Wednesday, 26 October 2011

meenu's cookery school

UDAIPUR- 25th October 2011

Today has been the first day without my driver and it seems so ridiculous that although I've been on holiday I have been waiting for today when I am once again free to travel with total flexibility rather than adhere to the meeting times and the rigidity that having a personal driver entails. As mentioned before though, I do feel its been a good introduction to India but now it is time to face the new challenge of self transportation, getting to grips with the somewhat confusing Train system and booking buses etc. Just prior to leaving Jodhpur I entered into a minor disagreement with Babu as I thought it would be nice if L+J (Lilly/Julien) could join me on the final leg of the tour. The cheek of asking for another 4000 rupees pissed me off and after a fair bit of raised voices and arm waving (which drew a bit of a crowd) Babu finally yielded and agreed to give them a lift at no extra charge to Udaipur after making a brief stop to see the temple in Ranakpur. 
We found a decent little guest house to stay in for Rs200 a night here in Udapiur and as its Diwali tomorrow the plan is to stay here until the 28th, as getting transport over the festive period can apparently be tough. After which I will be heading with Lilly and Julien to Bundi, a quiet walled town which should provide a good setting for some serious relaxing.

After looking in the rough guide for a decent place to have breakfast I came across the Queen Cafe this morning (I promise I won't tell you what I had..). Got chatting to these two Israeli's and shortly afterwards we were joined by the owner of the cafe whose name was Meenu. The place was teeming with mosquitoes and she handed me an electric tennis racket with which to zap the little bastards. I mentioned that I had read about her place in my rough guide which led to her telling us enthusiastically about her introduction into the Lonely Planet. She gave us a very interesting insight into how guides like LP can transform a business over night into the next essential stop on a backpackers itinerary. She had been completely unaware that one of their writers had even visited her cafe and only found out months later of her inclusion. The reason for the guides covert tactics is that if the place were to know a writer were visiting they may put on a fake fa├žade for that one day after which would slide back into mediocrity. This tactic ensures that only genuinely decent places are included in the book. The one problem I can see with this system is that although very good for business, small quaint places can be ruined by the onslaught of wide eyes tourists which enter their doorways. Another inevitable problem is that after increasing its volume of customers, the shop owners increase their menu prices and the place starts to turn into one of the hundreds of other over priced tourists spots. Still, she was a lovely woman so I wish her the best of luck. 

As I finished my breakfast she also told us that she does her own cookery classes and that for a couple of hundred rupees she could teach us a few of her dishes. So around about 3pm I went back to learn how to cook banana curry and stuff paratha. She taught the classes in her upstairs kitchen so we (the Israeli girl also popped back) spent the next hour or so sat on her kitchen floor, hunched down on our legs whilst she explained to us the importance of knowing your spices and the quantities to add to each dish. Initially sceptical of putting banana in a curry, I found that after we had fried the banana and  added it to a mixture of spices (cumin, mustard, coriander, red chilli, tumeric and garam masala) the result was an extremely tasty dish. Wrote the recipe down so might try and recreate it when I got back home! To accompany the curry she was also showed us how to make stuff paratha bread. Made the dough which we then filled with diced boiled potato, cheese, cabbage. garlic, spinach, chopped peanuts and green chilli peppers. Folded the dough over and used a rolling pin to flatten out, then lightly coated with oil and put on a flat pan over the small hob to cook 

When I returned to the guest house got chatting to a couple of German lads from Bamburg called Tici and Sylvester (Stallone he joked...)They're from Bamburg which they tell  me is linked in a cultural exchange with Bristol which is a bit random.Went for a walk around Udaipur with them and got to see all the decorations which have been put up for Diwali. All the bright vivid displays which had been attached to lamp posts and hung over the streets made the place seem even more vibrant than an Indian street usually is. Once back at the guest house walked into a bit of a rooftop party as the owner had invited a bunch of travelling musicians from his home village up north to come and play in Udaipur for a few days to celebrate the festive period. Needless to say me and the Germans entered into an unavoidable whisky downing session with the owner and his important friend (Brahmin caste for those in the know) and the rest of the night slid away into obscurity.



Celebrating Divali on the rooftop with the traveling musicians.

Preparing for Divali.

Monday, 24 October 2011

highways of DOOM

JAISALMER TO JODPHUR - 23rd October 2011

Seeing as Jodhpur serves as a central hub from which you can reach the NW cities in Rajasthan (Jaisalmer and Bikaner) the plan today has me making an overnight stop before heading further down south to Udaipur. Sat in the car about 200km from Jodhpur I thought I may use this time to talk a little about the Indian motorways and driving in general as it a topic well worthy of a mention. For Indians life on the motorways is very similar to one long and never ending race where the constant goal is to overtake any vehicle which dares get in your way. Its not unusual to see tractors attempting to overtake cars and lorries taking up both lanes on the road, meaning that oncoming traffic has to create a third lane in the dust embankment to the side. Babu (my driver) gladly told me that thousands die every year which I appreciated but that it would all be OK as he is the "boss of driving department". Babu's limited use of English means that when he describes things to me he places everything into departments. We went to see this monkey temple in Galta and so with Babu it was going to to see the "monkey department". Another example was whilst stopping by this mosque in Delhi (Jama Masjid) he told me that my shorts were in the wrong department and that I needed the trouser department to cover my bare knees so as to be respectful. Anyway, I digress, I support Babu's claim of having superior driving as I feel safe most of the time. Signs dot the highway, as they do in England, warning drivers to slow down so as to reduce risk of incovenient death. My favourite sign however has to be, "At first speed thrills but then it kills. Stop it now!"

Roadkill are numerous with many different animals meeting their maker on these concrete highways of death. The only animal which is spared such a gruesome end is the  mightily powerful cow. These beasts travel wherever they please without hindrance and god knows what would happen to the poor man who runs into one. Hung at the gallows no doubt. Cows are literally everywhere in India, from the moment you wake up and leave your guesthouse there will be one just chilling in the street munching on some rubbish (which is plentiful). The arrogance these animals display is outstandingly visible and they have a look in their eyes as if to stay "Im the fucking boss here.Get out of my way!" The other evening whilst hopping out of the way of a speeding rikshaw, I jumped straight into the path of this mean old cow and promptly received a headbutt to the stomach so they like a scrap as well! I reckon if I'm ever born a cow in my second life, I'll be getting straight on the next flight to Delhi! In regards to cows on the motorway you'll regularly see them walking in the middle of the dual carriageway or sometimes literally just plonked down in the middle of one of the lanes. Drivers politely slow down and carefully drive round them.  To my amusement I recently saw a convoy of army trucks politely wait whilst a cow made his way across the motorway. Like I said before India is mental.

The use of horns is rampant with large lorries displaying signs on their rear bumpers requesting approaching motorists to "BLOW HORN" in bright vivid clours. Drivers therefore indulge in beeping their horn at every opportunity, which most of the time seems completely unnecessary but as so much overtaking takes place I guess it goes someway in preventing accidents. Thinking back to Cathedral square I can imagine the DL claims department having a heart attack out here.... Babu, like I said before, has bought several cd's to showcase some of his favorite Inidan Music. Now and again he'll burst into song and getting his "boogie boogie" on (as he likes to call it). The cabin of the car is filled with his singing at regular intervals whilst he does the classic India shoulder pop waving his arms manically around the wheel and out of the window. Passing by certain temples, he also slows down and does a little prayer, all I can say is that I hope he's praying for a safe journey in this death trap!

Spent the evening in Yogi's (remembered from when I was in Jodhpur a few days ago) with Lilly,Julien and Letty. Earlier on whilst tucking into another snack courtesy of the omelette man I got chatting to this Irish couple, Niall and Amy. We found that we had both suffered the intensity of Delhi and they had also been rushed into booking a driver to escort them around Rajasthan. I've met several people now who arrive in Delhi and are preyed upon by hunting tour touts and it seems rampant as naive frightened tourists are a lucrative business opportunity! Still what is done is done so I won't moan about it on here.Niall and Amy are doing a similar trip to mine spending 11 months travelling around the world ending in South America and so I suggested they join us for dinner later at Yogi's for dinner. At the end of the night a photographer from the local newspaper arrived on the rooftop to take some photos of tourists getting excited for Diwali which is now only a few days away. From what i gather, Diwali is pretty much the Indian christmas, so aload of fireworks were set off and the journalist took some photos of us holding these sparklers which was random but random seems to be the order of the day everyday here.The plan as of this moment has me heading to Udaipur tomorrow making a stop off in Ranakpur to see a temple which was built in remembrance of Mahavira, the founder if Jainism, who achieved Nirvana at the age of 72. So guess that'll be alright.




Riding the rick shaw.

The view from my expensive personal car.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

meeting cool raoul

JAISALMER - 21st October 2011

Today has been spent plodding around Jaisalmer which has been pretty relaxing. The downtime has been much needed as the last ten days have been so intense. Spent a bit of time putting this blog together, catching up with previous posts and lounging around the hotel in the morning. There is this balcony which overlooks the golden city which i'm currently sat on. Received an email from Lilly saying that they had reached Jaisalmer safely (they took an overnight bus from pushkar) and that they were staying in the desert hotel. After walking around the narrow twisting alleyways which circulate the hill fort i finally found their hotel but the owner told me they had left that morning on a camel treck and would not be back for two days. Having nothing to do I decided to go for a walk, as I've found recently that if you're bored in India,  if you go for a walk something interesting usually happens and today was no exception

Walked down to the central square in the fort where I met the man, the legend, Cool Raoul. He was basically just an Indian del boy who talked to tourists trying to get them to come see his store just outside of the fort. I explained that I wasn't looking to buy anything as I had blown aload of cash in Delhi. He didn't mind and seeing as it was his lunch asked me if I fancied a  beer. We hopped on his motorbike and after stopping at a local store got a kingfisher and drove upto a spot which overlooked the whole city. He was telling me all about Jaisalmer and that for his job he got paid 4000 rupees a month. He said that all this money gets paid back straight to his local boozer who sorts him out with two beers everyday when he drives by. What an utter lad. He lives with his parents (he was only 21) and in the shop he earns 5% comission on all sales which he lives on for petty cash. No rent and food provided by mother. There was a pretty surreal moment when we were sipping cold kingfishers and looking over the city. He pulls out his phone to play some music and his first selection was "Celia" by Simon and Garfunkel followed believe it or not by Justin Bieber! Joked about giving him a slap and then we headed back into town. He asked whether I would like to meet up later to have a go on his motorycycle which I happily accepted arranging to meet him by the gates of the fort at 6.

With a couple of hours to kill I went to the local cafe and got talking to these two older dudes called Tony and Chris from Australia. For some unknown reason the beer that they were drinking was being served to them in a kettle so every now and again they would joke with the waitress that they needed some more "tea" to keep hydrated. Told them I was planning on visiting Australia later in my trip and Tony who works in agriculture over there gave me his number and said that if I needed some extra cash picking fruit whilst in Melbourne to give him a call! This could come in handy as no doubt money might be getting slightly tight by then!

Meet Cool Raoul at 6 and went for a ride. Gave him 200 rupees for some fuel and we took a 50 km drive out of the city to some of the desert roads where he let me loose! Was alot of fun bombing along the roads with the evening wind cooling me down.Once we got back, after a little blitz on his bike around the fort there was a message at my hotel from Lilly and Julien saying that their hotel owner and given me the wrong information (confusing them with another French couple) and they were still in town and that they were having dinner at this restuarant just down the road. Was good to see them again and they have invited me to do some travelling with them after I leave my driver in Udaipur.

Another great day on another planet!


Mr. Cool Raoul


a night beneath the stars

 JODHPUR - CAMEL TRECK (JAISALMER) - 20th October 2011

This was the day of Bob Marley. Went to a camel resort about 50Km outside of Jaisalmer and spent the late afternoon riding a camel around the sand dunes. My guides name was Piku and he had named his camel Bob Marley (the dude loved reggae) so me and Bob went off on our merry little way. Piku was 21 and had lived in the village his entire life and had never left. He told me how much he loved cricket but had never owned a television so could never watch it, making do with playing against his mates when not taking tourists out on the camels. He hoped that one day he could go to the oval maidan in Mumbai to watch an actual match. After watching the sunset from the top of this massive dune hopped back onto Bob and we started to make our way back to the huts. On the way Bob decided to go for a run so before I know it i'm hanging on for dear life and seeing as i'm pretty light anyways, nearly got thrown off a fair few times! Another camel bearing an equally terrified British girl called Annie had seen Bob galloping off and decided to turn it into a race. We were neck and neck until Bob came up trumps and stormed ahead leaving the other inferior bob-wannabe in his wake. Once back at the camp we all went for dinner in a courtyard surrounded by these small huts. A buffet of tasty curry and chapati was spread out and got chatting to Annie about Bristol as she had gone there for university. Was a pretty surreal conversation talking about how much i detested Lizard Lounge whilst eating in the middle of the desert!

After dinner those who wanted to sleep in the desert (me included obviously) hopped on a cart and we were towed by my camel Bob out to the dunes, where we would spend the night beneath the stars. It was all very comfortable with bed frames and blankets provided! Talked with Annie until I feel asleep only to awake at dawn to see the sun rise which was pretty incredible!

All in all, a pretty good day.


long live the omelette king

Day 9 - Jodphur - 19th October 2011.

Due to the fact that I have this driver (who is beginning to feel like a ball and chain) I parted ways with Julien and Lilly but arranaged to meet them in Jaisalmer on the 21st. They were getting an overnight bus whereas my trip had me stopping in Jodphur. The bus was costing them 270 rupees and god knows how much more I was paying to have this personal driver. Anyways its just for 14 days so I will soon be free to get around by my own methods. After looking round some pretty miserable dumps in Jodphur finally found a decent place very near to the central clock tower for 150Rs (75 rs to the pound) called the Maharani Guest House. After I had dumped my bags went for a walk around the blue city. Just by one of the central guests a local man had set up shop and had a sign proclaiming that he was the omelette King! Naturally I went and investigated to see what all the fuss was about as all the benches outside were packed with tourists and locals hungrily munching down on platefuls of omelette. I had a chat with him and he was probably one of the jolliest old men I've met, "Omelettes make me happy, I use 1,000 eggs a day!" He enthusiastically told me and although dubious of this figure the piles and piles of egg trays gave substance to the claim. This rise to fame came about when in 1990 the lonely planet included him in their latest book and ever since every tourist owning a LP who arrives in Jodhpur makes a bee line straight for the Omelette King. I munched down two of his fine offerings and all I can say is long live the Omelette King!

Afterwards decided to take a stroll through the Jodphur markets and after chatting to one of the shop owners (name was Naveen, thoroughly decent chap) decided to go inside and have a look at his spice. The downstairs of his shop was like a dungeon filled with every type of herbal tea and coffee, natural spices for cooking, incense sticks, scented oils and all sorts of other potent wares. After a lecture on what makes a good incense stick (charcoal and chemicals bad, natural ingredients good) I bought a box and stand for 200Rs. That night went searching for somewhere to eat and came across this great rooftop restaurant which has amazing views of both the Meherangarh fort and the city itself. After trying and failing to chat with these British  guys who were rah central (hopping down to do push ups every five minutes) i ordered some food and enjoyed the views. Whilst eating got talking to a British girl who joined me in my mockery of these douchayyyyy guys. Her name was Letty and was also travelling alone, she was an artist from Edinburgh who was travelling around India, doing sketches and water colour paintings which she hoped to put together for an Exhibition back home. (Best of luck with the exhibition if you're reading this Letty and hope you get back to Delhi for Diwali!) She has been the first Brit I've really met and it was nice to speak English fluently, as talking broken English with Indians and the various other Spanish, French, Italian people I've met can get tiring. Turns out she studied in Newcastle so had a fair bit in common and so spent the rest of the night chatting away.


The Omelette King on his throne.

View of the fort from Yogi's.

Blue city of Jodhpur.

Friday, 21 October 2011

in search of the shiva temple

PUSHKAR - 18th October 2011

Hired bicycles with Julien and Lilly (would later wish we'd forked out a bit more to get motorbikes) and headed out of Pushkar to try and find the Shiva temple. Julien, as previously mentioned, is very interested in natural wildlife and so brought along his equipment with him to collect more samples whilst out in the countryside. Lilly always just stands back and watches with a smile every time he traipses off into the bushes to find his next specimen. I can tell she has spent many a trip following him pursue his passion and is well accustomed to him frequently stopping to careful study the ground or crevices between rocks for some tiny beetle. They have been going out for about five years I think after meeting during university and after spending the whole day with them, have found that they are lovely people.

The journey by bike was slow and laborious at times but the countryside threw up some fantastic views  and when we got a hill to coast down it was a great, if brief, respite from the hard cycling on those ancient bikes. After finding the temple we stopped under this large ficus tree to rest and enjoy the cool shade. Our peace did not last long however as a family of monkeys who lived in its branches were not happy that we were sat under their tree, shrieking followed and we decided to move on before we got some 'planet of the apes' scrap on our hands. We sat by a well for awhile and then out of the bush walks these two odd looking strangers who are probably the most classically hippy looking couple I've ever seen. Cristina from Spain and Martin from Switzerland had been travelling for about 18months, they carried a tent and stove and got around by hitchhiking and as living is so cheap in India anyways had managed to last an incredibly long time. The well we had been sitting by had two sets of steps which led down to the bottom which contained surprisingly clear water. The well was home to a wealth of different fish, crabs and beetles (to Juliens great enthusiasm). Christina who was friendly (but a little mad) decided to jump in so before I know it shes leapt headfirst into the well. I edged down to the bottom of the well and dangled my feet into the water which contained these amazing little fish which swarmed round my feet picking away at the dead skin. I've seen the same kind of thing in London where you put your feet into some grotty tank and pay a tenner for ten  minutes and here I was getting the real deal!

On the ride back to Pushkar stopped by a small family's house by the side of the road and shared a cup of chai with this old man who introduced himself as Dhosi Baba. He spoke very good English and told us how he liked to speak to all the travelers who passed by. He must have been in his seventies and was a spiritual man. Baba's are essentially travelling holy men who give up all worldly posessions and this guy had spent the last 40 years travelling from city to city. Local people would give him a place to stay and feed him before he moved onto the next town. He loved to smoke hash and the whole time he was talking to us he had a big old spliff drooping out of his mouth. He asked us where we were from and upon telling him that I was British he told me that back in the late 60's he had met George Harrison from the Beatles, George had stayed with him for awhile, playing his guitar and talking with him for several days.

After getting back to town had one final meal with Julien and Lilly. I had tried to ask my driver if they could come with me but he was having none of it. We were getting on pretty well and seeing as they were heading to Jaisalmer next we arranged to meet in the city's fort a few days later. They are getting an overnight bus straight there whereas I am due to make a stop in Jodhpur for one night. Hopefully we will bump into each other again.


meeting the french

JAIPUR TO PUSHKAR - 17th October 2011.

Arrived in Pushkar for midday. Entered the town and was met by a holy priest who said nothing to me but gave me a handful of petals. Was then ushered down to the ghats (a series of steps which led down to the holy lake) where I was asked to drop the petals into the water whilst the priest blessed my family. After this ritual (and having to make a donation like with everything in India) I was then apparently allowed to roam the city without hindrance from any other priests. Found a nice little guesthouse called Shiva but there seemed to be no one around the place except this French couple whose names were Julien and Aurelie (Lilly). They are both biology graduates with Lilly specializing in human anatomy whilst Julien is interested in beetles (weevils to be precise) and plants. Julien collects samples of different beetles and he showed me his small test tubes containing specimens he had found so far in India. They have been travelling for about a month so far and we talked about how overwhelming it is the first time you  arrive in Delhi. They fell foul to a similar thing where they paid way over the odds for a driver taking them around for a week They noticed the wrist band the holy priest had given me down by the ghats and asked me how much I had given. I donated about 50Rs (its 76 rupees to the pound) which was apparently ok. The old trick goes that when you drop the petals into the water, the priest asks you how many family members you have and then asks for your donation multiplied by number you give, which results in some people being bullied into paying 500rs and up! A cheeky little scam which I imagine generates a tidy income every year! I had not eaten all day  and so as they had been in Pushkar for several days, they showed me round and then took me to this amazing restaurant called Sanjays which had a rooftop overlooking the holy lake. I ordered a large thali (like indian tapas) for RS100, a little over a pound! Back at Shiva, Julien made some tea using Tulsi plants he had picked just outside the city that day.


Relaxing at the Shiva guest house.


16th October 2011.

Jaipur, India

The alluring metropolis of Jaipur is often referred to as the ‘Paris of India’ because of its effervescent appeal and flamboyant architecture. The city lends itself to a tradition shared by several major towns in the state of Rajasthan whose identities are categorized by a series of vibrant colours; in the same way that the buildings of Jodhpur and Jaisalmer to the West are painted blue and gold respectively, Jaipur is India’s fabled ‘Pink City.’

The grand City Palace stands resplendent at the centre of Jaipur’s historical quarter behind striking walls and seven towering gateways. Outside of these illustrious fortifications, modern development sprawls out in every direction as more and more people move from the surrounding areas in search of working opportunities and a supposed better life. The grass, however, is not always greener, as I would soon find out.

As the capital of Rajasthan, Jaipur is an important centre for commerce in both the traditional and modern sense. Evocative bazaars rich in vivid spices, ornate jewellery and hand-crafted textiles populate the ‘Old City’ whereas 21st century businesses have constructed sparkling shopping malls throughout the modern sectors of town. As is usually the case in India though, where the wealthy prosper, poverty is sure to dwell nearby and starkly juxtaposed inequality is apparent around every corner. My stay in Jaipur was a fleeting one – with two months in India, I had much to do – but those two days I spent in the city offered up a remarkable experience that will stay me with for a lifetime.

Having arrived in the bustling city after sundown, I managed to find a relatively cheap place to stay for 300 rupees (about three British pounds) a night. With a double bed, private bathroom and central location it was a steal for the price and although I could have found cheaper – you can always find cheaper in India - the added comfort was worth the extra cash. I’d spent the previous day gazing upon the majestic white spires of the Taj Mahal and after a laborious 150 mile trip from Agra, a good night’s sleep was needed. Awaking the next morning refreshed, I caught a motorised rickshaw into town and decided to start my day exploring the park just south of the city palace.

Skirting the edge of the impressive Central Museum, I found myself walking in the grassy parklands of the Ram Niwas Gardens. Strolling across a large sun-scorched field, I was approached by a group of kids asking if I would like to join them in their cricket game. The sight of a pale-skinned Brit wanting to get involved was a source of great amusement for the group of eight and they happily gave me a bat. The next half hour was spent being bowled to by the group whilst I tried (and mostly failed) to hit the well-worn balls as far as possible. By this time, the sun had assumed a powerful position in the blue sky above and I didn’t last long under its fearsome glare, deciding to retreat to the shade of the markets, leaving the young chaps to their game.

There had clearly been some recent celebrations in the old city as silver tinsel had been hung above the streets in a latticed framework. These patterns caught the sun’s rays to cast rectangular shadows on the dusty tarmac below; mirroring the geometrically precise grid-plan of streets that connect the Pink City together. After strolling along those celebrated avenues, occasionally cutting through the extravagant bazaars, I was stopped outside one of the markets by a young lad who introduced himself as Rabi. After running through the regulatory, ‘What is your name...Where are you from?’ questioning that all foreigners are subject to in India, the conversation shifted to Jaipur.

“What are you doing today?” asked the inquisitive young fellow. “Do you enjoy your time in my city?”
“Yes it’s very beautiful thank you,” was my guarded reply. “I’ve been enjoying a walk, but I need to head back to my hostel now. It was nice to meet you Rabi.”  Succumbing to the sad, but often necessary, Western philosophy that talking to all strangers should be avoided.
“Well then,” said Rabi, ignoring my transparent ruse. “Will you join me for a cup of chai then? I know of a good chai wallah whose stand is just around the corner. You haven’t tasted chai until you’ve tasted Jaipur chai Mr. Alex!”

Living in the Western world, it is deemed rather odd to approach a total stranger in the street and strike up a conversation but the more time I spent in India, the more I realised how much curiosity dictates everyday social interactions, especially when strange red-haired foreigners like myself are involved. Making a quick on-the-spot judgment call, I decided to join him for a drink and I'm grateful I did because the rest of that afternoon led to one of the most amazing experiences of the entire eight-month trip. And it happened on the sixth day!

Sat down at the nearby chai stall sipping cups of the sweet tea, I soon learnt that my newly acquired friend was studying technical engineering at Jaipur University. It was a Sunday, however, which meant he had a day off from his studies. Rabi told me that in addition to attending university, he made frequent visits to the slums just outside of town to play music with the kids and that he’d been heading there when he came across me.

As the conversation progressed, I started to warm to Rabi as I told him more about the trip and my life back in England. To my total surprise, as if he had been assessing me during our conversation, I was suddenly asked to tag along with him on his music trip to the slums which I subsequently accepted, seeing a wonderful opportunity before me. In hindsight, I may have been a bit foolish to be so trusting of a complete stranger but I had a good feeling about Rabi and decided to take a measured step into the unknown. Naive maybe, but by the end of my trip, I realised that these leaps of faith offer up the best experiences and this was certainly the case that day.

We drained the last measures of sweet masala chai from our cracked porcelain cups and headed onto a main road in search of a rickshaw that would ferry us out of the city. Hopping into the back of one of the iconic three-wheeled taxis, we were soon bustling out of the city at breakneck speed. With the warm breeze whipping through the open-sided carriage, potholed tarmac roads gradually gave way to dusty pathways as we ventured into the Jaipur slums.

My arrival in the slums seemed to cause quite a stir as within five minutes of walking through the winding alleyways, I had a trail of about 15-20 kids following me. In a moment of sensory overload, tiny hands grabbed my shirt and shorts, while excited shouting filled the air and all I could do was let the river of children carry me further into the unknown.  

When I arrived in India, I had been shocked by some of the sights I came across on the streets of Delhi, however the things I saw in those slums that day will stay with me forever. On both sides of the uneven stony path, dilapidated huts supporting flimsy corrugated-iron roofs stood side by side, like sardines packed into a giant aluminium can. Trying to take it all in pigs scuttled between my legs as we passed donkeys hitched to wooden posts and rusted metal gates that connected many other pathways to the central highway I was careering down.

From dark doorways, curious eyes stared out from the shadows as the procession passed on by.

“I’m not so sure about this Rabi. Where are we going?” I said, looking towards the only recognisable face in the crowd. A seed of doubt had been planted in my brain and for the first time since meeting my new acquaintance, I felt nervous about the position I had knowingly put myself in.

“Do not worry Mr. Alex,” was Rabi’s confident reply. “We are nearly there!”

Stopping the procession briefly, my teenage guide drew my attention to a big gap between two shacks which had the appearance of a landfill site. Dotting the mountain of rubbish I could see little kids, who could not have been older than five or six, clambering to its summit collecting plastic bottles in large sacks while pigs foraged for food at its base.

                “The community here wants to remove this dirt and build a school for the children!” Rabi informed me. “But we must raise funds before that can be possible. We want to teach the kids English, Maths and other basic lessons. Education is important.”

I had told him earlier over our cups of chai that I had studied English Literature at University and he joked that when the school was built, I should come back to be the professor of English!

We finally arrived at the ‘music house’, which had been differentiated from its neighbours by a colourful mural that adorned the outside wall and the Djembe drums that hung within. The river of children that had led me to this humble abode now crammed themselves into the tiny room, no doubt eager to see what the strange man would do next. Wading through a sea of upturned eyes, Rabi handed me one of the drums requesting that I start playing immediately. Sitting down among the swamp of excitable smiles, I started banging away some simple tunes, not certain of what I was playing but going along with it anyway. After an uneasy start, I got into a staggered rhythm and minutes later the small dwelling had erupted into a cacophony of singing and drumbeats. Children overcome by excitement danced everywhere, hanging from my arms and neck as I struck the drum and I soon found myself being dragged up by Rabi to have a dance. Now my dance moves are laughable at the best of times but seeing as everyone was getting involved this was not the time to be self-conscious. The sight of a lanky Brit pulling some shapes on this most unusual of dance floors seemed to induce mass hysteria among the kids who seemed to find whatever I did incredibly funny. A sing-along followed where bizarre, but perfect renditions of Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier” and The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” were sung at full volume. It was a special moment for me and I was only too happy to sing my heart out with them all, embracing the surreal nature of my situation with opened arms.

After the ‘lesson’, Rabi took me to meet a friend of his who actually lived in the slums. Dragging myself away from the children - who objected strongly to my departure - we took a few turns in the labyrinth of alleyways until reaching the house of the Puppet Master a.k.a Vijay. This amazing character had done a great deal of travelling with his puppets and had visited many festivals around India, proudly displaying them wherever he went. Sitting down on the floor of his living room, which also served as a bedroom, kitchen and bathroom, numerous wooden dolls, some incredibly complex in their design, were suspended from nails that had been driven into the walls of the hut.

Being kindly offered some roti (a type of naan bread) with various accompaniments; this eccentric puppet man and his wife welcomed me into their home and treated their English guest with a most generous hospitality. There was, however, a rather sinister moment when Rabi left to go outside and Vijay leaned over to me.

“Mr. Alex, Rabi is a bad man,” Vijay whispered.  “Do not be trusting him, he is wanting to hurt you.” Before sitting back down, letting his words fulfil their ominous inflection in the silence that followed.

A moment later Rabi came back in and Vijay looked over with an expression so stern; it is forever seared into my memory. Sat in the middle of a potentially dangerous predicament, amidst the maze of the Jaipur slums with no obvious escape route, my nerves surged up as a rip current of dread pulled me in, like a swimmer who suddenly realises he has been dragged too far from the shore. Rather disconcertingly, Rabi then came back in before departing as quickly as he had entered.

“Vijay, what are you saying to me?” I asked, my voice cracking. “Rabi seems like a really nice guy, what is happening here?”

The Puppet Master merely stared back at me revealing nothing in his expressionless eyes. Floundering in uncertainty, terrible thoughts raced through me head as I cursed my foolishness for putting myself in this position. As Rabi re-entered the hut, however, the disturbing grimace broke into a magnificent smile which illuminated the darkness that had fallen upon the hut. They both laughed at each other leaving me in a state of total confusion as I tried to figure out what my next move would be.

Vijay acknowledged the younger man with a nod, walked over and gave me a firm hug. “We have just tested you Mr. Alex,” he said, leaning back but retaining the embrace. “You have passed, you are a good man and you are welcome in my home!”

It then dawned on me that a rather rudimentary test had been conducted to see what kind of person I was, whether I was worthy of their trust, and thankfully I passed because I had not insulted Rabi behind his back. In their eyes, I too was a stranger of course, and this had been their simplistic but effective way of gauging my character. Having ‘proved’ myself, everyone became much friendlier as we were joined by more of Vijay’s friends who brandished a box of beers and a small bottle of whiskey. I was treated to a puppet show by some of Vijay’s children and enjoyed learning about life in the slums while the Puppet Master gazed upon the group as he played his accordion in the corner.

I had no idea what time it was at this point, lost in time and space, but a few hours must have passed by the time I bid farewell to Rabi and Vijay, intoxicated by both the alcohol and the experience. As the sun painted its final strokes across the early evening sky, I left the Jaipur slums in a disconnected daze, my head spinning from the dream I had walked through all afternoon.


Japiur slum music lesson.

vijay and Rabi.

Monday, 17 October 2011

the beginning of it all.....

Hello and welcome to my traveling blog. For the next 8 months (maybe less depending on how far I can strech my money) I will be carrying a journal with me on my travels and will try and write a page everyday detailing my experiences and feelings of the different things I see and do whilst on my gap yah (spiritual cultural nonsense....). . I hope you find it interesting and feel free to leave comments. The proposed trip will will include India (Delhi to Madras), South East Asia (Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia), Australia/NZ and finally ending in South America (Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil).

Here goes......

I think it would be appropriate to start by saying that India is bloody MENTAL. These first five days have been a whirlwind experience, from the moment i stepped out of the airport in Delhi I was swept away and haven't stopped spinning since. It's been a case of major adjustment and constant uncertainty which at times has been really tough buts its only now, after just over a week, that I feel i've found my legs (though very shaky ones). For this reason I did not write in my journal for the first five days as I was immensely preoccupied with trying to figure out what the hell I was doing and trying to cope with a country which may as well be on another planet. In the first week, everyday was a constant struggle and I was constantly being faced with situations and scenarios I had never come across before and therefore I was confronted by a major learning curve which had to be tackled. I am constantly learning new things everyday which makes it very challenging but can only be a good thing. I know its a massive cliche (and i'm sure you will mock me for writing this) when people say that travelling broadens the mind and that you learn a great deal about yourself but after some very surreal and intense days I can definitely see where they're coming from. I've made many mistakes (one big one in Delhi...more on that later) but its forced me to think on my feet and I honestly think it will stand me in good stead for the rest of the trip as I won't (at least I hope) be making the same mistakes again which is obviously very important seeing as i'm away for a decent stretch. A short summary of the first five days should suffice after which I will try to write a daily journal (which will be posted here when I find decent internet) chronicling the trip and any interesting (hopefully!) things I get upto. I already have a few stories to tell! Some posts will be shorter than others as I'll try to only include events of interest rather than what I had for breakfast everyday which I'm sure you would find offensively boring.

The main reason its been so hard so far (apart from India itself being a crazy and baffling place) is that I've been taking it all in by myself and although I've already met loads of really cool people there are times when a familiar face would have been hugely welcomed. Having said this I'm still happier doing it solo as (like I've said before) it's forced me to think on my feet which can only be a good thing. I, like many others, arrived in Delhi massively disorientated from a long flight, scared and bewildered by the sights of this oppressive and hugely intimidating metropolis. As soon as I had dumped my bags at the hotel which thankfully had been pre-booked (the hotel touts at the airport are a ridiculously pushy) I decided to go for a stroll which at home would be the easiset thing in the world. This is NOT the case in Delhi as the moment I stepped out of the hotel i was pretty much mobbed by all who dwell in the streets.  To say I was shocked would be a massive understament as within five minutes I'd bumped into cows roaming the street (holy beef etc :) ), piles of rotting rubbish, piles of shit emitting nauseating smells, street sellers, waves upon waves of forceful rikshaw drivers with a million questions, beggars (young and old) and the many others who welcome you to this imposing city. We've all seen stuff on the TV and read about the place in books but it really doesn't prepare you for that first day, actually being there and trying to take it all in. The beggars themselves were a great source of distress as I had small childen maybe 5-6 years old running upto me half naked (one of them was blind, another crying furiously...) manicly grabbing my trousers and hands just shouting "RUPEE, RUPEE". One old man was just slumped over next to a open sewer drain, face  touching the ground with his arms stretched out in front of him. An image which has stayed with me and showed his complete submission to a life of poverty. Another poor bloke (and i'm honestly not elaborating here) was just a torso on a cart. A complete paraplegic, missing both arms and legs, his mate just carting him around everywhere. Delhi is really just an assault on the senses and as a first port of call in this trip, I feel that those first few days were very much like diving into the deep end.

Which is why on the first evening I made a big mistake. After trying and failing to book a train, I ended up in this "official' tourist office and ended up booking (after being surrounded by aggressive 'government officials') a driver for two weeks to drive me round Rajasthan which I immediately regretted. It was expensive and I can only attribute the rash decision to my terror of this new city. The the man offered me  security by means of a simple itinerary which gave me a plan to follow when I felt completely lost and alone. After handing the money over I returned to my hotel where i read, under the Delhi section in my rough guide, about this scam that new tourists to the city fall foul of. The section pretty much explained word for word what I had just signed up for. The words "very bad idea" stayed with me and I hardly slept that first night wondering if I had been completely mugged off on the first day of my trip.

I'm now writing this on the 11th day of my trip and luckily the company were legitimate (if expensive but there are many others that take your money and don't deliver) and its worked out ok. Although it feels very much like a package tour (which I hate) with my driver taking me from one place to another, it has eased me into the trip and gave me a bit of time to get used to the country from the safety of a car. The amount I paid was alot more than i had planned to spend so early on but it is no way crippling and I will just have to be careful with money from now on (I may potentially stay longer with free accommodation in Australia and NZ, Mark and Oli!) To look at it in a positive light, its been a major lesson learned and has switched me on to being extremely careful when dealing with "friendly" locals who want to help you. I'm looking forward to getting rid of the driver soon though and getting on with doing the travelling myself, the way I had imagined it. My driver Babu (extremely hairy ears) has turned out to be a genuinely good bloke and after sizing me up, has given me alot of freedom in deciding where I go, where I stay (the company tries to make tourists stay at expensive hotels) and how long I stay in each place. During the car trips from city to city, he's been introducing me to Indian pop music and promises to give me his compilation CD of Indian hits when we go our separate ways! Maybe one for the biggle sets...

I'll end this first post by saying that the trip with the driver has taken me from Delhi to Agra (Taj Mahal definitely lived upto the hype), to Jaipur, Pushkar, Jodhpur and finally Jaisalmer. The next post will be from day 6 (Jaipur) of the trip and from now on any interesting events or stories will be posted here on a day by day basis.

Hope you enjoy the read!


Taj Mahal, obviously.