Well hello and greetings from rural Rajasthan, where I haven't been able to get to the internet for five days but luckily my lovely guide has agreed to lend me her laptop so I can at least type what promises to be another mammoth blog and send it when I get to Jaipur.
So on Friday I got up nice and early to fly to Delhi, and arrived at the airport with three and a half hours to spare before my flight so that I could ensure to change my ticket. I actually got the ticket changed within five minutes so settled down for a long wait, which was extended by a delay. In India when a flight is delayed they don't bother to mention this, they just leave you to come to the inevitable conclusion. This was extremely frustrating but eventually our chicken coop of a plane took off to Delhi via Hyderabad. The landing in Hyderabad was horrendous and it was all I could do to stop myself running screaming from the plane, but I managed to steel myself for the rest of the journey and arrived in Delhi a mere two hours late. But every time I thought of my frustrating day travelling I reminded myself of two girls from the previous tour, Ida and Rosanna, who had decided to save themselves ninety quid and get the train to the north. This train journey, as long as there were no delays, was 48 hours long!
Normally our Saturday was due to be spent seeing the sights of old Delhi, but we weren't able to do this as North India was celebrating the Hindu festival of Holi. This is a celebration of the start of spring and involves throwing coloured powders, dyes and water at anyone within range. Unfortunately a woman had chemicals thrown in her face last year, which is why we were encouraged not to stray far from the hotel. We still managed to enthusiastically mix drinking and paint throwing within the confines of the hotel, and by midday I was drunk and covered in pink, blue, purple and green paint. Even the hotel staff played. An especially amusing pastime was throwing buckets of blue water from the fourth floor hotel terrace onto unsuspecting multicoloured people below. I didn't see a single person that day who wasn't covred in paint. It's now several days later; I still have slightly green hair and a pink ear, and many of the men walking round the streets are pink or purple. I am very eager to bring this festival over to Britain.
I spent the rest of the day relaxing on the terrace in the forty degree heat, watching vultures swoop over the city. At first thought it seems a slightly odd place to find vultures but when you see the amount of rubbish on Delhi's streets, it becomes easier to understand.
There are many different types of domestic animals roaming the streets of Indian cities and eating rubbish. These include dogs, pigs, horses and goats as well as many cows. Indians love to own cows but very few have gardens, fields or sheds in which to house them. Rather than keeping them in the living room, where they tend to knock over ornaments, they live on the street, weaving in and out of the rush hour traffic and presumably causing frequent traffic accidents. It is not unusual for a busy intersection to grind to a complete halt because there is a cow eating from a pile of rubbish and blocking everyone's way.
We had a 6am start on Easter Sunday for the train to Agra, to see what is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the tour - the Taj Mahal. Agra is another very dirty city, with piles of rubbish burning at the side of the road and the air filled with polluted smog. First, we went to see Agra Fort, which was built by the Mughal Emperor Akbar in 1565, and designed to be used for defence purposes. However, Akbar also lived there with his three wives (one Muslim, one Christian, one Hindu - the man was a diplomat) and his 300 concubines which were used to entertain him and his political guests. If the concubines bore daughters they would in turn grow up to be concubines, and if they bore sons, they would have their bits chopped off and become palace eunuchs (so that they could never claim to be the son of the king). These were brutal times. Most of the palace is made from red sandstone and is very imposing, but white marble bits were added b Akbar's grandson, Shah Jahan, who was also responsible for the Taj Mahal. Shah Jahan was imprisoned in the fort for the eight years leading to his death, by his son, for taking so much in crippling taxes from the poor.
After lunch, when the weather was much cooler, we headed on to the Taj Mahal. It was built by Shah Jahan as a memorial to his second wife, who died giving birth to their fourteenth child (some people don't know when to give up). A lot of famous buildings and monuments can be disappointing when you actually see them in real life, but this was absolutely breathtaking. I've never seen anything like it and we walked around the building staring at it from every angle for the two hours leading up to sunset. There are two major threats to the building, the first being pollution. Acid rain and smog from Agra's many factories are discolouring the marble, and a pollution free zone has been introduced for 500m around the Taj (this obviously doesn't account for air in the sky moving around). New industrial developments have also been banned in the city. Restoration work is apparently the reason why entry for foreign tourists is so high- a 3750% increase on what the Indians have to pay! The river level next to the Taj Mahal is also so low that there is a chance it may one day fall into the river bed, although I'm sure they can find something to prop it up.
Unfortunately, my camera battery chose sunset to die, which was pretty annoying. But it gave me the chance to sit and watch the marble change colour without having to worry about pictures, and Marine is going to put hers on CD for me. It also forced me to get up at 5.15 the next morning, with a newly charged camera, and drag myself back to the Taj for sunrise. This was even more spectacular than sunset - the marble started off blue, and as the sun rose was tinged in orange. I have some great photos
(about a hundred in total) and my favourites are the ones with nobody in them, as it had been impossibly crowded the day before. Well worth the early start.
Before coming here I had previously thought that my face without make up is one that even a mother would struggle to love. However, it would seem that I have found a niche market for myself: Indians visiting the Taj Mahal. And it's not just young men - children, women and even middle aged couples were coming up to me and asking if they could have their photo taken with me. I will soon be featuring in the photo albums of at least thirty Indians that I am aware of, and probably a great many more that I'm not, as people kept trying to take photos of me when I wasn't looking! This was common for all of us though: a combination of white visitors and having a camera close at hand provides an irresistible opportunity. The Taj Mahal area is also filled with a number of self appointed photography experts. Indians who don't own cameras are extremely eager to give you tips on yours, and when taking a photo you are sure to have a random stranger hanging over your shoulder and making suggestions on how you might like to improve the shot.
After the Taj, we jumped on a local bus (where we drew many curious stares, far more than in the south) and headed for Fatehpur Sikri. This was another red fort, built by the same Akhbar in tribute to the saint who predicted the birth of his heir. The fort is absolutely massive and stunning: cue another million photos, but was only inhabited by the Mughals for four years due to political reasons. We also had the opportunity to visit a mosque. Our guide, Peter, was completely fascinating. He speaks excellent English with a good accent, he even knows slang. He also speaks Italian, French, German, Spanish and a bit of Japanese and Chinese. I asked him about this and he told me he learnt it all from tourists - chatting to people in the street for a couple of hours over a glass of chai and learning vocabulary from them. If this is true the man is a complete genius.
We had a home made lunch in a local restaurant and started on our journey to Keolado Bird Park. The traffic around Fatehpur Sikri was unbelievable - the road is basically a car park. How complete gridlock is avoided I have no idea. We spent a good ten minutes at a time with the bus stopped, the engine off and the driver's hand on the horn, while the many lorry, tractor and car drivers around did exactly the same. Obviously this achieved nothing except comprehensive hearing damage for everyone present, but eventually the traffic started to crawl again. I think the problem might have been at least in part caused by the tractor which had been parked across most of the road: the driver had gone off for his lunch and was nowhere to be found. Surely India could solve its major rich-poor divide by employing a few eager traffic wardens and some non-corrupt police.
Keolado Bird Park was pretty amazing, despite having almost no birds. There was no rain last year when the monsoon was supposed to come, and this has meant that most of the birds haven't bothered to turn up. We were driven round the park by an amateur ornithologist in a cycle rickshaw and we got some great pictures of the sunset. Riding in a cycle rickshaw is a very relaxing way to travel, and for the cyclists it must be a sure fire way of avoiding the heart disease and diabetes that many old and fat Indians suffer from. I was very impressed when our rickshaw driver asked if I was Australian, and informed me that he assumed I was because of my tan! This is however an Englishman's tan - because we have to cover up here only my face, neck, arms and feet are brown. The rest of me is as white as it was at Christmas!
On Tuesday we climbed aboard another local bus and then a jeep to the remote village of Madhogarth. It was amazing to drive down the dusty tracks through the small towns with children running alongside and waving. It is the remotest you can see India for a tour group holiday, and is almost untouched by tourism or western culture. We stayed in a sprawling old fort on a hill which was absolutely spectacular. Because there is an uneven number in the group I had a room to myself in its own wing. The fort was on a hill and had fantastic views of the countryside around. The temperature here was almost unbearable - over forty degrees Celsius even in the shade and it was an effort to even lie still. I am so relieved that I changed my trip from April to March as the temperature is set to increase and would have been completely unbearable.
I have discovered that although I have met a large number of amazing people on my travels, I have also met a small number of people who are thoroughly ridiculous. I came across a middle aged English man in our fort, talking to someone else and saying "it's absolutely unbelievable." I assumed he was praising the fort and enthusiastically joined in. He then corrected me and informed me that he wasn't very impressed with the accommodation because some of it isn't finished and is still being painted (I am yet to discover where this was.) I was speechless at this remark but wish I had given him a response. He has come to India (where you will expect that sometimes even the highest standard of accommodation will be below what you would find at home) to a fantastic piece of Indian heritage, airy, spacious, totally unique with incredible views across rural Rajasthan, and that man had found something to moan about. Unbelievable!
In the evening we went for a walk around the village. It was amazing to see the people at work - making fabrics and jewellery, sesame oil and pottery on manual pottery wheels. The children ran alongside us the whole time asking for photos and I have some great ones. I love getting the chance to do things like this. Even though Intrepid come here every week, it really does seem that we are experiencing village life at its most rural. We watched sunset from the parapets of the fort and then a local woman came to dress us up in traditional Rajasthani dresses for our evening meal. It was a unique experience and I have some cool pictures!
Yesterday we jumped into some jeeps for the short journey to the pink city of Jaipur. The heat was unbelievable and some people in our group were very ill from the food in the fort. I went with a couple of others to see the Tiger Palace (a former Maharaja's residence) and the City Palace, before being struck down with the same illness and coming back to my hotel. It started with violent shaking and a fever in which I had some interesting hallucinations, and was followed by a night of simultaneous vomiting and diarrhoea. Fortunately, the antibiotics prescribed by the woman in New Zealand are absolutely vicious and less than 24 hours later I feel a lot better. I am hoping I will be able to go out shopping when it cools down this evening as this is the place to go for jewellery and silk, and I have been looking forward to it loads.
A couple of observations about India before I go:
Indians are very fond of western music, but only if it's at least ten years old. I keep hearing early Backstreet Boys classics in cafes and bars. Yesterday when walking back from the sunrise at 6.30 am, the middle aged guard at our hotel was cleaning his car (he seems to be doing that during his entire working day, it is a white Seat with a boot - wouldn't be my choice but he seems very proud of it). He proudly had his impressive sound system on and was playing We're going to Ibiza by the Vengaboys!
People in the countryside obviously need to entertain themselves during a long day working in the fields on their tractors. Every tractor we passed had massive speakers (the kind DJs brought to school discos) tied onto them and were emitting ear splitting Hindi music into the surrounding countryside. Camels can also be used to tow carts, but are generally not favoured by the younger generation as it is harder to tie your speakers on.
One more thing: Indians seem to really enjoy a good bit of research, and we have passed many research centres on our travels. My favourite so far is an impressively sizeable and official looking building entitled "Research centre on Rapeseed-Mustard." Obviously this is a crop which requires a great deal of in depth analysis.
Amy, in response to your generous offer which I very rudely forgot to respond to last week - yes, I would love to some to your party. Matt has read the offer and has very kindly offered to drive us both down from Newcastle that night (it's only about an hour away) so you won't even need to pay for a train! Can't wait to see everyone!
That's all for now folks, more next week. Thanks for all your messages on my board, they always make me laugh. Keep them coming!