Greetings from Pushkar. I've just read my last blog, I'm sorry about all the mistakes - the keyboards out here tend to be pretty unresponsive and I have a relatively short time to write. I thought start by sharing a new love of ours with you - Indian music. It's something you can't escape from here - just like the sights, tastes and smells, India's music is a very important part of life over here, songs bursting out from every street, traditional and modern, fast and slow. I've especially began to appreciate it since I've started listening to Indian music on my radio (thanks Uncle Stephen!). I've been exposed to a real eclectic mix of traditional Indian sounds, hip-hop styles, dancy synth riffs, banging beats and some amazing sitar work - really incredible stuff.
DAY 4 - AGRA
We had a good night's sleep after a relatively early finish and got some cheap (and pretty dodgy) breakfast for 35r. We spent the rest of the morning back at our favourite spot on the roof terrace and watched a nearby Kabootar Baz at work, a truly mesmerising experience. At around 12 or so, we walked to Agra Fort through a scenic park and an open market and spent the early afternoon strolling around the immense structure, used by generations of rulers as a prime stronghold with its eye-catching temples, living quarters and gardens, overwhelmed by a timeless sense of grandeur. The visit sparked a memory of my studies into the use of the fort by the British during the 1857 uprising. We had lunch afterwards at a nice restaurant called Zorba the Buddha before taking some money out from an ATM and spending an hour or so in an internet cafe - I learnt from Meely at this point that she had had the day off school on account of the snow back home - the first proper snowfall in 18 years and I have to miss it! Still, I can't exactly complain. We got an auto-rickshaw back to the hostel in order to prepare for our departure (we've decided that they are a fantastic mode of travel - cheap, quick and enjoyable, turning the chaos of the roads into something of a theme park ride). We got a train to Jaipur at 6pm and again I spent a large percentage of the journey glued to my window studying the fascinating sights that India had to offer me. We passed rows of holy men by the tracks, sodium-lit evening markets and children playing in the ruins of village corners. We stopped at small, sleepy stations along the way, the train heaving and belching as it rolled back on course. So far I've found these precious sights of rural India to be the most poignant for me, the cities lacking the pure, untainted essence that these places seem to exhume. A group of young Indian men sat opposite us. Although they didn't speak English, their manner and constant joviality seemed familiar to me and it was comforting to see Indians nearer our age. The younger Indians I've come across seem to be much more relaxed than their elders, although some very young children, especially the beggars, can be as pushy and persistent as the older adults, often unnervingly so. Women don't have the presence in the streets that men do. We arrived at Jaipur station at about 10.45pm and got a rickshaw with a 20 year old called Ali and his 18 year old mate whom he was teaching the ropes of the trade. We chatted about a variety of things and seemed to be on a similar wavelength. He offered us his services for the whole of the next day for 175r each after taking us to the hotel-like Vaishnavi guest house (our first two choices were fully booked). We took him up on his offer and arranged to meet him outside the hostel at 11am. It's worth noting that every hostel we have stayed at has been cheap, had its own bathroom and more often than not, its own TV. We have never had to share a room with anyone else.
DAY 5 - JAIPUR
I awoke to a chanting crowd outside and flute-sounding music from the courtyard in a neighbouring building. We noticed at this point that this was our first room with a window. We had a nice breakfast on the hostel's rooftop restaurant called Maggi, nicely decorated with painted arches, murals on the walls and a great view of the surrounding area. We spent some time in an internet cafe across the road and booked our train tickets to Ajmer and Udaipur. We met Ali's mate at 11 and joined him in an auto-rickshaw with a guy called Imran who was replacing Ali who was unable to join us. Luckily, he was just as amiable and easy to get along with and we warmed to each other quickly. We headed straight to the 'Pink City', Jaipur's old city, the buildings and surrounding walls a reddish pink complexion, a result of the ruler of the time's desire to impress his new wife after marrying her in Udaipur. The walls are coloured using organic materials, the use of natural ingredients being very important to people of the area, the famous Jaipur handicraft trade priding itself on its focus on natural means of production. After passing colourful markets filled with fruit and hand-made clothing, we visited Jantar Mantar, an observatory just south of the magnificent City Palace. Constructed between 1728 and 1734 on the request of Jai Singh, the Maharaj of the time, the area is filled with astronomical devices designed to map out not only the secrets of the sun and stars, but also the events of the heavens. The geometric structures are huge, casting shadows and reflecting light off their bodies, making the area look more like an abstract sculpture park in the vein of Henry Moore than a centre for astronomical study. Afterwards, we headed to a tower, overlooked only Tiger Fort, which cast fantastic views over the pink city and beyond. We then made our way to the Royal Gaitor, containing the marble mausoleums of Jaipur's ruling family, hiring a guide to briefly explain to us the people and stories behind the memorials. What astounded me was the number of girlfriends these guys had, as well as the number of young princes that died at a very young age, most of Malaria. Our guide showed us the tomb of one particular ruler who, despite having 900 girlfriends, was too fat to conceive with any of them. The marble carvings were amazing, 5000 workers taking around 16 years to finish the finest of them, every detail painfully perfected over time. We then visited a co-operative manufacturing company run by a group of individuals from all over the world, and saw their factory from which I purchased a small but beautiful handmade wall-hanging. I got a good price as the organisation doesn't pay taxes as it hires and trains some of the poorest young people from area, so I was happy for my money to go to such a worthy cause. We talked to one of the founders, a nice Nepalese man who gave us free tea whilst we browsed the goods. Imran and his friend then took us to the stunning Water Palace, built on a lake, where we relaxed for a few minutes. We then went to see a 'guru' who Imran had championed and claimed could read our past. We walked into a jewelry shop where he was based and greeted him. We sat down and he reclined. "What do you want to see?", he asked. Taking this to be a metaphysical question into our past, James replied, intrigued. "I don't know… whatever." He looked at us momentarily, seemingly poised in thought, perhaps studying our aura in order to probe the secrets of past. Needless to say, we held our breath in anticipation. "Well...", he replied, "we sell rings, bracelets, anything from 2 pounds to 100 pounds..." And so it went on. We were disappointed. It turned out the guy is only a part time astrologist and 'healer', his full-time occupation being a jeweler. Apart from guessing our ages, something that Imran could have told him, he offered us no spiritual treatment. We basically found ourselves in a jewelry shop with a self-absorbed, delusional shopkeeper. He did, however, understand the absurdity of the situation to an extent, and, realising we were not there to buy jewelry, bade us farewell. We had something to eat before heading back to the hostel. The ride back was like passing through a surreal urban farm, with cows, pigs, goats, donkeys, chickens and the occasional camel ambling along the winding roads bustling with late afternoon activity. The highlight for me was the sight of a goat dressed in a neatly buttoned tweed blazer, strutting along the path beside us. We arrived back at the hostel around 4 and a half hours after leaving. We thanked Imran and his friend and arranged to meet them again in the evening on our rooftop terrace, a spot they apparently frequent. Whilst in search of some food and a drink an hour or so later, we met an 18 year old Indian student who we had a chat with over some tea. We learned that he was studying English and commerce and relished the opportunity to practice his English with us (which was fantastic, despite the fact he had only been learning properly for a month). Me and James got a couple of beers each (not realising they were 8% alcohol) and joined him in his brother's jewelry shop where a group of guys were chilling out with music and shisha after closing time. They were all in their early to mid twenties and very accommodating, most of them involved in the jewelry trade although one worked in Bollywood. We relaxed and chatted about a variety of subjects such as films, music and politics. It was refreshing to talk to young, modern Indians and share our different cultural perspectives. We then left to meet Imran, Ali and a few of their mates after arranging to meet our other friend the next day. We had a drink and chat with them and took it easy as the night wore on. I noticed some clear differences between our two groups of friends; the middle-class, educated Hindus and the uneducated, Muslim rickshaw drivers, although both were incredibly friendly and great company. Both the groups, we found, seemed to be wary of each other. From my very brief experience and from what I have heard, it seems that India possesses real tangible social divisions, more prominent than we know in England, defined by education, status and religion, divisions that stagnate a much needed progression to improved social mobility. It is undoubtedly a country with many inherent problems, but it seems to me that reducing the self-perpetuating wedge between different areas of society is the only way that bridges can be built. The young Indians that I have spoken to definitely stress the importance of this, although I can't help but feel that they are acutely aware that these aspects constitute a large part of their identity in the eyes of others. It was strange, finding ourselves between these two social groups and learning from both, but the experience undoubtedly coloured our shared perception of India.