. This do consisted of a couple of hundred Sikhs with drinks and finger food. As I looked out, the vista consisted mostly of senior gentlemen with Blazer jackets, turbans, nicely turned out beards and scotch on the rocks. What a great night! Marie and I met a huge number of interesting and accomplished people from business, the military, government, royalty and other walks of life. They were so warm and friendly towards us it was just lovely. We had a buffet dinner at about midnight and there was plenty of Hindipop to keep the dancefloor pumping.
The next morning was the wedding proper. The groom showed up (with his face veiled) and his father's regimental band was playing, resplendent in traditional Sikh uniforms and turbans, tartan sashes and, of course, bagpipes. They finished up with a jaunty Jingle Bells medley. The ceremony took place in a tent and went for about an hour and we returned to the marquee for more drinks, finger food and buffet. Sadly, Marie and I couldn't join the party for afternoon polo(?!) since we were heading north-west to Amritsar
This is the holy city of the Sikhs, in Punjab. We stayed a couple of nights, primarily to visit the Golden Temple (Harimander Sahib). We spent the day admiring this beautiful temple from inside and out. Priests read constantly from the Sikh holy book (Guru Granth Sahib), accompanied by a harmonium and tabla drums. It's a very serene, almost hypnotic setting with its jeweled walls, ragas and lush carpets. On the perimeter, some 30,000 people a day are feed for free from the community kitchen and there's a disturbingly graphic and grizzly museum documenting the traumas of the Sikhs over the year. We returned at night to see the ceremony when the Holy Book is carried over the bridge from the temple.
We couldn't leave without a trip over to the Indo-Pakistan border at Wagah. There's a nightly flag ceremony where each side competes to pack as much pomp into their version as possible. Stadiums on either side are packed with cheering citizens, MCs warm up the crowd with slogans and Hindipop while the soldiers limber up in the background with starjumps and stretches. Once it kicks off, it takes about an hour for the quick-step marching, shouting and general carrying-on to conclude when the flags are finally lowered, folded and march off. The mood isn't that aggro - more sort of good-natured patriotism that one might find at the cricket. (Still, I bet things take on a sour note during times of conflict - but the same could be said of the cricket.)
On our final return to Delhi, we went on a shopping binge to pick up Christmas presents and some other goodies for ourselves. We headed to the Central Cottage Industries Emporium (on Janpath) where we could shop department-style for government-approved handicrafts. (Apparently, this ensures the producers get a fair cut.) While I love the bazaars and chowks, it was a relief to deal with sticker-prices and professional sales employees.
By way of thanking Taj's family, we took them out to dinner at Kareems Restaurant. This was a sumptuous all-meat affair (Taj even vetoed the egg curry on the grounds that we "weren't to have any vegetables") with kebabs and curries and breads. It was delicious and quite unlike any food I've had in Australia.
North Indian cuisine has long been my favourite. Even after eating it three times a day for a month, I can honestly say I'm not sick of it and right now looking forwards to eating some aloo gobi with a paratha soon. The dishes on offer in Punjab, Rajashtan etc are much the same as I've seen before back home, although served a little hotter. I really enjoyed eating in the dhabas (road-side restaurants), street eateries (mmm, kachoris) and fancier places. Like most places, you've got to go where the taxi drivers are eating. And, if you've paid less than a dollar for your meal, you shouldn't be eating meat. The Indian sweets were pretty new to me - while I've been aware of the milk and gram-flour based delicacies and gulab jamun, I didn't realise just how massive the range is and how widespread the shops are. Although I made a point of trying new sweets each day, I could only manage one or two as they are so heavily-sweetened!
We flew out of Delhi and made it safely back to Melbourne (via Bangkok). Amazingly, after seven weeks in Asia (Thailand, Vietnam and India), I can confidently claim:
- No illnesses, "Delhi belly", gastro, food poisoning or bad bottom experience.
- No "serious" use of the dreaded squat toilet. *shudder*
- No victim of / witness to any assaults, muggings, crimes or even swindles.
- No experience of / witness to any traffic accidents or near-misses.
How fantastic is that? I'd emotionally braced (and insured) myself for all of these and, apart from losing my mobile phone in a tuk-tuk in the last week, I got away entirely unscathed with just happy positive memories.
--- posted by Greg 12:54 pm
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Here is a fairly typical conversation that I had today with an older Sikh man at a tourist spot, whilst I was waiting for Greg.
Man: Which country you from?
Man: Ah, Australia. You working girl?
Me: Yes, I'm a lawyer.
Man: Ah, lawyer! (Indians seem to like lawyers.) You come here alone?
Me: No, I am with my husband. (Greg and I decided to say we are married, as there is no such thing as a de facto couple in India.)
Man: How long have you been married?
Me: Three years (the pre-agreed length of time that Greg and I developed for these types of conversations).
Man: How many childs?
Me: No childs.
Man: What is the problem?
Me: No problem.
Man: After the marriage, one-two year, child comes. What is problem?
Me: I am studying and working.
Man: You not like childs?
Me: Yes, I like childs. Maybe later.
Man walks off.
--- posted by Marie 9:38 pm
Monday, December 11, 2006
Just thought I'd add my two cents worth to Greg's comprehensive blog.
As Greg said, we spend the first week of our holiday in Ton Sai Beach, near Ao Nang. The last time we were there was just before I quite the comforting womb of University for an equally sheltered existence as a career public servant. Ton Sai has become more developed since we were last there, but it has not been ruined. I think that it has been protected from overdevelopment by the fact that the beach is a ribbon of sand, followed by rocks and mud which are exposed for much of the time, preventing swimming except at high tide. This, of course, was no problem for us as all we wanted to do is lie on the beach and eat squid. It was the work of a morning to summon up the energy to go swimming and, often, the departure of the tide prevented even this (a good excuse to go back to eating seafood).
The other tourists at Ton Sai seemed vaguely perturbed when they found out we weren't climbers. (The limestone cliffs surrounding Ton Sai are magnificent and attract climbers from all over the world.) They didn't seem to think that eating squid should be a full time occupation. I disagree.
Speaking of squid (and a departure from the temporal narrative) I have to say that one of my favourite things about Thailand is the seafood. I reckon I ate seafood almost every day. There is nothing better than choosing your seafood (prawns and squid for me) from a big tray cased in ice and having it barbecued before you on the beach. That has to be about my favourite thing in the whole world. I was fortunate enough to have this for dinner on the night of my 30th birthday. Mmm... squid.
The food in Ayuthaya wasn't that memorable (although it wasn't bad either) but when we went to Bangkok, I had one of the best dinners of my life. We ate at a street eatery which consisted of a man with a massive wok and a barbecue. I had some of the best prawns I've ever had in my whole life there - I swear they were bigger than crayfish- barbecued on hot coals. Mmm... prawns.
One last thing about Thailand, I would like to endorse Greg's plug for New World Lodge Hotel - I thought they were excellent. The rooms were big, clean and quiet and the service was good. Thumbs up.
--- posted by Marie 12:19 am