Saturday, 5 September 2009

Bikaner – it’s Bonkers!

21st July – After the wonderful town of Mandawa we drove west all day to the city of Bikaner about ½ way across northern Rajastan. We visited a couple of sites along the way & Ramesh entertained us with stories of his life & a CD of hits from 50s & 60s Hindi blockbusters (can't recommend that one actually). The hotel wasn't up to scratch, despite looking at 3 rooms we just didn't feel at home there after the wonderful Mandawa Heritage. We flexed our A$130/day muscles & Feroz transferred us from Sub-par Towers to the businessy but lavish Raj Villas. Room was huge with double daybed under the window, sofa, chairs & coffee table. Noice.

We visited couple of spots downtown with Ramesh in the afternoon & enjoyed the lunch & sweets he arranged for us. I rapidly became addicted to ladoo the yellow balls of coconut, sugar, butter & sometimes raisins that are available all over the country along with several other treats made of coconut, sugar, butter & pistachios or cashews & even silver leaf. We did notice however that the streets seemed a little, well, full. There was little tarmac to be seen outside the restaurant between the sea of bicycles & beggars, motorbikes & pedestrians, tuk-tuks & traffic cops, hawkers & hustlers, it was packed.

It was also bloody noisy, even for India, perhaps because the streets were so crowded or maybe just 'cos it's fun Bikaner drivers don't just honk their horns, they LEAN on them. It seemed common for a Hero Honda or a Maruti Suzuki to keep a blast on the obligatory airhorns going from one end of main street to the other. We were worn out & clinically deaf within minutes (although doubled up laughing at the same time) when one of coined the phrase "Bikaner, it's Bonkers!" which has become a catchcry for the rest of the trip.

The evening trip out was on our own, Ramesh dropped us near main street with the usual incomprehensible instructions on how to find our way home. Had a fab meal at one of the streetside cheapies & then got hopelessly lost in the market wonderful. The people of Bikaner talk as loud as they drive…

On the way back we stopped at a level crossing when the boom gates came down for an approaching train. Much hilarity from the locals who all just kept on keeping on, vaulting the barrier, limboing under or squeezing through the gap at each end. The train didn't come for a good 10 minutes & the last few daredevils were floodlit in the engines single lamp but no one was seriously hurt. The vision of motorbikes being leant over at 45 degrees to get under the boom as a train approaches will stay with me a long time.

There are some shots of all this below, & a few of Bikaner fort which was majestic. Also a couple more of the Rat Temple (which we visited that day) just for those of you who can't wait to see it again J

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Thursday, 3 September 2009

The mad Muezzin of Mandawa – Carol wept

19th July approx – After signing up for a 21 day tour with our driver Ramesh, way back in July, our first stop was 5hrs by Ambassador from Delhi in the small town of Mandawa. What a wonderful way to start! We knew we’d paid top dollar for the tour (A$130 per day for car driver, diesel, tolls, aircon hotel room, brekkie etc) but didn’t really know what type of hotel we’d stay in or what quality to expect. In the dim & distant 90s we’d been content with a mat on the floor of a bamboo hut but being 50ish ain’t the same as being 35 as those of you nearer the former than the latter will attest.
We arrived at the Mandawa Heritage Hotel about tea-time after rattling down dusty lanes & past somnambulant donkeys & camels & were greeted with a colourful confection that, if I was 40ft tall, I’d have gone at with a cake slice. The outside is all icing-white with multi-coloured stylized floral & geometric frescoes & murals of dancing nobles. Like many of the traditional hotels in Rajastan it was a beautiful restored ‘haveli’ or mansion. The Marwari people of the these areas (Marwar & Shekawati) built these palaces as a sign of their wealth. They are built around 2 courtyards but the best way to learn about all that is here .
The lobby of the Heritage moved C to tears, literally. It was so beautiful. We walked in with our bags & looked around & couldn’t quite believe our eyes, have a look at the slides… Our first room was ok but Ramesh wasn’t impressed & got us moved on day 2 to the best room in the house when it became available, again see pics. We really enjoyed Mandawa & I’ve been meaning to write about it for weeks, we got to know many local kids in our 2 ½ days & ate at both of the town restaurants. We toured a couple of other Havelis in the area & loved listening to the temples & mosques competing for the sunset atmospherics as they chanted & cymballed & drummed all around us, magic.
And the mad muezzin? One of the 3 evenings he didn’t stop after calling the faithful to prayer but carried on with a loud, grumpy sounding reading of most of the Qur’an. At one stage we heard other victims shouting at him but the amplified shouting didn’t stop till about 1am. Eventually we slept & dreamt of the desert…

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Return to Caer Ferch Uchaf – life on the mountain

English Summer of 1976, just done my A-levels (2 of, rather ordinary) in Surrey & the family moved to our new home on a hillside in North Wales. My parents had bought a small farm near where we'd been holidaying for years. At about 25 acres it was called 'Caer Ferch Uchaf' (upper daughter's field) to distinguish it from lower daughter's field farm across the road. We had 60 sheep, 5 cows, ducks, geese, chooks,pigs, dogs & cats.

I stayed down south for the summer & as C is very tired of hearing it was the hottest summer in recorded geological time & the year of the first Icelandic cod war. This was a non-trivial 'debate' between Brittania & the Icelanders over fishing in the far north. Their trawlers drove at our gunships, harsh words were exchanged & our ambassador had fish thrown at him in Reykjavik High St. I had a great time, fell in unrequited love with the aforementioned ambassador's daughter, worked as a window cleaner (as did she) & went to pop festivals. Can't resist a wild-haired proto-feminist in dungarees. Eventually moved up to the farm just before school re-started.

Was a little surprised that many of my contemporaries didn't speak fluent English.

My sister & brother were freaked out that many of their primary school class didn't speak English, period.

It was a huge culture shock for all of us & in hindsight a life-changing, character forming period. I think we all look back on it fondly, I do.

When our family broke up under difficult circumstances mid-80s the farm was sold & we all moved away to various parts of the UK. I've only been back once in 22yrs or so & that visit was very brief & clouded with emotion.

This trip I wanted to show C where we lived & so we decided rock up to the farm & see if we could look around. I was sooo excited as we drove up the driveway I was almost incoherent. Luckily the current owners Maureen & (dammit, can't find the piece of paper with their names on) were wonderful hosts & let us roam all over the place & even photograph inside the house, my old bedroom etc. They've been there 20yrs or so & are very sad to be leaving as he's not well they can no longer keep the place going. A lovely, lovely couple of hours. C kept misting up at the intensity of the experience but carried on filming. Call it reality TV? Hope it's not too indulgent…

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Two Traffic junctions – Jodphur & Madurai

We arrived in Jodphur, Rajastan on 26th July. Ramesh turned the Ambassador down the narrow street leading to our guest house & we were drawn inexorably into the funniest traffic jam of my life. The road, lane really, was a major thoroughfare in this old part of the city but barely wide enough for our car & a tuk-tuk to pass normally. So it was a perfect place, of course, for the sewer wallahs to dig up the tarmac, deliver 600mm concrete piping, & then go "oh bugger it, tiffin time lads, we'll be back on Tuesday". Utter chaos ensued as Ramesh refused to back up, the tuk-tuk drivers became equally truculent & the pedestrians struggled to find a way past. But check out the two hajjis with orange-dyed beards carrying on work in the shops at exhaust-pipe level, just another day…

After that the Jodphur evening market was a relatively peaceful din.

Weeks later & 1000kms away we were in Madurai, standing on a quiet street corner for a couple of minutes. There's a comic roadsign, a disco temple, an optimistic deliverer of plastic pipes, the cow that knocked C over, & the aforementioned spats! I Love this video.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Two Train journeys

We (me especially) had hoped to do numerous long train journeys in India. We'd had many a long rail ride during our time in Thailand & the gentle rhythm (compared to bonkers buses) always calms & often there are random interactions which make travelling such an uplifting experience. Pauses to kill ant wondering up screen – see post below.

The No. 1 from Madurai. We'd not been on any trains till we left Madurai for Trichy – weeks with Ramesh & the advent of cheap & quick domestic air travel – but the ride was just what I'd hoped for. We bought second class tix for the 3hr trip & were promptly moved on when we found that most of the uncrowded carriages were numbered reserved seats. We settled again in a reserved area (it was too hard to walk through a dozen carriages to the free-for-all) despite the stern look of the elderly high-caste looking couple opposite. The ride was hypnotic & we watched Tamil Nadu rush by in reverse from out backward facing seats. After about an hour the chap opposite leant over to me (me expecting a 'move along') & said "would you like to share our dish?" Thinking about it for a nanosecond we agreed Lemon Rice & a couple of other delicacies were tea-spooned across the gap from his newspaper bundles to the banana-leaf he'd carefully laid o the seat between C & I. We ate messily with our fingers resolving to buy a couple of spoons to carry with us for episodes such as this. I had lemon rice in my sandals & chickpeas in my shorts but no matter. There's a story about how many people in Trichy it takes to sell C a pair of spoons still in our heads.

After sharing lunch we got chatting. He, 76yr old V. P. Narayan shouted in my ear over the train noise while I relayed comments to C as his 65yr old wife looked on supportively. V.P. was an engineer with the Trichy water dept until retiring about 20yrs ago, like many guys we've met he showed me his photo ID soon after we'd exchanged pleasantries. The conversation was as warm & engaging as you would hope, his English was civil-servant good & his manners impeccable, except for the bit where he declaimed "having children is one of the 3 highest purposes of a human life" with which we declined to take issue. There's a post in C's head where she spends a significant, late, part of a hill-station evening discussing our decision to forgo parenthood with a lovely polyamorous Russian-Israeli current affairs reporter…stay blogged.

The state of Tamil Nadu stretches from the Indian Ocean in the East to the bottom of the Western Ghats on the W side of S India (find an atlas, that's a terrible sentence). We knew that at this time of year it's in rain shadow from the South East monsoon, most of the crop growing rain falls in Kerala or on the Ghats. As we drew close to Trichy though I asked about the dry paddy fields & dusty villages. V.P. told us that in the last 10yrs what little rains they relied on have faded away & through use of wells the water table has dropped metres each year. Obviously I asked about global warming & he suggested that & overpopulation as the causes. From the man who should know…

The No. 2 from Kottyam. Just a few days ago we took another short 2 ½ hr ride from Kottyam to Varkala. This train left Delhi days ago & is going right round the bottom of India to Hyderabad. We sat in one of the sleeper carriages facing each other after separating the two bed halves & folding them up. These are the cheapest berths apparently as everyone who staggers past in the night spills their drink or food on you. We're in the '3 tier non-aircon' class which is cheaper than the '2-tier non A/C' & the A/C carriages of course. Across the narrow gangway the 3 tiers are 1) Where the seat on a train should be 2)the seat back folded up to form a bed base with no windows & 3) the black hole of Indian rail, 20" from the roof, narrower than the others & blasted by rattly fans all night as there's no natural ventilation. I once had a sleeper berth across Kenya almost identical. 'cept I was mid-gastro episode at the time…ghastly

Mid journey a young guy came & sat near us & waited for a chance to strike up a conversation. Dareep is 21 & has just succeeded, at the 4th attempt, in getting into the Indian Navy. He's on his way home to celebrate with his family as his life is now fully mapped out. After passing all the exams & several elimination rounds of interviews (You're the weakest Seaman, Goodbye!) he & only 2 others from the group of 127 were offered a chance to sign up for 21 years service. He's got six-months training at a base in India then a further 6 months in France as they provide the bulk of India's diesel-powered submarines. He's opted for a 7 year stretch underwater as this is the quickest way to get promoted. He's very proud & very patriotic & very keen to serve on India's first, home grown, nuclear sub that launched a couple of weeks ago, "it can stay underwater for 7 months!". Not my idea of a seaside holiday.

To get away from all the martial talk of destroying enemies & sticking it to Pakistan we asked about the train trip from Delhi. Dareep pointed out that he'd been in this carriage for 76 hours, & that it had only emptied out this morning at one of the stops before we boarded. I had noticed the number of empty whisky bottles secreted about the carriage & we were told that there had been several altercations over the 3 days & nights a couple of fights. At one point a drunk railway dinner wallah, tasked with selling the evening meals, passed out on the floor leaving the inmates to help themselves. Railway police were called eventually & the chap may just have lost his job….

There are Ants in my Laptop (Royal Enfield 350cc)

28th August – Varkala beach, still.

There are a bazillion little bitey ants living in my laptop. Resisiting the urge to spray the damn thing with insect killer I've had to waste over an hour of valuable tout-baiting time ("sir, sir, visit my shop" "no thankyou I've just had one""maybe later?" "maybe next life/tomorrow/when I grow another head/when Australia regain the Ashes""I'll be waiting!") killing the little buggers as they crawl out of my USB port, the heat vents, even the headphone socket. I can see the last of them crawling around under the keyboard as I type. One could become obsessive, back at the room I ran all the programs the little laptop could bear to make the processor really hot so they'd have to evacuate. Madness comes in many forms. Tried to take a couple of pictures but didn't really work.

WHICH gives me a great excuse to show you a slideshow of all the super-cool Royal Enfield motorbikes I've seen here. If you share my (currently unfulfilled) passion for motorbikes, or have an interest in mid-last century engineering you should be enthralled, otherwise they're a heap of tin. These things were invented by the Brits before they left & here nobody can be bothered updating them (much). They look fantastic & sound awesome (no video of one yet, sorry) & can be bought new for about A$3000. The catch being they won't pass Australian design regs for a road vehicle….note the drum brakes & tiny tyres. The first few are of the wait for it…. diesel version. Weird but somehow gorgeous.

C would like to point out that she's firmly in the heap of tin camp, & hopes to keep the passion unfulfilled ;-)

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

At the Movies – Love Aaj Kal

6th August - A trip to India would be incomplete without a Bollywood cinema-going experience, so what better place to go than Jaipur's 'Raj Mandir' Cinema - the most famous movie house in India. Having heard about it from a number of sources we decided to see a new Bollywood production called "Love Aaj Kal" which translates as "Love, Now and Then".  This turned out to be a memorable event.
We went to the cinema to pre-book tickets and found that there are various windows and queues to negotiate.  The cinema has seats in 3 price brackets - Emerald, Ruby and Diamond - Emerald being the lowliest, and Diamond the creme de la creme. As the price was affordable (about $3.00 Australian) we went for Diamond. 

It was a festival weekend so the queues were exceptional. There were separate queues and ticket windows for ladies and gents.
Apparently as it gets so crushy in the queue, some men take the opportunity to feel up the women, so the gender divide is strictly enforced. We watched about 100 men - mostly good humoured - queuing, but at one stage a scuffle broke out and a police woman in a rather butch uniform shoved her way into the mellee and started whacking the stirrers in their backs with a cattle stick.  Suitably chastised the culprits settled down.

Segueing to the big night, we arrived at dusk to find the forecourt and the cinema foyer abuzz with families and young couples dressed in their finest saris, salwar kameezes, shirts and jeans.  The decor inside looked edible, mirroring the confectionary on sale at the candy bar. Faded pink, brown and cream plaster mouldings on the walls and ceilings reminded me of neopolitan ice-cream, and the blotchy mirrors and chrome and rather discoloured blue carpet gave the place an air of somewhat faded glory.    

We joined everyone else snapping photos in the foyer before ascending to the dress circle.  I went to the powder room to check my lippy and found a group of excited young women doing the same. The walls had mirrors all round so you could see your reflection from several angles going on into infinite. 

The movie was a hoot - a feelgood romance set in 2 eras, with the same leading man in each story playing himself and his uncle. The dance routines were fab and totally over the top, and even though there were no subtitles we got the general drift. We felt a bit left out when the crowd laughed uproariously at a couple of points and whistled and stomped their feet at a particulalry feisty speech from the stupendously gorgeous female lead (who Guy has fallen totally in love with).  There was an intermission too! is a brilliant site.

It was a really uplifting experience and we can't wait to see the film again with subtitles. Leaving the cinema with the crowd, all grinning from ear to ear and emerging into the dusty Jaipur night, the beeps and hustle of traffic and a full moon, was one of those unforgettable experiences.

Jaisalmer Jaki – the wall hanging you have to have

Ages ago, mid way through our Rajastan tour.

Walking through the market street yesterday we were hoovered up by a young chap to come look at a couple of embroidery pieces. We'd come to love Jaiselmer, the heat, dust & moderate hassle didn't detract from the glory of the fort, the desert & the wonder of where we were & what we were doing. We were happy drifting along.

We had thought we might like to buy a wall hanging, well, sort of thought about it but not made a firm decision. Within seconds (you may know what comes next) we were in-store, seated, cup of chai ordered & virtually cut off from the street entrance by a mound of wall hangings & fabrics that we were supposed to appraise in a split second before the next & more beautiful(expensive) one was unfurled with a flourish.

The store owner, Jaki, had perfect English & all the lines but more than that was a really engaging host & I think that as we became more & more interested (& he became more sure of a sale) he relaxed & we ended up chatting about all sorts, politics, climate change, arranged marriage etc etc. He also introduced us to the very elegant, very retired Brahmin chap reclining against the opposite wall. Forgotten his name but despite the lack of teeth he was very cool.

Surprisingly, after fixating on half a dozen very, very beautiful wall hangings made by sewing together the bridal shawls of Rajastani villagers with thread from the neck of a baby camel… or something (the phrase "cigars rolled between the thighs of Cuban virgins" comes to mind) we managed to escape purchase-less.

But we couldn't get the idea of the wall hangings out of our minds (what was in the chai??) & towards the end of the day we went back. Jaki wasn't there but arrived a few minutes later as everybody has mobile phones a pair of punters in shop & ready to talk trumps dinner, family time, Neighbours, whatever.

Cutting to the chase in no-nonsense, seen-it-all-before, you-won't-believe-how-ruthlessly-we-bargain kind of way we asked to see the 4 main contenders again. So Jaki knew he had a sale right there duh! We soon fixated on a piece that as C says "just makes you happy looking at it". I don't have a picture but it's about 2m by 1.5m, a riot of purple, dark red, green & little sparkly bits & mirrors. Here's some pix of the ones we didn't buy.

As you may have deduced we only managed to shave 10 or 15% off the asking price, which was substantial, but you know what, it really doesn't matter. It's a truly beautiful piece – to us at least - & we can't wait to install it on the wall above our bed when we get home. It'll be fun to see if it still makes us chuckle in a few months time when we walk into the room.

Formalities over Jaki invited us to stay for a beer or two in his airless, claustrophobic basement. Of course we said yes & had a riotous night drinking "Bullet Beer" (not less than 8% it says on the label) & comparing the meaning of life from our very different angles. Every few minutes he'd send his shop boy out on the aging scooter to get more Bullet. When I mentioned it was past 10pm & the bottle shops all close at 8 he said "hey, everything's available if you know where to look! Very funny, no dinner, very hungover.

The next day we met his wife, who was one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen, but that's another post..

Varkala – we’ll go back to India later

26th August – Sitting in Tibetan café perched above cliffs overlooking Arabian sea. OK it's not too hard to be here deep in backpacker territory.

We came down the mountain from Kodaikanal (7000ft above the Tamil plains, post to follow) on 4 buses in 8hrs for about A$8 each & C only (nearly) needed the sick-bag once. Stayed a night in Kottayam, not the most interesting town but we were a little tired.

Yesterday a tuk-tuk to the station & a gentle 3hr train ride brought us to what might be our 3rd 'country' in India. Moving from the north to the south felt like changing countries & coming to this little place tucked away miles from anywhere feels the same. Only here we could be on a Thai beach, a Bali beach or somewhere north of Mombassa.

It's actually fine & we are going to love it but seriously dislocating after so many weeks careering around the subcontinent.
The signs are exclusively in English, the tourists are 95% white & 98% dressed in backpacker beach chic (which never seems to change) Buddha, Gandhi or Ganesh T-shirts, baggy pants, spaghetti strap tops & sunburn. The local boys grow their hair, buy some shades & have a wonderful time with the European girls & Indian men come on day trips to ogle the bikinis. There is a cop wandering the beach to stop inappropriate staring but he's having too much fun to do any enforcing…

No Bob Marley as yet, but it's just a matter of time, plenty of Tracy Chapman though & other stuff from the late 80s early 90s, why is that? Had to listen to an execrable album by some ex-member of the Eagles yesterday while C was looking for a room, god it's hard. Bet they wish they were getting the royalties that cafés in places like this owe them.

Today we slept in till 10, threw caution, & cool, to the wind & had a banana pancake each for breakfast…in a Tibetan café… Like I say, not really India but we need a rest. It's been a huge trip, it's coming to an end & we are so over-stimulated we can hardly string a sentence together.

C is off having her first Ayervedic massage & I'm happy to watch the passing parade, the red kites fighting with the fish eagles & drinking surprisingly cold beer from a blue & white mug with a weeping giraffe on it in case the cops come by… there's an Italian couple on the next table eating a passable mushroom pizza…like I said it's hard…

Friday, 21 August 2009

Madurai #1 – hate it but kinda love it too…

Monday 17th August - After the damp gloom of Munnar we took a bus up, over & down the eastern side of the Western Ghats. The first section, through more tea plantations, took us in & out of cloud & through narrow passes that often meant backing up & sliding past buses coming the other way, all a little nervy; the driver has credit card sized mirrors & the conductor guides him with his whistle, with a 100m drop concealed by the fog.

Madurai was an all day ride away & we enjoyed the journey despite the earsplitting Tamil movie & the aforementioned risk of certain death.

The city itself is large dirty & noisy, on a scale of Katoomba (0) to Agra (10) it rates about an eight. We hated it straight away.

However… we ended up having the best time & possibly the most intensely "Indian" experience of the whole trip at the enormous Sri Meenakshi temple. More of that later.

Life is subtly different here in the state of Tamil Nadu, the saris & longhis are less colourful, the tea is less spicy but the food is wonderful & the temples are a riot of colour. And most of the hotel people are terminally grumpy.

Also you can see strange & wonderful things like

  • A calf eating the movie posters off a corrugated tin wall
  • A cow butting C out of the way as she walked along a pavement (very funny)
  • A woman on a moped with crash helmet visor but no crash helmet
  • Emasculated tuk-tuks. At some stage a local ordinance was passed to ban tuk-tuks from having the powerful horns you hear everywhere else in India. The joke is that they have to use coiled brass hooters with a rubber ball at the end & squeeze them by hand, just like on a Model T Ford or somesuch. Hysterical, a bus will come past blowing a pair of air (fog?) horns that could grace a small supertanker & the tuk-tuk will come back with what C described as "an irritated squeaky toy". They must be so pissed off.
  • Lots of food stalls & cafes called "Tiffin Station - Morning & Evening"
  • (In a nod to British military history) Restaurants called messes e.g. "Kumar Mess – Veg & non-Veg"
  • Rotary club meeting in our hotel – Madurai East branch 6pm
  • The filthiest bathroom mats ever, in every hotel we looked at. Don't even want to step on them in shoes…
  • The spattiest spats on a jewelry shop guard. He was all smart combat uniform & huge moustache & had shiny white plastic spats over his polished boots.
  • Rats playing on floor behind ticketing officer at newish Madurai station, live & let live….

France – seems like months ago…

11th – 16th June – Right back at the beginning we spent a week in SW France. My father has lived there for several years & C had not met him so we flew from Southampton, near Mum's to Bergerac, near Dad's. Picked up a car & had a couple of days touring around then stayed with him for a couple of days before returning to England.

We'd booked a gite called "Un Jardin dans la Falaise" (a garden in the cliffs) 'cos it had a nice website & we weren't disappointed. The place was a pile of rubble when Australian Simon & French wife Magali bought it. They met diving some years ago & settled here, way inland, to be near Magali's folks & the best cave diving in southern France (cave diving – work of the devil).

Simon's a carpenter (& now builder) & Magali's an ace cook so they built the three room gite & have found a life they love. The rooms are piled on top of each other, built into the cliff, & their house is topped by the communal dining room & verandah looking down the valley to the obligatory medieval church. Never stayed anywhere like it, a real treat.

We visited a stack of towns & villages, ate & drank our fill, life's good. For picturesqueness (?) there's nothing to top St Circque la Popie, a 100yr old town perched above the Lot river, a collision of 3 Musketeers, Hans Christian Andersen & W Disney. Here's some pix.

Small World #782 – Kodaikanal & Katoomba

21st August - We live in Katoomba, an often foggy town of 30odd thousand 1000m above the Sydney basin. Today we arrived at Kodaikanal, an often foggy town of 30odd thousand 2000m above the plains of Tamil Nadu.

The cloud swirls, the rain pours but now & again the view is unbelievable, like being in a plane 15mins before landing. We can't believe we were sweltering on a bus in 35 degrees C this morning.

We buy Indian whisky to warm the cockles & then go out for dinner. There's a Tibetan family café serving steamed momos & noodle soup which suits the climate & we tuck in.

Just as we get up to leave we hear Rahul from Bangalore at the table behind say "blah blah blah Katoomba blah blah blah". C & I both turn & blurt out "did you just say Katoomba" ! Turned out Rahul had been working in Sydney & spent a couple of weekends at the No. 14 Guest House about 100m from our home last year & was comparing it to Kodaikanal with his 2 friends. And they're staying at the same guest house here as us.

Funny old world.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Birdwatching in Bundi #2 – dinner with the Maharaja

Mon 3rd August – After our lovely afternoon sipping beer & snapping bird photos we were introduced to the 'manager' of the resort. We thought he was a businessman starting up a new venture but it soon became apparent that he was the owner of the place & most of the land around in all directions, if not the lake too… He was dressed in a plain shirt & a pair of alarmingly brief white tennis shorts but was a good 6 inches taller than everyone else & quite heavy set. We probably should have picked him as an aristo from the shape/trim/curl/waxing of his moustache but that takes a lifetime of study. The give-away was when one of the paddy field workers came to talk to him. He approached from the side, head bowed, he bent to touch the seated man's feet & was about to kiss them when the raja motioned no. The farmer (serf?) kissed his hand & touched his lord's feet instead. That's feudal Rajastan c2009.

Maharajah Rajendra Singh of Dugari seemed a nice enough chap, jowly looking like a cross between Charles de Gaulle & Fred Flintstone he effortlessly managed the conversation & the evening.

He'd asked Ramesh, whom he'd known for sometime apparently, to prepare masala fish curry in a pot over an open fire so we could all sit around & watch. Ramesh was clearly pleased with the honour & displayed an almost tender respect for the other man.

The funniest parts were the Rajah's description of the cooking process "this is the difficult bit" he said as a selection of spices were tossed into the pot, as if he'd ever had to do it himself. Moments later we asked about the name of a particular ingredient & he seemed to ignore us & got on his mobile, a minute or two later he announced "corriaaander! My wife says it's called corriaaander!". A 24hr translation service.

After the meal was cooked the classes separated which was a shame. We, the only guests, ate by candlelight in the middle of the lawn with 3 waiters anticipating our every need. The Rajah ate with his cronys around the fire & Ramesh & the other less well bred retired a polite distance away. No photos of the raj alas but here's us feeling silly…

Taj Mahal – unfeasibly gorgeous

Like beauty & the beast the Taj Mahal is threatened on all sides by the festering dump that is Agra. Just to make it interesting we picked up a bad dose of food poisoning on the way into town & had a difficult, sleepless night the details of which you really don't want to know.

Despite this the Taj is immeasurably more beautiful than images can portray. It moved us like no other built structure we've seen.

Yes there were 2-300 other tourists there even at 7am & yes C was so weak she could hardly walk but our visit must rank as one of the highlights this or any other trip. Here's some of our photos but you really ought to try & pop along & see it for yourself…

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Rat Temple! – Deshnoke, Rajastan

21st July - A couple of weeks ago Ramesh took us to visit a temple like no other. In the dusty town of Deshnoke, outside Bikaner is the temple of Kani Mata. "Karni Mata, born in the 14th century, was an incarnation of Durga, the goddess of power and victory. During her lifetime she performed many miracles. When one of her clansmen died and she was unable to bring him back to life and she asked Yama, the god of death to bring him back to life. Yama could not because the clansman had already been reincarnated. Karni Mata made an agreement with Yama that from now on all of her tribespeople would be reborn as rats until they could be born back into the clan."

OK so that's the historical perspective. The reality is that there's a temple inhabited by a few olfactorally challenged devotees & approx 20,000 grey rats. And people go there for puja (devotion) or in our case to see how freaky it is. We fully respect their right to worship whoever & however they wish but to us this was the weirdest place we'd been since the roadside drowned-snake whisky sellers of northern Thailand.

The temple has a lovely black & white marble tiled floor & solid silver doors, there are lovely carvings on all the lintels. There are also rats everywhere, drinking from bowls of filthy water & milk, eating sweets in front of the shrine, curled up asleep in the corners. They're also running over my feet, did I mention it's a shoes-off temple? Hmmm. Supposedly good luck I allowed a couple to traverse my toes but when one looked longingly at the dead skin on my heel I moved on. C was feeling a little the worse for wear (think essence of rat and pigeon excrement combined with 40 degree heat) & dreaming of a long shower & a lie down but kept filming, trooper that she is.

After a circuit of the dank, dark corridor, stepping only on the white tiles as Ramesh had told us (& not on the rat shit as all other instincts suggested) we came back out to the main courtyard to some commotion. Ramesh had told us that to see a white rat here was especially fortuitous & that in 24yrs of regular visits he'd only seen 5 white "kaba". Despite our devout atheism we managed to conjure up not one but 2 white kaba during our hour long visit. Quite a feat & it was wonderful to see the childlike glee or religious fervor in Ramesh's smile. A lovely moment in a challenging environment.

So here, for thrillseekers & ratophiles (whatever the word is) is the documentary evidence of all the above. Best viewed after meals, not for the squeamish etc etc. And not a cat in sight. Now where's that foot bath…